Chapter 1 – Mistakes

Eljay and Vincent were dangerous and valuable and if news of the vials they made ever surfaced they would be in danger. The vials might control anyone. That had been the Admiral Darcy Lufkin's first thought when Vincent revealed how the curse had been broken as well as made.

Matilda and Roger's first thoughts were how the vials could be the ultimate weapon; quiet, invisible, renewable, one that could be made to exact specifications, target individuals or populations, but also anyone could use them given they got control of Eljay. All they had to do was convince her to concentrate on a curse as they took her blood and Matilda couldn't be convinced that Vincent would be the only one who could make her do that.

Eljay could be controlled by strong keepers. She had been controlled and used much of her life. Her father had done it even though she hated him. James could direct her when he wanted, if he was forceful enough. Not only that but she had been a prostitute and a ribbon. She knew no restraint. She didn't always consider the consequences of her actions therefore Eljay had to stay under close guard. Vincent and James were that guard since they were the only two people who could control her and at the present only Vincent watched her since James wasn't home.

Eljay didn't seem to think it odd that she suddenly had to stay around Vincent all day long. It was the first time he had ever spent so much time with her in such a protected, sedate setting. They had been together up north camping but that had required they all work to collect wood, build fires, cook, and Eljay had been sick. He had never been with her when she was healthy and unconcerned about anything and she surprised him because she could be so quiet, actually dull.

If she wasn't interested and engaged in her surroundings, so much escaped her notice. He found it completely surprising. While in this state if she wasn't prodded with questions she didn't make one decision. She allowed things to be and to continue and ignored everything and even this sudden change at being shuffled around with Vincent didn't faze her. She didn't care. People, her keepers, made choices and she did as they chose. There was no discussion unless they said something that interested her. Lately Vincent was the only keeper who made the choices about where to eat, when to eat, what to do, or where to go, and for the most part whatever he did didn't interest her.

Vincent Allison, General second class, was from Tenpole on the planet Marril originally. You could tell by looking at him. His hair was blond and straight and his eyes were blue, stripped of color by the thayanite he had mined in Tenpole. His bones were light and his build was narrower than most Quirni men but he did have the gift of height, a rarity for Tenpole. He was stronger than a lot of other Tenpole too but compared to Quirni he was on the weak side. He stood at six feet even while most Quirni were six-five and taller and he could only lift one hundred fifty pounds, something he had done daily when he mined. A Quirni his size could double that.

His previous life had been harsh in Tenpole and that had given him a strong will to survive. Studies suggested that was what made him capable of being Eljay's Foremost Keeper, a will strong enough to offset hers. Until now that role had always been fraught with trouble but it turned out Eljay was not a problem at all while everything was quiet.

When he mentioned this to Jesse, the general who led the DDG (Defense Delegate Guard) and the general who had overseen Eljay for the last year, he learned it was typical but Jesse warned it could change in an instant and he should keep on his toes but until then Eljay would read a novel, sleep, play with the children, and often just stare into space or at blank walls until the duties of her office called.

Currently she had few duties. The other rulers of Ipet did them at the Empress's request. Eljay only retained the administrative rights to take care of claims, tend to complaints from tenants, and other small non-empire spanning trade decisions. Eljay was happy with that. She didn't even care what happened to the fleet of fifty-two ships that had been discovered and confiscated from Sotirian space. They were a Yttrian problem now. James had donated them to the empire. She didn't care where they were, what they did, or who had them. She didn't ask what the Sotirians were doing either. Darcy took care of any more attempts they might make at a coup.

It also seemed she didn't consider the implications of her blessed vials. That was a huge thing she completely ignored. Vincent was amazed until he recalled other instances when she had ignored or missed vital information. When Eljay did miss something it whizzed past her without a hint and the vials, apparently, was one of those things.

Today Eljay curled up in the chair across from his desk and worked on her homework. They still tried to give her an education. She tried to do Yttrian geography but it didn't go well.

Eljay was tall for a Marrilian woman, five and a half feet, small for a Quirni woman, who were usually closer to six feet. She had brown hair and turquoise blue eyes, both changed from her real colors of dark blond and blue. Her hair tended to curl when it was shorter. It was getting a little longer now, down to her shoulders, and so it was more wavy than curly. It framed her face as it fell forward. She read a book in her lap. "Stupid folds," she complained quietly.

Vincent had told her to do her homework and so she did. She muttered to herself when she did it. Vincent doubted she even knew how much she talked as she worked on the problems. "Stupid physics," she mumbled a moment later then added something incoherent and erased an answer. "Stupid teachers for coming up with this stupid crap. Nobody goes to Dragan," she grumbled. She flipped the book closed to see the front cover. Vincent assumed she looked for the authors. There were none. It was a YDD book written by the YDD Educational Authority and that was all it said. He knew. He had studied it. She threw the book back open on her crossed legs with a frown. "Stuff this thing up someone's arse," she complained.

Vincent only saw her out of the corner of his eye. She worked steadily but complained just as steadily. It was about the only time he ever did hear her complain so much. He ignored it or at least tried to. She was funny and he had to keep from reacting or she would think that gave her a right to quit.

She didn't look like the foul mouthed girl that she was. She had the fine Kinsley features that made her look sweet and intelligent with a full mouth and wide eyes but when she spoke all that came out was Tenpole idiom, Tenpole accent, and often swearing. If she kept her mouth closed she might pass for a sweet princess but that was a far cry from reality.

Vincent was one of the few people who wasn't insulted to hear such talk. He grew up in Tenpole. He was used to it. He had worked deep in the mines and the deeper you went the fewer women there were and the worse the language became.

He concentrated on his computer to keep from smiling. Hearing her talk like a miner was a little too much. If he engrossed himself in his own work then he didn't notice her outbursts as much.

A message popped up on his screen from Tacit, Otho's keeper. Otho was a Blessed One like Eljay except male.

Hi Vincent, I thought you would like to know we have received a reply from another Blessed One. Another man. He's on Nerva. He is also in the church. He has accepted the invitation to meet the Empress and Emperor along with the rest. He hopes to meet Lady Ipet too, just like the rest. Nerva is close enough he should be here when the rest arrive. That makes twenty men and Eljay. Otho is becoming more and more convinced Eljay's sex is somehow significant. He is quite excited to see what happens when you put her in the room with all these others. Rest up! Tacit.

