Chapter 25 – Vincent's Surprise

Ben joined Erica and Sati outside of Ethan's room. "Are they guarded?" Erica asked as they returned to her room to get Major. She wanted his company. He made her relax and she needed that. She would take him for a walk to look for Vincent. "They be targets for the BMC."

"They are guarded," Sati assured her. "All Kinsleys are."

Erica nodded to show she appreciated that. "What happens with the BMC? Do you know?"

"I can't say," Sati replied.

"Which means you are not allowed to tell me," Erica sighed in frustration.

"Correct," said Sati. "It isn't your-"

"Problem any longer," Erica completed.

"So you know the drill," Sati returned. "I have to live by it."

They climbed the stairs. When Erica opened the door Major was lying on the sofa. He lifted his head. "Want to go out?" she asked him. He jumped down and came to her. He visited each of them to be pet before settling beside Erica who gave him a treat. "Do you know where to find Vincent?" she asked the agents.

Sati and Ben exchanged a glance. "At the base with Elsbeth?" Ben answered.

"I would talk to him. Let's see if we can find him. I would know what happens with Jaycee and CB too."

"Jaycee was supposed to have her hearing today," Sati told her.

"Then she might be in a position to be pardoned. That would suit me fine."

They walked with Major.

"You might find Vincent and Elsbeth at the administrative building," offered Sati as they approached the base.

"As good a place to start as any," Ben commented.

"I would have started at Elsbeth's room," Erica told him. "Only we might get no answer there. We would have to go in through a window to get them out of bed."

"Lady Kinsley," Sati chastised but chuckled.

The administration building was the same building where they had had her hearing. It was on the far side of the base away from the landing strips.

It amused her to realize she was still on probation. She hadn't asked what that meant. She didn't care if she found out either.

Major attracted attention on the way. He sat every time someone wanted to pet him then fell in beside Erica again with his tail wagging as they walked. "You lover boy," Erica told him and patted his head. He licked her hand or put his nose against her pocket each time she praised him and received a treat for his effort.

Several claimants passed them and nodded to her as they approached the clinic and they still didn't look well, as if they still hadn't found any aspirin. Erica kept the smirk off her face and only nodded back.

Before they reached the administrative building she saw James in a group of SDD. She knew him from any distance. His walk and shape were second nature to her, straight and proud with wide shoulders and a straight, strong back. He swaggered slightly, not much, but enough to show he was proud of his uniform.

She picked him out of seven other SDD agents. They seemed to be surrounding one agent in particular who was receiving slaps on the back. That agent was slimmer than the rest, shorter than most of them, about James' height. He turned to each of them as they pushed and prodded him along. None of them had noticed Erica they were so engrossed with the agent in the middle. They even stopped and surrounded him for a moment, their arms reaching for him over each other's shoulders.

His cap popped into the air. He jumped for it. A flash of blond popped up in the middle of the group, the agent's bare head. He missed his cap and then disappeared back into the crowd. Elsbeth dove into the group and pulled him away. Erica recognized her red hair. She snagged the cap from one of the others and put it back on the agent's blond head.

Erica gasped as she suddenly recognized him. "Vincent." She stopped. Vincent wore a uniform. Sati and Ben stopped beside her. They eyed each other nervously.

"Major!" Vincent called and the dog shook and whined and wanted to run to him.

"Go," Erica told him quietly and Major took off like an arrow. He ran to the group and jumped into the air as he reached them. He landed on Vincent's chest and would have bowled him over except for all the agents who caught him.

Erica could hear Vincent laughing and coughing as the other agents gave him a hard time and put him on his feet. Major bounded around the group barking.

James commanded the dog to sit. They pet him and praised him as they laughed. The group started towards Erica.

She stayed frozen in place as Sati and Ben strolled ahead to greet their newest private.

Erica couldn't move. She felt her heart breaking. It was silly to feel that way but she had expected Vincent to work with her. She had wanted to be around his Tenpole ways and have his happy attitude near her. She swallowed back her disappointment. It hurt to see him in uniform. How had this happened? She blinked back tears and pasted on a smile as they approached.

"Oh, Sotty! Look at me!" Vincent called and turned with his arms straight out to show his uniform.

What could she say so she wouldn't show her disappointment? She couldn't say anything.

He stopped in front of her. "Look at your surprise!" he declared gleefully. "They told me I be accepted this morning so I found Elsbeth and came right over."

