EdwardsBliss

Chapter 27- High Claimant Mois

Silas and Emory talked with the others about the planets and the means they might use to make them work together in business and politics while they waited for Pearl to arrive. Erica only listened. She kept quiet and ate what Ella handed her until her phone rumbled on the table between the sofas. She regarded it warily as she chewed, as if she tried to decide if it rumbled or if she imagined it rumbled.

Marcus picked it up then walked it over to James. "You are the appropriate person to answer this while Erica is under the influence of Bliss. It is Claimant DeVass."

Erica swallowed in surprise that she didn't have to deal with the man.

James took it and flipped the phone open. He had a long discussion about some issue regarding the resolution of the DeVass-Kitow feud. Shortly after he hung up General Wallace called. After him Claimant Kitow called.

James hung up from Kitow and recapped the conversations. The claimants had accepted Erica's decision but both of them now asked to have someone other than SDD divide the ore. They didn't like the size of the cut required to pay for their services. James had refused the change. He told them their High Lady had given her decree and expected them to abide by it. If they felt her judgments cost them too much then they should resolve future issues between themselves.

Erica felt miserable after listening. "I would not wish this upon you, Marcus."

"It will not be so difficult for me," he assured her and asked about the work she had been doing.

She tried to answer but a new fish, a beautiful stained glass one with jewels for eyes, distracted her. She stopped talking to watch it do a flip over Marcus then dive back behind the sofa. It was sparkling and flashed. It spun then was gone. She started to answer again but the fish reappeared.

"What do you see?" he inquired while her mouth hung open and she stared.

She pulled her eyes from the fish back to him. "'Tis pretty like the windows," she answered. "A pretty fish doing flips and-" It appeared again but with two others that had long iridescent tails that twisted about the first and pulled around it as it flipped and spun. "Oh," she smiled with delight for all the colors and complexity.

"It must be quite a show," remarked John.

"It must," returned Marcus with a frown. He gave up talking to Erica and talked to Silas.

Erica made faces at the things she saw and left them wondering if she reacted to something they said or to something they could not see. They were all convinced that she should be removed from office immediately and it should have been sooner.

The Ambles arrived with Pearl. Erica smiled at them and nodded. They nodded back to her. Pearl shot them an annoyed look. They wiped the smiles from their faces. Pearl paused when she noticed Erica's phone sat on the table between her and Marcus.

"High Lady," Pearl greeted with a nod and stood at the end of the sofas. She looked at James who hadn't saluted her while John and Jesse had. "Where is your cap?" she demanded of him.

"He has resigned," John told her.

Pearl's eyes flashed from James to John then back. She began to say something but Marcus interrupted her.

"Have a seat, Clair," he suggested and indicated a chair between him and Ella. She did as he asked. "Betty, Levitus, pull up a chair," he offered and gestured to a couple of chairs by a table. They sat down at the other end of the sofas.

"We have been observing Erica for the last hour," said Marcus. "She is still feeling the effects of the Bliss. She is having hallucinations of fish jumping from our floor, doing various flips, and then diving back into the rug."

Betty drew a long breath then released it.

"At least she is no longer having flashbacks," Ella told her.

"It is an improvement but I had hoped we would remove enough Bliss to avoid anything but visual disturbances without shape," Betty replied.

"'Tis funny," Erica grinned as a school of little fish flapped their tails at Pearl's nose.

"Would it be funny to see a hallucination but act as if it is real?" barked Betty heatedly. "Or what if it was dangerous and you thought it was a hallucination and you did not react?"

Erica raised her eyebrows as Betty's hair grew to the floor.

"Do you have no answer?" asked Levitus with some of Betty's irritation. "What if you saw a clear lane of traffic but it wasn't really clear? What if you saw solid land before you but in fact stood at the edge of a drop?"

"It has happened," Betty added sternly. "That drug is horribly dangerous to iridim patients. This isn't funny. This is in fact more dangerous than the flashbacks. You were incapacitated when you had those. You couldn't react to a situation you saw or heard. At best you could fight it but you couldn't go for a walk unaware of your surroundings." She looked to Pearl. "She needs constant companionship until we get her past this."

"How will you get her past it?" asked Pearl.

"Excuse me," Ella interrupted before Betty could answer. "I will tell you. Erica must work the Bliss from her system with hard exercise. Does she look as if she is anywhere near capable of doing that right now?"

