§ § § - July 30, 2012

With great care, Haruko Miyamoto worked the oyster shell out of an air pocket in the wet sand just below the waterline, right where she had been told it would be. The shell was tightly closed, but she pried the two halves apart with little trouble and slowly separated them. Sure enough, inside were two glistening pearls. She stared at them in wonder, marveling at their perfect, smooth symmetry. The shell's interior was lined with the same mother-of-pearl, gleaming with rainbow iridescence in the tropical sun. She shook her head a couple of times, then gently closed the shell, brushed off the wet sand grains and slipped it into her pocket.

The things I've seen and done, she thought, her mind flashing back seven years to one particularly cherished memory, one no one else was aware of save her parents, her younger sister, and a friend of her mother's. She had never really spoken of it to anyone since then, even though she had an enduring friendship that had grown from those experiences. Or two, she amended, feeling her face heat up. If this was courting, she liked it, though it seemed unduly extravagant to her.

She tossed one last glance toward the water, then turned and plodded back across the sand toward the Ring Road that encircled the island. Two precious pearls in her pocket, and she had nothing suitable to give in return. It didn't feel right to take such treasures and have nothing with which to reciprocate. Although I'm sure Akima and Andonen see things like those pearls practically every day, she thought. Still, it's not right. I just can't think of a single thing that would be good enough to give back!

She stepped out onto the pavement and picked up her pace a bit, heading for the apartment she had called home for the past month or so. She was a newly minted marine biologist, having just graduated from college in May and now working on her home island with another marine biologist whose office was a small cottage that sat on a banking some twenty feet above a tidal inlet with a strip of sand to provide a border between it and the land. The work was turning out to be fun and fascinating, for on this island there was so much to discover—far more than anywhere else on the planet. Both she and her boss were well aware of this; but even Dania Branham Ichino didn't fully realize the true scope of the variety of life to be found here, and Haruko wasn't sure she'd believe it if someone told her. It was better to keep Dania in the dark, or at least let her discover these things for herself. It was sometimes difficult to hide her knowledge from Dania, though.

However, Dania was seven months pregnant, and had finally given in to the relentless pleading of her husband, Jonathan, to quit work till their baby was a month or two old at least. Beginning Monday, Haruko would have sole charge of their office and those few study projects Dania hadn't been able to wrap up before commencing with her maternity leave. Haruko was looking forward to playing her favorite music while she worked on her own projects, having the freedom to conduct a clandestine study or two and make some real progress on them before Dania returned to work. She would have at least three months, maybe the rest of the year, and she looked forward to it.

One of her high-school friends, Stephanie Sensei, had also just received her college degree and was back on the island, at least for a while, living with her father and stepmother while she tried to decide what came next in her life. Haruko let herself into her apartment and picked up the cell phone that lay on a kitchen counter, charging.

"Hi, Haruko," said Stephanie's voice a moment later. "How's it going?"

"Pretty good," said Haruko. "How about you?"

"Same old thing. Dad and Ivy are still on me about starting a job hunt, but seriously, who needs an architectural drafter on this island? If I want to find a job, I'll probably have to leave here. I'd rather not—I like it here. But who's hiring in my profession? I should've just gone to work at the pond restaurant or something." Stephanie let out a loud sigh and changed the subject before Haruko could press the issue. "Heard from Denise?"

"No, not since I got home," said Haruko. Their friend Denise Polidari, almost a year younger than they were, had one more year of college remaining; she had decided she wanted to be a teacher and had hopes of landing a job in one of the island's schools when she got her degree in another two semesters, since teacher turnover here was surprisingly high. "Maybe she's in Massachusetts for the summer."

"Yeah, that could be," Stephanie conceded. "How's the job going?"

"Great. Actually, I have the place to myself for the next few months. Dania's husband finally talked her into going on maternity leave, so all the study projects are mine. It'll give me a chance to get out of the cottage more and actually into the water."

"Need somebody to take phone calls or anything?" Stephanie asked hopefully.

Haruko laughed. "Like we get any. Everybody contacts us through e-mail. Right now we don't have a whole lot of clients asking us to study anything, and most of the ones we do have are in Hawaii. Dania wrapped up as much of it as she could before she left yesterday, but I've got a couple of her leftover projects to take over, and four or five of my own. Look, go ahead and at least apply at the pond restaurant or the hotel or someplace. The resort's always looking for servers and housekeeping staff and luau workers, and at least you'd be working and earning enough that you could stay here and get your parents off your back. And you know the resort pays fair wages, so you could save to get your own place."

"Yeah, maybe," said Stephanie, not sounding convinced. "I'll check into it tomorrow, I guess. But right now I wish I could just get out of this house. Noah's always either playing video games or kicking around his soccer ball, and Tia can't see her friend Karina the way she does during the school year, so she mopes around the house. It's kind of spooky, you know...seeing her sitting there staring out the window with those huge eyes, looking lonely and sad. I mean, honestly, she looks clinically depressed, and she's barely eight."

"Poor kid," said Haruko. "Doesn't she ever ask your parents to take her to see Karina?"

"Sometimes, but Dad works a lot, and Ivy's always in her home office trying to catch up on medical transcriptions for her clients. I don't get my little sister sometimes. I can see where she'd be shy with her classmates and all, being this ultra-smart bookworm dealing with a bunch of snarky little brats who think stupidity is a virtue. But she barely even asks Dad or Ivy for anything, and if they say no, she just accepts it without a word."

"Tell her to call Karina and see if they can get together," suggested Haruko, "and then you could offer to drive her over or go pick Karina up. Mr. Enstad and Miss Leslie wouldn't mind a bit, and I bet Karina would be overjoyed."

"I could give that a shot," Stephanie said. "I mean, I'd ask for her, but sooner or later she has to stand on her own two feet." She lowered her voice. "Sometimes I think my mother was the stupidest person ever born. She had everything, and then she threw it all away for black lightning, and it killed her." Stephanie's mother, Iriata, a one-time Miss Samoa, had succumbed to this drug, derived from a strange spice called amakarna; her father had been granted a divorce from Iriata more than seven years before, but she had died four years ago after her body could take no more drug abuse. Haruko was often uncomfortable when Stephanie talked about her mother, for Stephanie wavered between sorrow over Iriata's death and anger at her for letting black lightning consume her entire life.

"Yeah," Haruko mumbled now, "it really sucks...I can imagine." She couldn't, but for a long time she had been at a loss for any truly helpful words for her friend.

