Chapter 5 July 13th

Erica's brothers and sisters rose early the next day to help her finish paperwork for the meeting.

Grace went out to buy the maps, briefcases, and leather clad folders. She returned proudly with her purchases.

"We are going to look good," Ethan remarked when he saw what she had bought.

"These are the finest I could get," she told him with a pleased smirk as she stroked the slick black leather on one of the briefcases. "I thought Erica should have this one." She opened it to show Ethan the separate compartments. "She'll be able to keep her council documents straight."

Erica looked up from the papers she and Margot were shuffling into piles on the table.

"What do you think?" she asked Erica and brought it over to her. She held it out. "I bought the best your money could buy."

Erica set a thick set of papers down to take it from her. "'Tis nice," she commented. "Thank you." She put the maps and two folders in it then placed the briefcase on a chair. She returned to separating the papers into the piles.

"That's all I get?" asked Grace. "'Tis nice and Thank you?"

Erica paused. She looked at Grace quizzically. "I like black?" she offered.

Grace folded her arms over her chest in disgust. "I found a special one for you," she told Erica harshly. "I wanted yours to be the best."

Erica didn't know what to say. She stared at her.

"I shopped at three stores and went back to get the best one!" Grace added.

"Oh, was the extra effort!" Erica understood. "Shopping be troublesome. I can't stand it either. I do appreciate it but you don't have to go to such ends for me. Just buy whatever you see first. 'Tis not worth putting anyone through all that."

Grace adjusted her arms tighter over her chest and glared at Erica.

"What?" Erica asked in dismay. She looked at Margot to help her understand. "What?"

Margot chuckled and shook her head. "It will take more than that to impress her," she told Grace. "She has three billion square. What did you expect?"

Erica's mouth dropped open. "Impressed? You want me impressed? At a briefcase?"

"It probably doesn't come close to something you had on Marril but it's the best I can do on Quirni," Grace complained. "I'm sorry it isn't up to your standards."

"I never had a briefcase! I don't have a standard!" Erica complained.

"Pfft!" Grace declared and walked away. She sat on the sofa across from Ethan.

Lynsey stood by the door. Erica turned to her for help. "Abby, tell her!"

"I don't know what you had on Marril," Lynsey told them with a straight face but her eyes gave her away. Paul wore the same sort of non-smirk with laughing eyes.

"You sots!" Erica cried. She turned back to Margot. "Mati will tell you. James can tell you. I'm no prat." She pointed at Lynsey. "The prissies be her idea! Abby threw out my old things!"

Lynsey stiffened. She even raised her eyebrow slightly but otherwise kept her plain, SDD face.

"What are prissies?" asked Ethan. He looked over his shoulder from the sofa. He relaxed with a cup of coffee and read through some of the Kinsley Claim documents.

Erica grabbed her lapels. "This."

"A suit?" asked Saul who had finished printing the last of the documents and gave them to Margot. He had an apple. He turned a chair backwards and sat by the table to watch his sisters work as he ate.

"Yes," Erica told him. "Abby threw away all of my old clothes and got me these. They were perfectly good clothes too."

"They were old corduroy pants, old shirts, old jeans and not appropriate for a claimant," Lynsey argued. "You look the part now even if you don't act it."

"The part?" Erica grinned at Lynsey wickedly. "I need no part!" Her eyes narrowed. "You come to Kinsley Claim. I will show you there how I feel about looking parts. We never finished sparring. I liked my old pants and shirts and I would show you how much I liked them."

"I will be there eventually," Lynsey told her. "And by the way, thanks for the gifts, which I wear on my days off. You are right. They are comfortable." She smiled at Ethan. "She bought me a pair of corduroy pants and a beautiful black shirt when I was in the clinic. 'Tis silk. She knows just what a prat would wear."

Erica frowned. "'Tis not!"

"'Tis," Lynsey replied. "It be delightfully cool, soft silk."

Their eyes locked for several moments as Erica wondered if she should say anything about Lynsey talking like her. Lynsey was pretty clever and any argument, for fun or serious, could go on a long time. They didn't have time. And what if she wasn't actually talking like her? The Quirni spit their words out so hard sometimes it was difficult to understand them. Erica returned to stacking the papers. "The SDD be as arrogant as any prat," she complained to Margot. "They be stuffed with self-righteousness. 'Tis a wonder they can button their uniforms."

Lynsey and Paul both smiled at this.

Saul and Margot didn't approve of Erica's behavior but they didn't complain as long as the SDD accepted it.

Once the papers were properly stacked they placed the stacks in each of the leather folders that Grace had bought. They stuffed the folders in their briefcases. They all went to the meeting together.

It had already started when they arrived.

"Not again," Erica muttered to Ethan. "I'm late."

John stood at the far end of a long table. Pearl and Jesse sat behind him on chairs against the wall. The claimants of the ten claims Erica had listed during one of her councils sat around the table. The one name she had missed when she wrote the list was Burk. Apparently General Burk's sister was having problems, which surprised Erica since she knew they had received ore data early. Why hadn't they prospered? Well it didn't matter. Erica's business plan would help all of them.

The members of the High Council sat against the wall on the left. To the right sat Erica's two High Council scribes, Jules and Peter. Grace and Cedric took chairs beside them. Sarah was already there in a chair to the left of the door. Saul sat down beside her.

Erica glanced at her watch. "My pardons, I thought I had the right time."

"You are fine," John assured her. "I asked them an hour earlier than I asked you. I wanted to explain why they are here."

Erica stopped behind her chair at the opposite end of the table from John. Margot and Ethan took positions to either side of her. "Then I do not have to explain?" She put her heavy briefcase on the table with a thump. "'Tis only left to see who will join me?"

John smiled and shook his head. "I would have you explain the means by which they can work with you."

"Does everyone agree to work with me?" she asked and glanced around.

The Burks nodded, as did the Sotos, and Ollettes but the rest of them looked at each other, unsure.

"I see you need convincing," Erica sighed. "Very well." She smiled at Lord Vaughn who sat to the left of her.

He returned her smile warmly.

She untied her briefcase and passed out the folders she carried.

