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One Hundred Thirty Five
Kasumi leaned over the railing to watch as the Lemon Sour slowed to a hover over the trees. Light flashed below as elves in a rough square waved their shields upwards. “Is that the landing site?”
The hammership began descending and turning to move to fit in the area as it landed. “That’s right,” Iain said from his place on the bow. Something odd is going on, he told her over his twee. This is not a normal bivouac. They’re deployed for an engagement. Summon your gear. Leave your gunpowder weapons and explosives here. Put them in the locker to your right.
Kasumi murmured a spell and was suddenly in her battledress and weapons. She latched her visor up and began stripping off her bandoliers of ammunition, firearms and grenades. What’s the matter?
Gunpowder and guncotton are unstable here and may detonate without warning.
Kasumi gave him a startled look and unloaded her equipment faster. She closed the locker and engaged the lock. Done. Do you have a bow I can use?
The locker to your left.
Kasumi opened it and pulled out a recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows as the ship touched down, the struts groaning slightly as they took up the vessel’s weight. Iain moved to the railing and dropped cargo netting over the side. “Come up,” he called to the elves on the ground. “Tell the quartermaster to get here too. We’ll be in the hold.” He looked at Kasumi. “Give me a hand.”
He dropped into the hold and picked up a long piece of heavy looking timber. He held the end up towards her. “Put it on the deck next to the hold, please.”
“Yes, Iain.” Kasumi hooked it with her claws and lifted it, grunting at the weight. She laid it down next to the hold and turned as Iain lifted the second piece. She took it and lifted it to lie it next to the first.
“One more item.” Iain picked up a chest and heaved it up to her. She caught it and put it next to the timbers as elves climbed over the railing. Iain climbed out of the hold. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome. What is this?”
“Highness,” one of the elves said. “I am Quartermaster Naelar Greenwillow. I was told you requested my presence. May I ask why?”
Iain picked up a leather case that had been sitting next to his flight chair the whole time and handed it to the elf. “I’ve got a double treat shipment in the hold and here’s the manifest, Quartermaster.” He gestured at the timbers and the box. “As you can see, we were even nice enough to pull the crane out of the hold for you to set up to make unloading easier. The ropes and nets are down in the hold.”
Naelar looked at the case. “Thank you, sir. We haven’t had a shipment in two months.”
“Her Majesty realized that and had me deliver it for her. Please have it unloaded as quickly as possible. I’m not sure how long we’re staying.”
“Yes, Highness. I’ll get a work team together immediately.”
Iain turned to Kasumi. “To answer your question, it’s a portable jib crane. It can attach to the hull on either side of the hold. The crate has the connecting pieces and the blocks. For most deliveries, there wouldn’t be a harbor for unloading and the crane will make it a lot easier and safer for the cargo to be unloaded.”
“We are stronger than they are. Is that why we moved the crane up here?” Iain nodded. “Should we stay and help unload?”
“They can do this without our help,” Iain replied. “And you wanted to meet someone, remember?”
“That’s right.” Kasumi followed Iain to the cargo net. “Why aren’t you wearing your armor and equipment?”
“I can put mine on in a heartbeat and I don’t have any gunpowder weapons to get rid of.”
“I’d prefer that you put it on now.”
Iain’s armor and weapons appeared. “Happy?”
Kasumi smiled. “I am less unhappy.” Her smile widened when Iain stuck out his tongue at her. “What do we do now?”
“Follow me.” They climbed down the netting to the ground.
An elf wearing a red and green ribbon on his pauldron stepped forward. “General Highness Iain Grey.”
Iain raised an eyebrow. His tone was cool. “Major Lord Sir Erhorn.”
Erhorn grinned as he held out his hand. “Iain, I had to say it at least once or my queen might just have me skinned if she finds out about me not doing it. The general sent me to bring you to him.”
Iain clasped wrists with him. “Then do so. Kasumi, this is Major Erhorn. He’s Keanellos’ man Friday and aide. Erhorn, this is Lady Kasumi Grey.”
Erhorn bowed. “Lady Kasumi.”
Kasumi formally bowed back. “Major Erhorn.”
Erhorn looked at Iain. “I take it she’s the reason that Keanellos is ordering up a feast. He wouldn’t normally do that for you.”
“I told him not to do that.”
“Yes, I’m sure you did and obviously he listened to you just as much as he usually does.”
Iain shook his head. “Kasumi, Erhorn is Keanellos’ personal aide and has been with him for over two centuries.”
“I see. I take it you know him well.”
“He and I have interacted a bit over the years. But he’s Keanellos’ handler.”
Erhorn grinned. “The general says that, while I haven’t been around long enough to know which bodies are in which plots, I do know where the plots are located.” He gestured. “This way, you two.” He glanced back at the Lemon Sour as he led them away. “What are they so excited about?”
“I brought a double treat shipment.”
“Good. The men could use the morale boost, considering what’s coming. How did you get the quartermasters to authorize this?”
“I didn’t. This is from the valley and Helesatra authorized it.”
Erhorn sighed. “You need to have a word with the general. He wouldn’t go to her over this. He said it wasn’t that important. What’s the use of having the Queen’s ear if he won’t talk to her?”
“I’ll talk to him. What’s coming?”
Erhorn glanced at Iain. “It’s not a conventional horde. The orcs aren’t alone, they’re being commanded by some giants. Our scouts reported at least a dozen of them.” He led them into an area with a dozen tents hidden among the trees, stopping at one that didn’t look any different from the others. He opened the flap. “Inside.”
The inside of the tent was simply decorated and, instead of chairs, leather cushions were arranged around the room. There was a single elf in there and he pushed to his feet and engulfed Iain in in a hug, dropping a scrap of colored fabric as he rose. “Father!”
Kasumi examined him. He was roughly Iain’s height, with a thick braid of red hair that fell past his shoulders to the middle of his back. His eyes were bright green and small horns protruded from his forehead. Fangs gleamed in his grin as he pulled back from the hug. “I am very glad to see you. Feel like fighting some giants?”
“I’m well,” Iain said, obviously ignoring the question. “And this is Kasumi Grey.”
Keanellos bowed to her. “It is my pleasure to meet you, Kasumi.” He was wearing plate mail in green and brown and he moved in it like it didn’t weigh more than a suit of regular clothing
“It is my pleasure to meet you, Keanellos,” Kasumi replied. “I am Iain’s wife and Kozakura’s mother.”
“I know who you are,” Keanellos said with a wave at the cushions. “Please, be seated.” He raised his voice. “Erhorn!”
Erhorn stepped into the tent. “General?”
“Erhorn,” Iain said. The elf looked at him. “Informal, please. And cancel the feast.”
Erhorn looked at Keanellos, who nodded. “Yes, Iain.” He left.
Keanellos settled down on his cushion. “Kasumi, you’re here to meet me and see if I’m acceptable to you and, if so, you’ll allow me to try and court your daughter and hopefully tell her you approve of me.” He smiled. “No, I have never met Kozakura. However, Father did spend some time telling me about her and trying to interest me in her. It worked.”
Kasumi raised an eyebrow. “What did he tell you?”
“Father told me that she’s powerful, much younger than I am, prouder than my mother, which I honestly find hard to believe, easily offended if I’m not careful and she has a sense of honor that I won’t understand but I’ll try to learn as quickly as I can. I also understand that I will have to win the approval of her friend, lover and bodyguard, Nejiko, too, and that doing that might be more difficult than getting yours or Kozakura’s approval.”
