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PREVIEW SPELL OF THE MAGI – BOOK 2 OF THE PORTAL WORLDS

An amnesiac Merc on the run falls for a sorceress hiding deadly secrets. In the Kingdom of Askela being born a Magi means slavery to the Kings Witch Proctors or a death sentence. Rebecca will do anything to save her family from them—she accepts marriage to a Merc with a price on his head, not expecting to fall in love. But to be together, Andre and Rebecca will start a war to remake their entire world. Can They do it?

 

Spell of The Magi

A Portal World Tale

Gail Daley

In The Beginning

On a planet called Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, a way to travel from world to world was discovered in the late 22nd Century. Were these new worlds simply other planets in the known galaxy or did the gateways lead to other dimensions with other physical laws? Or perhaps—both?

            Earth itself was constantly beset by strife and wars. The portals became simply another item to be fought over. It came to pass that a group on the losing side of one of these conflicts captured and held a Portal for a space of half a year, and seeing inevitable defeat in their future, sent their families ahead to another world. As the winning forces flooded the city, the last of the losers fled through the Portal, erasing their destination as they left so they couldn’t be hunted down by their enemies.

            Travel now to the world of Rulari, the new home of the escaping Terrans. Not only does time march differently on Rulari, but this world answers to the rule of will, of heart, of mind and of magic as much as the laws science had governed earth.

            Humans are very adaptable and began to prize those families with the ingrained talent to use magic. In the years since man first came to Rulari, Seven Places Of Power were searched out, new portals established and enclosed in keeps held by the seven of the most powerfully gifted families. Formidable wards were created and set to assure the keeps stayed in the control of the families, who were sworn to serve the best interest of the magic users or Magi as they came to be called. One of these ancient keeps was Ironlyn, on the northwestern sea of the country of Askela. It is held by a family named Mabinogion.

 

The Witchlings

Kathlea Mabinogion, heritary Draconi to the shire of Ironlyn, was a powerful, unregistered Magi. Her much loved husband Maxton was a great soldier, but he had no talent other than his swordplay. Magi were highly valued in the kingdom of Askela but only if a registered member of the Shan’s Elite Magi Proctors. Unregistered Magi were hunted by the Magi Proctors and forced to join. When a Magi became a Proctor, to ensure loyalty only to the Shan and the Proctors, the Proctors insisted all family ties be broken. To breed stronger Magi, the Proctors would choose a mate for you. It mattered little to the Proctors if the Magi ‘recruited’ was already mated, in a relationship or if they even liked their assigned partner. If she had been a registered Magi, Kathlea would never have been allowed to marry Maxton. If the Proctors caught her now, they would try to force her to mate with a male Magi they had chosen and her children would be tested for Magi talents. Any of her Magi gifted children would be separated from her and sent to a special school where they would be indoctrinated in loyalty to the Proctors above all else. Maxton would be killed outright.

Years ago, the rebellious unregistered Magi of Askela had formed a network called the Magi Cadre organized to enable Magi to escape the nets spread by the Proctors. Travelers like the Maginogion family picked up Magi hiding from the Proctors and aided them to escape to neighboring countries where the Magi Laws were different. For the truly desperate, there was Ironlyn Keep and a portal to another world. As the spymaster for the Cadre, Lewys Mabinogion, Kathlea’s father traveled around the kingdom eking out a living selling spices, potions and medicine to various villages. While Lewys and his family worked at overseeing the Cadre network, Lerrys Maginogion, a cousin without Magi abilities held Ironlyn for them.

Magical in itself, Ironlyn had defied attempts by the Shan and the Magi Proctors to force their way into it. Unable to break the wards or decipher the spell that created them, the Proctors continually searched for members of the bloodline in the hope they would be able to force a way into the Keep and control the Gate.

Kathlea had born Maxton three children, Rebecca, age ten and the twins Catrin and Owen, age four, all of whom were showing signs of nascent Magi talent. There was also hope of a fourth child, but Kathlea hadn’t yet shared that with her family on that fatal day when the Proctors found them.

On Rebecca’s tenth birthday, the Proctors found them. Her grandparents had driven their wagon into a nearby village to meet their contact and pick up a Magi hiding there. Kathlea and Maxton had stayed behind because it was rumored the Proctors were in the village, and Lewys Maginogion felt that two Traveler wagons would draw too much attention.

Rebecca and the twins had been playing under the wagon when Kathlea suddenly stood up and looked towards the town.

“What is it?” Maxton demanded.

“He’s coming!” Kathlea gasped. “I feel him. He knows I’m here.”

She turned to Rebecca. “Go! Hide where we found the berries. Be quiet, and keep the twins quiet also. Don’t come out whatever you see or hear. Promise me!”

“I promise,” Rebecca said. She grabbed Catrin and Owen’s hands and ran into the bushes. They barely made it before the Proctor and his men thundered into camp.

Unknown to Rebecca, her mother cast a shadow spell on the children to keep them from being noticed. While her attention was diverted, the Proctor cast a Binding Spell on her to keep her from using her Rainbow Magic to help her husband as he fought the Proctor’s guards. Rebecca could see the bubble of magic over her mother push outward as Kathlea tried to break through it. Hidden in a hollow in the brush with her hands covering the mouths of her brother and sister, she watched in terror as her father fought the guardsmen who came with the Proctor.

Catrin whimpered. “Hush!” Rebecca breathed and the children obediently stilled.

The Proctor had brought ten guards with him. Maxton fought like a demon to reach him, slaying all but four of his guards before an unlucky strike brought him down. Kathlea screamed.

“Shut up woman!” the Proctor yelled. “You are Magi and a strong one. I will let him live if you do not resist.”

Sobbing, Kathlea allowed herself to be led away, the bubble binding her to the saddle. The remaining guards loaded up their dead and wounded comrades and followed their master.

Rebecca made the twins wait until the Proctor and his men had disappeared before they came out of hiding. Maxton was unconscious but alive. Anghard, Rebecca’s grandmother had just begun to teach the girl healing, but she bathed and bound her father’s wounds as well as she could, applying a poultice of crushed bayberry and skunkweed to stop the bleeding.

Lewys and Anghard had been forced to watch as the Proctor led their captive daughter through the village, arriving back at the camp to find Maxton alive but still unconscious.

As soon as he recovered, Maxton left to follow and try to rescue his wife from the Proctors. The family packed up and left the area, traveling in a roundabout way toward the Capitol city of Khios where the Proctors were headquartered, hoping to be able to help their daughter and her husband.

Lewys learned through his contacts that Kathlea had arrived there and been taken into the inner courts for training, but he could discover nothing more. Almost a year later, news came that Maxton and Kathlea were both dead.

“It is a tale of love and defiance to inspire rebels against the Proctors for generations,” the woman, an escaped Magi, brought the news. “He fought his way in to her, and they defied the Chief Magi Proctor himself, but they were trapped on the highest tower of the castle above the ocean cliffs. They kissed each other and jumped into the ocean. It is believed they drowned.”

Anghard sobbed. Lewys Maginogion’s face was hard.

“Someday, I will kill them,” he said. “All who support this cursed system that destroys families.”

The woman telling the tale looked frightened. “There is more,” she whispered. “It is rumor only, but they say before her husband found her your daughter was delivered of a babe who was smuggled out of the compound by a servant woman.”

“What happened to the child?” Anghard asked, a desperate hope in her voice.

The woman shrugged. “Your daughter had been kind to her and she was well paid to smuggle her out of the nursery. That is all I know. I’m sorry.”

“You are sure the babe was a girl?”

The woman hesitated. “That is what I was told, but—”

Anghard pressed her hand. “Thank you.”

She turned to her husband. “We can’t go back to Ironlyn until we find the child, Lewys.”

Fire Magic

Thirteen years passed and the family never forgot their lost daughter or the child she might have born. The night the wasting fever took Rebecca’s grandmother, spring was just starting to push up through ground that was frozen hard with winter. She and Catrin had been able to find only a few spring blooms to scatter on her body as they prepared it for the dawn service.

Rebecca stood under the funeral Pyre looking up at the sky, feeling the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, now that her grandmother was no longer there to share it. Anghard had fought the wasting sickness, and fought hard, but after months of agonizing illness, she succumbed. “You will be Draconi now,” she told Rebecca. Holding her granddaughter’s firm young hand in her wasted one. “Take care of your grandfather and your brother and sister. It will be up to you to find our lost one.” She had pressed an amulet into Rebecca’s hand. “Use this to help you skry for her.”

“I’ll find her grandmother,” she vowed. “Mother is gone, but if her child lives, I’ll find her. I promise.”

Rebecca’s straight, blue-black hair, plaited into a braid as thick as a man’s arm, fell to her waist. Clear grey eyes below slanted eyebrows stood out against her porcelain complexion that never took a tan. The resemblance between her and the woman now resting on the funeral pyre was uncanny.

“It’s hopeless; we will never find our baby sister,” Catrin said, wiping her eyes. She and Owen were sixteen now, a tall strapping pair, with curly dark hair, their father’s green eyes, and sunny smiles. Just now their faces both showed evidence of grief.

Rebecca looked over at Lewys Maginogion’s ravaged face. He would miss his beloved Anghard. She reached for her sibling’s hands. “He will stay with her tonight, I think. Let’s go back to camp.”

Dinner that night was a simple stew which they ate in silence. Afterwards, Owen moved the rope corral around the unicorn herd to a fresh location. The herd consisted of twenty mares and half-grown colts. It was their Grandfather’s pride and joy. Moving from village to village, Lewys would occasionally sell one of the younger ones, if he decided an owner was worthy to own one, but they all knew the herd was destined for the pastures of Ironlyn when they finally took up residence there.

Anghard’s funeral pyre would be set afire at dawn, as was the custom. Rebecca and Catrin were finishing up the supper dishes and setting out the bread to rise for breakfast the next morning, when they had unwelcome visitors–several men from the town outside the Trade Station where they camped.

The leader, John Thomas Lazarus was an important man in the nearby village of Joppa. He had expected these Travelers to be awed by his importance, and was displeased when they were not.

“What, no dancing around the fire? I was looking forward to that,” he said jovially.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca replied quietly. “We are not entertaining visitors tonight. This is a camp of sorrow. Our grandmother Anghard passed into the great beyond this afternoon. Please excuse us.”

She went back to wiping down the clean plates, ignoring him, hoping he would take the hint and go away.

Instead, he threw some coins down on the ground. “Here, I’ll pay for my entertainment.”

She made no move to pick up the coins. “No, Sir.”

Lazarus frowned, but he hesitated. “Maybe I should ask the old man. Where is he?”

“Grandfather is sitting vigil with Grandmother,” Owen, who had just returned to the camp, replied.

Lazarus looked at him in incredulity. “You mean someone really did die?”

The three just looked at him in silence.

“I see. Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow then.” He turned and left.

Owen spat on the ground at his back.

“Make sure he really leaves,” Rebecca said. “I intend to skry for our lost sister tonight, and I don’t want a witness.”

“He and the others have left the Trade Station Circle and headed back into town,” Owen reported. “Becca, are you sure this is a good idea? Grandmother always did it before.”

Rebecca pulled out the bronze stone that had been Anghard’s last gift to her. “Yes. I feel her spirit strongly tonight. She will help me before she passes on. I know it.”

Catrin unrolled the ancient map of the kingdom, stretching it on the wooden folding worktable that served a variety of uses. She held down the map corners with four flat stones.

Rebecca pulled the necklace over her head and held the stone in one hand. She cut a small prick in her finger and rubbed it over the stone. Holding the stone over the map, she rubbed the blood on its surface.

“Bone of my bone, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, seek now she who is lost.”

Catrin picked up the knife and did the same. Handing the knife to Owen, she too rubbed the stone and map with a bloody fingertip, and repeated the chant.

After a second’s hesitation, he repeated the actions and joined in the chant.

At first, nothing happened, but finally, the stone began to swing gently. There was a surge of power and then the stone pulled strongly toward the west, finally coming to rest on the symbol for the village of Buttersea.

All three felt the soft caress as Anghard left them for the final time.

“What have you done?” Lewys demanded.

Catrin looked up at him with tears running down her face. “It was grandmamma. I felt her,” she sobbed.

“We all felt her,” Rebecca said coolly. “Look, we have a destination.”

Lewys stared down at the map with the stone resting on it. “Yes,” he sighed. “We will be going west in the morning. I heard from Cousin Lerrys. He needs to leave Ironlyn. The local Proctor is getting suspicious because so many Magi have disappeared in the area surrounding Ironlyn. We will go home. That village is on the way. If your sister is there, we will find her.”

Rebecca nodded. “We will be ready.”

“I need to go into Joppa tomorrow and pick up the supplies I ordered. You three will stay here and pack up so we can leave when I return,” Lewys instructed.

At dawn, Lewys came to wake them. They stood quietly, while he lit the pyre, watching in silence as Anghard’s earthly remains were consumed.

Breakfast was a subdued meal. Afterwards, Lewys put a pack saddle on one of the mares, saddled his stallion, Sunrise and left for Joppa, the village outside the Trade Station. His grandchildren began packing the two wagons for the journey. It was a complicated process. The limited space meant that everything had to be stowed in exactly the right place or it wouldn’t all fit.

Packing took longer than it should have because Owen kept stuffing things in higgledy-piggledy. It was obvious he was in a hurry. After she had unloaded and re-packed the things he had already packed several times, Rebecca turned to him in exasperation. “What is wrong with you? This will take forever if you aren’t more careful. Why are you in such a hurry?”

Catrin laughed. “He wants to get done so he can hurry over and say goodbye to Fiona,” she said with a knowing look.

“The Station Master’s daughter?” Rebecca inquired.

Owen nodded.

“Okay, take off then,” his sister said. “The way you’re working, we’ll get on better without you. Scram!”

Her little brother kissed her cheek and loped off toward the Trade Station.

“Grandpa told us all to stay here,” Catrin remarked.

“I know,” Rebecca replied, “but he’s only young once.”

Catrin laughed and began repacking the pots and pans Owen had made a mess of.

“Leave a space for what Grandpa is bringing back,” Rebecca reminded her.

“What is it, do you know?” Catrin asked.

“Not a clue,” her sister replied. “He was very mysterious about it.”

“Well, we’ve finished,” Catrin said, a few minutes later. “I suppose we can harness the unicorns. Whose turn is it today?”

Lewys’ prize unicorn herd were mostly draft animals and to keep from overusing any of them, the family rotated the ones used to pull the wagons.

“Let’s rotate the teams,” Rebecca suggested. She went to the rope corral and called four mares to her. She was about to lead them over to the front of the first wagon when they again had an unwelcome visitor; Lazarus was back.

“Not leaving already are you?” he asked Catrin, looking the girl up and down in a way that made her flush with embarrassment.

“Yes, we are,” Rebecca answered him. She deliberately led the four large unicorns between him and Catrin, forcing him to move back out of the way.

“Really?” he sneered. “Leaving without allowing me to sample your wares? I don’t think so.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. She understood exactly what type of ‘wares’ he referred to, but pretended she didn’t.

“I’m afraid we’ve already packed away our herbs and medicines, Mr. Lazarus,” she said.

“I’m not talking about any piddly spices girl and you know it,” he said.

“Catrin, get in the wagon and lock the door,” Rebecca told her sister.

Catrin hesitated, but obeyed her.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazarus,” Rebecca continued, “but we aren’t receiving visitors, and my grandfather and brother will be back soon. I need to get our unicorns harnessed. Please excuse me.”

She lined up the unicorns and was preparing to throw the first harness over one’s back when Lazarus grabbed her.

Rebecca fought him, but he was stronger than she. When she landed a lucky kick on his knee, he slapped her hard across the face. The dizzying blow stunned her long enough for Lazarus to rip her blouse open. He yanked her to him and mashed his mouth down on hers.

When she tried to turn her head away, he grabbed a handful of her hair and forced her face back to his. With her arms pinned against his body, she was unable to move. Finally, she managed to free one of her arms and stabbed at his eyes with her fingers.

Lazarus hit her again, this time with his fist. She stumbled and fell to her knees, dizzy. He knocked her the rest of the way to the ground, following it up by falling on her body. He tore her blouse the rest of the way off, biting at her bared breast. The pain brought her awake, and she clawed at his face and head.

When she felt him fumbling at the buttons on her pants, she knew she wasn’t going to be able to stop him unless she used her Magi talents. Rebecca was a fire Magi; fear and anger ignited her Magic. A fireball burst in his face, causing his greasy hair to catch fire. Lazarus screamed and drew back, slapping at his burning hair.

Suddenly, he was knocked off Rebecca by the solid twack! of a camp shovel wielded by Catrin, who had disobeyed her sister and come to help. He fell to the side, unconscious, with his hair still smoldering.

When Lewys and Owen arrived a few minutes later, they found Rebecca leaning on her sister’s shoulder while Catrin applied one poultice to her swollen face and another to the vicious bite mark on her breast.

Lewys looked down at Lazarus in silence. He had checked the man for life signs and was disappointed to find him still alive. “You should have made sure he was dead,” he informed his granddaughters.

“We can still do that,” Rebecca said, half hysterically.

“No, child we can’t. It would be murder. Owen, go and get Trade Master Jordan.”

When Catrin started to take Rebecca inside the wagon, Lewys stopped her. “Better he sees her just like she is, so he knows this was justified,” Lewys said.

The Trade Master arrived in Owen’s wake, puffing. He was a round man, no longer made for running.

“Oh, no, Oh, no,” he kept repeating, wringing his hands. “This is bad.”

“It was self defense,” Lewys reminded him. “Look at my granddaughter. Since when is it bad to stop a man from raping her?”

“Since the man is John Thomas Lazarus!” Jordan snapped. “You don’t live here. He is the most powerful man in this county. He owns half the farms around here and at least a third owe him money. He pretty much does as he pleases.”

“Including rape?” demanded Lewys.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Jordan said. “Well, the first thing is to get you out of here. You boy,” he pointed at Owen. “Get those unicorns harnessed. I’m going to the village to round up a few men to help me collect Lazarus and take him back into town to a healer. You need to be on the road by the time I return from town. I can give you about an hour. Who knows? Maybe he’ll die in the meantime and solve both our problems.”

While Lewys and Owen harnessed the unicorns to the wagons, Rebecca threw off her torn blouse and put on a loose comfortable shirt. She mounted the wagon box and took her place to drive.

“Are you able to do this, girl?” her grandfather looked up at her from the back of his golden unicorn.

She set her hat firmly on her head and nodded. “Yes, lets just go away from here.”

They camped that night by a small creek deep in the black leaf forest, Lewys having decided that it would be wiser to avoid the Trade Stations until they were a long way from Joppa. Spring had brought out a few fresh grasses in the glade next to the stream for the animals to feed on.

The next morning, he ordered the sides of the wagons whitewashed, so they would appear a different color. Catrin was told to prepare a concoction he said would dye the unicorn’s coats a different color. It turned Sunrise and the mares’ golden coats to a dull brown.

To make Owen appear older, he brought out a fake beard for him to put on each morning, and told him to stop shaving. He would do the same.

It was while they were dyeing the unicorns that Rebecca found the three hungry kittens near the body of their mother. They were very young and hadn’t yet grown the white manes they would have as adults. Gathering up the kits in her arms, she brought them back to camp. Milking one of the nursing unicorns, she mixed the rich milk into a feed for them.

For several weeks, the family continued to travel north and west avoiding any villages and Trade Stations. Spring was in full bloom, when they camped in a clearing outside the village of Duranga. Duranga had no proper Trade Station, but the town had designated the clearing as common ground where Travelers or Trade Caravans could stop over.

A Spell Is Cast

Harry Sims, the proprietor of the Glass Slipper Tavern, was an unhappy man on this fine spring evening. He should have been happy. The Glass Slipper was full. The Spring Jamborees for local stock collection and sale had just finished and all the holdings, small and large were in town and spending coin freely.

The chief cause of his unhappiness was not the rowdiness of the crowd; he was long accustomed to that. No, the cause of his worry was the five-man dice game going on in the corner. Harry knew four of the five players well. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, was losing and was going to be in trouble with his wife. Ruddy Tyer, a long, skinny kid from Gryphon’s Nest, was still reasonably sober but he would lose his Jamboree bonus before the end of the night. Charger French, a squatty rider from back in the badlands with, it was said—but not where he could hear it—a reputation for shady deals. The fourth player was Jajson Buttersnake the son of old ‘Rock’ Buttersnake, the biggest cattle breeder around. Jajson figured he was top dog in the town of Drycreek because no one dared challenge the son of old Rock. Rock ran a tough, salty crew of drovers. They didn’t much like the boss’s son, but they would take his side in a fight.

It was the fifth dice thrower who worried Harry. Harry had seen him ride into town earlier that day on the highbred, dapple war unicorn presently taking up space at Harry’s hitching rail. The stranger wasn’t a big man; he stood around five-eight with a short, neatly trimmed black beard and cold green eyes. To Harry, who as a young man had seen quite of few of his kind, the stranger had ‘Merc’ written all over him. His clothes were of too good quality and too clean, his thigh-high boots too new and shiny, and the saddle on that fancy unicorn stud was too pricey for a coin-a-day drover. His needle-gun was tied low on his leg in a well-worn holster, and unless Harry was mistaken, in addition to the knife on his belt, he had a blade down his back, one in his boot, and a second gun hidden in his other boot.

Absently, Harry polished a glass while he tried to place the man. He didn’t look that familiar, but the blood feud over to the south between the RedBird and Smoker clans had just finished. Before he died, the Smoker Chief Hutchins had claimed Rupert RedBird was hiring paid Mercs, and the stranger had ridden in from the south.

The practice of hiring fighters from the Merc Guild in disputes wasn’t against the law, but it was disapproved of by Shahen Tarragon. Since the Merc Guild was very powerful and used by many to settle disputes, his disapproval didn’t mean much. The Guild was composed of hundreds of small and large bands of independent fighters and reputed to have ties with the Wild Magi. The Mercs were completely independent of any government, and the Guild’s influence stretched through all seven of the human kingdoms. Since siding with the Shahen against the Guild might mean you couldn’t hire their fighters in your next dispute, few landholders wanted to chance angering the Guild. Rumor had it the Shahen was also trying to consolidate more power to the crown by discouraging the larger holders from keeping their own private armies. The Shahen wasn’t having much luck with that either.

Because of his father’s mental illness, the Shahen had been named Regent and virtually ruled Askela in his father’s stead. Attempting to force the nobles to disband their large standing armies using his Magi Proctors might cause a rebellion against his already uneasy reign. It was common knowledge the neighboring Kingdom of Jacite would attack immediately if a war broke out between the Shahen and his nobles. Despite the Proctors’ Magi talents, they were outnumbered by the Mercs whom the landowners would doubtless call upon for help if he tried to force their compliance.

Harry swore softly to himself. If he was correct about the identity of the fifth dice player, it might mean he  belonged to a troop he could call on if there was trouble. He was alone right now, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have allies nearby. Harry was sure trouble was brewing because Jajson Buttersnake was drunk. When he was sober, he was a poor player and an even worse loser. Because he ran with the Buttersnake mob, he was usually safe when he had a tantrum; no one in his right mind wanted to start a fighting ruckus with Old Rock’s crew.

Harry had a bad feeling the fifth dice player wouldn’t give a damn how tough Old Rock Buttersnake’s crew was. There was just something in that dark face that said, ‘I don’t care’. The fight would probably cause a lot of damage before things got settled. And it was going to happen in his place too, he thought bitterly.

Suddenly Buttersnake stood up, scattering dice and coins. “I want a new set of dice!” he cried. “You shouldn’t have won that throw!”

The stranger came up out of his chair in one swift, clean movement. He slapped Jajson across the mouth, knocking him into the crowded bar.

The room exploded away from young Buttersnake. Leej Jonsyn, the rug merchant, dived away from the table so fast he knocked over his chair.

Jajson Buttersnake staggered to his feet, a trickle of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth. He was white with fury. “You cheated!” he shrieked, pawing for his gun. He fumbled and almost dropped it in his rage.

The stranger waited until Buttersnake had his needlegun coming level before he drew and fired. His gun made a loud snapping noise as the puff of compressed air sent a fatal needle right down Buttersnake’s throat.

In that instant, Harry recognized the fighter. Hammer Smith was the handle he went by, but Harry had come from the coast, and he knew Hammer Smith’s real name was Andre Benoit. Benoit was a free-lance Merc who joined the Mercs at the tender age of sixteen, in the coastal area at the south end of the kingdom. He typically took on jobs that didn’t require the services of an entire troop, but he had allies among the Merc Community. Hammer Smith was reputed to be in his twenties, but he was already known as a dangerous man. It was said that he never drew a weapon unless the man was armed and facing him but if you pushed him, you died. Jajson Buttersnake died.

In the stillness after the weapon fire, Hammer Smith calmly reloaded his weapon, scooped up his coins from the table and quietly walked through the swinging doors. Whispers started in his wake.

“Shot him in the mouth,” someone said.

“Old Rock isn’t going to like this,” said another man.

“He won’t care. That’s a hard man,” a voice said.

Hammer Smith mounted the dapple unicorn and set off at a brisk trot.

“So much for a warm bed for me and a soft stall for you, Blackfeather,” he said. “Unless, I’m mistaken we’re going to have a bunch of irate drovers on our tail soon. Why did I sit down at that game, anyway?”

Blackfeather’s stride increased to a smooth, ground-eating lope. The double moons were full, making the road as clear as day, but Hammer Smith knew he was going to have to leave it soon. He started looking for a good place to leave the trail. Behind him, he could hear angry shouts and then the snap of needle gunfire.

“Okay, boy,” he spoke softly to the unicorn, who cocked an attentive black ear, “let’s ride some lightning.”

Blackfeather was fast. Hammer Smith had traded him off a Cat Man who had used him for racing. The trouble was he had beaten every unicorn in the area so often that no one would race against him anymore, and the Cat Man was broke. Hammer Smith had traded him a half-broke unicorn with the disposition of a poison beetle crossed with a snapdragon, an extra needle rifle and twenty coins in eating money.

He knew if he could get a start on the impromptu mob forming behind him, he could make it across the line into Cat Man Territory. Not the safest place in the world to be, but safer than here, as it was unlikely any posse would follow him there. The Shahen had given orders that entering Cat Man territory was forbidden. No one wanted to re-start the raiding again, and the Cats would undoubtedly see any group of armed men as breaking the treaty. Single riders entered at their own risk, and might be ignored, if he was lucky.

Suddenly ahead of him came the pound of running hooves and a wild screeching yell. Perhaps a mob coming in late off a Jamboree? If so, it suited Hammer Smith’s needs just fine.

He checked the unicorn and faded off to the side, stopping under a kaleidoscope tree about twenty feet away from the road. The moon flecked through the shinny, semi-transparent leaves, causing light and dark shadows that blended with Blackfeather’s coat, making the unicorn practically invisible.

A more cautious man would have taken the opportunity to scuttle out of there quick. But Hammer Smith was not a cautious man. Grinning, he watched as the mob from town ran full tilt into the celebrating drovers.

Chuckling, he started Blackfeather around the tree and to the north at an easy lope, heading into a forest of more kaleidoscope trees. In the melee behind him, he heard the snap of air guns as some fool started shooting; he knew everybody soon would be doing the same.

Karma has a way of catching up with a man. He paid a price for the inattention caused by his unholy amusement. In the darkness, he never saw the tree branch coming that dealt his head a smashing blow; stunned, he blacked out. Only his instinctive riding ability and Blackfeather’s superb gait kept him from falling off. Several times, Blackfeather shifted stride and course to ensure his rider stayed in the saddle. Puzzled at being given no other signals, Blackfeather continued to travel west, taking the easiest route.

The sun was just coming up when Hammer Smith awoke. Blackfeather had slowed to a walk. Muzzily, Hammer Smith peered around. His head hurt and he was having trouble focusing his eyes. Blackfeather mounted the top of a small rise and started down toward a creek gurgling below.

Hammer Smith blinked harder to focus his eyes because he was sure he was seeing things. The loveliest girl he had ever seen knelt by the water washing her face. Straight black hair fell in a curtain to the ground around her, some of the strands floating in the water.

Blackfeather stopped at the edge of the creek and lowered his head to drink. The girl lifted her head to stare back at Hammer Smith out of the clearest gray eyes he’d ever seen. She stood, pulling her hair back over her shoulders. Her crimson night robe clung to the swell of her breasts and hips, making a bright splash of red against the green plants growing on the bank of the stream.

At that moment, Hammer Smith was beyond appreciating nature’s decorating schemes. The whole world felt unreal. There was no one in it but him and the girl, and never would be. He nudged Blackfeather across the stream and stopped beside her.

She looked up at him with no sign of fear. He stared down at her. It seemed as if her eyes grew enormous and he was diving into a huge pool of gray water. This time, he did fall off his unicorn.

Rebecca tried to break his fall, but since he outweighed her, she ended up on the ground with him on top. Awkwardly, she sat up, wriggling out from under his weight. His head lolled back against her breast.

“Gosh!” exclaimed her sixteen-year-old brother Owen, “where did he come from?”

“Over the hill,” Rebecca said absently, looking at the dark face. He wasn’t bad looking; of course, you couldn’t tell much with that beard…

“What’s the matter with him?” demanded Owen’s twin, Catrin. Like Rebecca, she was still in her nightclothes.

Rebecca had found the caked blood matted in his hair.

“He’s been hurt,” she said. “One of you go and get Grandpa.”

“Gosh!” said Owen again. “That’s a funny place to get hurt. Do you suppose somebody whacked him?”

“Maybe.”

Blackfeather nudged Hammer Smith curiously with his soft grey nose. Why was he so still? Absently, Rebecca patted him.

“He’ll be fine,” she said to the unicorn. Blackfeather snorted gently and wandered off to crop some grass growing by the bank.

Pulling up the straps of his suspenders, Lewys Maginogion, awakened out of a sound sleep by Catrin, hurried up to them. His sharp old eyes took in the situation at a glance.

“Owen, unsaddle that unicorn and take care of it. Catrin, go fix up a bed in my wagon.”

As the two hurried to obey, he knelt beside Rebecca.

“He’s got blood on his head. Owen thought maybe he’d been whacked in a fight,” she said.

Gingerly Maginogion turned Hammer Smith’s head, running a finger in the gash on the top of his head and forehead.

“You’ll make it bleed again,” protested Rebecca.

“He’s out like a candle. Doesn’t feel a thing. We’d best get him in the wagon and that wound dressed before he wakes up.”

Unobserved by Rebecca, Lewys Maginogion looked pensively down at the lovely visage of his eldest granddaughter, who was looking down at the face of the young man resting in her arms. It had been months since the incident at Joppa, and in all that time his beautiful Rebecca had not voluntarily let any man touch her, flinching even whenever Owen or her Grandfather touched her accidentally. Yet she held this stranger against her with no sign of shrinking.

They put the unconscious man to bed in the wagon Owen shared with Lewys. As Lewys cleaned and dressed the wound, he thought about what he had learned in the village yesterday, and a plan began to form in his mind. Only if the young man proved worthy of course…

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a grey cotton shirt and trousers, Rebecca was sitting on a folding campstool, brushing her hair with the aid of a hand mirror.

A pan of sliced meat was sizzling on the fire, and Catrin, similarly dressed, with her long curly hair tied back was making sourdough wafers, her face flushed from the fire.

Owen was brushing the mud from the stranger’s unicorn. Blackfeather seemed to enjoy it, one hip cocked as he sleepily munched a bag of grain.

Lewys Maginogion surveyed his brood proudly. They were good kids all of them. Owen was growing tall and straight as a young fire tree. He was gangly still, but his green eyes met a man head on.

His twin, Catrin, took after Lewys’ mother, being tall and buxom with thick curly dark hair. For all she was starting to draw the men’s eyes like bees to nectar, she was still enough of a child not to notice their admiring stares.

His gaze dropped to his oldest granddaughter. With her hair drawn back, the resemblance to his dead wife was eerie. Rebecca wasn’t the looker Catrin was; her red-lipped mouth was too wide, and those gray eyes under her slanted brows gave her heart-shaped face an unearthly beauty, but he knew from his own experience many years ago just how potent a spell that exotic loveliness could cast. He had been caught in just such a web years ago when he first laid eyes on his dead wife, Anghard.

“All of you, come here,” he said. “I need to tell you what I learned in the village yesterday. Catrin, leave those biscuits alone. We won’t starve in the next ten minutes.

Obediently, Catrin and Owen seated themselves on a nearby log. Rebecca turned to face him on the folding campstool, a thick black braid lying over her shoulder.

“John Thomas Lazarus has put out a reward for our arrest for unauthorized magic. I saw it posted on the wall outside the sheriff’s office.”

“But we haven’t done anything!” Catrin cried, tears trembling on the ends of her lashes.

Rebecca said nothing, but she shut her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap. Magic users were regulated by the King. Powerful users were recruited to serve in the Kings Magi Proctors. Less powerful magic users were required to buy a license to use magic, or if proven to be of the right bloodlines, used as breeding stock. In either case, Magi were tested and licensed and paid a fee to the King to practice their arts. At least it worked so in theory. In practice, the rule of the Proctors over Askela’s Magi gifted was absolute. Almost no licenses to practice magic were ever issued. Unauthorized users could be hung without trial if they committed crimes using magic.

Owen started to curse, and was immediately called to order.

“Owen I’ll not have you using words like that in front of your sisters,” Lewys said sternly. “Besides, saying a thing like that about a man can get you killed in a challenge.”

“Even when he deserves it?” asked Catrin wryly.

“Yes,” her grandfather said flatly. “Especially if he deserves it. It’s about how powerful he is, not if he deserves the name.”

After a short struggle with himself, Owen said, “Yes sir. Sorry, girls.”

“Never mind that,” Catrin said. “What are we going to do?”

Her grandfather patted her hand. “I’ll think of something,” he said. In fact, he already had a plan in mind, but he wanted to talk to their guest before he came out with it.

“Now, how about breakfast? Am I to starve to death today?”

“Grandfather, what exactly does that notice say?” demanded Rebecca.

He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She frowned as she read it aloud. Travelers such as themselves always had a bad reputation in any new town, being automatically suspected of thievery and other less savory actions. Combined with hints of outlaw magic this spelled real trouble. Lewys and Owen were wanted for the assault and attempted murder of John Thomas Lazarus, Catrin and herself for a magical assault on Mrs. Charity Lazarus and for burning a wagon. All were hanging offenses, and the fact that most of it was a tapestry of lies wouldn’t matter. In fact, only Rebecca had used any magic; Catrin had used a shovel, and Owen and Lewys had both arrived after the incident was over. Although defending herself hadn’t been a crime, with the memory of the day the Proctor took her mother fresh in her mind, Rebecca didn’t think being turned over to the Proctors was a better fate.

They had left the village quickly after the incident hoping an old man traveling to his new hold with his grandchildren might escape notice. They never gave their real names when plying their trade as sellers of herbs and medicines in a village, but the descriptions of them on the flyer were very close. Upon fleeing Joppa, they had turned the gaudy signs on the wagon’s side inward and whitewashed the outside so the wagons looked more like ordinary travelling wagons. Unfortunately, Lewys’ treasured herd of beautiful golden draft unicorns were very noticeable, and they had been forced to stop several times and reapply the dye that turned their golden coats to a muddy brown.

“Sorcery my foot!” Owen exclaimed. “That old hag probably died of spleen when she found out what her supposedly God-fearing husband was up to!”

“Look for the mote in your own eye,” quoted Lewys, “before speaking of the one in your neighbors.”

Owen made an angry noise. “I don’t care! And don’t quote that stuff at me! I’m sick to death of—”

“Stop it! Please!” Rebecca cried.

Everyone looked at her in astonishment. She was weeping. Rebecca never cried.

“This is all my fault,” she sobbed. “I should have just done what he wanted—”

“Wash out your mouth of that filth girl!” Lewys roared. “No granddaughter of mine and Anghard’s would make a whore of herself for any reason! You did just as you should have,” he added more gently. “So did Catrin. What’s done is done, and we live now, not in the past.”

“Uh—breakfast is ready,” Catrin inserted. “That is if anyone is interested.”

They stayed another day by the creek tending to the wounded man and touching up the dye they applied to the unicorn herd. The man didn’t really wake up, but Lewys was able to get a couple of spoons of broth down him.

The first night after everyone had gone to bed, Lewys sat up late. Another man might have been ashamed of himself for what he intended to do. Lewys Maginogion was not. He had a plan to protect his family but he needed more information about his patient before he could decide how much of it was workable. He opened the saddlebags Owen had taken off the unicorn. There wasn’t much in them. One of the bags held a clean shirt, an extra needle gun, a small sleeve weapon, a package of kophie and a battered cup and pot. The other held tools for making needles and small containers of compressed air. The most interesting things he found were a gold pendant with a man and woman’s image inside and a small packet of letters.

Most of the letters were addressed to Andre Benoit. The oldest of these was dated almost ten years ago and had been written to a schoolboy.

My dear son, Lewys read, Mr. James, the head master from St. Anthony’s visited us today and I am afraid your father is very angry with you. Dearest, you must learn to control that dreadful temper of yours or one day I fear it will lead to serious trouble. I am very proud of you for standing up for that poor young man, but was it really necessary to half-drown his tormenter in the chamber pot? And did you really need to break a valuable urn over Jimmy Hendricks head? Not but what I do sympathize with your desire to hit him with something. A more horrid brat I’ve yet to meet, and his mother is just the same—but I hear your father coming. All my love dear and do try to stay out of trouble for a few days. Mama.

There were several others, all in the same vein. The last one was not written by his mother. Instead, it was written by the Cleric at a church.

My Dear boy, my heart goes out to you at this time. I wish I could be with you to comfort you, but as I cannot, I can only tell you to call upon He who is our greatest comfort in our grief as well as in joy. Your mother did not suffer at all. Dr. Thomas tells us the fall killed her instantly. Your poor father is sorely stricken. I hope this mutual sorrow will heal the gulf that has opened between you. Call upon me if you should feel the need for my services and I will come. God be with you, Respected Vincent McCauley

There were two other letters. One was from someone named Marie. It was just a note thanking him for the money to get back home to her family and telling him of her upcoming Handfasting.

The last one was addressed to someone named Hammer Smith, desiring him to come a village named Cutterston and quoting a price of seven thousand silver coins for unnamed services.

Thoughtfully Lewys re-folded the letters and replaced them. A handful of letters wasn’t much to base his plan on, but they were all he had. ‘The Divinity helps those who helps themselves’ he reminded himself. It had been one of Anghard’s favorite sayings. Just the thought of her somehow made her seem closer. Would she have approved of what he intended? He thought so. Comforted, he turned into his bedroll and went to sleep.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Looking into the wagon Lewys found his patient awake.

“Well,” he said, “you scared us a mite son. How do you feel?”

Andre Benoit touched his head gingerly. “If I move will it fall off?”

“Headache? Well, I think that can be helped.” Lewys rummaged around in Anghard’s medicine box until he found a small leather packet filled with white powder. He poured a tiny amount of the powder into a tin cup, added water and swished it around.

“Here,” he said, “handing Andre the cup. “This should do the trick.”

Andre accepted the cup gingerly. “Who are you?” he asked.

Lewys looked at him in well-feigned surprise. “Why don’t you know?”

There was a small silence as Andre finished his medicine. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t guess I do.”

He paused, searching his memory and then he frowned. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know who I am.”

“Good Lord,” exclaimed Lewys. “I’ve heard of such a thing, but—”

Andre took him up sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Why, memory loss after a blow to the head. When I worked on cattle station one summer, a fella got knocked on the head like you. He claimed he didn’t know who he was either. Of course, we didn’t believe him at first, but we came down to it in the end.”

Lewys rubbed his chin. “As I recall, that fella never did get his right memory back.”

Andre carefully set his cup down on the wooden chest next to him. “Do you know who I am? How I got here? How did I get hurt?”

“Whoa son,” Lewys flung up a hand. “One thing at a time. First, your name is Andre Benoit and you’re engaged to marry my eldest granddaughter Rebecca.”

Lewys told that whopping lie without a blink. He rushed on before Andre could question him. “You’re in bed because it looks like someone took a whack at you. We’re not sure how it happened. You rode off hunting prong horn yesterday and your unicorn brought you back. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot more I can tell you about yourself before you joined us a couple of weeks back, because we only just met you.”

For once in his quick-tongued life, Andre was struck speechless. The story sounded fantastic and he wanted to hear more, but he was very tired and found himself drifting back to sleep. Lewys watched him for a minute more, then rose and left the wagon.

That had been relatively easy compared to what was next—explaining to Rebecca, Catrin and Owen what he had done and getting them to go along with it.

The girls were down by the creek, washing clothes. Owen was making a fresh pot of kophie. He had heard what had gone on between Lewys and Andre. He scowled at his grandfather and opened his mouth to speak. Lewys shook his head at him.

“Where are Rebecca and Catrin?”

“Down at the creek.”

“Good. Come with me; we’re going to have a family conference.”

“We just did that yesterday,” Owen grumbled under his breath as he followed Lewys. “Much good as it did us.”

Arriving at the creek, Lewys said jovially, “You two girls look as lovely as flowers in springtime this morning.”

Catrin and Rebecca exchanged glances over the bucket of dirty clothes. When their Grandfather started showering compliments, it generally meant he was up to something.

“Thank you,” Rebecca said politely.

Both girls waited.

Lewys cleared his throat. “All of you read that wanted notice I brought back from town, didn’t you?”

“We read it, Grandpa,” Catrin replied.

