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Iain had wanted to wait a while before adding anyone else to the command staff, but Ninhursag had been adamant and the vote had gone against him, so now Kasserine sat in the chair that had once belonged to Allison and intently watched everything going on around her. That made the command staff him, Ninhursag, April, Lucifer, Daya and Theodora as the surviving members with Vanessa and Kasserine newly joined.
April was chairing today’s meeting and was obviously ready to end the meeting and go to something more productive. Even though the clan leadership only met when necessary, right now there seemed to be many more reasons for meetings than before the nuclear attack, so Iain could sympathize with her. She looked around the room. “I’ve only got one thing left on the agenda. Does anyone have anything they want to add before we move to it?” Nobody spoke and she looked at Ninhursag. “It’s your topic.”
The Elfqueen nodded. “It is. Now that Stephen is on the throne of Haven, Kozakura is back to being a princess. This brings up two things. The first is that she still has three months of living with us, but I don’t think Stephen can give her up right now. He’s still leaning heavily on her and Jamie both as he learns more about the political situation at home and around the world. The fact that the leagues are imploding is only making that more difficult. Originally we intended to bring her back as soon as Stephen was on the throne so she could discharge her obligations to her father’s memory and move on, but I think we should table this and revisit in three months unless either Stephen or Kozakura approaches us about it.”
“Agreed,” Iain said. “Any nays?”
“We are not forgiving her obligation, are we,” Kasserine asked.
“We are not,” April assured her. “While she’s mellowed a lot, we’re not done breaking her down just yet.”
“Then I have no objection.”
“I will remind the meeting chairwoman in ninety days that this topic needs another discussion,” Theodora said in her role as the secretary. “What is the second issue?”
“Now that she’s no longer the queen, Kasumi wants to take her and Yuko back to Six, her home universe. She wants to introduce Kozakura to her human family, her other Yuko relative and see if Yuko and Kozakura can find someone else to have any sort of normal relationship and possible children with. They can be gone for a few weeks and return only a few minutes after they leave here. It’ll also let Kasumi’s parents get to see her while she’s still pregnant.”
“We all agreed that was an excellent idea,” Lucifer was watching Ninhursag curiously. “It keeps them away from Iain. Has that changed?”
“No. The problem is that loading up the clan on the Theodora for a trip is disruptive at the best of times, no matter how little or how long we are gone in this universe. Right now we’re really busy doing work with Prometheus, Texas and I’ve got over nine hundred new members of my court that I’m settling in. If one of them decides to leave my court while we’re on Six and strike out on her own, what do we do if she doesn’t want to wait until we come back here before leaving? All we need is for one of any pokegirl to start breeding on Six and it could easily end up like here. The only difference is that humanity wouldn’t have been softened up by the Red Plague and Bloody Flu, but human weapons won’t necessarily stop a group of powerful ferals and if only one gets away she’ll start the cycle all over again.” She looked at Iain. “It’s already a concern on Nine.”
“And we decided that we’d quietly observe the situation of Ranma the tamer and his harem without interfering,” Iain said.
“Kasumi has family on Six,” Ninhursag pointed out. “And if ferals start predating on humans there, she will feel responsible for causing it and suck us into dealing with the situation. The governments will not be happy with an onslaught of feral pokegirls and they will be just as unhappy with us if they catch us inside their borders dealing with the situation.”
“Do you want to forbid her from going,” Vanessa asked.
Ninhursag had her silver hair in a ponytail and it swirled behind her as she shook her head. “No, it’s important that Kozakura and Yuko get their itches scratched by someone other than Iain. However, instead of taking the clan, since we have a permanent gate to Six, we can keep a reaction force ready, some people to monitor the situation stationed at the farm on Six and send in people to deal with any problems if any appear.”
“Question,” Iain said.
April nodded. “What is it?”
“Ninhursag, would you be so sanguine about letting them go through without the clan going with them if I was going on this trip too?” Her face set and he nodded. “I am not just being a dick and the fact that this is a formal question means you have to answer for the record.”
She grimaced. “I would insist the clan goes. You are invaluable.”
Iain frowned. “And we all know that almost nobody would protest the different rules for different people, since it’s for me but it isn’t right and it isn’t the precedent that the we, the current clan leaders, want to set for the future leaders, is it? That could easily lead to the idea of divine right and divine power because the Grey is more special than others and then we’re a tyranny and Theodora and Daya’s children wouldn’t be safe, along with anyone else these future rulers had authority over.” He leaned back in his chair. “Still, I agree that we can’t go disrupting the entire clan every time someone wants to visit another world. After all, you can’t do it when I shadow walk.”
“Either Theodora or I could go through to support such visitors,” Daya suggested.
“Eventually more than one group will be gone at a time,” Theodora disagreed. “And we still can’t follow Iain when he goes on a shadow walk.”
Excuse me, Kasserine said with her twee to Vanessa. I have a suggestion that I wish to explore, but I wanted to get your assistance in refining it with accurate information and your opinions before introducing it to this forum. Would you be willing to assist?
Vanessa looked curiously at her. I would. What is your idea? Thoughts flew between the two of them for nearly a second. I believe that would work nicely. It is your idea, so you introduce it.
Thank you for your assistance. “I have a suggestion,” Kasserine said calmly.
April turned to her. “Go ahead.”
“I understand that almost all of the people who go to other worlds with the clan are either clan or close friends,” Kasserine began. “Is that likely to change?”
“I don’t see why it won’t,” Iain said thoughtfully. “It will happen eventually.”
“So far, everyone who has gone through has had a twee. That is also unlikely to remain the situation.” Kasserine looked from Ninhursag to Iain. “Is that correct?”
“It is,” Ninhursag said. “If they’re not clan or close friends, eventually someone won’t have a twee.”
“We do have other tracking devices that can be attached to someone in such a way that they cannot remove it and it couldn’t easily be removed by others, correct?”
Theodora nodded. “There are several options.”
“I believe that our response to anyone, including Iain, traveling to another world should be multi-tiered. First, in every case, everyone who is our responsibility must agree, under truth detection, to either make sure their twee will respond to our queries at any time or must agree to wear a tracking device so that we can locate them should they go missing. It will ensure we can find any missing and give us a location to begin searching for them and any offspring if they are feral and give birth to more pokegirls, even if the children do not have twee or a tracking device.”