Stephanie muttered a curse. "No point thinking about it now. Mom did what she did, and there's nothing we can do now. I'm just glad Ivy's so cool. She's way too shy, but she and Tia are a couple peas in a pod that way. You'd think Ivy was her mother—she can't remember Mom anyway, but it's uncanny how much alike they are. Oh, crap, Haruko, I'm sorry...I must be boring you to death. You really think I might be able to find a job at the resort? I mean, I have to admit, dressing up like a hula girl could be fun."

Haruko grinned. "No reason why not. The way I understand it, they're always looking for new people to serve at the luaus. And seriously, the pay's good—the luaus give you a hundred a night, and if you can be a waitress in the hotel or the restaurant, you'd make some great tips. And if you're still hell-bent on using your degree without leaving the island, you could always track down Miss Leslie and ask her about building projects. They're still overhauling most of those buildings in that little village where those creepy witch-hunters used to live ages ago. You might be able to come up with some good plans for interior do-overs so they're safe for occupation."

"Yeah, I guess so. Okay, then, I'll see about it on Monday—thanks, Haruko. I really didn't think I'd be able to find anything here. Talk to you tomorrow."

My good deed for the day, Haruko thought, ending the call and putting her phone back onto the countertop. She still hadn't told Stephanie any of the wild and seemingly impossible things she had learned over the past month or so; Stephanie didn't even know about Akima, and Haruko had no intention of telling her. Even on this enchanted island, who would ever believe she was close friends with a mermaid?

Not for the first time, Haruko wished she had a trusted best friend to confide the things she didn't dare tell either Stephanie or Denise. She supposed Akima could fill that bill, but Akima was the mermaid she would have liked to tell her other friends about. And now that Akima's brother, Andonen, had expressed interest in her that went beyond friendship, how could Haruko tell anyone at all—even Akima? This island was known for its odd properties, of both the floral and faunal varieties; but there were some things about it that were just too fantastical to be accepted, save for a select few who were either in the inner circle, or just extraordinarily fortunate. Haruko knew she fell into this latter category. Neither she nor her two friends were natives of the island: Haruko had been born in Japan; Stephanie was a native of Samoa; and Denise came from Massachusetts in the United States. But of the three, Haruko had lived here the longest, and she'd been in the right place at the right time to meet Akima; so she had little skepticism.

She sometimes debated confiding in Stephanie, for Stephanie's father, Taro Sensei, had been born and raised here on the island and was the younger brother of Myeko Okada, a longtime friend of the island's owner, Leslie Hamilton Enstad. But every time she geared up to spill the secret, something made her chicken out. She thought, fleetingly, of talking to the owner, who was known to most of the residents as "Miss Leslie"; she was pretty easy to approach, and Haruko's own mother was another friend of Leslie's. Haruko had also babysat the Enstad triplets for several years before she'd left the island for college. But even in this case, something held her back.

She flopped atop the hideous mold-colored cushion that she used to pad the vintage sunshine-yellow beanbag chair she'd picked up at a recent yard sale. "Maybe I'm just afraid," she challenged herself. "Maybe that's the problem. I'm scared of all the things that could go wrong." Yet even as she spoke the words, she knew deep inside that wasn't the true problem. Even if she could get anyone to believe she was attracted to a merman, how would they react? Haruko was afraid she knew: they would find two thousand reasons to discourage her, and she knew most of them were likely to have some validity. What it all boiled down to was this: how could a human girl and a guy who was half fish possibly expect to have any more than a friendship?

Her hand slid into her pocket and she found herself overturning the closed oyster shell, hearing the two pearls clinking and clicking within. She knew that, for her own good and Andonen's, she should be the one to discourage this whole thing before it went any further—but too large a part of her didn't want to.

‡ ‡ ‡

Leslie Enstad set her cell phone aside while she loaded the dishwasher, alone in the kitchen while her children played outside and her husband was upstairs working on a website overhaul. The kids—eight-year-old triplets Susanna, Karina and Tobias, and their three-year-old sister Anastasia—were romping around the yard, laughing and yelling; it looked to Leslie as if they were playing tag. They had been joined by April Harding, Susanna's best friend who lived across the lane and was the daughter of Leslie's friend Maureen. Tobias, Susanna and April seemed engrossed in the raucous energy of their game; Karina, quieter and more introverted than her triplet siblings, was more solicitous of Anastasia, keeping an eye on her little sister and occasionally yelling a warning to one of the other kids. But they were all having fun, so Leslie just cast them a monitoring glance through the kitchen window now and then, and let her mind go where it would.

Her longtime friend Michiko Tokita Bartolomé, who lived next door now but was known the world over as the widowed dowager queen of the Mediterranean island nation of Arcolos, had called her about fifteen minutes before with the news that she was going out for the evening, with their latest neighbor, Toru Ishima. He too was widowed and had brought his three children here from Japan to be caretaker and guardian to the two young offspring of uber-wealthy Kyoto business tycoon Hayato Takamatsu. Ishima had noticed Michiko from the day of his arrival here, but he had refrained from making any overtures—at least, Leslie amended, till now. Michiko had called to express a few mild misgivings; she was still recovering from the death of King Errico V, her husband, four years before, and had had a difficult relationship with their only child, daughter Catalina, ever since. Cat had finally warmed back up to her mother, but she still insisted on living in the huge marble palace in Arcolos during the school year, so that Michiko felt somewhat estranged from her own child. Cat came to stay during the summer months, though, and was here right now.

In fact, that was what Michiko had called about; she had expressed a good bit of trepidation in regard to this date, and had bent Leslie's ear for nearly fifteen minutes looking for a reason not to go. In the end, though, she had decided to go, for Cat would be at a sleepover with an island friend of hers. Leslie shook her head; Michiko deserved someone to love as much as anyone else, but Cat—a typically old-fashioned royal—was too young, and too self-centered at the core, to understand or acknowledge this. Leslie shook her head to herself, stacking dishes on their sides in the lower rack. It was not a situation she would have wished on anyone, and she felt sorry for her friend.

She had been so absorbed in her thoughts that when her husband entered the kitchen and greeted her, she started. "Oh...sorry, my love."

Christian Enstad, also known as His Royal Highness Prince Christian of Lilla Jordsö, paused in the midst of reaching into the refrigerator and grinned. "Deep in thought, were you?" he teased. "I thought I heard you on the phone a bit ago."

"It was Michiko," said Leslie. "She was having second thoughts about going out with Toru Ishima tonight." She made a face. "Second, and third, and fourth thoughts...and maybe even fifth. I've never heard anyone dredge up so many reasons not to do something."