Ethan and Margot passed out more folders that they carried.

The scribes jumped up to help.

"Don't shuffle the papers or you may lose track," Erica warned when several of the claimants opened their folders.

They looked at the top paper then back at her.

She nodded her thanks to them when they closed their folders again. She turned to her brothers and sisters introduced them and then took her seat as Margot and Ethan sat in the chairs against the wall behind her.

John stood. "High Lady, since you are so new to the High Claimancy and to the planet I will introduce you to the claimants."

Erica looked up attentively.

He began with the Vaughns, Allen and Tabby. Next to them sat the Greenfields, Carol and Ivan, then Stanley and Rosy Kitow, Pete and Loti Soto, and Morgan and Logan Burk. They all sat on the left side of the table. He introduced Kurt and Ruth Ollette on her right who sat next to Ada and Melody Ranier, two sisters who ran a claim. Beside the Raniers sat Tim and Thomas Wenwood, two brothers who ran a claim then Randall and Phyllis Scott. Closest to John sat Kerri and Deborah Jennings, another pair of sisters. Erica wrote all their names on the back of her first paper. She wouldn't embarrass herself by forgetting one of them.

"Thank you, John." She smiled warmly to show him how much she appreciated the introductions.

"You are very welcome, Erica. Now if you would explain in your words what you intend to do and then extend the same three proposals to these claimants that you did to the Claimant's Tillson yesterday I think we can move everything along smoothly and everyone will be willing to get involved."

"Everyone?" Erica asked.

He tipped his chin with a smile, a definitive Tenpole yes, give or take a few Quirni embellishments but she knew what he meant. She dipped her chin in agreement. She began. She slowly glanced around the table as she spoke, gauging their feelings.

She started through the papers. It took an hour to explain the machinery she would buy, its cost, its uses, and the expected yield of different crops per acre along with the cost of processing and shipping the food. She explained the profits they should expect, give or take twenty percent, amounts Ethan had calculated with fancy statistical analyses.

Another half hour passed as she explained the difficulties they would meet in transportation on planet and why the foods had to be processed by certain standards. That included a point Cedric had made about containers. Someone needed to make containers to process and ship the food. That was a job anyone could do. She offered it openly and the Raniers took it. She told them why Sarah would be in charge of transportation, how she could coordinate delivery of machinery to farms and then take the farmed goods back to ships, and how she understood the importance of timing to make the system work.

The various needs for different crops were detailed. She told the claimants how they would all work together to choose the best crops to grow. She told them she wanted to talk to their farmers to discuss their needs for pesticides, seeds, equipment, and training. Everything she offered today was based on mere research. The farmers understood the real world and plans might change given their input.

She explained she wanted the claims with more tenants to grow the more intensively processed foods. Claimants would decide who grew what based on which crops grew best in an area but everyone would have to work together to produce the best variety of products while maintaining decent profits for everyone.

Lastly, she explained her business plans and with Ethan's projected profits on a small scale farm with modest prices and exports, she gave them a rundown of what they could expect to make for raw crops vs. processed foods, the difference between selling to Kinsley Claim or processing the food themselves, or renting equipment vs. buying it. After that she sat back and let them think.

Claimant Vaughn spoke first. "This all sounds wonderful. I can see how it would be invaluable to my claim. I have a lot of open land and excellent soil but I am so far away from the Padt City I don't see how it can help me. It would take a couple of weeks to transport goods even with motorized vehicles. I don't have a lot of extra tenants to process foods either unless I had automation which I can't afford. I would have to sell the raw goods to someone but no one is near."

"Excuse me," interrupted Saul. He approached the table between Claimant Vaughn and Erica. "I've been thinking about this very problem since yesterday. We were talking about trucks and trains to transport the crops but for some reason we missed the obvious. We need cargo planes. We can land on the same runways the spaceships use, just taxi off afterwards and it is no big deal to make a dirt runway near a farm. It would be easy."

"You want to import a plane to Quirni?" Allen Vaughn asked.

"Yes, or build them. It would speed up shipping dramatically. They aren't hard to build. As I understand it we have metal to use. It could be done."

Vaughn turned back to Erica. "Would you be willing to buy parts for planes?"

She nodded.

His eyebrows rose as someone knocked on the door then opened it behind them. "May we interrupt?"

Erica turned to find Commander Powell, Elsbeth, and James. Elsbeth carried a large brief case. Powell smiled.

"The High Lady has received her first call from the High Claimant of Marril," Powell announced.

Erica turned in her chair. "Now?"

Powell nodded as James and Elsbeth sat up a device in front of her that held a phone in a speaker. The briefcase also held a battery and a laptop computer.

"Lord Kinsley was told your phone was in our custody while we reprogrammed it for a new High Claimant. Once we are set up we will signal him and he will call back," Powell told them. His eyes sparkled. "May we all listen?"

"It isn't unusual for High Claimants to speak with the entire Grand Council present," James told her. "High Lord Kinsley will be expecting you to have company."

Erica nodded. "Of course you may listen," she told Powell. "From what James says everyone may if they chose." No one left his or her seat. Powell took a chair next to Cedric. Lynsey and Paul had come in from guarding the door and stood inside. James and Elsbeth remained at Erica's side while Pearl came across the room to stand by James. Erica saw the excitement in her eyes. "What am I to expect from him?" she asked and felt her heart rising in her throat.

"Our ship just arrived there," Pearl explained. "It landed about an hour ago. He'll be calling to discuss that and ask what should be shipped back."

"Perhaps a couple of planes?" Erica suggested.

"They don't sell us such things, High Lady," Claimant Vaughn informed her.

"Really," she replied. "Have we no leverage? Don't they get the canisters from us and don't those help them? Didn't the tests show they work?"

"Dramatically," Powell answered as he came to stand by Elsbeth. "But we supply them too slowly to make them dependent upon us. Lord Byrne hoped to change that."

Erica thought his assessment of the situation was odd. She gave him a puzzled frown. "Then the canisters be rare," she reasoned.

He nodded.