Vincent huffed a short breath of displeasure. He wished Otho and Tacit would quit tossing about theories. They sent him notes with new theories concerning Eljay at least once a day. Only male Blessed Ones had responded to the Empress and Emperor's invitation. Otho felt certain she was the only female and tried to explain why when he had no real idea.

"A thing?" Eljay asked. She gazed over her book at him. She had drawn her legs up and rested it against them. All he could see was her eyes over the top of the big book.

He looked past his shoulder. "No. Nothing," he assured her. "Just work," he explained.

"So," she replied with a dismal tone and returned to her homework.

He watched her for a moment. She was the only female Blessed One. But then her predecessor in the Kinsley family had also been a female or so they assumed. They couldn't prove who had been her predecessor. They just had a suspicion.

Otho theorized the strength of a Blessed One was related somehow to the strength of their family. There were enough identified Blessed Ones now that that was more than a theory. There was a direct correlation and there was no doubt the Kinsley's were the strongest family in Yttria and Eljay was the strongest Blessed One but maybe she was female because females generally had a more caring motherly instinct and so the strongest one had to be female. There might be no other reason than that despite what Otho might hope.

"Stupid book!" Eljay snapped and Vincent winced. "I don't care how long it takes to get from blasted Mokosh to blasted Sotiris through stupid stinkin' Yttrian space! I would go through Burnat!" She slammed her book shut, threw her legs out, sat up, and glared at him with a pained grimace. "'Tis stupid! Who wrote this stuff? They don't give names! Would tell them how stupid they make their questions!"

Vincent swiveled his chair to face her. "Should I tell Val that is how you feel?"

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. She stared at him for several moments. Val was the young man that Mr. Harper had chosen as the whipping boy for Eljay. The first and only time Gayle had whipped Val Eljay had tried to grab the whip. Gayle had held it up so she couldn't reach it and so Eljay had grabbed Val instead.

When they tried to take her away from him she went into hysterics. Eljay wouldn't allow Val to be whipped for her life. As if that wasn't enough of a scene in the middle of the school, she had pulled off her coat and shirt and shown the scars of a whip that had been used on her. They were under her arms and on the inside of her thighs because her father had not wanted them easily seen. The other students saw those scars and all the other scars on her back and chest, which had surprised them almost as much as her behavior.

Half undressed, collapsed on the school floor and clinging to Val, she sobbed how she knew what it felt like to be whipped and she would be damned if she let that happen to Val and this while Val turned red from embarrassment and begged her to stop.

They had called Vincent. As soon as he had arrived he had realized his error, that the whipping was reminiscent of her past. He should have remembered. Years ago in a rare moment when she had related a part of her past she had mentioned her father had whipped her. He couldn't believe he hadn't considered that but he couldn't stop the punishment half given. He had therefore hardened his heart as much as he could and told her to watch Val be whipped for her poor performance in school. Eljay in return had risen to her feet and cursed him. She had meant it. He had felt it like a hammer in his chest. He had her remove the curse and that had caused another argument. In the end Eljay had to give in. His power as a keeper won but barely it seemed to him. He had felt the pressure of her will against his but she removed the curse and then he instructed Gayle to continue.

"I will curse you again if you allow her to touch him," Eljay had snarled as they stood face to face. Sweat beaded on her forehead and temples. She was flushed. Removing her own curse had hurt her as much as removing the curse of another Blessed One. She had even had to kiss him to remove it and she had bit his lip while she did. His blood colored her lower lip, a testament to how mad she was that she wouldn't even wipe it off, not that he would wipe off his lip either but she despised blood. She wouldn't even eat meat to avoid it. She was angrier than he had ever seen her.

"Continue with her punishment," Vincent had ordered Gayle.

Eljay's eyes had flared. She opened her mouth to curse him again.

"Be quiet!" he had commanded.

She had rocked back on her heals and blinked.

The whip struck Val and he grunted painfully.

Eljay opened her mouth yet again.

Vincent grabbed her arm, twisted her around, and pinned her wrist high behind her back. He gripped her jaw and held it closed. He pulled her close to his chest.

"You will not curse me again," he warned. He was amazed he had gotten hold of her and more amazed he could keep hold of her. She struggled but he held her firm. He forced her to watch.

Eljay tried to shake her head free. She tried to twist free with the various fighting maneuvers she knew but she was too small and weak compared to him.

Then she cried. He felt her tears run over his hand. He knew her pain and misery and felt horribly guilty even before the whipping was over.

When it was over she didn't speak. When he released her she didn't move. He put her shirt on her, buttoned it, and made Val explain why he had agreed to be the whipping boy. He had left the two of them together, returned to his office, and been sick. He was over his toilet for twenty minutes then returned five times after that until his stomach was empty.

Was it his own weak nature that had made him ill, his feelings for having hurt Eljay, or had she cursed him so badly she had hurt him physically? He didn't feel right for three days. He couldn't eat without being sick again. He and Eljay had both learned one thing, neither of them could win a confrontation, neither won anything but pain.

She dropped her head in shame upon recalling the scene. "No, you do not have to tell him you bastard," she muttered venomously. She curled back up in the chair with a sneer wrinkling her nose. She pulled her book back into her lap and opened it.

He continued to watch her. She glanced up a few times and saw he watched then slowly stopped looking. He returned to his work. He wasn't worried. She wasn't the sort to curse him behind his back and she wouldn't hold a grudge for long. Despite what they had done to Val she had been over it in a few days. It was her nature to forgive. After a few days she had been talking to him again, the incident having taught her a valuable lesson, not forgotten, but in the past. She was only more wary of Vincent and she had a lot more time to be wary of him given they were together so much.

Now that Cyril oversaw much of the trading and council work she had far fewer meetings to go to and that meant she had to be watched by guards a lot more so she sat in Vincent's office or James' office but James had left.

Cyril had suggested Vincent find assistants to help him. Vincent agreed and he knew exactly who to pick, the afternoon shift guards at the brig. She had given coats to them. Somehow they were special enough to receive her gifts. She often gave her keepers gifts. Not all of the afternoon shift guards were keepers but some were. He transferred them to his command so they could help with Eljay.