Kasumi smiled slowly. “Iain has told you truly. She is not a dragon.”
“I understand she’s a hybrid like me, comprised of a dragon who had not come into her power when she carried Kozakura, that being you, and a wolf spirit who had come into at least some of his power and that she favors him more than you.”
Kasumi turned to look at Iain thoughtfully. “I am very proud that you told him the complete truth about Kozakura. Without lying to him, Shikarou would have carefully glossed over anything that he thought might be a detriment to a possible relationship.”
“I didn’t tell him everything about her, but I am not going to lie to my son about a woman’s issues when I’m trying to make him interested in her.”
Kasumi nodded. “Keanellos, what do you think will be the biggest problem you will have in a relationship with my daughter?”
“I’m not used to relationships.” Kasumi raised an eyebrow and he smiled. “I am over five hundred years old and I’ve been in one long term relationship with a silver dragoness, one of Ari’s nieces. It lasted for forty two years and produced two sons. One of them became the duke of the lands my mother had given me and the other is a general in the military who is on detached duty in the Imperial Elven Armada and not currently in this crystal sphere. The dragoness and I parted on good terms and she has admitted to no complaints to me regarding our time together. If you wish, I can arrange for you to meet her and you can get her opinion of me.”
“Solar system,” Iain supplied when Kasumi looked puzzled. “The IEA is a space force with members from several solar systems, which here are called crystal spheres, who work together to try to keep the peace in space and make sure elves get the best terms on everything.”
“Now I understand.” Kasumi looked back at Keanellos. You were a duke? Why did you give it up?”
“I was never there long enough to give it the attention it deserved,” Keanellos explained. “I had a competent enough steward, but if I have a job, I want to do it properly. I had two mutually exclusive jobs since this one keeps me on the road for years at a time and my son was better suited to ruling land than I am.” His smile reappeared. “It means I will be free to go meet Kozakura, if you let me. Oh, and I’m not destitute by any means. With my father’s help, I learned how to properly invest my money and minimize risk as much as possible and I’ve been growing my fortune for my whole life, while still being paid as a general in the army. According to my ex-mate, my hoard is as large as her parent’s combined hoard, which is impressive since they’re both over two thousand years old and have been together for over a thousand years.” He glanced at Iain. “I’d been comparing my hoard to Father’s and wanted one as large as his is. Apparently, his hoard is obscenely huge.”
“You haven’t seen my hoard.”
“I saw it once when I was younger. Mother took me with her when she had to get a sword that you’d given her from it.”
Iain looked thoughtful. “Ah, I know when that must have been. Anyway, Kasumi, he has enough to take care of Kozakura and Nejiko while they settle in and decide how they’re going to make a living.”
“Kozakura, as a princess, has a stipend from the Haven government,” Kasumi said. “It’s quite generous and more than capable of handling hers and Nejiko’s regular needs. I am not aware that she has been saving any of it, however.”
Keanellos nodded. “I did have a question that Father couldn’t answer. Well, he did answer it but his answer wasn’t reasonable. What is Kozakura’s role in the Haven government?”
Kasumi frowned. “Her role?” She looked at Iain. “What did you say that her role was?”
Iain grimaced. “Keanellos was asking what she did to earn her way in the royal family. I said she doesn’t really do anything to do so.”
Kasumi’s cheeks turned pink. “Kozakura is currently Stephen’s heir. Otherwise, she has no official role in the government, except for when she was the regent queen while waiting for Stephen’s arrival after Shikarou’s death.”
Keanellos nodded. “Is Father right in what he said about her?” He smiled when Kasumi hesitated. “I am not criticizing her. I know of many other noble or royal families who have members like that.”
“I am ashamed to say that I was not much of a mother to Kozakura and that her father allowed her to do as she pleased for most of her life. Her brother, Stephen, the king, allows her the same. He is very busy learning to run the kingdom and I do not believe he will attempt to change her behavior because she does not really cost the kingdom that much,” her voice grew softer, “and because it shames me to admit that she has never tried to master any true skills. She has some skills in magic and with swords, but little else. None of her skills would aid Stephen in running the kingdom better.” She shook her head sadly. “While her cooking isn’t as bad as my sister’s was when she first started, neither Kozakura nor Nejiko can cook more than simple camp food. It is one of my failures as her mother that I did not teach her to cook.”
“Kozakura did shadow her father for several years because she expected to become the queen and she did a decent enough job as regent for the short time she held the throne until she gave it to Stephen when he returned,” Iain added.
“But she has no true responsibilities or duties to her brother’s kingdom?”
“She does not,” Kasumi said.
“I told you that Haven is not like Vyshaan. Shikarou did not demand his children earn their way like Helesatra does or I do.” Iain frowned and knelt to retrieve the piece of fabric. He unfolded it to reveal a banner with a large brown spot of dried blood on one end. It was red with two crossed black war hammers with spiked ends over a black crown. “I haven’t seen this in a century.”
Keanellos’ eyes widened. “You know them?” Iain nodded. “The orc raiding party we overran had it. Who does it belong to?”
“It’s the flag of the Prymr Jarn tribe. They’re fire giants and they live over a thousand miles from here.”
“Scouts reported seeing a group of fire giants with the orcs,” Keanellos said. “I figured they were hill giants and that the scouts were mistaken. There are no giants living within Vyshaan. My great grandfather hated them and exterminated any that were found.”
Iain was examining the banner. “Any hill giant who knows the Prymr Jarn would know that using their flag without their permission would get her hung over a pool of lava until she died of dehydration. It would be a breach of the Prymr Jarn’s honor and a serious violation of the Ordning.” He looked up. “What weapons did the giant have?”
Keanellos frowned and pulled up report he’d read in his memory. “The scouts reported a sword.”
“Hill giants favor clubs. Was the giant black or dark skinned with red hair?”
“That’s a fire giant.” Iain sniffed the banner. “It only has orc scent, yours and one other elf, I presume the scout. Something must have changed if it is the Prymr Jarn. They had a very nice home and showed no signs of wanting to leave it.” He handed the banner to Keanellos. “And they were unusual in that they didn’t keep slaves, much less a bunch of orcs. They had a few human ones for a while, but they stopped doing that not long before I met them.”
“How do they know you, Father?”
“I helped them out with a bit of trouble and they adopted me into their tribe. I then assisted them in negotiating out some favorable trading deals with some of their neighbors. Their drottning was a reasonable sort but wanted me to make sure they weren’t being cheated by a nearby dwarf kingdom.”
Kasumi raised an eyebrow. “Drottning?”
“Fire giants, and all giants in general, have an exalted image of themselves. Any giant who rules over even a small tribe considers themselves a drottinn or king and drottning, which would be a queen. Other giant races will probably have a different word for it, since each giant race speaks their own special variant of the main giant language, but it’s part and parcel of the Ordning, the rules of status and behavior that they all are supposed to live by.”
Keanellos nodded. “Can you try to warn them off? If it comes to a fight between them and their orcs and us, I believe we can still defeat them, but the price would be ruinous, and I’d rather not kill my men off in droves and shatter my army if I can avoid it.”
“Can I come with you to see them when you meet with them,” Kasumi asked.
“I hadn’t said I was going to,” Iain pointed out.
“You will,” she said confidently. “You are willing to be reasonable if you feel a potential enemy might be reasonable and they sound reasonable from your description of them.”
