Chapter 5 – "Lyn-"

Erica slowly made her way back to the hotel amazed at how Matilda made her feel so angry and so wrong. The fifty-four million quid on Marril could help the plans to go north so much but Mati didn't care. She didn't care about anything but being correct and lawful while Erica knew it was the end result that mattered and saw no reason she shouldn't bend the edges of any law to get it, not that she would have to in this instance. She entered the lobby of the hotel.

"There you are," Lynsey called and popped out of a chair. "Roger told me you were out for breakfast so I decided to wait here."

"Hello," Erica greeted in a subdued voice.

Two steps went down to the sitting area. She stopped at the top of them as Lynsey came to her.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. 'Tis just Mati. She be so frustrating." They continued across the sitting area and up the staircase together.

"Claimant's children are usually like that," Lynsey agreed knowingly.

Erica saw she carried a large, soft briefcase. "Looks as if you have been busy."

"Very. I have everything you asked for including an itinerary for the next few days. There are claimants who request your audience. There is also a welcome breakfast today. It's at ten." Lynsey pulled out an envelope from the side pocket of her briefcase and handed it to Erica. "The tenants will see you over the next three days and some of the people who wrote the proposals will see you tomorrow."

Erica stopped on the landing.

"What's wrong?" Lynsey asked.

"A welcome breakfast?" she asked. "Who told you about this?" She opened the envelope.

"A runner delivered it. She said the High Lord would be hosting it."

Which meant Erica couldn't reject without causing a big headache. She moved closer to an oil lamp to read. It was the invitation for the 34th of June 10 AM. "It says 'semi formal'," Erica noted. She looked up at Lynsey. "What does that mean?"

"I think it means you can't go like you are," Lynsey offered. "It has to be a suit or dress."

"I don't have a suit or dress," Erica grumbled. "The one I had got torn up by my dad."

Lynsey nodded. "That was the only one you had?"

"Yes and that was Mati's." Erica continued up the stairs and let them into her room. "We were supposed to go shopping for things like that but never did unless Sati or Elsbeth have gone for me."

"No. They are going this afternoon. Maybe Mati could loan you something else?"

"Probably but she's not here. She won't be back for hours."

"She wouldn't mind if you took something."

"She's not here to ask and I won't steal from her closet," Erica replied as she paused inside the door. "She thinks I'm a thief enough already."

Lynsey shrugged then went to the sofas and began to spread the contents of her briefcase on the table between them.

"You said you saw Roger?" Erica asked. "Would he be in their room? I could ask him to borrow some of Mati's clothes."

"He was heading to town. I don't know where."

A door joined Erica's room to the Moises. Erica walked over and knocked on it. No one answered

"Have you seen Ella?"

"No, I haven't," answered Lynsey as she waited for Erica to join her.

"How about Marcus?"

Lynsey shook her head. "I could call them but I'm willing to bet they are at council meetings." She dialed her phone and put it to her ear as Erica waited. After listening to two phone calls Lynsey nodded and hung up the phone. "Out of service. They are in meetings."

Erica felt like she had been deserted. "Well then," she said halfheartedly, "I guess 'tis up to me. I have to go shopping."

Lynsey sat up with a handful of papers and stared at her, as if she thought that would be foolish to do.

"As much as I would love to see what you have I have to get something for this breakfast meeting," Erica explained.

Lynsey stood stiffly. "Then I'll go with you," she volunteered.

Erica had to smile. "'Tis not a suicide mission."

Lynsey relaxed. "Of course not," she said. "It's shopping for a dress. I won't be much help."

"Neither will I," Erica confessed. She thought for a moment. "The woman making my wedding dress should know what to do. Should start there." Erica had noticed a lot of the SDD agents had a clock on their phones. "How much time do we have? Do you know?"

Lynsey pulled her phone out and looked at it. "Three hours."

They headed out. The dressmaker helped. She told them which tailor Matilda used. They went to see him and found Matilda had three suits being made and ready for the final fitting. He sold one to Erica, dark gray with a white, ruffled shirt. As he finished the alterations they ran to a shoe store to get dress up shoes. Erica was out of breath by the time they returned to the hotel room. They had little time to get her ready and get to High Lord Byrne's mansion. They didn't go over any the documents Lynsey had collected.

They called a cab since Erica had no idea how to get to the mansion on foot. "I want to see what you have as soon as I get back," Erica assured her then the horse started away.

The grounds of the High Lords Estate were completely gardened with flowers of blue and white, the colors that represented the claim. The mansion stood three stories tall with one story tall doors at the front entrance and white marble steps leading up to them. Erica mounted the steps slowly as her cab pulled away. She couldn't feel more nervous. She felt worse than she ever had. Her palms were damp and she felt cold. This whole business of parties and breakfasts was well out her scope. The dissociation disorder made her sensitive to large groups of people. The different parts of her all reacted differently to the crowd. It was confusing, frightening if Lynn or Sal started to take over. Even Zoe could make a quick mess of a conversation.

The doorman had opened her cab door and walked a few steps in front of her up the steps. He opened the front door. She stopped and turned to him.

"Who's here today?" she asked carefully, not saying 'be' instead of 'is' and not saying 'is' because it would come out wrong.

He smiled. "A gathering for your welcome party, Claimant," he said with a high class Marrilian accent and gestured for her to enter with a white gloved hand.

Erica glanced around. They were alone except for a woman standing inside and she seemed not to notice them. Erica leaned closer to the doorman. "A gathering with nice people or rude people?"

He blinked then let the door swing closed. "I suppose you might think they are nice if you were the right sort of company."

"Wouldn't you know it," Erica muttered and turned her back on the door. Her gaze fell to the steps. "I'm not the right sort of company. You can bet on that." She grimaced at the doorman.