Erica pulled her eyes from Betty's incredible hair and looked around for Pearl. She was not in her chair. She spoke and sounded like she was in her chair but Erica couldn't see her.

"No, I admit she worried me when I saw her today but I didn't wish to intrude upon her family. I told Betty and Levitus to visit her tomorrow."

"There will be no need," said Ella. "I'm keeping her here. Betty is right; Erica requires constant supervision until we have her past these episodes."

"We can try replacing the iridim filter again," Betty suggested as she watched Erica. "It appears the hallucinations are not transient."

"They are," Ella told her. "She is having them one after the other because of her anxiety in stepping down as the High Claimant."

"It is not necessary that she step down," Pearl argued.

"She is also stepping down as a claimant," added James.

Erica glanced around to see everyone's reaction to invisible Pearl. They glanced at each other nervously as well as at her.

"Is this what you meant by 'set the blast and godspeed to a trip'?" Pearl demanded angrily.

She stood so close that Erica jumped at her voice. "No," she answered quickly and searched the area before her.

"Then tell me what you were going to do to," Pearl ordered.

"Clair, she is still the High Claimant," Marcus warned.

"So she is," Pearl responded, "and so she should stay."

"So that you might control her with the laws that govern the office?" asked Silas.

He stared at the spot directly before Erica. Apparently Pearl stood before her yet Erica saw the sofa and Jesse on the other side. Jesse looked angry. Erica leaned over and whispered in James' ear. "I can't see Clair. She disappeared."

James gaped down at her.

"I have helped her," Pearl defended herself staunchly. "I will continue to do so. We need her as the High Claimant. She is more than capable of learning the laws and ways of her office. She is only being lazy and difficult."

"Really?" James asked Erica quietly and smiled. Before Silas could respond he interrupted. "Ella, does the Bliss create hallucinations that are linked to thoughts, a state of mind, or are they random?"

"They are directly linked to thoughts, state of mind, and memories."

James began to chuckle. "Clair, Erica cannot see you. You have disappeared."

"What?" several of them asked including Pearl.

"Doesn't that speak volumes?" asked Roger. "It seems you are no longer real to her, Clair."

"I am-"

"Clair," Marcus interrupted. He gestured towards Pearl's chair. "Sit and I shall remind you of a few things. You and Erica have a history together. She is Eljay. You attempted to capture Eljay and failed. Now she is sick and you remove the people from her company who know her best and might have helped her the most. It appears you would hurt her rather than help her."

"I protest that conclusion. That is not true!"

Marcus raised his hand to silence her. "Furthermore, she is sick because you chose to place her on a helicopter that was brought down by the BMC. You apparently underestimated their capabilities and failed to give her a large enough escort to protect her. Her health fails due to your choices."

"I did what I thought was right given the information I had," Pearl declared. "It seemed better to get her out of the city and away from them. I had a dozen people try to discern their means of attack. No one anticipated they would fill the tanks with absorbent pellets."

"You knew one of the BMC was a mechanic."

"But he was not on the base," Pearl argued.

"But his influence was. The QSDD received a raise but the civilians on the base did not. They were angry. They were bought. They added the pellets. You could have avoided that by adjusting their income as well. You failed."

"I admit I failed to consider that means of attack but it was an oversight every one of us made, including the Kennedys," she added. "We tried to discern every possible means of attack and all of us felt the greater threat would be in the city."

"I could accept that but I fail to understand why you took away the help she needed at Abervan. That suggests you meant harm."

"She was well when Agents McAllister and Allison finished working with her. She did not need any more help."

"So you left her alone. You did not check on her. I doubt any other High Claimant would be treated so."

"She did check on me," Erica told him. "All the time, on my computer. They always watched what I did."

"What?" demanded Silas. "I would be incensed to learn my SDD was watching me in that manner."

"Very true," Cyril agreed sadly.

"Given that as well as the Bliss, I must revise my earlier conviction that Erica remain in office," Silas told them. "Her lack of concern for SDD eavesdropping reveals she is not ready for the position of High Claimant. She does not understand her rights or the laws."

"She is too trusting," Emory explained. "I ran into that on Marril as well."

"And she trusted you, Clair," said Marcus. "Eavesdropping on her is simply wrong but on top of that to take away her SDD support is beyond me. If it was to quell the rumor of her infidelity then it would have behooved you to find the source of the rumor and stop it rather than hurt Erica unless your intent was to cause her heartache."