Ninhursag looked at April. “I think anyone, no matter whether they are our responsibility or not, who uses us to get to another world should agree to what Kasserine is suggesting. If they refuse, they don’t go.”
“That would work nicely,” April said. “Kasserine, what is next?”
“The clan’s response should be predicated upon our knowledge of the destination. If it is an entirely new world or one that we have not frequented much and do not know well, the entire clan should go with any expedition. That will ensure our might and manufacturing capability is available should it be needed. However, for worlds that we have sufficiently explored and have permanent access to, such as Six, then we should institute the policy of a reaction force being available in a reasonable amount of time as well as continual monitoring until our people return. In such a situation, if the need is dire enough, the entire clan can still mobilize and, with Dominique’s assistance in tuning the portal, arrive at such a time to ensure we can assist our people who are in need of our aid.”
“Who decides if we know a world sufficiently or not,” Lucifer asked curiously.
“I believe that decision should be given to Daya, as long as she is available to do so.”
Daya looked surprised. “Me?”
“You have already lost family to enemies because you and your family at the time were unprepared for their appearance, and you have been diligent in ensuring our safety since the day you accepted the responsibility to do so. You and Theodora are the only ones who will not decide if a situation is safe or not in haste, even if it involves your own safety, as one of us might do or even if it means that someone who we love, who is on this expedition, is lost so that the majority of the clan itself remains relatively safe.” Kasserine smiled. “And the fact that you can make that decision in the time it would take one of us to even begin to draw breath to issue orders means that, hasty or not, it will be timely.”
Daya nodded. “I would accept such a posting on one condition, that being that anyone on the command staff can overrule my decision, but only in the direction of ensuring the entire clan mobilizes for a potential or perceived threat if I don’t believe one exists. You will not be able to make me stand down from a clan wide mobilization order if that is my decision. Some of you have abilities that allow you to know either the future or the current situation in ways that I cannot, and I do not wish those gifts to be wasted.”
“What about Iain.” Theodora asked.
“I believe this policy is to be enforced equally across the clan,” Daya said. “It cannot apply to shadow walking, but if Iain can, I would like him to bring back the coordinates of a destination that he intends to return to so we can use a gate to send the clan to set up a proper surveillance network and eventually a permanent gate to there as well.”
“Iain is the head of our clan,” Kasserine said, “and would therefore still have security when he travels, but it would mean that the clan would no longer shadow his every move. It would, of course, still be available if he needed assistance somehow.” She looked at him. “I am sorry you are not happy about having guards, but you are our royalty and royalty has extra security.”
“You should remember that, Princess Kasserine,” Iain said with a smile.
“I am no longer a princess of Evermeet, Iain.”
“No, but you are now in the succession of the clan.”
She nodded. “I am, but Ninhursag is the current heir, with April as the next after her.”
“No,” April said. “I am in the succession and part of the command staff, but I don’t want to be the leader. We are still working out who is Ninhursag’s successor if anything happens to her or Iain, but you are definitely in the running.”
Kasserine laughed softly. “At least here I am more likely to be listened to when I offer advice.”
“You will be,” Ninhursag said. “I like your idea. Daya, will you accept the role of overseer of the worlds we visit and help us to set up proper surveillance on as many of them as we can?”
“With the provision I stated earlier, I accept. At this time, I would say that only Six is set up properly enough for reaction forces, but it is the only world we travel to regularly and have a full stealth surveillance program in place for. Thirteen is almost ready for the same thing, but I want to set up a proper constellation before I will be willing to downgrade its designation. If there are other worlds we will be visiting regularly, I can transit to them and set up the proper equipment for monitoring and mapping so we can expedite changing their status and our readiness requirements.”
“I need to map out a world near Twelve, the one Kasserine and Ava came to us from, so we can set up a base there, as requested,” Iain said. “If things go the way I think we’ll have a presence there a lot.”
“That would be Twenty Two,” Daya said. “When you have the coordinates and some basic information, I’ll start the process.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Iain’s droll tone made everyone laugh. “And just for the record, I don’t usually fight reasonable methods to safeguard me. It’s when they start getting oppressive that we have issues.”
“We’ll revisit that later,” April said. “Is anyone opposed to Kasserine’s proposal?” There was silence. “Then we have a new program. Daya’s in charge of it with Theodora as her backup. When does the program become effective?”
Daya raised an eyebrow. “I accepted my position, so it already is. Kasumi’s visit to Six will be under the new rules. Any who refuse to agree will not go.” She looked at Theodora and they both nodded in unison. “We would like to request that the system of doorway gates be moved from the Theodora to a station in this system. A permanent interdimensional gate doorway can be installed on the Theodora and another on the Ouroboros, but from a security standpoint the gateway nexus should no longer be on the clan flagship.”
Iain nodded. “Dominique and I have been discussing the fact that the doors from the Barton House and the Sabine House to the Theodora are not interdimensional and so we can’t use them if you’re elsewhere and this would solve that problem neatly. She’ll get started moving and changing things tomorrow.” He smiled. “This is obviously a clan survival issue.”
Ninhursag flashed a quick grin. “I agree, so that’s that. April, let Dominique know her schedule has changed and to get with Iain in the morning right after breakfast. Clear his schedule too.”
“I want Ganieda too,” Iain said. “She’s slowly working her way into the position of Dominique’s assistant and replacement, so let’s make it official.”
April nodded. “I’ll take care of her release, but this is only for a clan survival issue. They can train together during their normal training periods.”
“Agreed,” Iain said. “Now, what about Kasumi?”
“She doesn’t leave until the changes are done.” Ninhursag looked curiously at him. “How long?”
“We’ll put the doors on the Danger Room.” He turned to Theodora. “We’ll isolate the room like my lab is isolated and you can help protect it with those absurd gravity generators you built to torture me with.”
She nodded. “That will work as an interim solution while I build a permanent installation for the doors on a specially designed station.”
“I’ll talk with Dominique tomorrow and give you preliminary timeline for moving the doors and upgrading the ones we want to before dinner,” Iain told Ninhursag.
“We have a plan,” April said. “The details can be put together outside of this meeting. Is there any other business?” She waited. “Then we’re done. Iain is the next chair and it’s all yours, my love.”
