ENZUS: Erica, Noel, Zoe, Unsaid, Sal.
Chapter 1 – No More Harm
"Take it slow," Matilda cautioned. She and Elsbeth helped Erica down the porch steps. I promise you it will be worth the effort." Matilda treated Erica with more tenderness than she typically showed even her husband. Erica had been shot because of her. Matilda and Erica looked alike. They were cousins. Erica had been brought to Quirni by the QSDD to help Matilda. It was hoped if the Quirni population knew an innocent might be hurt instead of Matilda they would withhold violence but instead Matilda and Erica were both attacked and Erica had been shot in the chest and stomach.
She and Matilda were both dark haired now that Erica's hair was genetically altered. Erica's had once been light, nearly blond. Erica's nose had been altered as well and her eyes had been dyed green to match Matilda's. Everything else about them looked so similar only Roger, Matilda's husband, could tell them apart at a glance, and he wasn't saying how he did it. They both were slight of build since they were both iridim patients. They were both shorter than the average six foot Quirni born woman; they were only five-foot–six. They both had the long Kinsley features, full mouths, big eyes that flashed quickly with emotion and temperaments that some called stubborn and others persistent.
"Plus, you have to start walking again," Elsbeth admonished gently. "You can't sleep all the time anymore." Elsbeth was a typical lean, tall Quirni born woman. She had dark red hair that she wore in a braid down her back. She had been out in the sun so much since working on Matilda's case her freckles were dark over her nose. Her eyes were light brown with a crystalline quality. People liked to stare at her when she spoke to them. That was useful to her since she intended to climb the ranks of the QSDD as far as she could. The more attention she got the better. She steadied Erica's right side. Matilda steadied her from the left but bent forward to see Erica's face since Erica paused to hold her chest.
Levitus had healed her wounds as much as he could but he had removed part of her lung and she was healing slowly. Too much has happened to her in too short of a time he had said.
She took another unsteady step. Elsbeth and Matilda continued to walk her across the drive and towards the barn.
"Stop," Erica begged breathlessly. She swayed. They kept her upright. She felt dizzy and sick. She had started eating solid food again the day before and it didn't feel good. Her stomach hurt. It felt like her belly was going to rip open. If she tripped it would hurt like hell.
She lifted her eyes to survey the distance across the drive. A constant pain thrummed in her chest where Levitus had cut through her breastbone to get inside her. Her breath came hard and short. She had no energy. All the grass and dirt between her and be barn was uneven. "'Tis too far," she complained and tried to turn back. They didn't let her and she didn't have the strength to go against them.
"It will be worth it," Matilda told her again. She leaned forward to see Erica's eyes. "A little farther? A few steps at a time?"
"You can do it," Elsbeth assured her. "I'll give you some pain pills when you get to the chairs. Do you see them over there?" She wiped the sweat dipping down Erica's forehead with a cloth.
Erica waited until her head felt clearer then looked. There were two chairs by the fence. "So," she agreed unhappily, unwilling to fight. They started ahead again. Each step seemed worse than the last. Each pebble seemed bigger. The grass pulled at her shoe. Erica closed her eyes and concentrated on moving one leg at a time. Sweat dripped down her back. She didn't listen to the nonsense Matilda and Elsbeth spewed at her. The walk was all but impossible. Then they stopped and turned her around.
"You can sit now," Elsbeth instructed.
They had reached the chairs? Erica nearly collapsed as she tried to sit. Matilda and Elsbeth lowered her.
"There you go," Elsbeth cooed. They set her down then Elsbeth produced the pain pills that she had promised. Erica gulped them without any water then leaned back with her eyes closed but only until the pain killers kicked in and then she looked about. It had been a while since she had been outside.
Matilda smiled to see her interested in the day. "Now you are better," she said and rubbed Erica's shoulder affectionately. "I'll be right back."
Elsbeth sat beside her. She held Erica's arm to support her. The chairs faced the driveway.
"Mati be giddy," Erica noticed tiredly. She closed her eyes.
"She has a present for you. She's excited to finally show you."
"So," she responded again with the Tenpole inflection that meant 'I am aware of that'. Speaking left her breathless so she resorted to Tenpole idiom often. She fell quiet. She didn't open her eyes until she heard the clomping of hooves and when she did she saw a large palomino horse and Matilda with a wide grin leading the prancing animal. "He be like Turnbull," Erica noticed. Matilda led him around in a circle. Tears burned Erica's eyes to remember Turnbull, James' present to her. He was all she would ever have from James but Turnbull had died. "He be so pretty, Mati."
