§ § § - June 30, 2012

Leslie had caught her father up on a myriad of events, ending with the story of young Niessa Liljefors. "So I think, even despite the horrible losses they suffered, they're going to come back strong. In a way, this gives the survivors opportunities they didn't have before, but it's such a rotten shame that it had to happen the way it did. And there's no way it could have been anyone but the head goon who did it."

"No, I believe you're correct, Leslie," her father agreed. "You did right, bringing them here to this island." He gazed through the windshield of the resort jeep Leslie was using to drive them to a little-known beach a bit west of center, on the northern side of the island. "All clues point to it being the responsibility of the kidnap leader, especially your accounts of one woman's sighting of an...'air disturbance', for lack of a better term, and the swiftness with which the fire was extinguished. If there is a pattern to these attacks and appearances, it has yet to present itself."

"Well..." Leslie began, and when she had his attention, she bit her lip. "I almost forgot to tell you, somehow. I saw an, uh, 'air disturbance' myself."

His gaze grew sharp. "Describe it to me."

"I can do better than that—I can show it to you." Leslie pulled over to the side of the road long enough to get her cell phone from her purse, find the photos and video she had taken, and show them to her father. He watched the video intently; a thunderous scowl appeared on his face when he heard the whispered threat on the breeze at the end.

"Where were you when you saw this?" he asked.

"On a street in Sundborg, in the foyer of a department store there. There was traffic, and people on the sidewalks, and one of the royal chauffeurs was right in front of me. But no one around me saw it. I'm thinking there must have been someone from the Kullenäs clan in the vicinity when this happened. It's the only explanation I can think of."

"You may be right," her father mused.

"Maybe you can send a few of your, uh, posse to Lilla Jordsö," she suggested. "Most of Christian's clan are still there, after all, and maybe if there's somebody there to keep an eye out for more sightings, there'd be some chance of thwarting another attack."

Her father nodded slowly. "It's a possibility," he allowed. "A slim one, as it happens, but the best one we've had so far. Very well, as soon as we've spoken with Akima, I'll see to it. There's much to be done."

Leslie nodded, pulling into a large apartment complex just on the outskirts of Amberville and parking. "Let me get Haruko and we'll get going."

Haruko Miyamoto had moved into her new apartment while Christian and Leslie had been in Lilla Jordsö; when she answered the door, Leslie noticed that the place was still sparsely furnished. "I see you need a few things yet, huh?"

"I'll get them in time," Haruko said confidently. "I've been at a couple of yard sales around this end of the island, and I picked up this really cool old-fashioned beanbag chair to sit in while I'm reading or watching TV." She opened the door enough to show Leslie the big yellow blob sitting under a window; there was an enormous overstuffed cushion on it, the size of half a park bench and the color of fuzzy bread mold.

Leslie thought the cushion was hideous, but she concealed her reaction, figuring Haruko had chosen the thing for comfort rather than for looks. "Looks cozy."

"Looks ugly, really," Haruko said, a knowing grin sliding across her face, "but you're right about it being cozy. I'm saving for a futon, but I'm going to keep the beanbag anyway. It's just too comfy to get rid of." She laughed when Leslie rolled her eyes in a teasing manner, and urged, "Let's get going."

In a couple of minutes Leslie had them back on the road; it took them another twenty or so to reach their destination, but they were just on time, for Akima came swimming toward them mere moments after they had paused at the waterline. Behind her was another half-human, half-fish figure, this one male and boasting the sort of good looks Hollywood producers routinely drooled over. "You are all here—that is excellent!" the mermaid greeted them with satisfaction. "Haruko, my friend, you should recall my brother Andonen." She gestured at her companion.

"I do remember," said Haruko. "Good to see you again, Andonen."

"Likewise," Andonen replied, beaming at her. "My sister failed to tell me you would be in attendance here, so this is a pleasant little surprise. And as for you, I am well pleased and honored to meet you both. You are of a clan, Akima says—yes?"

"I am," Leslie's father said with a nod to Andonen. "It's my understanding that you two have discovered, and perhaps procured copies of, documentation explaining the true origins of the merfolk. I quite understand the risks of presenting me and others in the realms with the originals."

Akima informed them, "They are of enormous significance to the merfolk—there is hot debate among the community, you see, as to their authenticity. I was always a skeptic about the creation myths. The idea that we were all descended from a god called Neptune, or Poseidon, or Triton...whatever...sounded simply too fanciful for my taste."

