§ § § - February 5, 2012
Dr. Jeffreys officially released Christian from the hospital just past lunchtime, and Leslie brought him over to the main house and down to the kitchen. Mariki and her staff were in the midst of cleanup; but when Christian announced he was hungry and looking forward to an actual meal instead of IV drips and tasteless nutrition smoothies, they produced with enthusiasm and alacrity. Soon Christian was seated at the staff workers' table at the far end of the kitchen, eating a delicious stew with a tomato base and containing half a dozen kinds of vegetables, with a hunk of soft, buttered French bread on the side. Leslie had skipped the regular meal so that she could eat with him. While Mariki and the staff got back to their cleaning, Christian and Leslie conversed, using the clanging of pots and pans, the clinking of dishes, the chatter of the staff, and the roar of the industrial-caliber dishwasher as cover for their discussion.
"You had mentioned, when we were here in October after your appendectomy, that you had been offered the job as Delphine's assistant," Christian mused once he had eaten enough to take the sharpest edge off his hunger. "At the time, of course, things were much different, and we never could have dreamed what would happen next. At any rate, my Rose, did she ever hire someone for the position?"
Leslie was so surprised by the question that she stared blankly at him for about five seconds before her brain kicked into gear. "Um...I, uh..." She shook her head hard once or twice, and he grinned. "No, it's just that it was so utterly out of left field like that..."
Christian's grin became a laugh. "Another baseball metaphor. Perhaps I should tell you the story of that particular tutor sometime. You may think you're an islander, but you betray your American origins."
"Yeah, well, it's not just that, but the majority of the guests here are still Americans, and there's still the Air Force base on Coral Island," she reminded him. "Look, we're off topic here. The assistant job? Come to think of it, I have no idea. I never thought to ask Delphine if she found anyone. Although, if I had to give an answer one way or another, I'd say I don't think so, because I've never seen anyone around the office other than Rogan and sometimes Julie. And I think they still don't trust Rory yet."
Christian chuckled through a bite of French bread. "Understandable. Well, it occurs to me that you likely wouldn't spend all your time handling administrative matters, not if your father was any example to go by. That was also his job, and he ran the resort and his business atop that—an endlessly busy man, to be certain. Yet I remember him thriving on it. Clearly, none of those jobs kept him so occupied with their associated tasks that he couldn't find sufficient time for the others. So it stands to reason that you could handle it just as well as he did. That is, if you wanted to, of course."
"I probably could," Leslie mused slowly, considering it. "Most of the stuff I have to do is monthly, not everyday things. And some of it, I can hand off to others—Grady does all the legal stuff, and Camille takes care of the financial things, and Michiko and Myeko handle the paperwork involved in ordering and receiving supplies for the resort. The rest of it is mine, pretty much. But a lot of it is summaries of business intake and outgo, and the incoming and outgoing vessels at the ferry terminal down the other end of the island, and that sort of thing. You know, commerce and so forth."
"Exactly so. Perhaps you should check with Delphine when you have a chance and she has a few free minutes." He paused for a moment, spoonful of stew in the air, thinking; then he smiled. "I think we've made our decision; we're talking as if we have. There are so many reasons for us to return here that it seems a foregone conclusion."
Leslie met his gaze and asked, almost as if she hardly dared voice it for fear of getting an answer she didn't like, "So we're definitely moving back here?"
"Yes," Christian said with a slow smile, "we are. I knew it wouldn't take much to convince you, my Rose."
"But I thought it would take a month's worth of arguments to talk you into it," she remarked, grinning at him.
"Perhaps I had that month's worth of arguments after you and your father rescued me from captivity and I had a chance to see the country's improbable reaction to your coming straight here after they took me and the others. And I suppose it's possible I feel safer here, now that I know I have this power that sets me apart from the rest of humanity like nothing else could ever do, not even being royal. But at the same time, after a year and a half of living in my native country, in the castle where I grew up, I realized I no longer felt that I belonged. If I had a niche before I met you and moved here to live with you, then that niche must have warped out of shape, so that I don't fit into it anymore. I feel more comfortable here. Our friends treat me as just another ordinary man, without the deference of my title or even the reactions I might have expected from them when they discovered I had this power. In some way, this place has become home as Lilla Jordsö never quite was. Perhaps, in the end, home isn't necessarily just with the one you love—though certainly I'm at home with you—but also the place where you feel you belong. So yes, we'll stay." He chuckled, watching her eyes light up. "At some point, we'll have to go back and retrieve those of the children's, and our, belongings that we want here with us. Ach—that's going to be a problem if I want that curio cabinet Mother left me."