"I did find the source and I learned the truth," Pearl spat. "And she knew I watched her. She just told so you so. I was not eavesdropping. I kept an eye on her so I could offer guidance."

Marcus frowned. "She had Cyril and the High Council for that," he told her. "No commander should ever keep an eye on any claimant. I don't care that it was Eljay. I don't care how uninformed or ill equipped you believed her to be, you had no right to do that."

Pearl drew a long breath then exhaled slowly.

"What truth?" asked James.

"A truth that is far worse than infidelity," Pearl returned bitterly.

"Please continue," urged John.

"I doubt you want me to," Pearl bit back at him.

"I want you to very much," he replied.

"Very well, but don't blame me for more misery is causes," sneered Pearl.

"There will be none," John assured her. "Eljay does not hide it. I told you that. Please be kind enough to remember."

Pearl drew another long, harsh breath.

"Continue," instructed Marcus.

"Fine," Pearl agreed stiffly. "Some of the men who arrived with the BMC recognized Erica was a prostitute from Chaucer Street. Vincent had recognized her as one of those women as well but he never said anything. He kept it to himself. Those men saw her and they saw her with Vincent. They saw him carry her into the clinic. They recognized her because they had used the services of Tenpole prostitutes." She took another breath. "They had used her," Pearl told them, as if she had just revealed the ugliest of truths. "She bedded three of them."

James pulled Erica under his arm.

Pearl slowly returned in Erica's eyes, gaining in substance.

"The men approached Vincent. They knew him when he was a miner and then they saw him at Chaucer so they knew he worked there too. They bragged about seeing her. They told him everything that they had done. Vincent confirmed their story. He had seen them at her house. He was able to verify all of it, all the details." Pearl squinted and fought to continue. She took another breath.

"When those men saw Erica on Quirni, our High Lady, and then Vincent with her, they were giddy to realize they had dirt on a High Claimant. They were practiced blackmailers thanks to her club and they intended to blackmail both of them. They assumed Erica must have prostituted herself on Marril for the sake of fun since she was so wealthy. But when they tried to blackmail her it failed. Vincent denied them access. They began the rumor of Vincent and Erica's affair for revenge, a rumor they believe is the truth."

"But it was not," John reminded her. "She has been true to James. She has not slept with Vincent on Marril or Quirni. Only those three men did. You should have revealed what they were, blackmailers spreading a rumor."

"And they would have told of their associations with her!" Pearl argued. "They would have shared all the details, every damn thing she did to them!"

"We already know she lived on Chaucer," Marcus reminded her.

"You do not know the details. I won't even repeat what I have heard. They assumed Vincent got his post by bedding her. They tried for the same. They expected to bed the High Lady again and get rank in the QSDD for their trouble!" Pearl glared at Marcus. "A scandal of that nature is far worse than a simple affair, which so many of you claimants persist in having. It is bad enough that claimants constantly dishonor themselves but I will not have it spill into my ranks! I will not have agents enter my ranks because they bed a claimant!"

"That wasn't going to happen. It was lies. The truth would have hurt no one," John told her sadly. "That you ordered me to allow the rumor of her infidelity to propagate and not allow the truth of her relationship with those men was wrong, as I informed you at the outset. Now, instead, you have thrown Vincent's good name into disrepute, given him a difficult time in the ranks and created hardship in about every level of the SDD as everyone argues over whether his actions could be true or not. They even argue whether he is in the service because of Erica. They wonder if he even took his tests, which is in itself a crime since he has, in fact, had the highest test scores of any agent for eighty years. As for her past, we don't care."

"Her work as a prostitute became public knowledge at my trial," added Cyril.

"But to have it verified, detailed?" asked Pearl. "By three men? Men who used her services? Tenpole men?" Pearl added in disgust. "No." She shook her head. "No. It has been difficult enough defending her as Eljay. I wasn't going to tolerate that. Her reputation is far too stained as it is."

"Or is it your reputation that is stained?" asked Silas. "How does it feel to have Eljay as your superior? To have Tenpole as your superior. Does it not make you wish to slight her and hurt her when the opportunity arises? And what an opportunity this was."

"No," Pearl answered stiffly.

"That is of little matter," Marcus sighed. "I guess I have to accept your explanation, Clair. Perhaps you have old wounds but I will choose to believe you did what you thought best even when you eavesdropped on her computer but I want you to know, to clearly understand, claimants rule over SDD, not the other way around. If you ever do anything like that again I will have you arrested."