Iain chuckled and looked at Keanellos. “I do try to marry clever girls and Kasumi certainly is one of those.”
Keanellos nodded. “I can only hope that Kozakura is at least as clever as her mother is.”
“She has her moments,” Iain said. “She’s still pretty young.” He shrugged. “Yes, Kasumi.”
“Thank you, my mate. Will I be required to disarm for this meeting?”
“Quite the contrary. All giants respect power and fire giants live to prove their bravery. Disarming sends them the message that you’re not worthy of any respect.”
“I wish I was as widely traveled as you are, Father.”
Iain’s eyes darkened. “I got to watch a lot of people I was adventuring with die during those years, Keanellos. Some of them were friends. The knowledge I have is paid for with blood, both theirs and mine. Asking me is a lot less painful.”
“Entering.” Ernhorn backed into the tent, turning to reveal a tray of drinks and snacks. He placed it on the floor in front of Keanellos. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“See if the scout who saw the giants is rested. If she is, bring her here. Father will be going to meet them and he’ll need a guide.”
“I’ll need directions,” Iain said firmly. “I’m taking Kasumi with me. I trust her to do what I tell her when I tell her to do it. I’m not going to be responsible for anyone else’s life on this trip.”
“Highness,” Erhorn said formally to Iain. “On behalf of Her Majesty, I have to ask this. Is this wise?”
“I know the tribe that uses this banner,” Iain replied. “I should be able to speak with their leader and, hopefully, convince them to change direction and go bother someone else without us having to fight them, saving clan lives. She and I respect each other.”
“With all due respect, Highness, my grandfather fought giants and he told me they have no respect for anyone smaller than they are.”
Iain nodded. “I’d say that in roughly twenty nine out of thirty cases, your grandfather would be absolutely correct. But Drottning Revna is different. While she may not heed my advice, she will at least hear me out.” He smiled coldly. “And if she doesn’t listen to my advice, I’ll have a lot of intelligence on the tribe’s numbers, disposition and weapons to give the general here before we engage them.”
Erhorn bowed. “Yes, Iain. I am just sure that Her Majesty would prefer we gather that intelligence without risking your life.”
“Erhorn,” Keanellos said with a grin, “you may know me, but you certainly do not know my mother very well. Now go check on that scout.”
The orc grinned, showing several gaps of missing teeth as a result of typical orc brawling. “You are our prisoners,” he said. “Remove your weapons.”
Iain raised an eyebrow, ignoring the swords and spears pointed at him. “Slave, the tribe needs to teach you better manners. I announced my intentions of seeking an audience with the Drottning, under a flag of truce. According to the rules of the Ordning, you cannot prevent me from seeing her, because you have no rank and no status among the giants.” The orc’s grin had vanished and a growl that was growing in volume was issuing from him. “If you want, we will wait here while you send a runner to announce me to a member of the tribe. However, we refuse to become your prisoners, and if you persist, I will insist on dealing with you and then speaking with one of your superiors.”
The orc snarled and strode forward as he raised a fist. “You will shut up or I will,” he broke off when Iain hit him with a palm heel strike in the throat hard enough to stun him. Iain grabbed his head and twisted sideways, snapping the orc’s neck. He fell backwards, his body spasming as Iain turned to the other orcs. “I am Iain Grey. I am a member of the Prymr Jarn tribe and, legally a giant. Under the Ordning, he insulted a superior and was punished. I am starting to lose patience with all of you. Who is in charge now?”
One of the other orcs stepped forward. In his eyes, Iain could see instinct warring with fear and reason. Instinct ordered them to butcher Iain out for killing one of the orcs. Fear was from Iain being right and demanding that all of them be punished for ignoring Iain’s truce. If he was tribe, the other giants would slaughter him and his companions for violating the Ordning. Reason won by telling him a way out of the mess. “If you know that the tribe is the Prymr Jarn, you know what they are going to do to you if you are lying. That makes you either crazy or telling the truth. As you demand, I will let our masters deal with you. Come.” He turned and strode away.
Iain and Kasumi followed as he led them through the orc encampment. Why did you do that, she asked using her twee.
Iain glanced at her. Orc males live in a world where you either more powerful than someone or they are more powerful than you. These are also the servants of giants, who will judge them under their rules, the Ordning. Still, as an elf, I had to prove I not only understood their world, I understood my place in it, which is much more highly placed than they are. I could have defeated him without killing him, but the Ordning requires death for such an insult by a slave to a giant. Slaves never raise their hands against a giant.
Are you really a member of the tribe?
I am. Their chronicler will be able to verify that I am.
Kasumi glanced at him. What if they deny it?
Iain returned her glance and smiled slightly. Then we will be running and fighting for our lives. Still, you can’t win if you don’t dare. There’s a giant up ahead.
Kasumi’s eyes widened as she looked it over. The giant was roughly twenty feet or six meters tall and massively thickset, with a stocky torso and wide shoulders. His skin was a dark gray and his eyes and hair were the same dark shade of red as a pool of cooling lava. He was wearing a chainmail shirt that fell to his knees and had a massive sword strapped to his belt. He carried a kite shield that was taller than she was easily in one hand.
Behind him, Kasumi could see a clearing that was filled with immense tents. The smallest looked to be at least thirty feet in height and over a hundred feet wide. Smoke billowed up from the centers of at least two of them.
The giant looked bored as he watched the orc stop in front of him. When he realized that Iain and Kasumi were with the orc, he took a step forward. “What is this,” he asked in a deep and echoing voice.
“We caught some prisoners. The elf says he’s not a prisoner and killed Luggok. Then he demanded to talk to you.”
The giant looked at Iain as he dropped his hand to his sword hilt. “Why did you do that? No one kills our slaves.”
“I demanded to speak to a giant first,” Iain corrected the orc’s story. “He insulted me. I didn’t ask to talk to you, Anzas. I want to talk to the Drottning. I am Iain Grey, and you should remember me.”
“You know my name?” The giant leaned down and stared at Iain. “You elves all look alike to me.”
“You have a scar on your stomach from the last time you insulted me,” Iain said softly. “You insult me again and I’ll give you another one that might not ever get the chance to heal.”
Anzas blinked and a wide grin appeared on his face. “I recognize you, Grey. I’ve been training. You won’t do that to me again.”
Iain chuckled softly. “Of course I won’t, Anzas. Why would I stab you in the same place?”
“You know this stupid elf,” the orc blurted suddenly.
Anzas backhanded the orc in the face, knocking him sprawling. “Do not insult him or I will cut you in two if he does not,” he snarled.
“I’m sorry,” the orc said as he scrambled to his feet. “May I return to my post?” He ran off when the giant nodded.
“When did the Prmyr Jarn start keeping orcs as pets,” Iain asked.
“Things have changed since you were last here,” Anzas said. “Ulfhild is now Drottning, and her word is law.”
Iain frowned. “I do not know that name. Who is Ulfhild?”
Anzas nodded. “You have never met her. She married into the tribe after your last visit. She challenged Revna and slew her out of hand.”
“I must still speak with her,” Iain said. “We stand here on land that belongs to my clan. I have come to ask that you leave it before your presence becomes a problem that Vyshaan solves with the army that is arrayed for battle in front of your orcs.”
“She will not listen to you.”
“I don’t want to have to destroy the tribe, Anzas. I must try to convince her.”
“Who is the human?”