“Well, then you know there weren’t images of us, just a description of an old man, two girls and a younger man. It occurred to me that what we need here is a bit of misdirection. Now we can’t change our looks, but we can become a party of five instead of four. Ironlyn is still many weeks’ travel from here and there are several villages between it and us, including Buttersea. If we travel through those villages as a party of five, everyone who sees us will think of us a group of five people not four, even if the fifth member of the group doesn’t stay around long.”

Catrin was the first to speak. “You’re talking about the man on the war unicorn. Has he agreed to this?”

Owen made a rude noise. “He’ll probably stay. You should have heard that pack of lies Grandpa fed him!”

“What if he finds out about the wanted notice?” Rebecca asked. “He might decide to collect the two thousand coins by turning us in.”

“He might not turn us in but not want to stay either—”

“Quiet!” Lewys glared them individually into silence.

“Our young friend—his name is Andre Benoit incidentally, has lost his memory because of that clout on the noggin he took.”

“Permanently?” Owen asked. “What if he starts remembering?”

Lewys waved that aside. “Makes no difference. It’ll stay lost long enough to suit us. Now stop interrupting me! Where was I?”

“Memory loss,” Catrin supplied.

“Yes. Well I told him we met him a couple of weeks ago on the trail. He went hunting for meat and came back with a cut across his head. I also told him he was engaged to Rebecca so he’d have a reason to stay around.”

Benignly he smiled at his offspring who stared back at him with varying degrees of exasperation, horror or amusement.

“Why you old reprobate!” Catrin exclaimed.

“You,” said Owen forcefully, “are a sneaky, underhanded, unscrupulous old—I don’t know what.”

They both carefully did not look at Rebecca who had gone dead white. She raised stricken eyes to her grandfather.

“I’m sorry Grandpa, but I can’t,” she whispered. “He might want—I can’t do it.”

Lewys jerked his head at Owen and Catrin. “You two go back to camp. Rebecca and I need to talk. And mind, you remember what I told you if you talk to Andre.”

Obediently they started back to the fire. Lewys put an arm around Rebecca and felt her involuntary stiffening.

“Child, you’ve got to do it. Ironlyn is the last hope of the Magi. You know we need a safe place to go—it’s getting dangerous to keep up the traveling medicine wagon, we are beginning to be too recognizable. The Proctors were asking questions about us in the last town before Joppa. That flyer will give them the excuse to hunt us down. It takes one of the blood to hold Ironlyn and control the Gate. We can’t allow it to fall into the any hands but ours. Besides the Magi Cadre is counting on us to take over at Ironlyn. You know how important that is to what we do.”

She pulled away from him and covered her face with her hands.

“Don’t you see, he’s going to think its real! I dread having even you or Owen touch me and I know you aren’t going to—every time a man even touches my hand I remember—”

She broke into sobs.

Lewys’ heart ached in pity, but he steeled himself against her tears. If she didn’t overcome this fear, she would go maimed all her life.

“Rebecca, you know it isn’t natural to feel that way. You must face your fear and overcome it. What is between a man and a woman is good, not evil.”

“What happened to me was evil!” she flashed.

“The man is evil and what he did was bad,” Lewys agreed. “I’m sorry your first experience was so ugly, but you cannot allow it to rule your life child. Do you want to end your days a sour old maid with no children to light your days as you light mine?”

Her eyes closed. “Grandpa, please!”

Lewys sighed. “Well, child I won’t force you to do this for our benefit. The Magi Cadre will find someone else to handle Ironlyn. I can sell the unicorns—”

“Stop it!” she cried. She knew her grandfather loved his unicorn herd second only to his family. It would break his heart to let them go. Her refusal would bring hurt and destitution on everyone she loved and the innocents they were charged to protect. She lifted her chin and wiped her eyes.

“You’re right. There is no other way,” she took a deep breath and gave him a watery smile. “I’ll try the best I can.”

Lewys hugged her. “That’s my brave girl. I knew I could count on you.”

Rebecca deliberately forced her body to relax. Andre would be in bed for another day or so, she hoped. Perhaps by that time she could learn not to flinch.

Catrin and Owen both looked at her anxiously when she and Lewys returned to the fire.

“Are you alright, sis?” Owen asked, his eyes widening as he realize Lewys still had his arm around Rebecca’s shoulder and she had not only walked all the way back to camp that way, but didn’t move away.

“I’m fine Owen,” she smiled at him, a rather strained smile, but a real one nonetheless. “I have agreed to Grandpa’s plan.”

Owen opened his mouth, thought better of what he had been going to say, and shut it again.

Lewys gave his granddaughter a last hug and moved toward the fire. “Catrin are you burning the biscuits?”

“No, Owen is. It’s his turn to cook,” she replied.

Aggh!” Owen leaped toward the fire to rescue his mistreated breakfast.

Rebecca took a deep breath, poured a cup of kophie, and mounted the wagon steps. Andre was awake.

“I brought you a cup of kophie. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

“I hope you’re Rebecca, because if you aren’t, I’m engaged to the wrong girl.”

An involuntary laugh was surprised out of her. “What a thing to say! It would serve you right if I denied it!”

He smiled back at her, running his eyes over her possessively.

To cover her nervousness, she said hastily, “Here, let me help you sit up. You can’t drink kophie lying down.”

This was an error, she soon discovered. It brought her entirely too close to him, making her sharply aware of him as a man. He did nothing to ease her nervousness and when she attempted to help him sit up so she could place a pillow behind his back, he put both arms around her waist and leaned against her, inhaling her scent from her breast.

“Ummn—you smell good,” he said.

“Your kophie will get cold,” she said, pushing against him.

“Better cold kophie than a cold woman,” Andre retorted teasingly. But he allowed her to settle him back against the pillow and hand him his cup.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, lifting the cup to his mouth. Any doubts as to Lewys Maginogion’s veracity had vanished the instant he set eyes on his supposed fiancée. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to him that he should have wanted to marry Rebecca. She was everything he had ever dreamed of in a woman. He was a little puzzled and hurt at her reaction to his embrace though. His dream woman wouldn’t have pushed him back.

Rebecca retreated to perch on the foot of the blankets. “Grandpa says you don’t remember us.”

Andre almost laughed aloud at this simple explanation for her stiffness. She must feel extremely awkward to have him declare he was in love with her, ask her to marry him one day and then the next be told he didn’t remember her. No wonder she hadn’t responded.

He smiled warmly at her. “I plead guilty, but since I fell in love with you again on sight, I feel I deserve a suspended sentence, don’t you?”

Rebecca’s lips twitched. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. There’s your pack. Breakfast is in ten minutes.” Shaking her head, she left the wagon. A few minutes later, she heard Andre’s boots hit the floor.

A Tangled Web

Over the next week, the family worked out a rhythm of doing things. Sunrise and Blackfeather had shown an instant mutual dislike, so to keep the two studs away from each other while traveling, Lewys rode his golden stallion Sunrise and Andre rode Blackfeather. One or the other of the men helped Owen drive the unicorn herd of mares and their offspring. The two girls each drove a wagon with a white-maned kitten or two sitting on the seat beside them.

The kittens had doubled in size over the past weeks. When they reached their full maturity, they would weigh approximately thirty pounds and would have developed mottled grey/green coats and long silver manes. Their breed were superb hunters, in the wild they often hunted in a pride, however they easily adapted to domesticity.

Fortunately for the success of Lewys’ plan, Andre was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head so he was too tired in the evenings to attempt to do more than steal a few kisses from Rebecca. To Rebecca’s surprise, she gradually became accustomed to Andre’s attentions, and even managed to occasionally return a kiss.

The morning before they entered Coverville, the next village with a Trade Station attached, Rebecca brought out one of her grandfather’s soft, homespun shirts, a green bandana and a large soft hat like the ones worn by herdsman and handed them to Andre.

“Your clothes make you look too much like a hired fighter,” she said. “These will help you blend in better on the way through town.”

He turned them over in his hands, looking at her thoughtfully. He noticed that both Rebecca and Catrin had changed their usual attire this morning. Instead of the better-quality blouses they usually wore, both girls had donned faded homespun shirts and large, soft hats. In addition, Rebecca had used something to darken her porcelain white skin to make it seem tanned.

“Who are we hiding from?” he asked as he began to unlace his shirt.

She hesitated, distracted by the muscled torso he displayed as he pulled the shirt over his head. When she didn’t answer, he met her eyes, enjoying it as she turned bright red at being caught staring.

“Like what you see?” he asked, smiling. Stepping in closer, he slid a hand around her neck to bring her mouth up for a kiss.

Up close, his body gave off a warm musky scent and she was surprised to find she wanted to touch those smooth muscles. When his mouth closed over hers, she brought up her hands to rest on his chest enjoying slightly prickly feel of his sparse chest hair under her palms. As he felt her response, his hand slid down her back pressing more of her body against his. Things might have progressed even further if there hadn’t been an interruption.

“Ouch!” yelled Owen, as he dropped the hot pan he was using to heat water for breakfast.

Rebecca gasped and stepped back from Andre, who let her go. Several encounters like this had convinced Andre that his girl wasn’t cold, she was just shy, so he was satisfied with the progress he was making.

“Rebecca,” he reminded when she started to back further away. “Who are we hiding from?”

She took a deep breath. “You might as well know there is a wanted flyer out on the four of us. Grandpa saw it in the last town we passed through.”

” You mean a wanted flyer On you?”

She nodded. “When you see it, you may not want to travel with us—”

Andre made a rude noise. “Do you have a copy?”

Rebecca climbed up inside the wagon, brought back the flyer and handed it to him.

Andre read it, a heavy frown gathering on his face. “None of you are violent. This guy Lazarus did something, what was it?”

Instead of answering, she bit her lip and turned her back, her hands covering her face.

Her reaction told him everything he wanted to know. Andre was silent while he mastered the black rage that had suddenly risen in him. He knew better than to let it out; giving in to anger had caused him plenty of trouble in the past. He looked at Rebecca’s shaking shoulders and closed his eyes.

“Rebecca,” he said, gently turning her to face him, “It’s alright. He won’t touch you again, I promise.”

To his dismay, she burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. Not knowing what else to do, he simply held her and rubbed her back until the storm of tears subsided.

“What’s the matter with Rebecca?” demanded Lewys, coming around the wagon.

Silently, Andre handed him the flyer.

“Oh, she told you, did she?” inquired Lewys. “Well, I suppose you had to know.”

“I asked her what we were running from,” Andre said.

Lewys sighed regretfully. “I should have made sure that animal was dead, but it would have been murder. I wanted to get my family away from there before they raised a lynch party.”

He handed Andre a handkerchief to give to Rebecca who had stopped weeping.

“Breakfast is almost ready,” he said, “Go and wash your face girl, so your brother and sister don’t see you’ve been crying.”

He motioned Andre to step out of hearing of the wagon. “I suppose you want to know what happened, don’t you?”

Andre shrugged. “I can guess. How bad was it?”

“Not quite as bad as it could have been. We were getting ready to leave that morning. Owen had gone to say goodbye to the Trade Stations daughter he was sweet on, and I’d gone into Joppa to pick up some stuff for the kid’s I’d already paid for. The girls were about to harness the unicorns, so we could leave when I got back. I guess you’re aware that some folk have peculiar ideas about Travelers. When Lazarus showed up, Rebecca told Catrin to get inside the wagon and stay there. He had Rebecca down on the ground when Catrin hit him with a shovel. Owen and I got there a few minutes later. I should have made sure he was dead, but I wanted to get my family out of there before we were arrested.”

Andre flicked the flyer scornfully. “So, this is because they blame you for defending yourselves?”

“Looks like it.” He shrugged. “The Trade Master warned me to leave as quickly as we could. Lazarus is a rich man who pulls a lot of weight around that area. Travelers are always easy marks though. Even before this happened we always made it a point to look as ordinary as we could when we pass through a strange village.”

He looked over at the younger man. “You’ve been good for Rebecca. It broke my heart to see her flinch whenever Owen or I accidentally bumped into her. She’s never done that with you and she’s easier with us too. I want to thank you for that if nothing else.”

They drove through Coverville and stopped a few miles outside of it at one of the Trade Stations the Shahen required be set aside for visiting trade caravans. The caravans were usually run by families or groups who made their living buying and selling goods as they traveled from village to village. Depending on their wares, most caravans had regular stops where they were expected at certain times of each year. A lone Traveler could sometimes pay a passage fee and journey along with them as a part of the group, which was safer than traveling alone.

The Trade Stations had been created to cut down on the friction between the visiting Travelers and town merchants. They were a kind of village in and of themselves; usually a Trade Station was run by a family who received a stipend from the Shahen to keep them in order. Station Masters were allowed to make what profits they could from fees for the goods sold in the Trade Store, using the bath and wash houses, or in some cases renting rooms. If a Traveler caravan came through they might stay for a week, selling things they brought, trading with the villagers, and sometimes putting on entertainment for the town. This Station had a store that sold a few staples such as canned goods, blankets, pots and pans and such.

When they arrived, Owen and Andre set up the temporary rope corral to contain unicorn herd. to keep them from attacking each other, the stallions were picketed separately, on either end of the two wagons.

When Rebecca went to the Trade station to pay the fee for access to the facilities, Andre went with her, casually catching her hand in his. This Trade Station was run by an older man and his wife called Tomilson. The wife, a plump, gray haired matron smiled knowingly at their clasped hands.

“Newlywed or courting?” she asked comfortably.

Rebecca blushed. “Uh—we’re not married.”

“Ah, courting then,” Sarsee Tomlinson said.

“Engaged,” Andre said firmly.

“Where are you folks traveling to?” her husband asked.

“Ironlyn,” Rebecca said.

“I see,” Tomilson said, withdrawing slightly. “That would make you the new Dracon then?” he asked Andre.

“That would be my grandfather,” Rebecca corrected, handing him the coins.

Several more families of Travelers arrived at the Station as the day wore on, parking their wagons or setting up tents along the circle designated for that purpose. Animals were expected to be kept outside the circle. Lewys made it a point to meet each of the new arrivals as they came in, taking either Owen or Andre with him as he encountered them. Most of the people they met were simply families or single men traveling on business, who were glad to get news from outside the area. In turn, Lewys asked them about the surrounding country and about Buttersea, the next village on the way to Ironlyn. When that village was mentioned, several of the men looked over their shoulders, and finally one of them, braver than the others, said, “I wouldn’t go there, if you can avoid it.”

“Why not?” asked Andre alertly. “What’s wrong there?”

Two of the men, brothers who were going to visit their relatives in Glassfall, exchanged glances. “We don’t know for sure,” one of them said. “But we hear rumors that some of the folk who go there don’t come back, or are robbed.”

“By the village?” asked Lewys.

Jorgon, the other brother, frowned. “I don’t think so. The story I got was it happens outside of town.”

“Yes, but I heard that some of the stolen goods ended up for sale in the shops,” one of the others chimed in.

Lewys nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for the warning. We will be on our guard.”

After dinner, one of the men who had been a part of the discussion came over to their fire. Sorson Tobias was a tall, gangly man with an open face. “Dracon Maginogion, I have a favor to ask,” he said diffidently.

“What is it, Sorson Tobias?”

“First, may I ask if you still intend to go through Buttersea?”

Lewys nodded curtly. “We must. It’s on the road to Ironlyn.”

The man took a deep breath. “Well, you see, my family is traveling that way too, and I was hoping that we could travel together. I’ve heard that it’s safer to travel in a larger group. I have only the one wagon for myself, my wife and our young son.”

“How far are you going?” inquired Andre, watching him closely.

“Until I find work,” Sorson Tobias said. “I’m a bricklayer and I’m hoping there will be work in Snowdon, the next village beyond Buttersea.”

“We would love to meet your wife and child,” Rebecca said softly. “It must be very hard traveling this way with a young one.”

“Yes,” agreed Lewys. “Why don’t you bring her over now?”

The man nodded and left.

“Thank you, Rebecca,” her grandfather said. “That was well done. What do you think? Shall we let them travel with us?”

“Yes,” both girls said.

“I want to meet the wife. If everything is as he says, it would make it safer for us also,” said Andre.

“Owen?” his grandfather asked.

“I don’t feel anything harmful from him,” Owen replied.

Sarcee Anja Tobias turned out to be a pretty young woman who looked very tired. The little boy was a dark-haired moppet with curious blue eyes. His mother had wrapped a belt around the child and attached a short rope to it, one end of which she kept attached to her wrist. It was soon seen why this was necessary, as the child, Robern, immediately tried to escape his mother’s custody by darting away from her the moment his feet touched the ground.

It rained all the next day and the night before they were due to pass through Buttersea. There was no actual Trade Station around Buttersea, but an open ground under a grove of maconut trees just past the village was designated for Travelers. The trees provided some protection for the three wagons. The normally peacefully gurgling creek a little way inside the grove was threatening to overflow its banks. Lewys and Owen pulled out a large tarp, which they anchored overhead between two wagons to provide shelter from the rain and wind. The unicorns were bunched under the trees close to the wagons. The two stallions seemed to declare a truce during the storm, or at any rate, they refrained from attacking each other. The three kittens complained bitterly and stayed in the wagon used by the girls for sleeping.

A break easing the rain a trifle, allowed Andre and Rebecca to go down to the swiftly flowing creek for water to be heated for the dishes. Near the edge of the stream, Rebecca spotted the shivering girl at the foot of a tree. She now wore the pendant she had skryed with constantly, and it had retained a small glow. When she saw the girl, it suddenly heated up and glowed a bright blue through her shirt. Rebecca gasped and pulled it out, looking at the girl in shock.

“What’ is it?” Andre asked sharply.

“We’ve found her!” Rebecca exclaimed.

“Found who?” he demanded.

“Our sister. We were told she was born after our mother was taken by the Proctors and smuggled out of their compound. I’ll explain more after we get her back to camp.”

The girl was clad only in too-small shift and trousers, and she was barefoot. Her black hair clung wetly to her face.

“Oh, you poor thing!” Rebecca exclaimed going to kneel beside her. “Whatever are you doing out here by yourself?”

The girl raised drenched gray eyes to hers. “Don’t let them find me!” she begged.

When Rebecca touched her, the stone cooled, returning to its original bronze color. She tried to lift the child to her feet, but the girl fainted and would have fallen back down if Andre hadn’t caught her. He handed the still empty bucket to Rebecca and lifted the child in his arms.

“We need to get her back and dry her off,” he said practically.

“Put her in our wagon,” Catrin said when they arrived back at the camp. “I’ll bring some hot water. You get her out of those wet clothes.”

Rebecca hissed in anger when she stripped off the sopping clothes and found the child’s thin, pale-skinned body covered in welts and bruises from a recent whipping with a lash.

“Get some salve and bandages out of Grandmother’s medicine box,” she told Catrin. “This will sting when I clean these cuts. It’s a good thing she’s still out.”

Silently, Catrin handed her the things she’d asked for and opened their grandmother’s trunk. “What do you suppose happened to her? Where are her parents?” she asked, taking out a thick soft nightgown.

“Catrin, I think she might be our sister; Grandmother’s pendant identified her. Some animal has used a lash on her,” her sister said. “If her guardians allowed this—”

“You don’t know,” Catrin pointed out.” Maybe they did it.”

She handed the nightgown to Rebecca, helping her pull it over the child’s head just as she was regaining consciousness. While Rebecca helped the child into the bed and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, Catrin leaned out of the wagon door and asked Owen to bring a bowl of the stew from dinner and some of the hot tea in the pot sitting on the fire. The kittens converged on the child; one of them lying across her feet, while the other two snuggled up against her legs.

Rebecca unfolded a lap tray and spread it across the girl’s knees, carefully setting the bowl and cup down on it. When she saw the bowl and cup, the child’s eyes grew round. Hesitantly she cupped the bowl between her cold hands.

“Can you feed yourself, or shall I help you?” Rebecca asked.

“Is—is this for me?” the girl asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Of course, it is,” Catrin said holding out the spoon.

“You need to eat and warm up the inside as well as the outside,” Rebecca said, lighting the burner on the small warming oven.

They waited patiently until the child had finished the stew.

“What is your name?” Rebecca asked.

The girl looked frightened. “Selene. Please don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. He’ll be looking for me.”

“Who will be looking for you, Selene? The man who beat you?”

The girl nodded jerkily. One of the kittens, sensing distress, climbed into the child’s lap, purring loudly. The girl reached out a tentative hand to stroke his back.

“Is he your guardian?”

“No,” Selene whispered. “The Magi Proctor’s man, Leroys Torrigan.”

“I see,” Rebecca said grimly. She exchanged a glance with her sister.

“Are you going to send me back?” Selene asked fearfully.

“No, child, we are not,” Rebecca’s voice was calm. “But if we are to protect you, we need to know everything you can tell us. Why were you with him instead of being sent on to the Shahen’s school?”

Selene shuddered. “Torrigan almost never sends anyone there. He keeps the young magi for a while and then they are sold off to another place. At least that’s what the girl who was there before me said.”

“Is she still there?”

Selene shook her head. “No, they took her out a week ago. That’s when Torrigan started training me.”

“With a whip?” Catrin asked, incredously.

“No, that was because I wouldn’t do what he wanted.”

“What did he want you to do?”

Catrin gave her sister a sharp glance. From her tone, she knew Rebecca had a good idea what the child was about to tell them.

Selene swallowed. “He took off his clothes and he wanted me to—to—”

Rebecca stroked the child’s forehead. “It’s alright, darling. I know.” She smiled down at the girl. “You have family now, and we will protect you and teach you how to use your gifts to protect yourself.” She settled the girl back down on the bed and tucked her into the blankets. “Catrin will sit here with you, and the kittens will keep you company. I will be in soon to join you. I need to get the dishes cleaned up first. Sleep now.”

Going to the door, she slipped on her rain slicker and went outside. When she approached the fire, she found that the Tobias family had gone to bed in their wagon.

“When did they leave?” she asked.

“Just after you went for water,” Owen responded.

“Good,” she told the three men. “I don’t want them to hear this.”

“How is she?” asked Lewys.

Rebecca held out her hands to the dying fire. “She has been whipped and beaten, starved, and I think an attempt was made to rape her.”

Lewys gave a hiss of dismay.

“We heard something about the Magi Proctor,” interjected Andre. “Is she a Magi?”

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Then she landed with the right family,” Owen stated.

Andre’s eyebrows rose. “Really? And when were you going to tell me about this?”

Owen looked at him in surprise. “I thought you knew. Didn’t Rebecca show you the flyer?”

“That isn’t the same as saying the words,” Andre retorted.

Rebecca lifted a hand. “Gentlemen please! We need to get our stories straight. Now, Sorson and Sarsee Tobias only met us two days ago at the Trader Station, so I think we can simply tell them that our younger sister Selene has been ill—spotted fever, I think—and we kept her in the wagon so that’s why she wasn’t introduced to them.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “With the storm, I think that will work. We wouldn’t let a sick child out in the rain. Ah—how old is my granddaughter?”

He suddenly focused on the pendant lying outside Rebecca’s shirt. The stone resting on Rebecca’s breast was quiescent.

“It’s her?” he said, incredulously.

Rebecca nodded, smiling with tears in her eyes. “Yes, I think so. She is the right age, and—she looks like grandmother.”

“Is someone looking for her?” inquired Andre. “When we found her, she said something about ‘not letting him find her’.”

“It’s possible. She said she was being kept by the Proctor’s man before she escaped.”

The three men exchanged glances.

“Are you alright with this?” Lewys asked Andre.

“At least the ground is going to be soft enough to bury a body,” he answered, and Lewys laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Go to bed Rebecca,” her grandfather told her. “We’ll keep—?”

“Selene, is her name.”

“We’ll keep Selene safe.”

Andre walked her back to the wagon. “Don’t worry about anything. One of us will stay on watch tonight.”

She laid her hand against his face, giving him a tremulous smile. “Thank You,” she said softly. “You always make me feel safe.”

It hadn’t exactly been declaration of love, he reflected, but it gave him a warm feeling all the same. A man’s presence should make his woman feel safe. He turned his head and pressed a kiss into her palm.

Strangely enough, what she said was true. He had been with them for several weeks before Rebecca realized the hovering fear that had afflicted her since the attack had disappeared. It took a little longer for her to associate its disappearance with Andre.

They left the next day with the rain still pouring down. Catrin mentioned casually at breakfast that morning that they had better continue to keep Selene in bed and Rebecca agreed. Andre and Lewys both asked how she was doing, and Owen prepared a plate for her. Anja and Jerlyn Tobias accepted their story of a sick child without question.

Selene was a little harder to convince. When Rebecca took her breakfast in to her, she looked up warily.

“Who are you?” the child asked.

“I am Draconi Rebecca Mabinogion, and I believe you are the child we have been looking for. You see, our mother was with child when the Proctor’s took her. We were told she had smuggled the newborn baby out of the Proctor headquarters. We have been searching for that child for many years. She would be about your age.”

“Why do you think I’m that child?”

Rebecca took out a hand mirror from the drawer where she and Catrin kept their toiletries. She handed it to Selene, who looked at it in wonder.

“Look at your face in the mirror and then look at mine,” Rebecca instructed.

The child had the same pale skin, grey eyes with up tilted brows and black hair. Recent privations had thinned her face of any remaining childhood plumpness, so that the resemblance to Rebecca was very marked.

“What do you remember about your life before the Proctors found you?” Rebecca asked her. “Do you remember your parents?”

“I never knew anything about my father. The woman who raised me wasn’t my mother, and she didn’t tell me much. We moved around a lot. She told me if we got separated, I was supposed to go to a place called Ironlyn and they would help me,” Selene said slowly, “when I was older, Sara told me my mother was a great lady, but I wasn’t to talk about it. She caught the wasting fever in Wintermere. She had taken a job in a nursing home there. The family we were boarding with discovered I was Magi and reported me to the Proctor.”

Rebecca smiled at her. “We are on our way to Ironlyn, and I believe we are who this Sara was trying to reach. You are safe now. The family traveling with us have just come into our service, and won’t think it strange they haven’t met you yet, because we said you have been ill. You are staying inside the wagon until the weather clears so you don’t get sick again. As far as they are concerned, you have always been our little sister.”

“Why would anyone believe I’m your sister?”

“They will believe because they will be able to see how much you look like me and our Grandmother. Now, eat your breakfast, and don’t let the cats trick you—they’ve been fed.”

“What about someone who knows you?” the girl asked sensibly.

“For them, it is the same story; most of them know we have been looking for our parents fourth child. We simply say we have found you at last. Because of them taking our mother and other things, our family is bitterly opposed to the Magi system. All of us are unregistered Magi, and we belong to a group that helps Magi escape the Proctors. Now, after breakfast Catrin will bring you some warm water for washing and take you out to relieve yourself. For today, just rest and enjoy your breakfast. There are books over there in the chest if you would like to read.”

“Novels?”

Rebecca smiled. “Yes, there are some there. Please help yourself to them.”

Since there had been no work for Jerlyn in the last two villages, the Tobias family was still with them when they arrived at the Linhaven Trade Station. The journey from Buttersea had been wet and miserable for everyone as the storm continued to pound the Travelers. They hadn’t been attacked outside the village; probably, Lewys had speculated aloud because not even outlaws wanted to go out in the rain.

It was late afternoon when they made camp at Linhaven Trade Station. The sun had finally broken out of the clouds that morning, and the air was beginning to warm up.

The journey had given Lewys time to evaluate Tobias. “Is bricklaying your only trade?” he asked him.

“Oh, my Jerlyn can do a lot of things,” his wife said proudly. “He made all our furniture and fixed our neighbor’s well when it got fouled.”

“Anja!” her husband protested. “They don’t want to hear all that.”

“I do,” Lewys said. “As I understand it, Ironlyn has been neglected over the past few years, and most of the staff are gone. I’m going to need a man who is handy with tools. Would you consider working for us?”

“I would be honored, Dracon,” Tobias said, bowing.

“Then let’s talk wages,” Lewys suggested. “Step into my office.” He indicated the spot by the fire next to himself.

“Is your sister Selene feeling well enough to join us for dinner?” Anja asked.

“That is a good idea,” Catrin said. “I’ll go and help her dress.”

I hope she will manage to find the girl something to wear that fits her, Rebecca thought ruefully. Clothing was something she hadn’t taken into consideration when deciding to introduce the girl as family. When they appeared, Rebecca was pleased to see that Catrin had obviously raided their Grandmother’s trunk for suitable clothes. Unlike her daughter, Angard had been a small woman, and the pink shirt and whipcord trousers fit Selene well enough. Catrin had even managed to dig out a pair of Gran’s old boots for the child.

Andre brought over folding stool for her to sit on, which she accepted with a shy smile.

“Yes,” Anja agreed, “That’s right dear. Spotted fever is nothing to fool around with. For tonight, you just sit and watch the rest of us work.”

The Mercs

Travelling with three wagons and a herd of unicorns slowed the journey even more. Andre and Owen took turns handling the Unicorn herd, but villages close to Trade Stations were getting further and further apart, and the animals were beginning to show the effects of the long journey.

“I think we need to stop and rest the unicorns for a couple of days,” Lewys announced after inspecting the herd. “The map shows Sandcrake, the next Trade Station, has a good pasture for herds because it’s a waystation on the Drover’s Trail. We can stay there for several days. The closest village is Wintermere and it is at least half a day’s ride, but that will mean we won’t have to worry so much about someone stealing our animals.”

“We’re low on meat too,” Andre remarked. “I saw pronghorn sign yesterday. If we stay long enough we can smoke the meat.”

“You’re very sure of getting a shot at one,” Jerlyn remarked.

Andre shrugged. “Some of the work I did wasn’t in towns. When you don’t have a steady supply of food, you learn to hunt.”

“We need to do some washing also,” Catrin put in.

Lewys was frowning when he returned from meeting the Trade Master.

“What is wrong?” Rebecca asked.

“I’m not sure,” her grandfather replied. “There is a copy of that wanted flyer Lazarus put out, along with others posted inside the store. It was being tacked up by a self-important little man when I came in. The Trade Master looked unhappy about it. He warned me the man who brought in the wanted flyers came from Wintermere. Said he was always checking on who was using the Station in the hopes of collecting a reward for reporting them.”

Andre rousted Owen out of bed before daylight to hunt the pronghorns he had seen. Rebecca and Catrin cooked a breakfast of biscuits and gravy in the dark for the hunters.

“They come out to feed at dawn and dusk,” Andre told Rebecca as he kissed her goodbye. “We want to be in place before that.”

Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Rebecca and Selene brought the baskets of dirty clothes over to the Trade Stations Communal washroom. Rebecca worked the handle over a large tub to see if the water was hot, nodding approvingly when it came out warm.

“Good,” she told Selene, “we are the first one’s here. We won’t have to pay extra for clean water for our clothes.”

The younger girl looked at her curiously. “I’ve never used one of these places. How does this work?”

“Time you learned then,” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Start putting the clothes into the tub while I shave some soap into the water. We’ll take turns pumping the handle until the tub is full.”

Once they had the clothes in the tub of water, Rebecca sealed the lid, and showed Selene how to use the foot pedals to make the tub rock back and forth to wash the clothes.

Anja joined them, Robern again attached to her with a lead.

“You beat me here,” she said. “I thought I would be first.”

“They have several tubs,” Rebecca said. “This must be a busy station.”

The other woman nodded, dumping her basket into an empty tub. Rebecca noticed she had only a small sliver of soap to wash with and offered, “Here, we have extra soap. I know how hard it is to make it when you are traveling.”

Anja hesitated, and then took the bar and the shaving knife, smiling her thanks.

The women ran the clothes through a rinse tub and then through the Stations hand-cranked wringer to get rid of the excess water before taking them out to the communal drying lines.

Selene had volunteered to keep Robern occupied, and at Rebecca’s smiling nod, Anja had agreed. Because they were enjoying their talk, Rebecca and Anja were facing each other across the lines of wet clothes. They had almost finished the chore when Rebecca noticed the alarmed look on Anja’s face as she looked into the Station center circle. Hastily, Anja finished hanging up her load to dry and grabbed her basket.

“We should to go back to the wagons,” she said urgently.

Frowning, Rebecca turned to look behind her. A small troop of Mercs had ridden in. They stopped at the Station House, and one of them dismounted and went inside.

“Do you know them?” she asked.

Anja shook her head. “Not them specifically, but I know what they are. We had Merc troops stationed in our village several times before our home was burned in the fighting. The ones associated with the keep weren’t too bad—they lived in the village too and they had an interest in keeping the peace so they mostly behaved properly. The free Mercs—well let’s just say a woman didn’t want to be caught out alone with them around.”

Rebecca nodded. “Selene!” she called the girl who was entertaining Robern with a game of small sticks and pebbles, “We should return to the wagons.”

She picked up her empty baskets and started back through the washhouse to gather up her supplies. She still had more than two thirds of a bar of soap she had left to dry on the sink, and soap was, as she had told Anja earlier, hard to come by on the road. Anja didn’t bother, but hurried back toward the wagons, dragging a reluctant Robern.

Rebecca had just dropped the used soap bar into the empty baskets when a man entered the washroom. He was tall and wide, with sandy hair and a scruffy beard that needed the attention of a razor. He smiled when he spotted the two girls.

“Well, what have we here?” he asked.

Rebecca put an arm around Selene and moved toward the door. He moved to block their exit.

“Don’t run away pretty girl,” he said. “My name’s Jokan, what’s yours?”

Rebecca looked him up and down with no expression on her face. “I am Draconi Rebecca Sancha il’Maginogion, and this is my sister Draya Selene,” she told him haughtily. She didn’t often use her title, but she felt it might make him wary of offending her.

Instead he laughed. “My, aren’t you the high and mighty one. I’m going to enjoy getting acquainted with you.”

“We have not been introduced, Sorson,” she said coldly. “Kindly move out of our way.”

When he didn’t move and Selene gave a frightened whimper, Rebecca readied herself to use her Magi abilities. If she pushed past him and encouraged her shove with a telekinetic shove, it would make him step out of the way and they could get out the door. Just as she was about to make her move, Andre stepped into the room, and Rebecca felt a wave of relief. She relaxed, smiling reassuringly down at Selene. Taking in the situation at a glance, Andre shifted his body between the girls and the Merc.

“Is he bothering you, love?” he asked Rebecca, not taking his eyes off the other man, who was staring at him in astonishment.

“Hammer Smith?” he said incredously. “Where did you spring from?”

When Andre didn’t answer him, he apparently realized he had overstepped a line. “Is she with you? Sorry man, I didn’t know you were working for them.”

“I’m not,” Andre said. “Rebecca, take Selene and go to the wagons. Stay there, and keep Catrin there as well.”

He moved with them toward the door, and the Merc stepped aside so the girls could exit the building.

Once outside the door, Rebecca handed Selene the baskets. “Run to the wagons and tell Grandpa and Owen about this. Tell Catrin to stay with you at the wagons.”

“Andre told both of us to go,” Selene protested.

“I know, but that Merc isn’t alone. Andre may need help.”

Rebecca leaned back against the wall, listening to the men inside as she watched her sister run to their wagons. She looked around, checking for any of the other Merc’s headed toward the washhouse.

“If you’re not working for her family, how do you know her?” the Merc demanded.

“She belongs to me,” Andre told him. “Anyone who bothers her is going to answer to me, understand?”

“Sure,” Jokan agreed hastily. “No problem. I didn’t know she was taken. I saw a prettier girl over in the wagons anyway. One skirt’s as good as another.”

“Rebecca’s sisters, and the wives and daughters of any man who works for us are off limits, Jo. You be sure to tell the others. I’d hate to kill one of them over a misunderstanding.”

“Sure,” Jokan said. He went over to one of the full tubs and opened his war bag to dump in some clothes, whistling as he started his laundry.

Andre watched him for a few minutes, then turned and went out the door Rebecca had used. He stopped in his tracks when he saw her waiting for him, a small fireball rolling in her palm.

He caught her wrist, looking down at her hand. She closed her fist and the ball of flame disappeared. Curiously Andre rubbed a finger over her palm. It was cool to the touch.

“Didn’t I tell you to go back to the wagons?” he said.

“I know,” she replied, “but he isn’t here alone. I saw a whole troop ride in earlier.”

He looked at her, a small, delighted smile playing around his lips. “And you were going to use that to help me?”

She nodded, ducking her head and looking at him sideways, not sure how he would react to this display of Magi talent.

Andre brought her palm to his mouth and pressed a kiss into it. “I wasn’t in any danger, Darling.”

“Well, I realize that now,” she admitted. “I stayed because I knew he would have challenged Grandpa or Owen and I supposed it would be the same with you. Why didn’t he?”

“He knew better,” Andre told her dryly. “He and I worked together a couple of times. Jokan Locklear never saw the day he could beat me in a fight.”

He tucked her hand under his arm and started back toward the wagons.

“He called you by another name,” Rebecca said. “Hammer something.”

“I used the name Hammer Smith when I fought as a Merc,” Andre said, watching her expression to see if his past occupation offended her.

Rebecca nodded. If he was remembering, he might decide he wasn’t engaged after all. Tentatively, she asked, “Is your memory coming back?”

Andre hesitated. “Some of it. I remember being in the Mercs, and I remember a fight in a town, but anything after that is only bits and pieces.”

“I see. Is that man a friend?” she asked.

“Not really, we just worked together, that’s all.”

“I’m glad. I didn’t like him,” she admitted. “A friend of yours is always going to be welcome to me, but I’m glad that man isn’t a friend. He frightened Selene.”

He nodded soberly. “I saw that. I passed the word to leave you girls alone, but it will be better if you stick close to our wagons until they leave.”

“Anja and I both left clothes there on the drying lines,” she told him. “We will need to go back and get them this afternoon when they are dry.”

“I’ll go with you,” he promised.

“Was your hunt successful?” she asked.

He grinned. “Got two buck pronghorns. Owen did okay with his crossbow. We can spend a couple of days curing the hides and smoking the meat. I had to hang them pretty high; your cats kept trying to drag the meat down.”

They had parked their wagons far enough from the station house and any other Travelers to give them some privacy. Trade Stations were neutral territory, but they were hotbeds of gossip as well. Lewys never wanted to camp close enough to other Travelers that a casual observer could listen in on their conversations. Anyone could stop at the Stations and be sure to be let alone if they behaved properly. The Station Master had the right to summon the Sheriff of nearby towns if trouble occurred, but it was a rare occasion when it was necessary anymore. When the Stations had first been established, the Shahen had also stationed soldiers at them to enforce order.

The women spent the afternoon cutting the meat into strips. When Rebecca gave Anja a quarter of the meat, the woman teared up. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Andre showed Owen how to build a smoking rack while Rebecca and Catrin cut the meat into thin strips for smoking. Although it would take several days to finish curing, by evening the smoked meat was beginning to give off an appetizing odor. Selene had been given the task of keeping the kittens from burning their paws when they tried to get close enough to steal a strip of the meat.

The women were starting to prepare dinner when a man on an old zebra unicorn rode up to their wagons, stopping a little way from entering the camp. “May I come to the fire?” he called.

“Come in,” Lewys said easily. Tobias noted that Andre and Owen both moved into the shadows to cover the camp and he did the same, approving of the precautions.

The man was young, but he showed signs of hardship. His clothes were worn and the unicorn looked gaunt.      “Dracon Maginogion?” he asked hesitantly.

When Lewys nodded, he said, “I am Sorson Lorkeet. I was told that you might be wanting some goats to restore the herds at Ironlyn?”

“Perhaps. Do you have goats?”

Lorkeet took a deep breath. “Yes. My family has been goatherds for many generations, but we recently lost our holding and are looking for a new patron.”

Andre and Owen came back to the fire. “He’s alone,” Andre said.

Lorkeet looked a little startled and then he smiled. “You are a careful man, Dracon.”

“Yes, I am,” Lewys agreed. “I’d like to see the goats before I talk any deals.”

Lorkeet nodded. “We are camped just over the hill there. We can go now if you want.”

“He’s alone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a trap,” Andre said. “He could have a crew waiting over there.”

Lewys looked at his grandson.

“Owen?” he asked.

Owen shook his head. “I don’t feel anything like that from him.”

Lewys stroked his chin. “I see. Well, I think that you and Andre will stay here just in case. Tobias and I will go and look at goats.”

While they were saddling the unicorns, Owen saw Andre go to the wagon and retrieve his needle gun and a sword which he belted on in addition to the long knife he always wore. Owen decided to imitate the example and went to the wagon shared by the men for his own crossbow and needle gun. Seeing the weapons, Andre nodded approvingly.

He signaled Owen and the pair of them slipped out of the firelight to make a round of the camp as Lewys and Tobias rode out. “Do you think someone is out here?” Owen asked.

Andre held up a hand and pointed at Blackfeather and the unicorn mares who were stamping nervously. “You see that? The unicorns think so and I don’t think its Lorkeet or his people. See how they keep looking back toward the road from the village? It might be an animal, but it could be human too. Let’s make a circle around the camp.”

What the unicorns heard was human. As they finished their circle, a small group of riders trotted right up to their wagons and stopped. Behind her, Rebecca heard Selene gasp in fear. She moved so her body partially shielded the girl, reaching back to grasp her hand.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Rebecca demanded. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Owen moving into position behind the riders with the bolt drawn on his crossbow. When Andre came up to stand between them and the men, she felt a surge of confidence.

“It’s going to be fine, you’ll see,” she whispered to the girl. “Andre will take care of it.”

“I’m Korman, the Sheriff of Wintermere, and I’m looking for a fugitive,” the short, round man in the front announced.

“You didn’t stop at the Station to check yourselves in. That is a violation of Station Protocol. Approaching a camp at night without warning is a good way to get dead, Sheriff,” Andre drawled. “We don’t have any fugitives here. Just our family, our workers and their families.”

“So you say. I’m going to search the camp anyway,” the Sheriff said. “She could be hiding in one of the wagons.”