The straight razor slid down his cheek one last time and April dipped it into the basin of hot water and swirled it around to clean it before wiping it and putting down to dry. She handed a clean towel to Iain and he scrubbed his face with it to remove any remaining vestiges of shaving cream. “What’s my schedule for today?” His voice was muffled through the towel.
She smirked. “I’d tell you to eat light, but you don’t throw up when we push you. Right after breakfast you’ve got team training with your guards and then individual training with Yuko. That’ll take you to lunch. At thirteen hundred you’ve got a meeting with Lorena at the dairy and at fifteen hundred you’re at magic training, which will last until dinnertime. There is no movie tonight, but there is a new moon and you were taking the older kids star watching until 0100.” She smirked again. “And tomorrow morning at 0400 you and your guard get to fight a night raid.”
“So, other than the meeting with Lorena and the night raid, it’s pretty typical,” Iain dropped the towel in the sink. “They went home just two days ago, I wonder what she wants.”
April shrugged. “You’ll find out this afternoon.”
“Was this meeting requested by the President of Texas or Lorena?”
April’s eyes unfocused for an instant. “It was by Lorena.” She frowned. “But while it’s her as a civilian, Aaron isn’t mentioned as being present for it.” She glanced at him. “Maybe she’s going to seduce you.”
“Was the agenda listed as to finally fuck Iain?”
April chuckled. “No.”
“I doubt that’s what she has in mind and it wouldn’t matter if it was.” He dropped the towel on the counter and reached for his shirt.
“You wouldn’t give her a tumble,” April asked teasingly.
He eyed her for a second. “Privacy.”
April was used to this. “Accepted. Spill.”
“We both know I don’t go around having sex with every woman I meet. We both also know that I don’t want to have sex with every woman I meet.”
“We both also know,” April said, “that Lorena is a woman you’d like to fuck.”
Iain pulled the shirt on. “We also both know I don’t have sex with every woman I want to. And in this case it doesn’t matter, not what I want, not what she wants or not how the betting is going.”
April wiped the razor off again and closed it carefully. “You’re avoiding the subject and I already said for you to spill it. Don’t make me get this razor back out.”
“First of all, I try to keep my lovers inside the clan. Second, Lorena isn’t the type to cheat on her family. Third, Aaron asked me to not fuck his wife and I agreed.”
“He’s jealous?” April put all the shaving supplies in their case and sealed it. “He watches us but he’s never done anything out of line.”
Iain shook his head amusedly. “Trust a woman to watch to see if other men were interested in her. He said he couldn’t handle it if I slept with Lorena. I value his friendship, and what he is asking for isn’t unreasonable for a Christian man with a Christian woman as his wife to request. After all, she won’t go feral and she has smelled like Aaron and sex quite regularly during the time they were living here, so they’re not estranged.”
April turned to face him. “Just how good is your sense of smell?”
“Sometimes it’s better than I’d like it to be. As for the limits, I haven’t pressed exploring them.”
“You do realize you’re saying this to the clan’s training officer, don’t you? I’ll set some tests up to see what you can and can’t do. Maybe a competition between you and Scheherazade would make things more interesting.”
“I can’t win that.”
“This isn’t about winning, Iain. It’s about learning where your limits are so you can improve them.” She smiled. “It’s what I do for everyone.”
“I like winning,” Iain grumbled. “Whatever. Speaking of training, how is Bellona fitting in with your training team?”
“She’s a quick study, but what we do is very different from what she did for Shikarou. He wanted them trained to a high level, but once they reached it, they were allowed to stay at that level with only minor proficiency training to try and keep the edge on. Even that was allowed to eventually slowly wind down and end when they didn’t seem to have any enemies worthy of their already impressive battle skills. We, on the other hand, want everyone to always be improving, and she’s realized it’s why we came as far as we did as quickly as we did. It’s been a bit humbling for her, and she’s had to face the fact that not even she is as good as she should have been when she came to us. But I’ll get her into our idea of fighting trim soon.” April grinned. “She’s even realized where we keep our most elite fighters and wants to audition with Pandora to be part time in your guard.”
“Is she ready to take that test?”
April’s grin widened. “She is if she wants to be humiliated.” Her grin faded when he raised an eyebrow. “I won’t sign off on her audition until she is ready.”
“Good. We don’t want to humiliate the women who sleep with their head a few centimeters from my heart. Are we done?”
“You have to end privacy before you can ask that.”
“Privacy is over. Are we done?”
“One last standard question. How did you sleep last night?”
“The nightmares kept me up for all but an hour.”
April touched his cheek gently. “Are the sessions with Theodora and Vanessa helping?”
“You know it’s too early to tell.”
She nodded. “I understand. I still worry about you.”
“People who love each other do that sort of thing,” Iain said with a smile. “I can go?”
“You can go. I’ll see you at lunch.” She kissed him. “I love you.”
“And I love you, April Grey.”
Heather appeared in the small clearing with Iain and let him go as she dropped her bow from her shoulder into her hands. He activated a pokeball and Dianthus appeared. Heather glanced at her. “I’m going to sweep the area. You stay with Iain.”
“Understood.” Dianthus moved close to him as Heather vanished into the woods around them.
Iain glanced at the Elfqueen. She was carrying a GAR15 and a bandolier of magazines for the assault rifle. “You don’t have a bow yet?”
Dianthus was surveying the area alertly. “I have already killed two of them, Iain. I see no reason to kill a third.”
“You were ordered to destroy your first one by your queen, to whom you had sworn an oath of obedience,” Iain pointed out. “You had no choice in the matter. And your second was destroyed by the leagues when they murdered you.”
“I don’t want one.”
“I don’t need to be able to truth tell to know that’s a lie,” Iain said. “And it doesn’t matter. If you are in my guard, you get the best weapons you can and that means you get a living bow. What you want in this doesn’t factor into this discussion.”
“I said no.”
“Then you’re out of my guard.”
Dianthus shot him a glare. “I am not leaving your guard.”
“I’ve updated our schedules. Meet me tomorrow after breakfast and we’ll get you a bow.”
“I don’t think we’ll have time for that and for getting you a bow, but we’ll see. However, in this one case the bow is first.”
Dianthus nodded. “I’m still in your guard?”
“You’re still in my guard.”
“I learned a lot about what you’ve been doing while I was,” she hesitated.