He smiled. "Claimant Paulson is always very nice, My Lady. He's here."

Erica backed away from the man and down a step. She squinted up at him. "You would call me that?"

"Of course, you are a claimant."

"But you be Parcles," she told him nervously.

"Parcles who has not managed to become a claimant, My Lady." He held her eye with the most serious of expressions. "Even with my higher start I have ended here."

She stiffened to consider the situation that way. "Would you care to be a claimant?" she asked.

He drew his head back in surprise.

"If you had a choice, would you want to be?" she clarified. "Would it make you happier?"

He considered the question for several moments. "Mayhaps not, My Lady." He grinned. "I am happy."

She stood back. "So you hear my Tenpole. I try to talk better."

"Yes I hear it," he nodded. "It is a nice change from all the stuffiness I am used to, My Lady."

Erica smiled briefly for him to call her that once again but then frowned. "They be party going, prats wasting my day."

"If you say so I am inclined to agree," he replied and opened the door again.

Erica didn't go through it. She mounted the step and leaned towards him. "What do I say to these sorts of people? I mean, what could I possibly want to discuss with them?"

He raised an eyebrow. "The weather?"

Erica looked up at the sky. There wasn't a cloud. It was a perfect summer day. It had rained again during the night and left the day lightly humid and warm. "Should take all of a minute. The weather usually be the same here."

"Perhaps a previous occupation. That is popular," he suggested.

She drew a long breath and exhaled slowly. "I was a scam artist," she told him.

"So I heard," he grinned. "And quite good. It should certainly interest them."

"Claimant Mois would put his shoe up my ass if I started talking about that. Such be on his list of things I shouldn't talk about."

The doorman tried to hide his smile.

She thought about his suggestion. "But it could be fun."

"He is here, My Lady. I would like to suggest you not have too much fun. His shoes would not match your suit."

Erica's eyebrows rose in surprise to learn Marcus was inside but then she grinned at the doorman's joke. "Thank you, sir," she told him.

When he opened the door again she entered the cavernous foyer.

A young woman in a blue suit with white trim stood inside. "Claimant, they are waiting for you. I will show you the room."

Erica followed her but her walk felt stiff and unnatural in the new shoes. This place was too rich for her. She didn't belong here. Her new suit felt wrong too. It was conceited of her to even wear such clothing. She had been a prostitute from Tenpole, a Chaucer Street whore. She was supposed to be wearing robes or nothing when she entertained. Her last job had been as a cleaning lady in a bank. Marcus had given her a tenancy but only to keep her out of the hands of the SDD and now she was supposed to be a claimant? It was insane.

The woman led her through the white marble entrance and down a highly polished white marble hall.

High above them sunlight filtered through a glass ceiling. One thing they made well on Quirni was glass. Erica had been to Claimant Mois' mansion. It also had a stained glass ceiling. Both mansions seemed delicate and were brightly lit due to all the glass they used to construct them.

Tall plants stood every ten feet along the hall and between those were either a door or a huge painting. One of the paintings depicted a war scene with dogs tearing apart men who were armed with bows. The dogs would be the Beasts of Ahem, Erica realized.

About forty years after claimants first came to Quirni Ahem sought to enlarge his claim. He tried to drive out other claimants or force them to sell land cheaply by attacking their tenants. Without tenants the claims wouldn't prosper and the claimants would have to sell land. The dogs were his army until the SDD routed out the dogs along with Ahem, killing the warmongering claimant, but some of the dogs had survived. Until recently no one kept a dog on Quirni. They killed any dogs they found in the wild. The memory of Ahem was too painful and the dogs considered too vicious to train. Erica, however, had found puppies and she liked dogs.

She didn't care about Quirni traditions and she had kept the puppies. She had trained them to be pets. The dogs were eventually accepted as being tame, not the war dogs of Ahem's time. The name 'Beasts of Ahem' had fallen out of disfavor and now they were called 'Lynn's Beasts' since most people knew Erica by her given name and not her chosen nickname.

Erica paused to look at the painting. The puppies they had raised at Matilda's ranch were different colors than the ones in the painting. Blade, Burk and Major were still huge like the war dogs but Erica's dogs had spots or brindle stripes. Ahem's beasts were all tan. The young woman walked steadily past the painting and Erica had to take quick steps to catch up to her.

They turned into a wing where large rugs covered a wooden floor. The ceiling rose into a glass peak down the center of the hall. Sunlight streamed in and lit the mansion brighter than electric lights.

The young woman stopped at the end of the hall and nodded to her. "I shall inform Lord Byrne you have arrived. Please wait," she requested and entered huge carved doors.

"Erica!" a man called.

James? She turned. He was hurrying towards her. "Oh, James, you don't know how happy I am to see you!" She embraced him with her face tucked tight into his shoulder. He picked her up he held her so tight. They hugged quickly.

"I forgot to tell you about this breakfast and I am so sorry," He begged. "I was too preoccupied to think about it but I see Mati helped you. You look wonderful." He kissed her quickly on the lips and backed away with his hands on hers.

Erica smiled broadly. "Actually, James," she said in a proud tone, "I got ready without Mati. Lyn-" Her smile suddenly fell. Even though she meant someone else, she meant to say the name 'Lynsey' but the part of her called 'Lynn' responded. Erica's stomach turned the moment she realized it. In the next moment her head split in pain and confusion. She swayed back a step as she fought to keep Lynn from taking control. The divisions in her were from emotion and pain endured to such extremes that each part of her would appear when it became too much for her to bear, or in the case of Lynn, when she said the name. Erica could usually control her parts but she could also be submerged by them.