She had never seen a canister when she lived in Tenpole but she had heard of them. She knew why. Only the richest people would be using them if they worked, and apparently they not only worked but worked dramatically.

"Lord Byrne bargained on the price for the canisters when we first sold them to Marril," Marcus informed her. "That was how he secured the import deal. We hoped to make more than we do, enough that Marrilians would get used to using them and then change their filtration systems to employ the canisters. That has not happened as yet so we have no leverage yet."

Again she found this a strange way to look at the situation. The richest Marrilians would tear out brand new systems in order to add a few years to their life on Marril. "So," was all she responded to let him know she understood. She just didn't agree with what Byrne had done.

"Send the message that we are ready," Pearl told Elsbeth but she kept a considering eye on Erica.

Elsbeth sent the message through the computer.

They all took a long breath and waited.

Erica looked at her watch. More time passed. She looked at it again and frowned. Silas was taking his time returning the call. He was making her SDD jump to bring her the phone then stand around and wait for him.

To wait on a person suggested who was more important and Erica knew the lesson well. The person who waited got a reminder, often a long reminder that they didn't have significant things to do. Their time was worthless. It was a subtle way to belittle another and make them subservient. Erica had seen the game played so often in so many ways she had come to enjoy it. One thing her crazy father had done well was play such games.

She stood. "James, when the phone rings answer it after the second ring. "Tell them 'lo'. Then tell Silas I stepped out of the room." She went to the door. "Oh, and refer to me as High Claimant or High Claimant Kinsley. Do not tell him I am a woman. Refer to yourself as Claimant Kennedy not Major Kennedy."

They all looked at her like she was nuts. They couldn't fathom what she was doing. They waited several more minutes before the phone finally rang. James waited. After the second ring he pressed a button. "Hello," he answered, slightly bent over the table towards the mouthpiece.

"Hello?" a man on the other end repeated. His voice came through the speakers around the phone. "I believe you must be the new High Claimant?"

"No, this is Claimant Kennedy. Our High Claimant has stepped out of the room. Excuse me." He straightened and looked at Erica.

"Stepped out of the room? He was informed I was about to call was he not?"

Erica opened and closed the door with enough force it could be heard. She pointed at Elsbeth.

"Claimant Kennedy will return with the High Claimant in a moment. Please hold the line." Elsbeth straightened with a hardened mouth meant to hide her grin.

"Of all the things," Silas muttered but stayed on the line.

Erica waited. She counted the seconds until a minute had passed then opened the door and closed it again. She sat in her chair. "Lo," she spoke towards the phone without hiding her annoyance. "Who am I speaking to?"

"Lo?" repeated Silas. "Who is this?"

Erica carefully chose her words to seem as important as possible while at the same time cooperative. "I believe I asked that question first but I am High Claimant Kinsley. Who be this again? Am I to speak to someone of importance? Would you put him on?"

A moment of silence passed. "This is High Claimant Silas the Fifth," he told her but slowly.

"Oh," she said. "Very well. 'Tis nice to get your call, Silasthefifth. What can I do for you?"

General Pearl folded her arms and held her hand over her mouth.

"Do for me?" asked Silas.

Erica had to stare at the phone. The amused expressions of some SDD and the horrified faces of others distracted her. The claimants were especially shocked. "Yes," she said slowly. "Or be this a social call?"

"Who are you? I mean, what is your name, your first name?" asked Silas.

"Oh, I thought that would be obvious. 'Tis Erica."

John's mouth hung open at the other end of the table. Jesse stood beside him with a look of dread.

"Erica Kinsley?" asked Silas with some choke in his tone.

Erica dropped her eyes to her papers. "'Tis. Of course I said so."

"You're from Tenpole," he said.

"I'm busy, Silasthefifth. 'Tis obvious where I come from as my name would be and I have no time for such. What might you need?"

"It is just Silas," he corrected and began to sound angry.

"Oh," said Erica. "That seems more reasonable but 'tis not often I talk to a man with numbers in his name. Who knows if you like it mentioned. But back to the point since you seem to have trouble with your hearing." She spoke louder and slower. "How - may - I - help - you?"

"I am not hard of hearing," Silas growled.

Erica took a long breath and let out a long sigh. "Then I give my pardons. Seems we have gotten a bad start here." She sighed. "I truly don't have time for this but shall we begin again?" Before he could answer she continued. "Lo, Silas, I am the High Lady of Quirni, Erica Kinsley. You have called so you must need something. What would it be? I would be happy to help you."

Erica heard some muffled conversation then Silas returned. "Good day, High Lady. You may call me Silas. I have called to help you, not the other way around. Your ship has arrived with your shipment. It is customary for the receiving planet to call when there is cargo on board meant for the council."

"How kind," she cooed, well aware she was playing with someone who could cause her a lot of trouble but she needed to let him know she would not settle for less than Quirni deserved and she had a lot at her disposal in order to make that point. "Glad it got there safe. Now, if there be nothing else I'll be going."

"Well there is something else! Part of the shipment arrived damaged. I expect a refund."

"'Tis so?" She smiled. It amused her that she got to tell him the same thing any government official would have told her in such a case. "Send a detailed manifest of the damaged goods along with photos of the damage and I'll be glad to credit your account."

Silence and then a long breath. "I do not intend to go scavenging for pictures of the damage. Thirty of the canisters broke and I expect to be compensated."

"So," she mused. "If I cannot see the damage then I will not be able to change the shipping cartons to secure the canisters better next time. Send us photos."

"I do not have photos, so deal with it! I want to be compensated for thirty of the canisters!"

"You said that," Erica retorted then forced herself to sound like a mother talking to an errant child. "Now, here be what I suggest. You send one of your millions of tenants to the shipping site and he or she can snap a few pictures. 'Tis not a difficult thing. Anyone can do it. Have them bring them back to you or even one of your computer agents if you be too busy. Upload the pictures to me and I'll be able to assist. Otherwise, there be no refund. I don't know how much you paid for the canisters b-"

"I paid five hundred per canister. Thirty of them broke. In case you are too uneducated to do the math, that comes to-"

"Fifteen thousand square," Erica told him coolly.