She? It takes five men to hunt a woman?” Andre asked disdainfully. “Sheriffs are a lot tougher where I come from.”

“She’s not a woman, she’s a kid and she’s Magi,” the Sheriff said. He and the others dismounted.

“About the age of that one there,” a townsman in rich clothes said, indicating Selene, who shivered.

“That’s my little sister,” Rebecca snapped, putting a protective arm around her.

When one of the men started to approach the nearest wagon, Owen shot a crossbow bolt into the ground narrowly missing the man’s foot. “There’s more where that came from,” he called cheerfully from the shadows. The man backed up nervously, looking to the Sheriff for guidance.

“If you’re looking for a Magi,” Andre said, “Where is the Magi Proctor? You have no jurisdiction without one. I would advise you to mount back up and leave.”

The tone of his voice made Sheriff Korman take another, more careful look at Andre. When he did, he took a mental step back. Despite the soft clothes and herdsman’s hat, it was obvious this man hadn’t always been a Traveler. He was too sure of himself when confronting armed men. Andre’s hand rested lightly on his hip, within easy reach of the needle pistol, and his sword and knife in their well-worn sheaths had seen plenty of service. Everything about Andre shouted ‘Merc’ to the Sheriff, and he wavered. He had no lust to take on a trained Merc; he knew he would be the trained fighter’s first target in a fight. Damn that Sorris for a meddling Busybody. He hadn’t wanted to come all this way out here anyhow, he thought bitterly.

The decision was abruptly taken out of his hands. There came the thunder of heavy unicorn hooves, and Lewys rode smack into the middle of the dismounted riders, who scrambled to get out of the way. He wheeled the massive golden stud around to face them, not caring if the posse was trampled in the process.

“What the devil is going on here?” he roared, in his best Lord of the Manor voice.

Behind Andre, Rebecca put an arm around the shaking Selene’s shoulders.

Being dismounted was distinct disadvantage. The Sheriff was forced to look up into Lewys’ face. “I am Sheriff Korman of Wintermere. We are here in search of a wanted Magi.”

“A girl about that age,” the overdressed townsman pushed his way forward and started toward Selene. He stopped, backing off hastily when he suddenly found ten inches of fighting blade in his face. Andre held the knife in the easy grip of men who know steel.

“You’ve been told who she is,” Andre said softly. He stared directly into the townsman’s eyes, his own gone flat and hard.

“Sorris! Stand down!” the Sheriff shouted, correctly interpreting how close to death the townsman was.

Sorris backed away from Andre before turning on the Sheriff, blustering to hide his embarrassed fear. “See here, Korman, if you won’t do anything to find the girl, I will. I think these people are hiding her. I bet I have a flyer on them too. Look at this!” he thrust a sheet of paper under Korman’s nose.

Korman sighed. “Sorris, this plainly describes a party of four people. I count at least twice that number here. Get back on your unicorn before I decide to let this young man split you like a roasting bird. The rest you mount up also,” he added, going to his own mount.

“Sorry for the intrusion—” he waited for Lewys to supply the name.

“Dracon Lewys il’Maginogion of Ironlyn,” he was informed.

“Dracon Maginogion, my apologies to you and your family,” Korman said, reflecting sourly as he left that, he had probably just offended the Dracon of one of the strongest keeps in the area. Ironlyn was a long way from Wintermere, but the nobility had lingering memories.

As soon as the posse disappeared into the darkness, Selene jumped off her stool and threw her arms around Andre, sobbing, “Thank you.”

Taken aback, he patted her shoulder. “It’s okay, they’ve gone. You are safe with us.” He looked helplessly at Rebecca, who came and kissed his cheek.

“You were wonderful,” she told him smiling. “I knew you would keep us safe.”

“Hey!” her grandfather protested. “What about me? Didn’t I help too?”

Catrin laughed. “Yes, Grandpa, you’re wonderful too, and so is Owen. Thank you.”

WANT TO READ MORE? PRE-ORDER NOW SO YOU DON’T MISS OUT!

IT GOES TO PUBLICATIN ON JANUARY 31, 2018

 

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PREVIEW BOOK 1 OF THE HANDFASTING

Welcome to the far future. Let me introduce you to the courageous women and dangerous men who carve a home on the alien world of Vensoog.

Meet Katherine O’Teague, the heir to Veiled Isle, computer hacker and all-around tough lady, and Lieutenant Zachery Jackson, a hardened ex-recon soldier and his five super-smart orphaned dependents. The colony of Vensoog is in trouble. A bio-weapon killed or sterilized all the male colonists.  To keep the colony from dying out, the Matchmaker Program finds ex-soldiers like Zack without a planet and offers them a new home if they are willing to marry women willing to sacrifice all to save their colony. Zack’s home planet is a pile of radioactive ash. He desperately needs a new home for himself and his kids. When the Matchmaker Program chooses Katherine for him, is it a match made in Heaven or Hell? Katherine needs to find out in a hurry because Zack’s five foundlings are too smart for their own good. She and Zack must find a way to keep their kids safe from the ruthless Thieves Guild who want them, and what they stole when they escaped, back. Plus, she is falling for her new husband and hasn’t a clue if he feels the same about her…

 A YEAR AND A DAY

The Handfasting Vol 1

Gail Daley

THE EXECUTIVE ruling body of Clan O’Teague occupied the council chamber of the Clan’s main seat, known as the Glass Castle, on the Southern coast of Glass Isle in the Dragon Sea. There should have been four women and two men, but the two male members had joined the military forces drafted by the Confederation and killed in action on a distant planet. Their heirs were both too young to serve, and no one had yet been elected to take their places.

Lady Genevieve, the Laird of Clan O’Teague was young for the office. She was in her early thirties, with fiery red hair, large almond shaped grey eyes and a tall, slim build. Despite her age and appearance, during the attack Genevieve had showed both the leadership and strength required to be the Laird.

It could be seen their by their coloring that the women seated around the table were related. The three varied in age from sixteen to around forty-five. Lady Corinne was the oldest of the three, and her red hair was showing white amid the auburn. Her short, clipped nails drummed a tattoo on the table as she considered the solution her First Daughter, Lady Katherine, was proposing. Lady Corinne was Katherine’s aunt, and as the designated heir to her property, Katherine had taken over her place as the Clan Representative on the National Parliament when Corinne retired to pursue her interest in writing a planetary history. Katherine’s hair was not so fiery a color as Genevieve’s and her eyes had more green than grey, but she shared the same slim build, although she was shorter than her sister. Sixteen-year-old Lady Drusilla had only just taken her seat on the Decision-making Council and she was clearly uncomfortable with her new duties. Her pixie cut hair, a much darker red than either of her sisters, gleamed dully in the muted light from the crystal powered wall sconces, and her eyes were so dark a grey they almost appeared black. Drusilla was tiny; she was half a head shorter than Katherine and only came up to Genevieve’s shoulders. She cuddled her agitated Quirka and glanced nervously from one sister to the other.

The four women were attended by Quirkas, the small native pets adopted by most of the settlers. Quirkas most closely resembled an Old Earth Squirrel with the pricked ears and pointed muzzle of a fox; they were furred with a large, bushy tail and front paws that looked like human hands. Soft flexible quills that could be ejected for defense ran along the backbone up to the top of the head. When attacked, the quills would stiffen and sharp, poison-tipped retractable barbs appeared. The poison couldn’t kill anything as large as a human, but it could make one sick. Quirkas were chameleons; their body colors could change with their environment, but their natural color seemed to be a soft mottled yellow. They were empathic and developed life-long friendships with some humans. Their small size (about the size of a human hand) made them ideal house pets and vermin hunters. They mostly hunted the variety of small rodents and insects prone to infest homes and businesses.

“You’re going to put the cat-fox in the hen house with this one girl,” Corinne remarked with just a hint of a laugh. “I think I’ll come to the next Parliament just to watch the fur fly!”

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” Drusilla announced. “It’s so cold, letting a—a—program pick your husband! What about love? Don’t you want that?”

“I know it sounds cold, Honey,” Katherine said. “And yes, I want my husband to love me just as much as I want to love him, but this solves our problem. If we don’t do something, this planet will be unpopulated in just three generations. It’s a fact but if we want to preserve our way of life, we need fresh DNA sources. Another fact that works in our favor is there will be many male soldiers left homeless because their worlds were burnt off in the War. We have to make difficult decisions—”

“Don’t make a campaign speech for Heaven’s sake!” Genevieve protested. “I agree we have to do something, and this sounds like a practicable solution, providing the issues I see can be worked out.”

“What issues?” Drusilla finally found her voice.

“The most important one is the Issue that we are inviting grown men to become a part of our culture. Adult males who won’t have been raised with our traditions. Issue two is these will be men who are used to fighting and may be not readily accept our traditions—”

“That’s why you’ve been working on that old emigration selection program, “began Corinne.

“A program! For what, pray tell? Please don’t say you’re talking about that crap the Makers use to set up marriage matches?” demanded Genevieve. Her Quirka chittered anxiously and she stroked her back, growing visibly calmer as she did so.

Katherine put two fingers in her mouth and gave a loud whistle. “Time!”

Everyone turned to look at her. “If I could be allowed to finish? As far as your first two objections go, yes, there is still a program for selecting emigrants. We haven’t used it since the first ships, but I do have a copy. The program analyzed genetic data and personality traits to weed out anyone unsuitable for our culture. We use a part of it in our Matchmaking system. Once we received the results of the bio-weapon used on us, I realized what would need to be done. I have spent the last year working on combining the two programs and I plan to offer them to any clan that wants them. Who knows Genevieve? Since I did make improvements to give more weight to personal compatibility, maybe we’ll get lucky and our dream man will be waiting for us on Fenris.”

Katherine smiled reassuringly at her younger sister. “It isn’t really that much different than the match lists given out by the Makers when we turn of age you know, and we already do that during the Spring and Fall Festivals each year. The couples just won’t have met each other beforehand. I think we can sell it to our young women if we put it out to them as being romantic, instead of a cold business proposition.”

Genevieve pointed a finger at her sister. “All right Politician, write this up in a speech I can present to the Clan for acceptance.”

Drusilla hadn’t given up. “Why would any of these ex-military types come here? And where will you find them?” Drusilla asked.

“They’ll come because we will offer them a home to come back to. We were hit with a bio weapon but our world is still intact. Many planets weren’t so fortunate. Soldiers from those planets will need to find a new home. As to where they can be found, I intend to present this plan for accepting immigrants to the base commander on Fenris. Fenris was the staging area where most of the troop ships from this area departed. I’m sure he will cooperate in presenting our proposal, because he will appreciate that he could get rid of some loose cannons by sending them home with us. You see Fenris is where they are going to turn loose most of the military units who no longer have a planet to return to. Even if the base commander is reluctant, the planetary government won’t be. Housing thousands of ex-soldiers and finding work for them will mean a big drain on planetary resources if they stay.”

“You will need money to operate. We used to do a lot of trade with Fenris,” Corinne said thoughtfully. “Might be a good idea to take along some trade goods to build up capital and rebuild relations. I think I’ll go with you.”

Genevieve jumped to her feet. “Go with her? Then who will sit in Parliament?”

“You are,” Katherine retorted.

“You are talking at least six weeks to get there and the same to get back! Not including the time spent on the planet setting this up. I can’t be away from our lands that long.”

“Sure you can. Parliament only sits three times a year. You name Drusilla as your deputy—”

“Me!” squeaked Drusilla.

“Yes, you,” Katherine replied. “Genevieve will be reachable for advice by message crystal. It has to be you in Parliament Genevieve. Drusilla is too inexperienced to deal with that den of vixens.”

Genevieve sat back down heavily. “Oh, God. I hate politics!”

Katherine nodded briskly. “Now here is what I propose we offer our new Handfasting partners; full clan rights, that is they can hold property for any daughters until the daughter reaches majority. If no daughter is born, they will have lifetime privileges on the property they occupy. Sons will automatically be full clan members; the woman those sons marry will become holders. We will guarantee pension and dowry rights if they marry into another clan after the Handfasting period. Because we need to develop a viable population base as soon as possible, I would prefer to approach a unit from the same area; I think it will be easier to integrate them into the clan as a group. That way if there are older men in the group who don’t find a match or unit members who don’t want to be matched, they would receive the same benefits as those who do, and they would be available to supply sperm for the planetary banks. The other Clans will design their appeal as they see fit. The only thing I plan to bring up before the Parliament next week is that the program is available and that we intend to offer the Year and A Day Handfasting to these men.”

“What if your matching programs works so well the couples want to change the Handfasting to the Forever and A Day?” inquired Corinne.

“Then that will be up to each couple,” Katherine said firmly. “Not our business.”

Drusilla took a deep breath and then asked, “Okay, but what are we going to tell them about us?”

Her sisters and aunt just looked at her. “What are you talking about?” Genevieve asked.

“You know well what I’m talking about,” Drusilla said doggedly.

“I don’t see why that would be an issue,” Katherine said. “There have been rumors about Vensoog people and our ‘special abilities’ for years. It has always been up to each person what or how much she or he wants to tell spouses who come from off planet.”

“Most visitors to Vensoog conclude that some of us have psychic abilities and let it go at that,” Corrine reminded her.

“She has a point,” Genevieve observed. “These men won’t be visitors. They will live here with us. Sooner or later they’re bound to get our talents rubbed in their face. You will have to be careful not to let any religious fanatics who might want to burn witches past your screening.”

“Are you seriously suggesting I go to Fenris and invite battle hardened troops to come back with me to marry a witch?” inquired Katherine. “That is not the approach I plan to make and I doubt I will be alone in that. Can you see Clan Yang or Clan Caldwalder or DeMedici doing that?”

“Are you going to lie if they ask you about it?” Drusilla insisted.

Katherine sighed. Sometimes her little sister reminded her of a Quirka at a vermin hole. “No. While I won’t advertise our abilities, if I am asked directly I will tell them the truth. However, since time will be so short before we leave for home, our new clan members will need to do a lot of sleep learning to familiarize themselves with our customs and the dangers of the planet itself. I included acceptance of our ways into the subliminal programs about the planet, so I hope the issue won’t arise.”

Once assured that Katherine and Genevieve would be in the list of marriageable women to be handfasted, about a hundred unmarried women of Clan O’Teague between the ages of twenty and thirty-five volunteered for the plan and started to enter the answers to questions that would determine personality compatibilities for matchmaking into Katherine’s database.

Since no better solution could be found, the Vensoog Parliament adopted Katherine’s proposal. Several of the Clans were adamant about making their own decisions for dealing with the immigrants, but they all accepted Katherine’s computer matching program. It was finally agreed that each of the Clans would send their own representative to Fenris and the other planets hosting displaced Terrans.

Katherine, Corrine and delegates from DeMedici and Yang took ship for the planet Fenris on a recently decommissioned freighter. Now that the war had ended, spaceships and crews commandeered from civilian sources were being returned to their original owners. The Spaceman’s Dream had been a free trader and was glad to take on cargo and passengers in return for a percentage of the profit on the sale of the luxury goods stored on Vensoog for the duration of the war. Only three of the clans decided to approach to the homeless soldiers on neighboring Fenris. Of the others, four would reach out to civilian refugees on the planets of N’Jamacia and Camelot, and the remaining three had agreed to take new applications from the Federated Worlds immigration services.

ONCE the decision to use Katherine’s program was started, clan representatives from O’Teague, Yang and DeMedici arrived on Fenris. The next day they met the base commandant, Admiral Noel Harris, who had been handed the unrewarding job of finding placements for thousands of returning soldiers whose planets had been burned off.

Fenris had set up re-location depots for the returning soldiers in the old military bases where combat ready warriors had departed for the war. A base met all the basic needs of anyone who stayed there; food dispensers and housing, which although utilitarian was clean and functional. The planetary government planned to convert these bases into low-level hostelries to attract tourists as soon as they could rid themselves of all the returning ex-military. Some of the Clan leaders preferred to stay in the resort hotels for which Fenris had once been famous. However, Katherine and Corrine had taken up residence in the main base so they could have easy access to the bases’ computers, which were an essential part of Katherine’s plan. She would need to set up her program to accept the chosen men’s information so it could match them with the Vensoog women.

Clan O’Teague had decided it would be best to find a unit or two willing to re-locate and met their requirements. Today Katherine would start her interviews with the officers in command of the various groups who had asked about finding a new home as a unit.

“Are you ready for this?” Corrine inquired.

Katherine blew out a breath. “I have to be, don’t I?” She treasured a private hope that among the soldiers she would find the soul mate she had almost given up hope of finding. Now that the end was in sight, she was a bundle of nerves.

For maximum impact, she had dressed carefully in the full outfit a Clan Lady of Vensoog would wear for an important meeting. A semi-transparent loose linen blouse and pants in bright colors, topped with a tight-fitting leather vest rounded to cup her full breasts, and cinched at the waist with bright colored ribbons. The long sleeves and pant cuffs were gathered at the wrist and ankles. Her low-heeled shoes were meshed on top with crisscross ties running up the outside of her calves and tied off under the knees. A tall, flat crowned, wide-brimmed hat with a veil that could be brought down to cover her face completed the outfit. Although normally she would have taken the hat off indoors, she wore it now for the full impact. Sooka, her pet Quirka, leaped to her shoulder and clung to the straps on the padded shoulders of the vest. Katherine reached up and stroked her absently.

Corrine studied her and then made a twirling motion with her finger. Obediently, Katherine turned in a circle so Corrine could see the full effect.

“Well?” she asked impatiently.

Corrine chuckled, “Oh, Honey, they’re sure not going to have any trouble deciding marriage would be no hardship with you.”

Katherine frowned. “Too much?” she asked.

Corrine shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Remember we are asking them to make quite a few concessions about their way of life. They need a place to go, but it may be hard for them discount the rumors about Vensoog women and to change how they view their rights under our laws. They need to see an attractive package to make that change more palatable.”

Katherine grimaced. “Especially when I inform them about the re-education and sleep learning you mean?”

By noon, Katherine had interviewed five Majors and one Colonel and she was thinking she would not find what she was looking for here. As yet, she had only one possibility, and that one was doubtful. She had yet to explain the full program to any of the potential candidates because her little inner voice kept saying “no”.

Smiling graciously at Colonel Tomas Lewiston, she thanked him for his interest in the proposal and sent him on his way. She couldn’t put a name to her reluctance, but she had absolutely no intention of considering him or any unit he commanded. On the surface, he was an impressive enough specimen. He was tall, with almost perfectly chiseled features, he had a well-built body, and a decided air of command. He had a smooth manner verging on oily. If she hadn’t had the underlying feeling he had another agenda, she might have given him more consideration. Besides, Sooka, whose judgment of character was usually excellent, had hissed at him and he couldn’t quite conceal his distaste of her pet.

Katherine was using one of the auxiliary conference rooms on the base. After he left, she rose and went to the wall of windows looking out over the city. The view was spectacular. To the left was a magnificent view of high snow-capped peaks, the tall spires of the city and a white strip of beach next to an azure ocean. The beach was sparsely populated compared to the thousands of tourists who had clustered there before the war made interplanetary travel dangerous. The empty beach was testament to Fenris’ urgency in getting their planet back to becoming a “destination” for tourists.

Fenris was named before explorers had set foot there and discovered how inappropriate it was to name the planet after the devouring wolf of Ragganok. The name didn’t call up an image of pristine, snow-capped peaks excellent for winter sports, bucolic countryside ideal for gentle activities or the white-sandy beaches with just enough waves for surfing or sport fishing. Fenris was woefully short of heavy metals, but the Fenriki had quickly overcome this disadvantage by developing the world into a vacation destination for the rich and famous of the Confederated Worlds. Fenris’ strategic location made it an ideal staging area for the military to collect and send out their forces for the war. Now that the war was over, The Fenriki were scrambling to return their world to its old status as the foremost resort planet and trade center in the depleted Confederated Worlds.

Katherine took a deep breath and set up for the next interview. Some of the commanding officers Katherine had interviewed had come alone, some with support personnel. It was obvious the three men who entered this time were a unit, and a military one at that. There was only a superficial physical resemblance between them; the oldest was tall and wide, with a pleasant face topped with a shock of blond hair streaked with white. In fact, Master Sgt. Vernel Thomas resembled a kindly grandfather until you met his eyes directly and saw inside to the tough soldier he really was. Colonel Gideon Michaels was shorter than Thomas but his smooth-shaven, square-jawed face held strength and determination. Although his loose civilian clothing helped to disguise the real muscle in his lanky body, it didn’t hide the smooth power with which he moved. His tanned face was in sharp contrast to his keen green eyes and pale blond hair and eyebrows set over a jutting beak of a nose. Lieutenant. Zachary Jackson was around medium height and his brown eyes were on a level with Katharine’s. He had the wiry, powerful build of a trained hand-to-hand warrior built for speed and maneuverability rather than bulk. His smooth olive complexion and thick shock of brown hair was worn a little long and showed his Black Irish Old Earth ancestry. He too moved with the effortless ease of a man used to physical activity. What marked the three men as a unit was a similarity of expression and attitude. These men were used to depending on each other.

Katherine’s intuition, had given out a constant litany of No, or Never! at the other candidates. It suddenly shouted Yes! at her when she met Zackery Jackson’s eyes. She looked them over more carefully.

All three men bowed as they entered.

Colonel Michaels said politely, “How do you do Lady Katherine. I am Colonel Gideon Michaels, of the 10th Infantry volunteers, Planet Moodon. This is my 2nd Officer, Lieutenant Zachary Jackson and my leading Master Sargent Vernel Thomas.”

The window behind Katherine had put her face in shadow, but it gave her an excellent view of the three men’s expressions as they got their first good look at her. Stunned relief would have been appropriate. She smiled a little to herself. Corrine had been correct; the over-the-top outfit had been worth it. Rumors of why the delegation from Vensoog had arrived were already rife, and by this time Katherine had endured some less than respectful attitudes from some of the men she had interviewed. This was the first group who had used her title without being prompted. She detected none of the leering postures caused by her “husband hunting” displayed by some of the previous candidates.

“Please be seated gentleman,” she pointed to the chairs opposite her. “Allow me to present my condolences on the loss of your homeworld.”

“Thank you,” Michaels responded. “We offer our condolences on your losses, Mi’Lady.”

Just then, Sooka, who had quietly gone unnoticed by most of the other candidates, hopped off Katherine’s shoulder and bounced over to Lieutenant Jackson, springing up onto the arm of his chair. Startled, he jumped “Well, now, who are you?” he inquired, with just the right note of amusement to please Katherine.

“That is Sooka,” Katherine replied. She is a Quirka. Many of us keep them as companions. They are empathic. Apparently, she approves of you. You can pet her as long as you stroke downward on her fur.”

“Why she’s changing color!” exclaimed Vernal.

“Yes, they have chameleon-like qualities,” Katherine replied.

“You brought a pet along on an interstellar trip?” asked Zack incredulously.

“It was necessary,” Katherine responded. “She is not exactly a pet. A Quirka’s empathic attachment to their chosen human is very deep. A separation of so many months would have caused her to go into a depression and she would have starved herself to death in my absence. She was no real trouble on the journey; Quirkas are omnivores and with a box of sand in my quarters as a toilet, all I had to do was order the appropriate food from the dispenser.”

She watched Sooka carefully as the small creature leaped from one man to the other investigating each one carefully before returning to Zack’s lap.

“So tell me Colonel, what are your plans for the future?” she asked.

Gideon looked up from watching Zack play with Sooka. “Most of the men in my command are from Moodon, like me. As you know, Moodon was burned off by the enemy. I would like for us to find a new homeworld where we could all settle together.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, most of my unit entered the service as a group and we’ve served together so long we have become each other’s family. If we hadn’t been together when we heard Moodon was destroyed, I don’t think some of us would have made it.”

“How do you feel about taking orders from women?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see a problem. On Moodon we considered men and women to be equals; women as well as men give orders.”

Katherine turned to the Vernel. “And you, sir, how do you feel about that?”

“I do my job. I take my orders and carry them out. Doesn’t make me any nevermind who gives them. I’m not a leader.”

“Lieutenant Jackson?” she asked.

Zack rubbed his nose. “Everyone has a different idea of how folks should behave.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t good enough. I require a full answer. On Vensoog, our men only hold property through their wives and daughters and they can’t hold an office except as a deputy for a wife or daughter. How do you feel about that?”

“To answer that question properly, I would need to see the text of the law so I can determine how fair it is,” he replied.

“That,” replied Katherine, rather pleased, “is a very good answer. I would have been disappointed if all of you had given me a flat yes. It would have shown duplicity.”

“Are you saying we would be second class citizens?” Michaels asked, “Because that is not something I find acceptable.”

“Not at all; you and your men would be full members of the Clan O’Teague. Traditionally most of our law enforcement and defensive offices have been held by men. It is that due to the war most of these offices are held by women and Clan leadership, property and inheritance are held in the female line.”

Michaels nodded. “Okay, I think we all need to see the actual terms of the bargain you want us to agree to before we go any further.”

“I agree,” Katherine said. “But perhaps you would like to provide me with a text of what you desire for your new homeland, that way when we meet tomorrow, we can see if we want to take this any further?”

She stood and took three data crystals from her belt pouch and handed them to each man. “Here is the contract you and your men would be required to sign to become members of Clan O’Teague, and a text of our laws and privileges. May I hope you will send me your requirements by this afternoon?”

All three men had risen when she did. “I brought that information with me,” Michaels replied and offered her a data crystal in return.

Katherine took it, smiling. “I like a man who comes prepared,” she remarked. “Why don’t we agree to meet over lunch in the canteen tomorrow for further discussion? You can meet my chaperone and mentor, Lady Corrine then.”

The next day at noon, Corrine and Katherine programmed their meals in the robo-chef on the side of the canteen away from the windows and then took their food trays to an unoccupied round table in an alcove. They were joined a few minutes later by the three men. The canteen was in a bulky plastacrete building designed to feed large groups of people. It had privacy alcoves with large windows for officers and others who needed to discuss matters they didn’t wish broadcast wholesale. The portable chairs and tables could have (and had) served ten thousand diners at a sitting. Now it appeared to be only about a third full.

All three men were taken aback to realize the Quirka were apparently dining with them. Katherine and Corrine had provided small bowls of finely chopped raw meats and vegetables for each pet and a small finger bowl of water. The two Quirkas perched on their haunches on the table beside the women and waited patiently for the meal to begin. Unselfconsciously, Corrine bowed her head and said a quick Grace. There was trifle awkwardness in the beginning of the shared meal, but Corrine and Vernal soon provided an opening for normal table conversation.

“Lady Katherine said you keep these Quirkas as companions?” Vernel pointed with his chin at the two Quirkas.

“Oh, yes,” Corrine replied, “but they are avid hunters of household vermin, and in fact prefer to hunt live prey. They are quite valued for their ability to keep homes and other buildings clear of pests.”

The rest of the dinner conversation concerned the animals and plants native to Vensoog. At the end of the meal, Vernal smiled in delight when the Quirka fastidiously washed their paws and muzzles in the fingerbowls.

Once the dishes had been removed and sent to the recycler, Katherine raised the subject that had been foremost on all their minds.

“I looked over your requests for accommodation, and I see no issues we would have difficulty filling. “She began, “as long as those of your unit who don’t wish to be a part of the matchmaking program are comfortable in providing sperm or ova for the DNA banks, they would receive the same full Clan rights as those who are handfasted.”

“From my viewing of the data you provided, I noticed you required everyone to take part in the compatibility testing even if they aren’t planning on being matched. Why is that?” inquired Zack.

“We use compatibility and personality evaluations extensively on Vensoog to determine choices for training and professions. Having your unit evaluated will help to place them a profession they are best suited for. The evaluations help to bring to notice issues that might require counseling or re-training. This will be a difficult undertaking for us all. I want to catch any problem areas early before they grow.”

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Preview The 1st Portal World Novel – Warriors of St. Antoni

Welcome to the Portal World Tales

The knowledge that it was possible to open a doorway to other worlds couldn’t be kept secret. The Portal technology was leaked, and unregulated gates popped up like fleas on a dog in summer. Immigrants who came through these illegal gates had only the supplies and technology they could carry to defend themselves against the alien plants and bizarre animals they found. But they came because of man’s lust to explore and because they wanted freedom and adventure. With intelligence, courage, and sheer stubbornness, they built a new world.

WARRIORS OF ST. ANTONI is the story of sisters Bethany, Jeanne and Iris, and the choices they make to survive on the world of St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. To her surprise, the marriage of convenience turns into a love match, but Bethany and Alec must learn to trust as well as love each other. Iris chooses an arranged marriage with a beloved old friend, but did Carlos marry her for love, or to please her father? Jeanne and Samuel, the son of her family’s greatest enemy, run away to a distant city to build a new life, but discover you can’t run away from who you are.

A Portal World Tale

Warriors of St. Antoni

by

Gail Daley

Something Wicked This Way Comes

IT WAS THE luck of the draw that the illicit portal to the world of St. Antoni opened onto a planet that closely resembled its parent world. Although St. Antoni possessed a yellow sun, darker than the one that shone on earth, it looked down on blue seas, land masses covered with lush grass, gray Ironwood forests, high snowy mountains, hot dry deserts and continents threaded by large rivers and small streams. Plants and animals had developed along lines genetically close enough to earth to support human life, and St. Antoni’s temperature range was close enough to Earth to make living there bearable for humans.

St. Anthoni’s illegally founded portal in Gateway City had been open for several hundred years, giving its settlers time to develop seven City States with loosely connected governments. Except for areas directly connecting the City States, much of St. Antoni was still wild and unexplored. In the years the St. Antoni gateway had been open, Portal Runners had brought in a steady trickle of new settlers and other items highly valued on a planet without its own technological resources. The industries developed by the settlers, were mostly farming, ranching and mining in the interior, and fishing along the coastal areas, although manufacturing was growing. Travel took the form of steamboats along the deep rivers, and a newly built railroad system connecting the largest City states using steam driven trains. To get to anywhere else, the settlers walked, rode or drove a tricorn pulled wagon. Named for their three horns; the animals had two spikes set high in the forehead, and a third at the end of their noses. Tricorns were herd animals, and like the horses they resembled, once domesticated, served a variety of purposes for the settlers.

The area around River Crossing and its companion across the river, Minerstown, was dominated by six powerful families who together controlled mining and ranching in the area. Rather than decimate their livelihoods by fighting until only one family was left standing the families of Kenefic had jointly come to an agreement to settle their differences with a joint council. The mountains above River Crossing were rich in gold, silver, bluestones and gems. The Lucky Strike, owned by Michael St. Vyr, mined Bluestone, the other mines owned by the six families, worked gold, silver and various gemstones.

Michael St. Vyr had come through the portal in Gateway City with his parents when he was a child. By the power of his own hard work and ingenuity, he had carved a place for himself and his family in the long wide valley at the base of the mountains ringing the northern continent. He owned a Bluestone mine, gold, gemstone and silver claims in the hills above the valley, and a cattle and goat ranch with a good house and twenty acres of orchards.

Folks around River Crossing described him as a big man, solid, with a mane of graying red hair. His three pretty daughters, well he thought they were pretty, had recently come home from Copper City. He was on the road leading from his ranch into town, because he had just come from a meeting with his lawyer. Michael was pleased to think he had made satisfactory arrangements to divide his property equally between his three girls and their husbands in the event of his death.

“None of your daughters are married or engaged,” his lawyer, Terrance Milliner, pointed out.

St. Vyr waved that quibbling objection away. “Doesn’t matter. I have plans to take care of that. Before the year is out, I plan for all three of my girls to be wed.”

Riding home after signing the papers, his satisfaction was marred by an uncomfortable itch growing on the back of his neck that got worse the further away from town he rode. He knew better than to ignore the feeling.

He had been twelve the first time it happened. He and his parents followed a Portal Runner through an unregulated gate to the raw new world of St. Antoni. The emigrant camp where they were taken by the Runner was a wild place. Young Michael’s family had only been in the immigrant camp three days before his father had been gunned down and robbed of the small number of gems he had been carrying to the money changer. After Jess St. Vyr was killed, an investigation was done, but the investigator simply reported it had been a fair shooting because Jess had been armed. Michael and his mother had been left to fend for themselves in the camp.

Michaels neck itched that day too; he had been afraid of something bad happening that day, and had begged his father to let him accompany him, but Jess St. Vyr had left him with his mother.

After her husband’s death, Giselle, Michael’s mother quickly discovered that on this new world a woman needed to be tough enough to protect herself or find someone to do it for her. A strong-minded woman, she decided to learn how to take care of herself and her son. Michael and his mother were left at the mercy of a society that expected its people to be able to protect, feed and clothe themselves on their own. His parents had been fleeing an organized gang back home, so returning to earth on a permanent basis was out of the question. To support herself and her son, Giselle became a Portal Runner. apprenticing with the woman who brought them over. Portal Runners traveled back and forth between Earth and St. Antoni, smuggling in goods and people. Between trips she supported them with a variety of enterprises.

His father’s death had taught Michael a lesson; he never again ignored the warning he got from his gut and it saved his life many times over.

He paid heed to the warning now, and carefully examined the area around the road because paying attention to his surroundings had kept him alive a long time. He could see nothing out of place, however. The road leading from his ranch the Golden Tricorn into town was smooth; it had been recently graded by his own workers. The deep drainage ditch that kept the road from becoming a mire during the rainy season was dry. The thorn bushes growing in it would be underwater when the rains came, but that was not due to happen for several months. It was high summer and the waves of knee high buttery grass, broken here and there with tall thorn bushes, gave the undulating landscape a deceptively flat look. Evening was drawing near and the valley was beginning to cool from the blistering heat of a summer day. Long shadows had begun to shade the road.

The road had no heavy traffic this late in the afternoon, but it was busy enough to be safe from bands of roving outlaws. Deciding he wanted a better look around, he dismounted and fussed ostensibly with the cinch holding the saddle on his red and black striped tricorn. St. Vyr took the opportunity to loosen the gun in his holster while he was pretending to fiddle with the cinch. He never got the chance to draw it.

Without warning, a savage blow followed by the crack of a high-powered rifle hit him in the lower back. His Tricorn, Redbird, had been trained not to flinch from gunfire and stood like a rock when Michael collapsed against him. But when a second bullet burned the animal across the rump, he took off running, leaving his master to fall half in, half out of the drainage ditch.

St. Vyr slumped to the ground, still conscious but unable to feel his legs. He felt lightheaded, and knew he was in danger of passing out. He touched his waist and brought his hand away red with his own blood. The light wavered in front of his eyes and he knew he had to find cover before whoever fired the shots came to see if he had killed him. Desperately, he used his powerful arms to drag himself all the way into the drainage ditch at the side of the road. He slid sideways and rolled down into it. The ditch was dry this time of year and overgrown with thorn bushes. Just before he passed out, he rolled under a bush, praying there wasn’t a Sander, one of St. Antoni’s poisonous reptiles, lurking under it seeking shade from the heat of the day. Michael pulled some of the dead bushes lining the ditch over himself before blacking out.

Tricorns, like the horses they had replaced, were herd animals. The stallion ran hard for a few miles and then slowed to a more moderate pace as he made his way back to the ranch. Reaching the barn, he stopped outside the corral where he had the remuda tricorns for company.

The ranch house itself was a large two-story structure built with sun baked bricks made of the local dried grasses and clay found along the riverbanks. High walls, broken apart with narrow slits for windows made from the same material, enclosed an inner courtyard. Barns and corrals for animals rested against the outside wall facing the fruit and nut orchard, and a bunkhouse for the workers attached to the other wall. Racks of Bluestones to power the ranch’s steam generators were stored on layers of frames under a roof supported by long poles, so they couldn’t develop moisture and catch fire. St. Antoni’s first immigrants had discovered the bluestones by accident soon after they arrived. A man had spilled some water on a pile of them and they burst into flame. His partner, an engineer, experimented with adapting the chemical reaction from the mixture of stones and water to create enough heat to run a steam engine. The first few steam generators had been made from parts smuggled in from earth, but the engineer and his partner soon got rich making their own generators with parts made from a home-made alloy of iron, carbon, copper and tin.

Coming home several hours after Redbirds arrival, Michaels daughter Jeanne found her father’s tricorn loose in front of the corrals. Annoyed, because she hadn’t counted on her father being home and possibly asking her questions about what she had been doing, she was busy thinking up excuses as she rode up.

Her father had given orders that the girls weren’t to ride out alone, which Jeanne had disobeyed, and not for the first time. The youngest of Michael’s three daughters, she was accustomed to getting her own way by a combination of sweet cajolery or tantrums. Jeanne wasn’t above using her looks ruthlessly to obtain what she wanted, but she knew her father wouldn’t be fooled by the attributes that distracted others. Growing up, she had gotten away with doing forbidden things because when she was a young girl, people were diverted by her huge blue eyes that she could make swim with tears and her quivering lips. As she grew older, men especially failed to see past the lush figure, golden hair and red-lipped mouth. They frequently missed the hard-headed intelligence peeking out of those lovely turquoise eyes.

When her father didn’t appear, she dismounted and breathed a sigh of relief. She tied her gray striped mare up to the hitching rail in front of the tack room and unsaddled her. Coming out with a brush and currycomb after she deposited her saddle on a rack inside, she was surprised to see that Redbird, her father’s mount had come up to the hitching rail where she had tied Grayling her own tricorn, and was investigating the feedbag she had dropped over her nose.

“Redbird, how did you get loose?” she demanded of the tricorn, picking up his trailing reins. As she moved to re-tie him to the rail, she spotted the wound, still oozing a trickle of blood, on his rump where the second bullet had grazed him. When she stepped back and looked more carefully at the stallion, she could see a smear of blood on the stirrup leather.

Her first impulse was to remount and back trail Redbird to see if she could find her father. Looking around for help, she realized the stable area was empty. This time of day the thirty or so people who earned a living working for St. Vyr around the home ranch were probably inside resting from the burning heat of the day. The herders and farmers who normally would have been close by were doing the same in the orchards or out in the fields with the stock. Jeanne finished tying Redbird to the hitching rail and ran through the open doors on the courtyard to the house, shouting for her sisters, her grandmother and Margo the housekeeper.

“What is it, child?” Giselle, her grandmother asked in alarm when Jeanne burst through the French doors leading from the patio to the sitting room.

“Papa’s tricorn came back without him,” Jeanne gasped out. “There is blood on the stirrups and he has a bullet burn across his rump. Where is everyone?”

“Margo went into town to do the weekly shopping,” Bethany, her older sister said, referring to their housekeeper. “Did you say Papa was hurt? Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Jeanne said. “Redbird was loose by the corral when I got back. At first, I didn’t notice he was hurt. Where was Papa going today?”

“He went into town to see the lawyer,” Iris, the next oldest sister, told her.

“Jeanne, go saddle us some mounts while we change into riding clothes,” Bethany ordered. Jeanne ran back outside.

Bethany looked at her grandmother, her grey eyes worried. “Gran, You need to send someone out to the men working in the pastures closest to the house and have them come in and help with the search. If Papa was shot between the ranch and town, he’ll be found somewhere along the road to the Crossing.”

Giselle nodded her understanding and left quickly, calling for Macon, the head gardener.

Bethany came downstairs a few minutes later, dressed in homespun grey pants and shirt. The tight shirt and pants fit snuggly on her hourglass figure, and the grey color brought out the red highlights in her hair. she went to her father’s gun cabinet and loaded rifles and pistols for herself and her sisters. She belted on a holster belt specially made to fit around her waist. She slid a handgun into the holster.

“Oh, no,” Iris protested, her green eyes widening when she saw the weapons. She was tucking her white blond hair up under a wide-brimmed leather hat. “Surely we won’t need those.”

“If something happened to Papa,” Bethany told Iris grimly, “It wasn’t an accident. Jeanne said Redbird had a bullet burn across his rump. Do you want to be helpless if we need to rescue him?”

Bethany handed the second pistol and rifle to Iris who took it reluctantly. Despite her height, this middle girl of Michael St. Vyr’s had an air of fragility, belied by the expertise with which she checked the pistol and rifle.

“Where is mine?” Giselle asked, returning from her errand. Like the girls, she had changed to homespun pants, shirt and boots. She was a beautiful woman despite showing her fifty years of age, and could still turn heads in the tight pants and shirt.

“In the gun cabinet because we need you need to stay here in case Papa makes it home,” Jeanne informed her as she came back in through the window. She took her weapons from Bethany. “The Tricorns are ready to go.”

“Thank you, Jeanne,” Bethany said. She turned to Giselle. “You are our best doctor. You know you need to stay here in case someone brings Papa home wounded, Grandmother.”

Giselle gave reluctant consent to the plan. “I’ll give you girls three hours to find him, and then I’m coming out to look also.”

The land between the Golden Tricorn and the town of River Crossing looked flat, but it was pocked with shallow dips and cuts in the earth, making searching for a wounded man who might be trying to hide, slow and difficult work. The knee-high grass growing off the road could hide a body as well.

It was Iris who spotted the marks Michael had made when he dragged himself into the ditch for cover.

“Here!” Iris called, dismounting and sliding down into the waist deep ditch. Her tricorn smelled blood and pulled back nervously on the reins, nearly dragging her back up the embankment.

“Papa!” Jeanne called urgently. “Where are you?”

She too dismounted, and taking the reins of Iris’s tricorn, she tied the nervous animal to her saddle horn. She had no fear of her own mount running off because she smelled blood; she had spent hours training Grayling not to flinch under more difficult circumstances than a smell she didn’t like. When Bethany dismounted, she handed the reins of the tricorns to her and joined Iris in the ditch, carefully lifting the bushes to see if her father had crawled under them.