She clutched James' hands tightly. They were the only things she still felt and recognized then they were pulled from her and Erica's hold on reality left with them. Lynn's hatred and anger overtook her. She didn't understand the voice speaking next to her. Lynn's emotional turmoil deadened her to her surroundings. She fought to just maintain some awareness of being.

Her feet left the ground. Erica and Lynn both were surprised and jolted from their fight. Erica knew it was James who picked her up and trusted him. He would care for her. Lynn didn't know and was distracted. Erica took the moment to fight hard.

I am in control, she demanded and Lynn's anger flared. Hate flared. Lynn struck out at Erica and she recoiled at her horrible lust for revenge. She lost her ability to control Lynn.

Lynn screamed and struck at James. He pinned her arms, Lynn's arms, not Erica's as Lynn had control. Lynn recoiled at the strength of his hold. She knew someone that strong would hurt her. She withdrew in fear and Erica found control once more at least partly.

"Come back, Doll," James called gently.

Erica focused on him rather than her fight with Lynn. He pinned her against his chest. He pressed her arms between them. Lynn feared being caught. She screamed and tried to bite and kick but she couldn't fight him. Lynn needed control of her body. Anything less terrified her. Erica listened to James but she couldn't do anything to help him. Lynn couldn't do anything to get away.

"Shhh I'm here, Doll. I'm here. I have you."

Erica growled, overpowering the scream, a low note in her throat.

James' arms tightened. His hold was reassuring to Erica but Lynn fought harder. Erica felt how Lynn wanted to hurt and kill but unlike Lynn she knew she wasn't supposed to do that. She knew wanting to do it and actually doing it was the difference between Erica's control and Lynn's.

Erica grabbed the lapels of James' uniform to keep her hands still. She would not bite him. She would not kick him. "No," she growled at Lynn stiffly.

James pressed her head against his chest. He kissed her hair.

"Erica," he called softly. "Doll, come back to me."

Erica shuddered she fought so hard for control.

"Lynn, I won't hurt you. You are safe with me. I'm keeping you safe. I am holding you to keep you safe. I am like Erica, I will keep you safe. Let us help. Come on. Quit fighting."

Lynn paused at the way he spoke her name so gently and then the promise he made.

"Come on, Doll," James coaxed and sounded more sure he was being heard. "Come on, Doll," he repeated in her ear and she felt his breath. She felt the fabric of his uniform in her fists. Her senses returned. She released his lapels. She came back to herself.

"Take it easy, Doll," James said gently and lifted her. He set her in a chair.

Erica wilted into it with her eyes closed. Her head throbbed.

"Are you Erica?" James asked.

She opened her eyes. He knelt before her. "Yes," she answered softly.

The Moises were there. Marcus knelt beside her. "You fought her off," he said in amazement.

"Not completely," James corrected. "She struggled hard for a moment."

"But she's back," Ella told him, as amazed as Marcus.

"James…" Erica tried to explain how he helped. She was too tied. She raised her eyes to look at the room then lowered them to look at her clothes. It was the check she did when she found herself someplace she didn't remember. If her clothes were different than those she remembered putting on then she knew a lot of time had been lost to an alternate part. She wore the suit. She didn't recognize the room but it was ornate like a mansion. "How much time passed?" she asked James.

"Only ten or fifteen minutes," he answered. "I had Byrne's assistant tell the High Lord you are not well. He understands since you had surgery. The Moises offered to check on you. They will report back if you are too ill to attend the party."

"I'm not," Erica told them. "Only need a few minutes." Her breath came hard but that was because of the struggle with James.

"I want Levitus to check you. I held you as tight as I could but you were pushing as hard as you could. You may have pulled apart some of the healing."

"Fine," Erica agreed softly. She rested her head against the wing of the chair.

James pulled out his phone and called him. He described what had happened. Apparently Levitus wasn't too concerned. James kept his eyes on Erica as he listened and told Levitus she didn't act like she was hurt just short of breath. He smiled when he returned the phone to his pocket. "He wants to see you later but he says the healing paste should have held."

"Then I can tell Lord Byrne you will come to the party?" Marcus asked. He took Erica's hand in his. "Will you be up to that?"

"Yes," she agreed. "I have a headache, 'tis all. It will go away." Marcus helped her stand.

"What caused this to happen?" Ella asked quietly.

"She said Lynsey's name," James answered and Erica winced. Hearing it made her feel a burst of hate and anger.

They all watched her as if she would break.

"My pardons. I forgot."

"Don't pardon anything," Ella consoled. "There is no need to be sorry." She started forward to give Erica a hug but once before when she did that Erica had turned and left the room. She remembered and stopped.

"Thank you," Erica said quietly. She put her hand on James' arm. "I wouldn't have been able to get back except for you. I think she likes you."

"She likes him?" Ella asked. She glanced at James then Erica. "That's incredible that she would express that emotion. Perhaps you are closer to her than you think if she is feeling what you do."

Erica shrugged, she didn't know.

"I'm going to tell Brian to introduce you as 'Erica' so you don't have to be hearing that name," Marcus told them. He rubbed her arm sympathetically and left.

"Would you care to go into the party now?" Ella asked. "I'm sure they can wait longer if need be."

"No." Erica felt her hair, which was up in a twist with ivory picks to hold it in place. She could see some had fallen in her face. It had to be fixed. "'Tis messed?"

Ella stepped behind her and pulled the picks out. Her hair fell to the middle of her back. "It's much prettier this way. And it looks more like you should too." She smoothed it then pulled the ruffles of Erica's shirtsleeves past the cuff of her suit so they hung over her hands.

"They'll get in my way," she complained.

"Use the end of your eating utensil," Ella instructed. "And keep your arms off the table so they stay out of your plate."

Erica stood still as Ella finished plucking at the ruffles of the shirt around her neck and straightening the suit.