"Fifteen thousand quid," he corrected.

"Oh, then 'tis a pity you don't have a damn digital camera on Marril or do you lie and try to get canisters for free?"

Silas made a sputtering, angry noise around a cough.

Erica didn't want to look up and see disapproving faces but Claimant Mois stepped up behind Lord Vaughn. She couldn't help glancing at him. He grinned which surprised her so much she almost missed what Silas said.

"We disposed of the canisters already," the High Claimant told her. "You will refund the money."

Pearl hurriedly turned over a paper in front of her and wrote, 'The ship landed only an hour ago. They couldn't have unloaded yet.'

"'Tis a shame," cooed Erica. "You be out a lot of quid. Document the damage next time and I will gladly provide the refund but not this time. Such a pity. Now, be there anything else you wish to say?"

"This is untenable," he growled.

'Untenable?' Erica wrote and looked around.

'Flawed, invalid,' Pearl wrote. 'He's angry.'

"Your claims of breakage be untenable too," Erica replied. "What would fifteen thousand quid be to the likes of you anyway? I suggest you eat the cost and provide documentation next time. Seems only reasonable to me."

"Young lady, you obviously think very highly of yourself securing the position you are in," he said calmly. His voice sounded wet and gravelly now. He cleared his throat again. "I am not impressed. You have no sense. You are a neophyte. You are about to cause yourself cancellation of our contract."

"Our contract?" Erica asked sedately as Pearl wrote 'neophyte = beginner.' Erica looked at the scribes. "I would like a copy of this contract," she told them.

Jules nodded and left.

"You do not need a copy!" Silas yelled. "I will tell you what is in it! You must reimburse me for broken goods! You must sell the canisters to me at five hundred quid apiece and you must pay the shipping and I can cancel it if the canisters fail to work!"

It struck Erica what an awful contract that was. "Calm down, Silas. Your lungs can't take such yelling. I hear thayanite choking you from here."

Several people in the room gasped. Erica tried to ignore them. What she was doing felt right for her and Quirni. She studied her hands and even began to pick at her dry skin as she concentrated on Silas. She ignored the room.

"How dare you?" Silas growled.

"Upon various needs," she answered and then silence.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" demanded Silas.

She removed her claimancy signet ring and massaged the mark it left. "You ask how I dare. I tell you I dare due to various needs."

"Needs?" he repeated.

She raised an eyebrow and leaned towards the phone. "'Tis a word for something necessary for living."

"I know what needs are!"

"Of course you do," she said calmly. She removed her High Claimancy signet ring and picked away some wax that had stuck to it when she had sealed a letter. "Are you always this excitable, Silas?"

"You are nuts just like they said," he returned. "I can't work with you."

Erica sat back. She was pressing a little hard but he so deserved it. "You must," she told him and smiled. She set the ring on the table and folded her hand over her stomach. "I won't let anyone else have you. I once spoke with you when I lived on Marril and I enjoyed our conversation. I've been looking forward to speaking with you again someday."

A long moment of silence followed this. "Are you that runty kid that came to me years ago telling me you were a Kinsley? You wanted to live with us."

"That would be me," Erica replied, annoyed at the 'runty' reference.

James took her hand and put her ring back on her. She frowned at him.

"You couldn't have been much more than six or seven."

"I was eleven actually." Her frown colored her voice.

"I'd never seen such a filthy child," snarled Silas.

"Really." She grunted and adjusted the ring. "I thought you didn't look at me at all. You told me I was Sirrian and no Kinsley related to you ever lived on Sirrus."

Jules returned with the contract. He set it before Erica.

As Silas replied Erica wrote a note. 'Look at this and tell me if I have to supply canisters or can I stop shipping them.' She handed the note to Marcus with the contract.

Marcus read her note in surprise then beckoned Pearl away from the phone. He showed her the note.

"Pardons, Silas, I was speaking with someone. What did you say?"

"Who is there with you?"

"I just got the contract back and I'm having someone look at it for me. So what where you saying?"

"I was saying we are related. You misunderstood."

"Did I?"

"Certainly."

"Well then you should have made yourself better understood. I now consider myself a different breed altogether. I am in fact more of a, huh, to put it bluntly, a low life that happened to hit it big. 'Tis quite a story. I'll tell it to you some day when I'm not so busy."

"What story is this?" he asked suspiciously.

Marcus and Pearl returned. 'There is no guarantee of shipment, just costs,' Pearl had written in reply. 'I have seen this contract before. I know it. It was assumed we would ship as many as we could for the profit.'

Erica grinned.

She answered Silas in an offhanded way. "Oh, I can't be saying now. I have more important things to do. My tenants," she interrupted herself with a grunt, "actually, my entire planet has needs and I must see to them before I satisfy yours. 'Tis only right."

"Listening to your story is hardly a 'need'."

"My point exactly," replied Erica with a gay tone. "So nice that we agree."

Silas grumbled something.

Erica wrote to Marcus. 'Can you accept not sending canisters for a while if need be?'

He nodded.

"Then what are these so called needs of your entire planet, Erica? I can't imagine anyone who just took over the seat of a High Claimant having any clue about any needs."

"Does not take a High Claimant to know such things. My tenants are not well fed."

"You have people starving?"

"Not all the time nor to death, mind you, but something needs be done. I have made it my first job to fix this."

"Your priority?"

"Yes, that." She leaned back again and stared at the phone.

"Erica, are you even educated beyond the sixth grade?"

She smiled evilly. "Some distance beyond that." She spoke coolly, slowly. Her chin rose.

"Oh God," Marcus moaned quietly.

Pearl held her breath.

"In fact," began Erica, "I be educated in the cold, wet facts of Tenpole. 'Tis an education you know little about nor can your MSDD give you much understanding. 'Tis where I learned about hunger. 'Tis the reason I be changing a few things here, including this; those tenants who work on your canisters will become farmers. That be a priority."

"What?" he asked.

"Truly, Silas, you be hard of hearing," she declared.

"You can't do that," he warned. "Don't you dare do that."

"Why?" she asked with a near childlike lilt in her tone, the inflection of the drawn out word rising at the end.