"When I saw the scrolls, it made more sense," Andonen said, then tossed Akima a wry glance. "Not very much more, mind you, but somehow space travel feels more plausible to me than a magical genesis from some forgotten old deity. And after what Akima has told me of other clans—and the proof I myself saw, that Haruko there was a mermaid for a time due to the specific talents of the clan you hail from—" he gestured to Leslie's father— "there was some evidence to support the tale told in the original seaweed-parchment scrolls."

"So between us, we have memorized every part of the scrolls, every word of them," Akima concluded. "I trust you have some manner of recording what we have to say?"

From an inner pocket of the seemingly featureless oat-colored shirt he wore, Leslie's father produced a squat silver cylinder that fit neatly into his palm. "You may speak into this in whatever order you choose. We are in no hurry, so take your time and be as clear in your speech as possible. This information will go a long way toward augmenting our archives, which I am afraid have been sorely lacking for several millennia now; and if other merfolk become convinced of the truth of the clan's origins, it will not only help to unite all the clans—for that's the goal we're working toward—but also will allow me the opportunity to offer sanctuary to any merfolk who wish to take advantage of it. This island is under powerful protections that cannot be broken; all clan members who come here are safe."

"We will spread the word where we can," Akima promised. "I think we should best begin our narrative now, before our carefully memorized passages attempt to escape our heads. With your permission?" Leslie's father nodded, and Akima began to speak to the small silver cylinder in his hand.

"We came here from our ravaged home planet in a time when the days were not numbered. We arrived with other clans: they who tend to the animals and they who tend to the plants; they who heal the sick and they who bring life to the dead; they who visit the past and they who glimpse the future; they who control the weather and they who protect the oceans; they who witness others' dreams and they who influence minds; they who create matter and they who shape it. With us we brought the Sacred Sarcophagi to preserve our heritage and ensure our legacy. It was agreed among all the clans that the Sarcophagi are never to be opened until the Return Time, for upon that day the ancient wisdom of the clans who survived will be augmented with the wisdom left to us by those unfortunates who perished with our world."

Andonen took over: "On this world we landed at a great sheet of ice, covering vast grassland with few inhabitants. The Matter Makers perished in the landing, reducing our numbers and our collective power; they it was who protected the Sacred Sarcophagi. It was necessary then to confer guardianship of the Sarcophagi to the Matter Shifters. The clan made a solemn and binding promise to secrete the Sarcophagi in a place never to be known to the members of any other clan until the Return Time. When this promise was made, it became necessary for the clans to separate, to populate this unknown new world and to blend in with those who already occupy these lands. We glimpsed a vast sea in the near distance, a day's travel by foot; and it was ascertained that these waters were in dire need of benevolent guardians. So did we become the Sea Rulers, and to facilitate our ability to live within the realm we were meant to protect, the Matter Shifters and those few Body Menders who remained joined forces, combining their powers to allow us to retain the brains of the Clans, but to give us also the means by which to breathe in the water and to swim through it. We pledge ever to protect all life within the oceans of this planet that has welcomed us."

Akima spoke again. "These documents are written in a time of unprecedented expansion by the native inhabitants of this planet. They have learned cultivation, settlement, greed, commerce, warfare and exploration. They achieve great things yet commit great destruction. They search out truth but rely on superstition. They seek the new, only to reject it. Like prefers like and casts out the unlike. We, as the most unlike them, must now hide ourselves within the medium we are sworn to protect, for our own safety as well as for that of the living things over which we watch. May the Golden One have mercy upon our fellow clans. We have seen nothing of them for a great many turns of the local sun, and we can no longer trouble ourselves with their fate, for we must look to our own in these fearful times."

Andonen explained, "We felt that was the most important part, so we were certain to memorize these paragraphs word for word. The remaining parts of the scrolls explain our history, how we gradually spread throughout the earth's oceans and created colonies for ourselves in deep, secluded places. We are unschooled, thus unqualified to make even a general guess as to when these were written. But I suspect they are several millennia in age, four or five in my estimation. I should add that the scrolls make mention of the unusual longevity of our clan—the so-called Sea Rulers—and yours, the Matter Shifters."

Leslie's father nodded in silence; Leslie herself felt compelled to ask, "Are they the only two clans who are that long-lived?"