There were four of them. He briefed them as best he could to understand their duties and then he began to train them to recognize the signs that Eljay was about to escape. As he trained them they helped file all the piles of papers around the outside office. The brig guards were perfect, easy going but forceful, strong but with kind natures, vigilant and so used to Eljay and her odd behavior she couldn't surprise them. The guards were actually one more indication that she somehow predicted the future. He had known who to enlist them as his aids because of her. Up till then he had thought he knew how she did that. She predicted the future with clues. He didn't understand how that worked with the guards but he watched her to learn.

She studied people, where they went, and who they were around. She noted what they did in detail and learned about their character and responsibilities. She scanned news. She looked for stories that seemed inconsistent with the person's typical behavior. Once she saw something odd she began to research it and more often than not she turned up something she could use or learned so much about their character and needs she could anticipate them. The guards she had met while visiting the brig but only some of them had warranted her gift. Why?

Vincent tried to investigate the way she did. He scanned news posts and reports each day when he first arrived at work and before going home and he read Quirni's paper when he got home. Marrilian papers and Sirrian papers he could read on his computer while Quirni's was printed on actual paper. He scanned them all for any whisper of Eljay's activities or mention of anyone with whom she was associated. He did that to protect her. If necessary, he would interfere with any stories that might hurt her and there was plenty of potential for that since she had committed treason. The Empress and Emperor wanted her safe. They didn't want questions as to why she had disobeyed them. No one could know they had been controlled, cursed, by the vials that a Blessed One snuck into their presence.

He had not seen or heard any worrisome stories for several weeks. When YDD Will and Will Be had left with the IDD Lynny there was a lot of speculation and some of it concerned her but that was soon dropped since the ships disappeared and no one was able to track them. Soon after that the gossip about the missing Sotirians also died off because Matilda and Roger were seen with Hypitos and Therapton on Pereira Claim. Apparently the Empress, Emperor, and Sotirians were visiting Otho and Adeline. After they were seen, no one seemed to care that there were more than two Sotirians on Quirni. If they had checked, they would have found some in jail but they would have had to visit the cells to find them since their names hadn't been entered into any arrest records yet.

Vincent realized, as he scanned through the news each day, he was part of a cover-up. He had always hated such things. He had always thought it was best to have all things out in the open but not this. There were too many people that would love to tear Eljay apart and they had nearly been given that opportunity because she had helped protect Ipet and Yttria. She had had no choice but to commit treason to do it.

Vincent almost smiled to think of the Blessed One and keeper who had sent the curse. They had been caught because Hypitos had cracked under Jesse's interrogation, without Reagent 10. Everyone was proud of Jesse. She was John's wife, the famous General Kennedy. John was the man with all the ideas and the balls to what needed to be done. Jesse had worked in his shadow for decades until now. Somehow she had decided Hypitos was the key. She learned the Blessed One used against the Empress and Emperor was his brother. They gave Hypitos Eljay's blessed wine to help him relax and learned he had uneasy feelings about the keeper who kept his little brother. The more of Eljay's wine that he drank the worse he felt about his brother's keeper. After Jesse spiked a glass with a pure blessing from a vial that would break any curse given enough time Hypitos told all and accepted Jesse's offer of help.

Hypitos claimed his brother's keeper was insane. He had told her his brother, Linos, and his keeper were on a ship sitting next to an old space hop beacon. Both Linos and the keeper would be on Quirni within the next day, which was yet another thing to keep quiet. No one could know about the curse that had changed Matilda and Roger for so many months so no one could know they had arrested a Blessed One since they would ask why. It couldn't be known why.

Vincent looked up the base flight control and checked the status of Will and Will Be. That was the ship bringing the Sotirian Blessed One and keeper to Quirni. Will Be, status: landed.

Oh. So that had been the ship they had heard. It had been about half an hour ago. He stared at the screen for a moment. He hadn't expected Will and Will Be for another day. Probably Darcy and John had altered their schedule to keep news about the Sotirians quiet as well as the news of where Will Be and the Lynny had gone. No reporter would have been on the base to meet the ship this morning and see the prisoners offloaded. Arriving early would assure that since the reporters on Quirni were not like those on Marril who hung around like vultures for any tidbit of news. The Quirni reporters showed up after the fact of anything newsworthy or when they expected news to happen and they took everyone's word for what happened. They hardly ever dug to verify statements and even if they did they wouldn't find much because the Darcy kept a close eye on what agents knew what and sent the curious or talkative to far away bases.

Was James home as well? Vincent wasn't looking forward to seeing him. They would no doubt discuss the whipping incident. Everyone had been taken aback by how rough Vincent had been with Eljay but no one had told him he should go easier on her except John.

He had caught up to Vincent between the Mess Hall and Administration Building a few days later. He was a huge man, six inches taller than Vincent and twice as big in the chest. He had dark blond hair like James and always looked pleased and ready to pound someone's head into the cement. It had horrified Vincent to learn John was one of Eljay's keepers. As her foremost keeper Vincent could direct and control all of her other keepers, including this massive man who would as soon lay Vincent on his back with a roundhouse punch rather than listen to him. The one protection Vincent had, he could stop him if he could speak the words quickly enough. He had that much control.

They spoke on the sidewalk. It was after most agents had reported for duty so they were nearly alone. Occasionally someone showed up at one end or the other but they soon entered another building. The morning was dawning with a fog so if John did want to deck Vincent he might not be seen lying there until the fog burned off.

"She cursed me," Vincent had explained after John had remarked on Vincent's heavy handed tactics. John had stopped him by pulling on his arm and made him talk face to face here rather than inside.

"Maybe you deserved it," John had retorted darkly as he folded his arms over his chest. "Whatever made you think it was all right to whip a boy who had lived like Val did? He grew up in Tenpole. He lost his parents before he even knew what part of his anatomy to jerk. I would have cursed you too."

"The loss of parents in Tenpole does not give him any special grieving rights," Vincent had replied. "Many Tenpole children are without parents. I lost mine when I was younger than him. It happens."