Matilda beamed a smile. "He's Turnbull's brother. It took ages but we managed to coax Mr. Turning into letting us have him. He didn't want to. He's a champion, Erica. He's a stallion but I think, with time anyway, you'll be able to ride him or at least his offspring." She led him over to Erica who raised her arm to stroke the horse's muzzle even though her whole body felt like lead. He blew his breath at her then dropped his head to snuff around her. She touched his forelock then let her arm fall. "He's yours," Matilda added.
Erica's jaw dropped in amazement.
Matilda laughed lightly and patted the horse's neck. He began to graze at Erica's feet.
"You give him to me?" Erica asked in disbelief.
Matilda was taken aback by Erica's doubtful tone. "Yes. I wanted to earlier but Mr. Turning wouldn't sell him to me. He's the only brother Turnbull had who looked like him. You seemed so attached to Turnbull. Then seeing you struggle with our horses, well that pretty much clinched it. It hasn't been easy for you since you came to Quirni and I thought I could make you feel a little better. I wanted to do something nice."
Erica could think of nothing to say. The horse pulled at the grass contentedly.
"Mr. Turning wouldn't sell him to me," Matilda admitted. "It's hard for me to do business with anyone you see." She stroked the horse's shoulder. "Then the day after what happened in Pey he sent me a message to come and get him. Mr. Turning sends you his blessings."
"After Pey? After I got shot?"
The horse ripped a mouthful of grass free and jerked his head up. He gazed at Erica as he chewed then returned to grazing.
"Good lords, Mati. He's beautiful," Erica repeated in awe. His mane shimmered along his graceful neck. He pulled at the grass with authority. His ears turned and twitched every time Erica spoke. "Have you ridden him? Does he go like Turnbull?"
Matilda rubbed his neck. "I think so from the way you described Turnbull's gait. Although I won't let you ride him for a while. He's a good boy but he's still young and unpredictable and you have been hurt so bad."
He pulled away and started grazing again, this time along the drive. Matilda let out his lead so he could move along.
"What's his name?" asked Erica.
"Turning's Pride," Matilda answered. "And he really is something. He is an exceptional horse. In order to buy him I had to agree to give Mr. Turning the first chance to buy any of his offspring. Keep that in mind. Any foals he might sire Mr. Turning has first right to purchase and Mr. Turning has the right to use him as a sire too. It was the only way to get him for you and since you don't have a breeding program it was only reasonable."
"Me? You truly give him to me?" She squinted at the very idea of it.
Matilda grinned at her. "We are giving him to you, Roger and I."
Erica shook her head again. She owned a horse? She hadn't really owned Turnbull she supposed. The SDD had owned him. But now she owned one. Now?
This was what she had wanted when she came to Quirni. She had wanted horses and land. She had wanted a nice little place to ride and live a quiet life retired from all the scamming and whoring and computer hacking and instead she ended up with her face, hair, and eyes changed to look like Mati and working for the SDD. She had to become a tenant to Mois Claim too. She had been shot. She had bullet holes in her chest and stomach and now she got the horse? She hadn't known they were so damn hard to get.
"Turning's ranch is on Burk Claim," Matilda said as if that mattered.
Erica gave her with a quizzical expression.
Matilda grunted. "That's right, you don't remember." Matilda sounded annoyed, as if she didn't remember or believe in the dissociation disorder that plagued her cousin, but she still forced a smile. "It was apparently another part of you that discussed it with me." She kept the smile brief. "We had decided to give the first co-ordinates for ores to those claimants that remained friendly to me. The Burks were some of those claimants. I guess because of General Burk, she's a relative, Claimant Burk's sister. Anyway, Turning is a tenant of the Burks."
Erica had no energy to put any thought into this association.
"So do you like Turning?" Matilda asked.
"Of course," Erica replied. "How could I not?" she asked, awed. "'Tis the most beautiful animal."
Elsbeth rubbed Erica's shoulder. "You deserve him."
Erica didn't see it that way. What she had done had been forced upon her. If she had had things her way she would have been in the far north, alone and safe.
Matilda pulled the horse's head up and led him to the gate. She turned him loose in the paddock. He ran off, kicked, and neighed at the other horses in the next pasture. They raised their heads and looked at him lazily then returned to grazing. Erica felt well enough from the pain pills that she twisted around in her chair to watch him.