Iris had just spotted one of Michael’s boots sticking out from under a bush against the far bank, and she rushed forward, yanking the bushes out of her way.

“Be careful. There might be a Sander under there. You know how they like the shade when it’s hot,” Bethany warned, referring to St. Antoni’s large poisonous reptiles.

“So, shoot it with that damn gun you insisted we bring,” Iris retorted, dropping beside her father and picking up his wrist to feel for a pulse.

Jeanne had finished moving the brush aside and she too dropped beside Michael. “He’s bleeding. It looks like someone shot him in the back. We need to get him out of here and back to the ranch.”

“The doctor’s house in town is closer,” Bethany objected.

“Should we move him?” asked Iris doubtfully. “What if it hurts his back?”

“His back’s already hurt,” Jeanne snapped.

“That might not be relevant anyway,” Bethany observed. “I don’t think the three of us can get him back up the bank on our own. Here,” she pulled bandages, rags and a bottle of alcohol out of her saddlebag. “One of you see if you can clean the wound and bandage it. I—”

Her head lifted sharply as she heard the unmistakable clop, clop of a buckboard driven by a team of tricorns coming down the road from town.

“It’s Margo,” she cried, waving frantically at the driver. Margo snapped the reins, and the team broke into a gallop, coming to a sliding stop when they reached the girls.

“What happened, Nina?” Margo asked.

“It’s Papa. He’s wounded, and he’s down in the ditch. We will need help to get him out of there.”

“Dios mio!” the middle-aged housekeeper exclaimed, tumbling off the wagon seat and coming to look down into the ditch.

“I think we’ll soon have help to get him out of the ditch,” Jeanne said, pointing to a plume of dust rising on the road from the direction of the ranch. Shortly, about fifteen of the ranch hands thundered up on lathered tricorns, demanding to know what had happened.

With their help, it proved easy to move the wounded man into Margo’s buckboard. Margo made a wide, slow turn to jostle Michael as little as possible, and headed back into town. Iris and three of the hands, who were just aching for someone to attempt to stop them, rode with the wagon.

Bethany turned to Jeanne. “You’d better go back to the ranch and let Gran know what happened. She’ll want to come into town. Take a couple of the men with you.”

Jeanne nodded and remounted.

Bethany remounted her own tricorn and looked over at the hands that had stayed with her. “Durango, who is the best tracker?” she asked a tall slim man with a wide brimmed hat.

“Red and I,” he replied. “You want us to find out who did this?”

“Yes,” she said grimly. “I’m putting you in charge. And Durango, when you find him, we need him alive to be able to talk to the Sheriff. I don’t care if he dies afterward, just if he lives long enough to talk. I want to know who did this.”

She turned her tricorn and kicked her into a gallop, following the wagon into town, unaware of the startled look the men exchanged before they set off to find the sniper.

Unlike his father when he had been shot, Michael St. Vyr lived, but he would never walk again. He was lying in bed, unable to do anything but fume when he overheard Emory Johnson’s attempt to coerce Bethany into marrying him.

“You can marry me or end up in a whorehouse,” Emory told her arrogantly.

Giselle had taught Mike’s girls to take care of themselves. Bethany shoved him away and stomped over the front door which she threw open.

“Get out!” She snapped.

Emory hesitated, but Stevens, Michael’s attendant had come to the door of Michael’s room, and Margo’s son Paco was standing in the kitchen doorway watching, so he stalked out.

“This isn’t over,” he told Bethany.

“It had better be,” she retorted. “If you come back here, I’ll make sure someone shoots you.”

Michael knew then that he needed to start his plan for taking care of his daughters as soon as possible. Accordingly, he demanded pen, paper and a lap desk be brought to him. He wrote a letter and addressed it to McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detection in the City of Bitterstone. Margo’s son Paco took it into town and paid a runner to take it to Bitterstone.

An Interesting Proposition

THE YOUNG runner looked doubtfully at the letter he was being paid fifty copper chips to deliver. It was addressed to A. McCaffey, esq. The sign over the door simply read “McCaffey & Miller Range & Mine Detecting”. The messenger shrugged and opened the door. Inside the room were two wooden desks, a gun rack, and a cast iron stove with a battered coffee pot and two tables, one of which housed a stack of wanted flyers. A couple of straight-backed chairs pressed against the far wall of the room. The faded window shade rising halfway up the window fronting the street was drawn, but intense summer light glared in over the top of the glass panes.

The two desks had been positioned so that anyone entering by the door was automatically caught between them, but it wasn’t just the feeling of being trapped that made the messenger uncomfortable; it was the men. On the surface, this should not have happened. Outwardly, the two looked like prosperous townsmen, but the messenger could sense a faint edge of readiness for battle when he entered the office. It made him nervous. On St. Antoni, you paid attention to things that made you uneasy, or you died. The young messenger had been living on his own for more than ten years and he was still alive.

The older man was tall and skinny with a grey beard and bushy eyebrows. He wore a faded plaid shirt tucked into homespun jeans. He should have looked neat and tidy, but somehow didn’t. The younger man was a little below medium height with a tough, wiry build and mild brown eyes in a wedge-shaped face. Like the older man, he wore a plaid shirt and jeans but on him the clothes looked comfortable rather than messy. The two men regarded the messenger with almost identical expressions of quiet watchfulness.

“Ah—which of you is A. McCaffey?” the messenger inquired looking desperately from one to the other.

“That would be me.” The younger man held out his hand for the letter.

The messenger thrust a clipboard at him in haste. “Oh, please sign here, sir.”

  1. McCaffey dipped a quill in an open inkwell on the desk and scrawled a signature. He accepted the letter pushed at him and flipped a small handful of copper chips at the messenger who caught the tip deftly. He exchanged grins with the old man as the young man fled their office.

“You suppose he’ll change his drawers after he gets back to the Runner Office?” the older man, who called himself Henry Miller, was trying hard not to laugh. “You really oughtn’t to scare the boy that way. It’s bad for business.”

McCaffey made a rude noise. “Shut up, Henry. Besides, maybe it was your sour puss that scared him.”

The return address was the Golden Tricorn ranch in River Crossing. McCaffey turned the letter over several times before he opened it and began to read. Afterwards, he shoved it at Henry and went to stand looking out the window although not directly in front of it, as Henry read.

Henry was a slow, deliberate reader. When he was through, he refolded it carefully. Thoughtfully, he tapped it on the desk.

“Well, now. This is quite a proposition. Going to do it?”

“How, the Hell should I know?” Alec demanded almost fiercely.

Henry tapped the letter again. “Don’t hurt nothing to meet her, check out the situation. You can always say no. Been awhile since we got out in the field.”

Alec gave him an old-fashioned look over his shoulder. “You think I should go find out, don’t you?”

“Son, you ain’t been happy for a while. Oh, we’re making money, especially since we started hiring men for fieldwork, instead of doing the tough jobs ourselves, but you been looking for something. Maybe this is it.”

The Arrangement

THE GOLDEN Tricorn Ranch lay at the base of the foothills above a wide valley in the City State of Kenefic. The ranch had been originally owned by a family of First In settlers. They had died out, and the last of the family had sold the ranch to Michael St. Vyr, a placer miner who had made his fortune working claims in the rolling hills above the Valley. He still owned a Bluestone mine higher up in the mountains that separated the valley and settlement of River Crossing from the neighboring City State of Azure. He also had substantial shares in some placer gold and gemstone claims in the hills.

After buying the Golden Tricorn, St. Vyr, a canny man, put in wells, collected water in ponding basins, and diversified the fork-horned, shaggy cattle and the huge goats that were the ranches traditional crops by adding orchards of fruit trees in the winter and nuts in the hot summer. He added a dairy goat farm and raised geese to sell for meat and eggs. His two younger daughters now managed the dairy farm and sold the eggs and geese.

After St. Vyr had been shot, the family had converted Michael’s library into a bedroom, and his once vigorous body lay wasting away in the four-poster bed replacing the overstuffed chairs and tables, but his mind was still as sharp as ever.

The books had been moved into his den, but the room still smelled of the dearly bought leather bound books printed on rag paper, and the citrus and glycerin mixture the housekeeper, Margo Alveraz, used to polish the desk and tables. That pleasant smell was overlaid now by the less pleasant scents of chamomile, camphor and bandages.

According to the doctor, he would never walk again. Michael eyed the new wheeled chair, an ingenious affair brought by the doctor, in disgust. It was going to be his transportation from now on. A large chair body with the legs removed had been placed between four wooden bicycle wheels with a short axle connecting them. The chair moved when the front wheels were turned by hand.

His daughter Bethany sat in the straight-backed chair across from him looking down at her clasped hands. Except for her red hair and grey eyes, she bore little resemblance to her father. At twenty-four she couldn’t be considered a girl any longer—in fact by the standards of the pioneer society in which she lived, she was considered a spinster; old enough to be on the marriage shelf while younger women passed her by. She was wasn’t unmarried because of her looks; Bethany’s full, lush figure, fiery red hair and icy grey eyes as well as her father’s riches had attracted many men in the past, but by choice she was still unmarried. Although there was no social bar to a woman competing for work with men on St. Antoni, most of the work in the frontier society still required more physical strength than all but a few women possessed. With so few opportunities for women except marriage, Bethany should have been grateful for the marriage proposition her father had just presented to her. Instead, she regarded it with mixed feelings.

“Papa—”

“Mind, I’m not forcing you girl. If you’ve got a fancy for someone else, why, I can put this to Iris as she’s the next oldest. But so far as I can see, you haven’t got anyone else in mind.”

‘No,” she retorted, “and there is no one else eligible either! At least no one I could stand to be married to.”

“Just so. The only really eligible bachelors around here aren’t fit to sire pigs—well except for Carlos Madonna and I think he’s got eyes for Iris.”

“And she for him—not that she would admit it. Very well, Papa. I will meet this Alexander McCaffey. If we agree we are suited, then I will marry him; but I won’t consent until after I meet him.”

He scowled at her. “You’re as red-headed stubborn as your mother, but I agree. Now go and tell those two with their ears glued to the door your decision. I’m tired.”

Dismissed, Bethany shut the door softly on the downstairs room. Her father had posed a solution to their problems she would have liked more time to come to terms with. Unfortunately, her two younger sisters were lying in wait for her in the hall, anxious to discover the outcome of her discussion with their father.

The three girls shared a father, but different mothers and each of them had inherited their mothers looks. Iris was a tall slim blond, with dark green eyes and her mother’s patrician beauty. Just now, she looked anxious. Jeanne, the youngest, had inherited her mother’s full, red-lipped mouth, statuesque figure and her turquoise eyes. Just now the lush mouth was hard, and her blue snapped furiously.

“Well?” Iris whispered.

“Yes, what did the Doctor say?” demanded Jeanne at the same time.

“Come into the parlor,” Bethany gestured to the room across the hall.

Once inside the room Iris’s mother had designated the ‘lady’s’ parlor’, she shut the door and sat in one of the overstuffed chairs. She waited until her sisters had taken seats before she answered.

“The paralysis is permanent. The Doctor is sure, but that wasn’t what Papa wanted to talk about.”

Iris covered her face with her hands. Jeanne sent her a half-contemptuous look at what she considered an over-reaction. None of the girls had ever been close to their father. He had sent them all east to be raised by his mother after his last wife, Jeanne’s mother was murdered by raiders. Michel St. Vyr hadn’t had good luck with his wives. All three had died on him, leaving him with daughters and no son to take over for him. When Copper City, where they were living, was taken over by a rival gang faction, he had come east to rescue them but none of them had spent much time here on the ranch since the oldest, Bethany had been twelve years old.

“Then he wanted to talk about the ranch,” Iris stated.

“Who is going to take over handling the railroad holdings, and running the ranch and the mines?” the practical Jeanne asked. “Us?”

Bethany shrugged. “For the time being Papa is going to continue to run things from his chair—”

“What about the Johnsons? Isn’t he afraid they are going to take advantage? After all, we know one of them shot him from ambush, probably that horrible Abner, even if we can’t prove it.”

“Well, as I started to say, Papa has a plan for that. It involves all of us. It is pretty much the same plan he told us about when we first came home—”

“I’ll not be a sacrificial goat! He’s not marrying me off to some old man!” Jeanne exploded.

“If you don’t marry someone how do you expect to live if we lose the ranch and the mine to the Johnsons? Go to work as a cowhand?” Iris asked. “If we returned to Earth we would have nothing and probably be put in jail for violating the Portal Rights Act. Here at least we have money and land. If we allow it to be taken from us, how will we support ourselves? I mean the railroad practically runs itself and we get some revenue from the shares, but—”

Jeanne jumped to her feet. “I can run the ranch!”

Bethany shook her head. “While I agree that you could do that under ordinary circumstances, that isn’t the case right now. What do you or any of us for that matter, know about fighting a takeover like this? Jeanne, you know as well as I do, that the men won’t obey you if we must fight the Johnsons. No, Papa says we need a warrior to defend the ranch. A male warrior that the men will follow. In fact, he’s already sent for him.”

“What about Carlos?” objected Iris. “He would help us.”

Bethany shrugged. “He says Carlos has too much to do defending the Lucky Strike and the gold and gemstone claims. Apparently, there is trouble there too.”

Jeanne took a deep breath for another blast, but Bethany cut her off. “In any case Jeanne, you aren’t going to be the ‘goat’, I am.”

Her sister deflated like a wet pig’s bladder and sank back into her chair. “You? But that isn’t fair to you either—”

“What if he’s horrible?” whispered Iris.

“Papa isn’t forcing me,” replied Bethany mildly. “He did say that Alec McCaffey is young with an established investigator business and he has resolved situations like this before, so he will have the experience to take over the fight. If he is good enough, maybe the two of you won’t have to marry to save the ranch and the mines. I do have the right to refuse if we can’t stand each other.”

“Honey, we can’t ask you to do this for us,” protested Iris faintly.

“That’s right!” Jeanne seconded.

She smiled at them. “Do you know I love you both?” Bethany held out her arms and enfolded them in a tight embrace. “This is the best way. If we want this man to take up our fight, we must offer him something substantial, and to safeguard our ownership of the holdings, he must be bound to us. According to both Gran and Papa, the best way to bind a man to us is through a marriage. Kids, I’m the eldest. This is my job. We all know what happens to women who don’t have money or a way to support themselves. Remember what it was like for the Jones women when that Smith gang in Copper City killed their men?”

Iris shuddered. “The Smith’s turned them into whores. I’d rather die.”

“I won’t let that happen to you, and I won’t do it myself,” Bethany assured them, calm descending on her as she came to terms with her agreement with her father.

“Why does Papa think this man will be better than the Johnsons?” Iris asked.

“He was recommended by your uncle, Iris,” Bethany replied.

Jeanne frowned at her. “And if he is worse than Emory Johnson?”

Her sister smiled grimly at her. “Gran has a contingency plan for that. But first we let him defeat the Johnsons.”

Jeanne gave her a penetrating stare and Bethany nodded. Jeanne swallowed. Unlike the softer Iris, she had a good idea of what her grandmother’s ‘contingency’ plan might be. “I see.”

Bethany didn’t get any time to herself to think about her new situation until after dinner when she managed to slip away from her anxious sisters into the inner courtyard of the house. She had always loved the inner patio space. It was so quiet here. The dark sky overhead was broken up by stars, and St. Antoni’s double moons had risen, making the white-washed walls of the house stand out in sharp relief to the shadows cast by the night. Separated by a low wall from the outer courtyard leading to the stables, bunkhouse and barns, the patio was a quiet area of tranquility.

Separated from the outer courtyard by a low wall, the inner courtyard provided shaded benches under fruit trees and flowering plants with luxurious scents. It was too early for the fruit to be ripe, but hard little balls were already beginning to make fruit. In the moonlight, Grans flowers made splashes of bright color against the whitewashed walls. A deep brick pond with colorful fish surrounded by raised flower beds was attached to the shaded well in the center of the flagstone courtyard.

Razor, her grandmother’s brown and green striped Bobcat, yawned and stretched from his perch atop the wall enclosing the well. The Bobcats were a species of feline native to St. Antoni. Dubbed Bobcats for their resemblance to earthly wildcats by the settlers who first saw them, the bobcats of St. Antoni were about halfway in size between their namesakes and a pet cat on earth. A grown bobcat weighed about twenty-five pounds, with short, stripped fur in rainbow colors. Razor and his sons and daughters earned their keep by ridding the ranch house and barns of St. Antoni’s large rodent-like creatures who were attracted by grains stored there.

The area created an oasis from the late summer heat, but it was by no means cool. Bethany’s white blouse clung damply to her body in the heat.

A faint rustle of clothing caught her ear. She was not quite alone then. She turned her head. “It’s alright, Gran,” she said.

Her father’s mother came forward and sat beside her on the bench, stroking Razor’s tufted ears when he leaped down to join them. How did Gran manage it, Bethany wondered? Despite the heat, Giselle St. Vyr didn’t look in the least wilted in her long-sleeved blouse and trousers.

“I thought you might want to talk about it,” her grandmother’s voice was soft. “I think I met him once you know.”

Bethany shifted on the bench so she could see her grandmothers face. “Really? What was he like?”

“Very presentable actually. I could tell someone had taught him manners. Oh, not the kind you sometimes see out here, but true Gentleman’s manners. It was just after I moved to Copper City. I had gone to the hotel to make a delivery of a necklace to a customer. He had rescued a kitten from some boys who were tormenting it,” she added inconsequently. “He gave it to me to hold while he dealt with them. I found him quite charming.” She patted her granddaughter’s hand and went back into the house.

Her emotions a wildly teetering turmoil of hope and fear, Bethany continued to sit there in the scented darkness until it was time to retire to bed. Her prospective bridegroom rescued kittens and shot people. It was quite a combination.

The next few days were nerve wracking for Bethany. To keep herself busy, she went to help Jeanne with her birds. The large, rainbow feathered birds were raised by the ranch for meat and the eggs they laid.

“Today, you can help us separate out the ones we’re sending east to the market,” Jeanne said. The flock was still inside the enclosed fence next to the bird cote. All the workers were dressed in leather shirts and pants to protect them from the bird’s sharp beaks and talons as they separated them. She handed her sister a pair of gloves and a hat with netting to cover her face.

Bethany looked at her curiously. “I thought we were going to collect eggs today?”

Jeanne laughed. “I already did most of that. No, today, we are going to separate most of the grown drakes out of the flock to send them to market.”

The big drakes were easily identifiable by the black plume of feathers riding over their heads. Using long sticks with brooms on the ends, the crew began moving the drakes into a separate enclosure. From there they were herded into large wagons with enclosed tops to prevent their escape. When a wagon was full, it moved down to the spur of the railroad set up to load animals. Large wooden crates with sealed tops were waiting for the birds to be loaded. As soon as the shipping cars were loaded, they would be pulled to the docks and loaded onto steamboats where they would be taken to the rail head in Junction City, and then on to the other city states to be sold. It was hot, dirty and messy work. Bethany was soon too busy trying to shoo the hens back into the cote with a protesting Lulubelle to worry about the marriage she had agreed to. She knew Jeanne would spend the next day soothing a complaining Lulubelle, who would be searching for the missing members of her flock and keeping a jealous eye on the others as she supervised them feeding on the long grasses in the orchards.

On the third day, to keep herself busy, she went out to the barn where she kept her racing tricorns. Tricorn racing was big business. There was a racetrack on the outside of River Crossing that drew large crowds. Once a month during Race Day, breeders like Bethany brought their animals to town to pit them against each other in four races; two sprints of a quarter mile, a medium distance race of about three quarters of a mile and a longer race of a mile and a quarter. Bethany’s stable held two animals showing promise, a red and white stripped filly who could sprint like the wind, and a gold and brown colt who might prove himself as a distance racer.

Tessa, a slight girl who worked as her head groom, met her at the door this morning.

“Glory is feeling pretty fresh, Miss Bethany,” the girl told her. “I think she’s ready for her workout.”

“Then saddle up. I want you to ride her this morning,” Bethany said.

Tessa smiled delightedly. Bethany knew the girl wanted to be a rider because a rider got a percentage of the purse, so she had decided to see if Tessa could handle it. She saddled her own tricorn, a gold and brown mare and followed Tessa out to the practice track south of the nut orchards.

Bad Blood On The Rise

NESTLED FURTHER north in the same foothills above the valley, a far different family conference was taking place. The two ranches shared a border along Gold Creek whose headwaters began in the mountains to the east. The creek, dotted with small gold & gemstone claims, most of whom had been sponsored by St. Vyr, rushed down the mountains to join the Black River, the body of water bisecting River Crossing and who gave it its name.

Even from the outside, the ranch houses were very different. The Golden Tricorn was a gracious Spanish style hacienda with a tiled interior courtyard and a well in the center. The J4 ranch house was tucked up under the Ironwood trees bordering the valley. Although as large as its rival, the Johnson house was a timber-built two-story house with a breezeway between two bottom stories. The kitchens and laundry were on one side and the living and dining rooms on the other to avoid the intense summer heat.

The Johnson patriarch, Ira, was still tall and broad shouldered with bright blue eyes and a leonine shock of white hair. Before settling in River Crossing, Ira Johnson had been a member of the Grayling Clan who controlled Highland Mountain Stronghold. Having risen as far as he could in his own clan, he decided that opportunities in the lowland city states might prove easier to surmount. An ambitious man, he had traveled to the lowland City States, studying how to become a power in the three states bordering Highland Mountain. Introducing himself as a businessman, he made influential contacts. During this time, he met and married a woman who he felt would fit in with his new station when he achieved it. Pending that time, he set her up on a captured farm at the edge of Highland Mountain territory. When the war with the neighboring Kawasaki family had led to the demise of Johnson’s Grayling clan and the death of his wife, he fled Highland Mountain to the town of River Crossing and the J-4 ranch he had won by cheating in a card game.

Johnson had been a handsome man in his youth and had bequeathed his looks to his three sons. Emory, the oldest, made the most of his choir boy looks and natural animal magnetism with the ladies. He was quick-tempered, intolerant of opposition from both men and women, and prone to violent fits of anger when he had been drinking. The youngest son, Abner, was the most like his father in appearance. He was vain of his long golden locks which he kept tied back with a leather string. His dark blue eyes and clean cut features made many women sigh over him. He enjoyed his position as a member of a powerful family and his reputation as a gun hand. The middle son, Samuel, shared his brothers’ clean cut features and blue eyes, but his hair was a dark, burnt honey color. Unlike the other two, he had inherited their mother’s brown eyes and more importantly, her sense of right and wrong.

The current discussion like that on the Golden Tricorn concerned the coming fight, but offense was the topic here. Samuel was making coffee in the big tin pot. Abner was cleaning his gun at the table. Emory sat straddling a wooden chair with his arms crossed on its back. Ira turned from looking out the window to glare at his oldest son.

“When are you going to get married to that St. Vyr gal? You’ve been sparkin’ her long enough.”

Abner giggled. “He ain’t! Not if she has anything to say about it!”

“You shut up!” Emory slapped the table with his fist so the cups on it jumped.

Ira frowned at his son. “What’s wrong there? You’re a fine-looking man and you will have a share in the ranch.”

“She don’t like him,” Abner grinned and blew a kiss at his older brother. “He tried to kiss her at the last dance and she boxed his ears. Then he went over to tell her it was time they got married, and she threw him out.”

Ira snorted. “Rushed your fences, did you? Well, you go into town, buy up a big box of chocolates, and take it out to her. You be real sweet and apologize for taking liberties.”

Samuel brought the pot to the table and poured coffee into their cups. “Might be too late for that; I heard old St. Vyr sent off for a husband for her. Some range detective out of Bitterstone.”

“I swear boy, you got a better spy system than anybody I know! Where did you hear that?”

Samuel shrugged. “If some of us talked less and listened more, everyone could hear what I hear.”

Ira fixed his middle son with a cold stare. That had almost sounded insolent. But Samuel was never insolent to him. He grunted.

“You hear a name with this rumor?”

“Alec McCaffey. He’s supposed to be coming in on the train from Junction City this week.”

Ira’s fingers drummed on the table for a minute. “McCaffey, ain’t he the one cleaned up that mess at the Mill Creek Mine over the mountains? As I recall, he’s got an old gunhand he runs with name of Henry Miller.”

“Why don’t we take him out before he gets here?” suggested Abner eagerly, patting his handgun. “Emory would have time to make up with his lady-love.”

Ira shook his head. “If we arrange an ambush this soon after St. Vyr got shot we’ll end up with a District Marshall down here. I don’t want that. They’re getting too nosy as it is.”

“Who said anything about an ambush,” countered Abner, “I’ll meet him somewhere and force a fight on him.”

“Don’t be so sure you can take him out,” Samuel warned his younger brother. “Word is McCaffey got his start as a gun for hire; even if Emory came with you to even the odds, Henry Miller isn’t the only one he has in his crew. There were six guys with him on the Mill Creek job.”

Samuel was talking about Emory shooting at McCaffey from behind when Abner shot from in front and they all knew it. This was the part of his family Samuel hated. Love and loyalty kept him from riding off, just as it had kept his mother from leaving when she realized the kind of man she had married. Still, he did his best to discourage actions like these. It had earned him the reputation in the family of being too cautious, but sometimes the Old Man listened to him.

Ira considered battle tactics and his cocky youngest son. True, the boy was lightning fast with that gun, but he was green. McCaffey was rumored to be fast too and he was a seasoned fighter. However, Junction City was far enough away so a killing there might not be connected to St. Vyr’s shooting. It probably wouldn’t spark an investigation by the Territorial Agents office. The situation needed to be assessed. He could decide on the killing after he got there. It never occurred to Ira that he would be breaking the law. When he had taken over the J-4 five years ago, he had decided he wanted the Golden Tricorn. He planned to become governor of the Kenefic City State, and for that he needed money. St. Vyr had money and holdings. Laws were for the weak. Power was survival; to survive a man took what he wanted. He got rid of anyone or anything in his way.

“Maybe. Abner, You and I will take the riverboat up to Junction City. I’ll decide if you fight him after I’ve seen the setup there. You,” he pointed at Emory, “get into town and buy that girl those chocolates! Samuel will stay here and run the ranch as usual”

The Wrong Mac

THE PROPRIETOR of the Ferry Boat Hotel in Junction City was a canny man. Junction City, once just a convenient crossing place above where the Wild Mans River joined Black River and two other rivers on their way to the southern coast, had grown to be the main hub for travelers using the newly minted steam trains. Hopeful settlers wanting to take up land in the North and West came here from the eastern and southern city states to buy supplies and find guides. Junction City was the second oldest human settlement on St. Antoni, almost as large as Gateway City itself, where the illegal Earth Portal operated. It was large enough to overtake several of the smaller towns that had previously surrounded it. These boroughs had retained their independence and local government for the most part, joining into a larger council who decided on issues affecting all of them.

Junction City had several fancy hotels to serve wealthy travelers who wanted a break before crossing the Wild Man and going on by train. Jim Faring, the owner of the Lilliput Saloon, was one of the business owners to decide to take advantage of the influx of travelers. He divided his Saloon into two parts and separated the halves with batwing doors. On one side, his regular customers could still congregate for food, liquor and cards. On the other, a man could safely bring his family for a nice meal or courting couples could enjoy a soft drink from the new soda machine.

On the Saloon side, Henry and Alec were enjoying a quiet supper before heading up to their room for the night. It was early evening. Arriving well before the rush from the incoming train, the mixture of miners coming off shift, far walkers and rivermen in town for a spree, they choose a table against the wall dividing the two areas, providing them a good view of all the customers.

At the bar, a tall, raw-boned man with dusty clothes leaned his double-barreled shotgun against it and ordered a whiskey. “You, better check that gun Mac, the bartender reminded him. You know how Sheriff Melody is about not following the City ordnance.”

“Yeah, just as soon as I get a drink,” the man called Mac replied.

At the sound of the name, Abner Johnson looked up. Like Mac, he hadn’t turned in his tied down handgun. Pa had said to wait, but here he was with a golden opportunity to rid the family of this McCaffey. He strode to the bar and bumped the man, knocking the shotgun to the floor.

“Hey, watch it!” he said loudly, shoving Mac again.

Instead of reaching for the fallen shotgun, Mac slowly turned to face him. “Kid, you need to settle down,” he said mildly. “Joe, set him up a drink.”

“I don’t drink with dirty Irish Micks!” Abner sneered.

“You got a big mouth, Kid,” one of the other men offered. “Maybe we ought to shut it for you.”

“Now, Tim,” Mac drawled, “he’s just a baby with a loud mouth.”

Across the room, Henry touched Alec with his hand and jerked his head towards the bar. “Trouble building,” he remarked.

Alec turned his chair to watch. “Both with guns, this could get ugly. Kid’s looking to make a rep as a gunfighter.”

Henry shook his head, “Big man’s shotgun got knocked down, and he hasn’t got a handgun; besides, he’s a blade man. He’s got a big-ass knife on his belt, one in his boot and another down his back under his shirt. My moneys on him.”

Abner slapped Mac across the face and stepped back so he could draw. A riverman sitting nearby stuck out his boot and Abner tripped. He went down on his rump, accompanied by jeers and laughter from the crowd. Furious, he scrambled to his feet and jerked at his gun. His draw was fast and sure, but before he could fire, ten inches of steel flashed across the room, speared itself into his throat and out the back of his neck. Abner’s bullet went into the sawdust floor.

“What’d he make me do that for?” the man called Mac complained.

“Guess he was looking to make a name,” suggested one of the bystanders.

The outside doors swung open and Ira Johnson came running in to kneel by his son.

“Who did this?” he demanded.

“It was a fair fight. He tried to pull his gun on Mac here Mister,” offered the riverman who had tripped Abner, gesturing to the tall rawboned man standing at the bar.

Sheriff Melody pushed his way past the crowd. “Anybody, see it?”

“I saw it, Sheriff,” the bartender said. “Mac here was minding his own business when the kid shoved him and then slapped him. He was looking for a fight. He tried to pull iron and Mac knifed him.”

“That’s right, Sheriff,” corroborated several witnesses.

The sheriff eyed Mac with disfavor. “Jeb Mackenzie, maybe I ought to have you check that knife as well as the shotgun.”

“Sheriff, my son was just a boy,” Ira protested. His son was dead and he would grieve for him later, but perhaps the situation could still be salvaged. “This man McCaffey is a known gunfighter. I say this was murder.”

“Didn’t use a gun, used a knife. And Mackenzie here is a pain in my ass but he’s no gunfighter,” the sheriff retorted. “It looks like a fair shooting to me.”

“His name’s not Alec McCaffey?” Ira asked.

“Nope. This here’s Jeb Mackenzie.”

At the back table, Alec exchanged looks with Henry. “Well now,” Henry observed. “Looks like Mike was right and you’ve bought chips in this game whether you anted up or not.”

“Yeah. I think we better check out and take the boat south tonight instead of in the morning.”

A Warrior Comes

THE MORNING her prospective bridegroom was expected to arrive, Bethany woke early after a fitful night’s sleep. The darkened sky was just showing the first streaks of light when she got out of bed to sit on the window bench in her room. A light breeze floated in through the open shutters. She propped her chin on her hands and looked out over the ranch. From here, she could see the kitchen gardens outside the walls, and the groves of fruit and nut trees at the base of the mountains where they joined the gray Ironwood trees thrusting up toward the darkened sky. Mike St. Vyr planted the orchards with the seedlings Giselle brought back from her final trip as a Portal Runner. Gold Creek cut through edge of the orchard, headed for its meeting with the Black River that gave River Crossing its name. Further west, the low rolling land covered with dry yellow grasses looked like a buttery sea extending to the horizon.

Everything was quiet, but she knew it wouldn’t last; already she could hear Iris’s goats and Jeanne’s geese stirring around. Below, a cooking pot clanged and a door slammed as the housekeeper, Margo Alvarez, added bluestones and water to the iron stove to start a fire for breakfast.

Life began early in the valley. By three o’clock, St. Antoni’s sun would have turned the place into an oven. Everyone living in the valley started early so they could rest in the afternoon to avoid working in the heat of the day.

The Steamboat Bethany knew Alec would take downriver to the Crossing from Junction City wouldn’t arrive until noon, so he wouldn’t arrive at the ranch itself until later that day. He would ride out from town and that was at least an hour ride. There was plenty to do to get ready for Alec’s arrival. She stood up and dressed for the day.

By lunchtime, Bethany had worn out her welcome with most of the household. She had squabbled with both her sisters, snapped at Margo and accomplished nothing the entire morning. In exasperation, her Grandmother, recognizing the ill temper for the nerves it was, thrust a broom into her hands with instructions to sweep the flagstones on the courtyard and stay out of everyone’s hair.

Both the large, arched wooden gates in the courtyard had been thrown open for the day, allowing the breeze to cool the house and grounds. Bethany had barely begun her task when she discovered both Iris’s and Jeanne’s especial pets had again escaped confinement and invaded the inner courtyard.

King George, Iris’s irascible Billy goat, was sneaking toward Giselle’s prized flower bushes. He loved the taste of them which was why he was not allowed in the courtyard when they were in bloom. Lulubelle, Jeanne’s pet goose, felt the courtyard was her property, fiercely resenting any encroachers human or animal. When she spied George, she hissed and spread her wings, attempting to drive him out of her territory. King George responded to her threat by lowering his head and stomping his feet. It was obvious battle was about to be joined.

Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany noticed the two riders dismounting just inside the gates. She ignored them and started toward the combatants, intending to use her broom to separate the pair. She was too slow. Just as she approached, King George lowered his head and charged. Lulubelle, back-winging to avoid his rush, smacked into Bethany. Furious at what she considered an attack from behind, Lulubelle hissed and honked, battering Bethany with her powerful wings and bill. Reeling backwards from the impact of the forty-pound goose, Bethany threw up her hands to protect her face and didn’t see King George until he butted her in the stomach. Still shielding her face from Lulubelle’s wrath, Bethany stumbled backward and landed on her rump in the raised flowerbed around the well. Lulubelle shrieked in anger, continuing to pummel Bethany with wings and beak. Meanwhile King George, the picture of innocence, ambled over to nibble on the forbidden flowers.

The uproar had drawn an audience: the two riders, Grandmother Giselle, Iris, Jeanne, and several of the stable and dairy hands had all rushed into the courtyard to see what was happening. Tessa, the stable girl in charge of Bethany’s racing tricorns headed over to help her, but the younger of the riders got there first. He booted the indignant Lulubelle, still shrieking madly, off Bethany and knelt beside her.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

Bethany wiped away a trickle of blood from under her nose, noticing as she did so that her hand was covered with dirt and blood, and her dress had a streak of white bird poop all down the front. She looked up into concerned dark brown eyes and blew out a breath before she answered. “No, I’m fine, thank you.” She wiped the dirt off her hand as well as she could and let him pull her to her feet.

“I’m Alec McCaffey, ma’am,” he said, still retaining her hand.

“How, do you do,” Bethany said, resigned to the ridiculous first impression she was making. “I’m Bethany St. Vyr. I’m sorry for the rude welcome. We don’t normally greet our guests with this kind of hullabaloo. May I present my sister Iris,” she gestured to the ethereal girl with the silver gilt hair detaching the goat from the flowers. Iris nodded in acknowledgement, but concentrated in pulling the goat toward the outer courtyard. “And this is my other sister, Jeanne.” He looked over at the honey-haired amazon checking for injuries on the still complaining goose whose cries had turned from wrathful to pitiful.

“That dratted goose!” Giselle came bustling up, firing off orders. “Just look at you! Bethany, go in the house and let Lisette help you clean up. Jeanne! Iris! Get those critters off my patio! Tessa,” she called to one of the watching stable hands, “Come and take the gentleman’s Tricorns.”

She turned to the younger man, who reluctantly let go of Bethany’s hand. “You must be Alec McCaffey. I’m Giselle St. Vyr. My son has told me so much about you.”

“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” he bowed over her hand. “May I present my friend and mentor, Henry Miller?”

Henry laughed. “No need, son, I remember Mike’s mother well. Nice to see you again Mrs. St. Vyr.”

“If you don’t mind, we prefer to see to our own Tricorns,” Alec intervened. “We’ll join you in the house as soon as that’s done.”

Giselle nodded. “I remember. Just come in that door and Stevens will show you where to clean up. We’ll have tea when you join us.”

Bethany had retreated to the house where Lisette, her grandmother’s oldest friend and maid, pounced on her and led off to change her clothes and wash her face.

“I can’t wear that,” she protested, when she saw the afternoon tea dress Lisette had picked out. “I’ll look overdressed.”

“You need to make a better impression,” Lisette retorted. “You want to get the upper hand in this marriage you use your best assets.”

“Lisette, he just saw me with a bloody nose and covered in bird poop! Nothing can change that kind of first impression!”

“He watched you all the way to the door,” Lisette retorted, undaunted. “Play your cards right and you’ll have him right where you want him.”

After washing their hands and dusting off the trail dust, Alec and Henry were led to a room on the ground floor overlooking the patio garden. Giselle St. Vyr greeted them, offering tea or coffee and a selection of small cookies and sandwiches.

“My son will join us soon,” Giselle promised. “After the shooting, he takes time to maneuver his new transportation.”

“He was shot from ambush?” inquired Henry.

“Yes. We were lucky that we found him as soon as we did.”

“Who is investigating the shooting?” Alec wanted to know.

He frowned when Iris responded, “The sheriff supposedly, but since he almost never leaves town, I don’t see how he could find out anything!”

“Well, if he investigated it,” Bethany added, seating herself on the sofa, “he would have to go into who had the best motive to shoot Papa, and that would lead to his biggest campaign supporter—Ira Johnson.”

She accepted the cup her grandmother handed her and passed it to Alec.

“Lulubelle suffered no injuries,” Jeanne announced from the doorway. “No thanks to you kicking her.” This last was directed at Alec with a glare. Lulubelle, he concluded, must be the goose.

“What about your sister?” he demanded. “That bird gave her a bloody nose and might have pecked out an eye!”

“Lulubelle was defending herself!” Jeanne declared, “She thought she was being attacked from behind and by that miserable Goat!”

“Did you discover how he got out again, Iris?” Bethany interjected hoping to change the subject before the argument could escalate.

“Well, there were hoof marks on the fence, so I’m thinking he must have climbed it. Goats are brilliant, you know, unlike geese,” Iris responded sweetly.

“Lulubelle’s smart—” Jeanne began.

“Ah, I see my girls are making you welcome,” Mike St. Vyr boomed out. Jeanne and Iris exchanged glares but quieted down at the sound of their father’s voice.

He rolled the chair into the room. “If that’s tea, I’ll take a cup.”

Giselle poured it and handed it to Jeanne to take to her father, along with a small plate of sandwiches.

After tea, Michael St. Vyr and Alexander McCaffey retired to the den, while Henry went out to check on the tricorns. Iris set out to examine the repairs to the goat enclosure she had ordered. Giselle and Bethany departed to go to her room to decide on her dress for this evening. Jeanne claimed she needed to check on Lulubelle again and disappeared.

In the den, McCaffey sat forward in the hide-covered chair and frowned at St. Vyr. “Your letter made me curious enough to come out here, but I’m not sure what I think it said is what you meant.”

St. Vyr rolled a brandy glass around in his huge hands. In the light from the windows, iron gray shone through what had once been a fiery head of hair. St. Vyr had been a powerful man before the shot had crippled him, and immense power still showed under the blue homespun shirt he wore. Since McCaffey knew St. Vyr owned a rich Bluestone mine and could have afforded to wear a silk shirt if he wanted to do so, it was obvious he was more comfortable in homespun.

“You didn’t make a mistake. I will make out the papers deeding you one third of the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike, the day you marry my daughter, Bethany.”

Alec knew from the gossip they had picked up in River Crossing what St. Vyr was facing. He wasn’t surprised St. Vyr wanted a gunman, but the nature of the offer had thrown McCaffey off balance. His face showed none of his inner turmoil. To be offered everything he and Henry had worked toward for years was a tremendous temptation.

“You’re offering an awful lot more than fighting wages, St. Vyr. Why?”

St. Vyr looked at him. “The Doc says I may not last much longer.” He lifted the brandy glass. “I like this painkiller better than laudanum. You’re right. I could hire a bunch of gunmen and take care of Johnson and his sons. But what about after I’m gone? Besides, anybody I hired, well if he didn’t have a stake in the pot, he might get to thinking there was only a cripple and four women to keep him from taking over. Married to one of my girls, he’d be family.”

McCaffey snorted. “If I was that kind of sander, St. Vyr, I don’t reckon being married would stop me.”

St. Vyr set the glass down on the desk with a bang. “Dammit!” he roared, driven to the last ditch, “I want my girls to be happy. I always wanted one of them to marry a man who could take care of things. Well, they ain’t done it.”

“Why did you pick me?”

St. Vyr smiled a little wryly. “You recall a job up North for a man named Bill Spears?”

McCaffey’s face showed none of his surprise. He had brought that job to a successful conclusion avoiding the usual blood bath.

“Spears is kind of my brother-in-law. My second wife Astrid was sister to his wife. We were courting about the same time and we got to be friends. He still writes me from time to time. Bill told me quite a lot about you.”

McCaffey got up and stood looking out the window. It was a measure of how disturbed he was that he turned his back on St. Vyr.

St. Vyr watched him in silence, trying to see him as his daughter would. McCaffey was a little below medium height, not slim, but not fat either and he moved with the smoothness of a well-honed blade. His dark hair was clean; his wedge-shaped face clean-shaven, dark brown eyes looked out over a large, well-shaped nose. The nose had a scar across it, the obvious legacy of a knife fight. The boy was well enough looking he supposed, although Bethany had never seemed impressed by good looks. If she had been, she would have accepted the oldest Johnson boy’s proposal.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey at last, over his shoulder, “what makes you think you can order a girl to marry someone? Here on St. Antoni women have rights.”