Akima and Andonen exchanged glances, and her father said, "As far as is known, yes. There's never been an explanation for this, but it's said to have been true on the homeworld as well as here. It was a large factor in the decimation of my clan and in the forced sequestration of the merpeople, but not the only one." He turned his attention back to the siblings. "Please continue with everything else you remember from the scrolls."

From there, Akima and Andonen continued reciting what they had memorized; it was a long history of the clan, recounting the lineage of its leading family as well as the gradual dispersal and settlement of the merfolk—or, as the scrolls had it, the Sea Rulers—through the centuries. It was another ten minutes before they had completed recounting all they had learned, and Leslie's father straightened slowly, his expression faraway.

"What are we to do from here?" Akima asked, her voice anxious. "Andonen is as convinced as I of the danger, but very few of the rest of us are. Nothing has yet happened to justify the fear, they say..."

"Oh, but it has," Leslie's father interrupted gently, in a heavy tone, and filled them in on the destruction of Liljefors Slott. "There are fewer than two dozen remaining members of the family now—they are the clan referred to in the scrolls as 'they who influence minds'—and thanks to the quick work of my daughter and son-in-law, they are now all safely here on the island. It appears that the kidnap leader is still in my son-in-law's native country, where chances are fair he will attempt to wreak more damage. As soon as we have completed this meeting, I will be sending several denizens of the realms to monitor the area and try to speak with various members of the Kullenäs clan—the scrolls call them 'they who bring life to the dead'. Feel free to spread the word through your community—not just regarding the danger posed by this madman, but the standing offer of sanctuary here."

"I need little more convincing than that," Andonen muttered. "This does not sit well with me, nor will it with anyone else who has any true sense. We have the means to swim far faster than any other sea creature, and our speeds rival the humans' aircraft—sometimes exceed them. Akima and I will work together to see to it that our entire clan is made aware of this threat and of the haven that can be found here."

"While we ourselves move to new dwellings within this island's territorial waters," Akima added firmly. "It is my intention to do this immediately, and those others of our kind whom I see along the way will not go unwarned, I assure you." She paused while Andonen shifted in the water, as if in preparation to depart, and focused on Haruko, who had been watching in flabbergasted speechlessness the entire time. "Haruko, my dear friend, I mean to look for a place near your dwelling, so that we can meet more often. You have said you work now to study sea life in the hope of preserving it to the greatest extent you can—you told me just that, the very night before you departed this island to begin your schooling in that vocation. I will help you all I can."

Haruko let out a dazed little giggle. "Oh wow...Dania will never believe where I got all my knowledge. She said I need to learn to scuba-dive." Fielding Akima's smirk of amusement, she peered at Leslie's father. "It was all I could do not to tell her I did one better than that once, thanks to you letting me be a mermaid for a weekend."

Leslie's father chuckled. "If you feel it expedient to clue in your new boss that the sea contains more than she was taught it does, you are welcome to call on me for support. You can get word to Leslie, and she'll inform me. The oceans do in fact need protection, and not just from the kidnap leader. You and Akima and Andonen, if he's willing, can work together, being liaisons for your respective sides, and that will be a most auspicious beginning."

"I hope so. I just want to be the best I can, and help all I can," Haruko said, a bashful smile stealing across her face. "Just let me know when you want to meet again, Akima."

"I certainly will. For now, I will begin to scout the coast for a suitable place to make my home. Tell me, please—" she turned to Leslie's father— "how far from the edge of this land do your protections extend?"

"Ten miles on all sides," said Leslie's father, "with the exception of the western coast. There is an island known as Coral Island lying a little more than eight miles distant, and our waters extend only as far as a one-mile limit from their eastern and southeastern coasts. You may prefer to avoid that side of the island in your search for a new dwelling."

"I thank you for this advice," Akima said. "I must be off, then...I do hope our information has been of assistance to you. Until next time, Haruko!" Haruko gave a little wave, and Akima submerged herself and vanished.

Andonen lingered. "I admit to finding all this an enormous revelation," he admitted at last. "And I worry also: how are we to protect the oceans when we ourselves appear to need protecting from another clansman gone insane?"

"Despite his nature, and what he himself would like to believe, he cannot be everywhere at once," Leslie's father commented dryly. "I have reason to believe that he will confine himself to Lilla Jordsö for some time yet. It should allow you and the rest of the clan more than enough time to marshal defenses and formulate a plan in case our quarry should shift his attentions. Let me take this chance to extend to you my sincerest appreciation and gratitude for your assistance in adding to our accumulated knowledge of all the clans."