Matilda put a foot up on the fence and leaned there.
"So, this means your reputation improved?" Erica asked her with slow measured words so she might keep her breath. "I mean if Mr. Turning lets you buy him then the tapes of your questioning must have helped."
Matilda looked over her shoulder. "Somewhat."
"Well…" Matilda turned and rested her back against the fence, "The newspapers reported the contents of the Reagent 10 tapes and then they immediately began to question how authentic they were. They suggested since the SDD has been protecting me and want me safe they might have edited the tapes to make it look like I never had anything to do with the deaths on Cobal Claim."
Erica knew that much. "But Mr. Turning sold Turning's Pride to you. He believed them."
"He sold him to me because of you. Now that people know I have the SDD documents that will give them metal they want me alive whether I am innocent or not. You kept me alive. That makes you a hero. You saved my life. If it had been me alone, I may have been wearing a vest that didn't work and I am not in nearly as good of shape as you."
Erica grunted at the idea. "Levitus and Betty were there so fast, can't imagine it turning out any different."
"Perhaps you need to think so," Matilda said simply. "But my iridim therapy wasn't done as well as yours. I was raised here on Quirni where the medical equipment is less up to date. You were given your therapy on Sirrus where everything is done to perfection with computers and automation. Levitus couldn't have used as much healer's paste on me without killing me himself. I probably wouldn't have survived. At least that was Levitus' assessment of it."
If he said so Erica supposed that could be the case. "So somehow me getting shot improved your reputation?"
"It's strange, Erica, but it's because people don't want you hurt. You're innocent and they see you as having saved the SDD scans. Because you came on the stage to support me in Pey they have come to support me too. They seem to think if you believe I'm worth the risk then maybe I'm not so bad, or, maybe, even innocent," Matilda answered with a touch of excitement. "But I think it's something else too. I think you bring good luck."
Erica laughed hard once then quickly stopped and held her chest.
"I'm serious," Matilda said, annoyed at Erica's reaction.
"You be down the wrong shaft, Mati."
"What?" Matilda asked and suppressed a smile but Erica could see it in her eyes.
Being down the wrong shaft was a Tenpole expression, a reference to mines. Such things tended to fall out of Erica's mouth when she was angry or tired. "You be off," she corrected.
Matilda chuckled at her. "It may be hard for you believe while you're sitting there half in the bag with pain medication, missing a lung and God knows what else but you've done a lot of good." She started ticking off points on her fingers. "Ella has a new clinic. The claimants on this planet have the ore information. I am safer than I have been in years. Claimant Mois has all the ore information for his claim and another company to mine. His claim is doing fantastic. The Marrilians have more air purifiers way sooner than I could ever have managed. Arlo, Pete, and all their friends are doing well even becoming rich again. You bring good luck. You are a blessing to everyone you meet."
Erica grunted. "All of that be your doing. Was the scans. You found them."
"I couldn't get anywhere with it, Doll," Matilda replied with a smirk.
Erica hardly reacted to James' nickname for her which disappointed Matilda so she turned back to watching Turning's pride.
"And since when do you believe in superstitious and luck and all?" asked Erica.
Matilda just shrugged. "Since I met you."
Elsbeth grunted. "Me too. I've seen enough."
Erica frowned. "Like what?"
"Like someone from a tree making someone fall who I always thought would stay upright."
Erica squinted, even more confused.
Elsbeth watched her for a moment then sighed and gazed out over the pastures.
They watched Turning raise his head and sniff the air. He galloped to the other end of the paddock and neighed at a group of horses.
"He is feisty," remarked Elsbeth. "Just like his owner."
Erica glanced at her.
"He's a stallion," said Matilda. "But he's good about minding his manners."
Erica watched the pretty animal but her mind wandered - to the attack in Pey. Had that been good luck or bad? From her point of view it couldn't be worse but from Mati's it had to seem like exceptionally good luck. Mati hadn't been shot. She would have been alone and attacked viciously if Erica hadn't been there. Then they had learned that some of the people who had attacked them were SDD but others weren't. How had SDD been convinced to attack with civilians? Who had enough authority to order such an attack? Could it have been the same person or group that had wanted Matilda dead since before her trial, perhaps Matilda's father? Did he have that much SDD support?