Pearl winced.

"And I have the person who can check to make sure you don't," he added.

"Of course," Pearl said. "I only wanted to help her," she told him again.

"I will believe that. I will believe you can overcome your personal feelings about our High Lady and act as you should but I could believe it much easier if you had confided in James." He turned to Erica. "Can you accept my decision regarding this?"

Erica thought for a moment but then she dipped her chin. She dropped her eyes as she did so. No one but Silas understood exactly what that meant and his brow knit in concern.

Pearl shot a glance at James, as if surprised to learn that he was part of the issue.

"High Lady," Marcus began formally and stood. "I am prepared to take on the duties of your office. It is apparent you are of ill health and in fact I fear you are in a state that could compromise Quirni and you must step down. The simple act of handing me your phone will suffice to pass along your duties at this time. We can write up the paperwork to make it permanent tonight."

Erica took the phone from the table. She stood and walked over to Marcus. She held it out to him. "Please, take it."

He did so then hugged her. "This saddens me but at least you will get better. Nothing Betty or Ella said suggests different." He held her shoulders and looked down into her eyes. "Do you also wish to step down from your claimancy?" he asked as Pearl rose to her feet beside them.

"I do," Erica replied.

Cyril stood. "Erica, I officially accept the duties of that office if you tell me to do so at this time."

"Cyril, please accept the claimancy of Kinsley Claim," she told him and as she said it her shoulders dropped, the tension leaving them. She smiled slightly. She looked as if lead drained from her veins and suddenly she could move.

Cyril nodded to her. "I accept."

Renata stood. "You named me as your heir earlier, Claimant Kennedy. Would you have me take your office at this time?"

James stood. "I would," he agreed.

She nodded. "Then I am willing to do so."

"We will write up the papers and sign them later," Marcus told them all. "For now, I would like to ask you to stay the night. We have much to discuss. I would like to suggest Eljay sign a tenancy contract with me to dispel fears of her activities and I would love to have you back," he told her. "Would you do so?"

"I go North," said Erica.

"That is of no matter," he told her. "You can go but I would still like you to be under my jurisdiction."

She glanced a Pearl then dropped her eyes. "Mayhaps," she agreed tentatively. Marcus didn't like her hesitation but accepted it for the moment.

He pulled her under his arm. "Clair, you need to hear our plans for Quirni. Emory is going to be working with Silas. He is no longer in your employ. I fully endorse what they intend to do. Isn't that right, Emory?"

"You will be thrilled," Emory assured Pearl. "I can still consult with you when the need arises."

Pearl gave him a blank stare.

Matilda suddenly stood. "Before we get into all of that, we must take a shopping trip!" She grinned at Erica. "Do you want to go into Pey and buy some dark corduroy pants and black shirts?"

Erica's mouth gaped in a broad smile. "I can get out of prissies now?"

"Yes. Right now."

"Would!" Erica agreed. "To be back in real clothes!"

Matilda took her arm. She pulled her away from Marcus. "I bet we can find a nice hat for you too, maybe even a big leather coat. We need to outfit you for the North." She led Erica away.

"Which won't be until she looks and feels better," Ella called after them.

"And I am staying with you until you do!" Matilda told Erica firmly. "The North can wait. It has waited years already."

Nancy and Renata glanced at each other, smiled, got up, and hurried after Matilda and Erica.

James nodded to Marcus and Cyril. "I have to go. I have to see how happy she is to be out of the prissies."

"That would be precious," Marcus commented and beckoned the rest of them to follow. "The paperwork can wait." Even Pearl decided to accompany them.

They slowly walked into town listening to Matilda. "You have a lot to get. We will have to find you a horse you can ride at some point. I think I'll send some gentler animals up. I would love to move back to the ranch while we are waiting to go but we'll have to come to town to eat. Artur is starting a restaurant. We expected I would be gone by now. I only hung around to see Vincent and Elsbeth married."

"'Tis tomorrow," Erica told her.

"I know," Matilda agreed. She looked over her shoulder. "Marcus, be sure we have a ride up to the base tomorrow morning. The wedding is at eleven."

Marcus discussed the arrangements with Clair and was assured they would be accommodated.

They walked at Erica's slow pace. Matilda led them to a museum at the edge of town.