“We’re calling it while you were gone so we don’t scare the kids too much with the idea you’ve been dead. That and I’m not exactly sure how the goblins are going to react to it. I’m also not sure how you feel about calling it when you were dead.”
“I was dead,” she said simply. “I want to be allowed to train on the Danger Room.”
“I spent a thousand years honing my body so I could be my best for you.” She gestured at herself. “This isn’t that body. I am not used to one that is so weak and I want the body I had ready to present to you back. With the gravity generators on the Danger Room I can push a lot harder than I can here and Theodora will make sure I don’t cripple myself by accident.”
“Believe it or not, the Danger Room is available for anyone to use. You’re welcome there.”
“Thank you. Heather is returning.”
“The area is clear,” Heather said as she stepped out of the trees. “Shall we head for your meeting with Lorena?” Iain nodded. “Dianthus, you have point.”
Dianthus nodded and headed out.
Iain’s people had helped Aaron mow the grass around the dairy and perform some of the thousand or so minor repairs that were needed after the place had been empty for more than a few days, so it looked a lot like it had before the leagues had attacked and they’d been evacuated.
“I’ve let Hypatia know we’re here,” Heather said as the door to the main house opened and the Tigress came out and loped in their direction.
Hypatia halted in front of them. “Hi!”. Her ears flicked and she spoke again in a lower tone. “I don’t know what she’s pissed about, but she’s not happy with you, Iain.” Her ears flicked again. “She’s also not happy with Aaron.”
Iain started to say something and stopped. “Well, I don’t know what going on either, but, if I’m lucky, maybe I can get her to fire me.”
Hypatia grinned. “You just keep hoping, but I’ve seen she doesn’t usually make stupid decisions while she’s angry and firing you would be stupid. You’ve been good for both Texas and us.” She turned and waved a hand towards the house. “She knows you’re here, so keeping her waiting will just aggravate her more.”
“Once more into the breach,” Iain muttered and headed for the door. “Should I knock?”
“She likes it when people have manners,” Hypatia said. “And she likes it more when she’s ticked off at them.”
Iain glanced at her and knocked on the door. A moment later Tamara opened it. “Good afternoon, Iain,” she said formally.
“Good afternoon, Tamara. I have an appointment with Lorena about now. Is she available?”
Tamara nodded to Heather and Dianthus. “She is in the living room. I believe you like your tea plain with only a little ice.”
“Well, if I get tea, she’s not ready to shoot me.”
Tamara grinned, her tail flicking from side to side behind her. “Heaven’s no, Iain. That would make such a mess that I’d have to clean up. Come inside and let’s get this over so she can stop grousing.”
“I am not grousing,” came Lorena’s irritated voice from the living room.
“Of course, you’re not,” Iain replied as he headed into the living room. “Grouse aren’t native to this part of Texas and, even if they were, you’re really unlikely to be hunting them in your house.” He stopped at the expression on her face. “So, what are you pissed off at me about?”
She glared at him. “What, no hello or other attempts to mollify me?”
“Hi. As for mollifying you, I don’t kiss ass, Lorena. You know that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “We’ll get to that in a minute.” She pointed at a chair as Tamara headed for the kitchen. “Sit.”
Iain had been headed for the chair and stopped in mid stride. “Woman, don’t take that tone with me. You keep this up and we will have a fight the likes of which you and I have not yet had.”
She smiled slightly. “Please sit, Iain.” He sat and she nodded. “You’re right. I can be upset with you and still polite.”
“We’re friends, Lorena. You can yell at me if you want. You can even say bad words. But I can’t know why you’re pissed until you tell me.”
She leaned back into the cushions of the couch she was sitting on. “I told you I didn’t want any combat drones on my property.” Her eyes narrowed. “I told Aaron that too.”
“I remember. And you don’t have any based on your property.”
“I don’t want to accuse you of lying to me but I saw two of them when I was walking in the woods to the west. Are you going to tell me that I coincidentally saw them while they were passing through to somewhere else?”
“No, you probably saw them and they weren’t passing through, as you guessed. But you don’t own those woods.”
“The hell I don’t. I’ve lived here for twenty years, Iain. Those woods are ours.”
“No, they’re not. They were unoccupied during the war and confiscated by Texas during the takeover. When Garrett found out that you were moving back home against his recommendation, he searched the area to find land that didn’t belong you and Aaron. You own some of the wooded area to the east, to that old stock pond, but you don’t own the western woods. He even had the land surveyed before you moved back to make sure you couldn’t stop him. Then he went to Hays and they hatched this scheme. Hays had Buck give the land to Lucifer as part of the program of paying the Sisterhood in anything except cash and, as Hays requested, she sold it to my clan.” Tamara came out of the kitchen with a tray of tea and cookies and put a glass down in front of Iain. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said before moving to stand behind Lorena.
Iain took a sip of the tea. “Garrett instituted the whole thing because he wants to protect you and your family. He instructed me to put drones on my new property and I told him I would, but the truth is that I was going to do so anyway. I don’t have many friends and I don’t want to lose you or anyone else here.”
Lorena shook her head. “Garrett overstepped his authority.”
“While you’re the President of Texas,” Iain said calmly, “I believe the Rangers are your bodyguards and are responsible for your safety. That’s why he wanted you to stay at my home in the first place, since I’m a Ranger, and it’s why he ordered me to put drones out here. He didn’t purchase the drones and furnish them for me to install, so he’s out of line on that, but meh. I didn’t put them out here because of him, but if it makes him feel better to think so, whatever.” He drank more tea. “I’m not planning to put more security out here than what’s already present, and you only saw the drones you did because they were on a mapping flight. Once the sensors are finished being placed, you won’t see them again unless you get attacked.” He smiled grimly. “And then you’ll see a lot more than a few drones.” His smile turned crooked. “Do you need to hit me?”
“I’m trying to stop doing that,” Lorena grumped. “I’m still not happy about the situation.”
“I understand. I don’t want all of the protection I’ve got, at least not sometimes, but there are ferals out here, you are my friend and Hypatia and the Milktits can’t stop everything.” He fixed her with a hard look. “Since putting the drones here, we’ve already taken down a small pack of Growlie that were led by a pair of Denmother. They had kits they were feeding and were very active hunters. Their den was less than three kilometers from here and they would have come for the Milktits when the wind shifted and they smelled your girls. Hypatia would have done her best, and you, Aaron and the Milktits are decent shots, but we’d have had to show up when they attacked, and it’s very likely that someone from your family would have gotten hurt during the fray.”