The more Erica knew of Matilda's trial the more she realized how many blackmails and bribes there had to have been to win a vote against her, which in the end was not won. The SDD got Matilda off. So if Cyril did try to fix her trial he did not have SDD support, at least not then or not the right SDD support.
But if he had any SDD support now why did he did he attack now? Why send his civilians to attack at all. The SDD would see to his needs.
Unless they didn't care about Matilda using the scanning documents and he did. Unless he could only convince a few SDD agents to help him. But wasn't it too late after the meeting in Pey? Wasn't it too late to stop the use of the scanning documents? A third of the information had been dispersed at that meeting and Cyril had not received his own coordinates. Wouldn't he want those before he killed Mati? She had promised them to everyone including him. Did Matilda know something else that he didn't want revealed? Erica doubted it.
It was more likely Cyril was not behind the attacks and probably never had been. He was behind the disaster on Cobal Claim, however, and everything stemmed from that; Matilda's disgrace, her imprisonment in the house and therefore Erica's, the inability to use the SDD mineral documents openly because it was so dangerous for her to be seen.
Erica's thoughts skipped to one item that needed to be addressed beyond who had attacked, who in the SDD was in a traitorous faction, and even who worked with that faction off planet. Matilda's innocence needed to be proven. She needed to be safe in society to reduce the number of people who might attack on a whim. Then they could look at who was left.
Could there still be enough evidence around to prove Matilda was innocent? Chances were Cyril Kinsley could supply some. Erica had seen the way computers were run on Quirni. They didn't do regular maintenance. They probably didn't delete old files or update old pieces of equipment. There was a good chance Matilda's father still had useful files on his computer. Certainly the claimants of Cobal Claim would have something and so would the company that sold the filter equipment to them. Companies on Marril kept records on computers for many years. What would happen if she got hold of those records and information? What if Matilda was proven innocent? That was easy to answer. Cyril had answered it; she would regain her popularity and claim the North.
Erica's breath caught. The North.
That had to be it. That had to be the prize. If Mati remained guilty or gave up and handed over the northern prize who would benefit? People would likely fight over that as much as they fought over the documents to begin with. Erica deflated in her chair. That was the last thing she wanted to be part of especially looking like she did.
If Mati was proven innocent then there would be no question who the northern territory belonged to.
"Mati, what have you done to prove your innocence?" asked Erica.
Matilda turned around with surprise. "Where did this come from?"
"Having time to think," Erica replied. She gazed up at Matilda for a moment then at Turning's Pride. She didn't like looking at Matilda when she had such an intense expression.
"We did everything we could," Matilda answered cautiously. "For the trial."
Erica shook her head. She was too tired to be diplomatic. "No you didn't."
Matilda barked a short laugh. "Of course we did."
"You didn't prove your innocence so I say you didn't."
Erica raised her eyebrows and looked up at her. Matilda had said her name to see if she would answer to it. She wanted to see if she had switched into another of her selves. Well, she hadn't. She had better control of her emotions and her other parts now. The only point she had lost time was when she and Mati were discussing how to handle the data for the ore. Erica didn't remember discussing it at all but then anyone might zone out over that sort of conversation. Chances are she did and Zoe took over. "Yes," Erica replied.
Matilda frowned. "We couldn't prove my innocence. Everyone who knew something disappeared or wouldn't give a true testimony."
"People can be bought," Erica replied. "Both ways." She put her arms on the back of the chair then lay her head down on them. "And there be other ways to fix a trial and learn the truth," she added tiredly. "Lots of them if you don't care about being low and dirty."
Elsbeth picked up her chair and moved it to sit in front of Erica. "Like what?" she asked as Matilda continued to frown at her. "You've been involved in that sort of thing haven't you? What ways?"
Erica closed her eyes. She wasn't going to discuss it and the pills were making her too tired anyway. She could sleep sitting. "Ways," she answered quietly.
"Have you seen the transcripts of the trial?" Elsbeth asked her. "Do you know what happened? Do you think you know what they did to fix it?"
Erica opened her eyes enough to look at her. "Read the papers. 'Tis all. But would like to see the transcripts."
"Why?" Matilda asked suspiciously. "What are you thinking? And don't give her any ideas, Elsbeth."
Erica smiled slightly and closed her eyes again. "Might push some luck at it 'tis all," she muttered. "You be innocent and everyone should know that. Shouldn't have to get shot to buy a horse."
Neither of them replied. Erica jerked slightly as she started to fall asleep. It hurt. She grunted in pain and clutched her chest.