John had stared at him a long time. "Don't become a mean bastard, Allison," he had finally said with a sneer. "Don't do it. It isn't necessary and it sure as hell isn't necessary with Eljay. That little lady will do whatever you want. Just ask her for something sensible."

"School is sensible," argued Vincent although half-heartedly since he was shocked to learn John believed he was turning into a mean bastard. John! Of all people! John was a bullying brute!

"School," John sneered in derision. "You think school is sensible? Maybe you need it but not her. She joined a God damned tri-planet system without it! She was the first person to ever do it! Then she made an empire! Did you manage any of that? Did any great scholar manage to do that? So what the hell does she care if she can't run the worlds? Who the hell should care? We should just allow her to sit back and watch all of us scurry around and when she decides to intervene then we should all stop, take notes, and change our ways accordingly. I've never seen someone who can cut through so much crap as she can. Do you remember what she said about Darcy and me polishing her ideas until she can no longer recognize them?"

Vincent nodded, half afraid to reply at all given John's current temper.

John nodded along with him. "Well someone has to have the God damned ideas before someone else can polish them. She doesn't need an education forced up her ass. She's had enough forced up there already. Leave her alone."

John always made a good point and too often it didn't go in Vincent's favor. He felt even guiltier than he had after the whole incident but Mr. Harper's plan was working. After the whipping Eljay's grades had improved. The only regret Vincent really had was he hadn't had time to explain their plans to Eljay or discuss them with Gayle before Mr. Harper put them into action.

John pressed his big hand onto Vincent's shoulder and Vincent's knees wanted to buckle. He stiffened his legs. Despite the heavy hand, John didn't dig his fingers in for once which was something. "Up until till now James is the only one that has ever seen her fully open, acting just as she will without any hesitation or fears, sharing everything. Gain her trust and maybe you can too. He tells me when she is around others she rarely acts natural. She has things that remind her of her past, things that trigger her fears. She has a lot of past memories that still bother her plus the pressures of her gift. She doesn't need you acting like an ass and making things worse."

"Yes sir," Vincent responded.

John squeezed his shoulder and it hurt. "So, did it help? Has her work improved?"

It surprised Vincent that he wanted to know. "Yes, she's producing 'B' papers now, sir"

John grinned. "Just enough to keep Val safe. B-minus papers I assume?"

"Yes, all of them."

John laughed a short but fully amused laugh. He shook Vincent. "Think about that. She can figure out the exact number of right answers necessary to keep Val safe. Does that sound like someone that needs school? Most students are constantly wondering if they'll even pass." He laughed again and patted Vincent's shoulder hard. "Be good to her," he warned, his tone dropping to let Vincent know he meant the warning, and then strode away and disappeared in the fog bank. Vincent followed after the sound of his footsteps were gone. The man's words had left as much an impression as his hand.

Until John had pointed it out Vincent hadn't considered Eljay was doing just exactly that. She was doing just the amount of passing work to get the exact grade she needed. If he hadn't been watching her do her homework he would never have believed it was possible. Hell, if Mr. Harper had used a computer he would have wondered if Eljay had changed the grades but Mr. Harper didn't for that reason. It was as John said, she did exactly what she needed and no more. She knew how many right answers to give and only gave that many.

Damn she was smart.

And James knew that. He knew she didn't need school. Hadn't he told Vincent that anything she needed to know she could learn when she needed to know it? He had warned Vincent not to change anything.

John had talked to Vincent about the incident but James wouldn't just talk. He wasn't likely to care about grades either. He had no doubt heard what Vincent had done to Eljay and he would want to do something physical about it. Vincent checked with Flight Control for the Lynny, ETA 2 hrs. James would be home in time for dinner.

Vincent rubbed the budding ache at the back of his neck and wondered if he should he take the man's fist in his jaw so it would be over quick or should he duck? He supposed Levitus could heal the damage as long as his brain stayed intact. James had a punch that could take down an orchedon.

Another message popped up. This one was from John which was unnerving since Vincent had been thinking about him.

Allison, it might be interesting to see what Eljay has to say to the two men we brought in. I'll let you know if an opportunity arises to interview them. John.

He had to be joking. He wanted Eljay to meet them? He doubted Eljay and the Blessed One would even get within ten feet of each other. Otho and Eljay certainly kept their distance. It seemed to be some sort of a Blessed One unspoken rule. Then there was the question of whether Eljay should see them. How would she react after what they had done? Their curse had nearly killed her. Then there was the reporters. Anywhere she went out of the ordinary was newsworthy so if she went to them every newsman and merchant would wonder who she saw? They didn't need people asking questions.

The only way for her to see the Sotirians without raising suspicions would be if they crossed paths during her daily routine. Maybe that was what John meant by an opportunity.

It wasn't long after John's message that another one popped up from Darcy.

Gen. Allison: be advised the suspects we apprehended are being transported. I would not have your charge inadvertently meet them. I wish to have the conditions monitored when she does. An interview is imminent but we will choose the place and time. Further instructions to follow. Adm. Lufkin.

Eljay looked up when a beep sounded for another message.

Vincent, Eljay can sense other Blessed Ones but I don't know how close she has to be, certainly she can sense them if she is within sight. She might be able to if they are in the same building so be warned, they are bringing the Blessed One and his keeper to the Admin. Building. Jesse.

Oh. Great. 'When?' he sent back to her.

'Half an hour', she returned. 'They will be transported there from the Clinic.'

"You be popular suddenly," Eljay noted.

He grunted lightly in reply.

She studied him for a moment then readjusted herself in the chair and continued to work.

He turned off the sound as she had shown him. It beeped a warning since he was disabling it.

"What do you hide?" she asked and wasn't even looking at him.

He sighed. "You will find out soon enough."

She didn't respond but looked up and studied him, thinking, which of all the things she might do that scared him the most.

Another message.

Vincent, please bring Eljay to The House. I would speak with her as soon as possible. Cyril.

Excellent. That gave him the excuse to get her off the base and avoid John's desire to have Eljay see the Blessed One, which Darcy did not want. He logged off his computer. "We have to go see Cyril," he announced as he stood.

"Oh finally," she replied with amusement and closed her book. He had put a table beside her chair. She stacked her work on it and got up then collected it into a black leather bag and left the bag in the chair. "Would you go to Tenpole with me or you be too busy?"