“I didn’t know anything about that.”
“I reported it to Garrett. I figure he’ll sit on it until he needs to reveal it to stop you from trying to get me to pull my defenses.”
“It’s your property,” Lorena noted. “It doesn’t matter what I want done with it unless it somehow pollutes my land.”
Iain smiled. “I think Garrett’s a little afraid of you. You were a tough old mean bitch before and now the only thing that has changed is that you’re not old, so he can’t wait for you to retire from politics.”
“I honestly don’t know if I’m going to run again,” Lorena admitted. “I don’t want to set a precedent of someone being President forever and David will do at least as good a job as I will.” She smiled. “The job’s not really that hard and David is a people person.”
“If he’s elected.”
She nodded. “Nothing is a sure thing in politics, but he’s popular and, if I endorse him, my people will support him enthusiastically. It’s why I’m letting him be the face of the government that’s guiding our growth as various groups join Texas.”
“Well done. So, are you still pissed off at me?”
Lorena raised an eyebrow. “For that, no. However, there is something else I’m not happy about.” She waited for a moment. “Aaron told me what he asked you to do. More exactly, he told me what he asked you not to do.”
Iain frowned and then realized what she must mean. His face smoothed. “That wasn’t very smart of him.”
Lorena laughed. “I will agree with that statement, but we were having an argument and I think he lost his temper a little bit more than he usually does and didn’t intend to tell me about your agreement. He was way out of line to ask you not to sleep with me.”
“I thought he was too, but he did ask me not to and I figured that if I didn’t answer he’d spend way too much time being worried about us both sneaking around behind his back, although that was never really a possibility. Still, him worrying about it might harm your marriage and I don’t want to be the cause of that.” She gave him a puzzled look and he smiled. “You told me that you met Aaron in church and said that you were a good girl.”
Lorena grinned. “I remember that.”
“Well, that good girl grew into a good woman. You’re not really churchgoing devout, but you’re solidly Christian and you had enough trouble with the idea of having sex with your newly extended family, but you finally concluded that they were family and this is what they need. Sleeping with me, on the other hand, would be breaking your marriage vows and you are not going to do that. I just didn’t realize that Aaron was so insecure about your relationship, but once I knew, I told him what he wanted to hear so he wouldn’t worry about there being that kind of an us.” He shrugged. “I thought about mentioning it to you, but there is really no nice way to tell a woman who is as obviously dedicated to her marriage as you are that her husband is worried that she’ll cheat on him.”
Lorena chuckled. “I like you, Iain. I’m sorry Aaron is worried about us having a relationship, but I am glad you know we’re not. I just can’t believe he had the gall to ask that of you.”
“He realizes that Iain is honorable,” Heather said. “And he realizes that Iain wouldn’t turn you down.”
Lorena turned curious eyes on Iain. “You wouldn’t?”
“Why is it women always want to ask the dangerous questions,” Iain muttered. “I plead the fifth.”
Tamara giggled. “Don’t tease Iain. He’s right, that’s dangerous.”
“It is,” Lorena agreed, “and it’s unfair to Iain and Aaron too. I love him and, no matter how stupid he gets from time to time, he’s my husband and I have never regretted saying yes when he asked me to marry him.”
“You need to tell him that, not me,” Iain said. “Knowing how much you love him doesn’t do anything for me except make me sad.”
“One of the reasons I don’t think I want to run for President again is I intend to get pregnant soon. Would you consider being our next child’s godparents?”
“I gave up Christianity a while ago, Lorena.”
“I don’t care about that, Iain. Aaron and I talked about this and you’d take good care of our kids if you had to.”
“I’ll have to talk to the others before I can accept, but I’d be honored,” Iain said.
Heather dropped a hand on his shoulder. “We accept, Lorena. I’ve spoken with Ninhursag and April. We hope you and Aaron are around to cause us trouble for the next few centuries, but if anything happens to your family then your children,” she looked at Tamara, “all of your children will be raised with ours and want for nothing.”
“So, can you forgive Aaron for being insecure over his really hot wife.” Heather asked.
“I’ve never even looked twice at another man,” Lorena snarled.
“You were watching Iain when we took you and your family swimming.”
Lorena started to speak and stopped. “You’re right, but I haven’t lusted after him.” She glanced at him. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. There are enough women who do lust after me that I’m not worried about the ones who don’t, even if they’re Pam Grier hot.”
“You know, part of Aaron’s insecurity probably comes from the fact that you flirt with me like this.”
“I am me. I am not going to stop being me and Aaron should know that by now.”
Lorena was watching him. “You would have turned me down even if Aaron hadn’t said anything, wouldn’t you?”
“You are happily married to Aaron and, with him and your girls, exclusive. If you did ever come on to me while still married to him, as soon as you’d come to your senses you’d have been pissed at me if I’d done anything.” He smiled. “You’d have been pissed at me when I told you no, but you’d be happy with me later because I’d had the fortitude to resist your feminine charms. Now, if you were single and you tried to seduce me, that could be an entirely different situation.” He took a long swallow of tea. “But you’re not single.”
“You’re not a shrink, are you?”
Iain chuckled. “Due to my own mental issues, I’ve had to become very observant of the behavior of the people around me so I could fit in. Knowing why they do something is important in understanding what I see them do, and that helps me to know a bit about people. You are happy with Aaron overall and you’re not the type to destroy the things you value just to spite the people involved with them. Hitting people can be self-destructive, but you tend to make sure that the people you are willing to hit know they are special and it’s a sign, albeit an odd one, that you accept them into your private circle of friends.”
Lorena laughed. “You should be a shrink.”
“I believe they prefer the term mental health counselor,” Iain said loftily.
“I’m glad I met you, Iain. You’ve been good for me and my family.”
Iain put on a mournful face. “If we’re such good friends, why won’t you fire me?”
“Texas needs you even more than I do, Iain.” She leaned back in her chair. “Did you know that crime in East Texas has plummeted since you set up your Ranger post there?”
“That’s due to Amanda, not me.”