"It's not as if Ishima hasn't been perfectly decorous," said Christian, sliding aside a few items to see what was hiding in the back of the fridge. "For that matter, maybe a bit too decorous. I had begun to think the interest I saw him showing in Michiko on his arrival was an illusion. What were her objections, other than Cat's likely reaction?"

"Cat was the biggest reason. She said this is the first year Cat's agreed to spend the whole summer here on the island with her, and she's convinced their relationship is too fragile yet for her to risk telling Cat that she's even friendly with the man, let alone going out with him. She also went on to talk about how thoroughly proper and deferential Toru is to her, as if she were still a ruling queen, and how she still misses Errico and wishes Toru had some of what she called Errico's spontaneous exuberance. Maybe not the ornate speech so much, but a sense of getting a fun little idea and acting on it right then and there. And she isn't sure she can get used to Toru's relentless formality. And she was especially convinced that the moment she was spotted out and about with Toru—even if they stayed out of the resort area—some blabbermouth with dollar signs for brains would yank out his phone, snap three dozen pictures, and sell them all to the first tabloid that took his call."

Christian's laugh was a bit rueful. "I can certainly sympathize. I expect her worries about Cat are justified, given Cat's unreasonable attitude, but in her position she should be more concerned with publicity. I'm not certain Ishima realizes precisely what he's dealing with. He's caring for Takamatsu's children, but Takamatsu himself is so entangled in all his business interests that he can't leave Japan; not only that, but Takamatsu made certain to keep it a secret that he sent his children to live here. So I don't think he fully grasps the reach of the garbage media and their influence on today's society. If he's serious about building a relationship with Michiko, he'll get a very dirty little crash course."

"Which might just destroy whatever there may be between them," said Leslie, and Christian nodded. "Even here, she can't be invisible."

"But she's not under the same sort of limelight that Paolono and Lindalia are trapped under," Christian pointed out. "She has some leeway. We both know that celebrities are frequent resort guests, and they often come for the opportunity to get out from under the prying lenses of paparazzi; it's generally understood that they'll get it here. Still, sooner or later, it'll come out." He finally unearthed an aluminum can and closed the refrigerator door, then spied Leslie's look of mild reproach. "What?"

"Typical man," she teased him, "standing there with the refrigerator door open and all the cold air getting out. You're as bad as the triplets."

"It's your fault," he retorted, eyes a-twinkle, popping the top on the can. "If you didn't hide the Eplabryssa behind twenty condiment jars and containers of leftovers, I wouldn't have to stand there with the door open, trying to find it." He grinned when she let out a laugh. The soda whose brand name he had just dropped was a recent arrival at a small Scandinavian-import shop that had opened on the island a few months ago; its name translated from Christian's native jordiska as "apple fizz". Swallowing several gulps, he leaned against the counter, watching her loading the dishwasher with that day's breakfast and lunch dishes. "Aren't Susanna and Karina old enough to take over that chore?"

"Not quite." She caught his skeptical frown and explained, "I mean, sure, they're old enough, but they have no clue how to load it properly, and I can't seem to get it through their heads. I've tried four or five times and they still do it their own way. It drives me nuts, so I just do it myself." She scooped up a handful of silverware and began sorting it into the baskets by implement. "But don't worry, they have other chores."

"A good thing," Christian commented. "If you're as obsessive with everything else as you are with that, I'd have to recommend therapy for you. Look at you—spoons in one basket, forks in the next, knives in the next. Have you always done that?"

"No, because this is the first dishwasher I ever owned," she told him, provoking a guffaw from him. She smirked and added, "If you're going to act as the peanut gallery, then you can finish loading this thing."

"Mom," yelled a voice from outside, and she and Christian both leaned over the sink to gaze out the window. The voice belonged to Susanna. "Can Cat and the Takamatsus and the Ishimas come over? We need more people to play with, and we wanted to ride our bikes too. Can they?"

"Did they come over here and ask?" Leslie wanted to know.

"No, but we're gonna go over and ask them if they want to play with us," Susanna explained. "That way we'll be outside and out of your hair."

Christian snickered; Leslie didn't quite manage to stifle a smile, because it sounded like something several of her friends would have said. "Okay, go ahead. If you're going to ride bikes, though, stay at this end of the lane so we can see you."

"But there's nobody else out here!" protested Tobias, joining his sister. "It's just these four houses! It's more fun riding all the way to the end and back again."

"Stasia can't ride that far on her tricycle, and you know she gets upset when the rest of you leave her out," Christian reminded him. "Stay at least within sight of the front windows, so we know where you are." Tobias and Susanna looked at each other.

"Just do it," said Karina from behind them, exasperated. "It's easier. Mother...could I invite Tia over? I haven't seen her in forever, and we're not even in the same grade in school anymore, and I mean...I like playing with Nariko and all, but Tia's still my best friend and I never get to see her. I wish we knew her mom and dad better."

"Come on in and call her up yourself, honey," Leslie suggested. "As long as you know her number and both of you can ask your own parents, we don't have to know Tia's mother and father that well." Karina nodded and headed for the door, at which point Anastasia got up and made a beeline for a bloom-laden rosebush that nodded temptingly over the brick wall surrounding the yard across the street. "Susanna, get your sister!"

"Hey, Stasia, come back here!" Tobias yelled after Anastasia, while Karina came inside and grabbed the old-fashioned 80s-vintage wall phone off the hook, poking three of the buttons and waiting. Christian set down the can and half-ran outside even as Susanna sprinted after Anastasia and dragged the protesting child back to their own yard. Shaking her head with amusement at the mild chaos, Leslie finished loading the dishwasher and closed it, then sneaked a draft from Christian's soda can.

Karina, watching, giggled; then her eyes widened with excitement and she blurted into the phone, "That's a great idea! I'll ask." Plastering the receiver against her stomach, she pleaded, "Mother, can Tia sleep over here tonight, please?"

"What do her parents say?" Leslie asked.

"She's asking them now," Karina told her. "We can sleep in the living room or maybe even in the guest room, and then that way you don't have to hear us talking all night."

With exaggerated sternness, Leslie noted, "You're not going to be talking all night anyway, not if we have anything to say about it. But if Tia's parents are okay with it, it's all right with me."

Christian came back inside as Karina got back on the line. "Did you just agree to something I'm going to regret?"

"Only having an extra child in the house for the night," Leslie said.

"Ach," he groaned, pretending horror, and she grinned while Karina phasered him with a wounded look.

"Oh, Daddy," she grumbled, then said into the phone, "Okay, I'll ask." To Leslie: "Tia said her parents said it's okay, if we can come and pick her up."