“That’s Kasumi. She is my student.” He glanced at Kasumi. The Prymr Jarn like to take hostages and extract ransoms from people, so I am not going to take a chance with that by telling them you’re my wife.
Kasumi gave a quick, slight nod. I understand, Iain, and I agree.
Anzas looked her over once. “Is she a wizard too?”
“I already said that she’s my student. Just leave her be and everything will be fine.”
Anzas looked her over again. “Sell her to me.”
Kasumi blinked and looked at Iain, who was shaking his head. “She’s important to me. You don’t have that much money.”
Anzas grunted sourly. “You’re probably right.”
Iain frowned. “Anzas, why is the tribe so far from home?”
“We no longer have a home. We were driven from it by a bunch of green dragons. We killed several of them, but they killed a few of us and drove us out.”
Iain raised an eyebrow. “Why would green dragons attack the Prymr Jarn? You’re too powerful and not rich enough to tempt them to go after the tribe.”
Anzas shrugged. “They changed their minds after Ulfhild demanded tribute from one of them. Now we no longer have a home.”
“I might be able to help with that,” Iain said thoughtfully. “But first, I will have to speak to the Drottning.”
Anzas looked at Kasumi. “What about you?”
Kasumi raised an eyebrow. “As Iain said, I am Kasumi and I am Iain’s student,” she said coolly.
“Are you a wizard?”
“I am learning as much about magic as I can,” Kasumi replied in a careful non-answer.
“Will you leave him for me?”
“I cannot. As I am important to him, he is important to me. Also, Iain is a good teacher and I still have much to learn from him.”
Anzas grunted again. “Why are you here?”
“I am here because Iain is here. I hope to learn as much as I can about giants.”
“Will you take us to the Drottning,” Iain asked.
Anzas shrugged. “She’s going to refuse you.”
“And, as I have already said, I have to try.”
“Come then.” He turned and headed into the giant encampment. “I am oathbound to her. If she orders me to kill you, I will have no choice.”
“I understand,” Iain replied.
“I have improved a great deal since we last fought,” Anzas said quietly.
“That’s good to hear. One should always strive to improve. I too have been busy improving my skills and learning new ones since we last sparred.”
Why is he so interested in possessing me, Kasumi asked Iain through her twee.
Iain’s response was intermeshed with overtones of irritation. Anzas had a human slave he favored who bore him a half giant daughter. He might want you to take her place. And wizards are rare among giants. Having you would give him an advantage over others of the tribe, at least until one of them murdered you. I will give him that new scar if he doesn’t stop pestering you.
Anzas led them to a tent where a giantess stood sentry next to the closed flap covering the entrance. He gestured towards Iain and Kasumi. “Iain Grey requests an audience with the Drottning,” he said formally.
The giantess looked down at Iain and Kasumi. “I haven’t seen you since I was a girl,” she said.
“I don’t think you were ever a girl, Hozra,” Iain said with a smile. “You’ve always been an adult in your head, even when you were a child.”
Hozra’s face lit up. “I’m surprised that you remember me. How have you been doing?”
“I’ve been well. This is Kasumi, my student. I want to speak to the Drottning.”
Hozra shook her head. “She will not meet with an elf.”
Iain didn’t move. “I am going to insist. I am a member of the tribe and it is my right.”
“She doesn’t know you’re one of us, Iain,” Hozra said.
“Send for the Chronicler. He will be able to confirm that I am a member of the tribe. Hozra, I’m trying to save the tribe. You’re on my land and if you attack one of my villages, I will crush the tribe, alliance or not. That’s especially true since my alliance was with Revna and not Ulfhild.”
Hozra nodded. “Anzas, tell Thazun to come here and to hurry.”
Anzas nodded and jogged off.
“What can you tell me about the Drottning,” Iain asked, “while we wait?
“Ulfhild is very proud and quick to anger. You need to beware of her brother, Skalaur. He is her champion, and he likes to kill. He is the best fighter in the tribe now.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Hopefully there won’t be any fighting between me and anyone in the tribe.”
Anzas returned, bringing another fire giant with him. This one was wearing leather instead of chain armor and carried a large book instead of a shield. He frowned when he saw Iain. “Revna sent word to you. Why did you not come when she summoned you? If you had, we might not be where we are today.”
“Thazun, I never received any messages from her,” Iain said. “Part of our agreement was that I would come if she needed my help. I would have done so. Who did she trust to send the scroll to me?”
“It was Rigna,” Hozra said. She turned curious eyes on Thazun. “She strongly supports Ulfhild. Did she then?”
Thazun looked thoughtful. “Perhaps. That would explain much that I have questioned about how Ulfhild gathered enough support to challenge Revna without me seeing it happening.” He focused on Iain. “Why are you here now, Iain?”
Your tribe is invading my land and I want the tribe to leave it before I have to destroy it when it attacks my people.”
Thazun shook his head. “Ulfhild will not care.”
“I have to try. The tribe doesn’t need to be destroyed. You need to be present so you can inform her that I am tribe and highly placed within the hierarchy.”
Thazun looked at Hozra. “Announce us.”
“Wait here.” The giantess stepped into the tent, closing the flap behind her.
“Thazun,” Iain said, “this is Kasumi. She is my student.”
Thazun looked over and smiled warmly. “Welcome. Are you clan like Iain is?”
“I am,” Kasumi said.
“What brings you here today,” Thazun asked.
“I have little experience with giants, and I want to learn all that I can about your customs and laws.”
Thazun’s smile broadened. “I am the tribe’s Chronicler. I can help you with much of that. You could come with me instead of with Iain when he talks with Ulfhild.”
“Is this like Anzas and his trying to buy me from Iain?”
Anzas gave her a lazy grin and a wink.
Thazun shook his head. “It is not. I want no strange women and sex with a human does not interest me. I keep the tribe’s history and was offering to let you look at the tomes I managed to save when we were forced out of our home.”
“Perhaps later,” Kasumi said.
“I have a question,” Iain said. “I was told that Ulfhild married into the tribe. Who is her husband?”
“Her husband was Rhonzets. When she became Drottning, Ulfhild accused him of treachery and had him executed.”
“She’s a charmer,” Iain muttered to Kasumi, making her chuckle softly.
Hozra slipped out of the tent. “She does not want to see you, but I convinced her to do so.”
Iain looked surprised. “Thank you for that.”
Hozra smiled at him. “I don’t want the tribe to be destroyed either and many people here that I respect all speak well of you. I trust their opinions.”
Iain gave her a thoughtful look before smiling back her. “You take after your mother. She is an intelligent woman too.” He chuckled. “And I’ll tell her that the next time I see her.”
“Please do,” Hozra said as she opened the door. “Chronicler Thazun and Iain to see the Drottning,” she called.
I don’t know Ulfhild, Kasumi said to Iain with her twee. I will be silent unless you ask me to speak.
I don’t know her either, Iain replied. Sadly, I can’t do that too. “Thank you, Anzas.”
“I’ll wait here,” Anzas said.
“Bring Kasumi,” Thazun said as he entered the tent.
The inside of the tent was mostly empty space. Tapestries of various sorts hung from the walls and large carpets were laid out to cover the entirety of the floor. Braziers set around the perimeter of the tent filled it with a flickering, ruddy light and a light haze of smoke that tugged at Kasumi’s lungs and tickled the back of her throat. A large, ornate chair sat on the other side of the tent from the entrance.