“Garrett doesn’t quite agree with that assessment and neither do I. And, in any case, without you, Captain Sawicki would not be in the position she is in so she could be such a good Ranger.” She smiled slyly. “You know, you might make a good President of Texas after David is ready to step down.”
“I would rather drink poison,” Iain said flatly. He gave himself a mental shake. “Are you less pissed with me now?”
“Would you sell me the land you’re putting drones on?”
“Heather would have to kill Garrett if I did.” Iain shrugged. “I need him around to sign my paychecks.”
“I suppose you’re right and Garrett is still useful so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t kill him.” She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. “I’m not upset at you anymore.”
“I saw that look. I’m happy in East Texas. I don’t care if Garrett drops dead at your feet. That job would violate my rules about taking any position that involves more politics than real work.”
“We will see,” Lorena said amusedly. “Now I already know, thanks to Ninhursag, that you can’t visit with me all day. Thank you for coming by when I asked.”
Iain smiled. “One day you might just tell me that you finally threw that silly Marine of yours out. Of course, you’d probably then tell me that it was all a big misunderstanding and you were too proud to tell him that so you’d called me here to ask if I could find a way to bring him back without you being humiliated in the process.” He stood while she laughed. “Tamara, your tea is excellent.” He looked back at Lorena. “Expect to hear from April. I’ve been told there’s a housewarming party in your near future.”
“We already have plenty of food and stuff, Iain, and most of it came from your family.”
“I have no control over what’s going to happen and I’m good with that.” He bowed to her and then to Tamara. “Now, I must be going.”
Lorena waved. “Goodbye, Iain.”
The Milktit bustled forward. “Let me show you out.”
She surprised him with a hug at the door. “Thank you for everything.” Her ears flicked and she glanced back into the house. “Could I ask you for a huge favor?”
“Talk to Aaron, please. You know how right you are about them being too proud and stubborn. Aaron won’t listen to us on this. He thinks we’re on Lorena’s side. But he’ll listen to you.”
“I was already going to do that, Tamara.”
She hugged him again. “Thanks!” Then she was gone.
Iain checked with his twee and headed off at a brisk walk. “When I find Aaron,” he told his guards, “give us a bit of room in which to talk.”
“We’ll still be in earshot,” the Elfqueen pointed out.
“I’m invoking privacy.”
“Accepted,” Heather said immediately.
Dianthus nodded. “Accepted.”
“Then I’ll let you watch through my twee and so you can come if there’s trouble.” He looked from one woman to the other. “Good enough?”
Heather nodded. “We can make that work.”
Aaron was in his workshop and running a plane down the edge of a door. He looked at Heather and Dianthus with a guarded expression. “I’ve invoked privacy,” Iain said quietly, “and they’ve accepted. Do you want help?” He motioned and the two women headed outside.
He went back to running the plane along the door. “No. Have a seat.” They sat in silence for a few minutes while he worked. “It slipped out,” he finally said.
“Lorena has never been anything less than faithful, Aaron.” Iain leaned back in his chair. “I’ve seen guys who were like you before, back when I was in the Navy.” His blue green eyes met Aaron’s dark brown ones. “I know why they were all that way.”
Aaron put the plane down and picked up a chisel. “You would.” He smoothed down an errant piece of wood. “Nothing to say?”
Aaron went back to using the plane. “Nam was a fuckup from the start. I almost died on my first patrol after I’d gotten in-country. Some shit VC with a frag grenade popped up out of a spider hole. Killed two of my platoon, wounded a third and my helmet stopped the piece of shrapnel meant for me.” He put the plane down. “When we got back to base I had to do something. One of the other officers took me to the local joy house. It was just the one time and I felt so dirty afterwards.” He shrugged. “I’ve never told Lorena.” He waited. “You have something to say now?”
“Not really. You need to talk to someone, but I’m not the right person. A priest, maybe or a therapist or a really good friend.” Iain got up. “It’s been over thirty years and it’s still eating at you. You need to talk to someone.”
“Should I tell Lorena?”
“That’s part of what you need to talk to them about. It was over thirty years ago. As her friend, I think she needs to know. As your friend, I think she needs to know. However, I am not the right person to discuss honesty issues with. I am keeping secrets from everyone, and the secrets are different depending on who I am keeping the secrets from.”
“Will you tell her if I don’t?”
“Privacy is exactly that, Aaron. Neither one of us can discuss what’s said here unless both of us agree to it.” Iain smiled slightly. “And if I did say something it would sound crazy as hell. There is no sane way to tell a woman that her husband is worried she’ll cheat because he did once thirty years ago and somehow I know it while she doesn’t.” His smile vanished. “And it would sound like I was trying to convince her that she should do the same thing with me.” Iain started to turn towards the door and turned back. “But if the person you speak to convinces you to tell her, when you do, show her the helmet. She’s had shit happen recently that might make her understand a bit more about what you were going through.” He smiled broadly. “Considering what you two have been doing the whole time you were at the Sabine House.” Aaron was staring at him perplexedly and Iain laughed. “Dude, Hypatia’s nose is good enough to know when you two are having sex and some of my ladies have scenting abilities orders of magnitude better than hers.” He waved “I’ll be seeing you.”
Dianthus looked around them as Iain released her hand. They were in an old growth forest, with oak predominating. Her eyes slid closed for a moment. “This place is so healthy,” she murmured. “Not even the forest we’re tending is like this.” Her eyes popped open as she flushed. “I’m sorry. I’m your guard.”
“Here we guard each other,” Iain said.
“Where are we?”
“This world will be Twenty Two, if we keep using it,” Iain replied. “I was involved with an experiment with my master, Elminster, and a mistake he and his girlfriend made sent me to this world. I was here for nearly a year while figuring out how to get back to him. While I was here, this forest was my home for most of it.” He looked around. “But if we do settle here, we’ll do it way in the past, about the time that I met Kasserine and Ava when Kerrik took me to meet them on Twelve. The world was less settled than it is now and we can carve out a place with a much lesser chance of fighting a whole bunch of nasty wars. We’ll still fight some, but hopefully not nearly as many and hopefully only with people like orc clans.”
“Why would orc clans care where we live?”
