A/N: Book 5 at last! I apologize for the long delay, since I posted the last chapter of Book 4 in April and it's now September. I've had a harder time writing this one than the others, and I'm still looking for a way to resolve the storylines in it, but at least I've got some action going on. Things usually do work out one way or another, sooner or later ... so I've decided to upload all the chapters I currently have ready and then begin posting new chapters, as with the previous four books, on a date that ends in 6. Enjoy!
§ § § - June 10, 2013
"So, Your Highness, are you considered to be second in command on the island, since you're married to the owner of the place?" the reporter inquired.
Prince Christian of Lilla Jordsö, who no longer lived in the country of his birth, tossed his wife, Leslie, a glance, and shrugged. "Well, there's been no formal announcement really, but I suppose in practice, that's how it is. Leslie did see to it that I was imbued with the official capacity to speak for her in case a given situation called for it; but if you're asking whether I have some kind of fancy title, then the answer is no."
"I see," remarked the reporter with interest. "So you simply keep your own title."
"Not exactly because I asked for it," Christian confessed through a laugh. "Most of the islanders still call me 'Prince Christian' or 'Your Highness'; only our friends and a couple of my employees have the courage to use my name."
"You didn't give the rest of the island permission to use it anyway," Leslie teased him then. At forty-eight, she still looked younger, though lately she'd noticed some gray hairs blending in with the red-gold, mostly in her bangs, and liked to jokingly blame their nine-year-old triplets and four-year-old daughter for this.
"You can hardly talk, my Leslie Rose," Christian teased right back. "Those same people call you 'Miss Leslie'."
At the reporter's surprised expression, Leslie grinned a little sheepishly. "They've always called me that, from the time I first came to live with Father. Habits die hard."
The reporter laughed, and both Christian and Leslie relaxed a little. The interview had gone smoothly enough, but up till now it had been decidedly formal, with the reporter bowing to them both and scrupulously adhering to established protocol when dealing with royals, never calling either of them anything but Your Highness when he addressed them. It had made Leslie a little uncomfortable and caused Christian to frown slightly, but smoothly hide his mild annoyance with the title. For the interview he had donned a custom-tailored black Armani business suit, with which he wore a pale-gray dress shirt and a silver silk tie. Leslie, by contrast, provided a splash of color in her red dress with its square neckline, three-quarter-length sleeves, and calf-length skirt with a ruffled flare at the hem. Her pumps with two-inch heels had been dyed to an exact match, and around her neck was the necklace Christian had given her on her first birthday after their marriage—a thick gold chain from which hung a gold heart-shaped pendant that had a slightly smaller heart-shaped ruby mounted on it. She wore this necklace nearly all the time anyhow, and Christian had kidded her that she'd worn red on purpose so she wouldn't have to choose different jewelry for her interview attire.
They were undergoing the ritual for a new, high-end glossy magazine that circulated in Lilla Jordsö, a small Scandinavian country northeast of the Shetland Islands and west of Norway. Christian had brought his wife and children back for their annual early-summer vacation; with them had come his two nephews, Rudolf and Roald, and their families. Rudolf and his wife and daughter had returned in order to move permanently back into their castle rooms; but Roald and his children, plus two servants, would return to the island with Christian and Leslie. They had another week here before heading for home, and as usual when they were here, Christian had found himself roped into the sort of official royal duties he normally escaped by virtue of living abroad. He had capitulated to the insistence of his older brother, Carl Johan—the regent for the country's young king, Matti, Carl Johan's grandson—only because he had Leslie with him to, as he put it, "make all this madness less torturous". Christian was not fond of interviews, but he had been in a good mood all day, and it seemed to be surviving even this appointment with the reporter.
"One other question for you, Your Highness," the reporter said, addressing Leslie. "I understand that your father originally intended his resort for wealthy guests, and it's only in the last thirty years or so that you've accepted anyone who wishes to visit. But it's also been noted that the place is seeing an uptick in new residents, when it's clear from the website that immigration is as severely restricted under your supervision as it was in your father's day. Have there been any changes in the rules?"