His legs stopped of their own volition. They halted as he came around the front of his desk. He looked down at her. "Tenpole?" At least his voice worked.

"Yes." She gazed up at him and he could tell she wasn't joking in the least.

"Why?" he asked. "Why do you think you will be going to Marril?"

"Cyril caves."

"Huh?" He squinted. He didn't mind showing her how confused he was. It was common around her.

Her head tipped, as if she wondered what he didn't understand. "Tenpole be my problem again."

He winced to show how he was even more confused.

She gazed up at him with a squint no doubt wondering how dumb he could be. "Profit doesn't work. Remember I told him? You were there."

"Oh?" His eyes widened in surprise. He remembered but remembering didn't help. He tried to figure out what that conversation had to do with going to Marril. Cyril had been certain he could change the necessary laws and rules from Quirni while she told him he changed the wrong ones. They had argued. Cyril Kinsley was now the Primary Ruler of Ipet so Eljay lost the argument. At that time she had told him he would have to meet the Marrilians if he persisted, in other words, they would have to go to Marril. Cyril had been convinced he would manage. His family had owned large parts of Tenpole since the mining sight was discovered. He knew what to do. She had shrugged and smiled and said 'So,' with the dismissive tone that meant she didn't believe him for an instant. Cyril had smiled, thinking she was giving up her argument. Now she looked up at Vincent with amusement at his confusion.

"Would you go?" she asked.

He winced. "Lord Kinsley mismanaged Tenpole?" he asked with a bit of shock. He had believed the man could fix any problem.

She dipped her chin, agreement.

Vincent shook his head. "Are you sure? You don't know why he wants to see you."

She sighed. "Think about going," she told him. She looked a little disappointed but kept a smile. "If you would not or cannot, I know others can go with me." She headed out the door. He followed. Two of the guards, Corporal Owen Arnott and Corporal Joshua Darling, were in the outer office. They fell in step behind them.

"Explain," Vincent asked of her as they walked down the hall. "Why do you think he caved?"

"I was taking apart the Mining Consortium when Father became Primary Ruler, taking it back to the original parts so I could shut it down. Father tried to put it back. Would be Mati's way. Won't work. Never worked. He started the same problems. I saw today that the miners strike, all of them, even at the new shafts in support of the old."

"New shafts?"

She didn't turn her head but rolled her eyes at him. "I sunk new shafts outside of Tenpole so people who were not Tenpole could mine."

"I thought only the Tenpole mined," said Owen. He was a large man, Quirni born. He was six foot seven. He gave a sense of great weight. He wasn't oversized for his height but he filled out his area completely. His arms were the size of Vincent's legs. His chest filled the largest uniform. His cheeks were full, and his brow was full. His eyebrows were full, dark and almost joined. His hair would have been full to the point of madness it was so curly but he kept it close cropped.

"Because the shafts be in Tenpole," Eljay explained. "Anywhere else anyone can mine but 'tis not so good."

Owen frowned in confusion. "Not so good for what?"

"Pay," replied Joshua. "No union."

"They can't mine in Tenpole because the Tenpole won't let them," added Eljay. "They be a territorial sort. Otherwise anyone could mine thayanite."

"So," agreed Joshua.

"Oh," Owen replied. "They chase them out."

"So," agreed Eljay. "I idled shafts and put the idled men in charge of the new shafts outside of Ringway. They still be union so they agreed," she told Vincent when he gave her a frown. "I now have everyone in my new shafts trained to mine safe and they be led by Tenpole who understand the jobs best, and I hired new engineers to be certain they didn't make the same mistakes the old ones made. The old ones believed profit outweighed safety. Was an idea of the Mining Consortium but profit doesn't work because mining for more profit means fewer bust walls and closer levels. Have to mine for the right profit for the right people."

"'Tis for sure," agreed Joshua again. He nodded gravely to Owen who looked so confused he looked like he didn't understand the language. "Miners complain the Consortium buys profit with our graves. Surely you remember General."

Vincent remembered and he wasn't sure but he thought he understood what Eljay meant he just didn't understand why she sank new shafts. That was expensive and it didn't seem reasonable to do it just to hire non-Tenpole labor only to leave them union. The Consortium wanted to break the Union and most claimants did too. Why would she open a shaft outside of Tenpole, hire non-Tenpole then have the foremen be Tenpole and everyone be union? They didn't have to be union outside of Tenpole. "I went to talks it angered me so," he answered Joshua.

"Oh, hard, hard to do," noted Joshua. "No one listens."

Vincent agreed with a dip of his chin. Although, he had since met Silas Kinsley, Eljay's cousin, who had been the High Claimant on Marril at the time of the talks. The High Claimants oversaw all Consortium vs. Union talks along with any claimant who owned part of Tenpole. Silas had recognized Vincent as one of the Union representatives later, here on Quirni. He had told Vincent he thought his ideas at the talks were good. It was the leaders of the Union that hadn't listened to Vincent. Silas had listened and been happy Vincent wasn't heard.

"The engineers got a percentage of the profits," Eljay told them. "'Tis all right in most business but not mining. The miners suffered the more for it. The engineers cut the overhead and means to safety to keep bigger profit. 'Tis the whole of it. Can always find another miner they say, can't find more thayanite." She shook her head in disgust.

"I've heard that," said Vincent. "So what does work? I thought all business worked for profit."

"Aw, 'tis my something," she grinned. "That business works to produce thayanite and that means it must pay miners. 'Tis the important something. Just that. Miners mine it. They should own it. They should sell it, not the Consortium. I will need to set limits on pricing but other than that they should say what they sell. Well…" she smiled slyly. "Well, I guess Cyril will set limits now that he be primary ruler." Her grin broadened to a full smile. She flashed it at Vincent. "Knew he'd be calling me. Was why I didn't fight him about this. Only took time to prove my point. Just be happy no miners got hurt while he worked at it. Now they sit safe. 'Tis good."

