Chapter 19 – Erica's Gift

Erica and Matilda returned to their table. Everyone around it stood. Powell nodded to Erica and Matilda both. "That was a fine speech, well written and well read."

"Thank you," Matilda replied and before Erica could answer with any gesture or squeak Matilda added, "And I am sure Erica would say, My Thanks, Commander. Oh! Pardons! Ashton!"

Erica grinned at this and flushed.

Commander Powell smiled. "Kinsley's have always been generous supporters of the SDD. We appreciate this."

General Burk presented the folder to him. Powell took it but didn't open it.

The guests began to order their meals. Each table had a waiter. The one for Erica's table began to take orders. He started with the Moises then continued on to Roger, and Alexia. Between the music, ordering, and conversation, the discussion with Commander Powell had become private.

Commander Powell looked back at Erica. "Might I see your gift?" he asked her.

"Please," she said and nodded towards the folder that he held because she didn't think he would hear her above the growing noise of the room. The generals sitting at the next table stood to see the gift as well. John was able to see over his left shoulder. Pearl stood to his right. General Lufkin looked on from his left.

Powell opened the folder. Inside, on the left panel, Erica had written a note. 'With this area you shall have enough space to accommodate the entire fleet.' Commander Powell raised his eyebrows. "General Kennedy told me of the ships you have purchased." He looked at the right panel, which was a rough survey of the land. "This is wonderfully generous. Thank you." He nodded to her.

Erica nodded back.

He looked at the survey again then closed the folder gently and raised his eyes to Erica. "You could be responsible for bringing the QSDD up to the standards of the MSDD and SSDD. Do you know that, Erica?"

She tilted her head slightly and frowned. "How would–" It felt like she choked. She couldn't ask her question. She was too quiet. When she had tried to speak up to say the few lines to General Burk she had done some damage.

"I think she doesn't understand," Matilda said and looked at her worriedly.

James took Erica's shoulders from behind and turned her around. He raised his eyebrow at her in surprise then touched her face beside her eye.

Erica touched it with her gloved fingertips. It hurt. 'No,' she mouthed miserably. She was getting a black eye where her Mother had hit her.

He bent close to her ear. "It isn't too obvious yet."

She sighed.

Ella came to her side. "What is wrong?"

"She has lost her voice completely," Matilda answered.

Ella touched the bruising beside her eye. She frowned. "If I didn't know better I would say you have been sparring again."

Erica raised an eyebrow. What an excellent way to explain the black eye. The last thing she wanted was the rest of the world to know her mother had hit her.

Ella shook her head in annoyance.

Erica didn't want to see her irritation, nor her disapproval. She pulled her arm to make her face face Commander Powell. "Please, continue," she tried to say but it came out feint. She made gestures that begged he explain further but he didn't understand. This frustrated her so much she scowled at the group of them, especially Matilda. They had to know what she wanted.

"Honestly, Erica, I have no idea," Matilda told her but smiled mischievously.

Erica all but stomped her foot then remembered James carried a notepad and pen. She turned around and felt his chest but he didn't carry one in his dress uniform. He knew what she wanted too. She could tell by the grin on his face but he put his palms up, as if to say he didn't understand. She scowled at him even more than she had at Matilda but he laughed and pulled her next to him so they faced the Commander together.

"Ashton, she would like you to elaborate on what you were saying," James explained over her head and gave Erica's shoulders a squeeze.

She turned back to the Commander expectantly.

"Erica, you must have quite a sense of humor to put up with these people," Powell told her. "I was saying you could bring us up to the standards of the MSDD and SSDD. I say this because up till now we have only had two ships and often one of those was in for repair."

Erica raised her eyebrows at this in amazement. She couldn't imagine why the QSDD wasn't better equipped than this.

"Yes," he told her. "It has left us at the mercy of the MSDD and SSDD. We must pay them for shipping of all of our supplies. That in turn leaves us financially taxed, too taxed to buy more ships. It has been a vicious circle."

Aston controlled the finances for the QSDD Erica realized.