"The more I learn, the more convinced I am of the importance of this," Andonen said. "I am very glad I was able to help."

Leslie and her father bid him farewell, and with Haruko just behind, started back to the sand, on their way to where Leslie had left the jeep. But they heard Andonen call out, and all of them stopped. Haruko cleared her throat nervously—for it was her name they had heard—and said, "I, uh, I think Andonen wants to talk to me. Can you wait?"

"Not too long," Leslie's father cautioned. "The sooner I get this information safely to the archives in the realms, the better."

"Okay," Haruko said. "Well, if I'm longer than maybe five minutes, I can always catch the shuttle bus home."

"All right, just be careful," Leslie said, and Haruko nodded before wading back into the shallow surf. Leslie watched for a few seconds, then smiled to herself and accompanied her father back to the waiting jeep.

She perched sideways in the driver's seat and began vigorously brushing sand off her feet. "That was some revelation!" she marveled. "Twelve clans that originally came here—and correct me if I'm wrong, but did that include a weather-controlling clan?"

"So it did," her father confirmed. "There has been no word of any of them in all the millennia since the clans began to scatter around the globe. Perhaps we'll hear of them one day soon, but for now we must simply deal with matters as they arise."

Leslie nodded; then she remembered her meeting with Karella and Niessa Liljefors earlier. "Father...there's something I promised to ask you about. I had a talk with one of our latest immigrants, and I'm told that all the Liljefors clan members who are here on the island are young—probably no older than my own age, if that. Karella said that their last greatmother perished in the destruction of Liljefors Slott, and she was the only member of the clan left who knew certain things about them—the stuff that greatmothers apparently pass down only when they're dying, and only to the one or two women who'll be taking their place. With the last greatmother gone, Karella's sure that knowledge is lost forever, but she wanted me to look into it. Do you know if there's any way to find out?"

Her father frowned slightly. "I can't tell you directly, but there's a chance that this information may be stored in the archival realm. While I won't make any promises about its availability, I'll certainly look into it."

She smiled at that. "Okay, that's great—thanks, Father."

He returned the smile, then examined the silver cylinder in his hand for a moment while she donned a sandal and switched feet. Then he said, "I think it best if I leave directly from here to return to the realms. Wait here for Haruko if you like, Leslie, and if there is anything else you think I should know, contact me and I will be back." She agreed, and he smiled before disappearing.

She was still digging sand out from between her toes when Haruko emerged from the darkness and paused beside the jeep, looking around in confusion. Leslie, reading her expression, grinned and said, "He left already—he felt it was urgent to get that information to the realms post-haste. Hop in, we'll head for home."

Haruko climbed in without a word, belting herself into the seat and then staring unseeingly through the windshield for most of the trip back toward the resort area. Finally Leslie asked, "Are you okay?"

Haruko started, then hunched her shoulders; in the glow of a passing streetlamp, Leslie could see her blush. "It's nothing really, just...just Andonen asking me about my time in college and what I'm doing now that I'm back home."

"Hm, I see," Leslie murmured, though somewhere in the back of her head, she had a suspicion there was more to it than that, judging from Haruko's reaction to her question. Well, she mused to herself, it's not as if mermaids haven't charmed human men before—makes sense it'd work the other way around. But it'd be one heck of a difficult romance, if they reach that point. She pulled into the main drive at the apartment complex and waved at Haruko as the younger woman slid out and headed toward her building, then turned the jeep around and pointed it in the direction of home, her mind skating down a dozen different paths.

§ § § - July 1, 2012

Karella left the opening of the bookshop to her sister, as she usually did now on Sunday mornings, and ventured across the square to the brick apartment building where she could see the street door standing open and a few stacks of boxes waiting there. She hesitated on the sidewalk; but before she could wonder what to do next, Torfinn emerged from the building and brightened at sight of her. "I was just about to come and get you. Come in and take a look. It's bigger than my old flat in Lilla Jordsö."

She followed him in and saw that he had a kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom arranged in a neat square formation, with a walk-in closet in the bedroom and a little linen closet across from the bathroom door. "The kitchen seems a bit small," she said.

"It's bigger than what I had before. That one was just a little extension off the living room, with a few cabinets and appliances smaller than normal. This one is an actual separate room. And for at least a little while, I'll have the whole building to myself." He grinned when she laughed. "I like the way these flats come with basic furniture. Maybe Princess Leslie knew that anyone who immigrated under circumstances like ours would need furnished flats. Whatever it was, I'm glad about it." He dusted off his hands and turned to her. "I have only my clothes and a few other things to put away. You can help if you like."