“They don’t. They do care that we have food and treasure. They tend to have a major problem with population control and send out marauding hordes right before they overpopulate to the point of cannibalism. So they send their warriors out to fight and loot and die while the remaining males and females start breeding so the whole cycle starts anew.” He shook his head. “They’re like rats, only rats are a bit more social.”
“Are we going to your house?”
“I lived in a cave, and we’re not going there. I visited here after we spoke about you not having a living bow and talked to the dryad who rules this forest. She selected an oak for us to get you a bow from.”
“Is this dryad your lover?”
Iain shook his head. “No, she’s got a mate already, a Sun elf ranger named Eltargrim.”
“That’s an odd name.”
Iain chuckled. “It’s a Sun elf name and they’d think your name was weird. Eltargrim is named after one of his ancestors, a famous and infamous Sun elf. Eltragrim Irithyl ruled Cormanthyr and established the capital city of the empire as a leading city of magical research for anyone with magical talent.”
Dianthus frowned. “You said he was infamous and famous?”
“He was famous for opening the city and empire to all races and setting Myth Drannor up as a magical research center. He’s infamous for the same thing.”
“How is this?”
“A lot of Sun elves thought what he was doing was a really bad idea and they still treat his memory like he’d lost his mind. The fact that the wizards of Myth Drannor dabbled in things they weren’t really ready to mess with and drew the attention of demonic forces who destroyed the city and infest the ruins just help them to keep deriding what he did. It wasn’t his fault but people tend to blame the elf in charge when a catastrophe happens.” He stopped in front of a massive oak tree. “And this is the tree that the dryad picked.”
“What’s her name?”
Iain grinned. “The tree? We weren’t introduced.”
Dianthus gave him an annoyed look. “Iain.”
“She’s the only dryad in this forest and, if she has a name, has never told me what it is. Eltargrim calls her Dear. I call her Ma’am.”
“Where are we?”
“I’m not completely sure. I only wanted to get back to the world I’d come here from and didn’t go exploring so as to avoid trouble. I did spend some time observing the stars while I was here and I think we’re somewhere in the Dalelands.”
“My mate says my forest is inside the lands that were once called Sessrendale,” a female voice said from the trees. Dianthus whirled as a person stepped out of it. She looked like a woman, but she was obviously not human. Her skin was a buttery yellow and her hair was an afro made of thin branches covered with orange and red leaves that matched the fall foliage around them. She seemed ageless and exuded an aura of power that covered Dianthus’ skin with goosebumps. She was nude, but it wasn’t the least bit sexual.
“Ma’am,” Iain said with a bow. “I didn’t know you intended to be here today.”
“Your description of what was to occur intrigued me and so I wished to observe.” She looked past him at the oak. “You assured me that my daughter would not be harmed and you have never harmed a healthy part of my forest, but I am unfamiliar with the magic you described and that made me concerned.”
“Dianthus, this is Ma’am. Ma’am, this is Dianthus, the woman I told you I’d be bringing here today.”
The dryad looked Dianthus over. “Her power is impressive. She is a creature of and from the forests, but her heart yearns for battle. I wish no more battles in my forest.” She turned to Iain. “Do you speak for her?”
“I do. You may trust Dianthus more than you can trust me.”
“Then she is welcome here.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Dianthus said. “How did you and Iain meet?”
“I am aware of all the things that happen in my forest,” the dryad said. “When he arrived, I felt his presence. I knew immediately that he was a wizard and wizards are never welcome here. They bring too much trouble with them. I would have removed him, but there was an infestation of orc rot and I and my mate were busy with it. When it was gone and I turned my attentions back to him, he was in his cave and carefully harvesting only diseased and dead wood for use. I became curious and allowed him to stay. He continued to improve the forest around his cave. Later, he saved my life and that is when I decided to introduce him to me and my mate.”
Dianthus eyed Iain curiously. “You saved her life?”
The dryad nodded gracefully. “More rot invaded the forest, this time hobgoblin. They are cunning warriors and aware of my presence. Their first attack was a ruse and a small band of them located my tree. He kept them from destroying it.”
Dianthus looked at him. “Iain?”
“I knew there was something powerful and protective in these woods,” Iain replied. “I knew it wasn’t good and it wasn’t evil, but it called these woods home. If I was going to be living here while figuring out how to get back to my teacher, I thought I’d protect and nurture the forest as you and the others taught me so this power wouldn’t come after me.” He shrugged. “I hunted for meat and foraged for edibles in the forest, but to be polite I never hunted the same area twice in a row and was on my way to someplace new to hunt when I ran across a bunch of hobgoblins under the command of a hobgoblin cleric. They were cutting down a tree. Hobgoblins don’t normally do forestry, and no person in his right mind is going to try to cut down an old growth oak with battle axes, but they were hard at work on it when I found them. I asked them what they were doing and they tried to kill me. I killed them back. I could tell that the tree was powerful magically and so I healed it to keep whatever the hobgoblins wanted to happen from happening. I continued on my hunt, went back home and Ma’am showed up a few days later.”
“My tree and I are linked and I could feel its pain as it was attacked, but there was little I could do. I was too far away to reach it before it was destroyed. I fully expected to die and made my peace with my mate. When my tree’s pain stopped, I went to it. For the first time in a very long time I did not know what I would find when I arrived.” She stood still, swaying slightly like a branch in the breeze that swirled past them. “My tree was undamaged and there were no beings attacking it. He had even dragged the hobgoblins away from my tree that they would not pollute the soil around it when they rotted. I owed him a life debt and went to him so that I could explain my obligation to him. When I discovered that he was a priest of Mielikki as well as a death magic mage, my curiosity only grew.” Her face became placid. “I do not care for her priests. She is not a bad goddess, but she is not mine. They assume I worship her and, when they are surprised to discover that I do not, they seek to bring me into her worship. This one did not care that I did not venerate his goddess. He was not pleased when I introduced myself to him and it amused me.”
Dianthus looked at him and he shrugged. “As soon as they find out I’m a priest of Mielikki, too many dryads think I’m there to fetch and carry for them, or they want me to sire their next daughter. Initially, I figured Ma’am was like all the rest.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Now, Dianthus, sing yourself up a bow and quiver.”
“The way I learned does not use singing. Singing tends to call things that you’re too distracted to deal with.”
Iain smiled. “Then do whatever you need to.”
Dianthus put her hands on the tree’s trunk. “You have security.”