"'Tis so fine," Erica told him, finally finding words that fit.

"I wanted this for years on Marril but was too stupid when I first applied and then too old when I tried again. Here on Quirni I have decades!" His eyes were lit with excitement. He pulled Elsbeth into his arms. "And when I met my life, my life who be Major and SDD, I knew I had to try again." He grabbed Elsbeth, flung her back, kissed her and then pulled her upright again. She smiled broadly and held onto her cap. "When they offered me the Reagent 10 I had them ask me the questions you must answer to join." He held Elsbeth around the waist. "What a fine, fine something."

"And he didn't even tell me." Elsbeth looked as excited as Vincent. She held his waist. Her diamond ring sparkled.

Erica smiled for real to see Elsbeth so cheerful. "'Tis wonderful." She meant it but she still wanted him for herself and felt ashamed to realize that.

"We'll be based together after he gets done training and we're married," Elsbeth explained. "I haven't been so happy since I was a girl." She straightened Vincent's cap and brushed off the paw prints on his chest. Major sat beside Erica.

"You lovely beauty," Vincent praised him and patted his head. "Do you have any treats, Sotty?"

Erica gave him a few.

He rattled the wrapper. "Can you stand for it?" he asked and Major stood on his hind legs. It was one of the tricks the girls had taught him. The dog's eyes were level with Vincent's as he tried to keep his balance on his hind legs. Vincent laughed and gave him the treat. Major took it between his front teeth then dropped down and crunched it at Vincent's feet. When it was gone he looked for more. "You be a greedy son-of-a-gun," Vincent declared and gave him another one. "I should like one of these fellows for myself," he told Elsbeth. "They be a delight. Mayhaps we'll find a litter someday."

Elsbeth had never cared for the dogs. She barely tolerated them so her reply surprised Erica as much as Vincent's uniform. "I think I know where we can find some now."

"Now?" Vincent asked and his eyes centered on hers. The two of them were the same height. They often stared each other in the eyes.

Elsbeth nodded, kissed him, and looked around. "Want to help?" she asked the other agents who were mostly James' sisters and brothers.

"I'm in," Charlotte volunteered. Lynsey and Paul agreed as well but Mark and Ron had to get back to work. James declined. He had been watching Erica.

They all said 'goodbye' cheerfully and left. They continued ribbing Vincent as they walked out of earshot.

"I'll be with Erica the rest of the day," James told Sati and Ben. "You can leave." He gestured after the dog hunting party. "They might like your help."

Sati's eyes lit up. "Thank you, Major!" They saluted him and hurried after the group.

James studied Erica for several moments. He waited until Sati and Ben were out of earshot before speaking. "You're disappointed."

She had tried to hide her feelings but she couldn't smile any longer. It fell from her face. "I thought he might be my assistant." She looked after them. She would so much rather be with them than where she stood.

"He'll be a wonderful agent."

"Should think so," Erica agreed quietly. Then it struck her James was in uniform and wearing his sidearm. He had changed out of the suit he wore at Council. "You be on duty?"

"I'm done with the claimancy stuff so yes," he answered. "But it's lunchtime. Hungry?"

She shook her head. Her stomach felt too twisted to eat.

He hugged her around the shoulders. "Come to the mess hall anyway. I'm starving and I'm your bodyguard for the day."

She leaned into him as he hugged her then let him lead her away. Major followed them.

James put Erica at a table far away from anyone else then bought her a plate of watermelon even though she wasn't hungry. Agents came and went around them; occasionally stopping to pet Major as James hungrily worked his way through a large portion of roast beef, potatoes and carrots. Erica kept from speaking by crushing bits of watermelon in her mouth. It didn't seem so sweet right now. She gave some to Major who gobbled it and looked for more.

"Vincent surprised us all," James said as he slowed to tear apart some bread and watch Erica. "He didn't want us to know if he wasn't accepted so he hadn't mentioned trying to get in. If he hadn't made it he would have gone back to mining but he didn't want to. He said he has had enough mining for a lifetime. He likes the sun."

Erica could understand that. "Will be fun to see how far he climbs the ranks," she replied dully. "He be a fine man, smart and full of good judgment. He'll go far. He would have made a fine assistant."