"'Tis good they strike?" asked Joshua. He was almost Vincent's height, with straight white hair that was slowly getting back some blond as he lived on Quirni. He was strong from having always trained for fighting as well as being a miner. He had retired a year before and come to Quirni after hearing about the long life and health the planet had to offer. Only retired Tenpole were given the whole truth about that. He hadn't even considered moving to the third planet in the system, Sirrus, after hearing the truth. Vincent was happy to have him. Joshua's happy nature was infectious.

He had and a smile that would sink into his cheeks as it broadened from ear to ear. People would grin to see his smile. His blue eyes practically closed when he smiled that big and his long straight nose flared at the nostrils. His smile was a sight and always cheered Vincent when he saw it. Joshua had moved to Quirni with his wife and two children who now attended the school in town. Joshua grinned every time he mentioned how he had been able to leave Tenpole with his whole family. His children wouldn't be miners of thayanite.

"For certain," Eljay assured him and flashed her smile at him. "'Tis better a strike than a death."

He tipped his head left with a puzzled frown. "But if they strike we have no thayanite mined. Can't be good, Eljay. The Royal Couple were mad at you once already. Would you this?"

"Aw, there be plenty of thayanite already mined. It sits all pretty in big protected glass jugs safe in pure water imported from Sirrus. It waits to be shipped just for a strike, stockyards full of it. The Consortium kept it so they could ship even during a long strike. They would not suffer loss while they bargained down workers. They knew a big strike would come eventually. They kept such. Now my father will use their stash to break them instead of Tenpole and we will change Tenpole for the better. There will be no more strikes after we finish. Will last about six months. Will be enough bottled thayanite to put things right but I will have to go there now. Saw that when I saw what father began."

"If you go to Marril you will get sick from thayanite exposure," Vincent warned.

"No, they make portable purifying canisters to wear. They call them Day Packs. The filter in them lasts all day and be small. Not like the mining masks. I can wear one. Arlo was working on that before we made him Lord Aulus. He left the work to Tio Cruzan who finished it. 'Tis a sold product these days. They both be rich from the idea. They make more than I ever have for any of my ideas."

Vincent hadn't known that. He couldn't respond. Someone actually was able to have an idea that rivaled Eljay's?

"And you," she added. "You can use a Day Pack and protect your lungs too."

"My lungs are fine," Vincent told her. "It is my heart that is sensitive but not to the low concentrations above ground. Only the high concentrations in the mines would give me a heart attack again."

She glanced at him in an odd way, as if she didn't believe him. "With the Day Pack you could go in a mine again," she suggested.

"Would not want to," he responded with complete assurance. "I had enough of that for a lifetime."

"No one can argue that not even you," Joshua told Eljay with a happy grunted laugh.

"I suppose," she agreed as they walked across the base to the truck depot. "They be dirty, dark, and wet. 'Tis for sure. I don't go down either."

Vincent signed out a truck and drove them to The House, Eljay and James' house. It was also the residence for Cyril, Renata and their four newly adopted children, and the Empress and Emperor. Technically the Empress Matilda Kinsley was Eljay's sister but that was only legally. Eljay's birth family was from Sirrus not Quirni. When Eljay had taken her new identity as Eljay Ipet she had renamed her family and in essence adopted Matilda's family. Her own family hadn't seen her since she was a child and she no longer belonged to them. Matilda's family wanted her so Eljay had named them as her closest relatives. Eljay called Cyril 'father' for the pure enjoyment of having such a man fill that roll for her.

Cyril's office was on the first floor of The House. It was off a large courtyard. A pond with orange and white fish was on the side of the small woods outside Cyril's door. Cyril sat at a table beside it when they arrived. Owen and Joshua stopped down the path while Vincent and Eljay sat with Cyril.

He wasn't Eljay's birth father but she looked so much like him he could be. They both had all the typical features of a Kinsley. They had the same wide eyes, narrow faces, and full mouth. He had brown hair he wore tied back and green eyes. He had smile lines at the corners of his eyes. He was a hard man to best but also a considerate one when he was given the choice. Eljay had bested him. He respected that and consequently her. Eljay had sent him to jail at one time but then brought him back from that desolation and blessed him and his family. He had risen to power beyond any level he had ever dreamed because of her. He more than anyone appreciated her genius.

"You win," he said simply when she settled in the chair beside him. Vincent sat at the other side of the table.

She smiled at Cyril affectionately.

He looked disappointed.

Her smile dimmed. "Do not think I gloat, Father. I be happy because you stop now before it gets worse."

He shook his head. "I do not think you gloat. You are not the type." He sighed as he regarded her. His hands were folded across his lap. His legs were crossed. His chair was pushed back from the table so he could face her. "I understand now. I had to attempt it just as you said but now that I have I still have only a vague idea of what you intend to do. I do not know how you could expect the miners to run things. Obviously they can because it appears you had several shafts as prototypes for this venture but the whole town? Do your really think they can?"


"Are the shafts some sort of prototype? You wanted to see what they could manage and how they would do it?"

"Was," she agreed.

He nodded and looked at his hand. "That just occurred to me this week. I can be daft." He looked back at her. "I am sorry. We could have been so much further along."

She raised an eyebrow. "All be fine, needs no sorrow, Father."

He chuckled. "I am sorry I have been a fool, Eljay," he explained. "And sorry it took me so long to understand what you started. You have tested management structures in the new shafts and used Tenpole in positions to see how well they performed. You claimed that required you shut down several shafts in Tenpole to get people for the positions but you closed the most profitable shafts. I suggest you did that to take profit from the Mining Company at those shafts. You wanted to force them to quit since Matilda had bribed them with guaranteed positions if they sold her thayanite directly. They had to quit since you can't fire them. Mati's involvement messed that up. She told me that. You took away all their income and expected them to walk. She gave it back."

"So," Eljay agreed. "But 'tis The Consortium, Father, not a company. 'The Company' be only a name they use for ease. Was never a true company protected by the laws as such."

Cyril's mouth dropped open, just a parting of his lips. "So it is not governed by the same rules?"

She dipped her chin in agreement. "Groups of shafts belonged to different groups in the Consortium, those owned by different claimants. I could take each apart and fire groups but Mati realized what I did and protected the administrators by guaranteeing jobs. For the first time they could transfer to other groups and would not lose a job. They agreed to sell to her in return. She said they be one big Company and would be treated as such, not under my rule but the rules of a private business. Was all she needed to do to stop me from hiring and firing in each group. They could transfer to other jobs in a company. Could not in a consortium."