Leslie shrugged a shoulder. "I guess so. I've got to check our post-office box anyway, so go ahead and tell her we'll be there in about half an hour." She met Christian's gaze. "She offered to take up the guest suite tonight with Tia. I was thinking of taking the kids to the amusement park tomorrow, only because I'm in a mood to go myself, and we've hung around the house entirely too much this summer."

"Can Tia come with us there too?" squealed Karina immediately.

Christian let out a laugh. "You walked straight into that, my Rose," he observed. "You can always hash that out with Taro and his wife when you stop by to get Tia. I'll keep an eye on the others while you and Karina go; I had planned to give myself a fairly extensive break from working on that website anyhow. And Stasia seems to be magnetically attracted to anything with thorns. Why did Maureen plant those roses right there?"

"So we could enjoy them too, of course," Leslie bantered. "At some point you're going to have to let Stasia get herself stuck on a thorn, you know. Otherwise she won't get the message that she has to be careful about handling roses."

"That seems needlessly cruel," Christian protested, half seriously. "But then again, it might stop her constantly playing with Maureen's roses. Before you go, I have a few things I want to give you to put in the mail, particularly the power and water bills, which need to be paid before we get cut off." He left the room while Karina finally got around to finishing her phone call and hung up.

"Let's hurry and go," she insisted, bouncing with excitement. "Tia sounded so happy on the phone. I don't want to wait a long time before we can start having fun."

Leslie grinned and sent her to put her shoes back on; a moment later Christian returned and handed her a few envelopes. Just as he kissed her, the phone rang, and they startled apart, then grinned at their reaction. "Go ahead, my Rose," he urged, "I'll get that." She smiled back, gathered Karina, and went out to the car. Anastasia saw them getting in and galloped in their direction, clamoring to go with them; Leslie secured her in her car seat and got on the road.

Not only was Tia Sensei's father, Taro, one of the younger twin brothers of Leslie's friend Myeko Okada, he also worked in the island branch of Christian's computer-repair and website-design business, Enstad Computer Services. Thus he recognized Leslie and gave her a smile with a sheepish element to it, making Leslie wonder at it. Before she could say anything, however, Karina spoke up: "Mr. Sensei, Mother says she might take us to the amusement park tomorrow. Is it okay if Tia comes too?"

Leslie found herself watching Taro turn red for some reason. "Oh, sure, that's fine with me," he said, making both girls hop around with glee and sprint to the waiting car. He eyed Leslie with increasing embarrassment. "You might've noticed I'm feeling kinda like a jerk right about now," he admitted. "Tia's had a long, boring summer, it turns out. Ivy and I both have been working so much, we hardly even noticed, till Stephanie called us on it this morning. Ivy and I talked it over after Karina called Tia, and we thought you should know that Tia can spend as much time with Karina as she wants for the rest of the summer. It's a blanket permission, so all you have to do is have Karina ask, and Tia can tell us before she goes. Karina can come over here too, if she wants, but Tia said she'd only be bored here—I think she wants to get out of the house more."

Leslie smiled at that, hiding her initial reaction with care. "I'm sure Tia and Karina will both be thrilled," she said. "Don't worry, we'll take good care of her." She shifted her weight, glancing back at the car where Anastasia was straining against the restraints of her car seat, trying to lean out the window. "So is Tia ready for fourth grade?"

"Academically, I guess so," said Taro, "but I think she'd rather be with her friends. It's that high-IQ brain of hers. She was always a little bit of an odd duck." He blew out his breath. "I still wonder how much she was affected by Iriata's addiction, y'know? It killed Iriata in the end, but look what it seems to have done for Tia. I just don't get it."

Leslie hitched a shoulder briefly, uncomfortable with the topic. Amakarna had dozens of odd properties and could be mixed, or perverted, into all sorts of elixirs; the spice was the only plant that the clans had brought with them from their homeworld, and earth soil had done peculiar things to it, according to Leslie's father. Even the clans still didn't fully understand all the possibilities of the spice, though it was generally regarded as detrimental to earth humans, in much the way that tobacco or recreational drugs were. Black lightning, a narcotic derived from amakarna, was even less understood; Tia Sensei was a perfect example, for she had been conceived and had gestated after Iriata had developed her addiction to the stuff. According to Taro, Tia had been an unusually quiet baby, and had turned out to be so intelligent and quick to grasp concepts that she had already skipped one grade in school. She was actually a month younger than the triplets, but now was a grade ahead of them, which had made things difficult for Tia as the youngest in her grade level. Leslie released a little sigh. "I wish I knew more. Even Father can't tell us. But it does look as if Tia benefited from it, in some strange way."

"Yeah." Taro rubbed his scalp with several fingertips, his eyes nearly swallowed by a puzzled squint. "I just hope that's all she got." He cleared his throat and focused on her. "By the way, before I forget—Stephanie made me promise to ask. She can't find a single job that'd let her use her degree, but I guess she was talking to Haruko Miyamoto and found out that the resort's always looking for new luau workers and maybe some waitstaff positions. You think there'd be any openings? At this point Steph'd rather stay on the island than take a job in the field she studied for."

"Oh, they always welcome new staff, especially at the luaus. Those are a perfect way to earn money, and they're pretty lucrative, even when there aren't any other positions open. Have Stephanie go up and talk to Delphine at the main house. She'll put Stephanie on a roster, and whenever they need her, they'll call. She's likely to get called pretty often, even more so if she's a good and reliable worker—if so, she could become a regular."

Taro nodded. "Is that where she'd apply for any waitstaff jobs?"

"Well, the pond restaurant hires its own staff, but she can talk to Jimmy Omamara at the hotel—he hires all the staff there. Otherwise, I'd suggest the casino—she's of age, so that's no problem—or down at the amusement park if that appeals to her."

"I'll let her know, thanks." Taro offered a hand. "Thanks for rescuing poor Tia, too. I guess Ivy and I have to get our heads out of the sand, huh?" He produced another sheepish grin as Leslie shook his hand.

With the chattering girls in the backseat, crowded in beside Anastasia's car seat, Leslie drove on to the post office and gathered mail from two boxes there—the one for all island business other than the resort, and the one she and Christian used for their own personal mail. There wasn't very much in either box, so she stashed it all in her purse and stopped at the grocery in Amberville to pick up a few things. Anastasia insisted on riding in a shopping cart, which made Leslie laugh; she could still remember being small enough to ride in that seat herself, once upon a time. However, since it put Anastasia on eye level with more tempting junk food, Leslie found herself nixing repeated requests from both Anastasia and Karina for all sorts of things she herself wouldn't have wanted at their age. It was a relief to get out and head for home.