The chair was occupied by a fire giant woman with bright red hair pulled back in a tight braid and brilliant blue eyes that watched them as they crossed the floor to stand in front of her. She was wearing fine linens in green and brown that were trimmed with black fur. Beside her stood a male fire giant who was nearly as wide as he was tall. He wore a suit of lorica segmentata armor made of thick steel with armored gauntlets, a chain skirt and greaves over his armored boots. His helmet was topped with plumes from a griffon’s wings, and the spray of feathers made him look even more enormous. The sword hanging from his belt was ten feet long and the scabbard was decorated with gemstones that glittered in the flickering light.
The giantess watched as Thazun bowed, followed by Iain. “Thazun, introduce me to our guest.”
“He is not a guest,” Thazun said. “This is Iain Grey. He is a full member of the tribe and Revna’s adopted son. I can bring you the chronicle where this is inscribed if you wish.”
Ulfhild looked curiously at Iain. “You are Revna’s son?”
“Yes, Drottning Ulfhild. Revna saw fit to adopt me after I helped her save the tribe from destruction. She also did it to ensure that I stayed a friend to the tribe and didn’t become its enemy. It is because I am still her son that I am here today with a request and a warning.”
“You have just returned to the tribe and already you crave a boon from me?” Ulfhild laughed melodiously. “What is your boon?”
“It is no boon, Drottning. The tribe and its slaves have crossed over onto land that belongs to the Queendom of Vyshaan, which is clan and therefore mine. The Queendom sent an army and it is arrayed in front of your orcs. I ask that the tribe change direction of travel and leave Vyshaan’s lands before it is destroyed.”
Ulfhild laughed again. “No army of elves can stand against us.”
“With all due respect, Drottning, this one can.”
“And how do you know that,” the male giant beside her demanded.
“I helped train this army and the general who leads it is very experienced. The army is all veterans and its troops have fought a variety of foes. It will destroy your slaves and then you,” Iain replied calmly. “You will probably cause it a great deal of damage and kill a lot of its people, but you will not prevail against it.”
“We are the chosen children of Annam,” the giant snapped. “We are invincible. Nothing can stand in our way.”
“With all due respect,” Iain said again, “if that were true, you would not be here right now, on Vyshaan land and facing a Vyshaan army. Instead, you’d still be in the traditional caverns of the Prymr Jarn.”
The giant drew his sword with a steely rasp and the blade burst into flames as he pointed it at Iain. “You elf scum, I will chop you down for insulting my honor,” he roared.
Ulfhild held up her hand. “Stop, Skalaur.” She smiled craftily as he looked at her and lowered his sword slightly. “Chronicler, this elf is a member of the tribe, did you not just confirm that?”
“I did,” Thazun said, “and he is a member of the tribe.”
Ulfhild smiled. “I am your Drottning. I order you to help us defeat the army that’s blocking our way.”
Iain’s face smoothed. “Are you sure that this is what you really want?”
Ulfhild’s smile spread. “It is. You swore an oath to the Drottning and you must obey me or you will die.”
“Drottning, you do not know,” Thazun stated, but stopped when Iain raised a hand. “Yes?”
“It’s too late for you to try to reason with her. I am invoking the ancient rite of challenge for the leadership of the tribe under the rules of the Ordning.” He turned to Ulfhild, who was staring at him with an open mouth. “I challenge you for the leadership of the tribe. Kneel before me and acknowledge that I am the Drottinn, and I will leave you unharmed. Refuse me and go get your weapons so that you may die holding them.”
Ulfhild pulled her mouth shut. “You cannot do this!”
“I am a member of the Prmyr Jarn and I am free,” Iain said loudly. “I am Revna’s heir and therefore a noble in the tribe. I believe I would be a better ruler than you and I outrank you by several orders of magnitude. You have no choice but to accept my challenge and meet me on the field of battle.”
Ulfhild looked at Thazun. “Chronicler, what is the law of the Ordning in this?”
Thazun took a deep breath. “He is the son of Revna and he has the right to challenge anyone in the tribe.” He looked at Iain. “But you cannot fight her, for she is with child. Under the Ordning, a pregnant giantess cannot fight in a duel where blood may be drawn. It must then become a battle between champions. Do you wish to withdraw your challenge, or will you name your champion?” He carefully didn’t look at Kasumi.
Iain shook his head. “I do not withdraw my challenge, for I have a champion of my clan with me.” He pulled a pokeball from his pouch and activated it. “My champion is Ganieda.” The Snugglebunny Splice appeared. She was wearing the clan’s battledress, except for the helmet. “Well, Ulfhild?”
Ulfhild’s eyes narrowed at Iain’s deliberate use of her name. It meant he considered himself to be at least her equal. “Skalaur is my champion!”
Skalaur stepped forward, lifting his sword and settling his shield on his arm. “I will crush you, animal!” He looked at Thazun. “Start this!”
He’s big enough, Ganieda said to Iain and Kasumi telepathically. But he should be easy meat.
I don’t doubt that you can kill him, Iain replied with his twee. But can you cripple him to the point that he has to yield instead?
Ganieda’s ears flicked. You give a girl the best gifts, but he still won’t last long. Crippled it is.
Why don’t you just kill him, Kasumi asked Iain using her twee and letting Ganieda hear her.
The giants will make excellent shock troops against the samurai, Iain replied. And they keep their oaths, once given, so we can even use them as administrators if we have to. Even if they don’t Skalaur will make a dandy arrow shield for me.
Samurai, Ganieda asked curiously.
You haven’t been read into Orb Weaver yet, Iain told her. I’ll read you in when we get home.
Ganieda’s ears twitched. I love learning new secrets, but I hate learning that you have secrets that I haven’t yet learned.
I know and it doesn’t matter. “Thazun, may we begin?”
Thazun shot him a worried look. “Drottening Ulfhild, challenge for the tribe has been given by Iain, the son of Revna. Accept or relinquish your place as leader of the tribe.”
Ulfhild’s face twisted angrily. “I accept!”
Thazun motioned to Kasumi. “Come with me. Do not interfere or Iain will lose by default.”
“I understand,” Kasumi said as they moved to the side of the tent. She smiled coldly. “There is no reason for me to interfere in what is about to happen to Skalaur.”
“We shall see,” Thazun said quietly. He raised his voice. “Begin!”
Bright light flashed and thunder rocked the tent as lightning instantly connected Ganieda and Skalaur. The blast drove Skalaur back a step with him snarling through clenched teeth as his body jittered from the bolt. The center of his shield glowed white hot from the electrical impulse.
Roaring in fury, Skalaur charged, his footfalls shaking the earth. Ganieda watched intently as he approached, his shield held low to make it hard for her to duck under it. Flames roared as he swung his sword in a broad arc to chop at the Snugglebunny Splice.
Ganieda lunged to the left in a blur, around Skalaur and raced to the end of the tent as he turned to face her.
Skalaur drove the point of his sword through the carpet into the floor and gulped down the contents of a small bottle he pulled from his pouch. He tossed the empty bottle to the side, picked up his sword again and charged, this time moving twice as fast as before.
Ganieda’s rune chains shot under his shield and bound his ankles together. He smashed face first into the ground in a clangor of metal and a roar of fury.
Skalaur rolled onto his back and smashed the chains in two with his sword before clambering to his feet and turning to face Ganieda again.
“Why isn’t she attacking,” Thazun murmured to Kasumi. “He was down and open.”