Leslie—still unused to interviews despite having been married to Christian for more than twelve years, primarily because most of that time, they had lived on her island and been shielded from constant press intrusions—stared blankly at the reporter for a long moment, unsure how she should answer that. She felt Christian's gaze on her, but all she could come up with was a faint shrug and a quiet, uncertain "Well..."
Christian stepped in, to her relieved gratitude. "We've been seeing a small increase in immigration applications, but they all have sound reasons for requesting residence and eventual citizenship on the island. Leslie vets every application carefully and personally approves or denies them. And if I understand the unspoken implication of your question, no, these people are not buying their way onto the island. They have legitimate reasons for coming, and if they fit within the criteria, we grant their applications."
"Do you assist Her Highness with the applications, Your Highness?"
"Occasionally, if she feels she needs some advice. There have been quite a few changes on the island lately, and since neither of us is exactly a career politician, we've both had to learn the job as we go. And as we all know, two heads are better than one when it comes to thorny conundrums."
"We work really well together," ventured Leslie, having recovered some composure, "and even though he was kind of reluctant at first, he's been invaluable to me with advice and suggestions. So far we haven't had any major complaints from anyone."
The reporter laughed at her self-deprecating tone and shifted in his chair, as if in preparation to depart. "So you've been busy lately. But it sounds as if your father left the island in good hands. I thank you both sincerely for the opportunity to conduct this interview; the article should be out in the August issue."
"If my brother or someone else in the family sees fit to send us a copy of the magazine, we'll look forward to seeing how it came out," Christian said, rising. Leslie stood up alongside him, providing a clear cue for the reporter, with whom the prince shook hands. "Thank you for coming."
After the reporter and his accompanying photographer had left, Leslie made a face and shook her head. "He nearly pinned me to the wall there for a minute, about the immigration thing. I just went blank and couldn't think of a single thing to say. Thanks for saving me, my love."
Christian grinned and gave her a hug. "That's not your fault. Even the better publications can't seem to resist attempting a little snooping. It's as well you hesitated and said only the one word. That gave me a chance to come up with a deflection." He sobered and heaved a sigh, as if to refresh himself. "It worries me that it may become more and more difficult to conceal the relocation of factions of various clans to the island. After all, your father put such strict and narrow limitations on his immigration criteria that he gained a worldwide reputation for being the most difficult place on the planet to move to. He couldn't possibly have accepted very many applications while he was in charge."
"I think I can remember maybe a dozen people he allowed to move there, in all the time I lived with him as his ward and then his assistant. So yeah, I can see where our allowing a lot of clan members to join us would draw some attention. But Father did a good job of building the island's reputation. We can always fall back on his insistence on personal privacy for each and every islander." She winked at him. "Which obviously was a huge draw for you. No wonder you wanted to marry me."
"Ach, after all these years, you finally figured out my true motivation," Christian pretended to groan, and they both laughed. "Let's go change our clothes and find out what our progeny are getting into. I wanted to put in a request or two for the lunch menu."
They left the royal family's sitting room, where the interview had been held, and started to make their way toward the castle's playroom, where the royal children spent a great deal of time when they weren't being tutored in scholastic matters or Royal Comportment. But Christian and Leslie hadn't made it more than a dozen steps or so in that direction before Christian's brother Carl Johan emerged suddenly from a flight of steps at their left. "Oh good, there you are. We won't be having lunch for a while as yet. Would you two kindly come with me so we can go over your schedule for your remaining time here?"
"We could if you like, but is it really necessary?" Christian asked. "Has there been some last-minute change you want us to know about?"