"They always did transfer," Cyril argued.

"So," she agreed. "But was only when the claimant approved. I be the claimant of most of those claims now. I did not approve. They lost jobs when shafts closed. Once Mati changed the structure of the Consortium I lost the ability to fire employees like that. They transfer to other pits. They invent jobs so they can."

"So you refuse to call it the 'Mining Company' to protest."

Eljay nodded. "Was wrong of her to do that but she didn't think right at the time. The curse warped her thinking. She be better now but I would not change her mistake back and cause suspicion. She made it harder for me to dismantle them but not impossible. I can't fire them but I can relieve them of income buy taking profits."

"And eventually they will leave to find other work because there won't be any pay for them," Cyril realized.

"'Tis the idea."

"Well then, maybe you can consider this my gift. They have all quit."

She froze. Her eyes widened in surprise.

"All of them quit due to my interference and incompetence," he repeated and chuckled since she didn't respond she was so shocked.

"I did that much for you," he told her. "Five days ago, when I finally figured out what you had been doing. I used my majority vote in the Council to write a new law and pass it. I linked the wages of Consortium administrators to the wages of the miners. That pleased them. They thought they could make the miners work harder and gain larger bonuses." He grinned in a very uncharacteristically mischievous way. "Then I told the representatives to the miner's Union what I did. Every union member walked at the same time yesterday morning. The entire Consortium management team walked out in protest of the new law this morning at 9:05 am. You can consider that a mass resignation."

"Oh Father!" she declared and jumped up and hugged him.

"At least you appreciate it. I have thousands of people on Marril calling me all manner of names. They expect me to capitulate at any moment or perhaps to have Matilda intervene on their behalf. They are in for a long wait in the picket lines alongside their mining brethren."

"The picket lines?" She stood back with her hands on his shoulders. "They strike as well?"

"Oddly, yes," replied Cyril as he looked up at her with a cocked eyebrow. "They somehow believe picketing will mitigate their loss of wages. That is a vicious rumor someone started. It puts them alongside the miners who no doubt enjoy watching the management team tramp about making their fine leather shoes black with mud."

Eljay tried to smile at this but her lips only twitched. "Oh, Father, you be so bad sometimes."

Cyril shrugged while he looked up at her from the corner of his eye. "They pissed me off, Eljay. They are a bunch of arrogant prats. And thank you very much for teaching me the correct phrasing with which to refer to those pretentious, greedy, bastards." He looked at his hands for a moment, as if embarrassed to have spoken so plainly.

She blinked at him in surprise.

"I would like to go with you and watch you put this to rights. You have about six months. Can you do it?" he asked and raised his eyes to hers.

She stepped back from him. "You want to go? Truly?"

He nodded. "Do you feel you can manage with me there? I may have ruined some of your plans. I am now quite despised by most of the competent management personnel."

"You have blasted many of my plans. I have read the Marrilian papers. 'Tis a mess."

He nodded weakly, sickened with his choices. "Six months, Eljay."

"Can do it, Father. Not to worry. Will need less time if I can get Ward there. He could make a big difference."

"High Lord Pereira?" Cyril asked in surprise.


He half squinted and cocked his head as he tried to figure out what she wanted with him. Then he gave up. "If he is who you need, I'll get him there."

"He will be suspicious."

Cyril just smiled. "All the better to lure him," he said. His smile faded. "I must say I did not expect such a reaction to the changes I made. I have stopped thayanite production flat," he shook his head in amazement as he gazed up at her. "You managed to keep production level even while closing shafts and opening new ones."

"You don't know Tenpole," she consoled.

"Do not soften my opinion of myself," he warned. "I am due the full measure of my scorn. I want to learn how to work with them. I want to see what you do and I will help you. I will be there to tell the miners how I erred. I will correct my actions. We will do it your way entirely. You will teach me."

Her head tipped, as if she wondered if she heard him right. "Father, 'tis the nicest thing you have ever said. You truly have such faith? I teach you?"

He smiled. "More than that, Eljay. I have such trust." He turned to Vincent. "I realize you have duties that may keep you from traveling with us. Let me know as soon as possible if you can go or how long you can go." He had missed Eljay's look of utter surprise by the time he turned back to her. "James should go with us too," he told her. "I think Marril deserves to see you two together and then maybe we can travel to Sirrus and they can see you as well. We can discuss this when he gets home this afternoon."

Eljay regarded him for a bit. She started to speak, hesitated, dropped her eyes, and looked at him again. "Father, I have never felt so much a part of Ipet as now."

He squinted. "What do you mean?"

She dropped her eyes as she thought. "I…" She shrugged with one shoulder. "Does not matter." She smiled and sat down. "Does not matter at all. 'Tis a feeling I cannot explain. Means nothing but I thank you for accepting this so soon. No miners have been hurt. You have given me months to work out the problems. Thank you."

"You are welcome," he returned. He still wondered what feeling she had tried to convey, however. Vincent could tell by the way Cyril looked at her, a little disconcerted, some concern, and aware he was in the wrong but in some manner he didn't quite grasp.

Vincent had an idea what it was. He would ask James once James finished pounding on him and assuming he could still talk but Vincent wondered if perhaps this was the first time anyone had ever accepted Eljay's plans without reservation. Hadn't they always second guessed her until now? That would explain why she had never really felt like she was part of the government and never really acted like it either. She never did have full power. She had never been completely trusted.

Cyril looked at him then back at Eljay. "Might I speak with Vincent alone for a moment?"

Eljay glowed with whatever feeling she had experienced and left them to join Owen and Joshua. She was chirping away at the two men and telling them everything before Cyril spoke.

"Do you understand what she meant? It appears as if you did."

"Maybe," Vincent replied. "I would ask James before I say anything."

"Allow me to ask James," suggested Cyril. "I have never seen her react with such a pleasant and relaxed smile. She should know we respect her opinion. Why does this surprise her?"

"Has anyone ever trusted her without reservation before?"