Silas paused a moment before he replied. "The answer is obvious," he said when he had chosen his words. "You need us. You need me and nothing will be accomplished by this."

"My plans will be accomplished, Silas. 'Tis enough for me."

Erica wondered if she could really make Silas do what she wanted or would she ruin something else she knew nothing about? She glanced around to see if anyone looked too alarmed. James seemed unconcerned. 'Tell me if I'm going somewhere I shouldn't,' she wrote to him.

'I don't know what you are doing, but you're fine so far,' he wrote back.

'I am attempting to improve our prices and trading agreements,' she wrote to James.

His eyes widened in surprise.

Marcus read the paper and his eyes widened. He glanced at Pearl, who also looked surprised, then nodded to Erica that she should continue. Soon the paper was passed around the room. Everyone had a reaction, some fearful, most were surprised.

"I don't think so. Your plans will best be accomplished by working with us. You need our supplies," he told her and sounded like he enjoyed telling her that. "Don't risk losing them."

"What supplies would that be?"

"You know damn well; medicine, machinery, fuel for your ship, which by the way both are grounded here until repairs are made. That leaves you with none. You need us to bring you your SDD supplies and computer supplies and any number of other things, so don't try to play your neophyte games with me."

"You be right about one thing," Erica told him. "We do need you but not for machinery or computers or our ships and I will explain why. 'Tis a place called Earth. Heard of it?"

"What?" he demanded. "Am I to get a history lesson from a Tenpole dropout now?" He laughed and a room full of people laughed with him.

She ignored the laughter and continued. "I like that planet. I read about it. I read a lot of their books." Silas muttered something but she kept talking. "This place began with nothing less than stone, much like Quirni. They discovered metal and once they learned how to work with it they went to the stars. It took them a while. I grant you that. They had to figure out the physics that moves ships but if they could do it so can we as long as we don't starve first. One bad year of farming and we would be ruined. I won't let that happen so the hundreds of tenants that make your canisters will become farmers. Each one can farm about twenty acres with a few horses and plow and 'tis what they will do until we have more tenants or find a better means to feed ourselves. 'Tis a simple case of need, as I said.

"As for medicine and SDD supplies, if you be so cold hearted that you can withhold such, then we don't need you at all and for as long as I remain the High Lady you will have no part to play. I will not give the time of day to one such as that."

A long silence followed. "You are serious," he said at last.

"As a heart attack," Erica replied.

"Then so be it. I'll keep your damn ships and to hell with you. When you come around to my way of think– "

"Be careful," Erica interrupted. She feared he meant to hang up. "You would rush to the blasts. They be things for sure."

"What things?" he asked and sounded seriously concerned, as if he understood the Tenpole threat for what it was.

"It means I know more about you and your claim than you might expect. It means your claimancy could be at risk."

A long silence preceded the question she needed from him. "What do you know about my claim?"

That was the question. She smiled. "The balances in your bank accounts," she answered carefully.

Jesse leaned on John's shoulder.

Powell's mouth parted in shock. He held his hand on his chest.

Erica continued. "You are not the only means we have to fly and you be needing us these days more than we need you. I want you to ask– "

"I will not," Silas interrupted.

"Not surprising," Erica replied. "But I shall tell you because I can hear your thayanite poisoning and would not have you use your breath. Believe me I know the sounds of that. I suggest you get oxygen and think more clearly before you say things you will regret for I will hang up and I will not talk to you again."

After a few breaths Silas spoke slower and clearly. "You are the most arrogant, inept, rude, insufferable, brat I have ever had to deal with."

Erica glared at the phone. Her jaw worked a moment then stilled. She forced a casual tone over her barely contained anger. "Really, 'tis all? I am usually called a whore, childish, immature, and little too. Care to say that now because I won't sit for insults again."

"You are out of control!" he yelled then had to stop and cough.

Erica waited for him to quiet. "You be done? If so I will explain something."

"Something?" he asked with a bit of cautious surprise.

"Something," she repeated.

"What?" he asked thickly.

"I have nine hundred million quid. Guess where from? Shouldn't be hard." Everyone around the room shifted except James.

"Obviously I know," said Silas.

"You want it back," Erica told him.

"I can make that in a month," he spat.

"No you can't," she returned kindly. "Will take you years but that be off the point. You can have some of your quid back. My only use for it be in purchasing items. That could be from your planet. Allow such and it will return quid to you but only if you deal with me in a polite, reasonable fashion. If I wish to purchase something you will not charge anything beyond the normal prices a Sirrian would pay plus reasonable costs for shipping or packing."

He laughed at this. "You are nuts. You will receive the same deals you always have. There are reasons for that, political reasons that are beyond your understanding."

"No, not anymore," she countered. "Those things have changed. If you do not treat me as my office demands, as I demand, then you lose the chance to remain in power." Her voice lowered. "I have an excellent idea of your situation or do you think I worked as Eljay for ten years and learned nothing about the Marrilian Kinsleys?"

"You-" he began to say and choked so hard he couldn't speak.

Claimants around Erica sat with a bump.

She glanced at Marcus who had raised an eyebrow. His eyes were as big as she had ever seen them. He didn't blink. "I stopped giving you driving citations about two years ago," she added and drew her eyes from Marcus as he rolled his. "Your car insurance must have been completely blasted." Silas made a stifled, grunting sound. "Be you well?" she asked.

Silas cleared his throat. "Yes," he replied but sounded suffocated.

"Do we understand the amount of education I have? 'Tis agreed I will not suffer through any more insults, attitude, or threats?"

He didn't answer.

"'Tis agreed-" she began to repeat slower but he interrupted.

"What do you want?" he asked with undisguised loathing.

"'Tis simple, Silas. I want to be treated well. I want my ships repaired and I want the cost to be reasonable. I want your SDD to continue working with my SDD as 'tis meant to be. I want your threats to end."

"My threats? You are the one who is threatening me."