"We'd better get her back to bed," Elsbeth told Matilda. They each took one of her arms and pulled her to her feet.
Later in the week Erica slept on the porch because Elsbeth wouldn't allow her to stay in bed. She woke up with a start as a chair scraped beside her. It was Marcus sitting down.
He smiled his handsome smile. He was considered the best looking claimant on the planet. He would flash his smile and women swooned. Erica wasn't impressed. He had dark wavy hair. She liked James with his light straight hair that curled around the edge of his SDD cap. Marcus was six and a half feet tall, way too tall for her to think he looked nice. James was an even six feet. That was a height she could see in his eyes. Both were unavailable to her but if she had to look at one of them then James was it.
"How are you feeling today?" Marcus asked.
She pushed herself up. She had slipped down in the chair when she dozed off. She had been dreaming about her old home on Marril; Tenpole with its whitewashed building, the thayanite blackened people, and Chaucer Street. They had been badgering her to wash and cut her hair, and to get out of her room once in a while, to show herself so more men would like to have her. She hadn't responded to any of their complaints. She wasn't contracted to lay with anyone. Ilene just threatened to turn her out if she didn't. She usually just stood still with her eyes down until her roommates would become so exasperated they would drag her off and clean her up themselves. "Claimant, lo," she greeted softly and blinked. "Guess I nap."
He grinned but he sounded harsh. "Every time I come to see you, you are napping." His grin faded and he frowned. "And use proper sentences."
She took a breath and tried to collect her senses. No one else was around. She glanced into the yard, listened for activity in the kitchen but nothing. There would be no rescue from this. "Yes, My Lord. They told me you have been here to see me." She gave him a weak smile and tried to think exactly how to speak like Quirni before opening her mouth. Her thoughts were full of Tenpole. "I would they wake me but they refuse."
His head cocked slightly with amusement. "I wouldn't let them." He laid his hand on her arm and squeezed it. "You need the rest."
She had nothing to say to that because she felt like she could sleep for an eon but they had dumped her in the chair instead and left her on the porch. She hadn't the strength to go back inside. She stifled a yawn.
He smiled broader. "We tracked your past - well, for lack of a better word - business and came to an agreement as to how much of the 4 million quid you brought to Quirni was earned."
"Oh?" Erica tried to look eager for the information but she didn't expect much.
He pulled out an account book for a bank, the Bank of Pey. He handed it to her.
Erica opened it. 1.3 million. That was a hell of a lot more than she expected. She glanced up from the book. "Quid or square?"
"Quid, what you originally deposited."
5.2 million square. "Really. Thank you." She tossed the book on the table then folded her arms over her chest for warmth. The day had turned overcast and cooler while she had slept.
"You are quite welcome. Why are you surprised at the amount?"
She cocked an eyebrow. "I be that obvious, Claimant?"
"You don't have Mati's poker face. I think too much is going on inside you." He tipped his head towards the book. "Did you expect more?"
The edges of her mouth indented in a near smile because she knew she had a very good poker face but for some reason he could read her even if she hadn't twitched. It was as if he could read her mind. "I earned about 700,000 quid at the mines, sir." She pulled a finger out of her crossed arms to point at the bankbook. "Expected that to be all you would allow me and then I spent much of it coming here. Don't know how you came up with that number."
He smiled broadly. "That was an honest answer and I appreciate it." He touched the bankbook. "Actually this is what you have left after the fines for what you did to the Bank of Quirni. I didn't take anything from you."
"Your punishment for hacking into the computers there," Marcus explained.
"'Tis only fines?" she asked. "And they be so low? Expected jail."
Marcus laughed. He shook his head, drew a breath and changed the subject. "I would have seen you sooner but I've been busy with Nigh."
Erica frowned. "Nigh again, what goes on in Nigh?"
"You don't know? I thought we had discussed it in front of you a couple of times."
Her frown deepened but he didn't notice.
"We're electrifying it," he said.
She squinted at him. "You're what?"
He chuckled. "Quirni speak. We are building a water turbine and running electricity to the town. It will be the first town on the planet to be electrified."
"Oh." Her forehead furrowed for a moment as she considered this. Why did they want electricity? They didn't have any electrical appliances. She tipped her head and pulled up her shoulders in a Tenpole question then realized he wouldn't know the gesture so she asked. "Why?"
He laughed. "So we can have luxuries."