“She’s learning how he fights,” Kasumi replied, her attention focused on the fight. “More importantly, she’s learning how he thinks. It’s a classic strategy for a psychic during the opening segments of a pokegirl battle, which is how she’s treating this.”
“If he hits her, it’s all over,” Thazun said. “She shouldn’t chance that.”
“He is unlikely to hit her,” Kasumi glanced at him. “She is one of our elite. Still,” she raised her voice. “Iain?”
“I know.” Ganieda, the longer you toy with him, the more likely you lose and then I end up executed.
Ganieda’s eyes began glowing as Skalaur charged again. They flashed and the giant collapsed in midstride, smashing limply to the floor as her psychic attack ripped through his mind. His sword flared and went out, leaving behind a trail of smoke and the stench of burned wool as it scorched the carpet it landed on.
Thazun stepped forward and knelt to check Skalaur. His head lifted to look at Iain curiously. “He is not dead?”
“No, I didn’t want him dead,” Ganieda said loudly as she ran over to Iain. “But he has lost.”
“Ulfhild’s champion has been defeated,” Thazun said as he rose to his feet. “Iain is the victor.”
Iain looked at Ulfhild, who was watching, white faced. “I’ll deal with you in a moment. Don’t move.” He jogged over to Skalaur and touched him on the neck, healing him. He stepped back as Skalaur groaned, rolled over and thew up. “Yeah, I can’t do much for the headache and the nausea, but it’ll pass.”
Iain turned and looked at the entrance to the tent. “Hozra, stop hiding in the entrance and get in here. You can be a witness.”
The giantess entered the tent, looking embarrassed. “How did you know I was there?”
Iain lied. “I saw your shadow briefly when you moved.” He looked at Ulfhild. “Help your brother to stand up. He’ll be a witness too.”
Ulfhild swallowed and stood. “My life is forfeit, Drottinn.”
“No, your life is mine to do with as I please,” Iain corrected her. “Now help your brother and stop asking me to kill you.”
Ulfhild watched him warily as she moved to help her brother to his feet. He swayed for a moment before steadying.
Iain looked around the room. “Ganieda, is Skalaur able to comprehend what’s going on yet?”
Ganieda nodded. “His mind is a little fuzzy around the edges still and it’ll seem a little like a dream to him, but yes, he can.” Her ears twitched and she turned to look at him. “I don’t know if that’s an inspired idea or if you’ve completely lost your mind.”
Iain gave her a droll smile. “Presume I’m competent and check.”
Ganieda smiled. “I’m already on it. According to Thazun and Hozna both, other than that fiasco with the green dragons, she’s been decent.” The Splice grinned suddenly. “Maybe she just has shitty luck whenever she challenges dragons.”
Iain chuckled as he moved to the middle of the room. “Pay close attention, everyone. As Thazun started to warn you, Ulfhild,” Iain shifted to his dragon form. Even curled up he took up most of the empty space in the tent. Ulfhild’s and Hozra’s eyes went wide. “I am not an elf.” His head turned slightly. “Skalaur, if you lift that sword any higher, Ganieda will kill you in the next instant and you will have wasted my letting you live.” Ulfhild grabbed her brother’s arm. “Sheathe your weapon and hear what I have to say. If, after that, you still want to die, I’ll make the arrangements for you to be accommodated.”
He waited until Skalaur had sheathed his sword. “Now, Revna and Thazun knew I was a dragon because it was necessary for them to. Now that I’m the ruler of the tribe, I don’t see a reason to keep this a secret anymore. There are going to be other changes, but in due time. Still, some changes need to happen immediately. Every giant in the tribe is going to take an oath of fealty to me and they’re going to do it just as soon as this meeting is over. Ulfhild,” she stiffened, “I understand you were not a terrible ruler and so I am going to make you my viceroy.”
Ulfhild visibly steeled herself, but then the English word would mean nothing to her and might be a dire promise of some kind. “Drottinn, what is that?”
“I have many responsibilities and I cannot remain here to command the tribe all of the time. You will command the tribe in my name when I am not able to. As long as you follow my dictates and use your common sense, you will be richly rewarded. But if you betray that oath,” Iain’s lips drew back to show the tips of his teeth, “I will return and then I will judge your actions. If you violated your oath to me for a reason that I am willing to accept, I will forgive you and oath you to me again. But if I do not accept your reasoning as to why you violated your oath, I will kill you. If you resist me in any way, I will kill everything related to you. Your children, grandchildren, brother, his children and so on. I know you won’t betray me, but I have to tell you what will happen if you break your oath to me for any but the best of reasons.”
Ulfhild nodded. “I understand, Drottinn. If I am to act as your,” she stumbled over the English word, “viceroy, I speak with your voice and I carry out your will.”
“Drottinn, will we regain our caverns,” Thazun asked. “We fled without most of the history of the tribe and lost its greatest treasures.”
“Oh, we’ll deal with the green dragons,” Iain said with a chuckle. “And we’ll recover their hoards as well as the tribe’s treasures if they haven’t been destroyed. But the tribe will not live in those caverns. I have better plans for the tribe. It will become satellite clan and you will move somewhere else so that you can learn what it means to be clan.” He shifted back to his elf form. “The gifts that my goddesses will give you for being clan will be rather impressive. You will live longer than you can ever imagine, and you will stay young and vibrant the whole time. You will become stronger and even harder to kill than you are now.” His voice lowered slightly and became lulling. “And when the tribe is clan, I will take you on a glorious adventure, filled with battle and bravery and chances to prove your skills and valor over and over.”
Ulfhild nodded. “Yes, Drottinn.”
“Good. I’ll start oathing the tribe with you four and then we’ll proceed from there. Ulfhild, Thazun, once you’re oathbound you’ll come with me and help explain to everyone else what’s happening. Hozra, you will proceed us and help assemble the tribe’s people and Skalaur can witness. Kasumi, you’ll come along too.”
“Yes, Grey,” Kasumi said submissively, her eyes twinkling with amusement.
I am informing Keanellos of what has happened here, Iain said to Kasumi and Ganieda with his twee. He will keep his army positioned as it is and will repel any orc attacks but will not pursue them when they disengage.
Kasumi nodded unconsciously. How did you happen to have Ganieda with you? I thought you didn’t want guards here.
Ganieda grinned. I asked to come along so that, once you were done with this trip, I could see Iain’s hoard and his artwork. He hasn’t impressed me in a few days and I was hoping that would give him the opportunity to do so.
Kasumi glanced at the Splice. I would like to see his art too, and I have some questions about his hoard that I didn’t think to ask before. May I come along with you or is this private time with Iain?
Ganieda yawned, showing her razor sharp teeth. You may come along, Kasumi.
That’s enough, you two. Focus. Iain looked at Ulfhild. “Come on, people, let’s spread the news about the change in command.”
“Iain!” Catherine McCoy hugged him tightly. She grinned as she released him. “You didn’t find out about my embezzling from you, did you?”
“Nope.” Iain replied. “Your crimes are still undetected.”
“That’s good. You three come in.” She held the door open so he, Heather and Candace could enter and closed it behind them. “So why are you here?” She motioned them towards a small table with four chairs around it. “Wait, I’ll get the tea.”
Iain and Candace sat and waited until she’d served the tea and sat down with them before Iain looked at Heather. “Theodora monitors the house and surroundings. Join us.”