"No, not really. Not yet. I am offering you an agreement. If I am to deal with Marril then Quirni will be treated with respect. Respect be something you see. I have had so little of it during my life." She focused on the rings again, twisting the high claimancy signet ring as she spoke. "The short of it be this, Silas, Marril will not bleed Quirni any longer. I will feed my tenants and if that doesn't suit your health then 'tis unfortunate. If you wish to continue receiving the canisters then do something about it."

"As I asked already, what do you want?"

"When I have decided, I will order it. You will allow it. Call me if you like and we can discuss terms but be nice."

"You want farming equipment don't you? That is what this is about."

"I would like that," Erica replied. "But I would prefer to farm with horses than pay ten times the cost for your equipment. And equipment hardly be enough anyway. A person does not use tractors and such when they have used only horses before. I would need Marrilians who are knowledgeable to train my farmers. 'Tis also the case that people do not repair such equipment without seeing such before. I would need those who can repair it. I would also need repair parts for which you might try to overcharge." Silas began to interrupt but she stopped him. "Just a second. 'Tis one other point I should make, Silas, before you waste your precious breath."

"Make it," he demanded but didn't sound as angry.

"My last point be this. If I were to have these wonderful machines to grow lots of food, even more than I might need for my own planet, then it would still be useless because the food would be on fields or in storage bins rotting. I need many farms all over the planet so everyone has food near or I need a means to move the food. The only means we could use be airplanes. We have none. So, you see my problems? Farming equipment helps little by itself."

Saul and Sarah stood to listen.

"I do see your problem. You are telling me if I respond to all of these demands then you will continue to ship the canisters."

"These be no demands," Erica corrected. "I tell you my needs. We can help each other but I also make the point that I need no help. I believe Quirni capable of closing its doors to Marril just as our SDD did many years ago for metal. We may suffer but we will also invent new means. 'Tis not how I would choose to see our relationship go but Quirni will not be used any longer. Our agreements will be fair or they will not exist."

"Very well, Erica. We can write up a contract. I will supply the goods you mentioned and you will continue to supply canisters."

Erica laughed. "Silas, do not be so obvious to try and fill the hole in the previous contract," she giggled. "Silas, get that oxygen. 'Tis ridiculous. I'll not sign any contract that forces my tenants to do anything for you. Have you not heard me? Be fair and reasonable and we will deal. Be this way and we will not." She took a few breaths to calm down. "As for you supplying anything, no. I would order what I wish. Did I not tell you? You will allow it and you will allow it at reasonable prices, not five to one hundred times markup. You forget Quirni has metal now. With time we will make these somethings anyway."

"You don't have that much metal. As I understand it, most of it is in the North and you can't get there without planes."

"Oh," Erica said thoughtfully and hurriedly wrote. 'The ships with our equipment have left Marril, right?' she wrote to Pearl.

Pearl nodded.

"You have a point," Erica told Silas. "It sounds like you fear I do this talking to get a few planes so we might go north, clever but not so. We will not go north with planes. We go over land and build roads so any person may follow at any time. Plus, where would planes land up there? Who would service them? Who would build runways? No, no, Silas. We go over land. The road building equipment for us to go north be on the way. It left on the seven MSDD ships I bought a few weeks ago."

Silas began coughing hard. "Excuse me?" he managed to hack out.

Half the room around Erica stood.

"I said, I already bought the equipment to build roads and it be shipped," Erica told him. "Without your interference or knowledge. I can do those sorts of things without ever laying a hand upon a quid. I have friends and means you know nothing about while I know enough about you to make you treat me kindly. Much to your benefit, however, I have been shoved into this role as a High Claimant and a claimant. I can't use the knowledge I have of you in the manner I would like, but I still have means."

"That is a threat," he replied thickly. "This isn't true. That is a threat!"

Erica smiled. "'Tis a threat but limited. Still, enough of one you should respect my means."

"Eljay," Silas gasped and almost sounded awed.

Erica sat back at this, unsure. Her hands froze clasped together as she cocked her head at the phone.

Quinn and Lil glanced at each other in alarm.

"She did not buy the MSDD ships," someone said, other than Silas. "That is a bluff. A local shipping company bought them."

"Mayhaps that information be correct," Erica replied simply, carefully. "Mayhaps they bought them for me."

"She's lying," the other person insisted.

"Find out if she is," Silas ordered.

"Might I speak?" Powell asked.

"Please," Erica replied.

Kurt Ollette stood so Ashton could take his chair.

"High Lord Kinsley, this is Commander Ashton Powell. I have a few comments if you would be so kind to listen."

"I'll listen," Silas answered.

"She is not lying, High Lord. She bought the ships and gave them to the QSDD. The gift of those ships to the QSDD even gave her a nice tax break after the large income she got from the sale of The Insurance Company. That donation must be lost in paperwork someplace or you would surely know about it by now. She funded the purchase of the ships through a Marrilian shipping company then funded road building equipment, trucks, supplies and parts needed for us to explore the North. I hadn't considered her point, but she is correct in that we could become an independent world. She is also correct in that we have been overcharged for supplies that we can now do without. We could become self-dependent."

"This is Commander Mitchell Derek," the second man said. "Ashton, your High Lady is an iridim patient. Is she willing to risk her health to play out this bluff? Are you willing to risk it?"

"I will take that risk," Erica told him.

"And your children will as well when they need iridim," Derek warned.

"Yes, Mitchell," Erica replied but worry crossed her face. "'Tis so. Others have survived without it. Can be so again."

'There is always Sirrus. They might not keep iridim from us,' James wrote.

Erica drew a long breath. "Mitchell, I learned you intended to quarantine Quirni," said Erica. "You would make us suffer so you might get your way. I will not allow this. 'Tis as simple as that."

"Lord Byrne had more sense that you," Silas told her. "He understood the need for Quirni to grow and we have the equipment to help you grow. Alone you are nothing. It will take you decades to even make your first computer."

"But we will make a computer," Erica replied. "Lord Byrne's way could be easier but not at the expense of our tenants. We have nowhere near enough tenants as it 'tis and I can't afford to employ those we do have for your gain unless it be ours as well. I say we both do well or neither." She drew an audible, slow, breath and exhaled.