"Maybe we can ask Michiko if we can borrow the Arcolosian royal jet," kidded Leslie, and they both laughed. "I'm sure we can get by without those things till summer comes and we have a chance to take the children back to Lilla Jordsö for a visit. They could maybe spend time with their friends there, while we're packing whatever we want to bring back here, and we could talk to our friends there too."
"That sounds reasonable." Christian glanced at his Rolex, now noticeably loose on his wrist, and blinked. "The triplets get out of school in another hour. Perhaps we'd better hurry and finish eating." They took a few more bites before he added, "Do you think you'll be continuing Stasia's run in daycare? Whether Delphine takes you on or not, I don't think you'll be so busy that you couldn't have her with you, at least part of the time."
"It did seem a little unfair to me to put her in there, when I always found a way to have the triplets with me before they were old enough for school. It couldn't be any harder with Stasia, and besides, there's only one of her, which might actually make it easier in a way. We'll work it out. Come on, my love, we have a lot to do."
They picked up Anastasia first, treating all the others in the building to the spectacle of the little girl's joyous reunion with her father, whom she hadn't seen for several days due to his hospital stay. When they finally got out the door, she held up a sheet of paper covered with circles, spirals and squiggles in every color of the rainbow. "I made dis, Daddy," she told Christian, displaying it at him with pride. "Dis is fowers."
"Lots of pretty flowers, yes, I see it!" Christian agreed, examining the page as though studying a classical painting. "That's very colorful, Stasia! It looks just like a garden!" Anastasia beamed happily. "So you painted today, did you? What else did you do?"
That kept Anastasia busy talking while they headed for the elementary school. She was still chattering—very unusual for her, her parents both noticed—when school let out and children began pouring out the front doors of the building with happy yells. The triplets piled into the car and all exclaimed in delight when they saw their father in the front passenger seat.
Leslie and Christian let them get through their expressions of joy at seeing their father again, and their questions, without interruption; but before they could deliver the news of their decision, Tobias suddenly asked, "Dad...did you die, like you and Mom said you would? Did you really die and then somebody brought you back?"
"That's what happened, yes," Christian said. He peered over his shoulder and smiled at his son. "But I was dead for less than three hours. Your mother saw to it that I didn't stay that way. So if it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here. I think perhaps you might say 'thank you' to her, for making sure I'm still alive."
"You're the bestest, Mom," Tobias announced, startling his mother by wrapping his arms around her neck from behind. "Thanks for bringing back Dad."
"Tobias, she's driving," Christian admonished through a laugh he simply couldn't keep inside, while Leslie made an exaggerated gagging sound and massaged her throat with some care. "You and the girls can hug her when we get home."
"But he's right," Susanna said staunchly. "You're the bestest."
"The best in the whole wide world," Karina chimed in.
Leslie grinned. "I'm happy to hear you think so. But Daddy getting well again isn't the only good thing that's happening. We've got a big surprise for you guys."
The triplets instantly began clamoring to hear what it was, almost at the tops of their lungs, and Christian rolled his eyes. "Now you've done it," he wisecracked. "By the time we get home, my ears will be ringing." She laughed and put on a little speed.
They had just gotten out of the car and were trying to quiet down the children—for Anastasia had enthusiastically joined her siblings' energetic pleas—when Michiko stepped out her front door and sauntered toward the Enstads' property line. "Well, listen to that," she said, grinning. "What's all the cacophony about—or is this your homecoming party, Christian? It's good to see you out of the hospital."
"It's good to be out," Christian replied, turned to his children and raised a hand. "That will do, all of you! Just wait!" They finally piped down, though they were clearly reluctant, and he smiled apologetically at Michiko. "Come over if you like."
"We have news," Leslie agreed with a grin.
"Then maybe you should let them in on it," Michiko suggested, bobbing a thumb in the air in the direction of the Hardings' house.
"I'll go tell 'em to come over," Susanna volunteered at top volume and tore off for the A-frame across the street without waiting for a response. Leslie shrugged, and Michiko broke into laughter while Christian shooed Karina, Tobias and Anastasia into the house.