Tobias was romping around the front yard of the Takamatsu home, playing with Akio and a couple of other boys; Susanna was nowhere in sight, and when Leslie brought the girls inside with bags, she found that Christian was home alone. "Where's Susanna?"

"Playing with April at Grady and Maureen's," he said, glancing up from a computer magazine. "It's good you're home. That phone call I answered as you were leaving—it was Carl Johan. To make a long story short, he asked if we would mind whether he sent Matti and Toria to the island for the remainder of the summer."

"What'd you tell him?" Leslie asked from the kitchen, where she gestured at the girls to put their bags on the table.

Christian joined them. "I said it was fine, but I wondered whether it was wise to have them traveling alone. As it happens, they won't be: Rudolf and Louisa are coming as well, along with Katta. From the way Carl Johan talked, I have a feeling they'll want to use one of the bungalows on Roald's street."

Leslie had paused in unloading the bags; Karina and Tia left the room, heading up to the bedroom Karina shared with Susanna. Anastasia reached for a bag and plunged both hands inside. "Stasia, no, honey. Well, this was kind of sudden, wasn't it? Did he come up with that plan on the spur of the moment?"

"Not exactly," Christian said, removing Anastasia's hands from the bag and eliciting a squall of protest from her. "Let your mother do it, Stasia. He told me—"

"I wanna help Mommy!" Anastasia demanded, reaching for the bag again.

Leslie grinned, extracting a couple of boxes and giving them to her. "Put those on the counter for me, sweetie, right over there," she said, and Anastasia nodded, happy at being given an important job to carry out. Leslie refocused on her husband. "He told you...?"

"That he thinks Matti needs further instruction on the minutiae of running a country. Since we're involved in keeping this island operating as smoothly as we can, he thought Matti would benefit from seeing us conduct a meeting with the island council and the governing committee, and getting a feel for some of the paperwork you have to go through each day. It made sense to me. Matti's true to form: he falls asleep in parliament, just like his great-grandfather." Christian laughed, shaking his head a little. "I think it's Carl Johan's hope that Matti will be inspired by our bureaucratic system here and perhaps be motivated to streamline the jordisk government once he fully assumes the throne."

"Well, that can't be a bad thing," Leslie said humorously, giving Anastasia some more boxes. "But if we get sleepy during the meeting, we'll defeat the whole purpose."

"Then we'd better have plenty of caffeine beforehand," bantered Christian. "Here, let me help with that. At any rate," he added, unloading a bag, "Carl Johan said he'll put them on a plane this weekend—the fourth, I think. He told me he'll e-mail me the details of their flights as soon as Miss Grönnedahl's made all the arrangements."

Leslie nodded. "I don't even know when the next meeting is supposed to be—I'll have to check the calendar." She pondered it for a moment as she went to the counter where Anastasia had been piling up boxes, and started to put them away. "I wonder what Matti thinks of his grandfather's intended purpose in sending him here. He's ten and a half now, right? If he knows, he probably thinks it's going to be a boring summer."

"Maybe not," Christian said. "When we had Briella in the castle, after Gerhard made the rest of us revive her, Matti spent a lot of time sitting with her, asking her questions about how to fulfill his role as the ruling monarch. He might find it interesting."

Leslie sighed. "Especially since that old grouch managed to keep his council seat. All I can do is hope that more open minds prevail. I don't think he takes me seriously."

Christian chuckled, well aware of what she was talking about; one argumentative holdover from her father's island council had survived the near-total overhaul of the organization, and seemed bent on opposing Leslie simply because he could. "Matti will have to learn to handle people like that as well...and I'm sorry, my Rose, but so will you." Leslie made a disgusted noise, and he laughed outright and came over to hug her. "I think it's going to be all right. Even though he retained his seat in the election, he's surrounded by much younger people, and I think overall the system's received a shot in the arm. And don't forget, I'll be there. We'll turn you into a leader yet." He kissed her forehead.

"Good luck with that," she muttered, and he laughed softly. But despite the façade she put up, she had to admit that she was feeling a bit more optimistic about her enormous burden in running this place her father had entrusted her with. Now if only we could find that damn head goon... she thought, closing her eyes for a moment.

§ § § - August 6, 2012

Thirty-two-year-old Prince Roald of Lilla Jordsö, newly divorced with three young sons and a seven-week-old daughter, surveyed the general chaos that his rented three-bedroom bungalow had turned into. Besides his children and his niece, Lisi, who was here for the summer, he had two servants in residence—one who slept in the upstairs room so that she could attend to the boys right away if they needed anything, and the other in the front downstairs bedroom with Roald's little Astrid and her own infant daughter, Pia. Just at the moment, the older servant, Ella, was bustling around the kitchen preparing lunch for Roald and the boys, while the younger one, Eliana, nursed Astrid. Pia, who had been fed about an hour earlier, lay dozing in a nearby baby carrier. What with having Eliana's child in the house as well—plus having his orphaned niece, Lisi, here for the summer—Roald had the feeling he had six offspring rather than four.

When he wasn't taken up with helping Ella keep track of the boys and Lisi, he was either in his dojo in Amberville, teaching two daily karate classes and getting a crash course in the business of keeping the place operating in the black, or he was in touch with someone in his family, getting advice about one thing or another. His Aunt Leslie and Uncle Christian had their own family and were busy getting the full hang of running the island; his parents, Princess Anna-Laura—Christian's sister—and Prince Esbjörn, still lived in Lilla Jordsö in the royal castle. His last phone call to them had brought the news that his cousin Rudolf—the younger son of Prince Carl Johan—was bringing his wife Louisa, their daughter Katta, and his niece and nephew, Toria and Matti, for a month-long stay on the island. It explained the flurry of activity at the cottage across the street from Roald's; they had arrived on the island the previous day and were expected to move in sometime today.

"Are they here yet?" demanded his firstborn, five-year-old Staffan, who had been climbing onto the ledge of the bay window in the living room all morning, watching for the new arrivals. "I wish they'd hurry up!"

"They'll get here when they get here," said Roald. He peered at the boy, with that sense of uneasiness he'd had for weeks now. Ever since he had discovered that all three of his sons possessed the power to raise the dead—the hallmark of a clan family by the name of Kullenäs, based in Lilla Jordsö—he had had the awful feeling that he was ill-equipped to protect the boys from any hostile force that might develop designs on them. The royal family had turned out to be related to the clan through Roald's grandmother, the late Queen Susanna, whose mother had been born a Kullenäs and who had passed the power down first to Christian, then subsequently to Roald's cousin Gerhard, and now to all of Roald's sons. The family had known about this for only the last year or so, and they were all still trying to adjust. So much had happened in the past thirteen months that Roald occasionally found himself wanting to wake up from this dream.