"Oh." She gazed out at the horses, the green pasture, the silence. That was luxury. She had lain in the grass many times when she and Bruce were sparring. It was a hell of a lot better than the hard black dirt of Tenpole.
He shook his head. "How much pain medication does Ella have you taking?"
Erica thought about that, which took a while. She couldn't remember how many pills she took each day. "Truly I have no idea, My Lord. Elsbeth hands me pills and I take them or she gets insulting." He tried to stop a grin. "But when my head clears I would a private talk with you. Could be now but…" She sighed. "Can't collect a thought."
"You've only been out of the clinic a few days. Don't rush it." He sat back in his chair to watch her. "But what was it you wanted to talk about? Maybe you could warn me? I get the feeling I need it."
He looked out over the ranch. "Now there is a subject." He turned back. "Maybe you could narrow it down a bit? What about her?"
"She wants to claim the North?"
He heard the question in her tone. His head bobbed in a slow nod. "Once."
He shook his head. "Not that she doesn't want to but circumstances don't permit it."
"She should claim," Erica yawned. "She was something in Pey. I enjoyed watching her." She took a careful deep breath, held her chest while doing so. Then she re-folded her arms. "She walked out in front of all those people who would have killed her as much as listen but she acted completely at ease. She's amazing, Claimant Mois."
"Yes," he agreed and leaned back to cross his legs. "She is. She would have been a claimant too. She was an heir to Kinsley Claim but she had more important things to do."
"Mayhaps." Erica dropped her eyes to gaze at the table unfocused and tried to keep them open. "People would go with her if she were proven innocent. Seems the tapes of her questioning were not enough."
Marcus stared at her a while. "Enzus, you have an odd look in your eye. I can't tell if you are hatching some sort of scheme or if you're just talking. Which is it?"
She smiled for his using the acronym. "Something should be done about it. Something should be done about the attitude towards her and these damn attacks on her."
He frowned. "Sophie is looking into it."
Erica shrugged slightly. "Told you I'm not thinking too clear, My Lord. Would talk later."
"Clear enough. It's just taking a damn long time to get to the point. Out with it. I don't have all day."
She studied him. He sounded stern but he didn't look it. She wondered just how much he wanted to prove Matilda was innocent. He had been her lawyer. He would know what had been done but would he want to take it further? She drew a breath to steel her nerves. "I might find out who be responsible if they be on this planet and if they be a claimant. I've seen a way to do research for evidence and 'tis likely a way you wouldn't use. Could prove who sabotaged the filter on Cobal Claim or at least prove Mati didn't do it." Erica rubbed her arms for warmth as she watched him for his reaction.
He looked stunned but it passed quickly. He stood and helped Erica up. "Let's get you inside. You look cold and you're right, we'll talk in private later."
Throughout the next week Elsbeth continued to roust Erica from bed early each day. She then started to make her walk. They went out to the paddock where two chairs waited. Each morning, midday, and afternoon Elsbeth helped her to the chairs, helped her sit, then took the other chair next to her until she had rested enough to return to the house. The weather was cool during that week so Elsbeth borrowed an old leather jacket from Matilda for Erica.
Erica wanted her big, stupid, long coat again but it had been ruined. They had burned it. Matilda's little jacket wasn't nearly as warm and the pockets were shallow and useless.
Erica had her hands stuffed as far into the pockets as they could go. Elsbeth had gotten her the coat but not gloves. Erica realized she would have to ask for gloves and a hat. She shuddered in the cold breeze. The grass broke under her step. Clouds scudded over the sun and the temperature dropped even more.
"Tis too cold," she complained. "Not used to this."
"You were originally from Sirrus. How can you possibly complain about this?" asked Elsbeth. "That planet is covered in snow."
Erica flashed a glare at her. "Was on Marril for sixteen years. That be how. Marril be heat!"
"Phft!" was Elsbeth's only response.
"Such a thoughtful response for a major in the SDD," Erica muttered.
"Quit whining," Elsbeth told her. "Ask Mati for a warmer coat."
"Mati? She dresses in prissy, useless things. Really."
The chairs were in a sunny area when they sat. Ted and Matilda worked with Turning's Pride in the nearby paddock. The horse kicked his hind legs as they tried to trot him in circles on a long line. When Matilda saw Erica and Elsbeth she waved then walked over.