"You be cracked, Mati," Erica complained. "They sell no clothes here."

"I have to show you something," Matilda replied excitedly and led them inside. She gave the woman at the front desk some bills then took Erica to a room at the back of the museum. "This is what you have to look forward to in the North." She allowed Erica to stop only after she stood amongst the stuffed remains of native Quirni animals.

Erica slowly turned to view them, as did Silas, Emory, and Nancy. Each of them stopped when they faced an animal that stood on its hind legs and towered over them. Their mouths hung open.

The beast before them had a head shaped like a bear's but with a flattened muzzle. Its eyes appeared to have three colors. Its small ears were tufted and sat high on its head. It was covered in strange feathers that looked hard. The feathers covered most of its body. Only its face, neck, and bottom were free of them but feathers hung from its head and trunk to cover those areas.

"That is an orchedon," said James. He pulled Erica close to it. "Touch it."

She slowly extended a hand and stroked her finger down a feather. "'Tis hard like a shell. Looks like a feather."

"It takes a powerful weapon to penetrate it and kill or a shot in the eye or neck," he told her and showed her the area bare of feather plates under the beasts chin.

The animal stood on hooves. Its front legs ended with great curled claws.

"When it moves it balances on its front legs, on the claws." James stroked his finger down a long, curved claw to show her what he meant. It was as long as his hand. "It runs at about thirty miles an hour, faster than us, and when its bent over the only hope you have of killing it is to shoot it in the eye, mouth, or have a powerful enough weapon to penetrate this." He knocked on the orchedon's chest with his knuckle and produced a sound like a knock on hard plastic. "If it reaches you it will gut you and proceed to eat while you are still fighting. It likes warm bloody liver. It found a taste for humans almost as soon as the first men came here."

She shuddered.

He pulled her along to the next exhibit, which was dog sized boars that had reptilian skin and long curved tusks.

"You had me hunt these when we camped," Erica remembered.

"They are relatively harmless," James told her. "We eat them more often than they eat us."

"Sometimes they do?" she asked.

He nodded. "They do if they get hungry. They can hunt us in packs." He moved her along to a low-slung animal, somewhat like a snake but with a dozen pairs of one fingered stubs for legs. A long series of thin scales stood up from its back and down the length of its tail.

"That is a grass snake," Matilda told the Marrilians. "It parts grass so carefully you can barely see the grass move. There are miles of grassland up North and these live in it. If they get close enough they wrap around you and cut the tendons in your body with the razors on their back. Once it disables you it eats you alive and whole."

"Alive?" Nancy repeated weakly. "How awful."

It had gold eyes with slits for pupils and a mouth that could open to the back of its oval green head.

"One that size can easily swallow anything around a hundred pounds," Matilda added and patted Erica's shoulder. "And there are a lot of them that size."

"Erica, what do you weigh?" asked Silas, in awe of the snakelike creature.

"Don't know," Erica replied worriedly.

"I would guess about ninety pounds," Ella answered darkly. "We'll make sure she can choke one of these things before she goes north.

"That gives you reason to eat does it not?" asked Cyril.

"Does," Erica replied under her breath.

They moved to cute feathered creatures that were displayed in a group. They had pointed little ears, a short snout, big blue eyes and flat feathered tails. Each of their four legs ended in tiny clawed feet. "Wipples," said James distastefully.

"'Tis cute," Erica told him. "A Quirni creature that be cute finally."

"Cute enough to rip your gut out," Jesse told her and pointed to a skeleton of the animal at the side of the display. It had half inch, spiked, serrated teeth. "They jump and attack the abdomen as a group. Twenty of them can take down a horse. One of them can rip out the gut of a man or shred a leg. Once you are on the ground they shred your neck."

"We wear vests and plastic leg guards in infested areas," Matilda explained. "It helps."

"Only helps," Cyril repeated. "At one time they were all over the southern continent. We hunted them ceaselessly but they breed so fast we never eradicated them. Then suddenly they were gone. No one has ever had an explanation for it."

Erica turned and gazed up at him over her shoulder. "Sickness?"

"We don't know," he answered. "We do know they still aggregate in the North. It is best to listen to your guards up there, stay close to them, stay armed, and wear armor."

She bent to see the skeleton better.

"Those are the worst of our native creatures," James told them as they toured the rest of the room. They saw the various poisonous snakes, which Erica knew were lazy, and various small creatures that could be likened to frogs, rabbits, or gazelle.