The Elfqueen nodded and sat down beside him. “Thank you.”
Iain picked up his glass. “Candace is here because she’s taken over for Siobhan and you were scheduled for a medical checkup by Siobhan for about now. I’m here because I want a report on what’s going on in Tamaulipas and there’s something you need to know.”
Catherine nodded. “The appointment was two days ago. I didn’t contact anyone because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and,” she shrugged. “I liked Siobhan. I know you liked her too and she was pregnant with your child. I didn’t want to rub salt in any open wounds since,” she gave Iain a slightly amused look, “you hide your feelings even better than James does and he’s a master at hiding things from most people.”
“I’m not sure that’s a compliment,” Iain said wryly.
“That’s because it isn’t,” Catherine smirked at him. She turned to Candace and held out her hand. “I’m Catherine McCoy.”
Candace took the hand with a warm smile. “And I’m Candace Grey, but recently Wolf. I’m one of the survivors of the attack on Haven. Are you involved with Iain?”
Catherine laughed. “Sort of. My son, James, is his analog on this world and that makes me the analog of his mother. I regard Iain as my son too.” She grinned at Candace. “So, since you’ve touched me, did I pass my checkup?”
Candace chuckled. “You’re more comfortable than most with my abilities and yes. However, your records indicate you had a tattoo removed and I wanted to check the site to make sure there weren’t any residual issues. Some of the inks used here are pretty rubbish and Siobhan’s notes indicated you’d gotten a slight rash after the removal.”
“We’ll have to go to my bedroom,” Catherine said. “I don’t know what your nudity taboo level is, but I certainly don’t want Iain to see that portion of my anatomy.” She glanced at Iain. “Fortunately I know he’s too much of a gentleman to stare at me through my clothing.” She waited a second. “Iain, you’re supposed to say I’m right about that.”
“Oh,” Iain gave Catherine a quick and unconvincing smile. “Uh, you’re right.”
Catherine shook her head as she stood. “Well, at least he won’t tell me if he does. Candace, I doubt you want to wait.”
“No, I’d rather not. Iain, we’ll just be a few minutes.”
Heather watched the two women leave the room before speaking in a low voice. “It’s been seven hundred years for you. Is it still hard to stop your perception at the skin?”
Iain snorted. “No, it’s not,” he said quietly. “I learned better control so I could scan people for hidden weapons and whatnot. However, I am still not a voyeur.”
“You’ve never been that and, besides,” Heather winked at him. “If you ask you can see all the naked women you want. For some of us you don’t even have to ask.”
“Thanks, but that’s not what a voyeur is and you know it.”
Heather chuckled. “True.”
A few minutes later Candace and Catherine returned. “Catherine has healed completely,” Candace said as they rejoined Iain and Heather at the table. “But then she has a twee and I know it will heal all of the injuries that it can.”
Catherine picked up her tea. “Are there injuries that it cannot heal?”
“Some magical wounds are beyond a twee’s ability to heal,” Candace said. “And it cannot normally regrow lost limbs, removed organs or injuries that are so massive that they are fatal before a twee can assist.”
“I see. Thank you for the explanation.” Catherine looked at Iain. “What did you want to know?”
“Let’s start with Tamaulipas.”
Catherine sat back, crossing her legs. “Are you aware that the Sisterhood cleaned out the Wasp nest that was at Vicente Guerrero Lake?”
Iain shook his head. “I was not.”
“The Shiner military had been ignoring it since it left Mexico City and it had started hunting the local people for food. Destroying it built a lot of goodwill around that area, for the clan, the Sisterhood and for Texans in general. As for us, all but two of the clan’s factors are in place. We’re not making much of a profit right now, but we are making a lot of loans to the locals to help them rebuild. And, as directed, we’re selling weapons to them at cost for the next six months. I realize it’s so they can protect themselves, but that’s a lot of potential profit you’re missing out on.”
“We will make it back,” Iain said confidently. “It makes Lucifer and several other women happy and, honestly, if they get eaten by something we don’t get any profit in that.”
“I have to point out the realities of the situation, even if you are already aware of them,” Catherine said. “It’s part of my job.”
“It is. How are James, Lucy and Danielle?”
“Very busy. Making James a troubleshooter was a great idea. It lets Lucy use her Sisterhood forces to do the good deeds that keep them happy,” Catherine said. “James is a little frustrated, but that’s because he’s always been a loner at heart and either Lucy or Danielle are always with him.”
“We had the same problem too,” Heather said with a grin.
Catherine looked curiously at the Elfqueen. “How did you resolve it?”
Heather glanced at Iain. “Iain demanded some personal time and, eventually, after a lot of foot dragging and hurt feelings, he started getting some of it. James should have an easier time of it then Iain did.”
Heather smiled amusedly. “Lucy and Danielle and James have a relationship of as much equals as they can. They are whole emotionally and not broken like me and many of Iain’s other women are.”
“You’ve gotten a lot better,” Iain said quietly.
Heather shook her head. “It only looks like I have. I just have more time with you, that’s all, which helps me to stay stable. You are still the reason for my existence and that existence will not outlive you if I have any say in the matter. We live together or we die together.”
“We live,” Candace said firmly.
“Agreed,” Iain said. “We live.” He hesitated for a second. “Catherine, we’re going to be going on a trip soon. I’ll be going back to my home universe to check on my sisters and see how they’re doing. If I can convince them, I’ll try to get them to move here. It’ll be better for them than where they are now. If I can do that, would you like to meet them?”
Catherine was staring at him. “How, how are they likely to respond to meeting me,” she asked slowly. “I mean, you’ve already mourned your mother. They certainly have too.”
“I’m sure they have. I wouldn’t try to make them think you’re our mother. I don’t think of you as her.”
“What do you think of me as?”
“I decided that you were more along the lines of her sister, the aunt I never met. I let you treat me a lot more familiarly than I would someone who isn’t family, so you’ve managed to slip inside my bubble at least that far.”
Catherine chuckled. “Assuming that your father was identical to my husband, you are a lot more like him than you know. He was not a sociopath like you or James, but he had a practical streak that helped a lot in problem solving. I wish we’d kept in better touch with his family, but there never was many of them and they vanished from our lives long before the Revenge War.”
“Mother never really talked about Dad’s family,” Iain said.
“That’s because they despised her,” Catherine replied. “My husband’s mother was the matriarch of the family and she had planned who he was going to marry and what he was going to do and none of it involved me. She tried bribing me to leave him and, when that didn’t work, became verbally and physically abusive towards me. That’s when we severed most of our ties with his family. She even blamed me for his death when I reached out to them to tell them and, hopefully, get some emotional support from them. Instead, I got blamed for his death, anger from them all and a scathing denunciation from his mother that left me an emotional wreck for months afterwards.”
“That explains a lot,” Iain looked thoughtful for a second. Then he shrugged. “If I can get them here and they don’t freak out when I tell them about you, would you like to meet them?”
Catherine sighed. “I would. Maybe I can be their aunt too.”
“Hopefully so,” Heather said. “We like you and you are part of our extended family now.”
Iain shook his head. “If they don’t accept you, Catherine, you’re still part of our family. Hopefully, eventually they’ll come around, but even if they don’t, you’re my aunt and they can’t change that.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Iain,” Catherine said with a smile, “but you should look after your sisters before you worry about me.”
Iain chuckled. “I think I have the resources to do both at the same time, Catherine.”