"With this fleet of ships and the means you have given us to land them Quirni could have a military space presence comparable to the MSDD or SSDD. If you allow the SDD to maintain and control these ships-"

Erica shook her head, interrupting him. "You don't understand," she tried to say. He looked disappointed. Erica had donated the ships that morning. Emory had advised it and she had done it. Pearl hadn't had a chance to tell him. She frowned at General Pearl and gestured towards Ashton.

"Of course," Pearl agreed and nodded to her. "Commander, Erica would have me explain about the ships," Pearl told Powell. "It seems they are of little interest to her but of a larger interest to her financial advisor, Emory Longfellow. He advised she reap a tax write off on Marril and donate the ships to the QSDD. She did so this morning."

Powell looked at Pearl with wide eyes. His face slowly relaxed into a growing smile.

General Burk, Jesse, John, and several of the people sitting at the next table, including Betty and Levitus had stood to listen. The excitement on their faces was what Erica had hoped to see for the base and she loved seeing it for whatever reason.

"I explained to Emory the difficulties we face," Pearl continued. "He told me the MSDD openly discussed their plans regarding our intended developments with our new-found metal. They think they have throttled our plans and have no reason to fear us. Emory learned they haven't done anything harsher than embargos because the population of Marril is clamoring for the canisters we make and they don't wish to anger us. They thought embargos and threatening to withhold supplies was adequate. Since we found Eljay on our world that has changed. This afternoon Emory revealed he represents her on Marril so now they are worried and wonder what to do about Quirni for the first time ever, and while they hesitate they leave us room to make more purchases."

Pearl's grin deepened into a wry little smile. "Ashton, while I distract them with Eljay's less legal revelations, Emory prepared five of the seven ships Erica bought. They are already under way. If the MSDD continues to stay distracted and ignorant of her purchases, Erica's friends will be able to get the last two ships away in a day or two with the supplies necessary for Matilda to head north."

Upon hearing this Lord Byrne turned. No one seemed to notice even though he sat with his back to Powell at the next table.

Commander Powell neither moved nor spoke for several moments then he placed his hand on Pearl's arm. "Well done, Clair. You have averted a tragedy. This is wonderful." He glowed at Erica. "You have provided us with seven ships of war. Five are already on the way. There will be no threat of anyone quarantining our planet now."

Quarantine? Erica coughed as she drew too big of a breath and hurt her throat. 'Good lords!' she mouthed despite the room full of lords.

Powell tipped his head quizzically. "You act as if you did not understand we feared quarantine."

"I'm sure she didn't," Marcus told him after a quiet censuring scowl. "We only told her we were concerned about embargoes."

"Embargoes? 'Barricade' is more descriptive of their intentions," revealed Powel with some distaste. "One or two ships can't supply the whole planet. Lady Kinsley, they would have cut Quirni off from everything. You have given us the most effective weapon possible to avert that, a strong space presence."

When Erica had guessed the QSDD was readying for war she never considered how ill prepared they were. Quarantine?

Erica finally began to realize how things must look politically. Quirni had been nothing but now, suddenly, one of its claimants was an owner of a wealthy Marrilian company, The Insurance Company. That same claimant was also privy to many hacking and blackmailing facts that could unsettle a lot of Marrilian politicians. Little wonder they were distracted from the ships and sales. The Insurance Company was worth hundreds of millions of quid. The Marrilians couldn't attack that when they knew what Eljay could reveal.

Marril was worried. They tried to devise a plan to take control of her either by taking her money, tying up her business, or something that would require a defense attorney. That had to be why Emory stayed on Marril. He would keep her money in her hands and keep her new power safe.

Erica's mouth dropped open as she met Pearl's eye. Pearl saw how Erica began to understand her own importance and smiled knowingly. Erica didn't see the look on Lord Byrnes' face. No one gave him any attention, even Lady Byrne. They had all just begun to realize the importance of their newest claimant.

Eljay and Emory controlled a huge company on Marril as well as a large number of stocks, plus Eljay had knowledge about their banking system, and MSDD computers and now everyone knew it. With Eljay on Quirni and Emory on Marril as her representative, the two of them created a power structure over a large enough section of not just Marril but two thirds of Ipet. No doubt the MSDD was intent on one thing, stopping their takeover of the financial system, which ironically Erica, Eljay to them, had no intention of doing. Erica now understood why Pearl had been so elated to learn who she was let alone what she owned.