Matilda took Erica's arm to lead her back out of the building. "What do you think?"

Erica thought the North looked rough. She finally understood the Environmental Protection and Safety Council. "I would like a rifle," she told them.

Matilda laughed. "We have them," she assured her and led her into a clothing store.

As Erica changed out of her suit, Matilda kept going into her dressing room with dresses, pants, and shirts. At one point she ushered Erica out of the room to show them the dress she wore.

"Look at her!" Matilda declared, delighted. "This is perfect for Vincent and Elsbeth's wedding."

Erica wore a knee length, pink silk dress with a short burgundy jacket. Pink lace peeked out of the sleeves of the jacket and from the flared hem of the dress.

"I doubt my boots will look good with this," Erica told Mati. "Do you have shoes for it?"

James supported himself on a clothes rack. "You would wear it?" he asked.

"Yes. It satisfies somehow," she replied and gave him a smile. "But I need shoes."

"Oh, God!" Matilda exclaimed and disappeared for several minutes as Erica looked down at herself and pulled at the dress to see how well it fit.

Matilda returned with pink sandals.

Erica put them on.

James sat in a chair John found for him.

"She has changed," John noted. "Not much but just enough."

James only stared.

"Don't you like it?" Erica asked him.

He shook his head. "I love it. It looks adorable, Erica."

"And since father is the claimant of Kinsley Claim again it would be right for you to wear one of the colors that represents his claim," Matilda added. "The burgundy would show your support for him."

"I would be honored," Cyril agreed. "I would expect to dance with you as well."

Erica nodded. "Certainly, but I would change out of this by then. The dancing will not be until the evening and we have so much to do during the day." She smiled at Matilda excitedly. "We have so much planned."

"I would love to dance with you in any outfit you wear," Cyril offered.

"I had the honor of teaching this young lady how to dance," Marcus told Cyril. "I won't miss the chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor."

"Convince Commander Pearl to allow our SDD to join us at the party and I will give you many dances," Erica told him. "The party be for Vincent and Elsbeth but the Commander told me I could not give it to them. She no longer allows our SDD to have the day with us."

Marcus frowned at Pearl.

She couldn't deny Marcus like she could Erica. "I can't stand in the way of such changes. I'll let them know they should report to Abervan after their wedding."

"As an order or an invitation?" asked Marcus.

She placed her hands behind her back, at ease, and nodded to Marcus. "I stand corrected. I will inform them and their guests of the change and allow them to attend. We will make it an SDD holiday."

Erica's eyes widened in excitement. She hurried back into the dressing room and quickly returned in dark brown corduroy pants and a black shirt. A length of leather was tied as a belt at her waist. She held her arms out. "This be nice too," she told them happily.

John saw a leather suit coat. "Try this on," he offered and held it for her. Erica slipped her arms into it. It was large.

"She'll grow into it. It's her size," Matilda assured them.

James had recovered his legs. He saw a wide brimmed hat like she had worn when he first met her. He found her size and placed it on her head.

"Very nice," Renata commented.

Erica stuffed her hands into the various pockets of the coat. Her eyes lit up and she retrieved her suit from the dressing room. She transferred items from its pockets to her new clothes. She pulled out a computer thumb drive, three data chips, a small glass knife, a magnesium flint, dog treats, mint candy, a notepad, and an SDD tie with the clip attached.

"What are you doing with that?" asked Pearl somewhat harshly.

"'Tis a souvenir from when I broke out of the brig," Erica told her. She held the tie gripped to her chest and eyed Pearl warily. "Can't I keep it?"

Pearl sighed then grunted. "Who am I to stop Eljay?"

Erica warily stuffed the tie in her pocket.

Pearl shook her head as Erica produced the barrettes Matilda had given her, matches, several gem stones dangling from lengths of chain. She had worn them in her hair at her wedding. They were tangled up with a collapsible reusable water filter.

"Why do you have that?" asked Cyril.

"You never know when a helicopter will go down and you'll want clean water," Erica explained. She let the cone shaped piece fall open. "I got a better one that stores nicer." She dropped it in her pocket anyway.

Cyril looked at her as if she were insane.

The rest of them chuckled at her paranoia.

Erica looked up. "Has happened you know."

"So it has," answered Jesse.

Matilda paid for the clothes and they headed back to the Mansion. Erica held James arm, happy beside him. They walked with her slowly, chatting about their families. They started up the drive as the sun began to set. The helicopters sat on the lawn.