“I have security.”
She suddenly jerked her hands back. “Something is wrong. This tree is almost aware.”
The dryad made a noise like tree branches rubbing. “It is one of my daughters.”
Iain blinked. “I thought that was a euphemism for any oak tree.”
“They are my children. This is my daughter, grown from an acorn from my tree. This is the most powerful of my daughters. It is unfortunate that she is not quite powerful enough to grow a dryad.”
“Why this tree then,” Dianthus asked.
“With this, I pay my life debt,” the dryad said simply. “My wood and my leaves for saving my life.”
“Did you have a mate when you grew the acorn that became this tree,” Iain asked.
“I did not. My old mate was dead for many winters and my new mate had not yet entered my forest.”
“A dryad needs a mate to produce a dryad tree,” Iain said. “You should be able to grow one now, if you can find a place as powerful as this one is.”
“I do not understand,” the dryad said. “This place is no more powerful than any other in my forest.”
Iain shook his head. “There is a ley line here and this tree is in the middle of the line. I can see it is absorbing the magic.” He held up a hand for a few seconds. “It’s the same ley line that runs through my cave. It’s why I chose that cave.”
Dianthus glanced at him. Ninhursag told me what you did with the first Omega tree, infusing it with your essence. Could you do that with this tree?
Why would I want to do that?
Your bow is more powerful than Ninhursag’s because you infused the Omega tree with your essence before it gave you your staff. If I am to have the best weapon I can, then I should have one that is infused with your essence.
Bloody hell. “Ma’am, are you saying that we can do anything we want with this tree?”
“If you wish, you could chop it down and I will do nothing,” the dryad replied. “I know you will not, but you could.”
Dianthus stepped back. “Please, Iain.”
Iain sighed and stepped forward, holding up his hands facing outward. “Palms.” Dianthus instantly jerked the knife from her belt and sliced across the meaty part of his palms with one smooth horizontal stroke. He moved forward and placed both hands against the trunk of the oak. Blood ran down the bark towards the ground as he tuned his magic to plants. “Drink deep so we can help Dianthus.”
The dryad hissed as the blood soaked into the tree to vanish. “What magic is this?”
“It’s Iain’s,” Dianthus said simply. “You gave us this tree and he is making it his.”
“He has the power of a dryad and the tree listens to him when he speaks,” the dryad said. “But he is not a dryad. He is a male and males cannot pool power with a dryad like we can with each other. And no dryad can do this.”
Iain stepped back a pace. “Dianthus.”
She placed her hands on the oak and gripped the bark. “I am Dianthus,” she said quietly. “I beseech you for this gift.” Then she began to murmur. Red and white glowing lines spread out from her hands and twisted to form intricate shapes that flowed across the wood. In a wave, the tree’s leaves turned burgundy. Almost instantly, tiny red blooms appeared on the branches, spreading out to cover the entire canopy. Two of them shed their petals and swelled, growing quickly until they were giant acorns that pulled down the branches they were on. “Thank you,” Dianthus said as she pulled her hands back. She reached for the first one and it disintegrated at her touch to reveal a dark red quiver edged with silver that was filled with arrows with red fletching. The second acorn puffed to smoke at her touch to reveal an identically colored bow.
Dianthus slung the quiver over her shoulder and examined the bow carefully. “She’s very powerful,” she said. “Thank you, Iain.”
“Could I learn this magic,” the dryad asked.
“I don’t think so,” Iain replied. “Later we intend to come back and, if you would like, Ma’am, perhaps you could talk Dianthus into trying to teach you.”
The dryad shifted her gaze to Dianthus. “We will reach an accommodation, she and I.” “For now, however, we must be going. I still disagree that you ever owed me anything for what I did to those hobgoblins, but I am very grateful for you for allowing us to use your wood to give Dianthus a proper bow.”
“May the fires be more cleansing than destructive,” the dryad said.
Iain smiled. “May the regrowth be strong and without blemish.”
The dryad’s eyes widened slightly. “You know our farewell?”
“A treant taught it to me several years ago, Ma’am. I must admit that it is much prettier in his native language.”
“You are always welcome in my forest, wizard.” She faded into the forest around them and was gone.
Iain smiled at Dianthus. “Ready to go make everyone else jealous?”
“That is not why I requested this.” She smiled a tiny smile. “But, as the lowest ranking Elfqueen in the harem, it will be pleasing to see.”
Iain held out his hand and she took it. “Well, no time like the present to piss off the other harem members. Step.”
Ninhursag Grey - Elfqueen & maharani
April Grey - Duelist & beta
Dominique Grey - Blessed Archmage
Pandora - Fiendish Archangel
Zareen - Nightmare
Sofia - Ria
Vanessa – Evangelion
Lucifer – Megami Sama
Ganieda – Snugglebunny Splice
Heather - Elfqueen
Marguerite – Unicorn
Scheherazade – Dread Wolf
Irena – Sanctuary Goth
Lynn – Dire Wolf
Rosemary – Mistoffeles
Dianthus – Elfqueen
Golden Cloud – equine unicorn
Arianrhod -Fey Goblin Female
74 male Goblins
89 female Goblins
Queendom / Outer Clan
Dionne - Elfqueen
Adrianna - Elfqueen
Heltu - Wet Queen
14 Wet Elves
Dead Harem (22)
Eirian - Silver Dragoness
Aurum - Gold Dragoness
Skye - Blue Dragoness
Emerald - Green Dragoness
Beryl - Red Dragoness
Julia - human
Ling - Cheetit
Matilda - White Tigress
Liadan - Twau
Sorrel - Armsmistress
Natalie - Blazicunt
Maria – Slutton
Rhea Silvia – Chimera
Geraldine – Human analog of Iain
Alabaster – Dragoness (white)
Onyx – Dragoness (black)
Lapis – Dragoness (blue)
Garnet – Dragoness (red)
Iolite – Dragoness (purple)
Malachite – Dragoness (green with white swirls)
Dabria – Dark Queen
Omisha – Demoness
Myrna (Age 4)
Dorothy: Duelist (Age 3)
Olivia: Megami Sama (Age 6)
Seraphina: Megami Sama
Miram: Angel (Age 5)
Caltha: Nightmare (Age 0)
James: Jamie Harris kid (Age 2)