"He will be a better used as an agent," James countered gently. "I think he'll be a corporal soon after he finishes training. He was careful to not break any laws when he came here to find you and that suggests he knows a lot already. He was almost guilty by association. If he had been around Claudia and done nothing about her kidnapping he would have been but you showed up that same morning. He is grateful to you for taking the chance you took. He was in a difficult position."

Erica ate another piece of watermelon to save making a reply. It seemed everyone around her was happier while she was becoming more and more miserable. At the same time she kicked herself for thinking that way. It would lead to nowhere but depression.

She smiled at one thought and looked at James. "When will he and Elsbeth be married? I would see their wedding. That be fine fun."

"After he finishes training. Father Polson will probably marry them."

"Here in the Padt City?" she asked fearfully. She would be on Kinsley Claim, too far away to attend.

He nodded. "Although they are talking about opening a school on the new northern base. He might train there if they open it soon."

"Oh, I hope so," Erica replied. "If he stays here we won't be around for their wedding."

"It will be a small wedding anyway."

"So," she sighed at the difficulties. "Would I can go but I doubt the SDD transports for a wedding."

"It's unlikely," James agreed and bit off the end of a carrot. "There is always the need for a meeting of the High Council, however. They can come up at any time. And you can always dictate where to meet. The Southern Padt City is considered central."

Erica gave James a crooked smile for mentioning the idea. She crushed another bit of watermelon in her mouth.

"Father called me," James added, changing the subject and sat back. He put his plastic fork and knife down. "What happened with the Tillsons? He said you left the meeting angry."

"Did he?" Erica sat back and crossed her arms over her chest.

"He did," James countered seriously. "He was concerned for you. What happened?"

"He accused me of planning to rob land from failing claims."

James thought for a moment then smiled. "No he didn't. What happened?"

"I'm serious."

He looked puzzled. He sat straighter. "You need to explain."

She shrugged. "I wrote a list of claimants who didn't vote for things that would raise their taxes. Suggested to me they need extra income like the Tillsons. I offered the Tillsons a means to extra income." Her brow gathered darkly. "They turned me down. They don't trust me. Then John suggested other claims could benefit from the offer so I showed him the list I wrote to see if they were the claims he spoke of. That was when he accused me of getting the list with dodgy behavior."

James squinted. "Dodgy?"

"Yes, dodgy, stealing or blackmail or some such."

James considered that but still looked confused. "What did he say exactly?"

"That only SDD should know which claims be poor. He told me I shouldn't have a list like that but Clair saw me write it. She knew I hadn't bought it."

James stared at Erica for several long moments then drew a long breath and looked at his plate. "That's pretty astute of you to write a list like that. I assume you did it because you were sitting at the front of the chamber and could see everyone's reactions to the discussions and voting?"

"So," Erica agreed. "John said one name be missing," she added. "He seemed to think it meant a thing. His tone implied a thing."

James looked up then sighed heavily. "Well-" He pushed his plate away. He gave her his complete attention.

"Well what?" Erica asked, concerned when anything made James stop eating.

"You are a perceptive High Claimant, Erica."

She squinted. "'Tis good?"

Half his mouth jerked in a smile. "Mostly."

"Mostly?" she prodded when he didn't continue.

He leaned forward on the table. He drew a breath and looked over his clasped hands into her eyes. "Father wanted me to tell you he is contacting the claimants on your list to meet with you before the Grand Council convenes for the last time tomorrow. He wants you to offer the same deal to them that you offered the Tillsons. He also told me to convince you of the necessity of offering this to all of them. I am ordered to convince you of the necessity to include all the claims on your list."

She leaned forward and squinted in disbelief. "For ten claims? 'Tis not serious. He would I start such with ten claims all at once?"

"Eleven," corrected James. "He added the one you missed."

Erica's mouth dropped open. "That be insane!"

Agents glanced their way but most of them smiled.

"Erica, it astounds me how you can put yourself in situations without an inkling of where you are going." He shook his head. "Your penchant for trouble is genius."

Erica stared at him gape mouthed. "Speak right!"

He blinked. "Oh, pardons," he begged then chuckled. "You do have to work on your vocabulary. Cyril is right."

"James! I just wrote a list!"

"And what a list," he remarked and pulled his plate back. "No wonder father told me you had to explain it. I would never have believed him. I hardly believe you. Only the top seated generals and the commander should have a list like that and then only when needed and here you just wrote one up." He shook his head and smiled as he stuck his fork at his plate. He speared one of the last bits of meat.