It didn't take them long to get Torfinn's boxes into the flat, and Karella pulled apart their top flaps for him while he unpacked and put away clothes. She was surprised to note that he had very little that wasn't utilitarian: mostly about two shelves' worth of books, an iPod, and a small box of CDs. "You didn't bring very much here with you," she remarked.

"It was necessary. We had to leave Lilla Jordsö in a hurry, and we could take only things that meant a lot to us. Anyway, I don't have quite everything here. There are still a few boxes at my parents' flat. Come with me, we'll get them now."

They didn't say much on the way over to Torfinn's parents' place, which was above a still-empty storefront; but Karella was used to Torfinn's reticence, and had come to accept it as being just part of who he was. He pointed out the boxes that were waiting near the door, and when his mother came out of another room, introduced her to Karella. She expressed her condolences for what had happened at Liljefors Slott, and Karella managed a little smile and a quiet thanks, watching wistfully as Torfinn gave his mother a quick hug, assured her he'd be just across the square, and hefted up two boxes. Karella followed him back, lugging two as well, and blew out her breath when they reached his new flat and she was able to put them down. The day was warm, and she wondered if island residents had a right to use the pool at the resort. She would have at least liked to stick her feet in the water.

"You look thoughtful," Torfinn commented, unpacking one of the boxes, which held towels, washcloths, and hand towels.

"Oh, well...I just wondered if we might be able to use the resort swimming pool. It's warm here all year, isn't it? It's too bad we couldn't have one built here in the village. It could be for everyone who lives on the island. A good way to bring them over here...and then they might shop at the stores here."

Torfinn stopped cold, his eyes wide and impressed. "That's a great idea! I wonder if Princess Leslie and Prince Christian would go for it. The only problem is where we'd put it. I'd think that vacant lot next door would have been perfect, but since the communal garden went in there, we'd have to find someplace else for it."

Karella nodded and mused, "Well, if we spoke to Princess Leslie about it, she could figure out where to put it. It's her island, she must know it better than anybody else."

"I'm starting to think you should run for a seat on the island council," Torfinn said, half jokingly. "Only I guess you'd have to be a citizen, and of course neither one of us is, not yet. Did they tell you about citizenship rules here?"

"Yes, you have to be here a year. But the information I got said that anyone who's a citizen can run for a seat on the council, whether they were born here or not. I don't really know if I want to do that anyway. I don't even like politics."

Torfinn laughed. "I can understand that—politics is about the dirtiest game on earth—but it might not be so bad here. I heard the reason they're having an election this month is to see if this one argumentative council member can be replaced." He noticed her surprised look. "I'm thinking that maybe being on the island council—when I'm eligible, of course—could be a good thing. I think our village should have a representative. And anyway, all I'm doing is working in the Scandinavian shop. Someday I'd like to do more than just that, and maybe find a way to give something back to this place where we're safe from harm."

"That's a wonderful thing, Torfinn," Karella murmured.

He grunted, amused. "Yeah, it's pretty ambitious for a guy like me. But I do rather feel I owe something. Anyway, that's for the future." He stacked towels atop one another and made his way to the bathroom, with Karella behind him lugging the box with the rest.

"I wonder if we'll ever see Lilla Jordsö again," she said, mostly to herself.

Torfinn glanced at her as he opened a small closet door and pushed his stack of towels onto a shelf inside. "Maybe someday, if this...whatever-it-is is caught and locked away. But I'm not sure I'd go back there to live, only to visit." He took another stack of terrycloth from the box. "It feels good here. I feel like I belong, even me with my power and my strange quiet personality."

"Just because your personality is quiet doesn't make it strange," Karella protested.

He cast her a smile over one shoulder. "Well, introverts aren't always accepted for who we are. I've had questions about why I'm so quiet. It's nice to be with someone who doesn't mind if I don't talk."

"You talk with me," Karella pointed out.

"True...but then you're special." Torfinn stored away the last of the cloths and shut the door. "Maybe you'd like to know that you're the first girl who ever said she loved me."

She wasn't quite sure she believed it. "That can't be right. I mean...not even in school or anything like that?"

"No," said Torfinn. She realized he was studying her, and a hot-and-cold sensation swept through her, head to toe and back again, several times. "There are plenty of other things I'd rather do than talk."