"He's full of it today," she told them with a delighted grin. "He likes the chill in the air. We'll work him before Ted rides him. It will get some of that energy out of him. I don't want either one of them to get hurt."
Erica watched as the horse bolted around the circle with his tail up and his ears pricked then suddenly stop and reverse direction. Ted yelled and tried to correct the animal who didn't seem the least interested in the man. "You might want to get out of there, Mati," Erica advised.
Matilda had been watching and had decided the same thing at about the same time. She came through the gap in the two lower fence rails as Turning's Pride reversed direction again with a wild twist and kick. Matilda laughed at him as she straightened up on the other side of the fence. "That unpredictable little brat," she beamed. "Look at the way he moves!"
"Like a corkscrew," Elsbeth noted. "You would never find me on a back that can do that."
Erica knew if Turnbull moved like that she would have been in the dirt rather than riding. No horse would ever replace Turnbull but Turning's Pride was beautiful.
"I suppose you're getting out for your morning walk?" Matilda asked as she looked over her shoulder at Erica then smiled at Elsbeth.
"She is but she's not very cooperative about it," Elsbeth complained.
"Was happy in bed," Erica informed them. She had actually planned to work on her computer. Arlo had delivered it a long time ago but she had had little use for it until now. Now she needed to download some spy programs. She had been waiting for the sun to come around to her window since the battery in her computer didn't hold a charge. Instead, Elsbeth had pulled off the blankets then tossed an armful of clothes in her face and said, 'Dress yourself, Doll, or I'll dress you. It's time for a walk.' Erica had dressed herself while muttering curses.
Matilda sighed with feigned exasperation. "I guess the horse is like the owner, Elsbeth, free willed."
"That is for damn sure," Elsbeth muttered. "But sometimes I think she doesn't have the common sense of a horse. A horse gets back on its feet after it gets hurt."
Erica glowered at her. She went to her chair and sat. She rested her arms and head on the back of the chair. She watched Turnbull and Ted. The horse began to quiet down. The horse is like the owner? Would she quiet down too? Well, not until she finished something.
A few days before she had managed to take a quick look at the Quirni computer network. She had learned she needed to know more about Cyril Kinsley. He protected his computer with a password. She would use a key-logging program to learn his password barring any other way of learning it but it occurred to her Matilda might know it or at least the nature of his passwords.
They watched in silence for a while as Turning's Pride finally began to walk around his circle and trot or canter when directed.
"My, my, my," Erica said quietly. "Like horse like owner?"
Elsbeth studied her.
"That's not a bad thing," Matilda advised.
"You must have been wild yourself once," Erica remarked as she tried to turn the conversation in a direction she needed. "You went to Trellis to get the scanning documents." She kept watching Turning's Pride. She didn't think she could pull off her manipulation of the topic if she looked at Matilda. She read her too well, almost as well as Claimant Mois.
Elsbeth laughed as Matilda gaped in surprise. "Wild isn't quite the word to describe the way she was then."
Erica sat up and faced Elsbeth. "What 'tis?"
"Oh…" Elsbeth thought a moment. "Cheeky, daring, arrogant, a spoiled brat, frivolous but in a good way," she added quickly when she saw Matilda's angry glare.
Erica laughed and rested her chin on her hands again. "How old was she when you first met?"
Elsbeth frowned. "Twenty-three?" she asked Matilda who nodded.
"Just turned twenty-three. I suppose I had already been tamed down a bit by then," Matilda admitted with a slight shiver. "I had spent over ten months recovering from the accident in the lab."
"Ten months?" repeated Erica. "Didn't know you had been hurt so bad."
"No, no reason for you to," Matilda replied with a shrug. "But I guess Elsbeth is right. I was a brat and all the rest."
"And fighting for survival too," Erica added. "Your father had it out for you."
Matilda leaned against the fence. Her manner became suddenly cool. "Yeah," she agreed quietly.
"I'd never even seen a picture of him but when I saw him at Pey I knew he was your dad. He has eyes like yours."
"Like ours," Matilda corrected. "He was shocked to see you."
Erica nodded. "When I located him he looked like he suddenly understood something. Was strange." Elsbeth looked at her quizzically but Erica tried to press on to get what she wanted. "Is he as big an ass as he sounds?"
"He's smart," Matilda answered with a laugh. "I can't believe it. That's the first time you say 'is' and you call my father an ass in the same sentence." She laughed again. "You are unbelievable."