"Was just to help me later," she complained weakly. "Was just to remind me who to contact when the time came." She dropped her head on her hands. "Was all."

He shook his head as he chewed, swallowed. "Was not all. You made a whole lot of work for yourself."

"No one told me," she whined.

"Should they have to?" he asked and paused with a potato at his lips.

She glared at him. "Seemed fine to me."

He snorted. "Yeah, I suppose it could knowing you. I'm glad you had the sense to take father and Pearl with you. The Tillsons wouldn't come close to understanding." He chuckled.

"Oh!" she growled and threw herself back on her chair. "I can't do it all. I started researching this after the last meeting. I need tractors, cultivators, combines, seed drills, plows, grain augers and tons of other things. It all comes in sizes with different specs that be way above my understanding." She threw herself forward again too weak to hold held her head up with the thought of how much work it would be. She propped her elbows on the table and held the heels of her hands to her temples.

"There be repair parts so we don't get caught with crops to harvest and no equipment." She spoke as he ate. "I need to find farmers who know how to use the stuff. I can only hope to buy the right things if I don't talk to them first. If I were to buy for Kinsley Claim alone or just the Tillsons then I could buy a lot of extra things to make up for my lack of knowledge but I can't do that for everyone. One tractor alone will cost over two hundred thousand quid and it will take a lot of cargo space. I couldn't get everything here for everyone with the ships we have there."

"Hum, I guess you did research it," James replied, unconcerned and cut some carrots up.

"I would the Tillsons do all the research themselves. That be my preference but they got all snobby and talked investment people and that sort of rubbish."

James smiled.

"'Tis not funny!" Erica snapped and dropped her hands to the table to either side of her plate.

"Father is excited." James looked her in the eyes as he chewed.

Erica blinked several times, unsure what that meant, then frowned. "So?"

James swallowed. "'Tis a good idea. 'Tis something, a big something."

"Oh, blasted," Erica muttered angrily. She sat back and crossed her arms over her chest again. "'Tis not enough room on that ship to bring so much."

"Then we will tell a few of the ships you bought to turn back."

She had no idea they could do that. She squinted. "Turn back?"

"Sure, when they reach the first marker they will slow to recalibrate their next hop and contact us. We can tell them they have to turn back."

"Turn back?" Erica repeated weakly. "How soon would they return to Marril?"

"I think they reach the first marker two weeks out. That will be in a few days, then two weeks back. You have less than three weeks."

"Then you will help. I can't do it alone."

He shook his head. "I know nothing about it."

"Neither do I!"

"More than I do. Plus, I have my SDD duties. This is claimant work. Your work. Get a couple of assistants."

"'Tis why I came to find Vincent."

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. "To work on this? Well it's a good thing we got to him first." James laughed. "He would have taken you up on that rather than mine and what man in his right mind would prefer that nightmare to the SDD? Even I would take Reagent 10 over that kind of administrative duty. God, I'd take Reagent 10 in a heartbeat." He meant it too.

Erica deflated and sagged onto the table. She pushed her plate away and put her forehead on her arms in dismay.

He tipped his head to see her face but she was buried in her arms. "It's time you talked to your family," James told her seriously.

She looked up.

He gave her a stern eye. "They are from Sirrus. They know how to use computers. Two of them have experience in government and several are business owners. You have a wealth of help right there and they should be with you. Get over your feelings and talk to them. If you don't, they'll suffer. I have learned they haven't the means to support themselves and no one will hire a High Claimant's family when the High Claimant won't have anything to do with them unless they are idiots or intending mischief."

Like Byrne? Erica's heart gripped in her chest. "I spoke with Ethan before coming over here."

"Just now?" he asked and set his knife and fork down again.

"Before I came here for Vincent. I invited them to Kinsley Claim but I told him father couldn't be around us. I don't know what you intend to do with him." She shrugged. "Ethan doesn't like him either it seems. Shouldn't be a problem."

"I'll be damned," James grinned softly. "I'll be God damned. I won my bet. I just won it."

She sat back to give him a long harsh sneer. "What bet?"

"I bet you would talk to them before the end of Council without my prodding. I thought I just lost it. Instead I just won it!"

"You just prodded," she reminded him.

"You talked to them first," he told her.

So she had. Her eyes narrowed. "Who did you bet with?"

"Mother and father."

She made a disgusted face. "Figures."