St. Vyr took another sip of his brandy. “Bethany’s a good girl. She knows her duty. You needn’t be thinking I’m going to foist an antidote on you either. She’s got her mother’s looks. ‘Course she got my hair, but on her it looks good. And she will always tell you the truth. There’s been times when I wish she wasn’t so truthful, but that’s another story,” he added hastily.

“St. Vyr,” said McCaffey grimly, trying to take control of the conversation, “let me make this real plain. I am not about to marry any girl who feels she doesn’t have a choice. The very last thing I want is a wife who resents having to marry me.”

St. Vyr chuckled. He levered himself up out of his oversized chair with his crutches.

“I think it’s time you and my daughter got better acquainted. Let’s go to dinner.”

Exasperated, McCaffey followed his soon-to-be father-in-law out of the room.

Bethany was nervous. It was too early to go back downstairs, so instead she fussed with her hair which Lisette had helped her sweep into a loose knot at the crown of her head. Soft red curls wafted around her face. She checked her dress in the mirror, and decided, again, that it was perfect for a dinner at home ‘en famille’. The dress was a soft green made of thin material in deferral to the heat. In the new style, the bodice was deceptively modest, the sheer cloth descending from a high collar to the waist. The blouse was designed to catch a man’s eye; that sheer overblouse covered a low-cut chemise showing the full curve of her breasts. The nipped in waist showed off Bethany’s hourglass figure to perfection and the full, knee length skirt swayed enticingly when she walked. Gran had picked out the dress. Bethany wished for that strong presence to be in here giving her a pep talk. She was sure there was no social situation, not even this one, that Gran wouldn’t have been able to handle with aplomb.

I can’t do this! She thought in panic. And then that other voice, the one she had listened to all her life said, Oh, yes you can; You must. Do you want to be out in the street earning money for food on your back, like those Jones women in Copper City?

After Momma Clara was killed, Giselle had come and taken all three girls back east to live with her. Iris had stayed with her other grandparents in Port Breakwater a lot, but Bethany and Jeanne had lived with Gran in a modest house in Copper City.

Gran had supported them easily with the profits from her gemstone business until the clique war between the Jones and Smiths destroyed her livelihood. Michael St. Vyr had removed his family when he heard about the trouble, but it had taken him a week to get to Copper City using the train. Remembering the fate of the Jones women who had been on the losing side, Bethany understood clearly that the only thing standing between her family and destitution was the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike Bluestone mine. She was determined to hold onto them for herself, her sisters and Gran.

When her father had explained his plan to her, she had agreed. If I am going to sell myself to save my family, she had thought grimly, it won’t be for a few paltry chips of copper. At least I’ll be a married woman so no one will call me a whore the way they did poor Priscilla Jones.

Her father had promised her he would try to find her the best man he could, but he had explained that the kind of man who could lead the firefight to rid themselves of the threat the Johnsons posed, might not be cultured or refined.

The dinner bell chimed. Bethany opened the door to find Margo’s son Paco waiting in the hall.

“You look muy bueno, senorita!” he exclaimed.

Bethany laughed. Paco’s juvenile admiration was soothing to her nerves. “How come you’re not at dinner?” she asked.

He skipped ahead of her down the stairs. “Mama said to come and tell you how you look, so you feel better,” he chortled, and ducked into the hallway leading to the kitchen before Bethany could catch him.

Despite Margo’s superb food, dinner was not a success. Margo preferred for her and Paco to eat in the kitchen, so only Giselle, Iris, Bethany, St. Vyr, Henry and McCaffey sat down at the dining room table.

Jeanne came in halfway through dinner and made herself disagreeable to her father to divert St. Vyr from delivering a scold or asking where she had been. She had disobeyed him and ridden out alone again. Her father recognized the tactics; Clara, Jeanne’s mother had often done the same for similar reasons. Giselle and Iris fled the dining room as soon as dinner was over. Giselle claiming the privilege of old age to retire early, and Iris to help Margo clean up in the kitchen.

Bethany was glad to escape to the parlor after dinner, Margo having told her not to help to clear the table tonight. She was annoyed with her youngest sister for making a difficult situation harder. So when she saw Jeanne sneaking off up the stairs, she called after her. “You had better get Margo to help you get those grass stains off your blouse, if you plan to wear it again.”

Jeanne frowned at her, trying to look at her back over her shoulder. “What grass stains?” she demanded.

“You can’t see them, dear,” said Bethany sweetly. “They are in the back.”

Jeanne opened her mouth to retaliate and then heard her father coming out of the dining room. With a gasp, she fled upstairs. Bethany stalked into the parlor and sat down in a chair with a thump.

When Paco brought in the tea tray, she gestured to him to set it on the low table in front of her. “Bed for you, young man,” she said. Paco gave her a hug before he left.

McCaffey sat his cup down on the table with a decided click. “St. Vyr, I think your daughter and I need to talk. Will you excuse us?”

“Now, see here,” St. Vyr blustered, “it’s hardly proper—”

“Papa,” Bethany interrupted him peremptorily, and added a short sentence in French.

Michael opened his mouth and then shut it again. There were things a man just didn’t say to his female offspring, no matter what the provocation. “I’ll be in the den,” he announced, just as if that was what he had planned to say all along.

McCaffey, who had learned French in Madame Tussaud’s House of Pleasure in the French quarter of Azure City eyed Bethany in astonishment. Surely, he hadn’t heard his ladylike bride say what he had thought he’d heard.

“What did you say?” he demanded.

Bethany eyed him speculatively. Papa had promised he would not force her to marry a man she found repulsive and so far, she had found nothing in McCaffey to dislike. It was time for another test. Composedly, she said, “I told him that unless he planned to lie between us in the marriage bed, he would have to leave us alone sooner or later.”

McCaffey choked on a mouthful of tea and had a coughing fit.

Eyes watering, he looked at her. “Your father said you would be truthful to a fault. I see now what he meant!”

“Truth is always preferable,” Bethany said. “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember later what lie you told.”

McCaffey came over and sat down opposite her in a comfortable wing chair. “Since you prefer the truth, you may as well know I told your father I will not marry a woman who is being forced to marry me.”

Bethany was taken aback. It had not occurred to her that a man who hired out his gun would have scruples about marrying her. Something inside her that had been tense uncoiled at that moment. McCaffey’s attitude was something she recognized—she had seen it in her father.

“But you are a Romantic!” she exclaimed. “How extraordinary!”

“Don’t be a damn fool!” snapped McCaffey, annoyed. “I’ve seen enough marriages to know it is rough enough when both parties want to get married. Marrying a woman who has been forced into it is a recipe for disaster.”

“No, you are right, of course,” Bethany said. Papa, she remembered did not like to be thought of as a romantic either. “Both parties in a marriage must have good reasons for entering the marriage. Papa is not forcing me to marry you, you know. He would never do that.”

“I don’t mean he would beat you. Look, being forced by circumstances isn’t much different from being forced in other ways. It isn’t right.”

It dawned on Bethany that unless she changed his mind, McCaffey would not cooperate with the plan. She would have to be very careful she realized, if she judged wrong, he would get up and walk out.

“My mother’s grave is up there under the trees,” she said. “So is Iris’s mother, and Jeanne’s. My mother didn’t have to come out here with Papa to this wild land. Gran had a good house in the city, and she made a comfortable living supporting herself. Mama came out here because she and Papa had a dream to build a home. It was the same with all Papa’s wives. I remember the day Jeanne’s mother died. Margo had taken us out to pick berries. We were on our way back when we heard the shooting and saw the fires. Margo wouldn’t let us children come to the house until after she had made her decent. It wasn’t fit for us to see, she said.”

“Your father has done a fine job here. I understand how proud you must be of him.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Bethany said. “Do you know what happens to women like me, like my sisters and grandmother when they have no income? Do you know what they do to survive? Well I do. I saw what happened to some of Gran’s customers when the Smith Clique took over in Copper City. You are a man; you can work. For a woman, there are very few places to work and stay respectable. I can’t sew a straight line, none of us can cook, and I am a terrible teacher; you should have seen me attempting to teach Jeanne how to dance. I thought we would pull out each other’s hair! Jeanne and Iris are no better. If we lose the ranch, Iris and Jeanne will lose the income from dairy and the geese farm, and I will lose my racers. We can’t go back through the Portal. If we tried to go back to earth, we would be arrested for violating the Portal Settlement Law. Besides, our mothers died for this land. I will not let that awful man and his cocksure sons come and take it away from us. They shot Papa in the back! Oh, I know the sheriff said he couldn’t arrest anyone without proof. But I know who did it.”

She turned around and looked McCaffey straight in the eye. “Even if I knew how to win a fight like this I am no warrior woman who men will follow into battle. But I can save my family if I marry a man who can do these things. I don’t know what you want in a wife. I don’t know if I could be other than I am. If it turns out I’m not the kind of woman you want to marry, I can’t change that. I can’t pretend either that I have fallen in love with you at first sight. But I will pledge to you I will do everything I can to make a marriage between us work. But you are correct; we must both be willing for the marriage to be a good one, so you must want it too.”

There was a long silence. McCaffey got up and went over to stare out the open French doors. Dusk was turning the sky a faint mauve color. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to believe it so badly he didn’t trust his own judgment. If she was telling the truth, she was offering him everything he had worked for since he had walked out of his stepfather’s house at fifteen; a home, a family, and work he could be proud of. If her words were a trick, it was a good one. Could Bethany be so good an actress? He looked at the clear gray eyes, the soft rounded chin, and the firm set of her mouth. He wanted to believe what she was offering was real. Still, if it was a trick, he could apply a simple test.

“I guess we can go into town tomorrow and get married,” he said.

Bethany, who had been thinking bitterly that she would have to tell Papa she had failed, was stunned. “What?” she blurted out.

“I said,” he repeated, “that we can go into town tomorrow and get married.”

“Tomorrow? No, we can’t get married tomorrow. There must be an announcement in the paper, we must see the Preacher and send out invitations.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

Bethany eyed him warily. She wasn’t sure what had changed his mind, but she wasn’t about to let him ride roughshod over her either. “Tomorrow,” she stated firmly, “We will go into town, put the announcement in the paper, and talk to Preacher Mayer about holding the ceremony after church on Sunday. We will also,” she added, “make arrangements to hold a reception at the hotel the following Saturday.”

She stacked the cups and saucers on the tea tray so she could take them to the kitchen. Aware that he was watching her with a proprietary air, she suddenly felt shy, so to make conversation, she asked, “Did Paco tell you which room is yours?”

McCaffey took the tray from her and set it back down on the table. “No, he didn’t.”

“The first one at the head of the stairs. Your friend is next door.”

She stopped, because he had taken hold of her shoulders. She could feel the warmth of his hands through the thin material as if she were naked to his touch. After a moment, he tipped her chin up with his finger, forcing her to look at him.

“It will be a long time until Sunday,” he said ruefully before he kissed her.

Bethany had been kissed before. When she had gone with Gran to visit Iris’s grandparents, several men had tried, because despite her outspokenness, she was St. Vyr’s daughter and would inherit a considerable amount of property and money when he died, and she was more than passably good looking. She had been little impressed by the procedure. Emory Johnson had attempted to kiss her as well, but his attempt had been brutal. This was different. McCaffey’s hold was firm, but she could have released herself if she had tried. His mouth was warm and tasted faintly of brandy and the mint tea she had served after dinner. Without realizing it, she felt herself relaxing into his arms. When he felt her response, the kiss deepened. He coaxed her lips apart with his tongue and his arms came around her, one hand sliding down over her buttocks, pressing her up against him so she could feel the hard bulge of his arousal. Like everyone who grew up on St. Antoni, Bethany had spent a lot of her growing up years around animals; she knew what pressed against her. It startled her to feel an answering heat between her thighs. When she found herself lifting against him so she could feel more, she came back to herself with gasp of shock.

McCaffey let her go, smiling down at her.

“Good night,” she gasped, and fled upstairs, leaving the tea tray behind for Margo.

McCaffey stood in the doorway and watched her run up the stairs. She had felt good, he realized, and it was obvious her response to him hadn’t been planned. He whistled to himself as he gathered up the loaded tray and took it out to the kitchen.

It wasn’t until he was undressing for bed that it occurred to him that the interview with Bethany had not gone according to plan. He had intended to gently explain to her that he would accept the job, but not the marriage unless some real feelings developed between them. He scratched his head. How he had ended up engaged to her with a wedding planned for next Sunday? Furthermore, that sweet faced girl had virtually told her own father to mind his own business. What’s more, Michael St. Vyr had obeyed her.

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The Handfasting Saga Continues

Read a preview of Book 4 From This Day Forward Here

A preview of the 4th installment in the Handfasting series: When she finds the body of a retired shopkeeper on the beach, a series of mysterious events draw the new shop owner into a web of passion, terror and murder. Jayla must find the killer and discover what he wants because she is his next target. All the while dealing with a disfunctional house-bot who thinks he is a sex machine, a nosy boyfriend, an overprotective family, interplanetary jewel thieves with missing loot, and the interplanetary and local detectives who think she stole the jewels…

From This

Day Forward

The Handfasting Vol 4

Gail Daley

 Suspicion

THE SUN WAS just peeking over the horizon as Jayla ran with her usual long easy strides along the deserted beach. Jayla liked to jog along the shore next to the spaceport because despite the noise the shuttles made taking off and landing, the shore was usually deserted except for a few solitary runners like herself. She and Ghost, the creamy white Quirka clinging to her shoulder, enjoyed the fresh breeze and the freedom from demands on her time.

She brushed her short gold hair back out of her face. It seemed she had been running half her life. Jayla smiled to herself as she remembered how hard it had been when she began to run every morning.

Jayla wasn’t native to Vensoog. Her Uncle Gideon had married Genevieve, the Laird of clan O’Teague and emigrated to Vensoog after Moodon, their home planet was burnt off in the last war with the Karamine Coalition. Jayla had just lost her parents and had resented being uprooted to a new world with strange customs where she knew no one. A headstrong, resentful teenager can find plenty of trouble to get into by herself and even more if she connects with unscrupulous adults who intend to take advantage of her rebellious feelings. She had made loads of mistakes that first year. She bitterly regretted having gotten involved with Gregor Ivanov, the much older man who had romanced her and planned to sell her for the child sex trade. While it had not been her fault when she and other girls from the clans were kidnapped by the Thieves Guild, she hated remembering how helpless she felt as a captive. She was rescued from both situations, but she vowed to learn to defend herself so nothing like that could happen again.

Two weeks after the clans had rescued the girls from the Jack ship, Wolf Larsen from her Uncle Zack’s old Recon unit, showed up on Glass Isle to give her lessons in self-defense. She later learned Wolf had been specially requested as her teacher by Lord Jake Reynolds, her Cousin Luc’s best friend.

“Stamina,” Wolf’s deep voice echoed in her mind, “is the essence of fighting. You can’t fight if you are exhausted or out of breath.” He had knocked on her door at dawn that first day to drag her out to run a mile. Wheezing, and with her legs feeling like jelly, Jayla had kept at it because she was tired of being pushed around. Seeing her determination, Wolf agreed to show up every day for the next two years to train her in self defense.

After Wolf had returned to his other clan duties, she had kept up the training. The morning runs were not an indulgence even though they took time away from her shop. She ran, worked out in the Clan gym at Glass Manor, and practiced her marksmanship faithfully because she intended to never again be at the mercy of someone else.

Thanks to her parent’s foresight in moving their accounts to Fenris as soon as the war with the Karamine Coalition started, Jayla had inherited a sizable nest egg when she came of age. Enough to buy the gift shop she had always wanted. When she had bought the shop with the apartment over it earlier in the year, Jake had promised to come by and see how she was getting along.

Her faithful companion Ghost was a Quirka. Quirka were native animals adopted as pets by the early Vensoog settlers because they were small, cute and avid hunters of the insects and other vermin infesting human dwellings. The Quirka adopted humans because they provided a mutually satisfying emotional bond and a ready source of food and hunting grounds.

Like all Quirka joined with a person, Ghost went everywhere with her chosen human and even seemed to enjoy the morning runs. Her pristine white coat sparkled in the morning sun, and her plume of a tail waved with the motion of Jayla’s steps. The sturdy leather straps affixed to the shoulders of Jayla’s running clothes allowed Ghost to cling to Jayla with her tiny, hand-like paws and feet. White Quirka like Ghost were rare. Ghost had never developed the ability to adapt her fur color to match her environment the way other Quirka did. The hollow rows of retractable venom quills along her backbone, which were Ghost’s chief defense against predators, glistened as the sun hit them. If she felt threatened, her quills stood upright and filled with an acidy venom. Being stung by a Quirka was quite unpleasant, and in case of smaller predators, sometimes fatal. Ghost’s bright blue eyes, also unusual for Quirka, matched Jayla’s in color. She chirped in Jayla’s ear now, her small upright ears pricked forward as she recognized the large rock where Jayla usually turned to make the return trip.

There appeared to be a bundle of rags and sticks lying next to the boulder. Jayla slowed as she approached, hoping it wasn’t something nasty a picnicker had left there. If it were, she decided, she would report it instead of hauling it all the way back to the Spaceport buildings the way she ordinarily did.

Ghost hissed as they approached and her quills lifted, her sharply pointed nose wrinkled in distaste. The smell hit Jayla whose olfactory senses were less well developed than a Quirka, and she stopped several feet away. She had once come upon a goat on Glass Isle that had been dead for several days. It had smelled like this.

It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. What she had taken for a bundle of sticks was wearing shoes. Swallowing nausea, she made herself walk closer to see if what was lying in the sand was human or humanoid. It was difficult to tell what species it was, because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, but it had been some type of humanoid.

Glad she hadn’t eaten before starting her run, she backed away and sat down on a driftwood log, trying not to throw up. Ghost, in the way of all Quirka, was more concerned with Jayla than with the unknown body. She stroked her mistress’s face and crooned soothingly to her projecting comfort. Jayla dropped a kiss in gratitude between the small pricked ears and took a deep breath before she tapped on her wrist com.

The com automatically dialed Clan security on the O’Teague compound instead of the emergency Port Recovery Security Patrol. Even though she was now living above her shop in Port Recovery, she had forgotten to re-program it. Her com was immediately answered by the Clan communication center.

“Jayla, I haven’t heard from you in ages—what’s wrong, honey?” Mira, who had often been assigned as her trainer, had sounded cheerful until she saw the girls face.

Jayla turned her wrist so Mira could see the body through the com. “I need Port Recovery Security to come out here. It looks like Ghost and I found a dead body this morning. We’re out at the end of the island behind the spaceport.”

“Are you safe?” Mira demanded, instinct kicking in. Her regular job was O’Teague Clan Security but she was pulling desk duty because she was pregnant.

“Yes, we’re safe,” Jayla reassured her. “I think it’s been here a while.”

In the background, Jayla could hear her calling for Larry to grab a sled and get his ass out to the end of Port Recovery Island. “Jayla’s found a body. I’m calling the Port Recovery Security but she’s alone out there—”

“Jayla,” Mira’s voice was calm. “You stay where you are. I’m sending Larry out to you, and I’ll call the Port Recovery Security. I want you to keep this com open, okay?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jayla assured her.

The trip from Glass Manor on O’Teague Isle to Port Recovery Isle took thirty minutes by boat, but a fast airsled could make it across the channel in ten. When the tall, dark skinned man dismounted from the sled, he smiled reassuringly at Jayla whom he still saw as the little girl she had been when he first met her. Larry Jorgensen, the O’Teague Clan Security Chief, was a former member of her Uncle Gideon’s unit who had married into the clan

“You okay, kid?” his deep voice rumbled.

She nodded, giving him a watery smile. “Yes, I’m fine Larry. It was a nasty surprise, but we’re okay.”

Jorgensen nodded at her and went to inspect the body, being careful not to touch it. He was examining something on the ground in front of the corpse when they heard the approaching whine of the Port Authority Security sleds. He came over to her side to wait with her.

Within a few short minutes the deserted shore was swarming with Patrol. The first to arrive were the uniformed officers who came to check out her story, then the medics, and finally, the detectives in charge, a man and a woman in civilian clothing.

Since she and Larry and been told to wait for the detectives, she leaned back against a boulder on shore, and sipped at the bottled water Larry provided for her and Ghost. Ghost, no longer perched protectively on her shoulder, was busy investigating a pile of seaweed a few feet from where Jayla sat. They had both missed breakfast, and presumably the Quirka was hoping to find a few insects to munch on until they could return home. Larry had offered Jayla an energy bar earlier, but her stomach had rebelled at thought of eating anything.

When the two detectives finally approached her, Larry moved in protectively.

“Lady Jayla?” the male detective asked. “I’m Jim Gorsling, and this is my partner, June Sipowitz. We have a few questions for you.” Gorsling was short, with a square, bulldog face and dark hair in contrast to his partner, a tall, hazel-eyed woman with bronzed skin.

“You found the body?” Gorsling asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Why did you contact Clan O’Teague Security before you called us?” Sipowitz asked.

“Like all the Laird’s immediate family, Lady Jayla’s emergency signal is set for Glass Manor on O’Teague,” Jorgensen interjected, obliquely reminding the two detectives they were dealing with a high-ranking clan member and to be careful how they treated her.

“Perhaps you could join me over here, sir,” Gorsling suggested. “We have a few questions for you.”

“I was dispatched here when Lady Jayla notified O’Teague clan she had found a body,” Jorgensen said, not moving. “It’s been requested I stay with her until she can leave. I’m to give her a ride back to her shop.”

“Are you her legal representative?” Gorsling inquired. “Because unless you have some legal standing—”

Ghost, sensing discord, left off hunting for bugs and scrambled back to Jayla where she hopped up to her shoulder. She turned her bright blue eyes to the two detectives and hissed defensively, her quills lifting.

The detectives eyed the Quirka warily. Neither one wanted to chance getting stung by the Quirka’s acid tipped barbs.

Sipowitz tried a different tactic. “Your Quirka is unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen a white one before.”

Jayla stroked Ghost’s back and the quills lowered marginally. “Yes, she is different. Ghost was a gift.”

“From me,” announced a voice from behind them. “Why is it,” Jake remarked as he dismounted his airsled, “that whenever I find you, you’re either in trouble or causing it?”

“Jake!” Jayla cried, jumping up. “Where did you come from?”

Jake pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars of the sled, revealing a shock of dark hair. The male detective gave Jake a sharp look of recognition. He saw, as she did, a slim man in his early twenties with an easy smile, and an air of assurance showing he was accustomed to being obeyed.

Ghost bounced in delight, and when he was close enough, leaped to his arms chirping happily. “Yes, I’m glad to see you too,” he told her, petting her before moving her to his shoulder.

Sipowitz frowned. “And who might you be?”

Her partner answered her. “Cara, this is Lord Jake Reynolds, the Duc d’Orleans’ nephew, L’Roux Clan. What brings you here Lord Reynolds?”

Jake gave them a little bow. “I’ve been requested by Clan O’Teague to assist Lady Jayla in her present difficulty. Ah—I do have legal standing.”

Jorgensen relaxed his protective stance. “Good to see you kid. If you’ve got this, I’ll head back to the manor. I was just coming off shift when I was notified about it.”

“Sure,” Jake said, “take off.”

Jorgensen stepped away and spoke with Gorsling for a few minutes before mounting his sled and zipping off.

When Gorsling returned, he said, “Lord Reynolds, you said you had legal standing but—”

Smiling, Jake pulled a small crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. “Here is my authority to act for Lady Jayla.”

Frowning, Gorsling stuck the crystal into his porta-tab and showed it to his partner who rolled her eyes. All they needed was interference in their investigation by a high clan lord.

Jake looked over at Jayla. “So, you found a body, did you?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“This is a kind of deserted area to run in.”

“I like to run out here,” she said a little defensively. “Nobody bothers me.”

He grunted. “Where’s your weapon?”

She patted the pocket of her running shirt. “It’s here. Mira got me a small one to fit in this pocket and I always carry it when I run.”

Sipowitz looked up and held out her hand. “May I see, it Lady Jayla?”

Jayla slid her hand into her pocked and pulled out a pulsar gun about the size of her palm, which she held out butt first to the detective. Sipowitz took it and examined it. “Hasn’t been fired,” she said, handing it back.

“That’s right,” Jayla said.

Sipowitz studied her. “Had you ever seen the deceased before this?”

“I don’t think so,” Jayla replied. “I’m afraid the smell got to me so I didn’t go any closer than I needed to make sure it was a person.”

“Okay. Just as a matter of form, can you tell us where you’ve been over the last several days?”

“I’ve just moved into my new apartment in Port Recovery. I’ve been out on Glass Isle collecting the rest of my stuff.”

“All right,” the detective said. “That’s all for now. We may have more questions later though so don’t leave town.”

“I believe it’s time we let these officers get on with their investigation Jayla. If you have any further questions, Detectives, you can get in touch with Lady Jayla through Clan O’Teague,” Jake said. He took Jayla by the arm and led her over to his sled.

“There’s no place for Ghost,” she objected.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jake replied, opening a cache in the side. He took out a spare helmet for her and handed it to her. Then he brought out what looked like an upside-down helmet with a clear visor. He snapped it into place on the front control panel. “C’mon Ghost,” he said patting it. Ghost hopped into the cavity and settled happily into the made-for-Quirka seat.

“I want one,” Jayla declared. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s a prototype. Friend of mine is marketing them. I’ll tell him he’s got a sale.” He mounted the sled and waited for her to throw a leg over the seat behind him before they took off in a whirl of sand.

Gosling left the Coroner and returned to his partner as Jayla and Jake took off. “Coroner thinks it’s a body dump,” he told Sipowitz. “She figures the woman has been dead about two days.”

“That means if Lady Jayla was out on Glass Isle she couldn’t have done it.”

“I suppose so, but she sure drew a lot of defensive firepower for someone who is innocent,” Gorsling said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I told you Lord Reynolds is the Duc d’Orleans’s blood nephew. He’s the clan troubleshooter. The Duc sends him out to solve problems. And the guy we found here with her? That is O’Teague’s Head of Security here in the Port.”

“Well even if her bracelet is marked as a member of the Laird’s immediate family, I’m surprised to find the clan sent two people out to back her up though, unless—”

“Unless what?”

“I’ll tell you after you run her Match List history and that of Lord Reynolds,” she said.

“I’ll do it on the way back to headquarters. What do you want it for?”

“Well, the Planting Festival is coming up and it occurred to me that Lord Reynolds coming to ‘rescue’ her from us might have nothing to do with this murder. Either the Laird or the Duc could be doing a little matchmaking. If that’s the case, then O’Teague’s local Security Head showing up might only mean Lady Jayla has an overprotective family.”

“The O’Teagues do have that reputation,” he admitted. “We’ve got an intern from that clan working down in the morgue this year, and from what I heard Lady Katherine practically microscanned the place for germs before she let the kid work there.”

Unaware of the speculation they left behind them on the beach, Jake stopped the sled in the rear of Jayla’s shop. Her apartment was on the second level. Although she had access from the store, the private entrance was upstairs in the back. She dismounted and pried a reluctant Ghost loose from her perch in the Quirka basket. “Thanks for coming to the rescue again,” she told Jake.

“I was coming to see you anyway. Drusilla wanted me to invite you to have dinner with the three of us tonight here in the city,” he said.

“I’d love to, but I’ve been invited to attend the Merchant Guild mixer tonight. It’s my first one and I don’t want to miss it.”

Jake shrugged. “So, I’ll escort you there, and then we’ll meet Luc and Drusilla for dinner afterwards.”

He waited while she and Ghost mounted the stairs to the owner’s quarters. When the door had closed on Jayla and Ghost, he restarted the sled as he commed his uncle. L’Roux was head of security in Port Recovery this year and his uncle liked to be informed of anything touching the clan families.

Once inside her apartment, Jayla stripped and then she and Ghost got in the shower. She lifted Ghost to the specially made Quirka shelf, and turned on the water letting the hot spray wash away the morning. Ghost enjoyed playing in the water, turning and twisting to rinse her short, plush fur of the sand and salt that had accumulated on it during their stay at the beach.

Once they were both clean, Jayla wrapped a towel around herself while she patted Ghost dry. She set the Quirka down on the mat in front of the Quirka sized blower on her dresser, laughing as Ghost danced and whirled in the stream of warm air.

“May I assist you in dressing?” Jayla jumped as her house-bot spoke behind her.

Jayla gave a small shriek of surprise and scowled at it. The bot had been christened Daryl by the previous owner. It was one of the expensive bots that could fool the unwary into thinking he was human. When she first moved in, Jayla thought it was a plus that her apartment came furnished with a house-bot to cook and clean. However, Daryl had yet to cook or       clean anything, and judging by his behavior, his previous owner had installed some unconventional programming, which Jayla had tried in vain to modify.

“No, you may not,” she snapped. “Remove yourself from this room while I am dressing. Go in the kitchen and make a grocery shopping list.”

“But Mistress,” the Daryl protested. “I am versed in all forms of physical pleasure and I can assure you—”

“Out!” she shouted. Thank Goddess the maintence people were due to come today to adjust his programming, she thought half hysterically. If she had to listen one more time to that bloody list of sexual acts he was programed to perform, she would scream.

She was furious all over again when she listened to the messages on the house net and discovered that the Robo-Maintence crew was not coming out today. They were sorry to hear she had canceled and wanted to reschedule the appointment.

Furious, Jayla got on the com with them and demanded to know who had canceled the prior arrangement.

“Your house-bot left us a message you were canceling the appointment,” she was told.

“Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. “I expect to see you out here today at our scheduled time.”

“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” the receptionist said. “We’ve filled your time. We have an open slot two weeks from now if you want that.”

Jayla made a growling noise. “Fine! please have it noted in the records that until he has been re-programed, you are not to accept messages from my house-bot! Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” she was told snippily.

Jayla turned her glare on the house-bot. “You may no longer contact anyone without my express order.”

“That is a waste of my talents,” Daryl informed her. “I am well versed in communication protocols needed to efficiently run this house for you and—”

“Shut up!” she yelled.

Daryl hadn’t stocked the robo-chef either so Jayla took Ghost down the street to a local eatery that served breakfast where she ordered Ghost the Quirka Special (diced raw meat, nuts and vegetables) and a large spicy omelet made from Ostamu eggs for herself. Ostamu were huge flightless birds bred by the settlers for their meat and eggs. Their multi-colored feathers were highly prized for clothing and decorations as well.

Since Jayla was a fellow business woman, Carol, the café owner, brought her order to her and sat down for a friendly chat.

“What’s the matter, hon?” Carol asked, pouring them both a large Cafka. Carol was in her late forties with the comfortable shape of those who work in the food industry.

“Can they charge you for killing a droid?” Jayla demanded. “I just found out that clump of slag I inherited as a house-bot canceled the appointment I made to get him reprogrammed!”

Carol’s eyes danced over the rim of her cup as she gave a gasp of laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said inadequately. “Is he still offering you sexual favors?”

Jayla nodded over a bite of omelet. “This morning when we got out of the shower. I don’t dare invite anyone over—I hate to think what might happen if he does it to a guest. Suppose my friends think I programed him for that stuff?”

Carol sputtered into her Cafka. “You never know—it might lead to some interesting encounters.” She eyed her friend shrewdly. “That’s not all that’s bothering you, though is it?”

Jayla sighed. “No. I found a body on my morning run today. It was nasty.”

“Oh, you poor thing. Who was it?”

“Well, to tell the truth the smell was so bad I didn’t get close enough to find out. Just that it was human or humanoid.”

“Icky,” Carol sympathized. “I wonder who it could be? I don’t know of anyone local who is missing—”

“I’d rather talk about something else if you don’t mind though. Anything else.”

“Sure,” Carol said obligingly. “It’s going to make the rounds though. You’re likely to have customers asking about it all day. There’s nothing like curiosity to drum up business.”

Jayla made a face. “You’re probably right. I’m not officially open, but I can’t afford to turn away customers.”

“The other shop owners will be dropping by too, you can bet,” Carol told her.

The rest of the day was productive, even with the constant interruptions from her fellow shop owners and local customers who had heard about the body and wanted the latest gossip about it. When she went upstairs from the shop to dress for the evening events, she was conscious of a pleasant feeling of achievement.

The original shop owner, Sara Lipski had sold high-end imports, but Jayla intended to widen the sales base by featuring locally made arts and craft products. She already had several local artists and craftspeople bringing in new products, and hoped to pick up more at the Planting Festival.

She and Ghost were still dressing when she heard Daryl let Jake in. The apartment’s walls were soundproofed so she couldn’t hear the actual conversation, just the murmur of voices.

She looked at herself and Ghost in her mirror and nodded in satisfaction. She wanted to look professional, but classy tonight, so she had decided on loose black pants and a dark gray vest over a blue, dragon-nest silk blouse. The blue in the blouse, with its three-quarter inch sleeves and scooped neck matched her eyes, and the gray vest snugged under her breast and drew attention to her slim waist. Ghost wore a bracelet of glittering black and blue stones around her neck, and Jayla had fluffed her white coat until the hollow ends of her fur sparkled.

When she joined him in the sitting room, Jake was standing with his arms crossed frowning at Daryl, but he gave her a wide smile and a wolf whistle.

“You look great. Very classy,” he said.

“Thanks. I want to look like a businesswoman at the mixer.”

“You pulled it off,” he said. “At least you will have if no one at the mixer ever meets Daryl here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the house-bot as they shut the door and started down the stairs. “Seriously Jayla, you need to get that sucker re-programmed. Do you know what he asked me?”

She signed, “I can guess. The programmers were supposed to be out today, but Daryl called them and canceled. I was furious. He’s driving me crazy. It seems Sara Lipski had some very irregular enhancements programmed into him. The house maintence company told me it would be another two weeks before they could reschedule me. I’ve told them not to accept any more orders unless it comes from me in person, but I don’t know if I can stand keeping him around for that long.”

“You could turn him off.”

She snorted. “I tried that. He’s got a failsafe that resets itself if he’s been off for over eight hours.”

“Want me to check around for another House Maintence company?”

“Thanks, but I’ll do it. I just didn’t want to deal with stuff like that today. I hid in the shop doing inventory.”

She was pleased to see that Jake had brought a closed two-seater airsled for tonight. She had enjoyed the ride from the beach but tonight she didn’t want to arrive at the mixer looking windblown.

The Merchant Guild Mixer was held at a meeting room in City Hall, one of the large domes lived in by the first settlers that the City had converted to civic use. Tonight, the Merchant Guild had scattered tables around the large room for seating, but a lot of the local shop owners were standing around in groups talking. When Jake and Jayla entered, they were met by Miles Standish, the current Elector of the Guild.

“So glad you came tonight, Jayla,” Miles said, enthusiastically pumping her hand while his eyes ran over her admiringly. When he saw Jake, he frowned, but quickly smoothed out his expression. “And you brought a plus one, too. Nice to meet you. Are you a close friend of Jayla’s Lord Reynolds?” he asked Jake, smiling owlishly.

Miles and Jake were of similar heights, but Miles mild blue eyes, snub nose and round face gave him the air of a friendly puppy.

Next to Miles, Jake appeared dark and dangerous and it was plain Miles wasn’t exactly happy to see him despite his pleasant welcome. Jake did nothing Jayla could object to; in fact, he was perfectly pleasant to the Elector, but Ghost muttered fretfully in her ear and Jayla could almost feel Jake going on alert as the men talked.

“That’s right,” Jake agreed. “Jayla and I go way back. He cousin Lucas introduced us.”

“I see. I hope you will excuse us for a few minutes while I introduce Jayla to some of the other merchants. Ah, Carol,” Miles said snagging Jaylas friend from the café, “Perhaps you can find Lord Jake here a drink and entertain him while Jayla and I make the rounds.”

“Sure,” Carol agreed, smiling. “I’m always up for a drink with a good-looking man.”

She signaled a waiter-bot who brought over a tray of drinks. “What’s your poison, Jake?”

“Cafka,” he told the server. “No alcohol for me thanks; Jayla and I are meeting friends for dinner after this, and I don’t like depending on the auto pilot on my two-seater. It’s been a little wonky lately.”

“Miles always likes to give special attention to the new women merchants,” she told him.

Jake gave her a considering look. “Especially if they are young and beautiful?”

Carol grinned at him. “Somehow I don’t think he was expecting competition like you.” She slipped her arm through his. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you to some people I think you’ll enjoy talking to.”

Jayla enjoyed meeting the other store owners, some of whom she could see becoming friends. After several minutes though, she became aware that a few of them seemed ill at ease. Everyone was friendly and polite, but she caught some odd expressions whenever Miles put a hand on her shoulder or her back, which he did a little too frequently. Whenever Miles touched her, Ghost stiffened on her shoulder and muttered unhappily. Jayla wondered what the Quirka sensed that she didn’t.

When she was introduced to a young couple named Fred and Elsie Boyington, who owned a food supply store, she surprised a flicker of relief mixed with pity in Elsie’s expression. It was even more puzzling to get almost the same response from a pair of sisters named Jan and Lin Sorency who ran a local clothing shop.

“Perhaps we can get together later this week for lunch, Jan suggested, directing a challenging look at Standish. “Miles always encourages us old timers to make you newbies welcome, don’t you Miles?”

He hesitated briefly, and then said, “Of course. An excellent idea. Just don’t frighten her away.”

Jan bit her lip, but nodded. “Sure. No reason to scare a newcomer away.”

“That sounds as if there is something to be afraid of. Don’t worry—I don’t scare easily,” Jayla said lightly.

About halfway around the room, Miles stopped. He seemed to hesitate for a minute then he asked, “Do you mind a personal question?”

“I suppose it depends on the question,” Jayla responded, looking at him curiously.

“That guy who came with you—is he boyfriend or guard?”

Jayla stiffened. “Jake is a good friend of mine and of Clan O’Teague,” she said somewhat haughtily. The ‘it’s none of your business’ remained unspoken.

Miles looked self-conscious. “I’m sorry, it’s just—well I got a copy of my Match List today and you’re on it, and I find you very attractive, so I was wondering—”

Jayla’s anger softened. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said. “Look Miles, I like you, and you seem like a nice man, but I will be too busy getting my shop up and running to think about Match Lists.”

Deciding it was time to put an end to this type of overture, she caught Jakes eye and he moved casually toward her.

As soon as he was within speaking distance, Jake asked, “Everything Okay here, Jayla?” Jayla turned to him with relief.

“I’m fine, Jake,” she said. “I guess this morning took a little more out of me than I thought. I’m sorry Miles, Carol, but I think we need to get going to meet our friends for dinner. Thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time and I do want to meet more of my compatriots later.”

“Of course,” Miles said. “I’ll drop by with the application for joining the Guild sometime this week.”

“Thank you and good night,” Jayla told him

Jake was silent as he put her into the airsled. He gave the order to proceed to the restaurant, a new one overlooking the water, and turned to face her.

“Okay, what did I interrupt?” he asked.

Jayla made a frustrated noise. “Did anyone ever tell you what a nosy boots you are?”

Yes,” he said calmly. “You, many times. Give.”

“You’re worse than Ghost at a vermin hole,” she complained. “He wanted to tell me I was on his Match List. There, are you satisfied?”

He studied her face. “You didn’t look overjoyed at the news. Is he on yours?”

She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know. I didn’t download mine when it came in this morning. I was too busy dealing with the house programmer fiasco and then I went down to work in the shop.”

“So look now,” he said. “I’ve got mine.”

When she hesitated, he said, “I’ll make you a deal. You download yours, and I’ll call mine up and we’ll swap. That way neither of us will have any surprises.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you be willing to do that? You always guarded your list like it was pirate gold before.”

He grinned at her. “And you always found out who was on it anyway. What are you afraid of?”

Jayla tapped her com unit and scrolled down through the list until she found the message from the Makers, conscious of Jake doing the same. When she called it up her Match List, she stared at it in shock. Miles Standish was on it all right, but so was Jake. Before she could wipe it clear, Jake had started the data swap. She looked at his list. She was on his list.

“You knew I was on your list this time,” she accused him. “That’s why you wanted to swap.”

“Well, I was curious,” he admitted. “Now we both know and we don’t have to worry who else is on it. All we have to do is decide what we’re going to do.” He patted her hand. “You think about it.”

Truthfully, she didn’t know what to think or feel. Her first girlish hero worship of Jake, began when he had defended her from Gregor at the trial and intensified when he rescued her from the Jack ship, had never quite gone away. However, over the years she had accustomed herself to thinking he regarded her like a little sister, and that he was just a friend. Now he was hinting at something different and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

The two-seater stopped at the door of the restaurant and the valet came to open the doors. Jayla exited the car with mixed emotions.

Burglary

THE RESTAURANT where they were meeting Drusilla and Lucas was one of the newer establishments in Port Recovery. The Spinning Mollusk had been created by a couple matched in the first wave of Handfasting immigrants. The restaurant had become famous for its exotic seafood. It boasted retractable terraces with views of the city, the spaceport and the wharf. The terraces had to be retractable because if they weren’t, they would be torn off during the fierce yearly storms Vensoog was blessed (or plagued) with.

When Jake gave the hostess Luc’s name, she told them “Your party is waiting in the bar as the table isn’t ready, yet.”

Jayla gave her cousin and his wife a hug before allowing Jake to help her onto one of the high stools next to the polished, rainbowwood bar. Toula, Drusilla’s Quirka, and Ghost touched noses in greeting and then shared the serving of shelled nuts the bartender had set out for them.

A news feed vid from Aphrodite, one of the water worlds, was talking about a jewelry heist. Thieves had stolen the ruling families Crown Jewels and the entire planet was in an uproar. The criminals were suspected of escaping off planet.