"You look beautiful," said Ella when she stood back. "Did Mati help you get dressed?"

Erica shook her head. "Was the question that started this," she told her with a weak smile. "No, she didn't. She runs errands. James' sister helped me. But the suit came from Mati's tailor. I bought it out from under her I suppose."

Ella couldn't stand it. She hugged Erica and Erica returned the hug warmly. "She won't mind. She will be proud to know it is worn so well." She stood back and brushed the front of the suit to straighten it. "Shall we go now?"

They walked to the end of the hall again. The maid opened the doors. Ella passed through to take her seat. The assistant waited for her to settle and then announced them. "Ladies and Lords, I would like to introduce Lady Lynn Kinsley and Lord James Kennedy."

James held Erica's hand on the crook of his arm. He walked them into a glass room. It arched above to a peak. Plants and birdcages decorated the space. Eight large, round tables were set and each had eight people sitting around it, almost all of the claimants of Quirni plus a few of the more powerful signed tenants were present.

At the front of the room stood two long tables with a podium between them. Erica felt shaky as James walked her down three steps and over to the High Lord Brian Byrne who stood before the podium with Lady Byrne. The High Lord and his wife clapped, as did the rest of the guests.

"My Lord," James greeted and bowed slightly as he nodded to the High Lord.

"I'm glad you could make it," Byrne told James as he took his hand.

"My Lord." Erica imitated James and nodded to Byrne deeply.

Byrne offered his hand and when Erica took it he pulled her forward and hugged her. "You couldn't think of a way out of this?" he asked in her ear. He stood back and grinned at her surprise. "It is a pleasure to have you here," he added and gestured that they might sit.

James and Erica sat to the left of the podium as Lady Byrne sat to the right of it. The High Lord stood behind the podium and smiled at his guests. The claimants respectfully quieted.

"Thank you for coming to welcome our newest claimants," he greeted in his booming voice. "Claimant Kinsley is without a doubt the most unusual claimant we have ever welcomed here." He glanced down at her. "She is the youngest. She is the only one who has ever served time in prison. Her background is one of scams, numbers running and computer hacking thank goodness."

The crowd chuckled when he did.

Erica glanced at James with a slight wince.

He held her hand on the table.

"She is also one of the few people who has ever changed my mind," continued Byrne. "That is an accomplishment. She has been incredibly loyal to her cousin, clever, resourceful and, I believe, a person who has left her old life behind. She is worthy of her new title. If the Claimants Mois hadn't snatched her up as their tenant, I would have. It isn't often you meet a person with such knowledge as hers who will use it for good."

Erica leaned back in her chair. Her lips parted as she was dumbstruck by the realization that he meant what he said.

Lord Byrne continued as several claimants in the room gestured towards her. "In return for her service to us and the years of service we expect from her I have a favor to ask of you. Our young Miss Kinsley likes to be called 'Erica'. From now on I ask you to join me in addressing her so." He turned to her. "Erica, please, the podium is yours."

She squinted at him like he was nuts. "Pardons?"

Most of the claimants chuckled.

"It is customary to say a few words at this point," the High Lord told her then turned to the room of claimants again. "I forgot to add, she is completely innocent of politics, speech giving, and protocol which is bound to make our breakfast more interesting." The crowd laughed. He slipped his hand under her arm and lifted her so she might stand.

"James would-" she started.

"James will have his opportunity," Lord Byrne interrupted and pulled her to the podium. He slipped a riser from under it with his toe and guided Erica up.

She kept her eyes on him as he backed away to his chair beside his wife.

"We give this breakfast to introduce new claimants," he explained from his seat. "One of the first things you need to do is get used to speaking in front of crowds. So turn around and speak."

Erica glowered down at him. "You do this to every new claimant?"

"As soon as possible," he replied. He laced his fingers together over his big belly and leaned back to watch her.

"Sir, you be a pain in the ass."

The microphone picked up her voice and the room broke into laughter. She glanced around in embarrassment but Byrne laughed the hardest.

"Lady Byrne tells me that daily," he confided.

"I do, although not in quite those words," Lady Byrne agreed with a gentle smile. She lounged beside her husband, lanky and dark haired with friendly, sparkling brown eyes.

Lord Byrne made a circular motion with his finger to indicate Erica should turn towards the audience. "Now talk or I will have to get angry at you for saying that."

Erica swallowed and faced the claimants. She saw Marcus pressing his fingertips into his forehead. His head was down in embarrassment. Ella was wincing and glancing around nervously.

"My pardons," Erica begged them. "I should not have spoken so." She looked back to Byrne to apologize to him as well but he shook his head.

"No pardons are necessary." He spun his finger again.

James moved and she glanced his way. His face was straight but she saw the glint of amusement in his eye. He smiled at her slightly than raised his chin in expectation of her speech.

"So, I guess I have to do this?" she asked him and once again the microphone picked up her voice and the guests chuckled.

James nodded.

She glowered at the microphone but then remembered that was on the list of things she should not do. She straightened her face and glanced at the Moises again. "Mati should be doing this. She be the one who gives good speeches but since I have to muddle through then…well…suppose I should start by thanking Lord Byrne for such a pretty breakfast." Then it occurred to her more thanks were in order than that. She straightened. "And if you will, I would all of you thank someone else in turn."

The smiles turned to expectation.

The Moises looked nervous.

Erica kept her eyes on them.

"I would be in an SDD cell today instead of standing before you if it weren't for Ella and Marcus Mois. You would have no metal to mine and Mati would still fear for her life but for My Lord and My Lady.