"It was just a friendly bet, Doll." He was delighted at the thought of it. "God! I will love the looks on their faces when I tell them! I just made fifty square thanks to you."

"As if you need it."

"I made the bet before we got married so technically I wasn't rich."

"You signed paperwork to make you responsible for that stinkin' money before we got married."

He cleared his throat rather than reply and returned to eating but now he had to pick at small morsels. Most of them wouldn't be picked up but he used the effort to keep his eyes averted.

"You like a bet, Claimant Kennedy. 'Tis all," she accused him lightly. The patent leather brim of his hat hid his face. She imagined he looked pleased with himself. "Admit it. 'Tis the thrills of winning or losing or some such rot."

He looked up with a puzzled expression. "You say I'm responsible for the money like it's bad."

"'Tis. Look where it got me."

He smiled. "Then you should appreciate spending it on the equipment."

"I do. 'Tis the buying that annoys me but I'll see if my brothers or sisters they be alive for that sort of thing."

"They will be plenty alive for it I am sure."

She raised an eyebrow when she noticed General Burk and Simon approaching their table with dinner trays.

"May we join you?" Burk asked.

"Please, General," James responded. The mess hall didn't require salutes so he stood for her but didn't salute her.

Simon set his tray down then held Sophie's seat. He took the chair across from her. James sat. "So what are you up to High Lady trouble?" Simon asked as he turned his plate so the vegetables were in front of him. He broke his bread as he looked at her for an answer.

"High Lady trouble?" Erica asked. "What makes you say that?"

He pointed at the table. "You had your head down like you were dying a minute ago. Why?"

"She has created a mass of work for herself," James answered with an amused tone, which caused Erica to glare at him. "Other than that, she isn't at liberty to explain. It's too open here." He glanced around at the people who had sat within earshot, including a reporter who had just sat.

"Work?" Simon asked and glanced at Burk. "Then I'd rather not discuss it unless it involves staying at home and gardening." He dug into his meat.

"Actually," Erica began as James shook his head, "'tis a sort of gardening."

"Actually nothing," James warned her. "Simon has no interest in becoming your assistant."

"True enough," Simon remarked happily. "I am soon to be the husband of an SDD two star general and that will require all the time I have, that and looking after babies."

General Burk grunted at this but it was a happy sound, as if she agreed with the arrangement.

Erica sighed and leaned on the table. "What I wouldn't give to trade places." She poked at her watermelon. Her fork stood upright so she picked up the piece and bit it.

"You want an SDD general for a wife?" Simon asked her.

Erica rolled her eyes. She swallowed. "Don't be daft. I want a house and children with no one asking me for a damn thing unless they be my own."

"Your brothers and sisters are you own," James reminded her.

"I know. I told them they could come."

"Tell them more. You need help. They are perfect and need work. It's time you sat down with your own and took care of business."

"I already did," Erica complained.

"I mean give them jobs as your assistants," James clarified. "At the very least find out what they are willing to do."

"He means talk to them over dinner," Burk added.

"Oh." Erica sat up. It just occurred to her she was lying on the table and played with her food. Matilda would be appalled if she saw her acting like that, not to mention Marcus and Ella. She sat straight and put her napkin in her lap.

General Burk watched her for a moment then continued to eat.

"We'll invite them to dinner when we get back to the hotel," James decided. "If they are to help you, they should be at the meeting tomorrow, the one father set up for you and those select claimants."

"Fine but if they help me I need to tell them the plans. Where can I? You suggest over dinner. Dining rooms be open. This conversation must be private." She looked at the reporter and ended up catching his eye. He nodded to her then moved.

"We can arrange a room," James assured her. "They have small rooms for that sort of thing at the hotel where Artur can serve us."

"When did you talk to your sisters and brothers?" General Burk asked.

"I talked to Ethan after Council today."

"And no one asked you to or forced you?"

"I went on my own," Erica replied but as soon as she did it occurred to her why Burk asked. She studied her. "Why?"

"It's just nice." Burk glanced at Simon before putting a bite in her mouth.

"'Tis another bet," Erica accused.

"'Tis," James answered. "What was it you won, ten square?" James asked her.

"Twenty," she corrected sheepishly and kept her eyes on her plate.

Simon pulled his wallet out of his suit coat, removed a twenty square note and handed it to her. "I always pay my bets. I thought I had won it too. There are only two days left."