“That was a real security screw up,” Luc remarked, eying the vid. “I bet it cost somebody their job. I wonder where the thieves actually went?”

Jake grimaced. “Uncle Max thinks the thieves will come here to pass the jewels to a fence. With the Planting Festival drawing so many off-worlders, he says the thieves might be hoping to slip in with the crowds.”

Jayla glanced briefly at the vid feed, and then turned to Drusilla.

“How are you feeling?” She asked the heavily pregnant woman. Drusilla was a Dragon Talker, and a powerful empath who could communicate with and control the wildlife native to Vensoog. Drusilla didn’t brag about it, but the family knew she was one of the few Dragon Talkers powerful enough to control humans as well. Just now she was about eight months pregnant. With a Dragon Talker, there was always the chance the emotional upheaval caused by the pregnancy hormone changes could cause chaos around her, but Drusilla seemed to be weathering the changes easily.

The tiny redhead touched her belly ruefully. “I’m doing okay, but I look like a fat water dragon. My three Sand Dragon trainees have been a big help though.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ve got Violet, Ceri and Simon interning with you this season,” Jayla said, speaking of the two girls and the boy who had adopted orphan Sand Dragon Calves. Sand Dragons were cousins to the enormous Water Dragons Vensoog was famous for. Despite their name, both species were warm-blooded mammals. Like several species of animals on Vensoog, the Sand Dragons were empathic. Unlike their feral cousins, the three owned by the children were accustomed to being treated as pets and behaved more like over large dogs. They would grow much larger than any dog of course. At maturity, they might top out at between four and six hundred pounds. Hard skin plates resembling dragon scales except for the head and underbelly protected their body. Like Quirka, Sand Dragons could adapt their coloring to conditions around them. A necessary protection for attacks from the air by the huge flying Dactyls who preyed on the Water Dragons.

“However, did you get Katherine to release Violet to you? I thought she refused to send any of her kids off for training,” Jayla asked Drusilla. Violet was an extremely powerful empath but she was still a child, and Jayla knew Lady Katherine hovered over her like a mamma Water Dragon.

Drusilla shrugged. “Well, she had already agreed to allow Lucinda to intern with Patrol Security here in the city, and Violet wanted to come to me, so she let her. Still, if it was anyone but me doing the teaching, I’m not sure my over-protective sister would have agreed. I think Katherine is having a hard time with her children growing up. Not to change the subject, but how is your shop going? Are you open for business yet?”

“Next week, I think. I’m planning to continue the booth Lipski optioned during the festival as well and that’s taken a lot of planning.”

“How will you handle both the shop and the booth?” her cousin Lucas asked curiously.

“Well, I can leave Wayne, my sales-bot on duty in the shop during the day and handle the Festival booth myself. If it turns out I need him to help me in the booth, I can close Whimsical for a few days. A lot of the other shopkeepers are planning to do that.”

“That’s a clever name,” Drusilla said. “Did you choose it?”

“No, that’s the name the shop came with. To keep the customer base, I kept the name. I am changing some of the merchandise I will carry though.”

“What kind of changes?” Jake asked.

Jayla shrugged. “Well, Sara Lipski carried a lot of stuff imported from off-planet. I will still carry some of that in the shop, but I want to stock more bits and pieces from Vensoog Artists and craftspeople.”

Just then, three young men about Jake’s age walked into the bar.

“Hey, Jake’s here!” one of them exclaimed and the three came over to them. Jayla recognized two of them, although it had been many years since she had seen them. Jorge Carmody out of Clan Caldwalder, a tall guy with orangey hair recognized her and nodded in greeting. Silas Crawford was from Clan Ivanov, a blocky round-faced young man whose merry smile hadn’t changed as he bowed to the two women.

“Are you in town for the festival?” Silas asked.

“Yes,” Lucas answered. “Drusilla and I came in to pick up her three interns so we decided we might as well stay for the festival and see who gets Matched this season.”

Jorge groaned. “Don’t talk about the Lists. I got a new one this year, and my family is pushing hard for me to make a permanent choice this time.”

“Mine too,” the third young man said. “Since these two louts don’t seem to have the manners to introduce us, I will present myself. I am Nels Ridenhour out of Clan Yang. Lord Lucas, I know the Bard of Lewellyn by reputation, but may I meet these lovely ladies?” He bowed to both Drusilla and Jayla.

“This is my wife, Lady Drusilla, Reverend Mother to the Dragon Talkers, and my cousin Lady Jayla, Warlord Gideon’s niece,” Lucas said.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Lady Drusilla. Congratulations on your coming child,” Nels said. He then turned to Jayla and gave her a big smile. “Lady Jayla, if you are on my new match list, I can see obeying my clan this year won’t be a hardship.”

“Thank you,” Jayla said, conscious of Jake stiffening beside her. Since Drusilla was a married woman whose husband was well-known for his possessive attitude, she was drawing most of the young men’s attention. She caught her cousin’s eyes, noticing his unholy grin of amusement when he saw Jake take a possessive step closer to her.

Hastily, she said, “I haven’t gone through my list yet, so I don’t know everyone who is on it. Are you going to be attending any of the events?”

Silas snorted. “I was told that I’d better be at a few of the official ones or my name would be mud, so I suppose I will.”

“The Makers events are boring,” Jorge agreed, “but I know of some off the mark places. How about it, Lady Jayla, want to see stuff we don’t show the tourists?”

“For Voids sake, Carmody,” Jake exploded. “You aren’t taking Jayla to some of those dives you frequent. I won’t have it.”

“What business is it of yours Reynolds?” Jorge demanded. “Last I heard she was a free agent, and she’s sure not underage anymore.” The two young men glared at each other.

Both Ghost and Toula twittered in distress at the negative energy in the atmosphere, and Drusilla, the empath, said, “Whoa boys, let’s not start a brawl in here, shall we?”

Even Jayla felt the calming push the other woman was sending.

Fortunately, just then, the hostess appeared and said, “Your table is ready Lord Lewellyn.”

Drusilla slid down off the bar stool with difficulty. “I think I need to make a trip to the lady’s room before we sit down.”

Jayla got up too. “Here, let me help you.” She cast an admonishing look over her shoulder at Jake as she followed her cousin’s wife. “I’m hungry so try not to get us thrown out of here before we eat, okay?”

Watching the women leave, Lucas laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them in line,” he promised. He nodded to the three young men. “Nice to have met you, gentlemen; I hope you enjoy your dinner. Come on Jake, let’s wait for our ladies at our table, shall we?”

Jake scowled as Lucas chuckled all the way to the table. Once seated, Lucas looked at his friend with a grin. “So, it’s Jayla, is it? Oh, Man, I’m going to enjoy watching this. Especially after the hard time you gave me when I was courting Drusilla four years ago. What was it you compared me to? A Saharan Snap Dragon looking for a fight?”

Jake gave his best friend a sour look. “Oh, you’re hilarious Lewellyn.” His normal good humor reasserted itself and he shook his head ruefully. “I guess it serves me right; I did give you a hard time when you were courting your wife. It’s just—I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. When we met, she was so young I kept telling myself being around her was like getting my sister Karen back for a while. I convinced myself I felt like a big brother.”

“That was four years ago,” Luc pointed out. “She isn’t a kid anymore and neither are you. Besides, didn’t you end up on each other’s Match List this time?”

“Yes, we did, but how did you know?”

Lucas shrugged. “Drusilla’s sister Katherine watches the family Lists like a hunting Dactyl. I think she must have a back door into the Maker’s computer or something, because she always seems to know what they’re up to.”

Jake looked thoughtful. “Wasn’t it Lady Katherine who developed the program used to create the original matches that brought all of us here?”

“It sure was.” Lucas laughed. “I remember her husband Zack telling me once that when she wrote that program, she had corrected some ‘oversights’ she found in the original program the Makers had been using for years. He thought it was funny because she didn’t ask their permission. If you are serious about courting Jayla, you better learn the O’Teague women are very prone to independent action. Jayla is no different.”

In the meantime, Jayla and Drusilla were making their slow way back to where the men waited. “I can see you will have a lot of fun with this year’s Match List,” Drusilla said. “I’m glad I’ll be here to watch the fun. I heard you and Jake are on each other’s this year.”

Jayla looked troubled. “Yes,” she acknowledged. “I’m not sure what Jake thinks about that. He’s always considered me a sort of replacement for the little sister who was killed in the war you know.”

“Humm,” Drusilla said. “Maybe, but earlier in the bar I sure wasn’t picking up big brother feelings from him. It felt like jealousy. Do you want him?”

“Four years ago, I would have said yes. I had the most awful crush on him when I was fourteen,” Jayla admitted. “He was the first non-family guy I met after Gregor who was decent. Then he defended me at the trial and helped rescue me from the Jacks—I sort of saw him as this knight in shining armor, but he always treated me like a kid.”

“Perfectly normal for you to feel that way,” Drusilla said. “You know he had to treat you like a kid because that’s what you were. Besides, even if he saw you as a sister then, I don’t think he does anymore. If no one told you, you’ve grown into quite a beautiful girl.”

Jayla shrugged. “That’s surface stuff. It means nothing.”

By this time, they had arrived back at the table and both women dropped the subject. After some discussion, the four of them shared a large baked shellfish, imported from the water world Oceana. It was lightly seasoned, baked in a rich wine sauce and served with creamed orange roots called tapiala and a large pea-like vegetable, fried crispy in its own pods. Bowls of uncooked, diced fish and vegetables were set out for Toula and Ghost, along with the small water bowls the Quirka would use to wash their paws and muzzles after dinner. Visitors to Vensoog were always surprised to find the natives shared meals with their pets.

Because of her pregnancy, Drusilla ordered fizzy water so by the time dinner was over she was the only one not feeling some effects from the wine served with the meal. When Jake took Jayla home that night, she was feeling quite relaxed from the two bottles wine the three of them had shared. When they arrived in the alley behind her shop, Jake insisted on walking her up to her door.

“What, do you think I’m too wobbly to make it up my own stairs?” she demanded. The comment might have had more force if she hadn’t tripped on the steps when she said it. Ghost, hung on gamely as she rocked on her perch on Jayla’s shoulder.

Jake caught Jayla’s elbow before she went all the way down. “Oh, no,” he retorted, guiding her up the stairs, “I can see you’re as steady as a rock—”

He cut off abruptly, staring at the open door. “Wait. That shouldn’t be open. I saw you lock it.”

“Huh?” she stared owlishly at the door for a second. “I did too lock it.”

“That’s what I said.” Unlike Jayla, he had imbibed very little of the wine. He pushed her up against the wall, drawing his gun. “You stay here. I’m going to check it out.”

Ghost trilled, and hopped from Jayla’s shoulder to his, her quills lifting. “All right,” he told her, “you can come but you stay out of trouble.”

Jayla pushed away from the wall. “I’m coming in too,” she announced. “I’m not staying out here by myself.”

Jake hesitated. “Okay, you can come, but stay behind me and do what I tell you.”

Standing sideways to the door, he pushed it open, taking a quick look into the darkened kitchen. Gripping Jayla’s hand, he ducked into the room, pulling her with him out of the doorway. “Lights,” he told the house program, and the room lights came on.

It was a mess. Drawers were pulled out, and the contents spilled on the floor. The robo-chef had been broken into and what little food Daryl had shopped for was strewn around and ground underfoot.

The sitting room was worse. Cushions on the couch and chairs were ripped open, and the stuffing pulled out. Art was pulled off the walls, the frames broken, and the canvas slashed. Shelves of old-fashioned books were pulled out and the books themselves ripped apart.

“This is awful!” Jayla gasped. “Why would someone do this?”

“Looking for something, I’ll bet,” Jake responded. There was a tinkle of glass breaking from downstairs. He shoved her down behind the overturned couch with a curt, “Stay there,” and headed for the stairs to the shop.

“Don’t!” she exclaimed. “What if whoever it is has a gun?”

“So do I,” he reminded her as he vanished through the doorway. She hesitated for a second and then stood up and went to her bedroom. This was her apartment, her shop, dammit. She would not hide up here and play the damsel in distress.

The bedroom had been treated similarly as the sitting room, but they hadn’t found the wall safe. She keyed in the combination and a portion of the wall panel slid back. Jayla reached inside and pulled out her pulse gun. Checking to make sure it was loaded, she started down the stairs to the shop. The shop and the living quarters were separated on the bottom with a locked door, but that had been forced open. The shock of the break-in had sobered her enough so she could hold her gun steady and traverse the stairs without tripping.

The shop was never completely dark because low wattage security lights were always on. Gritting her teeth, she called for more lights in the shop, relieved not to see much damage. Suddenly there was a yell of fury, pulsar fire flashed, she heard glass shattering and then running feet. Jayla whirled around, but her reflexes were slower than normal. A big man in dark clothes with a hood and mask was firing back over his shoulder and charging toward her. Hot on his heels, Jake dodged the wild shots being fired at him. He raised his gun, but checked when he saw her in the doorway.

“Jayla get down!” Jake yelled, unable to return fire without taking the chance of hitting her.

She dodged, but it was too late. The intruder hit her full force, knocking her down. Her head smacked into the doorframe behind her and she blacked out. When she came to, she was sitting on the floor. Jake had one arm around her while he wiped her face with a wet cloth. The cloth smelled vaguely of disinfectant and dusting oil. Irritably, she pushed it away.

“Can you stand?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said. He pulled her to her feet, steadying her with an arm around her when she swayed. Ghost twittered anxiously from his shoulder.

“I’m all right Ghost,” she managed. “What happened?”

“You didn’t stay upstairs like I told you to,” he informed her. “I almost caught him when he tried to open the front door, but he took off running toward the back, and I couldn’t shoot him with you in the line of fire. Then he barreled into you and got away up the stairs. Didn’t I tell you to stay behind the couch?”

Under other circumstances, Jayla would have been furious at his calm assumption of authority; just now, she felt too dizzy and her head hurt too badly for her to care.

Despite his rough words, his hands were gentle as he guided her back up the stairs. He righted the least damaged of the chairs and sat her down in it.

“Sit here while I get you some water,” he instructed, dropping a worried Ghost in her lap. The Quirka climbed up her shoulder and sniffed anxiously at her head. Absently, she stroked the small creature, accepting the love and concern Ghost was projecting at her and sending reassurance back. In the kitchen, she could hear Jake’s voice talking to the Patrol as he ran water into a glass. His next call was to Glass Manor, informing them she’d had a break-in at her place.

Three hours later, she was sitting sleepily in the same chair, Ghost pillowed on her lap while Jake talked to the two detectives who had investigated the body on the beach. Jorgensen, O’Teague’s local head of security stood by listening. Crime scene techs were busy with their instruments recording everything.

The one bright spot in an otherwise hideous ending to their date, was Daryl being found hanging upside down in his utility closet, stripped to his android skin. That the intruder had turned him off was evidenced by the open flap on his back. His dermal tissue was pockmarked with slashes and holes; evidently, the thief had been looking for hidden pouches on his body.

Looking annoyed, Jake left the two detectives and came over to her. He tilted her chin up and examined the cut the medic had bandaged. “Are you feeling up to answering questions from those two?” he asked jerking his head at the two detectives.

“Sure, why not?” she leaned her head back against the damaged chair.

He sat down on the arm and nodded curtly to the two detectives who had followed him over. Larry Jorgensen took up a position on the other side of her chair.

Sipowitz frowned at the two men. “Alone if you don’t mind Lord Reynolds.”

“No,” Jake said simply. “You can do this with us here, or later at your headquarters when she has Jess Braydon with her.”

“We could take her downtown now,” Gorsling responded.

“The only thing that will get you is Lady Jayla says nothing until Braydon gets there, and Braydon rakes you over the coals for attempting to talk to her client when she has a head injury.”

“Never mind,” Sipowitz, the senior partner, said. “I’m surprised you told us you didn’t recognize the body on the beach, My Lady.”

“I told you I didn’t get close to it,” Jayla reminded them. “I only got near enough to be sure it was humanoid. Who was it?”

“Sara Lipski,” Gorsling said, watching Jayla with hard eyes.

“Oh no! That makes it seem worse somehow. I bought this shop from her. She told me she planned to retire to Sand Castle Cove on DeMedici. I only met her once, and that was the day we signed the papers for the sale,” Jayla said. “Do you know how she died?”

“The coroner is ruling it a homicide,” Sipowitz responded. “That’s what makes your little home invasion so interesting. Did they take anything?”

Jayla fumbled for Jake’s hand, which was resting on her shoulder.

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t looked yet.”

Just then, the head of the repair crew from O’Teague came over to tell Jorgensen that the material to repair Jayla’s broken doors had arrived.

“Okay to start the repair work?” Jorgensen asked the detectives.

Sipowitz hesitated, glancing at the head crime scene tech. “We’re done with the doors,” she said. “They can fix them if they want to, and we’ve finished our scans. We’ll be out of here as soon as we finish processing the house-bot.”

Sipowitz nodded, and Jayla winced as the repair crew banged on the back door as they removed the broken one to replace it. Ghost stirred in her lap at the noise. Sipowitz turned back to Jayla.

“What do you think whoever did this was looking for?”

Jayla’s shoulders lifted. “I suppose it must be something Lipski had or they think she had, but I don’t know what it could be. There wasn’t anything but furniture in the apartment and sales goods in the shop when I moved in. Nothing anyone would want badly enough to do this.”

“He had a go at Daryl,” Jake remarked. Maybe he knows something. Didn’t you say Lipski had added some unusual enhancements in his programming?”

Gorsling got up and went into the other room where the techs were working on Daryl.

Sipowitz nodded again. “Okay, we will be out of here as soon as they finish in there. You must come down to the station to give a statement tomorrow. Where are you going to be staying?”

“I’m taking her out to Glass Manor on O’Teague for the night,” Jake told them. “Do you want any clothes or anything Jayla?”

She shuddered; remembering the tangled mess of her clothes strewn out all over the ruined bed and the floor. “No. Everything will have to be cleaned before I can wear it. They’ll find me something for tonight and tomorrow at the manor.”

He reached down for the sleeping Ghost, scooping her up in one hand as he helped Jayla rise. “We’ll see you out at the compound, Larry. You can give her the keys tomorrow. She will need replacement furniture too.”

Jorgensen nodded. “There’s stuff in stores she can have.”

Jayla made a face. “I think I’ll just buy new. I have enough capital left from my parent’s legacy. I didn’t like this furniture anyway.”

 

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Coming Soon! FROM THIS DAY FORWARD

Just in time for Christmas! The 4th installment of the Handfasting Series is now in digital stores and in soft cover copy.

A preview of the 4th installment in the Handfasting series: When she finds the body of a retired shopkeeper on the beach, a series of mysterious events draw the new shop owner into a web of passion, terror and murder. Jayla must find the killer and discover what he wants because she is his next target. All the while dealing with a disfunctional house-bot who thinks he is a sex machine, a nosy boyfriend, an overprotective family, interplanetary jewel thieves with missing loot, and the interplanetary and local detectives who think she stole the jewels…

From This Day Forward

The Handfasting Vol 4

Gail Daley 

Suspicion

THE SUN WAS just peeking over the horizon as Jayla ran with her usual long easy strides along the deserted beach. Jayla liked to jog along the shore next to the spaceport because despite the noise the shuttles made taking off and landing, the shore was usually deserted except for a few solitary runners like herself. She and Ghost, the creamy white Quirka clinging to her shoulder, enjoyed the fresh breeze and the freedom from demands on her time.

She brushed her short gold hair back out of her face. It seemed she had been running half her life. Jayla smiled to herself as she remembered how hard it had been when she began to run every morning.

Jayla wasn’t native to Vensoog. Her Uncle Gideon had married Genevieve, the Laird of clan O’Teague and emigrated to Vensoog after Moodon, their home planet was burnt off in the last war with the Karamine Coalition. Jayla had just lost her parents and had resented being uprooted to a new world with strange customs where she knew no one. A headstrong, resentful teenager can find plenty of trouble to get into by herself and even more if she connects with unscrupulous adults who intend to take advantage of her rebellious feelings. She had made loads of mistakes that first year. She bitterly regretted having gotten involved with Gregor Ivanov, the much older man who had romanced her and planned to sell her for the child sex trade. While it had not been her fault when she and other girls from the clans were kidnapped by the Thieves Guild, she hated remembering how helpless she felt as a captive. She was rescued from both situations, but she vowed to learn to defend herself so nothing like that could happen again.

Two weeks after the clans had rescued the girls from the Jack ship, Wolf Larsen from her Uncle Zack’s old Recon unit, showed up on Glass Isle to give her lessons in self-defense. She later learned Wolf had been specially requested as her teacher by Lord Jake Reynolds, her Cousin Luc’s best friend.

“Stamina,” Wolf’s deep voice echoed in her mind, “is the essence of fighting. You can’t fight if you are exhausted or out of breath.” He had knocked on her door at dawn that first day to drag her out to run a mile. Wheezing, and with her legs feeling like jelly, Jayla had kept at it because she was tired of being pushed around. Seeing her determination, Wolf agreed to show up every day for the next two years to train her in self defense.

After Wolf had returned to his other clan duties, she had kept up the training. The morning runs were not an indulgence even though they took time away from her shop. She ran, worked out in the Clan gym at Glass Manor, and practiced her marksmanship faithfully because she intended to never again be at the mercy of someone else.

Thanks to her parent’s foresight in moving their accounts to Fenris as soon as the war with the Karamine Coalition started, Jayla had inherited a sizable nest egg when she came of age. Enough to buy the gift shop she had always wanted. When she had bought the shop with the apartment over it earlier in the year, Jake had promised to come by and see how she was getting along.

Her faithful companion Ghost was a Quirka. Quirka were native animals adopted as pets by the early Vensoog settlers because they were small, cute and avid hunters of the insects and other vermin infesting human dwellings. The Quirka adopted humans because they provided a mutually satisfying emotional bond and a ready source of food and hunting grounds.

Like all Quirka joined with a person, Ghost went everywhere with her chosen human and even seemed to enjoy the morning runs. Her pristine white coat sparkled in the morning sun, and her plume of a tail waved with the motion of Jayla’s steps. The sturdy leather straps affixed to the shoulders of Jayla’s running clothes allowed Ghost to cling to Jayla with her tiny, hand-like paws and feet. White Quirka like Ghost were rare. Ghost had never developed the ability to adapt her fur color to match her environment the way other Quirka did. The hollow rows of retractable venom quills along her backbone, which were Ghost’s chief defense against predators, glistened as the sun hit them. If she felt threatened, her quills stood upright and filled with an acidy venom. Being stung by a Quirka was quite unpleasant, and in case of smaller predators, sometimes fatal. Ghost’s bright blue eyes, also unusual for Quirka, matched Jayla’s in color. She chirped in Jayla’s ear now, her small upright ears pricked forward as she recognized the large rock where Jayla usually turned to make the return trip.

There appeared to be a bundle of rags and sticks lying next to the boulder. Jayla slowed as she approached, hoping it wasn’t something nasty a picnicker had left there. If it were, she decided, she would report it instead of hauling it all the way back to the Spaceport buildings the way she ordinarily did.

Ghost hissed as they approached and her quills lifted, her sharply pointed nose wrinkled in distaste. The smell hit Jayla whose olfactory senses were less well developed than a Quirka, and she stopped several feet away. She had once come upon a goat on Glass Isle that had been dead for several days. It had smelled like this.

It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. What she had taken for a bundle of sticks was wearing shoes. Swallowing nausea, she made herself walk closer to see if what was lying in the sand was human or humanoid. It was difficult to tell what species it was, because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, but it had been some type of humanoid.

Glad she hadn’t eaten before starting her run, she backed away and sat down on a driftwood log, trying not to throw up. Ghost, in the way of all Quirka, was more concerned with Jayla than with the unknown body. She stroked her mistress’s face and crooned soothingly to her projecting comfort. Jayla dropped a kiss in gratitude between the small pricked ears and took a deep breath before she tapped on her wrist com.

The com automatically dialed Clan security on the O’Teague compound instead of the emergency Port Recovery Security Patrol. Even though she was now living above her shop in Port Recovery, she had forgotten to re-program it. Her com was immediately answered by the Clan communication center.

“Jayla, I haven’t heard from you in ages—what’s wrong, honey?” Mira, who had often been assigned as her trainer, had sounded cheerful until she saw the girls face.

Jayla turned her wrist so Mira could see the body through the com. “I need Port Recovery Security to come out here. It looks like Ghost and I found a dead body this morning. We’re out at the end of the island behind the spaceport.”

“Are you safe?” Mira demanded, instinct kicking in. Her regular job was O’Teague Clan Security but she was pulling desk duty because she was pregnant.

“Yes, we’re safe,” Jayla reassured her. “I think it’s been here a while.”

In the background, Jayla could hear her calling for Larry to grab a sled and get his ass out to the end of Port Recovery Island. “Jayla’s found a body. I’m calling the Port Recovery Security but she’s alone out there—”

“Jayla,” Mira’s voice was calm. “You stay where you are. I’m sending Larry out to you, and I’ll call the Port Recovery Security. I want you to keep this com open, okay?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jayla assured her.

The trip from Glass Manor on O’Teague Isle to Port Recovery Isle took thirty minutes by boat, but a fast airsled could make it across the channel in ten. When the tall, dark skinned man dismounted from the sled, he smiled reassuringly at Jayla whom he still saw as the little girl she had been when he first met her. Larry Jorgensen, the O’Teague Clan Security Chief, was a former member of her Uncle Gideon’s unit who had married into the clan

“You okay, kid?” his deep voice rumbled.

She nodded, giving him a watery smile. “Yes, I’m fine Larry. It was a nasty surprise, but we’re okay.”

Jorgensen nodded at her and went to inspect the body, being careful not to touch it. He was examining something on the ground in front of the corpse when they heard the approaching whine of the Port Authority Security sleds. He came over to her side to wait with her.

Within a few short minutes the deserted shore was swarming with Patrol. The first to arrive were the uniformed officers who came to check out her story, then the medics, and finally, the detectives in charge, a man and a woman in civilian clothing.

Since she and Larry and been told to wait for the detectives, she leaned back against a boulder on shore, and sipped at the bottled water Larry provided for her and Ghost. Ghost, no longer perched protectively on her shoulder, was busy investigating a pile of seaweed a few feet from where Jayla sat. They had both missed breakfast, and presumably the Quirka was hoping to find a few insects to munch on until they could return home. Larry had offered Jayla an energy bar earlier, but her stomach had rebelled at thought of eating anything.

When the two detectives finally approached her, Larry moved in protectively.

“Lady Jayla?” the male detective asked. “I’m Jim Gorsling, and this is my partner, June Sipowitz. We have a few questions for you.” Gorsling was short, with a square, bulldog face and dark hair in contrast to his partner, a tall, hazel-eyed woman with bronzed skin.

“You found the body?” Gorsling asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Why did you contact Clan O’Teague Security before you called us?” Sipowitz asked.

“Like all the Laird’s immediate family, Lady Jayla’s emergency signal is set for Glass Manor on O’Teague,” Jorgensen interjected, obliquely reminding the two detectives they were dealing with a high-ranking clan member and to be careful how they treated her.

“Perhaps you could join me over here, sir,” Gorsling suggested. “We have a few questions for you.”

“I was dispatched here when Lady Jayla notified O’Teague clan she had found a body,” Jorgensen said, not moving. “It’s been requested I stay with her until she can leave. I’m to give her a ride back to her shop.”

“Are you her legal representative?” Gorsling inquired. “Because unless you have some legal standing—”

Ghost, sensing discord, left off hunting for bugs and scrambled back to Jayla where she hopped up to her shoulder. She turned her bright blue eyes to the two detectives and hissed defensively, her quills lifting.

The detectives eyed the Quirka warily. Neither one wanted to chance getting stung by the Quirka’s acid tipped barbs.

Sipowitz tried a different tactic. “Your Quirka is unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen a white one before.”

Jayla stroked Ghost’s back and the quills lowered marginally. “Yes, she is different. Ghost was a gift.”

“From me,” announced a voice from behind them. “Why is it,” Jake remarked as he dismounted his airsled, “that whenever I find you, you’re either in trouble or causing it?”

“Jake!” Jayla cried, jumping up. “Where did you come from?”

Jake pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars of the sled, revealing a shock of dark hair. The male detective gave Jake a sharp look of recognition. He saw, as she did, a slim man in his early twenties with an easy smile, and an air of assurance showing he was accustomed to being obeyed.

Ghost bounced in delight, and when he was close enough, leaped to his arms chirping happily. “Yes, I’m glad to see you too,” he told her, petting her before moving her to his shoulder.

Sipowitz frowned. “And who might you be?”

Her partner answered her. “Cara, this is Lord Jake Reynolds, the Duc d’Orleans’ nephew, L’Roux Clan. What brings you here Lord Reynolds?”

Jake gave them a little bow. “I’ve been requested by Clan O’Teague to assist Lady Jayla in her present difficulty. Ah—I do have legal standing.”

Jorgensen relaxed his protective stance. “Good to see you kid. If you’ve got this, I’ll head back to the manor. I was just coming off shift when I was notified about it.”

“Sure,” Jake said, “take off.”

Jorgensen stepped away and spoke with Gorsling for a few minutes before mounting his sled and zipping off.

When Gorsling returned, he said, “Lord Reynolds, you said you had legal standing but—”

Smiling, Jake pulled a small crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. “Here is my authority to act for Lady Jayla.”

Frowning, Gorsling stuck the crystal into his porta-tab and showed it to his partner who rolled her eyes. All they needed was interference in their investigation by a high clan lord.

Jake looked over at Jayla. “So, you found a body, did you?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“This is a kind of deserted area to run in.”

“I like to run out here,” she said a little defensively. “Nobody bothers me.”

He grunted. “Where’s your weapon?”

She patted the pocket of her running shirt. “It’s here. Mira got me a small one to fit in this pocket and I always carry it when I run.”

Sipowitz looked up and held out her hand. “May I see, it Lady Jayla?”

Jayla slid her hand into her pocked and pulled out a pulsar gun about the size of her palm, which she held out butt first to the detective. Sipowitz took it and examined it. “Hasn’t been fired,” she said, handing it back.

“That’s right,” Jayla said.

Sipowitz studied her. “Had you ever seen the deceased before this?”

“I don’t think so,” Jayla replied. “I’m afraid the smell got to me so I didn’t go any closer than I needed to make sure it was a person.”

“Okay. Just as a matter of form, can you tell us where you’ve been over the last several days?”

“I’ve just moved into my new apartment in Port Recovery. I’ve been out on Glass Isle collecting the rest of my stuff.”

“All right,” the detective said. “That’s all for now. We may have more questions later though so don’t leave town.”

“I believe it’s time we let these officers get on with their investigation Jayla. If you have any further questions, Detectives, you can get in touch with Lady Jayla through Clan O’Teague,” Jake said. He took Jayla by the arm and led her over to his sled.

“There’s no place for Ghost,” she objected.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jake replied, opening a cache in the side. He took out a spare helmet for her and handed it to her. Then he brought out what looked like an upside-down helmet with a clear visor. He snapped it into place on the front control panel. “C’mon Ghost,” he said patting it. Ghost hopped into the cavity and settled happily into the made-for-Quirka seat.

“I want one,” Jayla declared. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s a prototype. Friend of mine is marketing them. I’ll tell him he’s got a sale.” He mounted the sled and waited for her to throw a leg over the seat behind him before they took off in a whirl of sand.

Gosling left the Coroner and returned to his partner as Jayla and Jake took off. “Coroner thinks it’s a body dump,” he told Sipowitz. “She figures the woman has been dead about two days.”

“That means if Lady Jayla was out on Glass Isle she couldn’t have done it.”

“I suppose so, but she sure drew a lot of defensive firepower for someone who is innocent,” Gorsling said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I told you Lord Reynolds is the Duc d’Orleans’s blood nephew. He’s the clan troubleshooter. The Duc sends him out to solve problems. And the guy we found here with her? That is O’Teague’s Head of Security here in the Port.”

“Well even if her bracelet is marked as a member of the Laird’s immediate family, I’m surprised to find the clan sent two people out to back her up though, unless—”

“Unless what?”

“I’ll tell you after you run her Match List history and that of Lord Reynolds,” she said.

“I’ll do it on the way back to headquarters. What do you want it for?”

“Well, the Planting Festival is coming up and it occurred to me that Lord Reynolds coming to ‘rescue’ her from us might have nothing to do with this murder. Either the Laird or the Duc could be doing a little matchmaking. If that’s the case, then O’Teague’s local Security Head showing up might only mean Lady Jayla has an overprotective family.”

“The O’Teagues do have that reputation,” he admitted. “We’ve got an intern from that clan working down in the morgue this year, and from what I heard Lady Katherine practically microscanned the place for germs before she let the kid work there.”

Unaware of the speculation they left behind them on the beach, Jake stopped the sled in the rear of Jayla’s shop. Her apartment was on the second level. Although she had access from the store, the private entrance was upstairs in the back. She dismounted and pried a reluctant Ghost loose from her perch in the Quirka basket. “Thanks for coming to the rescue again,” she told Jake.

“I was coming to see you anyway. Drusilla wanted me to invite you to have dinner with the three of us tonight here in the city,” he said.

“I’d love to, but I’ve been invited to attend the Merchant Guild mixer tonight. It’s my first one and I don’t want to miss it.”

Jake shrugged. “So, I’ll escort you there, and then we’ll meet Luc and Drusilla for dinner afterwards.”

He waited while she and Ghost mounted the stairs to the owner’s quarters. When the door had closed on Jayla and Ghost, he restarted the sled as he commed his uncle. L’Roux was head of security in Port Recovery this year and his uncle liked to be informed of anything touching the clan families.

Once inside her apartment, Jayla stripped and then she and Ghost got in the shower. She lifted Ghost to the specially made Quirka shelf, and turned on the water letting the hot spray wash away the morning. Ghost enjoyed playing in the water, turning and twisting to rinse her short, plush fur of the sand and salt that had accumulated on it during their stay at the beach.

Once they were both clean, Jayla wrapped a towel around herself while she patted Ghost dry. She set the Quirka down on the mat in front of the Quirka sized blower on her dresser, laughing as Ghost danced and whirled in the stream of warm air.

“May I assist you in dressing?” Jayla jumped as her house-bot spoke behind her.

Jayla gave a small shriek of surprise and scowled at it. The bot had been christened Daryl by the previous owner. It was one of the expensive bots that could fool the unwary into thinking he was human. When she first moved in, Jayla thought it was a plus that her apartment came furnished with a house-bot to cook and clean. However, Daryl had yet to cook or       clean anything, and judging by his behavior, his previous owner had installed some unconventional programming, which Jayla had tried in vain to modify.

“No, you may not,” she snapped. “Remove yourself from this room while I am dressing. Go in the kitchen and make a grocery shopping list.”

“But Mistress,” the Daryl protested. “I am versed in all forms of physical pleasure and I can assure you—”

“Out!” she shouted. Thank Goddess the maintence people were due to come today to adjust his programming, she thought half hysterically. If she had to listen one more time to that bloody list of sexual acts he was programed to perform, she would scream.

She was furious all over again when she listened to the messages on the house net and discovered that the Robo-Maintence crew was not coming out today. They were sorry to hear she had canceled and wanted to reschedule the appointment.

Furious, Jayla got on the com with them and demanded to know who had canceled the prior arrangement.

“Your house-bot left us a message you were canceling the appointment,” she was told.

“Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. “I expect to see you out here today at our scheduled time.”

“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” the receptionist said. “We’ve filled your time. We have an open slot two weeks from now if you want that.”

Jayla made a growling noise. “Fine! please have it noted in the records that until he has been re-programed, you are not to accept messages from my house-bot! Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” she was told snippily.

Jayla turned her glare on the house-bot. “You may no longer contact anyone without my express order.”

“That is a waste of my talents,” Daryl informed her. “I am well versed in communication protocols needed to efficiently run this house for you and—”

“Shut up!” she yelled.

Daryl hadn’t stocked the robo-chef either so Jayla took Ghost down the street to a local eatery that served breakfast where she ordered Ghost the Quirka Special (diced raw meat, nuts and vegetables) and a large spicy omelet made from Ostamu eggs for herself. Ostamu were huge flightless birds bred by the settlers for their meat and eggs. Their multi-colored feathers were highly prized for clothing and decorations as well.

Since Jayla was a fellow business woman, Carol, the café owner, brought her order to her and sat down for a friendly chat.

“What’s the matter, hon?” Carol asked, pouring them both a large Cafka. Carol was in her late forties with the comfortable shape of those who work in the food industry.

“Can they charge you for killing a droid?” Jayla demanded. “I just found out that clump of slag I inherited as a house-bot canceled the appointment I made to get him reprogrammed!”

Carol’s eyes danced over the rim of her cup as she gave a gasp of laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said inadequately. “Is he still offering you sexual favors?”

Jayla nodded over a bite of omelet. “This morning when we got out of the shower. I don’t dare invite anyone over—I hate to think what might happen if he does it to a guest. Suppose my friends think I programed him for that stuff?”

Carol sputtered into her Cafka. “You never know—it might lead to some interesting encounters.” She eyed her friend shrewdly. “That’s not all that’s bothering you, though is it?”

Jayla sighed. “No. I found a body on my morning run today. It was nasty.”

“Oh, you poor thing. Who was it?”

“Well, to tell the truth the smell was so bad I didn’t get close enough to find out. Just that it was human or humanoid.”

“Icky,” Carol sympathized. “I wonder who it could be? I don’t know of anyone local who is missing—”

“I’d rather talk about something else if you don’t mind though. Anything else.”

“Sure,” Carol said obligingly. “It’s going to make the rounds though. You’re likely to have customers asking about it all day. There’s nothing like curiosity to drum up business.”

Jayla made a face. “You’re probably right. I’m not officially open, but I can’t afford to turn away customers.”

“The other shop owners will be dropping by too, you can bet,” Carol told her.

The rest of the day was productive, even with the constant interruptions from her fellow shop owners and local customers who had heard about the body and wanted the latest gossip about it. When she went upstairs from the shop to dress for the evening events, she was conscious of a pleasant feeling of achievement.

The original shop owner, Sara Lipski had sold high-end imports, but Jayla intended to widen the sales base by featuring locally made arts and craft products. She already had several local artists and craftspeople bringing in new products, and hoped to pick up more at the Planting Festival.

She and Ghost were still dressing when she heard Daryl let Jake in. The apartment’s walls were soundproofed so she couldn’t hear the actual conversation, just the murmur of voices.

She looked at herself and Ghost in her mirror and nodded in satisfaction. She wanted to look professional, but classy tonight, so she had decided on loose black pants and a dark gray vest over a blue, dragon-nest silk blouse. The blue in the blouse, with its three-quarter inch sleeves and scooped neck matched her eyes, and the gray vest snugged under her breast and drew attention to her slim waist. Ghost wore a bracelet of glittering black and blue stones around her neck, and Jayla had fluffed her white coat until the hollow ends of her fur sparkled.

When she joined him in the sitting room, Jake was standing with his arms crossed frowning at Daryl, but he gave her a wide smile and a wolf whistle.

“You look great. Very classy,” he said.

“Thanks. I want to look like a businesswoman at the mixer.”

“You pulled it off,” he said. “At least you will have if no one at the mixer ever meets Daryl here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the house-bot as they shut the door and started down the stairs. “Seriously Jayla, you need to get that sucker re-programmed. Do you know what he asked me?”

She signed, “I can guess. The programmers were supposed to be out today, but Daryl called them and canceled. I was furious. He’s driving me crazy. It seems Sara Lipski had some very irregular enhancements programmed into him. The house maintence company told me it would be another two weeks before they could reschedule me. I’ve told them not to accept any more orders unless it comes from me in person, but I don’t know if I can stand keeping him around for that long.”

“You could turn him off.”

She snorted. “I tried that. He’s got a failsafe that resets itself if he’s been off for over eight hours.”

“Want me to check around for another House Maintence company?”

“Thanks, but I’ll do it. I just didn’t want to deal with stuff like that today. I hid in the shop doing inventory.”

She was pleased to see that Jake had brought a closed two-seater airsled for tonight. She had enjoyed the ride from the beach but tonight she didn’t want to arrive at the mixer looking windblown.

The Merchant Guild Mixer was held at a meeting room in City Hall, one of the large domes lived in by the first settlers that the City had converted to civic use. Tonight, the Merchant Guild had scattered tables around the large room for seating, but a lot of the local shop owners were standing around in groups talking. When Jake and Jayla entered, they were met by Miles Standish, the current Elector of the Guild.

“So glad you came tonight, Jayla,” Miles said, enthusiastically pumping her hand while his eyes ran over her admiringly. When he saw Jake, he frowned, but quickly smoothed out his expression. “And you brought a plus one, too. Nice to meet you. Are you a close friend of Jayla’s Lord Reynolds?” he asked Jake, smiling owlishly.

Miles and Jake were of similar heights, but Miles mild blue eyes, snub nose and round face gave him the air of a friendly puppy.

Next to Miles, Jake appeared dark and dangerous and it was plain Miles wasn’t exactly happy to see him despite his pleasant welcome. Jake did nothing Jayla could object to; in fact, he was perfectly pleasant to the Elector, but Ghost muttered fretfully in her ear and Jayla could almost feel Jake going on alert as the men talked.

“That’s right,” Jake agreed. “Jayla and I go way back. He cousin Lucas introduced us.”

“I see. I hope you will excuse us for a few minutes while I introduce Jayla to some of the other merchants. Ah, Carol,” Miles said snagging Jaylas friend from the café, “Perhaps you can find Lord Jake here a drink and entertain him while Jayla and I make the rounds.”