Catherine’s eyes searched his for several seconds. “You really consider me part of your family, don’t you?”
“I know what the means, Iain.” She reached out and took his hand for a second. “Thank you.”
“So, Aunt Catherine,” Heather asked with a grin. “When are you going to add to the population of children?”
“Heather, I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I’m not going to die in a year or so,” Catherine said seriously. “I haven’t even begun to consider the idea that I am no longer post menopause and can have more children.”
“Leave her be,” Iain said. “She’ll have kids when and if she’s ready to, just like everyone else.”
Catherine chuckled. “The biggest problem I see, Heather, is finding a man who wants a woman my age and children too.”
“I’d say you could lie,” Iain said, “and tell them that you’re twenty one, but lying is a terrible way to start a relationship that you want to last.”
Catherine looked surprised before giving him a warm smile. “Every once in a while, Iain, you suddenly sound like you’re my age and not James’.”
Iain grinned. “And there are times I feel like I’m a lot older than you are, Aunt Catherine. It doesn’t really mean much. If you’re interested in a relationship, there are some men and women from Shield who joined the clan. Several of them are older and their twee are busy turning back their physical clocks too. Of course, they almost all come with pokegirls.”
“I’m happy with my life right now,” Catherine said. “But I would like to ask that I be allowed to spend more time with the children at the ranch. I just need transport, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Heather said. “I’ll talk to Ninhursag. You call Theodora when you want transport, and someone should be by in a few minutes. If they’re not, call me and I’ll sort it out.”
Theodora appeared. “As Iain has said that Catherine is family, perhaps Dominique could put in a door to the Danger Room so Catherine can visit regularly. Besides, as soon as April hears she’s family, Catherine will be training with the rest of the clan.”
Catherine looked surprised. “I will?”
“Iain just announced that you’re his aunt and part of the family. That makes you inner clan and inner clan is held to a higher physical and mental standard than outer clan, which is what you were until a few minutes ago. We’ll have to see if James wants to be inner clan too. If so, Lucy and Danielle and he will be joining you.”
“I was a gymnast when I was young,” Catherine said thoughtfully. “This will get me back into that kind of shape, won’t it?”
“More than,” Iain said. “You’ll also learn how to use more weapons and hand to hand combat.”
“Good.” Catherine smiled when Candace looked surprised. “The world is not what it was when I was a young woman, and I will happily learn everything I can that will help me to survive in it.”
“Like I say,” Iain said with a smirk, “pokegirls got their ambition and drive from the human genes used in their creation. We had it first or else Scott wouldn’t have had the drive to become what he was. Misguided or not, he was certainly ambitious and driven.” His eyes unfocused for a second. “Will you be here on Thursday?”
“I should. Why?”
“If you’ll be around, Dominique is going to come by Thursday morning and talk to you about putting in a doorway to the Danger Room.”
“I’ll be here,” Catherine said. “James is away a lot and I’ve been a little lonely. Seeing you and your family more would be wonderful.”
“Good.” Iain rose. “Thank you for the briefing and the tea.”
Candace looked up at him. “Iain,” she said hesitantly, “could I stay for a while so I can get to know Catherine better?”
“You need to ask Catherine if you can,” Iain said.
“Sorry.” She looked at Catherine. “May I?”
“You are welcome here, Candace,” Catherine said firmly.
Iain nodded. “Then you can stay. Have you learned to teleport yet?”
“I have known how to teleport a while, Iain.” She smiled. “And now you know I can.”
“Then, as you’re supposed to help with dinner, please be back on time.” He took Heather’s hand as she stood. “Good day, Catherine. Heather, please take me to the Barton house.” They vanished.
Catherine eyed Candace. “Why did you sound worried that Iain would tell you no?”
The Nurse Joy smiled. “You caught that, did you? I’m still learning my way in Iain’s family. My previous family wasn’t quite so lenient about some things and Shikarou or Branwyn might well have told me I couldn’t have stayed and insisted that I go with them.”
Catherine nodded sympathetically. “Theodora briefed me on your family and I can see that in them. Shikarou was sometimes a bit whimsical in his behavior and Branwyn might have said you couldn’t stay if she wanted to hurt you.”
Candace blinked. “Why were you briefed on the Wolf family?”
“I’m the managing director for Iain’s factors,” Catherine said. “We have agents in Texas, Israel, the United Kingdom and Ireland. And I’m training three factors to expand our business into Nippon. It was possible that the business might come into conflict with some plans of Shikarou’s or Kerrik’s, especially in Nippon, so I received a briefing about your former family.”
“Are you’re part of Prometheus?”
“We are not.” Catherine picked up her tea. “The Prometheus Society deals with governments, for the most part. We focus on the civilian population and getting our products to them. Sometimes that can conflict with what the local governments want their civilians to have access to.” She shrugged. “If there’s a potential problem, I run it by Iain before I authorize a sale to proceed, but so far he’s never told me not to.”
“I see,” Candace said thoughtfully. “Is this more philanthropy like Prometheus is supposed to be doing?”
“It is,” Catherine replied. “And it isn’t. Iain understands that governments, which Prometheus is dealing with, do not always faithfully represent the people that they govern. Even if they do, they cannot know everything that their people truly need. My factors live among them and so have much more insight into what the locals want and need. We recruit from the countries my factors will be working in when we can, or from someplace nearby when we can’t. Several of my factors who will be going into Tamaulipas were refugees fleeing it and who will now be returning home to help their own, often to the places where they originally lived.”
Candace nodded. “What’s it called?”
“Until recently it didn’t have a real name, but now it’s Silver Horse Services,” Catherine said. “I think there’s an inside joke in the name, but I don’t know for certain. Iain does things like that. I do know he didn’t want Iain or Grey in the name.”
“Silver horses are a draconic breed of flying creature,” Candace said quietly. “They are from a different world than this one, but I was told about them by Xune and Iain showed us some pictures when we asked. They’re very pretty and used for important deliveries.”
“Who is Xune?”
Candace smiled as she checked for permission with Theodora. “My new family is a little larger than you know about, Catherine. Xune is one of our daughters. As you’re now inner clan, you’ll eventually meet her.”
“Does Iain ever run out of secrets?”
“Not all of them are his secrets and, as far as I can tell, no.” Candace laughed.
Catherine laughed with her. “That’s good to know. Now, you wanted to get to know me better.” She put her tea down and stood. “Come with me and I’ll start by showing you around my home.”
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
Candace – Nurse Joy (kami)
Bellona – Dragonqueen
Elizabeth - Vampire
Golden Cloud – equine unicorn
Arianrhod -Fey Goblin Female
74 male Goblins
89 female Goblins
Queendom / Outer Clan
1048 Elves & Elfqueens
Dionne - Elfqueen
Adrianna - Elfqueen
Heltu - Wet Queen
14 Wet Elves
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
Alabaster – Dragoness (white)
Onyx – Dragoness (black)
Lapis – Dragoness (blue)
Garnet – Dragoness (red)
Iolite – Dragoness (purple)
Malachite – Dragoness (green with white swirls)
Viersunuth great wyrm blue true dragoness
Talyl – drow commoner
Zarza – drow commoner
Sabrae – drow commoner
Sintree – drow commoner
Alyfaen Dinaen – drow, matron of House Dinaen
Phaerxae Dinaen – drow, former matron of House Dinaen, mother of Alyfaen
Selsharra of Evermeet
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)