Staffan climbed back into the window. "They better hurry up," he repeated before twisting his head to look over his shoulder at Roald. "Is Tobias coming over?"

"Probably. There's a lot going on. Just hang in there, all right?" Roald went to the window and lifted him out, carrying the squirming little boy back to the kitchen. "You need to stay in here with us. You didn't quite finish your breakfast."

"I don't want to," Staffan protested, but Roald overruled him and managed to get him to stay in his chair once he was back at the table. Roald gave him a long stern look just to be sure he stayed put, then surveyed the table. The younger boys, three-year-old Johan-Erik and two-year-old Markus, and nine-year-old Lisi were well involved in feeding themselves; baby Pia, the servant's child, was snoozing, and infant Princess Astrid could be seen to be nearing the end of this round of nursing. Eliana managed a bite of her own breakfast at frequent intervals even as she nursed. Ella was busily clearing up the mess from preparing the meal. It looked as if things were moving as smoothly as was possible in a houseful of small children.

Taking advantage of that, Roald half-jogged back to his own small bedroom, which looked out over the backyard, and pulled a T-shirt over his head. Stepping into a pair of shorts, he paused when the thud of a slamming vehicle door echoed through the house, and grinned wryly as the booming collision of a pair of bare feet meeting the floor reached his ears. "They're here, they're here!" Staffan shouted, pelting for the door.

"Wait for us!" Roald hollered after him, to no avail, and rolled his eyes, trotting to the front door and jamming his feet into a pair of flip-flops. Already relatives were tumbling out of an SUV belonging to the resort, a clone of the vehicle he had at his disposal as long as he and the kids were here, and Staffan was yelling greetings at everybody.

Thirty-seven-year-old Prince Rudolf of Lilla Jordsö, the last one to step out of the SUV, yawned loudly and slanted a resentful glare toward Staffan. "Fate take it, cousin, that kid of yours is far too energetic for this disgusting hour of the day," he grumbled.

Roald smirked and offered, "And hello to you too. Don't tell me you never slept on any of the flights between Sundborg and here."

"Not quite," Rudolf muttered. "I had a catnap between L.A. and Honolulu. I asked Uncle Christian if he and Aunt Leslie could take over with the kids for a while so Louisa and I could get some rest, but he said they have stuff to do." He peered at Roald. "I don't suppose you could step in for a while."

"Oh, sure," Roald said with sarcastic expansiveness, "what's another three kids to add to my three hellions and two infants? Not to mention my niece and our four cousins?" He indicated the triplets and Anastasia, who were taking part in a mad chase all over the trim, tidy yard of the little bungalow Rudolf and Louisa were using. "I'll never notice that the underage population in my house has just been doubled and then some, right?"

"You've got two servants to help, remember?" Rudolf said, but he was grinning now. "Quit complaining—Louisa and I didn't bother bringing anybody, and she keeps telling me she can handle it, but I think she's too spoiled by living the royal life. It'll be interesting to see if she can still cook and clean, and if she remembers how to run a washer and dryer and a vacuum cleaner. All she's ever had to do is feed her cat." Louisa had an elderly Siamese cat called Cinnamon, aged seventeen. "And that's the one thing she won't be doing while we're here, since everybody advised her she was better off leaving Cinnamon behind."

"What if the cat expires while you're gone?" Roald asked low. "I mean, most of the family is here now, and that includes all the ones with the power."

Rudolf shrugged. "That damn cat acts like it's half its real age. Uncle Christian did a stellar job when he brought it back to life in front of all of us last year. But my parents said they'll send word in case something happens to it. Look, I don't have the energy to stand here gabbing all morning. Will you watch the kids or not?"

"What's Louisa gonna be doing?" Roald inquired.

Annoyed, Rudolf growled, "She's probably going to unpack and get us settled in. She got more sleep than I did. If you catch her in time, she might be willing to help you watch this collection of midgets here. Just let me crash and lose consciousness for a few hours, and maybe then I'll be in a better mood."

"Let's hope so," said Roald. "Come on, the kids'll be fine for now. Let's find Louisa and Uncle Christian and Aunt Leslie."

They met the others in the house; Leslie was showing Louisa and Christian around the one-story cottage while Louisa lugged a suitcase and Christian carried two more. They looked around when Roald and Rudolf caught up. "Oh, there you are. Choose a bedroom and carry your own damn luggage," Christian suggested, thrusting a bag at Rudolf.

"I never had to carry my own suitcase in my life," Rudolf said with overdone haughtiness, which earned him a sharp swat from Christian after the older prince had dropped the bag with a heavy thump. Rudolf was too busy letting out a surprised squawk to notice the bag till it tipped off the vertical and landed squarely on his foot. "Ow, damn it!"

Leslie and Louisa both broke into laughter, and Christian grinned wickedly. "Serves you right for that spoiled-royal act, whether you were faking it or not. Did you sucker Roald into watching Matti and Toria and Katta for a while?"

"And the triplets and Stasia in the bargain," Rudolf said smugly. "I can't wait for that nap. Louisa söta, just choose the bedroom with the attached bathroom."

"There isn't one," Leslie informed him, grinning. "This whole house has only one bathroom. Don't look at me like that, Your Royal Helplessness. You can slum it for a month or so and it won't hurt you one bit." Christian, Louisa and Roald laughed, and Rudolf smirked good-naturedly, yawning.

"We'll take the back bedroom," Louisa said, glancing into the room in question. "It'll be quieter since it looks out over the backyard. Are you really sure it'll be okay, Roald, you watching all those kids?"

"Sure, it's perfectly fine, since you're helping," Roald said cheerfully. Louisa groaned, and they laughed again. "Soon as Rudolf gets his carcass up from his own nap, you can have one if you still want it. Were the flights all right?"

"About what you'd expect when you're traveling with three children," said Louisa with a shrug. "I hope you've got lounge chairs at your place. I really need to lie back and get a little sun. I'm getting out my bathing suit and sunscreen, and I'm going to enjoy myself. It's rained practically all summer in Lilla Jordsö since Uncle Christian and Aunt Leslie left." She turned to them. "The day after you flew out, the clouds rolled in and pretty much stayed put from then on. We had exactly two days in July when it was mostly dry."

"Ach," said Christian. "Any flooding?"

"Not the way you might expect. Mostly the days are just a series of endless rain showers," Rudolf said, "although every so often we'd get just nonstop rain. We can do with some sun. Our parents were jealous as hell of us, but everybody'll be here by the middle of the month anyway."