“Sure,” Carol agreed, smiling. “I’m always up for a drink with a good-looking man.”

She signaled a waiter-bot who brought over a tray of drinks. “What’s your poison, Jake?”

“Cafka,” he told the server. “No alcohol for me thanks; Jayla and I are meeting friends for dinner after this, and I don’t like depending on the auto pilot on my two-seater. It’s been a little wonky lately.”

“Miles always likes to give special attention to the new women merchants,” she told him.

Jake gave her a considering look. “Especially if they are young and beautiful?”

Carol grinned at him. “Somehow I don’t think he was expecting competition like you.” She slipped her arm through his. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you to some people I think you’ll enjoy talking to.”

Jayla enjoyed meeting the other store owners, some of whom she could see becoming friends. After several minutes though, she became aware that a few of them seemed ill at ease. Everyone was friendly and polite, but she caught some odd expressions whenever Miles put a hand on her shoulder or her back, which he did a little too frequently. Whenever Miles touched her, Ghost stiffened on her shoulder and muttered unhappily. Jayla wondered what the Quirka sensed that she didn’t.

When she was introduced to a young couple named Fred and Elsie Boyington, who owned a food supply store, she surprised a flicker of relief mixed with pity in Elsie’s expression. It was even more puzzling to get almost the same response from a pair of sisters named Jan and Lin Sorency who ran a local clothing shop.

“Perhaps we can get together later this week for lunch, Jan suggested, directing a challenging look at Standish. “Miles always encourages us old timers to make you newbies welcome, don’t you Miles?”

He hesitated briefly, and then said, “Of course. An excellent idea. Just don’t frighten her away.”

Jan bit her lip, but nodded. “Sure. No reason to scare a newcomer away.”

“That sounds as if there is something to be afraid of. Don’t worry—I don’t scare easily,” Jayla said lightly.

About halfway around the room, Miles stopped. He seemed to hesitate for a minute then he asked, “Do you mind a personal question?”

“I suppose it depends on the question,” Jayla responded, looking at him curiously.

“That guy who came with you—is he boyfriend or guard?”

Jayla stiffened. “Jake is a good friend of mine and of Clan O’Teague,” she said somewhat haughtily. The ‘it’s none of your business’ remained unspoken.

Miles looked self-conscious. “I’m sorry, it’s just—well I got a copy of my Match List today and you’re on it, and I find you very attractive, so I was wondering—”

Jayla’s anger softened. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said. “Look Miles, I like you, and you seem like a nice man, but I will be too busy getting my shop up and running to think about Match Lists.”

Deciding it was time to put an end to this type of overture, she caught Jakes eye and he moved casually toward her.

As soon as he was within speaking distance, Jake asked, “Everything Okay here, Jayla?” Jayla turned to him with relief.

“I’m fine, Jake,” she said. “I guess this morning took a little more out of me than I thought. I’m sorry Miles, Carol, but I think we need to get going to meet our friends for dinner. Thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time and I do want to meet more of my compatriots later.”

“Of course,” Miles said. “I’ll drop by with the application for joining the Guild sometime this week.”

“Thank you and good night,” Jayla told him

Jake was silent as he put her into the airsled. He gave the order to proceed to the restaurant, a new one overlooking the water, and turned to face her.

“Okay, what did I interrupt?” he asked.

Jayla made a frustrated noise. “Did anyone ever tell you what a nosy boots you are?”

Yes,” he said calmly. “You, many times. Give.”

“You’re worse than Ghost at a vermin hole,” she complained. “He wanted to tell me I was on his Match List. There, are you satisfied?”

He studied her face. “You didn’t look overjoyed at the news. Is he on yours?”

She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know. I didn’t download mine when it came in this morning. I was too busy dealing with the house programmer fiasco and then I went down to work in the shop.”

“So look now,” he said. “I’ve got mine.”

When she hesitated, he said, “I’ll make you a deal. You download yours, and I’ll call mine up and we’ll swap. That way neither of us will have any surprises.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you be willing to do that? You always guarded your list like it was pirate gold before.”

He grinned at her. “And you always found out who was on it anyway. What are you afraid of?”

Jayla tapped her com unit and scrolled down through the list until she found the message from the Makers, conscious of Jake doing the same. When she called it up her Match List, she stared at it in shock. Miles Standish was on it all right, but so was Jake. Before she could wipe it clear, Jake had started the data swap. She looked at his list. She was on his list.

“You knew I was on your list this time,” she accused him. “That’s why you wanted to swap.”

“Well, I was curious,” he admitted. “Now we both know and we don’t have to worry who else is on it. All we have to do is decide what we’re going to do.” He patted her hand. “You think about it.”

Truthfully, she didn’t know what to think or feel. Her first girlish hero worship of Jake, began when he had defended her from Gregor at the trial and intensified when he rescued her from the Jack ship, had never quite gone away. However, over the years she had accustomed herself to thinking he regarded her like a little sister, and that he was just a friend. Now he was hinting at something different and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

The two-seater stopped at the door of the restaurant and the valet came to open the doors. Jayla exited the car with mixed emotions.

 

Burglary

THE RESTAURANT where they were meeting Drusilla and Lucas was one of the newer establishments in Port Recovery. The Spinning Mollusk had been created by a couple matched in the first wave of Handfasting immigrants. The restaurant had become famous for its exotic seafood. It boasted retractable terraces with views of the city, the spaceport and the wharf. The terraces had to be retractable because if they weren’t, they would be torn off during the fierce yearly storms Vensoog was blessed (or plagued) with.

When Jake gave the hostess Luc’s name, she told them “Your party is waiting in the bar as the table isn’t ready, yet.”

Jayla gave her cousin and his wife a hug before allowing Jake to help her onto one of the high stools next to the polished, rainbowwood bar. Toula, Drusilla’s Quirka, and Ghost touched noses in greeting and then shared the serving of shelled nuts the bartender had set out for them.

A news feed vid from Aphrodite, one of the water worlds, was talking about a jewelry heist. Thieves had stolen the ruling families Crown Jewels and the entire planet was in an uproar. The criminals were suspected of escaping off planet.

“That was a real security screw up,” Luc remarked, eying the vid. “I bet it cost somebody their job. I wonder where the thieves actually went?”

Jake grimaced. “Uncle Max thinks the thieves will come here to pass the jewels to a fence. With the Planting Festival drawing so many off-worlders, he says the thieves might be hoping to slip in with the crowds.”

Jayla glanced briefly at the vid feed, and then turned to Drusilla.

“How are you feeling?” She asked the heavily pregnant woman. Drusilla was a Dragon Talker, and a powerful empath who could communicate with and control the wildlife native to Vensoog. Drusilla didn’t brag about it, but the family knew she was one of the few Dragon Talkers powerful enough to control humans as well. Just now she was about eight months pregnant. With a Dragon Talker, there was always the chance the emotional upheaval caused by the pregnancy hormone changes could cause chaos around her, but Drusilla seemed to be weathering the changes easily.

The tiny redhead touched her belly ruefully. “I’m doing okay, but I look like a fat water dragon. My three Sand Dragon trainees have been a big help though.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ve got Violet, Ceri and Simon interning with you this season,” Jayla said, speaking of the two girls and the boy who had adopted orphan Sand Dragon Calves. Sand Dragons were cousins to the enormous Water Dragons Vensoog was famous for. Despite their name, both species were warm-blooded mammals. Like several species of animals on Vensoog, the Sand Dragons were empathic. Unlike their feral cousins, the three owned by the children were accustomed to being treated as pets and behaved more like over large dogs. They would grow much larger than any dog of course. At maturity, they might top out at between four and six hundred pounds. Hard skin plates resembling dragon scales except for the head and underbelly protected their body. Like Quirka, Sand Dragons could adapt their coloring to conditions around them. A necessary protection for attacks from the air by the huge flying Dactyls who preyed on the Water Dragons.

“However, did you get Katherine to release Violet to you? I thought she refused to send any of her kids off for training,” Jayla asked Drusilla. Violet was an extremely powerful empath but she was still a child, and Jayla knew Lady Katherine hovered over her like a mamma Water Dragon.

Drusilla shrugged. “Well, she had already agreed to allow Lucinda to intern with Patrol Security here in the city, and Violet wanted to come to me, so she let her. Still, if it was anyone but me doing the teaching, I’m not sure my over-protective sister would have agreed. I think Katherine is having a hard time with her children growing up. Not to change the subject, but how is your shop going? Are you open for business yet?”

“Next week, I think. I’m planning to continue the booth Lipski optioned during the festival as well and that’s taken a lot of planning.”

“How will you handle both the shop and the booth?” her cousin Lucas asked curiously.

“Well, I can leave Wayne, my sales-bot on duty in the shop during the day and handle the Festival booth myself. If it turns out I need him to help me in the booth, I can close Whimsical for a few days. A lot of the other shopkeepers are planning to do that.”

“That’s a clever name,” Drusilla said. “Did you choose it?”

“No, that’s the name the shop came with. To keep the customer base, I kept the name. I am changing some of the merchandise I will carry though.”

“What kind of changes?” Jake asked.

Jayla shrugged. “Well, Sara Lipski carried a lot of stuff imported from off-planet. I will still carry some of that in the shop, but I want to stock more bits and pieces from Vensoog Artists and craftspeople.”

Just then, three young men about Jake’s age walked into the bar.

“Hey, Jake’s here!” one of them exclaimed and the three came over to them. Jayla recognized two of them, although it had been many years since she had seen them. Jorge Carmody out of Clan Caldwalder, a tall guy with orangey hair recognized her and nodded in greeting. Silas Crawford was from Clan Ivanov, a blocky round-faced young man whose merry smile hadn’t changed as he bowed to the two women.

“Are you in town for the festival?” Silas asked.

“Yes,” Lucas answered. “Drusilla and I came in to pick up her three interns so we decided we might as well stay for the festival and see who gets Matched this season.”

Jorge groaned. “Don’t talk about the Lists. I got a new one this year, and my family is pushing hard for me to make a permanent choice this time.”

“Mine too,” the third young man said. “Since these two louts don’t seem to have the manners to introduce us, I will present myself. I am Nels Ridenhour out of Clan Yang. Lord Lucas, I know the Bard of Lewellyn by reputation, but may I meet these lovely ladies?” He bowed to both Drusilla and Jayla.

“This is my wife, Lady Drusilla, Reverend Mother to the Dragon Talkers, and my cousin Lady Jayla, Warlord Gideon’s niece,” Lucas said.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Lady Drusilla. Congratulations on your coming child,” Nels said. He then turned to Jayla and gave her a big smile. “Lady Jayla, if you are on my new match list, I can see obeying my clan this year won’t be a hardship.”

“Thank you,” Jayla said, conscious of Jake stiffening beside her. Since Drusilla was a married woman whose husband was well-known for his possessive attitude, she was drawing most of the young men’s attention. She caught her cousin’s eyes, noticing his unholy grin of amusement when he saw Jake take a possessive step closer to her.

Hastily, she said, “I haven’t gone through my list yet, so I don’t know everyone who is on it. Are you going to be attending any of the events?”

Silas snorted. “I was told that I’d better be at a few of the official ones or my name would be mud, so I suppose I will.”

“The Makers events are boring,” Jorge agreed, “but I know of some off the mark places. How about it, Lady Jayla, want to see stuff we don’t show the tourists?”

“For Voids sake, Carmody,” Jake exploded. “You aren’t taking Jayla to some of those dives you frequent. I won’t have it.”

“What business is it of yours Reynolds?” Jorge demanded. “Last I heard she was a free agent, and she’s sure not underage anymore.” The two young men glared at each other.

Both Ghost and Toula twittered in distress at the negative energy in the atmosphere, and Drusilla, the empath, said, “Whoa boys, let’s not start a brawl in here, shall we?”

Even Jayla felt the calming push the other woman was sending.

Fortunately, just then, the hostess appeared and said, “Your table is ready Lord Lewellyn.”

Drusilla slid down off the bar stool with difficulty. “I think I need to make a trip to the lady’s room before we sit down.”

Jayla got up too. “Here, let me help you.” She cast an admonishing look over her shoulder at Jake as she followed her cousin’s wife. “I’m hungry so try not to get us thrown out of here before we eat, okay?”

Watching the women leave, Lucas laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them in line,” he promised. He nodded to the three young men. “Nice to have met you, gentlemen; I hope you enjoy your dinner. Come on Jake, let’s wait for our ladies at our table, shall we?”

Jake scowled as Lucas chuckled all the way to the table. Once seated, Lucas looked at his friend with a grin. “So, it’s Jayla, is it? Oh, Man, I’m going to enjoy watching this. Especially after the hard time you gave me when I was courting Drusilla four years ago. What was it you compared me to? A Saharan Snap Dragon looking for a fight?”

Jake gave his best friend a sour look. “Oh, you’re hilarious Lewellyn.” His normal good humor reasserted itself and he shook his head ruefully. “I guess it serves me right; I did give you a hard time when you were courting your wife. It’s just—I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. When we met, she was so young I kept telling myself being around her was like getting my sister Karen back for a while. I convinced myself I felt like a big brother.”

“That was four years ago,” Luc pointed out. “She isn’t a kid anymore and neither are you. Besides, didn’t you end up on each other’s Match List this time?”

“Yes, we did, but how did you know?”

Lucas shrugged. “Drusilla’s sister Katherine watches the family Lists like a hunting Dactyl. I think she must have a back door into the Maker’s computer or something, because she always seems to know what they’re up to.”

Jake looked thoughtful. “Wasn’t it Lady Katherine who developed the program used to create the original matches that brought all of us here?”

“It sure was.” Lucas laughed. “I remember her husband Zack telling me once that when she wrote that program, she had corrected some ‘oversights’ she found in the original program the Makers had been using for years. He thought it was funny because she didn’t ask their permission. If you are serious about courting Jayla, you better learn the O’Teague women are very prone to independent action. Jayla is no different.”

In the meantime, Jayla and Drusilla were making their slow way back to where the men waited. “I can see you will have a lot of fun with this year’s Match List,” Drusilla said. “I’m glad I’ll be here to watch the fun. I heard you and Jake are on each other’s this year.”

Jayla looked troubled. “Yes,” she acknowledged. “I’m not sure what Jake thinks about that. He’s always considered me a sort of replacement for the little sister who was killed in the war you know.”

“Humm,” Drusilla said. “Maybe, but earlier in the bar I sure wasn’t picking up big brother feelings from him. It felt like jealousy. Do you want him?”

“Four years ago, I would have said yes. I had the most awful crush on him when I was fourteen,” Jayla admitted. “He was the first non-family guy I met after Gregor who was decent. Then he defended me at the trial and helped rescue me from the Jacks—I sort of saw him as this knight in shining armor, but he always treated me like a kid.”

“Perfectly normal for you to feel that way,” Drusilla said. “You know he had to treat you like a kid because that’s what you were. Besides, even if he saw you as a sister then, I don’t think he does anymore. If no one told you, you’ve grown into quite a beautiful girl.”

Jayla shrugged. “That’s surface stuff. It means nothing.”

By this time, they had arrived back at the table and both women dropped the subject. After some discussion, the four of them shared a large baked shellfish, imported from the water world Oceana. It was lightly seasoned, baked in a rich wine sauce and served with creamed orange roots called tapiala and a large pea-like vegetable, fried crispy in its own pods. Bowls of uncooked, diced fish and vegetables were set out for Toula and Ghost, along with the small water bowls the Quirka would use to wash their paws and muzzles after dinner. Visitors to Vensoog were always surprised to find the natives shared meals with their pets.

Because of her pregnancy, Drusilla ordered fizzy water so by the time dinner was over she was the only one not feeling some effects from the wine served with the meal. When Jake took Jayla home that night, she was feeling quite relaxed from the two bottles wine the three of them had shared. When they arrived in the alley behind her shop, Jake insisted on walking her up to her door.

“What, do you think I’m too wobbly to make it up my own stairs?” she demanded. The comment might have had more force if she hadn’t tripped on the steps when she said it. Ghost, hung on gamely as she rocked on her perch on Jayla’s shoulder.

Jake caught Jayla’s elbow before she went all the way down. “Oh, no,” he retorted, guiding her up the stairs, “I can see you’re as steady as a rock—”

He cut off abruptly, staring at the open door. “Wait. That shouldn’t be open. I saw you lock it.”

“Huh?” she stared owlishly at the door for a second. “I did too lock it.”

“That’s what I said.” Unlike Jayla, he had imbibed very little of the wine. He pushed her up against the wall, drawing his gun. “You stay here. I’m going to check it out.”

Ghost trilled, and hopped from Jayla’s shoulder to his, her quills lifting. “All right,” he told her, “you can come but you stay out of trouble.”

Jayla pushed away from the wall. “I’m coming in too,” she announced. “I’m not staying out here by myself.”

Jake hesitated. “Okay, you can come, but stay behind me and do what I tell you.”

Standing sideways to the door, he pushed it open, taking a quick look into the darkened kitchen. Gripping Jayla’s hand, he ducked into the room, pulling her with him out of the doorway. “Lights,” he told the house program, and the room lights came on.

It was a mess. Drawers were pulled out, and the contents spilled on the floor. The robo-chef had been broken into and what little food Daryl had shopped for was strewn around and ground underfoot.

The sitting room was worse. Cushions on the couch and chairs were ripped open, and the stuffing pulled out. Art was pulled off the walls, the frames broken, and the canvas slashed. Shelves of old-fashioned books were pulled out and the books themselves ripped apart.

“This is awful!” Jayla gasped. “Why would someone do this?”

“Looking for something, I’ll bet,” Jake responded. There was a tinkle of glass breaking from downstairs. He shoved her down behind the overturned couch with a curt, “Stay there,” and headed for the stairs to the shop.

“Don’t!” she exclaimed. “What if whoever it is has a gun?”

“So do I,” he reminded her as he vanished through the doorway. She hesitated for a second and then stood up and went to her bedroom. This was her apartment, her shop, dammit. She would not hide up here and play the damsel in distress.

The bedroom had been treated similarly as the sitting room, but they hadn’t found the wall safe. She keyed in the combination and a portion of the wall panel slid back. Jayla reached inside and pulled out her pulse gun. Checking to make sure it was loaded, she started down the stairs to the shop. The shop and the living quarters were separated on the bottom with a locked door, but that had been forced open. The shock of the break-in had sobered her enough so she could hold her gun steady and traverse the stairs without tripping.

The shop was never completely dark because low wattage security lights were always on. Gritting her teeth, she called for more lights in the shop, relieved not to see much damage. Suddenly there was a yell of fury, pulsar fire flashed, she heard glass shattering and then running feet. Jayla whirled around, but her reflexes were slower than normal. A big man in dark clothes with a hood and mask was firing back over his shoulder and charging toward her. Hot on his heels, Jake dodged the wild shots being fired at him. He raised his gun, but checked when he saw her in the doorway.

“Jayla get down!” Jake yelled, unable to return fire without taking the chance of hitting her.

She dodged, but it was too late. The intruder hit her full force, knocking her down. Her head smacked into the doorframe behind her and she blacked out. When she came to, she was sitting on the floor. Jake had one arm around her while he wiped her face with a wet cloth. The cloth smelled vaguely of disinfectant and dusting oil. Irritably, she pushed it away.

“Can you stand?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said. He pulled her to her feet, steadying her with an arm around her when she swayed. Ghost twittered anxiously from his shoulder.

“I’m all right Ghost,” she managed. “What happened?”

“You didn’t stay upstairs like I told you to,” he informed her. “I almost caught him when he tried to open the front door, but he took off running toward the back, and I couldn’t shoot him with you in the line of fire. Then he barreled into you and got away up the stairs. Didn’t I tell you to stay behind the couch?”

Under other circumstances, Jayla would have been furious at his calm assumption of authority; just now, she felt too dizzy and her head hurt too badly for her to care.

Despite his rough words, his hands were gentle as he guided her back up the stairs. He righted the least damaged of the chairs and sat her down in it.

“Sit here while I get you some water,” he instructed, dropping a worried Ghost in her lap. The Quirka climbed up her shoulder and sniffed anxiously at her head. Absently, she stroked the small creature, accepting the love and concern Ghost was projecting at her and sending reassurance back. In the kitchen, she could hear Jake’s voice talking to the Patrol as he ran water into a glass. His next call was to Glass Manor, informing them she’d had a break-in at her place.

Three hours later, she was sitting sleepily in the same chair, Ghost pillowed on her lap while Jake talked to the two detectives who had investigated the body on the beach. Jorgensen, O’Teague’s local head of security stood by listening. Crime scene techs were busy with their instruments recording everything.

The one bright spot in an otherwise hideous ending to their date, was Daryl being found hanging upside down in his utility closet, stripped to his android skin. That the intruder had turned him off was evidenced by the open flap on his back. His dermal tissue was pockmarked with slashes and holes; evidently, the thief had been looking for hidden pouches on his body.

Looking annoyed, Jake left the two detectives and came over to her. He tilted her chin up and examined the cut the medic had bandaged. “Are you feeling up to answering questions from those two?” he asked jerking his head at the two detectives.

“Sure, why not?” she leaned her head back against the damaged chair.

He sat down on the arm and nodded curtly to the two detectives who had followed him over. Larry Jorgensen took up a position on the other side of her chair.

Sipowitz frowned at the two men. “Alone if you don’t mind Lord Reynolds.”

“No,” Jake said simply. “You can do this with us here, or later at your headquarters when she has Jess Braydon with her.”

“We could take her downtown now,” Gorsling responded.

“The only thing that will get you is Lady Jayla says nothing until Braydon gets there, and Braydon rakes you over the coals for attempting to talk to her client when she has a head injury.”

“Never mind,” Sipowitz, the senior partner, said. “I’m surprised you told us you didn’t recognize the body on the beach, My Lady.”

“I told you I didn’t get close to it,” Jayla reminded them. “I only got near enough to be sure it was humanoid. Who was it?”

“Sara Lipski,” Gorsling said, watching Jayla with hard eyes.

“Oh no! That makes it seem worse somehow. I bought this shop from her. She told me she planned to retire to Sand Castle Cove on DeMedici. I only met her once, and that was the day we signed the papers for the sale,” Jayla said. “Do you know how she died?”

“The coroner is ruling it a homicide,” Sipowitz responded. “That’s what makes your little home invasion so interesting. Did they take anything?”

Jayla fumbled for Jake’s hand, which was resting on her shoulder.

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t looked yet.”

Just then, the head of the repair crew from O’Teague came over to tell Jorgensen that the material to repair Jayla’s broken doors had arrived.

“Okay to start the repair work?” Jorgensen asked the detectives.

Sipowitz hesitated, glancing at the head crime scene tech. “We’re done with the doors,” she said. “They can fix them if they want to, and we’ve finished our scans. We’ll be out of here as soon as we finish processing the house-bot.”

Sipowitz nodded, and Jayla winced as the repair crew banged on the back door as they removed the broken one to replace it. Ghost stirred in her lap at the noise. Sipowitz turned back to Jayla.

“What do you think whoever did this was looking for?”

Jayla’s shoulders lifted. “I suppose it must be something Lipski had or they think she had, but I don’t know what it could be. There wasn’t anything but furniture in the apartment and sales goods in the shop when I moved in. Nothing anyone would want badly enough to do this.”

“He had a go at Daryl,” Jake remarked. Maybe he knows something. Didn’t you say Lipski had added some unusual enhancements in his programming?”

Gorsling got up and went into the other room where the techs were working on Daryl.

Sipowitz nodded again. “Okay, we will be out of here as soon as they finish in there. You must come down to the station to give a statement tomorrow. Where are you going to be staying?”

“I’m taking her out to Glass Manor on O’Teague for the night,” Jake told them. “Do you want any clothes or anything Jayla?”

She shuddered; remembering the tangled mess of her clothes strewn out all over the ruined bed and the floor. “No. Everything will have to be cleaned before I can wear it. They’ll find me something for tonight and tomorrow at the manor.”

He reached down for the sleeping Ghost, scooping her up in one hand as he helped Jayla rise. “We’ll see you out at the compound, Larry. You can give her the keys tomorrow. She will need replacement furniture too.”

Jorgensen nodded. “There’s stuff in stores she can have.”

Jayla made a face. “I think I’ll just buy new. I have enough capital left from my parent’s legacy. I didn’t like this furniture anyway.”

 

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Book 4 In the Handfasting Series: From This Day Forward

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When she finds the body of a retired shopkeeper on the beach, a series of mysterious events draw the new shop owner into a web of passion, terror and murder.  Jayla must find the killer and discover what he wants because she is his next target.

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The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Jayla ran with her usual long easy strides along the deserted beach. Jayla liked to jog along the shore next to the spaceport because despite the noise the shuttles made taking off and landing, the shore was usually deserted except for a few solitary runners like herself. She and Ghost, the creamy white Quirka clinging to her shoulder, enjoyed the fresh breeze and the freedom from demands on her time.

She brushed her short gold hair back out of her face. It seemed she had been running half her life. Jayla smiled to herself as she remembered how hard it had been when she began to run every morning.

Jayla wasn’t native to Vensoog. Her Uncle Gideon had married Genevieve, the Laird of clan O’Teague and emigrated to Vensoog after Moodon, their home planet was burnt off in the last war with the Karamine Coalition. Jayla had just lost her parents and had resented being uprooted to a new world with strange customs where she knew no one. A headstrong, resentful teenager can find plenty of trouble to get into by herself and even more if she connects with unscrupulous adults who intend to take advantage of her rebellious feelings. She had made loads of mistakes that first year. She bitterly regretted having gotten involved with Gregor Ivanov, the much older man who had romanced her and planned to sell her for the child sex trade. While it had not been her fault when she and other girls from the clans were kidnapped by the Thieves Guild, she hated remembering how helpless she felt as a captive. She was rescued from both situations, but she vowed to learn to defend herself so nothing like that could happen again.

Two weeks after the clans had rescued the girls from the Jack ship, Wolf Larsen from her Uncle Zack’s old Recon unit, showed up on Glass Isle to give her lessons in self-defense. She later learned Wolf had been specially requested as her teacher by Lord Jake Reynolds, her Cousin Luc’s best friend.

“Stamina,” Wolf’s deep voice echoed in her mind, “is the essence of fighting. You can’t fight if you are exhausted or out of breath.” He had knocked on her door at dawn that first day to drag her out to run a mile. Wheezing, and with her legs feeling like jelly, Jayla had kept at it because she was tired of being pushed around. Seeing her determination, Wolf agreed to show up every day for the next two years to train her in self defense.

After Wolf had returned to his other clan duties, she had kept up the training. The morning runs were not an indulgence even though they took time away from her shop. She ran, worked out in the Clan gym at Glass Manor, and practiced her marksmanship faithfully because she intended to never again be at the mercy of someone else.

Thanks to her parent’s foresight in moving their accounts to Fenris as soon as the war with the Karamine Coalition started, Jayla had inherited a sizable nest egg when she came of age. Enough to buy the gift shop she had always wanted. When she had bought the shop with the apartment over it earlier in the year, Jake had promised to come by and see how she was getting along.

Her faithful companion Ghost was a Quirka. Quirka were native animals adopted as pets by the early Vensoog settlers because they were small, cute and avid hunters of the insects and other vermin infesting human dwellings. The Quirka adopted humans because they provided a mutually satisfying emotional bond and a ready source of food and hunting grounds.

Like all Quirka bonded with a human, Ghost went everywhere with her chosen human and even seemed to enjoy the morning runs. Her pristine white coat sparkled in the morning sun, and her plume of a tail waved with the motion of Jayla’s steps. The sturdy leather straps affixed to the shoulders of Jayla’s running clothes allowed Ghost to cling to Jayla with her tiny, hand-like paws and feet. White Quirka like Ghost were rare. Ghost had never developed the ability to adapt her fur color to match her environment the way other Quirka did. The hollow rows of retractable venom quills along her backbone, which were Ghost’s chief defense against predators, glistened as the sun hit them. If she felt threatened, their quills stood upright and filled with an acidy venom. Being stung by a Quirka was quite unpleasant, and in case of smaller predators, sometimes fatal. Ghost’s bright blue eyes, also unusual for Quirka, matched Jayla’s in color. She chirped in Jayla’s ear now, her small upright ears pricked forward as she recognized the large rock where Jayla usually turned to make the return trip.

There appeared to be a bundle of rags and sticks lying next to the boulder. Jayla slowed as she approached, hoping it wasn’t something nasty a picnicker had left there. If it were, she decided, she would report it instead of hauling it all the way back to the Spaceport buildings the way she ordinarily did.

Ghost hissed as they approached and her quills lifted, her sharply pointed nose wrinkled in distaste. The smell hit Jayla whose olfactory senses were less well developed than a Quirka, and she stopped several feet away. She had once come upon a goat on Glass Isle that had been dead for several days. It had smelled like this.

It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at. What she had taken for a bundle of sticks was wearing shoes. Swallowing nausea, she made herself walk closer to see if what was lying in the sand was human or humanoid. It was difficult to tell what species it was, because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, but it had been some type of humanoid.

Glad she hadn’t eaten before starting her run, she backed away and sat down on a driftwood log, trying not to throw up. Ghost, in the way of all Quirka, was more concerned with Jayla than with the unknown body. She stroked her mistress’s face and crooned soothingly to her projecting comfort. Jayla dropped a kiss in gratitude between the small pricked ears and took a deep breath before she tapped on her wrist com.

The com automatically dialed Clan security on the O’Teague compound instead of the emergency Port Recovery Security Patrol. Even though she was now living above her shop in Port Recovery, she had forgotten to re-program it. Her com was immediately answered by the Clan communication center.

“Jayla, I haven’t heard from you in ages—what’s wrong, honey?” Mira, who had often been assigned as her trainer, had sounded cheerful until she saw the girls face.

Jayla turned her wrist so Mira could see the body through the com. “I need Port Recovery Security to come out here. It looks like Ghost and I found a dead body this morning. We’re out at the end of the island behind the spaceport.”

“Are you safe?” Mira demanded, instinct kicking in. Her regular job was O’Teague Clan Security but she was pulling desk duty because she was pregnant.

“Yes, we’re safe,” Jayla reassured her. “I think it’s been here a while.”

In the background, Jayla could hear her calling for Larry to grab a sled and get his ass out to the end of Port Recovery Island. “Jayla’s found a body. I’m calling the Port Recovery Security but she’s alone out there—”

“Jayla,” Mira’s voice was calm. “You stay where you are. I’m sending Larry out to you, and I’ll call the Port Recovery Security. I want you to keep this com open, okay?”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jayla assured her.

The trip from Glass Manor on O’Teague Isle to Port Recovery Isle took thirty minutes by boat, but a fast airsled could make it across the channel in ten. When the tall, dark skinned man dismounted from the sled, he smiled reassuringly at Jayla whom he still saw as the little girl she had been when he first met her. Larry Jorgensen, the O’Teague Clan Security Chief, was a former member of her Uncle Gideon’s unit who had married into the clan

“You okay, kid?” his deep voice rumbled.

She nodded, giving him a watery smile. “Yes, I’m fine Larry. It was a nasty surprise, but we’re okay.”

Jorgensen nodded at her and went to inspect the body, being careful not to touch it. He was examining something on the ground in front of the corpse when they heard the approaching whine of the Port Authority Security sleds. He came over to her side to wait with her.

Within a few short minutes the deserted shore was swarming with Patrol. The first to arrive were the uniformed officers who came to check out her story, then the medics, and finally, the detectives in charge, a man and a woman in civilian clothing.

Since she and Larry and been told to wait for the detectives, she leaned back against a boulder on shore, and sipped at the bottled water Larry provided for her and Ghost. Ghost, no longer perched protectively on her shoulder, was busy investigating a pile of seaweed a few feet from where Jayla sat. They had both missed breakfast, and presumably the Quirka was hoping to find a few insects to munch on until they could return home. Larry had offered Jayla an energy bar earlier, but her stomach had rebelled at thought of eating anything.

When the two detectives finally approached her, Larry moved in protectively.

“Lady Jayla?” the male detective asked. “I’m Jim Gorsling, and this is my partner, June Sipowitz. We have a few questions for you.” Gorsling was short, with a square, bulldog face and dark hair in contrast to his partner, a tall, hazel-eyed woman with bronzed skin.

“You found the body?” Gorsling asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Why did you contact Clan O’Teague Security before you called us?” Sipowitz asked.

“Like all the Laird’s immediate family, Lady Jayla’s emergency signal is set for Glass Manor on O’Teague,” Jorgensen interjected, obliquely reminding the two detectives they were dealing with a high-ranking clan member and to be careful how they treated her.

“Perhaps you could join me over here, sir,” Gorsling suggested. “We have a few questions for you.”

“I was dispatched here when Lady Jayla notified O’Teague clan she had found a body,” Jorgensen said, not moving. “It’s been requested I stay with her until she can leave. I’m to give her a ride back to her shop.”

“Are you her legal representative?” Gorsling inquired. “Because unless you have some legal standing—”

Ghost, sensing discord, left off hunting for bugs and scrambled back to Jayla where she hopped up to her shoulder. She turned her bright blue eyes to the two detectives and hissed defensively, her quills lifting.

The detectives eyed the Quirka warily. Neither one wanted to chance getting stung by the Quirka’s acid tipped barbs.

Sipowitz tried a different tactic. “Your Quirka is unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen a white one before.”

Jayla stroked Ghost’s back and the quills lowered marginally. “Yes, she is different. Ghost was a gift.”

“From me,” announced a voice from behind them. “Why is it,” Jake remarked as he dismounted his airsled, “that whenever I find you, you’re either in trouble or causing it?”

“Jake!” Jayla cried, jumping up. “Where did you come from?”

Jake pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars of the sled, revealing a shock of dark hair. The male detective gave Jake a sharp look of recognition. He saw, as she did, a slim man in his early twenties with an easy smile, and an air of assurance showing he was accustomed to being obeyed.

Ghost bounced in delight, and when he was close enough, leaped to his arms chirping happily. “Yes, I’m glad to see you too,” he told her, petting her before moving her to his shoulder.

Sipowitz frowned. “And who might you be?”

Her partner answered her. “Cara, this is Lord Jake Reynolds, the Duc d’Orleans’ nephew, L’Roux Clan. What brings you here Lord Reynolds?”

Jake gave them a little bow. “I’ve been requested by Clan O’Teague to assist Lady Jayla in her present difficulty. Ah—I do have legal standing.”

Jorgensen relaxed his protective stance. “Good to see you kid. If you’ve got this, I’ll head back to the manor. I was just coming off shift when I was notified about it.”

“Sure,” Jake said, “take off.”

Jorgensen stepped away and spoke with Gorsling for a few minutes before mounting his sled and zipping off.

When Gorsling returned, he said, “Lord Reynolds, you said you had legal standing but—”

Smiling, Jake pulled a small crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. “Here is my authority to act for Lady Jayla.”

Frowning, Gorsling stuck the crystal into his porta-tab and showed it to his partner who rolled her eyes. All they needed was interference in their investigation by a high clan lord.

Jake looked over at Jayla. “So, you found a body, did you?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“This is a kind of deserted area to run in.”

“I like to run out here,” she said a little defensively. “Nobody bothers me.”

He grunted. “Where’s your weapon?”

She patted the pocket of her running shirt. “It’s here. Mira got me a small one to fit in this pocket and I always carry it when I run.”

Sipowitz looked up and held out her hand. “May I see, it Lady Jayla?”

Jayla slid her hand into her pocked and pulled out a pulsar gun about the size of her palm, which she held out butt first to the detective. Sipowitz took it and examined it. “Hasn’t been fired,” she said, handing it back.

“That’s right,” Jayla said.

Sipowitz studied her. “Had you ever seen the deceased before this?”

“I don’t think so,” Jayla replied. “I’m afraid the smell got to me so I didn’t go any closer than I needed to make sure it was a person.”

“Okay. Just as a matter of form, can you tell us where you’ve been over the last several days?”

“I’ve just moved into my new apartment in Port Recovery. I’ve been out on Glass Isle collecting the rest of my stuff.”

“All right,” the detective said. “That’s all for now. We may have more questions later though so don’t leave town.”

“I believe it’s time we let these officers get on with their investigation Jayla. If you have any further questions, Detectives, you can get in touch with Lady Jayla through Clan O’Teague,” Jake said. He took Jayla by the arm and led her over to his sled.

“There’s no place for Ghost,” she objected.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Jake replied, opening a cache in the side. He took out a spare helmet for her and handed it to her. Then he brought out what looked like an upside-down helmet with a clear visor. He snapped it into place on the front control panel. “C’mon Ghost,” he said patting it. Ghost hopped into the cavity and settled happily into the made-for-Quirka seat.

“I want one,” Jayla declared. “Where did you get it?”

“It’s a prototype. Friend of mine is marketing them. I’ll tell him he’s got a sale.” He mounted the sled and waited for her to throw a leg over the seat behind him before they took off in a whirl of sand.

Gosling left the Coroner and returned to his partner as Jayla and Jake took off. “Coroner thinks it’s a body dump,” he told Sipowitz. “She figures the woman has been dead about two days.”

“That means if Lady Jayla was out on Glass Isle she couldn’t have done it.”

“I suppose so, but she sure drew a lot of defensive firepower for someone who is innocent,” Gorsling said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I told you Lord Reynolds is the Duc d’Orleans’s blood nephew. He’s the clan troubleshooter. The Duc sends him out to solve problems. And the guy we found here with her? That is O’Teague’s Head of Security here in the Port.”

“Well even if her bracelet is marked as a member of the Laird’s immediate family, I’m surprised to find the clan sent two people out to back her up though, unless—”

“Unless what?”

“I’ll tell you after you run her Match List history and that of Lord Reynolds,” she said.

“I’ll do it on the way back to headquarters. What do you want it for?”

“Well, the Planting Festival is coming up and it occurred to me that Lord Reynolds coming to ‘rescue’ her from us might have nothing to do with this murder. Either the Laird or the Duc could be doing a little matchmaking. If that’s the case, then O’Teague’s local Security Head showing up might only mean Lady Jayla has an overprotective family.”

“The O’Teagues do have that reputation,” he admitted. “We’ve got an intern from that clan working down in the morgue this year, and from what I heard Lady Katherine practically microscanned the place for germs before she let the kid work there.”

Unaware of the speculation they left behind them on the beach, Jake stopped the sled in the rear of Jayla’s shop. Her apartment was on the second level. Although she had access from the store, the private entrance was upstairs in the back. She dismounted and pried a reluctant Ghost loose from her perch in the Quirka basket. “Thanks for coming to the rescue again,” she told Jake.

“I was coming to see you anyway. Drusilla wanted me to invite you to have dinner with the three of us tonight here in the city,” he said.

“I’d love to, but I’ve been invited to attend the Merchant Guild mixer tonight. It’s my first one and I don’t want to miss it.”

Jake shrugged. “So, I’ll escort you there, and then we’ll meet Luc and Drusilla for dinner afterwards.”

He waited while she and Ghost mounted the stairs to the owner’s quarters. When the door had closed on Jayla and Ghost, restarted the sled as he commed his uncle. L’Roux was head of security in Port Recovery this year and his uncle liked to be informed of anything touching the clan families.

Once inside her apartment, Jayla stripped and then she and Ghost got in the shower. She lifted Ghost to the specially made Quirka shelf, and turned on the water letting the hot spray wash away the morning. Ghost enjoyed playing in the water, turning and twisting to rinse her short, plush fur of the sand and salt that had accumulated on it during their stay at the beach.

Once they were both clean, Jayla wrapped a towel around herself while she patted Ghost dry. She set the Quirka down on the mat in front of the Quirka sized blower on her dresser, laughing as Ghost danced and whirled in the stream of warm air.

“May I assist you in dressing?” Jayla jumped as her house-bot spoke behind her.

Jayla gave a small shriek of surprise and scowled at it. The bot had been christened Daryl by the previous owner. It was one of the expensive bots that could fool the unwary into thinking he was human. When she first moved in, Jayla thought it was a plus that her apartment came furnished with a house-bot to cook and clean. However, Daryl had yet to cook or       clean anything, and judging by his behavior, his previous owner had installed some unconventional programming, which Jayla had tried in vain to modify.

“No, you may not,” she snapped. “Remove yourself from this room while I am dressing. Go in the kitchen and make a grocery shopping list.”

“But Mistress,” the Daryl protested. “I am versed in all forms of physical pleasure and I can assure you—”

“Out!” she shouted. Thank Goddess the maintence people were due to come today to adjust his programming, she thought half hysterically. If she had to listen one more time to that bloody list of sexual acts he was programed to perform, she would scream.

She was furious all over again when she listened to the messages on the house net and discovered that the Robo-Maintence crew was not coming out today. They were sorry to hear she had canceled and wanted to reschedule the appointment.

Furious, Jayla got on the com with them and demanded to know who had canceled the prior arrangement.

“Your house-bot left us a message you were canceling the appointment,” she was told.

“Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. “I expect to see you out here today at our scheduled time.”

“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” the receptionist said. “We’ve filled your time. We have an open slot two weeks from now if you want that.”

Jayla made a growling noise. “Fine! please have it noted in the records that until he has been re-programed, you are not to accept messages from my house-bot! Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” she was told snippily.

Jayla turned her glare on the house-bot. “You may no longer contact anyone without my express order.”

“That is a waste of my talents,” Daryl informed her. “I am well versed in communication protocols needed to efficiently run this house for you and—”

“Shut up!” she yelled.

Daryl hadn’t stocked the robo-chef either so Jayla took Ghost down the street to a local eatery that served breakfast where she ordered Ghost the Quirka Special (diced raw meat, nuts and vegetables) and a large spicy omelet made from Ostamu eggs for herself. Ostamu were huge flightless birds bred by the settlers for their meat and eggs. Their multi-colored feathers were highly prized for clothing and decorations as well.