Cyril considered that for several moments. "Perhaps not," he replied. His eyes narrowed as he thought back through the few years he had known Eljay. He shook his head. "No." He drew a long breath. He looked at Vincent as he considered his thoughts then he lifted his chin. "Young man, you have helped us and Eljay in every aspect of our lives. We owe you a great deal. I hope someday I can repay that debt."

"There is no debt," Vincent replied.

"There is if I say there is."

Vincent fell quiet.

Cyril smiled gently. "Despite that, I must ask you to accompany us to Marril. Will you? You can bring your family. You can travel on Silky so you have privacy if you so desire. She would have no need of your presence with James near but I fear for her on Marril, for both of you actually. You understand you are both required to enlist her full value as a weapon by making those vials. Having you two together might even be a risk for Yttria but she needs you. I will argue with Darcy, Mati, and Roger that you go. If you know any argument to help I would appreciate knowing it."

"I know one," Vincent replied. "I have considered this at length since we became aware of the vials. I understand having me with her is a risk but she is at greater risk alone. If I don't protect her then I have no point in being her keeper. It is my job to protect her. If I don't then I am no longer being her foremost keeper. Someone could replace me, someone who might use her badly. It doesn't matter that both of us are required to make the vials. I have to be with her or I have, in essence, abandoned her."

Cyril's eyes set on him with worry. "She must accept a foremost keeper or that keeper will not be able to control her and the vials they make will be weak. That is what Tacit said. She did not even accept you until we identified you. I doubt she would accept another."

Vincent hated to think of someone taking Eljay's blood by force. She barely allowed the healers and curemen to take it and that got worse all of the time. "Even weak vials by Eljay would be strong, sir," Vincent reminded him. "And we cannot be certain she would not accept another foremost keeper. If the keeper had a strong enough will she might accept him, be forced to. It would be like her birth father forcing her to do his bidding."

Cyril visibly paled. It took him several moments to overcome the reference to her past. "It would ease my heart to have you there. If you are there you will have the clearest idea of any dangers. If the true value of her gift becomes known and if she became a target you would have the best chance of protecting her, of making her stay in safe places and you know Tenpole as well as she does. I am asking you to go despite the danger inherent to you."

"I understand," Vincent replied. "I want to go but I cannot answer for myself. That decision is up to my commanding officers."

"I will speak with Darcy. I will make sure he agrees. He considers Eljay's protection to be the utmost priority and of course protecting Yttria is his duty. Tenpole must be repaired for Yttria to stay strong. I cannot do it. She has to do it and she needs you."

"He will insist she find ways to do that from here."

"She has no choice. I have made a mess. She warned me of this. She even warned me that we would have to go there if I caused a strike. If I had been wise I would have let her tell me the whole story, every line I said, every part I played, and then we might have avoided all of this but I was playing an arrogant know-it-all ass. I think from now on Eljay will be spending her free time with me rather than you. I need her lessons."

Vincent had to smile. "I guess I can let you have some help. I have a new filing system on my computer and know how to use it. I know how to use encrypted messaging and my commanding officers have given me credit for learning but it is all because of her. She taught me. I can share her before they think I'm too smart."

"No wonder I have been hearing so much about you lately," Cyril mused. "Somehow you have predicted the future regarding a stock sale and made several million quid as well?"

"Oh?" Vincent had made some investments but he hadn't kept close track of them. Million? Had he heard that right?

"It seems you invested in a Marrilian shipping company right before it gained the merchant rights to Griffin and increased their value a hundred fold. You are listed as one of the larger stock holders. How did you know to buy? I have been asked to investigate."

Vincent frowned slightly. Investigate?

"I know that sounds bad but after you explain your method I can put suspicious minds at ease so you need not worry. How did you know to invest as you did?"

The way Cyril looked at him with an open eyed expectant smile convinced Vincent he wasn't suspicious. Cyril honestly expected Vincent to tell how he chose the stocks and he expected the means to be legal. He needed to know that means in order to answer someone else's questions. It was possible, Vincent realized with a start, that Cyril asked because he had such a high regard for him. He probably offered in order to save Vincent the embarrassment of an inquest.

"Eljay showed me," he explained. "She tracks the unusual actions of claimants, signed tenants, and businessmen in the news and uses the information to figure out what they do. It is how she predicts things at least in part. I saw something I thought odd while I scanned the news for stories about her. It was a photo of a C.E.O. at a hotel. I knew him. I used to deliver packages to his house. I wondered why he was there. I knew he lived nearby and I knew it was a hotel that did not allow less than one week rentals so he couldn't be at the hotel for an hour long illicit affair. I considered he had separated from his wife but that was not so either. Turned out he wasn't even checked into the hotel. I called the hotel to learn if any meetings took place there and I learned Griffins stayed there.

"Then I saw the CEO, his wife, and Griffins in photos together at charity dinners, clubs, and plays. I decided to take a chance and act on the clues. I bought into the CEO's shipping company. I later heard the company received merchant rights to Griffin. The Empress agreed to the deal they struck, but I didn't know it had increased in value that much."

Cyril laughed. "That much and likely more. The Parks and Primos had merchant rights to Griffin. You know where the Primos are because you own one of their ships, Silky, which is part of what looked odd, and the entire Parks family is going to settle into a permanent home. That removes over fifteen merchant vessels from the run between Ipet and Griffin and your company is replacing them. It is purchasing the Parks' ships."

Vincent had known about the Silky losing the trade route but so did everyone else. He hadn't expected the entire Primo family to lose the route and he hadn't known about the Park's at all.

"Young man, you own a nice slice of the hottest up and coming merchant company in Ipet and you chanced upon the purchase legally. Anyone had access to that information. You just happened to know a little more thanks to being a delivery boy." Cyril grinned at the thought of it. "Congratulations. Go buy Elsbeth something pretty for your clever work. She is a beautiful woman and deserves to show herself. Your investment should be worth a millions more before the end of the month. I can't even guess what it will be worth in a year. If your merchant company is handled well it will increase in value more than anything else on the market."

All of the expression in Vincent's face fell away with his shock. Cyril got his biggest laugh to look at him. He called Eljay back over to tell her the news.

"Poor boy," she consoled Vincent after Cyril told her. She gazed upon him with sad eyes. "Too much money be a pisser. Now you be in for trouble."

Cyril laughed even harder.