A few minutes later Susanna returned with Maureen and her younger daughter, April, behind her. "Susanna says you have some kind of surprise," Maureen said as Susanna ushered them in like an airport employee waving a plane to a gate.
"We do," said Christian, who had already made himself comfortable in an armchair and had Anastasia on his lap, still holding her watercolor painting.
"You're home!" Maureen exclaimed. "Did—I mean, are you—"
"Yes, I was taken there due to the rotten-lung ailment, and yes, I, uh, passed on and was brought back. That was on Saturday, and I remained a little longer to help balance my blood nutrients. For fate's sake, sit down somewhere. You three, the same, please! You're making me dizzy with all your running around." Christian leveled a stern look at the triplets, who had been scuttling back and forth between the chairs as if burning off the energy they'd been storing up during school hours.
"Come on, guys, sit down," Leslie reinforced her husband's command. Michiko and Maureen managed to find seats themselves while the triplets took reluctant seats along the sofa, bare feet paddling restlessly as if they would rather have been running foot races in the yard. April wedged herself in beside Susanna, dropping her shoes on the floor.
"What's the surprise?" Tobias demanded.
Leslie and Christian shared a conspiratorial look. "Do you want to tell them, or would you rather leave it up to me?" Christian asked.
Leslie hesitated, then grinned, a little sheepish. "To tell the truth, I'd rather do it."
"By all means, then," he said and gestured to her in a go-to-it motion.
She drew in a breath, then grinned at the expectant faces surrounding her. "Christian and I talked about it over lunch, after he was released from the hospital, and...well, we've decided we're definitely doing it. We're moving back here to the island permanently."
"Yay!" shouted Tobias jubilantly, pumping a fist in the air with great vigor. "Yes, yes, yes! This is the coolest thing ever!"
"Oh wow!" exclaimed Karina, thrilled; Susanna and April both squealed and hugged each other, legs kicking with excitement so that their calves bounced off the edge of the sofa cushion they sat on. Michiko and Maureen looked at each other with dawning delight on their faces, before jumping up and both trying to hug Leslie at the same time.
"So you're not going back to Lilla Jordsö, then? At all? You two are just going to stay put from here on out?" Michiko inquired.
"Well, at some point we have to go back and pack a lot of odds and ends we took with us when we moved over there, but I imagine that can wait till summer. When I brought the kids back, I packed all their summer clothes, so they have plenty to get by with. I had to pack an extra suitcase for Christian...and between that and all the cat carriers, well, we got half the moving done just that one day." The adults all laughed.
"Perhaps we'll have to have some sort of party," Christian mused. "What Leslie likes to call a cookout. The others will want to hear this, and I'm sure they'll want to celebrate it, knowing the lot of you." He grinned at Maureen and Michiko.
"You know us; any excuse for a party," Maureen said cheerfully. "Too bad it's a school night, though. We won't get to stay up very late."
"Oh, who cares?" Michiko retorted. "News like this calls for a party whether it's a school night or not. Leslie's the grand poobah of this entire island, and she can just write excuse notes for all the schoolchildren and vouch for any of us adults who has to report to a boss in the morning."
"Which is none of them," Leslie scoffed, laughing, "except Kazuo, maybe. I can see you guys are planning to take full advantage of your friendship with me."
"Why shouldn't we?" Maureen said, grinning. "Get out your cell phone, Michiko. We have some people to call up."
April and the triplets had barreled out to the front yard to do all the overjoyed yelling and screaming they wanted; with Maureen and Michiko making frantic calls, Leslie perched on the arm of Christian's chair. "I guess this makes it official," she remarked.
"I'd certainly agree with that," said Christian, "especially when one of those two tells Myeko about it. The entire island will know before dark." He smirked when she pretended to sock him in the bicep, and they both laughed.
‡ ‡ ‡
There was indeed a good-sized cookout at the Enstads' house to celebrate Christian and Leslie's decision to stay, and it lasted much longer than the mothers of the school-age children were comfortable with; but eventually the youngsters ran down their batteries, and were soon docilely sprawled on the floor in the living room, watching one of the Shrek films. Leslie put Anastasia to bed for the night, told the children in the living room not to be too loud, and rejoined the others on the patio under the stars.