Since Jayla was a fellow business woman, Carol, the café owner, brought her order to her and sat down for a friendly chat.

“What’s the matter, hon?” Carol asked, pouring them both a large Cafka. Carol was in her late forties with the comfortable shape of those who work in the food industry.

“Can they charge you for killing a droid?” Jayla demanded. “I just found out that clump of slag I inherited as a house-bot canceled the appointment I made to get him reprogrammed!”

Carol’s eyes danced over the rim of her cup as she gave a gasp of laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said inadequately. “Is he still offering you sexual favors?”

Jayla nodded over a bite of omelet. “This morning when we got out of the shower. I don’t dare invite anyone over—I hate to think what might happen if he does it to a guest. Suppose my friends think I programed him for that stuff?”

Carol sputtered into her Cafka. “You never know—it might lead to some interesting encounters.” She eyed her friend shrewdly. “That’s not all that’s bothering you, though is it?”

Jayla sighed. “No. I found a body on my morning run today. It was nasty.”

“Oh, you poor thing. Who was it?”

“Well, to tell the truth the smell was so bad I didn’t get close enough to find out. Just that it was human or humanoid.”

“Icky,” Carol sympathized. “I wonder who it could be? I don’t know of anyone local who is missing—”

“I’d rather talk about something else if you don’t mind though. Anything else.”

“Sure,” Carol said obligingly. “It’s going to make the rounds though. You’re likely to have customers asking about it all day. There’s nothing like curiosity to drum up business.”

Jayla made a face. “You’re probably right. I’m not officially open, but I can’t afford to turn away customers.”

“The other shop owners will be dropping by too, you can bet,” Carol told her.

The rest of the day was productive, even with the constant interruptions from her fellow shop owners and local customers who had heard about the body and wanted the latest gossip about it. When she went upstairs from the shop to dress for the evening events, she was conscious of a pleasant feeling of achievement.

The original shop owner, Sara Lipski had sold high-end imports, but Jayla intended to widen the sales base by featuring locally made arts and craft products. She already had several local artists and craftspeople bringing in new products, and hoped to pick up more at the Planting Festival.

She and Ghost were still dressing when she heard Daryl let Jake in. The apartment’s walls were soundproofed so she couldn’t hear the actual conversation, just the murmur of voices.

She looked at herself and Ghost in her mirror and nodded in satisfaction. She wanted to look professional, but classy tonight, so she had decided on loose black pants and a dark gray vest over a blue, dragon-nest silk blouse. The blue in the blouse, with its three-quarter inch sleeves and scooped neck matched her eyes, and the gray vest snugged under her breast and drew attention to her slim waist. Ghost wore a bracelet of glittering black and blue stones around her neck, and Jayla had fluffed her white coat until the hollow ends of her fur sparkled.

When she joined him in the sitting room, Jake was standing with his arms crossed frowning at Daryl, but he gave her a wide smile and a wolf whistle.

“You look great. Very classy,” he said.

“Thanks. I want to look like a businesswoman at the mixer.”

“You pulled it off,” he said. “At least you will have if no one at the mixer ever meets Daryl here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the house-bot as they shut the door and started down the stairs. “Seriously Jayla, you need to get that sucker re-programmed. Do you know what he asked me?”

She signed, “I can guess. The programmers were supposed to be out today, but Daryl called them and canceled. I was furious. He’s driving me crazy. It seems Sara Lipski had some very irregular enhancements programmed into him. The house maintence company told me it would be another two weeks before they could reschedule me. I’ve told them not to accept any more orders unless it comes from me in person, but I don’t know if I can stand keeping him around for that long.”

“You could turn him off.”

She snorted. “I tried that. He’s got a failsafe that resets itself if he’s been off for over eight hours.”

“Want me to check around for another House Maintence company?”

“Thanks, but I’ll do it. I just didn’t want to deal with stuff like that today. I hid in the shop doing inventory.”

She was pleased to see that Jake had brought a closed two-seater airsled for tonight. She had enjoyed the ride from the beach but tonight she didn’t want to arrive at the mixer looking windblown.

The Merchant Guild Mixer was held at a meeting room in City Hall, one of the large domes lived in by the first settlers that the City had converted to civic use. Tonight, the Merchant Guild had scattered tables around the large room for seating, but a lot of the local shop owners were standing around in groups talking. When Jake and Jayla entered, they were met by Miles Standish, the current Elector of the Guild.

“So glad you came tonight, Jayla,” Miles said, enthusiastically pumping her hand while his eyes ran over her admiringly. When he saw Jake, he frowned, but quickly smoothed out his expression. “And you brought a plus one, too. Nice to meet you. Are you a close friend of Jayla’s Lord Reynolds?” he asked Jake, smiling owlishly.

Miles and Jake were of similar heights, but Miles mild blue eyes, snub nose and round face gave him the air of a friendly puppy.

Next to Miles, Jake appeared dark and dangerous and it was plain Miles wasn’t exactly happy to see him despite his pleasant welcome. Jake did nothing Jayla could object to; in fact, he was perfectly pleasant to the Elector, but Ghost muttered fretfully in her ear and Jayla could almost feel Jake going on alert as the men talked.

“That’s right,” Jake agreed. “Jayla and I go way back. He cousin Lucas introduced us.”

“I see. I hope you will excuse us for a few minutes while I introduce Jayla to some of the other merchants. Ah, Carol,” Miles said snagging Jaylas friend from the café, “Perhaps you can find Lord Jake here a drink and entertain him while Jayla and I make the rounds.”

“Sure,” Carol agreed, smiling. “I’m always up for a drink with a good-looking man.”

She signaled a waiter-bot who brought over a tray of drinks. “What’s your poison, Jake?”

“Cafka,” he told the server. “No alcohol for me thanks; Jayla and I are meeting friends for dinner after this, and I don’t like depending on the auto pilot on my two-seater. It’s been a little wonky lately.”

“Miles always likes to give special attention to the new women merchants,” she told him.

Jake gave her a considering look. “Especially if they are young and beautiful?”

Carol grinned at him. “Somehow I don’t think he was expecting competition like you.” She slipped her arm through his. “C’mon, I’ll introduce you to some people I think you’ll enjoy talking to.”

Jayla enjoyed meeting the other store owners, some of whom she could see becoming friends. After several minutes though, she became aware that a few of them seemed ill at ease. Everyone was friendly and polite, but she caught some odd expressions whenever Miles put a hand on her shoulder or her back, which he did a little too frequently. Whenever Miles touched her, Ghost stiffened on her shoulder and muttered unhappily. Jayla wondered what the Quirka sensed that she didn’t.

When she was introduced to a young couple named Fred and Elsie Boyington, who owned a food supply store, she surprised a flicker of relief mixed with pity in Elsie’s expression. It was even more puzzling to get almost the same response from a pair of sisters named Jan and Lin Sorency who ran a local clothing shop.

“Perhaps we can get together later this week for lunch, Jan suggested, directing a challenging look at Standish. “Miles always encourages us old timers to make you newbies welcome, don’t you Miles?”

He hesitated briefly, and then said, “Of course. An excellent idea. Just don’t frighten her away.”

Jan bit her lip, but nodded. “Sure. No reason to scare a newcomer away.”

“That sounds as if there is something to be afraid of. Don’t worry—I don’t scare easily,” Jayla said lightly.

About halfway around the room, Miles stopped. He seemed to hesitate for a minute then he asked, “Do you mind a personal question?”

“I suppose it depends on the question,” Jayla responded, looking at him curiously.

“That guy who came with you—is he boyfriend or guard?”

Jayla stiffened. “Jake is a good friend of mine and of Clan O’Teague,” she said somewhat haughtily. The ‘it’s none of your business’ remained unspoken.

Miles looked self-conscious. “I’m sorry, it’s just—well I got a copy of my Match List today and you’re on it, and I find you very attractive, so I was wondering—”

Jayla’s anger softened. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said. “Look Miles, I like you, and you seem like a nice man, but I will be too busy getting my shop up and running to think about Match Lists.”

Deciding it was time to put an end to this type of overture, she caught Jakes eye and he moved casually toward her.

As soon as he was within speaking distance, Jake asked, “Everything Okay here, Jayla?” Jayla turned to him with relief.

“I’m fine, Jake,” she said. “I guess this morning took a little more out of me than I thought. I’m sorry Miles, Carol, but I think we need to get going to meet our friends for dinner. Thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time and I do want to meet more of my compatriots later.”

“Of course,” Miles said. “I’ll drop by with the application for joining the Guild sometime this week.”

“Thank you and good night,” Jayla told him

Jake was silent as he put her into the airsled. He gave the order to proceed to the restaurant, a new one overlooking the water, and turned to face her.

“Okay, what did I interrupt?” he asked.

Jayla made a frustrated noise. “Did anyone ever tell you what a nosy boots you are?”

Yes,” he said calmly. “You, many times. Give.”

“You’re worse than Ghost at a vermin hole,” she complained. “He wanted to tell me I was on his Match List. There, are you satisfied?”

He studied her face. “You didn’t look overjoyed at the news. Is he on yours?”

She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know. I didn’t download mine when it came in this morning. I was too busy dealing with the house programmer fiasco and then I went down to work in the shop.”

“So look now,” he said. “I’ve got mine.”

When she hesitated, he said, “I’ll make you a deal. You download yours, and I’ll call mine up and we’ll swap. That way neither of us will have any surprises.”

She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you be willing to do that? You always guarded your list like it was pirate gold before.”

He grinned at her. “And you always found out who was on it anyway. What are you afraid of?”

Jayla tapped her com unit and scrolled down through the list until she found the message from the Makers, conscious of Jake doing the same. When she called it up her Match List, she stared at it in shock. Miles Standish was on it all right, but so was Jake. Before she could wipe it clear, Jake had started the data swap. She looked at his list. She was on his list.

“You knew I was on your list this time,” she accused him. “That’s why you wanted to swap.”

“Well, I was curious,” he admitted. “Now we both know and we don’t have to worry who else is on it. All we have to do is decide what we’re going to do.” He patted her hand. “You think about it.”

Truthfully, she didn’t know what to think or feel. Her first girlish hero worship of Jake, began when he had defended her from Gregor at the trial and intensified when he rescued her from the Jack ship, had never quite gone away. However, over the years she had accustomed herself to thinking he regarded her like a little sister, and that he was just a friend. Now he was hinting at something different and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

The two-seater stopped at the door of the restaurant and the valet came to open the doors. Jayla exited the car with mixed emotions.

2  Burglary

The restaurant where they were meeting Drusilla and Lucas was one of the newer establishments in Port Recovery. The Spinning Mollusk had been created by a couple matched in the first wave of Handfasting immigrants. The restaurant had become famous for its exotic seafood. It boasted retractable terraces with views of the city, the spaceport and the wharf. The terraces had to be retractable because if they weren’t, they would be torn off during the fierce yearly storms Vensoog was blessed (or plagued) with.

When Jake gave the hostess Luc’s name, she told them “Your party is waiting in the bar as the table isn’t ready, yet.”

Jayla gave her cousin and his wife a hug before allowing Jake to help her onto one of the high stools next to the polished, rainbowwood bar. Toula, Drusilla’s Quirka, and Ghost touched noses in greeting and then shared the serving of shelled nuts the bartender had set out for them.

A news feed vid from Aphrodite, one of the water worlds, was talking about a jewelry heist. Thieves had stolen the ruling families Crown Jewels and the entire planet was in an uproar. The criminals were suspected of escaping off planet.

“That was a real security screw up,” Luc remarked, eying the vid. “I bet it cost somebody their job. I wonder where the thieves actually went?”

Jake grimaced. “Uncle Max thinks the thieves will come here to pass the jewels to a fence. With the Planting Festival drawing so many off-worlders, he says the thieves might be hoping to slip in with the crowds.”

Jayla glanced briefly at the vid feed, and then turned to Drusilla.

“How are you feeling?” She asked the heavily pregnant woman. Drusilla was a Dragon Talker, and a powerful empath who could communicate with and control the wildlife native to Vensoog. Drusilla didn’t brag about it, but the family knew she was one of the few Dragon Talkers powerful enough to control humans as well. Just now she was about eight months pregnant. With a Dragon Talker, there was always the chance the emotional upheaval caused by the pregnancy hormone changes could cause chaos around her, but Drusilla seemed to be weathering the changes easily.

The tiny redhead touched her belly ruefully. “I’m doing okay, but I look like a fat water dragon. My three Sand Dragon trainees have been a big help though.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ve got Violet, Ceri and Simon interning with you this season,” Jayla said, speaking of the two girls and the boy who had adopted orphan Sand Dragon Calves. Sand Dragons were cousins to the enormous Water Dragons Vensoog was famous for. Despite their name, both species were warm-blooded mammals. Like several species of animals on Vensoog, the Sand Dragons were empathic. Unlike their feral cousins, the three owned by the children were accustomed to being treated as pets and behaved more like over large dogs. They would grow much larger than any dog of course. At maturity, they might top out at between four and six hundred pounds. Hard skin plates resembling dragon scales except for the head and underbelly protected their body. Like Quirka, Sand Dragons could adapt their coloring to conditions around them. A necessary protection for attacks from the air by the huge flying Dactyls who preyed on the Water Dragons.

“However, did you get Katherine to release Violet to you? I thought she refused to send any of her kids off for training,” Jayla asked Drusilla. Violet was an extremely powerful empath but she was still a child, and Jayla knew Lady Katherine hovered over her like a mamma Water Dragon.

Drusilla shrugged. “Well, she had already agreed to allow Lucinda to intern with Patrol Security here in the city, and Violet wanted to come to me, so she let her. Still, if it was anyone but me doing the teaching, I’m not sure my over-protective sister would have agreed. I think Katherine is having a hard time with her children growing up. Not to change the subject, but how is your shop going? Are you open for business yet?”

“Next week, I think. I’m planning to continue the booth Lipski optioned during the festival as well and that’s taken a lot of planning.”

“How will you handle both the shop and the booth?” her cousin Lucas asked curiously.

“Well, I can leave Wayne, my sales-bot on duty in the shop during the day and handle the Festival booth myself. If it turns out I need him to help me in the booth, I can close Whimsical for a few days. A lot of the other shopkeepers are planning to do that.”

“That’s a clever name,” Drusilla said. “Did you choose it?”

“No, that’s the name the shop came with. To keep the customer base, I kept the name. I am changing some of the merchandise I will carry though.”

“What kind of changes?” Jake asked.

Jayla shrugged. “Well, Sara Lipski carried a lot of stuff imported from off-planet. I will still carry some of that in the shop, but I want to stock more bits and pieces from Vensoog Artists and craftspeople.”

Just then, three young men about Jake’s age walked into the bar.

“Hey, Jake’s here!” one of them exclaimed and the three came over to them. Jayla recognized two of them, although it had been many years since she had seen them. Jorge Carmody out of Clan Caldwalder, a tall guy with orangey hair recognized her and nodded in greeting. Silas Crawford was from Clan Ivanov, a blocky round-faced young man whose merry smile hadn’t changed as he bowed to the two women.

“Are you in town for the festival?” Silas asked.

“Yes,” Lucas answered. “Drusilla and I came in to pick up her three interns so we decided we might as well stay for the festival and see who gets Matched this season.”

Jorge groaned. “Don’t talk about the Lists. I got a new one this year, and my family is pushing hard for me to make a permanent choice this time.”

“Mine too,” the third young man said. “Since these two louts don’t seem to have the manners to introduce us, I will present myself. I am Nels Ridenhour out of Clan Yang. Lord Lucas, I know the Bard of Lewellyn by reputation, but may I meet these lovely ladies?” He bowed to both Drusilla and Jayla.

“This is my wife, Lady Drusilla, Reverend Mother to the Dragon Talkers, and my cousin Lady Jayla, Warlord Gideon’s niece,” Lucas said.

“It’s so nice to meet you, Lady Drusilla. Congratulations on your coming child,” Nels said. He then turned to Jayla and gave her a big smile. “Lady Jayla, if you are on my new match list, I can see obeying my clan this year won’t be a hardship.”

“Thank you,” Jayla said, conscious of Jake stiffening beside her. Since Drusilla was a married woman whose husband was well-known for his possessive attitude, she was drawing most of the young men’s attention. She caught her cousin’s eyes, noticing his unholy grin of amusement when he saw Jake take a possessive step closer to her.

Hastily, she said, “I haven’t gone through my list yet, so I don’t know everyone who is on it. Are you going to be attending any of the events?”

Silas snorted. “I was told that I’d better be at a few of the official ones or my name would be mud, so I suppose I will.”

“The Makers events are boring,” Jorge agreed, “but I know of some off the mark places. How about it, Lady Jayla, want to see stuff we don’t show the tourists?”

“For Voids sake, Carmody,” Jake exploded. “You aren’t taking Jayla to some of those dives you frequent. I won’t have it.”

“What business is it of yours Reynolds?” Jorge demanded. “Last I heard she was a free agent, and she’s sure not underage anymore.” The two young men glared at each other.

Both Ghost and Toula twittered in distress at the negative energy in the atmosphere, and Drusilla, the empath, said, “Whoa boys, let’s not start a brawl in here, shall we?”

Even Jayla felt the calming push the other woman was sending.

Fortunately, just then, the hostess appeared and said, “Your table is ready Lord Lewellyn.”

Drusilla slid down off the bar stool with difficulty. “I think I need to make a trip to the lady’s room before we sit down.”

Jayla got up too. “Here, let me help you.” She cast an admonishing look over her shoulder at Jake as she followed her cousin’s wife. “I’m hungry so try not to get us thrown out of here before we eat, okay?”

Watching the women leave, Lucas laughed out loud. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them in line,” he promised. He nodded to the three young men. “Nice to have met you, gentlemen; I hope you enjoy your dinner. Come on Jake, let’s wait for our ladies at our table, shall we?”

Jake scowled as Lucas chuckled all the way to the table. Once seated, Lucas looked at his friend with a grin. “So, it’s Jayla, is it? Oh, Man, I’m going to enjoy watching this. Especially after the hard time you gave me when I was courting Drusilla four years ago. What was it you compared me to? A Saharan Snap Dragon looking for a fight?”

Jake gave his best friend a sour look. “Oh, you’re hilarious Lewellyn.” His normal good humor reasserted itself and he shook his head ruefully. “I guess it serves me right; I did give you a hard time when you were courting your wife. It’s just—I’m not sure what I’m feeling right now. When we met, she was so young I kept telling myself being around her was like getting my sister Karen back for a while. I convinced myself I felt like a big brother.”

“That was four years ago,” Luc pointed out. “She isn’t a kid anymore and neither are you. Besides, didn’t you end up on each other’s Match List this time?”

“Yes, we did, but how did you know?”

Lucas shrugged. “Drusilla’s sister Katherine watches the family Lists like a hunting Dactyl. I think she must have a back door into the Maker’s computer or something, because she always seems to know what they’re up to.”

Jake looked thoughtful. “Wasn’t it Lady Katherine who developed the program used to create the original matches that brought all of us here?”

“It sure was.” Lucas laughed. “I remember her husband Zack telling me once that when she wrote that program, she had corrected some ‘oversights’ she found in the original program the Makers had been using for years. He thought it was funny because she didn’t ask their permission. If you are serious about courting Jayla, you better learn the O’Teague women are very prone to independent action. Jayla is no different.”

In the meantime, Jayla and Drusilla were making their slow way back to where the men waited. “I can see you will have a lot of fun with this year’s Match List,” Drusilla said. “I’m glad I’ll be here to watch the fun. I heard you and Jake are on each other’s this year.”

Jayla looked troubled. “Yes,” she acknowledged. “I’m not sure what Jake thinks about that. He’s always considered me a sort of replacement for the little sister who was killed in the war you know.”

“Humm,” Drusilla said. “Maybe, but earlier in the bar I sure wasn’t picking up big brother feelings from him. It felt like jealousy. Do you want him?”

“Four years ago, I would have said yes. I had the most awful crush on him when I was fourteen,” Jayla admitted. “He was the first non-family guy I met after Gregor who was decent. Then he defended me at the trial and helped rescue me from the Jacks—I sort of saw him as this knight in shining armor, but he always treated me like a kid.”

“Perfectly normal for you to feel that way,” Drusilla said. “You know he had to treat you like a kid because that’s what you were. Besides, even if he saw you as a sister then, I don’t think he does anymore. If no one told you, you’ve grown into quite a beautiful girl.”

Jayla shrugged. “That’s surface stuff. It means nothing.”

By this time, they had arrived back at the table and both women dropped the subject. After some discussion, the four of them shared a large baked shellfish, imported from the water world Oceana. It was lightly seasoned, baked in a rich wine sauce and served with creamed orange roots called tapiala and a large pea-like vegetable, fried crispy in its own pods. Bowls of uncooked, diced fish and vegetables were set out for Toula and Ghost, along with the small water bowls the Quirka would use to wash their paws and muzzles after dinner. Visitors to Vensoog were always surprised to find the natives shared meals with their pets.

Because of her pregnancy, Drusilla ordered fizzy water so by the time dinner was over she was the only one not feeling some effects from the wine served with the meal. When Jake took Jayla home that night, she was feeling quite relaxed from the two bottles wine the three of them had shared. When they arrived in the alley behind her shop, Jake insisted on walking her up to her door.

“What, do you think I’m too wobbly to make it up my own stairs?” she demanded. The comment might have had more force if she hadn’t tripped on the steps when she said it. Ghost, hung on gamely as she rocked on her perch on Jayla’s shoulder.

Jake caught Jayla’s elbow before she went all the way down. “Oh, no,” he retorted, guiding her up the stairs, “I can see you’re as steady as a rock—”

He cut off abruptly, staring at the open door. “Wait. That shouldn’t be open. I saw you lock it.”

“Huh?” she stared owlishly at the door for a second. “I did too lock it.”

“That’s what I said.” Unlike Jayla, he had imbibed very little of the wine. He pushed her up against the wall, drawing his gun. “You stay here. I’m going to check it out.”

Ghost trilled, and hopped from Jayla’s shoulder to his, her quills lifting. “All right,” he told her, “you can come but you stay out of trouble.”

Jayla pushed away from the wall. “I’m coming in too,” she announced. “I’m not staying out here by myself.”

Jake hesitated. “Okay, you can come, but stay behind me and do what I tell you.”

Standing sideways to the door, he pushed it open, taking a quick look into the darkened kitchen. Gripping Jayla’s hand, he ducked into the room, pulling her with him out of the doorway. “Lights,” he told the house program, and the room lights came on.

It was a mess. Drawers were pulled out, and the contents spilled on the floor. The robo-chef had been broken into and what little food Daryl had shopped for was strewn around and ground underfoot.

The sitting room was worse. Cushions on the couch and chairs were ripped open, and the stuffing pulled out. Art was pulled off the walls, the frames broken, and the canvas slashed. Shelves of old-fashioned books were pulled out and the books themselves ripped apart.

“This is awful!” Jayla gasped. “Why would someone do this?”

“Looking for something, I’ll bet,” Jake responded. There was a tinkle of glass breaking from downstairs. He shoved her down behind the overturned couch with a curt, “Stay there,” and headed for the stairs to the shop.

“Don’t!” she exclaimed. “What if whoever it is has a gun?”

“So do I,” he reminded her as he vanished through the doorway. She hesitated for a second and then stood up and went to her bedroom. This was her apartment, her shop, dammit. She would not hide up here and play the damsel in distress.

The bedroom had been treated similarly as the sitting room, but they hadn’t found the wall safe. She keyed in the combination and a portion of the wall panel slid back. Jayla reached inside and pulled out her pulse gun. Checking to make sure it was loaded, she started down the stairs to the shop. The shop and the living quarters were separated on the bottom with a locked door, but that had been forced open. The shock of the break-in had sobered her enough so she could hold her gun steady and traverse the stairs without tripping.

The shop was never completely dark because low wattage security lights were always on. Gritting her teeth, she called for more lights in the shop, relieved not to see much damage. Suddenly there was a yell of fury, pulsar fire flashed, she heard glass shattering and then running feet. Jayla whirled around, but her reflexes were slower than normal. A big man in dark clothes with a hood and mask was firing back over his shoulder and charging toward her. Hot on his heels, Jake dodged the wild shots being fired at him. He raised his gun, but checked when he saw her in the doorway.

“Jayla get down!” Jake yelled, unable to return fire without taking the chance of hitting her.

She dodged, but it was too late. The intruder hit her full force, knocking her down. Her head smacked into the doorframe behind her and she blacked out. When she came to, she was sitting on the floor. Jake had one arm around her while he wiped her face with a wet cloth. The cloth smelled vaguely of disinfectant and dusting oil. Irritably, she pushed it away.

“Can you stand?” he asked her.

“Yes,” she said. He pulled her to her feet, steadying her with an arm around her when she swayed. Ghost twittered anxiously from his shoulder.

“I’m all right Ghost,” she managed. “What happened?”

“You didn’t stay upstairs like I told you to,” he informed her. “I almost caught him when he tried to open the front door, but he took off running toward the back, and I couldn’t shoot him with you in the line of fire. Then he barreled into you and got away up the stairs. Didn’t I tell you to stay behind the couch?”

Under other circumstances, Jayla would have been furious at his calm assumption of authority; just now, she felt too dizzy and her head hurt too badly for her to care.

Despite his rough words, his hands were gentle as he guided her back up the stairs. He righted the least damaged of the chairs and sat her down in it.

“Sit here while I get you some water,” he instructed, dropping a worried Ghost in her lap. The Quirka climbed up her shoulder and sniffed anxiously at her head. Absently, she stroked the small creature, accepting the love and concern Ghost was projecting at her and sending reassurance back. In the kitchen, she could hear Jake’s voice talking to the Patrol as he ran water into a glass. His next call was to Glass Manor, informing them she’d had a break-in at her place.

Three hours later, she was sitting sleepily in the same chair, Ghost pillowed on her lap while Jake talked to the two detectives who had investigated the body on the beach. Jorgensen, O’Teague’s local head of security stood by listening. Crime scene techs were busy with their instruments recording everything.

The one bright spot in an otherwise hideous ending to their date, was Daryl being found hanging upside down in his utility closet, stripped to his android skin. That the intruder had turned him off was evidenced by the open flap on his back. His dermal tissue was pockmarked with slashes and holes; evidently, the thief had been looking for hidden pouches on his body.

Looking annoyed, Jake left the two detectives and came over to her. He tilted her chin up and examined the cut the medic had bandaged. “Are you feeling up to answering questions from those two?” he asked jerking his head at the two detectives.

“Sure, why not?” she leaned her head back against the damaged chair.

He sat down on the arm and nodded curtly to the two detectives who had followed him over. Larry Jorgensen took up a position on the other side of her chair.

Sipowitz frowned at the two men. “Alone if you don’t mind Lord Reynolds.”

“No,” Jake said simply. “You can do this with us here, or later at your headquarters when she has Jess Braydon with her.”

“We could take her downtown now,” Gorsling responded.

“The only thing that will get you is Lady Jayla says nothing until Braydon gets there, and Braydon rakes you over the coals for attempting to talk to her client when she has a head injury.”

“Never mind,” Sipowitz, the senior partner, said. “I’m surprised you told us you didn’t recognize the body on the beach, My Lady.”

“I told you I didn’t get close to it,” Jayla reminded them. “I only got near enough to be sure it was humanoid. Who was it?”

“Sara Lipski,” Gorsling said, watching Jayla with hard eyes.

“Oh no! That makes it seem worse somehow. I bought this shop from her. She told me she planned to retire to Sand Castle Cove on DeMedici. I only met her once, and that was the day we signed the papers for the sale,” Jayla said. “Do you know how she died?”

“The coroner is ruling it a homicide,” Sipowitz responded. “That’s what makes your little home invasion so interesting. Did they take anything?”

Jayla fumbled for Jake’s hand, which was resting on her shoulder.

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t looked yet.”

Just then, the head of the repair crew from O’Teague came over to tell Jorgensen that the material to repair Jayla’s broken doors had arrived.

“Okay to start the repair work?” Jorgensen asked the detectives.

Sipowitz hesitated, glancing at the head crime scene tech. “We’re done with the doors,” she said. “They can fix them if they want to, and we’ve finished our scans. We’ll be out of here as soon as we finish processing the house-bot.”

Sipowitz nodded, and Jayla winced as the repair crew banged on the back door as they removed the broken one to replace it. Ghost stirred in her lap at the noise. Sipowitz turned back to Jayla.

“What do you think whoever did this was looking for?”

Jayla’s shoulders lifted. “I suppose it must be something Lipski had or they think she had, but I don’t know what it could be. There wasn’t anything but furniture in the apartment and sales goods in the shop when I moved in. Nothing anyone would want badly enough to do this.”

“He had a go at Daryl,” Jake remarked. Maybe he knows something. Didn’t you say Lipski had added some unusual enhancements in his programming?”

Gorsling got up and went into the other room where the techs were working on Daryl.

Sipowitz nodded again. “Okay, we will be out of here as soon as they finish in there. You must come down to the station to give a statement tomorrow. Where are you going to be staying?”

“I’m taking her out to Glass Manor on O’Teague for the night,” Jake told them. “Do you want any clothes or anything Jayla?”

She shuddered; remembering the tangled mess of her clothes strewn out all over the ruined bed and the floor. “No. Everything will have to be cleaned before I can wear it. They’ll find me something for tonight and tomorrow at the manor.”

He reached down for the sleeping Ghost, scooping her up in one hand as he helped Jayla rise. “We’ll see you out at the compound, Larry. You can give her the keys tomorrow. She will need replacement furniture too.”

Jorgensen nodded. “There’s stuff in stores she can have.”

Jayla made a face. “I think I’ll just buy new. I have enough capital left from my parent’s legacy. I didn’t like this furniture anyway.”

3  The Little Man Who Wasn’t There

The staff at the compound expected Glass Manor to be crowded during the Festival. The Festival wouldn’t start for another two weeks, but clansmen were already trickling into town. Every clan member who could manage it always tried to come into Port Recovery, and most of them wanted to save money by staying at the Manor instead of renting a room at one of the city hotels. The Manor was built to hold the entire clan when they first came off the emigration ships, so although it was crowded, there was plenty of room. The estate took up the entire small Island so if they ran out of space inside the manor, there were places for the clan to set up portable domes on the grounds. When Jayla had shown up last night, the house manager had put her on a cot in the room shared by Lucinda and Juliette, two of her Aunt Katherine’s daughters. She knew the girls well since she had traveled out from Fenris with them. Lucinda, who was more Jayla’s size despite the age difference, had lent her some nightclothes.

When she woke up, she found the girls dressing for the day.

As Lady Katherine’s First Daughter, Juliette was shadowing her mother in Parliament today. In keeping with those duties, she had dressed formally in tailored black trousers with a green vest over a white blouse. The colors set off her flaming hair and green eyes and the tightly tailored clothes gave her thin frame curves. Her Dactyl, Saura, perched on the mirror, looking on with interest while her mistress checked her outfit for flaws.

Dactyls were empathetic and like Quirka, the smaller varieties often developed life-long bonds with humans. Agra and Saura were intensely interested in the world around themselves. Like earthly bats, Dactyls were flying mammals. Unlike the bats of old earth, they were four-legged, with long, hair-like fur. In flight, the long fine hair on their wings drifted around them in a gauzy haze. Although Dactyls came in many sizes, smaller varieties like Juliette’s Saura and Lucinda’s Agra, were often kept as pets.

“How are you feeling?” Juliette asked.

Jayla touched her head gingerly. “Well, I think it’s still attached,” she said.

“The house medic said you were to take these,” Lucinda said, pointing to a small saucer with two tablets and a bottle of water.

Both girls had been adopted by Lady Katherine when she was on Fenris, and although they were the same age and had been raised together, they did not look alike. Juliette was short and thin, with reddish hair and green eyes. In contrast, Lucinda was tall, with very pale blond hair and grey eyes. Since she had no duties today, Lucinda had dressed casually. As she spoke, she went to the wardrobe and drew out a similar outfit for Jayla.

“I think this will fit you. After you shower, we’ll all go down to breakfast. I’m supposed to make sure you can manage the stairs.”

Encouraged by chirping from Ghost, Jayla gathered up the clothes and headed for the bathing room. The shower had stall the usual shelf for a Quirka. Jayla saw that the girls had added a perch for the Dactyls.

After her shower, Jayla found her cousins engaged in grooming their Dactyl’s long fur.

“Mom brought by a brush and comb set for you and one for Ghost since your stuff got all messed up by the burglar,” Juliette pointed to the dresser.

“Oh, thank you,” Jayla said. “I couldn’t stand the thought of using something that was handled by that guy.”

“You’re sure it was a guy?” inquired Lucinda. She held out a finger and Agra obligingly stretched out a wing so she could brush out the fine hair-like fur.

“Well, he had a mask covering his face, but it felt like a guy when he hit me. Smelled like one too, come to think of it.”

“I expect there will be a lot of things you remember about him that didn’t occur to you right afterwards. At least that’s what they teach us at the Academy,” Lucinda added. She was studying to become a security expert.

Jayla finished brushing out her short hair and started on Ghost’s tail. “Wow,” she said, watching Juliette untangle a snarl on Saura’s wing hair, “I bet you’re glad she isn’t as big as the Dactyls who hunt the Water Dragons.”

“Oh, I am,” Juliette agreed. She finished brushing Saura, went to the dresser, and opened a carved wood box holding several varieties of jeweled bracelets. Saura hopped off her perch and rummaged through the selection. At last, she held up a green leather one with blue stones in her tiny front paws. Juliette took it from her and slipped it over the Dactyls head.

Agra twittered from her perch. “Yes, we’re done, Dame Impatience,” Lucinda said. She opened a second box on the dresser.

Jayla held out the jeweled collar Ghost had worn last night and the Quirka obediently slipped her head into it.

“Let’s go down now if everyone’s ready,” Juliette said. “I heard a rumor there would be breadfruit pancakes this morning.”

Breakfast was served buffet style in the common room. Jayla was surprised to find she was hungry.

With her Quirka Sooka perched on her shoulder, Lady Katherine stopped by the table to collect Juliette and Saura just as the girls finished eating.

A taller, older version of Drusilla, Lady Katherine tilted Jayla’s face so she could see the bump from last night and inspected it. “Not as bad as I thought it might be. How do you feel this morning?”

“Much better. The tablets helped. Thank you for sending the brushes.”

“Well I wouldn’t have wanted to use mine if some dirty housebreaker had his paws all over them so I figured you brought nothing like that with you. You aren’t to go back to the shop alone until the security has been improved,” she ordered. “Jayla, Jess Byrdon will meet you there at the Station at nine, so you are represented when you give your statement.” She held up her hand. “Yes, I know you need to replace clothes and furniture Jayla. The two of you,” she nodded at Lucinda, “can do girl shopping afterwards. The new security systems should be in on your shop by this afternoon.” Turning to Juliette, she reminded, “We need to leave now to catch the shuttle into the city Juliette.”

Juliette hastily wiped butter off Saura’s muzzle and then took her tray to the recycler.

“Sorry about this,” Jayla told Lucinda as Katherine and her First Daughter left. “You probably don’t want to spend your free time babysitting me, but I appreciate it, and the loan of the clothes.”

Lucinda grinned at her. “There’s nothing like a shopping trip where I get to spend someone else’s money. What kind of furniture are you going to look for?”

“I was thinking something in light colors. Lipski had the place decorated in dark reds and browns, and she liked heavy furniture. Not my style, and since it got wrecked…”

“Um—I think I saw a furniture store with some stuff like that.” Lucinda tapped her Clan bracelet and a city map popped up.

“Wow! That’s new. Mine won’t do that,” Jayla said enviously.

“Yes, it’s new. I’m testing it for the boys,” Lucinda explained, referring to her cousins Roderick and Rupert who had started a computer program and design firm two years ago. “Besides just scanning for drugs and poisons, it has useful stuff like this map. Okay, I’m supposed to tap in furniture and then lightwoods and—it works! Here’s our list of stores to visit.”

By lunchtime, Jayla had arranged for most of the wrecked furniture to be replaced, and the new stuff delivered to her apartment. She was surprised to discover she was enjoying Lucinda’s company since the two of them hadn’t been all that friendly as children. It was lunchtime when they finished furniture shopping and they were close to the city center where the spaceport and government offices were located. They ran into Juliette as they were entering a café.

“How did you get loose?” Lucinda asked her. “I thought you had Parliament all day today.”

Juliette made a face. “I do, but Mom has some kind of hush-hush meeting about the immigration program, so she said for me to take a few hours off. I decided to grab lunch. Are you guys getting ready to eat?”

“Yes,” Jayla said. “C’mon let’s grab salads and then I won’t feel fat when I try on clothes later. If the new security is in when we finish, we can stop at Whimsical and I can show you around if you’d like to see it.”

“I’d love to see it,” Juliette said. “Mom won’t mind if I take some extra time. This afternoon is just a discussion about fishing rights before a bill comes up. Afterwards, Mom will quiz me on strategies to use to get it passed.”

Jayla looked at her curiously. “Are you ever sorry you became a First?” she asked.

Juliette shook her head. “No I don’t regret it. The actual text of the bills can be boring, but the maneuvering that goes into getting them passed, well that’s fun. It’s a kind of game. And it’s not all politics. I need to learn how to manage the land and people on Veiled Isle, stuff like that. Do you regret not doing it?” she asked Jayla.

“No,” Jayla said. “Aunt Genevieve and I talked about it, but as far back as I can remember I wanted to be in retail. That’s a game too; figuring out what people will buy and then convincing them they want it. What about you, Lucinda? Why did you choose security when you can draw so well? Why not an art career?”

“I love drawing and painting,” Lucinda admitted, but there needs to be order. People need to be safe walking down the street, or in their homes and businesses. Security provides that. I can draw in security too, you know. Next month I intern with the security artist here in Port Recovery. He will show me how to draw from a description and how to use the imaging technology. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Enough soul searching,” Juliette said firmly as they returned their dishes to the recycler. “Let’s go try on clothes!”

Jayla noticed a strange little man watching the shop from across the street when they arrived at Whimsical that afternoon, but since he didn’t approach them, she forgot about him. She opened the shop using the new codes Larry Jorgensen had sent her.

“Wow,” Juliette said, looking around. “Look at all this stuff. Some of it looks handcrafted. Is it?”

Jayla nodded. “Yes, some of the local arts and crafts people brought in some of it. I’m hoping to feature more of that kind of thing. Maybe I can talk Lucinda into putting some of her artwork in here?”

Lucinda looked surprised. “Do you think my stuff is good enough?”

“Of course, it is,” Juliette said loyally.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t think so,” Jayla told her. She frowned when she realized that Wayne, her sales-bot, hadn’t come forward when they entered, and he hadn’t cleaned up the broken glass from the break-in. Annoyed, she went to his utility closet and opened the door. He was turned off, and like Daryl, he had been subjected to a dermal search.

“Wow! What happened to him?” asked Juliette, looking over her shoulder.

“The burglar must have searched him too,” Jayla said resignedly. She turned Wayne back on, ordered a diagnostic, and then told him to clean up the glass when it was finished. After a few minutes of humming, he sat up and went out into the store. Unfortunately, Jayla had forgotten to tell him to dress and he was stark naked. Like Daryl, he was anatomically correct.

“Does he wait on customers like that?” Lucinda gasped out over Juliette’s giggles.

“Wayne! Put on some clothes before you scare away my customers!” Jayla ordered. “And then clean up the glass.”

“He doesn’t scare me,” the little man from across the street remarked, having entered because Jayla had forgotten to lock the doors when she and the other girls had come in. “I just wish I had his equipment.” He looked around. “Where’s Sara? I have a consignment for her,” he patted the canvas bag he was holding.

“Sara—retired,” Jayla informed him. “I’m the new owner. I’m not open yet because I’m still doing inventory, but I can look at what you have. What type of consignment is it?”

He hesitated, and then said, “Uh—maybe we could do this in the back? Wayne there seems to be drawing quite a crowd.”

“Sure, follow me,” Jayla said. She cast an exasperated look at the sales-bot who was parading in front of the window with a broom and dustpan. She caught Lucinda’s eye as her cousin eyeballed the audience outside the windows ogling Wayne, and laughed despite herself. Rolling her own eyes, she unlocked the door to her office and turned on her comp. “You can set the item down on that table there so I can scan it.”

“Scan it?” her visitor was dismayed. “Sara never scanned my consignments.”

“I’m not Sara,” Jayla said. “Until I get more familiar with her vendors, I have to scan everything. Just unwrap it and put it on the table. The scan won’t damage it.”

He sidled toward the open office door. “Ah—maybe next time. Sorry to have bothered you. Mistress—?”

“Lady Jayla,” she told him. She came to the door and watched as he ran out the front doors, clutching his bag.

“What was that all about?” Lucinda asked.

“I’m not sure. He said he was one of Sara Lipski’s regulars. He almost had a conniption when I told him I would scan the consignment though. I don’t even know what it was.”

“If he didn’t want it scanned, that probably means it would show up as stolen on the local police list of missing items,” Lucinda informed her.

“He said Lipski never scanned his consignments,” Jayla murmured. “I wonder…If she was in the habit of receiving stolen goods that might explain what whoever broke in here was looking for.”

“I’ll check to see if she had any kind of record for that tomorrow when I go to work. I’m interning in the morgue this semester,” Lucinda promised. “Are you ready to head back to the manor?”

“Yes,” Jayla said. “Just as soon as I give that blasted exhibitionist instructions to dress himself and clean this place tonight.”