"When I first met them I was scared, alone, half crazy with anger for how the SDD had hurt me and used me, or at least that was how I understood the situation. The Claimants Mois gave me a home, protection, and finally their trust. I would you thank them. Show them your gratitude. They saved me and trusted me so I had the opportunity to do the things I did, to help Mati, and Quirni, and you."

She looked Ella then Marcus in the eyes. "I never said this but I should have long ago; thank you, My Lord and lady, for taking care of me. Thank you for giving me a chance to live a free life for the SDD would surely have kept me locked away. Thank you, Lord Mois, for trusting me and following me into the scheme that cost you fines, sleepless nights and I fear your good name. Thank you both for giving me my cousin, whom I dearly respect and love and would never have known but for your protection. Thank you for giving me a home, teaching me right and wrong, helping me become a better person who one day might mix with company such as yours without mistakes. I'll try." She smiled gently and nodded to them with deep respect. "For everything, thank you."

Ella wiped her eyes as she smiled and nodded back to Erica. Marcus cleared his throat and sat back in his chair, his mouth set firm.

"Nothing else needs be said," Erica then told Byrne and stepped down. She returned to her seat.

Lord Byrne regarded her for several moments as she stared back at him. He then rose from his chair slowly. He looked over the audience that sat silent. "Well," he muttered softly and cleared his throat. "Well, Ella and Marcus, thank you," he told them sincerely.

"You are most welcome," Marcus replied with a choked voice as Ella nodded.

The High Lord dropped his eyes as he thought. "I venture to say Erica has the Kinsley gift for giving speeches seeing as how she thought that up on the moment," he told the crowd when he looked up again. He drew a breath and turned to her. "And I assure you, Erica, Marcus may have suffered sleepless nights and he probably lost a few years off of his life worrying over you but his reputation has not suffered. You need not concern yourself with that."

Several claimants clapped in agreement. Soon every claimant in the room clapped. The applause resounded off the glass structure. The High Lord extended his arm towards the Moises and indicated they should stand. Ella hung onto Marcus tightly. She cried. His chin quivered for a moment but then stiffened. The rest of the claimants rose to their feet.

James took Erica's elbow so she would stand with him. He clapped and when she saw this she clapped as well. "Go give them a hug," James suggested in her ear.

Erica didn't have to think about it to know it was the right thing to do. She rounded the table and went to Ella who released Marcus and wrapped her arms around Erica. Ella couldn't talk but sniffed until she felt the need to hold Erica back to look at her.

Marcus then grasped Erica tightly. "I am so proud of you," he said as the applause slowly faded. "If our daughter had lived I could only have hoped she was half the person you are."

Erica hadn't known their child had died. Tears welled in her eyes. "She was lucky to have you as parents for however short her time."

He began to cry. He grasped her again and kissed the top of her head. "It know it's hard but be a good girl," he told her as the crowd quieted enough that he was heard. A light chuckle floated around the room.

"I'll do my best," she promised.

He released her and turned to James who stood beside Ella. "You had better take good care of her, James," Marcus warned. "She is precious to us."

James just smiled and shook hands.

Ella hugged James and still couldn't speak. When they parted, James took Erica's hand and led her back to their table.

A shuffle of clothing and chairs filled the room as the claimants sat. James held Erica's chair for her then kissed her cheek and sat as well. The High Lord remained standing at the podium. He had to compose his thoughts and slowly pushed in the riser with his toe as he did so. He looked up when it was tucked away.

"I now have to give Lord Kennedy the unenviable position of following that speech and upwelling of emotion." He looked out over the claimants. "Captain Kennedy played an integral part in bringing Miss Kinsley to us. He and his partner, Major McAllister, had the task of escorting Erica to Matilda's ranch on Mois Claim." He turned to James. "I request you tell us what happened during that ride. What caused you to care for a person you knew was a criminal on Marril and then, quite surprisingly, end up proposing marriage to her. We do not doubt she showed you a part of herself we would all like to know better. It is a story we have all speculated upon. Would you be so kind?" he asked and backed away to give him the podium.

James bent over to speak in Erica's ear. "Do you mind?"

She glanced at the audience, all of whom wore rapt expressions. "I suppose not too much."

James took Byrne's place. "I would be happy to tell you a few of the details, Lord Byrne."

"Call me Brian," Byrne replied.

James nodded to him then turned to the audience. "Major McAllister, Elsbeth, and I were given a three part duty in regard to Erica. First, we were to escort her to Mois Claim where her cousin and General Burk waited. Second, we were to protect her since the general population would think she was Matilda. Third, and most importantly, we were to learn as much about her moral and mental status as possible. Up to that point, few of her records were available to us on Marril or Sirrus. She was under aged here and therefore we had no right to them.

"Some of the generals doubted we would ever learn anything because she was a Kinsley and she would come under Lord Kinsley's control soon after she arrived but she didn't go to him. In fact she attempted to flee to the north and be alone. That was dangerous given how much she looked like her cousin. It quickly became obvious we would have to actually escort her if she were to survive. We couldn't watch her from a distance. She would be in too much danger."

He smiled at Erica. "But before we could escort her we had to find her. She had slipped out of the city unexpectedly. She didn't know it at the time but she wore a tracking device. After she left the Padt City she kept to the woods. We were hard put to follow. I found myself impressed with her choice of paths. She avoided all human contact. The population in Cluny had already attacked her and she had learned to stay away from people.

"Three weeks passed and we approached Cluny once more. We feared for her safety and tried to contact her on three different nights but we couldn't find her. I marveled at that. I had read about her past, of several arrests and a number of escapes right out of SDD hands. She hadn't been legally identified before she disappeared so only notations of possible arrests were on her record." He looked down at Erica as he remembered this. "She seemed like a shadow and frankly I began to wonder if she were capable of disappearing."

Erica saw he wondered about this even now. Her escapes were not difficult to achieve. People tended to underestimate her. She held a straight face.