"'Tis your choice now, Silas. I have not lied, nor do I bluff as your commander suggests. The equipment we need to go north and secure the metal be on the way here. We can become a technological planet without you. You can do nothing about it. You failed in keeping us dependent upon you. Think about my offer to work together and call later if you will but understand me, Quirni will be treated with respect. We will not be overcharged for equipment. We will no longer allow you to force your will upon us. We make the health and feeding of our tenants our priority. To this end, business between Marril and Quirni shall be fair and open or Quirni will be closed to you and the canisters will be lost to you along with the income you receive from them."

"So you figured that out," Silas replied.

"I would do the same. 'Tis no surprise."

'What?' Powell quickly wrote.

'He sells the canisters for a huge profit,' Erica wrote back.

Powell blinked and sat back. 'How did you know that?'

'Is what I would do if I only had a few,' she wrote. 'They be rare and they work.'

"I need a guarantee I will have the product to sell," Silas told her dully.

Erica smiled at Powell as he grinned and leaned back to listen. "Then deal with me fairly and you will have product but you will have no contract that guarantees anything beyond that."

"I won't have you withholding canister delivery every time you have another outrageous demand!" Silas yelled.

"High Lord, 'tis how it has felt to be Quirni."

A long silence followed. "You walk a very thin line."

"Your point?" asked Erica. "I have balanced on such for many, many years around many people who might have crushed me rather than just yell at me from a distance. 'Tis no new matter."

"It will matter when you fall and you take the whole planet of Quirni with you!"

"Could not happen, Silas. The Council and SDD here be old and wise. You have never seen such. People die too fast on Marril. They have no time to be like these."

"Don't be so sure, Erica. I suggest you don't push any harder."

"Don't tell me what to do," Erica retorted.

"You crazed, egotistical-"

"Silas! Please!" a woman begged on the other side. "That is Eljay!"

"Nancy, hush!" he warned although it was feint, as if he put his hand over the phone.

"Egotistical? I have never been called that before," Erica said to Powell with wonder.

He chuckled at this. A few of the claimants who still stood stiff seemed to thaw upon hearing Powell's laughter. They slowly sat.

"Silas, might we understand one another now?" Erica asked and tried to sound as pleasant as possible. "There be somethings we might do for each other. I need food for my tenants so I need farm equipment including planes or I need my tenants all over this world to grow and process foods. With the right farming machinery and transport we can have plenty of food for everyone made by few. That frees hands to make canisters. Help us and you will be sent all of the canisters you might hope to see."

"Go on." He spoke little now because of the thayanite taking his breath. Being emotional had made the thayanite reaction worse. They could hear him smoking the antidote.

"Allow normal relations to begin between our Quirni companies and your Marrilian companies without all the high prices and attitude, relations such as Sirrus enjoys. Also, consider sending us some of your tenants. Tell them Quirni be green, healthy, and a wonderful place to live. 'Tis the truth. Tell them this. Help us farm and we will both profit. 'Tis all, Silas. 'Tis simple. My one guarantee, your bank accounts will fill again and quickly. You understand the alternative."

"I do," he agreed and exhaled slowly. "Tell me what you want and I will get it."

"No, Silas. I have a man who will chose the equipment and order it. Don't interfere. Just approve the sales as needed."

"There are duties you have to pay."

"And I know what those be for Sirrus," Erica told him. "Ours shall be the same except where QSDD laws apply and those change to reflect the metal we have found here. Our ships will carry the supplies as well and our men will inspect the equipment as it 'tis loaded. I will leave no means for you to hurt us. I know you. I have studied you and I will guard against your play."

He coughed. "I will not play. We'll work together. Let him order the equipment."

"With no restrictions?"

"Correct. You are right, Quirni has evolved. I will approve the sales as I receive them. We have reached a point where we should work together. I see a future for us, Lady Kinsley. Everyone can profit from Quirni farming. We will sell you the supplies and equipment."

"Nice," Erica told him. "Thank you. Now I would like to suggest one more thing. 'Tis personal, Silas, so please pick up the phone."

She heard it removed from the speaker, which they undoubtedly used as well.

"What?" he asked warily.

"Do we speak privately?"

"Yes."

"Silas, my thayanite poisoning was worse than yours when I arrived here. This planet has cured me. I suggest you leave Marril before you die. Do not follow the Kinsley rule to die there. Come here. I will welcome you into my family happily. Come here and know you will have two centuries to make yourself into anything you wish." She heard his breathing. Everyone around her stood absolutely still and so she heard Powell breathing hard as well. She looked at him, worried for his heart, and saw an odd expression on his face, one of such intense, deep consideration she didn't want to know what might concern him. "That was all I wanted to say. Take care."

"I will," he replied. "But one more thing, I will send you thirty-six tenants immediately. They should be your problem anyway."

Her heart leapt. She forced her voice to be calm. "The club members?"

"Yes."

"Very well. I'll accept them. Send their families too if they wish to come."

"Fine. I will. They are all useless to Tenpole anyway, charity cases. They are unsupported women and children. You pay their passage and deal with that."

"All right but you put them on our ships. I will not pay your high rates for an MSDD ship to bring them. And allow them the few bits of metal they wear without fining me huge import duties. Soon such import duties be nonsense anyway. Let them bring their bank accounts and belongings so I don't have to support every one of them from nothing. Do that and I will take them from you without complaint."

"The laws might be changing but there are still QSDD laws regarding the import of metals," warned Silas.

"Yes, well, the QSDD taxes be nothing to MSDD taxes. Do what you can and so will I."

"Oh, I will," he agreed and she heard a sneer.

"I am sure and I will guard against it," she returned and her eyes narrowed.

Silas drew a long breath.

"Do you still plan to fight me?" she asked.

He hesitated. "Fight Eljay," he said softly. He sighed heavily. "No, Lady Kinsley. I guess not."

She stared at the phone and considered that for a moment.

"We'll work together," he added.

"Then do something else for me. Send me others who are not so inclined to join clubs. Advertise how good a life on Quirni can be and I will see you get more canisters. We will have the tenants to make them if you convince more to come here. Things can happen faster the faster I get good men and women."