For a crazy second she actually intended to ask him what, and then he leaned toward her, his palm sliding up the side of her neck and into her hair, and kissed her. It felt so good that Karella decided to stop thinking altogether and just feel, for a change.

§ § § - July 15, 2012

It was the day of the special election, and Christian and Leslie cast their votes early, both voting for the challenger in the race for the lone contested island-council seat and casting votes for the replacements for the rest of the council with some extra care, for they had been surprised to find that there were at least twice as many candidates as available council seats. They had spent the past ten days going over all the information sheets that had been turned in as part of the paperwork required to be filed by would-be candidates on this island, and had winnowed their choices down to those six they felt were best suited to serve on the council. They could now only wait to see what the outcome was.

Emerging from the amphitheater-style auditorium where the polling station had been set up in the high school, they made their way to the nearby field where the physical-education classes held their exercise routines; here there was a temporary playground setup for parents who needed to bring their children along. As they scanned the grounds, searching out their children, they were surprised to see Roald pull to a stop nearby, driving one of the resort vehicles. He hopped out and let his three boys and Lisi spill out while someone in a rear seat tended to little Astrid. "What are you doing here," asked Leslie, "and who'd you kill to get hold of that SUV?"

Roald snickered. "Nobody. I just sweet-talked Delphine into letting me use it any time she didn't need it for the resort. I think I overheard her saying something about how you were gonna kill her, as I was walking out, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. So did you vote yet?"

"Just finished," Leslie said.

"And we're about to leave. I don't suppose you had a reason for tracking us down all the way out here," Christian hinted.

Roald's expression sobered. "Well, I guess I might as well admit it...I wanted to have a talk with you. The kids need to burn off some energy, so this is as good a place as any to do it, if there's some place away from other people."

Christian and Leslie looked at each other and both shrugged. "Well enough," said Christian. "We can sit in our own car if you'd rather; there'll be more privacy."

Once Christian had moved his and Leslie's car so that it was parked alongside the borrowed SUV, he shifted in the driver's seat so that he was facing Leslie's side of the car and could see Roald, who sat in the middle seat. "So what is it?"

"I've started considering staying on the island for good," said Roald baldly.

A minute or two ticked off while Christian and Leslie absorbed this; then Christian asked, "Do your parents know about this?"

"No, not yet," said Roald, which didn't surprise Leslie at all. "I wanted to see what you two thought about it. I'm sure mor and far will head for the moon whenever I tell them, but you know how it is, Uncle Christian. How it's always been—all of us coming to you for advice first. Sometimes we never did consult our parents."

"Oh, I'm sure that made them happy," Christian commented dryly. "I'm presuming this is precipitated by the fact that your boys all have the clan power and that both your niece and your daughter have the capability to pass it down to their offspring one day."

"Yeah, that's most of it. Plus the possible ramifications of taking them back home and sending Staffan to school. He's at an age where he couldn't keep a secret for anything on earth. He'd tell someone—or worse than that even, he'd end up somehow using the power in front of other people, and they'd never keep it quiet. At least if he does it here, it won't attract the attention of that ghoul Aunt Leslie's father's still hunting for."

"Are you certain beyond all doubt that this is what you want?" Christian asked.

"No, I'm not," Roald snorted. "Why do you think I'm asking you? I wanted to get your take on the whole thing, is all."

Leslie spoke up then: "You said the boys' having the power was most of your rationale for staying. Is the rest of it due to Karella Liljefors and your wanting to keep a hand in that possible relationship?"

Roald shot her a startled look, then seemed to sag where he sat, and shook his head. "No, I've lost out on that. I was taking the kids to the Scandinavian import shop to pick out some soft drinks from back home, and she was in there with that guy who I think is part of the clan. I forgot his name, but I knew she was interested in him too. It looks like he won out. They were hanging all over each other and I'm not sure they even saw me. So I tried to get the kids to hurry up and choose, but you know how they are. Lisi and Staffan took forever, and I had to pick Johan-Erik's and Markus' drinks for them, and all the while there's the servant, Emilia, standing there with Astrid and Pia in the stroller. I've got a zoo—what the hell would Karella Liljefors want with me now? So no, she's got nothing to do with it. And anyway, I don't think I'm ready to try to start another romance after all." He saw Christian's quizzical expression. "I can't be. If I were, I'd have tried harder with Karella, don't you think? So I guess my priorities are different. I've got my kids, and my dojo, and of course my niece for the summer. That'll have to be enough."