Erica sat down hard. The QSDD generals were playing the planet Marril, the entire thing.

Pearl used Erica's money, business, and reputation to play Marril and the MSDD. Erica had imagined Pearl keeping the Marrilians at bay with threats of Erica taking investments. She had thought she distracted the MSDD with tales about Eljay. It was not so small as that!

"Are you all right?" Ella asked her. She held Erica's chin to look at her eyes.

Erica nodded. She looked at Pearl again and finally understood. Pearl's elation to find out Erica was Eljay wasn't just because of the money or what it could buy but what Erica knew and what Pearl could potentially control. As long as Ercia was alive and free, the money, the businesses, and Eljay's reputation were leverage Pearl could use. Erica gripped her hands together in her lap. She felt like an enormous puppet, one that was completely stupid and blind.

Byrne saw this reaction and smiled but no one noticed.

Powell knelt before Erica. He took her right hand in his and patted. "I have been the commander of this planet for ninety-two years and I have never seen anyone quite like you."

What the hell was that supposed to mean? She frowned at him.

He laughed and stood with Lufkin and Pearl's help. She didn't learn what he meant. He changed the subject. "Might you explain to me how Erica has come by a blackening eye?" he asked James.

"Well…" James began then glanced at Erica and saw her glare.

Powell followed James' gaze.

"You do not wish he tell me?" Powell guessed. "Then how is it you lost your voice?"

"Singing," she said as loudly as she could.

He laughed as a person might laugh at a child who said something cute. He turned to General Pearl. "She is like Eljay, most certainly," he told her and took the seat next to Erica. He faced her. "I am told Eljay never was forthcoming with information. It seemed she had no private life, no friends, nothing but her work. She never put personal information on the network. She was like a ghost. The speech your cousin just read could explain why. I found it interesting."

Erica wondered how he knew what Eljay would be like. It had to be Pearl who told him.

"Lady Kinsley, the varied interests of Eljay were a topic of discussion at our house on many nights," Alexia Powell told her, as if she had read Erica's thoughts. Her eyes rose briefly to someone behind Erica as she spoke. "These poor fools tried to deduce who she was by analyzing her various occupations, knowledge, interests. It is amusing to think how far off they were."

"Who did-" Erica tried to ask but she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. She looked back to see who it was, Levitus.

"Commander, I have to respectfully request you stop Claimant Kinsley from speaking. Her vocal cords were damaged today. I can tell from listening to her that she needs to be quiet so they can heal."

"Ashton, you still have to be briefed on the day's events," General Lufkin said. He stood at the Commander's side with Pearl. He looked down at Pearl with a superior nose in the air. "The BMC prisoner Lady Kinsley interviewed attacked her," he explained with a smirking tone. "He choked her. Apparently our esteemed Jesse Kennedy never considered this possibility and everything was nearly lost. Lady Kinsley, excuse me, Eljay, had the sense to fear the prisoner enough she had Major McAllister wait outside the cell. The Major was able to stop him from killing her but not from hurting her."

Powell thought about this for a moment then looked at Erica. "Singing?"

Erica tried to smile but he raised an eyebrow. His expression gave her such a strong impression of his displeasure her smile faded. She dropped her eyes.

"We have a medication we want to give her," Betty added. "One of our nurses is bringing it over. It will quiet her and give her throat a chance to heal."

Erica tried to stand but Levitus pressed down on her shoulders and she couldn't move. She twisted and glared up at him.

Levitus smiled at her. "She's worse than you are for agreeing to do what we say," Levitus told Powell. "Which reminds me, Commander-"

"Major Amble, we are on the subject of our young claimant. Let's not get away from it," Powell warned. "Of course you and Betty should do whatever is appropriate. I will sorely miss this opportunity to talk to our newest claimant, however, Eljay that is." He chuckled and glanced at General Pearl. "So how is it she received a black eye?" Powell asked again.

Levitus pulled Erica's head around to look at her face. "I hadn't seen that."

"Her Mother struck her," James answered from where he had sat next to Erica.

Erica turned on him with dismay.

"Her Mother is here?" Ella asked.

"She is, and their reunion went poorly," James added.

Erica drew a sharp breath.