"Cyril!" Erica called in sudden excitement. "I almost forgot!"

She detoured from the drive to their helicopter. The pilots had gone to the house to wait with the staff but that didn't stop Erica. She pressed the buttons that unlocked the ship and stood back for the stairs to fall.

"She would know the code," Jesse commented to John quietly.

John agreed. "I assume she knows a great deal more than that. She's been on the Quirni network a lot and she is observant."

Jesse grunted in reply.

"One moment," Erica called to Cyril and hurried inside. She reappeared with three briefcases. She set one of them down on the gravel drive and handed the other two to Cyril. "These be yours now," she told him gaily. "Mati says they should all be answered." She set them at Cyril's feet. The two briefcases were stuffed full of proposals.

"You have got to be kidding," Cyril complained. "You haven't done that yet?"

"I thought you answered those!" Matilda gaped in surprise. "I saw you doing that at the hotel!"

"Oh no," Erica corrected. "I pretended to answer them while I wrote pardons for Cyril, Renata, and Sarah, and papers to challenge Byrne. No one likes proposals so I knew they wouldn't interrupt me. All I had to do was move one once in a while and everyone stayed away."

Matilda shook her head. "You are such an imp!"

Erica flashed a smile then handed the other briefcase to Marcus. "These be all decisions we make in the councils that will plague you with their idiocy. My pardons for the work but 'tis yours now."

He took the briefcase from her. It was the one Grace had bought. "There is no need for pardons." He kissed her cheek. "You can help me wade through this later. Just get well, Eljay."

She found she didn't mind being called that so much anymore and her change in attitude was reflected in her voice. She was free! She was no longer wanted for all the crimes she had committed. She had James and would live a long life. She felt wonderful. They could see that in her face. They patted her arms or simply smiled for her as they headed towards the mansion until Pearl turned around to face the group. She had been leading so they all stopped as she addressed them.

"I should like to admit something." She paused and seemed to reconsider.

"Please, Commander, you leave us in suspense," Roger urged. "Out with it."

She glanced at Roger then shook her head and looked Erica in the eye. "Perhaps I speak prematurely but…will you be good?"

Erica laughed. "Will I? 'Tis as I have said before, Commander, I would be a fool if I were bad with so many SDD to watch me." She smiled up at James. "I tell you, I should never do a thing that takes my life from me. I tell you, I swear to you, I will never do a thing to suffer his loss again."

Pearl visibly relaxed at this solemn promise. "Then I am almost relieved you are no longer the High Claimant or a claimant. To tell you the truth, Eljay, your talents were wasted in the High Claimancy."

The group looked between them, waiting for Erica to respond.

"I agree," she finally smirked then her face became serious. "As are your talents wasted in trying to control me when none such be needed."

Their eyes locked.

"How can I do anything but attempt control with someone who can transfer one million quid from a locked, encoded, Kinsley Bank account to the dogs and cats on Sirrus?"

"That was her?" demanded Nancy.

Erica looked from one to the other of them and made sure she had no expression.

"I believe it was," answered Silas. He took Nancy's arm and patted it as he spoke. "Erica never admitted it but we never found anyone on the inside who did it either. Erica also said something when we first spoke that made me remember a conversation I had with a little, light brown haired girl who was so dirty I would have sprayed her off with a hose rather than speak to her. When she was small she had asked me to help her. She told me she was a Kinsley. She was part of my family and she wanted to live with us. I remembered my response to that little girl. I told her I would sooner give a million quid to the dogs on Sirrus."

"You turned away your cousin?" asked Nancy in disbelief. "You left her to grow up in Tenpole?"

"That was nearly twenty years ago. I was a young man with no idea how to react to such a request except to know the only Kinsley's related to me already lived on Marril."

Nancy looked at Erica. "Did you donate the million quid to the dogs?"

Erica dropped her eyes. It felt strange to hear Silas' view of that short conversation they had had. She squinted at the ground to think of all the things that had happened since, the people that were hurt, the money she had collected, all the things that were due to his answer, an answer he had given because she had been dirty? She had been covered in Tenpole mud. It had rained that day and she had fallen down one of the gob-hills. It was black mud. He had recoiled from it as most clean, upper end Parcles do. His answer had driven her to hopelessness and from there she had found how to be Tenpole, how to make something of a bad thing.