Christian and Leslie both nodded slowly, meeting each other's gazes again briefly. Then Christian studied his nephew for a moment or two. "If you do stay, what will you do with yourself? Will you take island citizenship eventually? Are you going to become even more involved in your dojo here, or what? I don't suppose you necessarily have to have a plan, but I think it would be to your advantage if you did. Otherwise you'll be bored."

Roald shrugged. "Well, I haven't thought it through that far. I think I'm kind of afraid to, you know? And who knows, maybe they'll find that goon before the end of the year that I allotted myself, and I won't have to decide one way or the other—it'll be safe to go home."

"But Staffan could still reveal the secret inadvertently," Christian pointed out. "That won't go away for some time—and then you'd have to worry about whether his brothers after him would accidentally give it away. If that's your primary motivator, you need to either think very carefully about what would happen if they did, or else immediately begin drilling it into their heads that they can never tell anyone about the power or show that they have it. And even that isn't foolproof. Staffan could grasp it, I think, but Johan-Erik and Markus are still too young to understand how urgent it is."

"Yeah, I guess that's true," mumbled Roald, pondering this.

His aunt and uncle waited, but he didn't say anything, so Leslie suggested, "I think you need to talk this out with your parents. Just explain that you haven't decided one way or the other, but there's at least one compelling reason for you to stay here, and you'd like to get their viewpoint. They might have some advice we haven't thought of. If you're not ready to say anything to them yet, then you could wait till they come out here for that two-week stay they've told us they're scheduling for the end of August so they can take Lisi home with them. You'll have quite a lot of explaining to do to the people anyway, if you make the decision to stay."

"To say the least," Christian remarked. "They've been in enough of an uproar over the fact that I've decided to plant my branch of the family tree here on this island, once and for all. They still can't seem to understand that I'm not vital to the succession."

"Neither am I," said Roald. "I might not be as far down the line as you are, but I'm still a pretty good ways on. My kids don't even bear the Enstad surname, and unless they marry into royalty, when they find life partners they'll all lose their titles."

Surprised, Leslie turned to Christian. "Did you know that?"

He nodded. "Another one of the myriads of things we're taught in Royal Comportment. It's a little complicated, but the basic structure of jordisk law in regard to royal titles provides that the descendants of any siblings to the heir will lose their titles upon marriage, beginning with the third generation. The same thing will happen to our own grandchildren. You and I will keep our titles, and Stasia and the triplets will also keep theirs; but any children they have will be commoners, unless they marry other royals. The only ones exempt from this will be Matti's heir apparent and his or her descendants."

"But there's nobility," Leslie protested. "You know—Carl the Fourth's sister, Princess Dorotea, married a duke, and her descendants have inherited that title."

"Yes, but that's because she was careful about choosing her spouse," Christian explained with a touch of humor. "Had she married a commoner, our distant cousin Sebastian Markelius wouldn't be a duke; he'd be just another working stiff."

Leslie grinned and nodded understanding. "I see...so." She turned to Roald. "This may sound like a huge leap, but are you thinking maybe it would be wiser to raise your kids outside the castle, in case a transition to a commoner's life after they're married is too much of a shock for them otherwise?"

Roald's jaw sank; Christian burst into laughter. "Now there's a hell of a reason to decide to remain here. That's funny, my Rose. I wouldn't have thought of that."

"I didn't either," Roald remarked pointedly, and this time Leslie laughed too. "What's with the history lesson, anyway? I don't care if they're commoners or royal. I just want to be sure they're not in danger because of the power they have."

Sobering, Christian and Leslie both nodded. "We understand that, Roald," Christian said. "It's just that in the end, it's your decision, and since it affects at least seven lives—the children's, yours, and those of your parents—you need to consider it with great care. And for fate's sake, by all means bring your mother and father in on it, even if only because they'll put you through their own version of the Spanish Inquisition if you don't."

"Probably," Roald concurred gloomily. "Well, if they're not going to be here for another month or so, it gives me time to decide one way or the other—or at least to consider the pros and cons of both sides." He heaved a sigh that seemed to rock the car. "All right then. I guess that's about all I can do for right now. Thanks for hearing me out."

"Anytime," said Christian. "We may as well let the children run themselves out; that way we won't have quite as many protests when we tell them it's time to leave."