"Who's running the country then? And don't say parliament," Christian warned.

Rudolf snorted and rolled his eyes. "Stina's going to be interim ruler," he said. "We all figured she could use whatever Uncle Arnulf managed to teach her before she decided to abdicate in favor of Briella. Far's leaving her some instructions to help refresh her memory, and her girls will get the run of the castle for a couple of weeks. I told her she's responsible for Louisa's cat—she might as well be, since she's bringing six of her own."

Roald laughed loudly. "Fate take it, six of them? It's a wonder Kai puts up with it." They spoke of their cousin, Princess Anna-Kristina, the oldest daughter of the late King Arnulf II, their uncle. She had married a commoner and moved in with him; between them they had three daughters. Anna-Kristina had had cats on a continuous basis ever since she was eight years old, and as a result Christian had long ago branded her Kattersprinsessanjordiska for "The Princess of Cats".

"Kai puts up with anything and everything," Rudolf said, rolling his eyes again. "Too much, if you ask me. She's got a ring in his nose, and he just lets her haul him around. I can't believe they're still married—I guess he likes that kind of treatment."

"Not that again," muttered Louisa, disgusted. "Excuse me." She brushed past Christian and shut herself in the back bedroom.

"That is rather judgmental, Rudolf," Leslie said gently.

Christian was less willing to be lenient. "It's not for you to pronounce sentence on them, Rudolf. If Kai doesn't mind, that's his decision, not yours. Do you make a regular practice of criticizing Kai?"

"Yes, he does," came Louisa's strident voice through the bedroom door.

"Oh, Louisa, for fate's sake," snapped Rudolf.

"Ignore him," Louisa's voice suggested. "He's grouchy from the flights."

"So it seems," Christian remarked. "I go daft when I'm sleep-deprived; apparently you turn into a carping critic." He tossed a glance at the door and grinned. "I can remember when Louisa practically worshiped you. Now it appears to be a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. Perhaps you should give some thought to your own marriage, if that's the way things are going between you."

"It's not that bad," protested Rudolf. "I suppose you're right and the lack of sleep is making me a grumpy old man, but I still don't understand how anyone can let their spouse boss them around as Kai does Stina." He yawned again. "Hurry up, söta, before I drop."

"Hold your horses," Louisa retorted, and Rudolf shrugged.

Roald laughed and told his cousin, "Maybe you need a few good stiff drinks. When you're finally out of your coma, come on over and I'll see if there's stuff in my place for some gin and tonic or martinis or something."

"What, you don't know?" Christian asked him.

Roald shrugged and said, "Ella does the food shopping. You know, come to think of it, I haven't had anything alcoholic since we got here. Where's the liquor store, Aunt Leslie?" A thought occurred to him and he amended, "Or is there one?"

"Brat," said Leslie through a laugh. "Of course there is—it's in Amberville, like most of the retail institutions on the island. Listen, tell you what—I'll take you over there and you can pick up some stuff, and then I'll bring you back here and pick up Christian. I've got some things to do at the resort for Delphine, and Christian usually works a half-day or so on Saturdays, so we've got to get going pretty quick now."

Louisa came out of the bedroom, clad in an electric-green one-piece swimsuit and with a tube of sunscreen in one hand. "Go to sleep, Rudolf," she said, and he let out an exaggerated groan of relief before closing himself into the room in his turn. Louisa shook her head and smiled. "Sometimes he's an ass, but I still love him."

They all laughed. "That's reassuring," Christian chuckled. "Well, my Rose, go ahead and take Roald to the liquor store. I'll keep Louisa company with the children till you two get back. How long will your business at the resort take?"

"A couple of hours or so, probably," Leslie mused. "I might join the gang at Roald's place when I'm done. For that matter, maybe I'll call for catering—Maureen's working this weekend anyway, so I'll give her a call and see if she and her employees can whip up something tasty for lunch that appeals to kids." She smiled, gave him a quick kiss, and signaled at Roald. Christian and Louisa followed them outside and took seats on the wide front steps, watching the kids dash around the yard, laughing and shouting. They were engrossed enough that even Anastasia took little notice of the SUV pulling away.

"So what's been happening around here?" Louisa inquired.

Christian chuckled. "We had an election, which had a somewhat less-than-desirable result, and Karina's managed to reconnect with a friend she hasn't seen since..." He paused, then shrugged. "I imagine not since last summer, since they're in different grade levels in school now. Anyhow, to the best of my knowledge, Roald's daughter is thriving, and this village is beginning to really see some signs of life. Leslie just received a petition to build a public swimming pool for island residents."

"There's already a pool, isn't there?" Louisa asked.

"Just the resort pool. I suspect the people who live here don't feel free to use it; and I can't say I blame them really, since it's often crowded, especially on weekends." He glanced down the lane. "The only question is where to put it, should she approve it. And there's little doubt there'll be opposition from at least one person." Christian fell silent for a bit, watching the kids playing tag in the yard. Louisa followed his gaze, and within a minute or so it became clear that they kept tagging Anastasia. Christian called out warningly, "Be fair with Stasia now! She can't run as fast as the rest of you."

"She's too little to play, Dad," Tobias yelled.

"Let her play anyway. You know she doesn't like to be left out." Christian waited till Tobias had made grudging agreement, then relaxed again. "Is your cat doing all right?"

Louisa stared at him, startled, then smiled. "That's right—for some reason I'd almost forgotten. Cinnamon's fine actually. I don't know what it was you cured when you, uh, revived her, but it must have been something pretty major, because it's like she's ten years younger. She's healthy and has enough energy to play. Some of the servants had started complaining about seeing mice in the kitchen, so I thought I'd let her out and see what she did." She grinned at Christian's surprised expression. "Rudolf thought it was a bad idea—said she'd vanish in the bowels of the castle someplace and I'd never see her again. But she came back into the dining room just as we were finishing supper the first day I tried it, and followed Rudolf and me back to our suite. I guess she knows where home is."

Christian chuckled and inquired, "Is she catching mice?"

"I hear she is," said Louisa. "With Stina bringing her cats in for the month, she'll have lots of help. Although she's still territorial. I made sure I warned Stina about that, and Stina said she'll let her cats out only at night when Cinnamon's shut away in our suite."

"Wise move," Christian agreed. "I'm glad Cinnamon's all right, then."

"Thank you again for bringing her back," Louisa ventured shyly. "It was hard enough losing Chocolate. I'm glad Cinnamon looks like she'll be sticking around awhile."