"I know that sounds silly," James chuckled as he turned back to the claimants, "But when you follow a tracking device and you are standing on top of the signal but no one is there, one wonders what might explain it. Invisibility comes to mind." Many of the claimants chuckled with him.

"The day I finally met her face to face she had stopped on the edge of Cluny. Elsbeth and I were becoming frantic. Erica had to enter the town to cross the bridge and that would be extraordinarily dangerous. We had to find her. She stopped early in the day. We assumed she waited for dark before attempting the bridge." James looked to Erica for conformation.

"'Tis why and I saw you approach."

"I bet you did because we were right next to the signal but you were nowhere to be seen." He turned back to the claimants. "We heard a slight sound above us. We looked up and to my complete shock we saw her sleeping in a tree. We had never thought to look in a tree. For a young woman who had been raised on Marril to be in a tree seemed extraordinary only there she was. She sat in the crook of a branch nearly thirty feet above us mostly hidden by leaves." James smiled at the memory. "She woke with a start-" He stopped and squinted at her. "You saw us? You were never asleep? Then why did you slip off the branch?"

She shook her head. "When I pretended to wake, as if startled, I fell off."

"And her bag bounced off my head," James added to a bout of laugher. "Elsbeth found that humorous as well," he told the claimants dismally. "She was in tears. She completely broke down but I was watching Erica. She swung herself back onto the branch as light as could be. She was obviously strong and agile as well as clever. I suspected we had an exceptional young woman on our hands – well almost on our hands. She wouldn't come out of the tree."

Again the crowd laughed.

"We coaxed and craned our necks and talked to her for half an hour while she just lay on the branch and called down to us. She finally came down at the promise of a horse and we also had to admit we would follow her whether she agreed to travel with us or not.

"We had been told she might be armed and she might be violent. We had also been told to win her trust if possible. Those seemed like mutually exclusive tasks if we were to keep safe but we resolved to do our best. As she climbed down we both saw she wore a pistol. We thought if we parted her from her weapon we could at least check to see if she wore it loaded and thus we would know how much danger we were in. We rode carefully that night and kept a close eye on the situation. We stopped the next morning. Erica wasn't talkative but she was responsive and friendly when she did speak. We ate and then Elsbeth carefully offered to provide warm water so Erica could bathe. She needed to. We didn't wish to offend but it was a reasonable offer." He smiled as the guests laughed once again. "To our relief she accepted."

"She dropped her coat and gun within easy reach of me and when Elsbeth held up a towel so Erica might remove her clothes with some privacy I checked the weapon. It wasn't loaded and her ammunition wasn't even in the belt. It was in the pockets of her coat. It would take some time for her dig it out and load the weapon.

"I searched every pocket of that coat and her bag while she washed her hair. She carried very little. She had ammunition in small leather bags, shards of glass wrapped in leather that we assumed acted as her knives, a filter for water, matches, a glass bottle, which had a small amount of water in it, a thin thermal blanket, cording, plastic clips, soap, a change of clothes, and a couple of books about native edible Quirni plants and animals, no food and no medicine. I found myself amazed that this young woman, not even native to Quirni, had survived three weeks in the wild with nothing else and she appeared to be in fine health.

"I admit I glanced at her as she washed. Erica held her hair to clear it of soap while smiling and turning slowly and she was beautiful." He drew a breath at the memory. "She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. It was clear how the simple act of a bath made her happy. The fact she closed her eyes meant she trusted us. The fact her gun wasn't loaded and that she hadn't said one rude thing convinced me she could not be the violent person some of the generals tried to convince us she was. And it helped that she was so pretty." The crowd chuckled again. "I returned all of her belongings and got out a protective vest along with fresh clothes."

"She had told us we shouldn't travel the roads by day and in our attempt to win her trust we agreed to travel at night but we looked for the opportunity to change that. We wanted to travel by day to travel at a predetermined speed. The task of coaxing Erica to do so fell to me. Elsbeth had noticed how she had looked at me when I was introduced to her. She thought Erica was attracted to me. I thought she was wrong." The room erupted into gentle laughter again. "That lesson is one I won't ever forget; superior officers are always right."

Many of the claimants applauded by slapping the table since that was the means the military used to applaud when they 'Dined Out'.

James couldn't stop his grin. He continued. "Nevertheless, I argued the point but Elsbeth insisted I try to persuade her anyway. She gave me a chance to speak with Erica alone. It was then, when she smiled at me, timid, unable to hold my eye but at the same time determined to try, that I felt something for her. This young woman, I realized, was full of contradictions. Her gun and her past suggested she was violent but she acted gentle. She hated the SDD but she treated us with respect and remained polite. She acted timid but did daring things like climbing fifty-foot tall trees and she walked through the Quirni woods alone. I wanted to talk to her and learn about her but we were interrupted.

"Elsbeth got too close to one of the birds and it snatched her metal bracelet right off her wrist. She returned, upset, and our conversation had hardly started before it was done." James paused to remember the day. "Elsbeth was genuinely upset at the loss and I could see Erica felt for her. It took her a few minutes to think about it but then she offered to shoot the bird so we might recover the bracelet. We had wondered how accurate she would be with the gun and so I suggested she could try. Erica loaded the weapon. I was ready to take it from her if she pointed it at us but she aimed at the bird and shot it with one neat shot. She was deadly. From that point on we kept a close watch to make sure she didn't load that weapon again.

"Of course, we didn't need to worry but it wasn't until much later in the ride that we knew that. We weren't able to make her talk about herself so it took time before we knew her well but when we did we agreed she was gentle, kind, and moral. We decided to take advantage of her skill with a gun and get meat. She began to hunt for us and she began to keep her gun loaded. A few days after that decision we were attacked outside of Nigh on Mois Claim.