They were all pleasantly full from having eaten burgers, barbecued chicken, baked potatoes, grilled corn on the cob, and assorted tropical fruits for dessert. It had been a hastily-thrown-together meal, but it had satisfied everybody, and as the clock crept toward nine, the conversation began to grow leisurely and relaxed. During a lull in the chat, Nick Okada—Myeko's husband and the island's lone veterinarian—cleared his throat. "So now that we know you guys are staying for good, what about the rest of the world? I bet the folks back home especially are going to have fits, Christian."
Christian sighed and rolled his eyes. "I suppose we'll have to have another damned press conference. I'll confess I don't really know what the people back home will think, but they're one of the reasons I thought it best to stay. One of the smaller ones, mind you, but it was still a factor: their degradation and taunting of Leslie after she came here to find me and get me away from the kidnappers. It baffled me, to be honest. Generally, the public and press back home found her endearing, I thought. We always had warm welcomes whenever we appeared in public together, and they liked how she applied herself to learning the language. But then all this happened, and out of nowhere there was all this..." He shrugged, as if at a loss for words. "I simply don't understand it. At any rate, the biggest reason we came back is that truly, Leslie is needed here far more than I'm needed in Lilla Jordsö. My brother is prince regent and my great-nephew is the king. There are at least a dozen people in line for the throne ahead of me, and I don't want the damned thing in any case." Everyone laughed, and he chuckled and squeezed Leslie's hand. "We spoke to my brother and sister, and my brother-in-law, back home, and told them of our decision. They weren't surprised, but they sounded resigned and perhaps a bit weary. I think they expected this."
"Think there'll be hue and cry?" Grady Harding asked.
"Quite likely," Christian said with a nod. "But they don't need me. And perhaps, considering what I've learned about myself within the last year, I'm better off here." They had quietly told the rest of their friends about Christian's power, asked them to keep it in confidence, and summarized the events of the weekend just past.
"You'll go back for visits, of course," said Lauren questioningly.
Christian and Leslie both nodded. "We're still discussing the timing of those visits, but primarily we're thinking we can spend a month there in summer—say, maybe July—and also Christmas vacation." Leslie grinned. "When we talked about it with the triplets after Maureen and Michiko left to get stuff to bring for the cookout, all three of them admitted they thought a Christmas with snow was a lot more fun than one without, and Susanna and Karina are still after us about being allowed to attend the royal Christmas ball."
There was low laughter, but Camille Omamara gave her a look askance. "You think they'll still have the thing, after what happened at the last one?"
"I have no doubt about it. For one thing, it's a tradition; it's been held every year since I was five years old," said Christian. "And for another, if we called it off, it would bespeak paranoia on the part of my family. To allow something like this to be canceled because of a bunch of people who couldn't see past their own self-serving ends? I think not. So I'm sure we'll be attending a few of those, if they're scheduled to occur during our visits."
"I think you ought to have New Year's Eve bashes here," said Myeko, sounding a little wistful. "Your father always threw the greatest parties for those. If you decide to spend Christmas over there, and attend the ball, you ought to come back in time for New Year's and have a big, loud, glittery celebration right here."
Leslie snickered. "I'll keep it in mind." She glanced at her watch and then did a small double take. "Uh-oh, it's past nine-thirty, and it's only Monday night. I guess we'd all better get some kids off to bed. We promise we'll keep all you guys in the loop, but this whole decision is only a few hours old, and there's a lot of stuff to discuss and plan and think over. So give us a chance to process all this, and to at least make a list of topics to work on, and we'll stay in touch."
Their friends agreed, and on that note the men began packing up food, parceling it out so that everyone got to take some leftovers home, while those women who had children in attendance went in to get them ready to go home. It turned out that Karina had fallen asleep in a chair, curled up under a fleece blanket she had managed to bring with her from Lilla Jordsö, while the other children had barely finished watching the movie and were yawning, lying around the floor eyeing each other drowsily.
It took a good ten minutes to get everyone out the door; the Hardings were the last to leave, mostly because Maureen and Leslie had to sternly nix April and Susanna's idea for one to sleep over with the other. "Not on a school night, Susanna Shannon," Leslie finally said firmly. "You'll see April in the morning anyway, so say good night and let's get you upstairs and in bed."
Susanna scowled into the bathroom mirror while Karina and Tobias brushed their teeth, both too tired and sleepy to complain about it. She turned to Leslie, who was in the doorway waiting for them to finish. "The only bad thing is, me and Karina still have to share a room," she grumbled.