Christian cast her a somewhat wry smile. "Ah, well, if I must have the damned power, I may as well put it to good use." He leaned against the railing on the steps, absently watching the kids, remembering the day he had restored life to the remaining one of Louisa's two Siamese and thereby revealing to the entire family that he had the clan power. He had had to carefully consider the deed later, because when he'd thought back over it, he'd realized that he had acted on instinct, leaping up and restoring life to the cat without even thinking about it till it was done. He tried to think about his power as little as possible; if he gave it enough attention, he ended up feeling a little shaken by the knowledge that he had the ability, and by what could happen if he didn't guard the secret with the utmost care.

"I'm glad you did," said Louisa. She was quiet for a few seconds, then cleared her throat. "Rudolf said Roald told him in a text that he's thinking of staying here for good."

"I'm surprised he told anyone other than Leslie and me," Christian commented. "He hasn't gotten around to mentioning it to his parents, naturally. What was Rudolf's reaction when he saw the text?"

"He just said something about the castle getting quieter and quieter. And it kind of does seem that way. Rudolf and I..." She caught herself, then shrugged. "Well, we've been sort of kicking around the idea of having another baby, but I was so sick when I was pregnant with Katta, I'm not really sure I want to. And now that we know about the clan power and all...well, I mean, there's no telling—we already know Katta can pass the power down to any sons she has, and if she has daughters they can pass it down too. If we had a boy, he might have the power." She met Christian's gaze. "Right?"

Christian released a sigh. "The way I understand the inheritance factor working, yes, you could have a son with the power. All things considered, I really wasn't that surprised when Roald admitted he's considering remaining here for good. If you and Rudolf did have a boy with the power, I'd half expect you to follow suit."

"I think that'd really upset Sire and Madame," Louisa said, biting her lip. Carl Johan, as prince regent for Matti and the acting king, was entitled to the honorific traditionally used by the ruling monarch's children's spouses, as Amalia was entitled to the feminine equivalent. "It's bad enough that Liselotta's gone and Gerhard's locked away. And it's weird, we don't really see Stina and Magga anymore. Not much anyway. They don't come to the castle every Sunday like they used to. It's more like every second or third Sunday."

"Truly?" said Christian with genuine surprise, turning to stare at her. "I suppose I can see it with Magga—she and Gudrun seem to be perfectly happy keeping to themselves—but Stina knows perfectly well that her Natalia is part of that little clique that Lisi and Toria have." The three girls were the same age. "I suppose it may have to do with the fact that both Arnulf and Kristina are dead now. They have somewhat less reason to make the weekly trip to the castle, although I find it interesting all the same."

"Well, with Briella gone too..." Louisa began, then let it drop. She blew out a breath and mumbled, "It's just strange now. Every so often some newspaper editor puts out an op-ed piece asking whether the royal family will eventually just become obsolete. Rudolf gets mad when he sees those things, but considering how many changes there've been in the last few years, I guess the anti-royalist movement is starting to yell a lot louder now."

Christian grunted. "At least the family has a place to retreat to, should it ever come to that." About to say more, he sat up with some relief when he saw a resort SUV pull into the lane and draw to a stop in front of Roald's cottage. "Thank the fates, they're back. Tell you what, Louisa, don't worry too much about the anti-royalists. They've been around for perhaps the last century, certainly ever since the end of the First World War, and they haven't succeeded in deposing us yet. I think Lilla Jordsö takes too much pride in the fact that the same family has ruled over the country ever since it was first formed." He grinned at her and got to his feet. "Enjoy watching the youngsters, hm? Either Leslie or I will be back around to pick them up this afternoon."

"Okay, see you then," said Louisa, and Christian crossed the yard as Roald slid out of the front passenger seat with a paper bag cradled in each arm. Christian laughed, seeing bottle tops poking out.

"You seem to be expecting a siege," he remarked.

"If you ask me, that qualifies as one," riposted Roald, inclining his head toward the yard full of children, and they both laughed. "Aunt Leslie said you had to get going quick, so I guess we'll see you two whenever you get done for the day."

Christian nodded and took his nephew's place inside the vehicle; Leslie used Roald's driveway to turn around. "Looks like the kids will be okay," she said, glancing into Rudolf and Louisa's yard. "I called Maureen and she said she and her employees will put together a barbecue meal—pulled pork, along with potato salad, corn on the cob, coleslaw, baked beans, and a couple of cheesecakes to round things off. I told her we'll be responsible for the beverages. I arranged to have it delivered by three, so with any luck both of us will be done in time to join everybody else."

Christian smiled broadly. "Sounds delicious—I'm hungry already. You might be interested to know this." He filled her in on what Louisa had said about her and Rudolf possibly having another baby. "Apparently all this has led to her worrying about the anti-royalist movement in Lilla Jordsö."

"Wow," said Leslie, blinking a few times. "Do you think the monarchy's in danger?"

"I doubt it," said Christian. "We've had anti-royalists for close to a century now and there's been no serious challenge to the monarchy. The group usually makes news when it breaks the law in some minor way. If someone brings up the idea publicly, they tend to be shouted down. The people may find our recent travails a bit tedious, but not to the point where they want to exile us." He chuckled and shifted in his seat a bit. "My suggestion is that we turn our thoughts where they need to go for a while."

Leslie agreed to that, and a few minutes later she parked in front of his office in the town square in Amberville. "Do you have a lot to do?"

"Mostly maintenance and a couple of minor repair projects, and I'll check in with my other managers where possible, considering the time difference. I'm estimating three hours or so, four at the most. What of you?"

"Some rounds for Delphine, scheduling guest visits, the kind of stuff I used to do for Father, mostly. I'm going to take care of some of the bureaucratic stuff too, if I get a chance around the resort business. If you want, you can call or text me when you're finished, and I can come over and pick you up."

Christian nodded. "That should be fine. Well enough, my Rose, I'll see you this afternoon." He kissed her, then smiled and let himself out the door; she watched him go into the office before backing out and driving to the main house.

In the end she left the bureaucratic matters till last; Delphine, seeing that she had taken care of the deskwork and handled the day's mail, shooed her out to the porch so that she could work in some manner of peace. Among the mail she had picked up during her rounds, she found herself unfolding a few printed paper immigration applications. There were three or four of them, all from Kullenäs clan members; one was from Stigan, with whom Christian had spoken during a clandestine visit in June, and another was a combination application filled out by Brigitta Kullenäs for herself and her boyfriend, Frode, who was actually a distant cousin. Leslie had wondered off and on whether they had ever established the exact relationship, and the question drifted idly through her mind now as she opened the last one and started to read. Then she sat up straight and sucked in a sharp breath. "Oh, no," she breathed. "Oh, wait till I tell Christian about this one..."