"Men on foot scared our horses into a gallop then tried to trip them with a rope across the road. Elsbeth's horse and my horse jumped the rope but Erica's fell. Two archers waited beyond the rope. By the time I had turned to help, Erica had drawn her gun. I knew it was loaded. She aimed at an archer.

"I kicked my horse to get to them in time. I knew I had to keep this girl from killing someone but when she shot at the man he didn't fall, his bow shattered instead. She had shot the bow rather than hurt the man. I chased the archers and they ran.

"When I returned Erica was still down. Arrows through her arm and leg pinned her to the road. My heart nearly broke to see her hurt and in mortal danger because not only was she wounded from the arrows but they were poisoned with red clay."

James took a breath and most of the room did as well. "Throughout the ride Erica never said anything about herself but we all know the old saying that actions speak louder than words. I suppose we did not give her complete benefit of our doubt until that day when she refused to kill those men. She took a chance of hitting their bows instead.

"We never learned what we were supposed to learn about her. We were unable to tell our superiors any example of why we thought she would work with the SDD on Matilda's behalf. We couldn't give them but few concrete answers as to why we thought she was moral. She is right that they would have incarcerated her if Claimant Mois hadn't stopped them.

"As I held her in my arms on that road outside of Nigh, I realized I was in love with her. I had fallen in love and knew the SDD meant to put her away." He looked at Erica whose eyes sparkled with tears. "My heart broke because we had run out of time. You were hurt and we had to get help as fast as possible."

He looked up. "Ella and Marcus, you gave me hope. I agonized that I had failed to learn anything pertinent but your intervention saved us both. Since those days I have learned more about the demons that drive her and I love her even more for being the good person she is."

He nodded to the claimants and returned to his seat. He took Erica's hand and squeezed it gently.

Lord Byrne returned to the podium. "Thank you, Claimant Kennedy," he said quietly. "You have explained a lot. We appreciate the insight."

The claimants and Erica applauded to show they agreed. Erica was relieved he had said nothing about her disorder beyond the brief mention of demons and she was amused at how the journey had seemed to him. Most of all she was surprised to learn he had such strong feelings for her so early. She had felt attracted to him from the first moment just as Elsbeth had surmised.

Lord Byrne asked James to stand and acknowledge the applause. James did so. He bowed his head to the audience and then sat again.

"Before breakfast is served we have one other piece of business to attend to," announced Byrne. "Erica, James, please join Lady Byrne and me."

He picked up a triangular package wrapped in brown paper and walked around the table. They stood before the podium.

Byrne faced Erica. "Whenever a new claimant is named by the Council the colors that represent the claim are likely to change." He shifted the package in his hands. "In this event the flag of the claim must change as well. We interview the friends and relatives of the new claimants then ask an artist to design the flag given our suggestions." He unwrapped the package and inside was a flag folded into a triangle. "This is your flag," he told them and handed it to Erica.

She unfolded it until it grew to a size that James had to help her. They held it between themselves for the entire room to see. The background was blue rectangle. A black triangle stood at the center. A golden dog and a golden eagle stood side by side in the triangle. The eagle's wings were outstretched extending past the edges of the triangle. Its head was turned. It was the same eagle used on the SDD flag. Fourteen stars were arranged around the edges of the triangle, eleven at the bottom and three at the top.

She blinked in surprise at her emotion, at how choked she felt, how proud. She didn't want to be a claimant. This flag, however, clearly represented James, her, and their commitment to the claim. She found herself fighting tears. "'Tis beautiful," she told Byrne in a small voice. He nodded with a smile. She knew who chose the colors, the dog, and the eagle. She looked over to Marcus and Ella who grinned. "Blue for myself?" Erica asked them and they nodded. "Black for James?"

"Yes," Ella replied. "The colors are Matilda's idea. It was what you and James wore the night he proposed to you."

"The dog and eagle, again for myself and James and they seem to be standing guard but I don't know what they stand guard over. What do the stars mean?" she asked and sniffed. She held her hand on her chest. She could hardly breathe she was so emotional.

James answered. "The fourteen council seats of the claim."

"And James' mother suggested the triangle which represents a tree, a pine tree," Ella told them.

Erica laughed and James smiled. They had not met at a pine tree but it was a tree nonetheless.

"You can hang it on the wall behind your chairs," Lord Byrne suggested.

They did so and again the claimants gave them a round of applause. Afterwards the breakfast was served. After eating Erica met the claimants and received many wishes for her success. She left the meeting happy.

They returned to the hotel in a cab with the Moises. Ella couldn't stop discussing how poised and polished their speeches had been. Marcus looked content and proud. James seemed more relaxed than he had in days. Erica listened and wondered at her feelings towards the flag. Would it last? She didn't consider that for long because James laughed at something Ella said and it was a real laugh, not the stressed laugh she had been hearing for weeks.

"You relax today," Erica told him. "What has changed?"

"I have," he replied. He drew her close, tucked her against himself. "I won't be the first captain in the SDD to claim."

She pulled away from him in shock. "Why not?"

He grinned. "I took the test to become a major today. I passed."

Her mouth dropped open. "Major Kennedy?"

"I'll receive the insignia tonight at a pinning ceremony. I hope you can make it."

"Make it? I won't miss it!"

"And you?" James asked the Moises.

"You are inviting us to an SDD ceremony?" Marcus asked.

"I am," James answered.

"We'll be proud to be there," Marcus agreed happily. "And congratulations." He offered his hand and James shook it firmly.

"From both of us," Ella added and hugged him.

"So I won't be the first SDD captain to claim," James continued for Erica. "I'll be the first SDD major to claim at least as long as we don't include the preliminary signing."