Leslie held back a sigh. "That's something else your father and I will discuss as we go along," she said. "And by the way, it's 'Karina and I', not 'me and Karina'. Just stick it out a while longer, and we'll see if we can come up with something."
Susanna made a face but gave in, and within fifteen minutes the triplets were in bed and sound asleep. Leslie found Christian in the kitchen trying to load the dishwasher, and shooed him to the table. "You're still regaining your full strength and health," she scolded him. "Sit down and keep me company, and I'll finish this up."
"What took you so long up there?" he asked, too tired to argue with her about her delegation of chores. He lowered himself into a chair with care and a soft groan.
"Oh, Susanna was complaining about her and Karina having to share that room upstairs," Leslie said, and he nodded, looking thoughtful. "We've already remodeled this house twice—adding the wing and then carving out the extra bedroom for Tobias. I don't know what else we can possibly do."
"Perhaps I do," Christian mused. "The storage space across from the guest suite on this level is actually more than we need. I think we kept primarily Christmas things in there, and the cribs from the triplets' infancy. It occurs to me that we could turn about half that space into a bedroom, and see who might be interested in sleeping in there."
"I didn't think that was finished enough for that," Leslie said. "I mean, wouldn't we have to have it partitioned off, and have insulation and drywall and electrical wiring and all kinds of other stuff installed in there? Right now it's just a rough space."
"I'm told it's no different from finishing a basement in a house," Christian mused. "Jimmy mentioned that he and Camille had a couple of rooms done in theirs, and gave one of them to David. I can ask him about it later. Just now, if you would, hurry and finish; I'm afraid I've reached the limit of my endurance for one day."
She deftly finished loading the dishwasher and got it running, then helped him to his feet and accompanied him upstairs. "There's the matter of Torfinn and his parents," she mused, half to herself. "And then I have those other five immigration forms to look at and decide whether to grant residence status, and I still need to—"
"To be quiet and stop thinking about it," Christian interrupted her, putting a hand over her mouth. "We have all the time in the world, my Leslie Rose. Give it a rest."
She gave in with a soft laugh. "Okay, okay, my love, you talked me into it. I admit, I'm tired too. But it's really funny—I feel like there's a huge load off my mind."
"Do you?" he asked as they both changed for bed.
"Yeah. I think—don't take this the wrong way, my love, but I think I was dreading going back to Lilla Jordsö. It's not that I didn't like it there, but I..." She thought it over, trailing him into the bathroom for teeth-brushing. "I guess I just never quite felt as if I fit in. I mean, the whole thing about not being a native-born jordisk woman, and having this huge accent when I speak the language, and not being sure how to conduct myself in those ultra-high social strata that royalty run in. Even by your side, I always felt out of my element. Here, I know what to do, I know what my role is and I know I belong. And I know the language, too." She grinned at him in the mirror.
Christian chuckled around his toothbrush. "We'll see how much you like it when you really have to start shouldering the duties your father left you with," he teased her. "But no more talk about it tonight, please. I'm afraid I may fall asleep on my feet."
So they finished up and went to bed, where Christian rolled onto his side to face her and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "It's good to be home. Please, turn over so I can hold you. Dreaming of doing that was one of the few things that kept me sane in those weeks I was in captivity." At that she smiled, and they nestled together, spoon-fashion. Though he still seemed too thin to her, his warmth was as welcome and substantial as ever. She wrapped her hand around his and closed her eyes, letting herself relax.
A few minutes slid by; then Leslie could have sworn she heard feet stepping, ever so gingerly, across the carpet. She opened her eyes and tried to see into the near-total dark, but couldn't make anything out.
Behind her, Christian lifted his head. "Who's that?" he asked.
There was a gasp, and with reluctance Leslie squirmed out of Christian's loose grasp and turned on her bedside lamp. Karina stood beside the L-shaped wall that closed off the stairs from her parents' bedroom; she had both hands over her mouth, and her eyes were two enormous hazel disks. Christian and Leslie both sat up to stare at her. "What're you doing up, young lady?" Leslie asked.
Karina's hands fell from her mouth and she hung her head, drawing lines on the carpet with her big toe. "I...I just wanted to be sure Daddy was really here," she said, her voice small and plaintive. "So many bad people took him away and did so much bad stuff to him, I keep getting scared that he won't be here again."