"I said it before," Erica protested. Not that she had recently. She tried to now because she hadn't wanted Tenpole distracting Matilda from the questions and now that had anyway. She sighed.
"Don't be so touchy about it," Matilda told her sweetly. "It's just like you to say something like that. But I'll tell you. He said what he wanted and when he didn't get the response he wanted he stopped. I am certain he hoped to turn enough of the audience against me that the SDD would re-evaluate how I was handing out the co-ordinates. It didn't happen. He is smart and he is mean if he needs to be."
"I know about mean," Erica told her. "A lot of Kinsley men be nasty. We lived in a rural area outside of Parcles. There wasn't thayanite around that area if the yard didn't go to dirt. My father's yard was scrawny, green grass but he kept it watered. He wouldn't get sick from thayanite. Was a big place too, big enough we could practice shooting and big enough no one was around if he did odd things."
Matilda didn't respond.
"Was the same for you?" Erica asked. "I mean was he terrible? Were you alone?"
"No, it wasn't," Matilda replied. "I was the child of a claimant. I never wanted for anything. There were all sorts of people around and every one of them doted on me. I had to give that up. You don't mess with a claimant and not pay a price."
"Of course. My pardons. No part of our lives could be the same." Erica dropped her forehead to her hands. "Pardons…or I guess you say sorry."
Matilda walked over and rubbed her shoulder. "No, don't be sorry." She thought a moment then answered Erica's question. "I grew up on a large ranch. My father started it when he got here as a sort of hobby and to hide the fact that he worked for the SDD. We had horses and cattle. 'Dinner and a ride' he used to call it." She chuckled at that. "Tasteless, isn't it? Even he knew it was tasteless. Actually, it's called Grayfield after Mother but everyone calls it Kinsley Ranch. He never could get the real name to stick." She smiled at her memories. "Father was a charming, elegant, and beautiful man most of the time. We had all sorts of ranch hands, servants, and people visiting: SDD, other claimants and tenants. He was powerful then and loving." She sighed. "He still is powerful but he has turned ruthless."
"How can people let a man like that become powerful?" Erica asked abruptly. "It happens too often. They should be stopped."
Matilda crossed her arms and stared at Ted as he saddled Turning's Pride. "People who want to cross him don't because they are afraid of him. He's too clever. They end up losing. He has become a man who will do anything for power." She fell quiet for a moment then shook her head. "Only an idiot crosses a person like that."
"Or someone who is brave," Elsbeth corrected.
Matilda shot her a dubious look. "Just stupid." Matilda sounded disgusted.
"So you didn't know what you were getting yourself into when you crossed him?"
Matilda shook her head. "He was a perfectly wonderful father until I didn't do what he wanted. Then everything blew up," Matilda frowned. "I meant that figuratively," she added. "I'm not talking about the lab. Before that we spent a lot of time together. He and my mother were grooming me to be an heir. It was, in fact, the night I was to officially be given the honor of becoming an heir to the claim that I got the documents from the Trellians. They had come down during my party to trade them."
"Really?" Erica asked in surprise. "You were on top of the world then."
"I suppose," Matilda mused. "Before that everything was wonderful. She shot a glance at Elsbeth. "If the SDD had stayed out of it then everything might still be fine."
Elsbeth raised her chin ever so slightly but said nothing.
"My father became suspicious because the SDD wanted to talk to me. Somehow they learned I had travelled to Trellis."
This was not where Erica needed the conversation to go. "What did you and your father do together?" she asked gently. "It sounds like you had some good times."
Matilda studied Erica for a moment before deciding to answer. "When I was young I went everywhere with him. I met every claimant on this planet. We had close ties with many of them. We used to go the Padt City for the Council meetings every fifth year. They were unbelievable parties." Her eyes lit up when she spoke of parties.
"My father always had the most expensive clothes, most expensive rooms, most opulent everything. He loves rubies. He had ruby buttons on his suits and wears ruby earrings." She touched her left ear; her eyes alight. "Everyone thinks the world of him. He is so noble, so charismatic. He can be absolutely delightful but absolutely evil." She fell quiet, lost in the memories, then looked down at Erica. "It was very different from your world."
As much as she wanted information about Cyril Kinsley, Erica couldn't continue. How she longed to have such a past even one that had fallen apart. She sighed and rested her chin on her hands. She would use another tactic to learn more about the man another time. She didn't want to be reminded of her world.
Ted mounted Turning's Pride and walked him sedately around the paddock.