"Actually, I believe you will be the first captain and the first major to claim," Marcus told him. "That first signing was not preliminary. You are a claimant."

"You have been studying all this time?" Erica asked him in awe.

"Yes. Elsbeth has helped me. She said any partner of hers had to do better than I did last time or she would be too embarrassed to stay in the service."

"I know what you should tell Elsbeth," Ella said. "Thank you."

They laughed as the cab pulled up to the hotel. James held Erica's arm when she started to get up. "You are going to see Levitus now." He pulled her back into her seat. "You look pale. I want him to make sure you are fine."

Erica did feel sore and breathless. She sat without an argument.

They waved to the Moises and told the driver to take them to the base. It was a short ride. The cab pulled up to the clinic and James helped Erica down. Erica didn't go into the building. She put her hand on James' chest, on his ribbons, the place with the listening device.

"I need to talk to you, the Moises, and Matilda and Roger. Your parents should be there as well I suppose."

James squinted at her quizzically. "What about?"

She pressed her hand on the block of ribbons that decorated his chest. "Mati has some things she wants me to discuss about the wedding," Erica shook her head as she spoke. "It involves us all."

He glanced at his ribbons. "Matilda and you must have discussed this over breakfast."

"We did. I have a lot to request of them."

He kissed her. "I'll let them know." He led her into the clinic.

Gina came out of the back when they entered. "Claimant Kinsley," she nodded to her. "Can I help you?"

"I need to see your father," Erica replied with some hesitation because she really didn't want to see him as a patient.

James had some things to do so he left. Gina took Erica to the examination room. Levitus arrived shortly. He was dressed in his uniform.

"How are you feeling?" he asked her.

"I'm not so sure now." She eyed him worriedly. "You don't wear your scrubs and you came in awfully fast. That means you don't have another patient. You will have too much time to mess with me."

He gave her a sly smile. "With any luck we can make a day of it. So how are you feeling?"

"Out of breath, sore, but otherwise all right. James wanted you to check me."

He gestured she get up on the examination table. "Where do you hurt?"

Erica tapped her chest. "It started after that problem James called you about. Makes it hard to breathe."

He listened to her lungs then backed off a step. "Get your clothes off then get back on the table. I'll have to scan you." He tossed her a gown and left.

Erica changed. She lay on the table and waited.

"Sorry that took so long," he told her when he came back in. He pulled a scanner from the side of the table and turned it on. She tried to lie still as he passed it over her stomach and chest but it was cold. It tickled he touched so lightly at times. He stood back, thoughtful, set the scanner down then pressed on her stomach. "You did tear some of the adhesions," he said as she winced. It hurt like hell when he pressed.

She suddenly felt sick, sprang from the table and grabbed the trashcan. Blood was in her vomit. "Oh no," she groaned. She turned to stare at him in alarm.

"I pressed the area you tore. You're bleeding internally but only a little. Now that the plugs are gone the scars are destabilized."

"Will it never end?" Erica complained and sat on the floor.

"You are lucky to be alive let alone walk and function. But what happened to cause this exactly? James said he had to hold you. You were struggling with him. You told me you would be careful." He helped her stand and get back on the table. "That doesn't sound like you were being careful."

Erica couldn't believe this. She had too much to do. She didn't have time for this. "I said a name I shouldn't have." He helped her lay back down. "James held me but I guess I fought him."

Levitus took a long breath and exhaled as he thought. "I can keep an eye on this and hope for the best or fix it now. I don't really want to open you up again. It's a hard area to get to, but if I don't it might not heal right." He couldn't seem to make up his mind. "Let me talk to Betty. I have to know how much healing paste I can use and how long she'll be able to keep you under anesthesia." He left the room.

Erica felt like she could cry. Damn Lynn, she thought, damn her to hell but even thinking the name hate and fear rose in her. She had to stiffen her resolve to control her. She closed her eyes and concentrated. "I am in control," she mumbled. She lay still, concentrating, but it was hard to do. She had more bleeding inside. She hurt. She couldn't breathe right. "I am in control." She felt angry like Lynn felt angry and it wasn't Lynn doing it. That didn't help.

Levitus returned. He had already changed into his surgical scrubs. "I'm going to repair that tear," he announced. "Come on."

He helped Erica off the table and put his hand on her shoulder. He led her back to the surgical suite. Betty helped her onto the surgical table.

Erica didn't lie down. She was near tears. "Why this now?" she asked. "I was fine for months."

Levitus took her hands. He looked her in the eyes. "Listen to me," he said quietly. "You were shot with homemade Quirni bullets. They broke up when they entered you. One part nearly severed your spine. You wouldn't be walking if that had happened. Another tore up your spleen, which I removed. Another one made such a mess of your lungs I had to remove two lobes they were so mangled. It passed through you stomach too and part of that is gone. The third bullet shattered in your intestines. Three of us worked for six hours to get the bleeding stopped and leave you with enough intestines you could survive. We didn't have time to do a nice neat job. You would have died. Now I have to fix what I couldn't fix then. Do you understand that? It's the best we could do and frankly, Erica, I am amazed at how well you are so don't be upset. Be happy you are here at all."

He pushed her gently so she lied down.

"When I took out the plugs it destabilized some of the healing. This would have happened sooner or later when they dissolved on their own," Levitus added. "Better now before you have an entire claim to deal with."

Erica drew a long breath to try and accept this.

Betty started the IV.

"I do not question your ability," Erica assured him.

"I know," he said and rubbed her shoulder.

"Never knew it was that bad."

He patted her shoulder. "I know that too."

Betty put a mask on her face as Levitus and Gina draped her with blankets and warm towels. "Breath deep," Betty told her. Erica fell to sleep.