"I am dying to know. Did you do it?" asked Roger.

"We can't press charges," Silas offered. "We are no longer on Marril."

"But you still own the same bank," Burk warned.

"Still, she has admitted to so many other things," said Nancy.

"John, be that something for which you could prosecute?" asked Erica.

"Only if the injured parties ask me to," he answered truthfully.

Erica looked at Silas and Nancy from under the brim of her hat. "Would be silly of me to admit such don't you think? One day you might feel unkind towards me. I have a habit of angering people."

John laughed. "Silas, that is as good of a confession as you'll ever get and I will stop her if she tries to say more so be happy with it."

Erica's hat hid her face while she thought. When she looked back up she maintained a serious demeanor. "If you would like, I could plug the hole in the banking software that might let someone hack into it. I have a pretty good idea where it might be."

Nancy gaped at Silas who stared at Erica in horror. "Silas," Nancy urged. "We still own that bank and I hate to think of what would happen if someone found this…" She eyed Erica, "hole."

"Silas?" Erica asked, unsure if she should fix her work.

"With that access to our account you could have destroyed us, completely destroyed us," he realized then started to cough and had to light a smoke. When his lungs calmed he faced her. "I thought you were bluffing when you said you knew what our financial situation was."

"I rarely bluff." She smiled sweetly. "Rarely follow through either. Seems like bluffing I suppose since I do nothing." She shrugged a little and smiled so sweetly that no one spoke but just stared at her.

Silas exhaled for a long time as his mouth twitched. "Eljay," he breathed then sighed and gave Nancy his smoke as she began to cough. "You are such a little criminal."

"Retired," added John.

"Of course." James kissed Erica's cheek. "Come on, Doll. Maybe Marcus will lend you his computer."

James walked away with Erica under his arm.

"Eljay could have destroyed us at any time with access to that account," Silas told them as they left. "She could have destroyed us."

James opened the door to the house for her. They disappeared inside.

"We thought we had protected it after the million was transferred but she still knew too much. That first day we spoke, when she was the High Claimant. She knew too much," Silas told them.

The door to the house drifted shut.

"She was right about our liquid assets and how quickly we could refill that account." His voice weakened as he considered the situation. "She had been watching it. Eljay still has access."

Marcus slapped Silas on the back. "Don't worry about it."

Silas jumped.

"Eljay is on your side now," Marcus told him.

Roger laughed at Silas's slack expression. He pulled on his arm to follow James and Erica. Silas managed to take the steps.

Jesse pulled Nancy along. "Perhaps some strong lemonade would make you feel better. My daughter-in-law has a way of making people feel like they need a drink."

"Or two," Roger added.

Marcus helped pull Silas up the stairs and into the house.

John exchanged knowing looks with Pearl. She opened her mouth but he raised a finger and stopped her from speaking. "Clair, let's get into that later shall we? Not today. Consider this a victory. It's enough for one day. All the Kinsley's are here and safe including Eljay."

"Especially Eljay," she told him. She thought about it then nodded in agreement. "I'll talk to Marcus after the wedding."

"Thank you," he replied with a smile and reached for the door.

She put her palm on it to keep it closed. "Are you going to continue to coddle her even if she has the information that I think she has but refuses to share it? You see how she denies everything."

He held her eye. "I don't coddle her first of all and second I will not allow Commander Derek to use the MSDD to take over our planets."

"Even at Eljay's expense?" asked Pearl.

His eyes narrowed. He drew a long breath then exhaled. "Clair, you see a hardened criminal when you look at her. I see a sweet young lady with hot pepper in her veins. The real Eljay is somewhere in between, the Eljay James sees. That Eljay will help him. We'll just have to make her understand the danger we are all in and see where it goes."

"How will we do that?" asked Clair. "If she has the means to fight Derek, if in all of her blackmailing memorabilia she has the information we need, how will we use it if she is no longer a High Claimant and legally empowered to do so?"

He shrugged. "Now that is the question." He chuckled and shook his head. He smiled. "Why don't we start by asking her? She might just tell us something. But let's wait until tomorrow."

Her mouth firmed but after some thought she relaxed. She gripped John's shoulder. "I suppose I can wait a day. Nothing can be here in a day. At least we have a fleet of ships to fight the bastard now."

He opened the door. "And why is that?" he asked.

"Eljay," she muttered and smiled a weak smile as they went inside.

1919