Ella sank into the empty chair beside James. "Why did it go poorly?"

"She blames Erica for putting Samuel in the brig," James replied.

Erica grabbed his arm.

He patted her hand.

"How could she be responsible? He is there because he attacked her," Marcus said, confused. "He is responsible."

Erica squeezed James' arm harder to shut him up.

When he felt that, he looked at her angrily. "What possible reason could you have to keep this to yourself? The Moises care about you and want to know what happened. Why would you deny them this?"

His anger surprised her as much as his words. She didn't have a reason. It amazed her to realize that. She let up on his arm but he held her hand so she couldn't withdraw it.

"Everything personal is not a secret," he told her then kissed her cheek.

It hurt. Erica touched it.

General Burk laid a pad of paper and pen in front of Erica. "I can't stand seeing you unable to communicate. You can give such excellent digs and I don't want to miss any."

Erica almost didn't want to write anything after that comment but everyone else laughed. She wrote, "I want Ella and Marcus to act as my replacement parents for our wedding. My mother being here doesn't change a thing, nor does my father being freed."

Gina arrived and gave Betty a small bottle.

James read the note then handed it to Ella. When she read it she smiled at Erica then handed it to Marcus.

He stiffened proudly. "I didn't know you had accepted my offer." He bent to hug her but Erica didn't want that. She rose and hugged him instead. "They are your parents and should be invited but I will be proud to walk you down the aisle if that is what you want."

"Yes," Erica started to say but he put his finger on her lips.

"You just can't keep quiet can you?"

"This medication will do that," Betty told him. She touched Erica's arm to get her attention. When Erica looked at her she said, "Open up."

Erica shut her lips tight.

"Either that or I'll take you directly to the clinic," Levitus warned.

She knew he wouldn't do that. She lifted her chin in challenge.

Levitus stiffened. They stared at each other in defiance.

"No! You can't take her! She is our guest of honor!" Matilda complained. She had taken a seat on the other side of the table with Roger. She stood partway out of her chair to voice her complaint.

"Her vocal cords have been damaged and need to heal. We can tell by listening to her that if she isn't quiet she could damage them permanently," Betty explained. "It would be better to have her unconscious than speaking."

"Erica," Marcus demanded, "Don't you dare refuse. You open your mouth for Betty. I will enjoy my dinner without enduring any of your quips. I am, in fact, looking forward to it. Take the medicine."

'Quips?' Erica mouthed and squinted.

"I'll tell you what it means if you open up."

She clamped her jaw closed.

"I will have my way," Marcus warned and began to get red. "You are being unreasonable–again!"

She quickly wrote a note. 'What will it do to me?'

Marcus handed the note to Betty.

"Oh," Betty smiled in relief. "I understand, dear. You're afraid you won't be able to enjoy the dinner."

Well, not really. She wanted to learn if the stuff would make it easy for Sal or Zoe to come out.

"It will only sooth your throat and keep you from talking so you can't harm your vocal cords further."

'Is it narcotic?' Erica wrote.

"No," Betty replied. "It is slightly sedative. It will relax your throat so you can't speak and it will probably relax you too since you have been drinking and you haven't eaten. It will not affect your mental capacity in any other way."

Erica smiled. She nodded and opened her mouth.

Betty sprayed a cold liquid to the back of her throat, which immediately numbed everything. Erica grabbed at her neck in surprise. Betty handed Marcus the spray bottle. "You seem to have some luck controlling her. Give her a dose every four hours for the next day. If she cannot talk normally after that then do it for another day until she can."

"Me?" Marcus asked, appalled, as Betty and Levitus returned to their seats and quickly engaged in a conversation with Simon.

Matilda chuckled.

They both glared at her. "And what is so funny?" Marcus shot.

"Your expression, Marcus," Matilda told him seriously.

"I am not a cureman!" Marcus sputtered.

"It doesn't require a cureman to tell time and squirt that bottle," Matilda told him.

Ella chuckled as well. "I should say not," she agreed.

Marcus glared at her. He tried to give her the bottle but she wouldn't take it.

"You are the one who can threaten Erica and get results. I can't. She would have continued to clamp her mouth shut and not ever bother to ask any questions."