"I know her better than you." Burk smiled at Erica. "With the way she felt about family I figured she would have to see them before Council ended or be too upset to go home."

Erica smiled back. "James' mother and father lost. They had no belief I would worry about my family but you did. Thank you."

"It's my pleasure. I always support my claimants." Burk nodded to her and winked which made Erica smile more.

"When is your wedding date?" James asked Simon to change the subject.

"We decided on December 20th. We'll be using the chapel in Xixom."

"Xixom?" asked Erica. "Where be that?"

Simon looked at her like she was being silly while Burk raised an eyebrow and glanced at James. She scanned the nearby tables to see who might have heard. No one was near. "It's the capitol city of Kinsley Claim," Burk told her quietly.

Erica's eyes widened. "Oh."

Simon blinked and frowned. He looked at Burk with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. "How could you not know that?" he asked Erica. "You are its claimant."

Erica reddened. She dropped her eyes. "My pardons. I have read many papers about the claim but never a map."

"She has only been a claimant for a few weeks and part of that time she was in the clinic," James told Simon.

"Don't be too embarrassed," Burk told Erica. "James is right. You never wanted this or expected it. There is no reason you should know the claim especially when you have never even been there."

Erica tried to smile. "But seems I should look at a map," she commented quietly. "Haven't looked at Kinsley Claim beyond statistical data."

"You can send your assistants to the book store once you hire them," James suggested.

"Then it would be best to have an early dinner," Simon replied harshly. "Get a map today."

"Not too early of a dinner," Burk told him. "I heard you and James were headed this way so I came over to see you."

"Heard from who?" Erica asked. "We told no one."

"Elsbeth. She has gone to catch dogs of all things," Burk added and shook her head in disbelief. "I called Sati to see where you were. Elsbeth was with Sati and she told me you were with James. She also told me James hadn't had lunch. We expected you two would be here."

"You be a detective, not a general," Erica noted as Burk tried to get in another bite.

"Often," she agreed after swallowing.

Erica decided to let her eat before asking any questions but Burk worked in the details.

"Jeda's tribunal was this morning. They found her guilty of collusion to frame you and extortion of a claimant."

Erica listened without a word.

"Those are major crimes but the tribunal doesn't want to punish her to the extent of the law. The thing is, you allowed Lord Byrne to go free and that mitigates Jeda's actions in their eyes. They believe if you are willing to let him go then she shouldn't bear the brunt of the punishment, especially since she's so young. She isn't of legal age on Quirni."

"I thought so," Erica replied.

Burk looked serious now. "She's twenty-two in Marrilian years and that makes her only sixteen here, far from legal age. She needs a guardian."

"I will contact her family," Erica offered.

"We did," Burk told her. "We can't find her parents but we contacted her brother. He's willing to take her but she is guilty of a pretty serious crime and the Sirrians might not let her go to Sirrus. Even if you pardon her it will still be in her SDD records. Your pardon doesn't cross over to Sirrus if they don't want it to. A High Claimant pardoning her does bear extra weight especially since you were the injured party but they still could be sticklers and not let her in and we get the impression that will be the case. She attacked a claimant after all and she was part of the BMC and that has become world spanning news. There is this too, if she should get a pardon and then request passage to Sirrus and be denied it than would be a decade before she could reapply and hope to go at all at which time she could be denied again and have to wait another decade. If she takes our punishment, she could go without any trouble once the term is served. That is the way the laws work between the planets. Our SDD can punish and the Sirrian or Marrilian SDD will have to accept that and clear her passage. If she isn't punished, if she is pardoned and there are not enough reasons to pardon her, then they don't have to accept her innocence and that is when she will be stuck here. So you see, you can make her life harder by giving her a pardon. She needs to be punished. This isn't like Vincent who cleared his name with Reagent 10. She is guilty."

"What be her punishment?" asked Erica.

"That is up to you," Burk replied. "We want her on parole with a guardian, someone with the clout to make her mind and who has the means to get her an education and who will command some respect from her, someone who can teach her the value of loyalty and hard work. Her old BMC boss to be exact and of course I don't mean Ken Wendt."

Erica saw that coming. "For how long?"

"Until she's twenty-one," Burk replied. "With you as her guardian she has several opportunities open to her. She could walk right away from this trouble and that will be the end of it and then she could go to Sirrus or stay here. She might do or become anything if she chooses to behave. Otherwise, if you don't agree, we ask you to not pardon her. She would be better off with a court appointed guardian and parole. It would look better to the Sirrians when she wants to go to Sirrus and it would give her the chance to learn skills to support herself."