Leslie peered over her shoulder long enough to meet Christian's gaze, and he smiled at her before turning it on their daughter. "Come over here for a moment, lillan min," he said, and she shuffled up to Leslie's side of the bed, working her lower lip between her teeth. "I know everything seems crazy right now, with so much happening in a short time. But it's all over now; we'll be safe here. If we come up against something that's too big for us, then your mother can call on your grandfather, and he can help. This is truly as safe a place for us as you could want." He grinned. "Anyhow, I don't think your mother would let anyone else take me away. The last group made her very angry."
Leslie snickered and Karina giggled. "So I guess if somebody else tries, Mommy would fight 'em off," she suggested.
"You bet I would, and don't you forget it," Leslie teased, bouncing a fingertip off her daughter's nose. "Don't you worry, sweetie. Daddy's been cured of that lung disease, and now all he has to do is eat lots of good food and he'll be just like new again. And don't forget that you and Susanna and Tobias promised you'd help by eating the same foods."
"Well...I know," Karina agreed, "but could we stop eating those mini lettuce balls, please? Those don't taste good at all, not even with butter."
"Mini lettuce balls?" echoed Christian through a budding laugh.
"Yeah, those little green lettuce balls that smell up the whole house when you cook them," Karina explained.
Suddenly Leslie realized what she meant and laughed. "You must be talking about Brussels sprouts," she said. "That's funny, I thought you'd protest against the kale."
"I prob'ly don't like that either," Karina said, shrugging.
Christian and Leslie broke into laughter and pulled her onto the bed long enough to hug her. "We'll talk about it later, honey," Leslie promised. "But remember, it's a school night, and we've already been awake a lot later than we should be. I promise, Daddy and I will both be here in the morning. You need to go on back to bed."
She went, after getting extra good-night kisses from both parents, and again Christian and Leslie settled back down in their spoon-style repose. Somehow, reassuring their daughter had succeeded in reassuring them as well, and they were soon sound asleep, with the stars gleaming down on them and a night crier serenading them in the distance.
§ § § - February 6, 2012
The triplets had gone off to school with Maureen, who was taking April and Brianna, now a high-school senior; Christian was still working on a special fortified oatmeal that Dr. Jeffreys had recommended, and Anastasia was wielding a spoon with more success than usual while having a bowl of her sister Karina's favorite jordisk breakfast specialty, grömmagraut. Though Leslie had felt more like having sausage and scrambled eggs, she had decided to have the same oatmeal Christian was eating, just as a show of moral support. To her surprise, she found she liked it. "Boy, we should keep this as a permanent staple around here," she commented. "I really like this stuff."
Christian grunted good-naturedly and swallowed a mouthful. "It's expensive," he observed. "I suppose it's fortunate that we can afford it."
She laughed, and just then the phone rang, surprising them enough to make them stare at each other for a minute. "Mommy, dat's winging," Anastasia felt compelled to point out, indicating the phone on the wall with a small index finger.
Christian and Leslie laughed, and she got up to answer it. It wasn't yet eight o'clock, which was most of the reason they had reacted as they had. "Enstads," she said.
"Leslie, it's Staffan," Anna-Laura's voice blurted on the other end. "Fate help us, but it's Staffan. I don't know what to do. Esbjörn said we should call you and you might have some idea, but I just don't think...what can we do?"
"Wait a minute...what do you mean, it's Staffan? What's Staffan?" Leslie broke in.
"The next generation," Anna-Laura told her. "Adriana had the boys out walking in the snow, and Staffan found a dead bird and picked it up. By the time Adriana realized what he had done, it was...it had flown away. The bird, I mean." Anna-Laura caught herself and sucked in a deep breath that sounded close to a sob. "Leslie, he has the power!"
THE END OF BOOK ONE
‡ ‡ ‡ § § § ‡ ‡ ‡
The stories of the clans and the royal family will continue...this is meant to be the first of a book series called The Lost Clans. It can be said to be a first draft for something I hope to submit for publication one day.
With many thanks, as always, to jtbwriter1956 and Harry2.0 for their reviews, as appreciated and welcome as ever! Also thanks to Liquid Light (under all pseudonyms) for the reviews—so glad you've enjoyed the story, and I hope you'll like the future ones too.