"All right," Silas agreed. "You already have plans to advertise here anyway. I just have to pull the ads we readied to counteract yours."

Erica grunted in reply. "Then we be done. Our planets will work together. 'Tis so?"

He chuckled in amusement. "'Tis so. But I want to tell you that I have enjoyed talking to you, Erica. Lord Byrne was too easy. You are completely a Kinsley and, unfortunately, Tenpole. Goodbye."

"Goodbye," she returned stiffly and they hung up.

Powell turned off the phone, pulled it free of the speaker, and then held it out to Erica. "This is yours. Thank you for allowing us to listen."

She took the phone reverently. Finally. She slipped it into her pocket.

Pearl stood. "That is programmed with High Lord Kinsley's number and High Lord Pereira's number on Sirrus as well as all the numbers of all the claimants of Quirni. I believe you understand its use."

"I do, Clair," she replied.

Powell stood, paused to look at Erica one last time then nodded to her deeply. She nodded back and he left the room.

"Go with him," Pearl instructed Lynsey and Paul. They hurried after him.

Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The claimants slowly returned to their seats. Erica looked around to see their reactions but beyond relief and apparently being drained of energy, they gave her no idea of what they thought.

"I have watched Silas for many years. 'Tis not hard to play a man once you know him," she told them. No one responded. They glanced at each other. "This may change our business here somewhat," Erica added. "Mayhaps there are those of you who can afford the equipment now. There would be no need to rent if Silas acts as I asked. I will take that into consideration."

A few of them nodded.

"You are a hard woman," Logan Burk said.

Erica didn't understand why he would say such a thing.

"One hell of a negotiator," Phyllis Scott added. "You took some awful chances."

"With him? No, I only wondered once if I went too far," Erica replied.

"It's all like a big fun game to you isn't it?" asked Kurt Ollette as he took his chair once more.

Erica watched him sit. She wondered at his assessment of her. He almost smiled but moved slow like he was drained of energy.

"She plays Quirni's game. Our business," Lil Stoeber said. She stood behind Claimant Mioto who sat in his chair and considered Erica so deeply she averted her eyes from him. He was making her skin crawl. "I am pleased with what you just did," Lil added. "I never would have had the nerve to try something like that."

"Alright," Erica replied. "Hope it helps. He might change his mind. So in the meantime, should like to order equipment from Sirrus although not as much. Still, if we save money buying equipment from Marril then we might buy the means to begin manufacturing." She saw a glint of excitement in their eyes, especially Vaughn and Soto. She glanced at Saul and Cedric who stood behind Lord Ollette. "Look for those who would know how to do necessary things. We must have tenants with useful knowledge in food preparation and shipment someplace."

They nodded.

Pearl sighed. "I think this council shall have to meet again when the information is collected."

Erica turned and looked up at her. "Council?"

"This is a new council," Marcus explained. He still stood behind Vaughn. "We organized it and approved it just before you arrived."

Erica's lips parted in surprise.

"That will be worth a few more points to you," Mioto told her.

Belonging to a council gave a claimant points as did wealth and various other criteria. The next time the Grand Council met in five years the claimant with the most points would be High Claimant. Erica hoped it would not be her despite being twice as rich as the next claimant. She could get rid of money to avoid points but councils she could not.

"I never agreed to sit on another council," Erica complained.

"You are here so you are part of it," said Mioto. "The role call at the first council always determines the members. You are on the role call." He looked at Jesse. "Isn't that right?"

"So," Jesse answered.

"No one told me this!" Erica shot at her. "How dare you!"

"We dare based upon our needs," Mioto answered with a sly smile.

She gaped at him.

"We won't let you get away easily," he added. "You have proven to be more of an asset to our peerage than we could ever imagine."

Erica slid to the edge of her chair half ready to launch herself at his sneaky grin but James rested his hand on her shoulder.

"We organized an export council as well," Marcus informed her and shocked her so much she jerked her head towards him. "Many of us are part of that too, including you of course."

"Even more points," said Mioto.

"For all of you too," Erica growled.

"Which is of little importance," Mioto told her. "This was mostly done for you."

Erica stood, outraged. With the point system they had agreed upon in council she was already too far ahead. This made it worse. "You cannot create new councils to make points!"

"Nor would we," Tabby Vaughn told her. "Didn't you know the High Council has the say in the creation of a new council or the dissolving of an old one and that the High Council does not need to include the High Claimant in that vote unless it is a tie?"

Erica glared at the High Council members. That was why they were there. John had invited them. She glared at him.

"A new law unanimously voted upon and passed by the High Council, not ten minutes before you arrived here today, made that provision," Quinn Absom informed her. Her eyes shot to him. "We don't want High Claimants creating all sorts of councils to give themselves points. That flaw in the point system became apparent to us when Clair suggested we create a farming council and an export council. Oh," he added as an afterthought, "Your cousin, Sarah, will be working for the Export Council. She'll be employed directly by it and not you. That only seemed prudent. We didn't want anyone getting any ideas that you might use her to export items for your own gain or to avoid monetary gain either."

Erica felt her face flush with anger and embarrassment because she had considered using Sarah just so.

Pearl walked to her chair at the back of the room and sat with a self-satisfied grin. Erica's eyes fell on John and Jesse. He smiled and sat back.

"Live with it," Jesse snapped at Erica. "Now let's get on with the meeting. You were asking for questions and input. Jules, read the minutes."

Jules began to read. Erica glowered at him but as he went on for some time she slowly lost her anger and sat back. James and Elsbeth remained at her side. He pulled his hand from her shoulder. She glanced up at him and noticed a grin before he wiped it from his face.

"Bastards," Erica muttered and crossed her arms over her chest.

She didn't listen to Jules. She knew once exports started she would have to find another way to spend money quick or in five years she would have way too many damn points due to wealth. Either that or she had to think of a way make Cyril want to take his seat back as a claimant. That would be the better solution. Spending money tended to make money.

Jules finished and the others began to plan. She barely listened. She considered the problem of getting Cyril back in office. She resolved to do it within five years at the most. There had to be something out there that could convince him she wasn't right for the job.