"As if!" Marcus spat.

Erica laughed but she didn't make a sound. The medicine had settled into her throat and made her feel warm and relaxed. She liked it. She smiled at Matilda for giving Marcus a hard time. She hadn't seen her do that before. As she enjoyed the new order of things the waiters began serving their table and everyone returned to their seats.

Matilda caught Erica's eye. "No quips tonight," she said happily. "By the way, a quip is a smart assed remark and you do excel at those." She began a conversation with John as he took a seat to her left.

The medicine relaxed Erica enough that she really did start to enjoy the party. She didn't have to speak even if people spoke to her, which they didn't. She sat back to listen. She liked the company. James was right when he told her this was her family. That which had happened with those people she hadn't seen in decades didn't matter. Marcus was more of a father to her than Samuel could ever be. Ella gave her hugs. Kate hit her. Mati cared for her like a sister ought to, the sister Erica wanted. Erica's real sister was an arrogant fool.

Marcus happened to glance her way then paused to give Erica a second look. She felt the warm glow of being included and being relaxed.

He smiled at her, which caught the attention of the table. He pointed at Erica. "Who has ever seen her so relaxed in a crowd?" he asked so everyone who knew her nodded in agreement. "I think I'll keep some of this around even after she can talk." Marcus held up the bottle and gestured at Erica with it. "I've never had such an enjoyable evening with her."

Erica shrugged. He laughed then returned to his conversation. Erica listened until the waiter placed a large bowl of fruit in front of her. There wasn't any meat in sight. She didn't know who had ordered. She looked around the table.

"I thought you would like it," Ella explained. "I have had reports that you have been very good about your eating habits lately. You deserve to have what you like tonight."

Erica felt even happier. She felt warm and soft. She ate sweet fruits with delicate dipping sauces. The conversation drifted over her, past her. She gazed around the room and saw cheerful faces, laughing, people enjoying each other. No one crowded her. No one tried to talk to her. If she were invisible it wouldn't matter.

Matilda rose from her chair when they finished their tea. She came to Erica's side and spoke in her ear. "Will you walk around with me?" she asked then laughed a little. "You won't have to say anything, promise."

If anyone other than Matilda had asked the answer would be 'no' but Erica stood and as she did all of the SDD agents stood as well. Erica and Matilda both froze in surprise. They stood arm in arm as the SDD began to clap.

They didn't clap in the normal, haphazard way. They clapped rhythmically and they all faced Matilda and Erica who looked perplexed. Even James stood and clapped. They all knew the beat. James stared at Erica and kept the beat. None of them smiled. James didn't smile. It went on for some time. Erica started to worry what it was about. She looked at Mati who seemed confused.

An agent Erica had never seen before raised his hand and the clapping ceased. The agent stepped away from his chair. He stood stiffly. He nodded towards Erica's table. "I am Major Desman. I respectfully request this opportunity to make an announcement." He bowed towards Erica. His table was just behind hers and there was no doubt he bowed to her.

Every agent stared at her, waiting. Erica couldn't answer. He couldn't see her because he bowed. She nodded to him anyway.

"Continue, please," Powell ordered the man.

Major Desman straightened. "Thank you. We wish to acknowledge the wisdom of the Claimant's Council in choosing Erica Kinsley to claim. Their foresight overwhelms us. By selecting her as the new claimant of Kinsley Claim they have given Quirni the opportunity to avert war with Marril and Sirrus."

The rest of claimants stared at him. Many of their mouths hung open, stunned except for Lord Byrne. His eyes narrowed. His chin fell so he watched Desman from under his brow. His mouth held tight.

"When we came here tonight we were in a state of readiness. That state is now suspended. Our esteemed Commander Powell informs us Claimant Kinsley's donation to the QSDD abated the threat. The land for a new base is enough to bring the rest of her gifts home, seven ships of war for the QSDD."

Claimant's eyes darted from Desman to Erica to Powell.

"Five of those ships are on the way to Quirni as we speak, beyond the means for Marril or Sirrus to stop them. With these ships, Quirni will not fall victim to quarantine. Claimant Kinsley has used her vast wealth on Marril to help us all and bought the means for Quirni to stop relying on the MSDD and SSDD for supplies. She has also given us the means to defend our planet." He looked directly at Erica again. "Claimant, your generosity is recognized by your SDD. We respectfully serve you." He raised his hand to his forehead in a salute and held it. Every other agent, James included, saluted her as well. Even Commander Powell saluted her.