"You don't have to be anywhere, Aunt Leslie, do you?" asked Roald.

"Not right now, but Christian and I both are on the tallying panel, so we're going to be down at the council house for about four hours after the polls close tonight."

"Somebody gonna be with the kids?" Roald asked.

Christian nodded. "We've arranged for a sitter to stay with them. Until then, though, we don't have much of anything to do; we've cast our votes, so it's only a matter of waiting. Let's get out and get a little fresh air while we wait for the children."

The polls were to close at eight; at six-thirty Christian and Leslie served supper to their offspring. "How come you aren't eating with us?" Tobias asked.

"We have to go and count votes," Leslie told him. "We'll be leaving at seven, and we have a babysitter for you." She grinned at their sour looks and added, "You'll like this one. Haruko said she'll come over and stay with you."

The triplets nearly brought the ceiling down with their cheering; Anastasia looked startled by the noise, then clapped and cheered as well, even though she had no idea why she was doing it. Their parents burst into laughter and urged them to finish eating. "Haruko'll be over here before seven, so you have maybe twenty minutes. And remember, when she tells you it's bedtime, you're not to argue with her," Leslie reminded them.

"We know, we know," Susanna said between shoveling bites into her mouth. "We'll be good. We're eight years old, geez."

"We don't mind doing what Haruko says, 'cause she's so much fun," Karina put in.

"We'll make sure Stasia does what Haruko says, too," Tobias said confidently.

Leslie laughed. "Well, good for you. Don't eat that fast, now, or you'll choke."

Christian shook his head with amusement. "Perhaps you'd better go and pick up Haruko now, my Rose. I'll do my best to slow down the little monsters." He winked at the triplets, who giggled but went right on chowing down.

Leslie drove up to Haruko's apartment and picked her up there, relating the tale of the triplets' reaction to the news that she was sitting for them that evening. Haruko broke into laughter. "It's nice to be popular," she kidded, before her expression shifted and she eyed Leslie with a touch of trepidation. "I saw Akima about a week ago. She called for me about an hour after I got off work for the day, and I went over to Mr. Enstad's beach, you know, where you said he runs sometimes." Leslie nodded. "Akima was really agitated. I've never seen her that nervous. She asked me to give you a message."

Leslie felt a cauldron start boiling in her gut as she met Haruko's gaze. "If she was agitated, it can't be good. What did she say to tell me?"

"She said she saw...that guy who kidnapped Mr. Enstad last winter. Well, not really saw him, but more like heard him. She said he told her that he was coming for her, for the whole clan really—that's what she thinks—and it scared her."

Leslie thought this over, then frowned as something occurred to her. "Weren't Akima and Andonen both going to look for new places to live within the ten-mile offshore protection zone?" At Haruko's nod: "Where was Akima when she had the sighting?"

"She said she was collecting stuff from her old home. I told her I hoped it was the last of it, since I'm getting scared she'll get nabbed next, or maybe Andonen."

Leslie slapped the top of the steering wheel. "That goon...honestly, he infuriates me. I'm so sick of him flitting around taunting everyone. Father said there seems to be no rhyme or reason to these appearances, and I keep itching to get the word out there somehow so more clan people can come here to safety..." She subsided with a frustrated sigh. "But he and Christian are constantly telling me that not everyone will want to come here. It's just that I don't want to see anyone else suffer a needless death at this maniac's hands."

"I can try to get hold of Akima again tomorrow," Haruko offered.

Leslie nodded. "That sounds like a great idea. I just hope she and her brother have both gotten into the protection zone by now. They don't need to worry about immigration papers or anything, so there's no way of knowing whether they've gotten any other merfolk to take advantage of it, or how many. It's just so hard not being able to do any more."

"I wish I could help," said Haruko.

Leslie smiled at her. "You already have, believe me. I'm sure both Akima and Andonen appreciate what you've been able to do for them. Don't worry about it—it's up to me now, and I'll tell Father the next chance I get. It's just that there's so much to do..." She let the sentence trail away and continued driving, thinking of all the members of clans—known and unknown—who remained out there, vulnerable and perhaps unaware. The Kullenäs men, Frida and Klaus, the merpeople, and who knows who else, all of them in danger from this one crazy character. And what in heck is his ultimate goal? It's the worst jigsaw puzzle ever, and I don't think we even have all the pieces. Something told her, deep inside, that the worst still lay ahead of them.

To be continued...