It required no thought for Erica to make this decision. She deserved this duty. "I will be her guardian."

James didn't respond.

General Burk smiled. "I thought you would. You can come and get her after we finish lunch. I had them make up the paperwork."

"Very well," Erica agreed. "What about CB? Cory Bellmen."

"His case is more complicated. We are still collecting evidence. We can't let you see him either. He can fight like LaDunc and we won't take another chance like that. One thing he has going for him is cooperation. He is answering all of our questions. We haven't had one complaint. Like Vincent, Cory claims he never kidnapped Claudia," explained Burk. "LaDunc, and two others did that with Jeda to help lure her. Cory believes he can take Reagent 10 instead of a trial and reduce any sentence he receives as well as dismiss some charges. We're discussing it with him."

"You mean you write up the Reagent 10 questions," Erica said.

"That is what I mean," Burk admitted.

Erica didn't like that and scowled at the idea but said nothing more. She supposed it was up to Cory whether he endured the pain.

"When everything is decided, he is likely to serve time and we'll need a place for him. You can take him to Kinsley Claim if you want but again, we ask you to not pardon him either. You can make the time he serves productive and easy and that would be fine."

"Productive jail?"

James smiled at this.

So did Sophie. "No, probation. He is in need of an education and a means to support himself. He says those are the reasons he joined the club to begin with. He had neither. He was not from Tenpole so he couldn't mine for the higher wages. He couldn't get a good job without an education, which he didn't get because he was a juvenile delinquent, and he would never have gotten off Marril without joining your club."

Erica could see why so many of the club members needed so much guidance. She didn't think blackmailing was so difficult but they had always asked more questions than she could imagine. "I'll do what I can for both of them," she agreed. It wasn't turning out how she wanted but it was all she could do for now. She didn't know enough to do anything but what Sophie suggested. It depressed her to think her club members had been lead to this by her.

She sighed and speared another piece of watermelon. As she crushed it under her palate she watched James talk to Sophie. At least she had him. They were married, unbelievably married. Her to him, a whore to SDD. She loved him so much her whole being lightened to think of him. He made her happy. She had that.

She suppressed her smile so she didn't distract him from his conversation and pushed some of her fruit around on her plate. Sophie relayed a message from Pearl and James seemed surprised but pleased. He had become important, just as John had said.

James liked that. He liked being part of the planning. He hadn't believed he would ever be a general. He didn't have the mind to pass those tests and he didn't have the character to impress the right superiors. He knew he was adequate but never exceptional so this new position suited him fine. He would be used by them and be part of the whole, a useful peg that holds the wheel, as he put it. But he was now a much more important peg. It wasn't what Erica would want but it suited him.

By the time they had finished lunch, Erica had considered how she would begin the farming and export operations with twelve claims. It would be twelve since she would include her own. It also occurred to her someone had been interfering quite a bit in the family and her business. He had talked to her brothers and sisters. He was inviting them to her wedding along with Matilda, apparently. He was taking charge of the Kinsleys. As far as she was concerned he could do just that and more. She would put Cyril back where he belonged. Even if it wasn't with his claim anymore he could still run it. He could oversee the claim and then she would have plenty of time to oversee the farming. She smiled as they got up to leave. It might not be too much work after all.

Cyril said he was retired but he continued to give advice and tweak situations. He needed to get back to work. Someone had to administrate all the business about to blast towards the family and the damn claim. She didn't want to deal with either and certainly not both. He could. One way or another he would help. Whether he liked it or not he was returning to Kinsley Claim with her.

There would be a dinner that afternoon where she had thought she had to convince her brothers and sisters to help her. Cyril would instead. She would make sure he was there, and Renata too. Her heart lightened. Whether he liked it or not he would help oversee the mess. Who could refuse the High Claimant? Whatever kind of a fight he might give her she had that on her side, she was the High Claimant.

She put her arm in James' and smiled broadly as they walked to the brig. Her attitude surprised James and worried him a little.

"This be a great day," she told him.

He squinted at her. "Be good," he suggested.

She just grinned. "Kinsleys always be good," she replied.

"Good lords," he muttered but asked no more questions. Chances were he didn't really want to know what she was thinking.