Erica stared back at them. She drew a long breath to hold off the nervousness in her chest. She glanced around for some idea of how to respond. Her eyes caught Byrne's and she saw his were narrowed, thinking, angry. He didn't smile, quite the opposite.

The SDD held the salute for several incredibly long moments then every hand snapped away from their faces and to their sides. They stood there at attention seeming to expect some response.

"Might you know what your cousin would say to us?" asked Commander Powell of Matilda.

Erica stood frozen. Matilda gently took her hand and pressed the pad of paper into it. Erica turned from the crowd and blinked at her.

"Let me have some idea," said Matilda and sounded nervous.

Their eyes locked for several moments. Erica hadn't planned to avert war. She didn't even know what kind of war it would have been. The SDD had used her to this end. She had been willing but Jesse had requested the ships. Erica hadn't even known about The Insurance Company or her money on Marril. The generals had done it all.

What needed to be said came to her as quickly as did her speech the morning of the breakfast. She put the paper on the table and wrote then handed the sheet to Matilda.

Matilda read it then nodded and looked up. "Claimant Kinsley wishes-" She stopped because Erica took the pad of paper from her and wrote something else.

'Tenpole, like me,' she told Matilda. 'Let all the snobby ex-Marrilians here know someone from Tenpole isn't stupid.'

"I would be happy to," Matilda agreed with a gentle smile and she had a glint of mischievousness in her eye. She straightened and looked back at the waiting SDD agents. She took Erica's arm so they faced them together. Matilda spoke like Erica.

"Claimant Kinsley wishes to say; 'I am honored' does not describe how I feel. I haven't the word for how deeply you have touched me. I thank you. As you feel overwhelmed by the choices of the Claimant's Council so do I by your generals. They have guided me. They have helped me. 'Tis their wisdom, cleverness, and devotion to Quirni that saves us from the Marrilian and Sirrian play. I applaud them and you. I will work to do as you require to protect Quirni and help this planet become the power it deserves to be."

When Matilda finished speaking, Erica turned and clapped as she looked directly at General Pearl then General Burk, on to Jesse and John then Commander Powell and even General White. The claimants stood and in their haphazard way they helped applaud the generals of the SDD vigorously. Eventually Byrne rose from his chair and joined them but only because he was the last one sitting and Lady Byrne prodded him in the back so he wouldn't look ungrateful.

Erica noticed his reticence then and then visions bloomed before her. She had seen visions before. She saw the world a little differently than other people not that she realized that. She didn't talk about it. No one else ever did so she didn't either. She Saw Byrne's reluctance to clap not only in his unwillingness to stand, in the way his wife had to prod him, but in the colors over his face and the scenes over his head. Erica saw people differently more often as she found a better life, a calmer life with less danger and less stress but this was the first time she had ever seen the colors over a person and the scenes over their head together.

Her eye passed over Byrne briefly when she twisted to take a look around room. She saw most people had good colors, good scenes. A few were darkened with grey or mixtures of colors, uncertain people, those who could not be trusted to keep their word.

The colors were rare. She didn't always see them. She usually felt the nature of other people and got a gut feeling about the danger or opportunity they presented if she felt anything at all. Important people caused more feelings and more visions. The mighty presented more colors than the commoner.

Her eye passed over the High Lord Byrne and she saw grey. She saw anger. She didn't know why. She kept in motion. It was easy to stop and stare. She knew she shouldn't do that. No one did. It wasn't wise to stare at such things. No doubt everyone saw his feelings but they, like her, would not comment. A man should be allowed his feelings without demands to explain especially when he was the High Lord.

Erica drew a calming breath and clapped. She viewed the mostly happy crowd and wondered at the dark man who led them. She marveled at the light, buoyant men and women of the military. People trained to kill looked brighter than a claimant. She supposed she should have guessed that. Claimant's, for the most part, were assholes. She smiled at the thought. That explained a lot. She would do her best to keep it in mind.