"I'm not aware of any, but that's one reason I want to look. Just follow me." Carl Johan retreated back to the stairs and jogged up them, leaving his brother and sister-in-law no choice but to follow. Together they topped the stairs, crossed a landing that connected the stairwell with the two corridors on each side of the castle's north wing on all three floors, and descended another flight of stairs, making their way toward a suite of rooms that Carl Johan had shared with his wife Amalia for more than forty years.
Inside the suite, they saw Amalia there, playing a card game with her three grandchildren: Katta, the daughter of their son Rudolf and his wife Louisa; Matti, the eleven-year-old king of Lilla Jordsö; and Toria, Matti's younger sister, almost ten. Matti and Toria were the offspring of Carl Johan and Amalia's firstborn, Gerhard, who had died about six months before, and his wife Liselotta, also deceased. Toria had been living with Roald, her father's cousin and the son of Christian and Carl Johan's sister Anna-Laura, and would return to the island with them, for like her mother, she possessed the powers of a clan known as the Mind-Benders. With clan people recently having been endangered by various personages and misadventures, the royals had agreed when Toria elected to continue living on Leslie's island. The royals themselves were members of another clan, the Life-Givers, though not all of them possessed the power of this clan to raise the dead. Christian had been the first of the royals to be born with the power; Gerhard had been the next, and his discovery of the ability had driven him mad, contributing to his death. Roald had recently ascertained that all three of his young sons had the power, which had been an overwhelming factor in his choice to not only take up residence on his aunt's island, but to remain permanently.
Amalia and the children looked up and greeted Christian and Leslie as Carl Johan led them inside. "Hallå då," responded Christian in the usual informal jordisk greeting. "Who's winning the game?"
"Me, of course," Matti said with a grin. "I've had a lot of time to practice with farmor, and these girls don't know this game at all." He gestured at his sister and his nearly-seven-year-old cousin.
"Nobody likes a bad winner," Toria informed him before turning to Christian and Leslie. "Do you think it's safe for me to stay here for the summer? I want to spend more time with farmor and farfar, and I don't know if they can come to the island before summer ends."
"I don't think there's any real harm, but that may also be up to your grandparents," said Christian. "Give us a few minutes and we'll talk about it. Let's see the social schedule, then, äldrebror. I'm beginning to worry that you intend to make a raft of additions to it so that we'll be forced to be away from here day and night, when this is supposed to be our time off." He grinned teasingly.
Carl Johan hiked an eyebrow in a reaction that was characteristic of the royal family. "No one with a title ever truly has time off," he pointed out. "You're just spoiled by the fact that you're so far down the line of succession that you need not adhere to the regular duties of the rest of us."
"The fates apparently cut me a break," Christian said, still grinning. "Stop stalling and give us the bad news, will you?"
"Bad news?" repeated Amalia curiously, looking up from the card game.
"He must be giving us extra social obligations," Christian said. "That's the only reason I could think of for him to insist that we accompany him back here."
Amalia chuckled. "I see. Nothing's changed that I'm aware of, but I'm not privy to the schedule other than my own activities. And in any case, shouldn't you be checking with Miss Grönnedahl about schedule changes?"
"There's that," said Leslie. "Come on, my love, let's go find out what the story is."
Inside the bedroom of Carl Johan and Amalia's suite, the prince regent closed the door and turned to his brother and sister-in-law with a truly grim look on his face. "It has nothing to do with changes to your schedule, ungstebror," he told Christian. "I said that only to keep too many ears from overhearing the subject of the real topic. This is something else entirely. Something clan-related."
"Should we sit down, then?" asked Christian, half facetiously.
"Perhaps so," his brother said, and they all three took chairs around a small table that held a laptop which Carl Johan used daily in his duties as regent. Carl Johan eyed it for a minute or two, then sighed and met Christian's gaze while Leslie watched, more and more curious. "You'll remember in the spring of last year, we had to clean out Gerhard and Liselotta's house after it became clear he would never regain his mental health." Christian and Leslie nodded, and he resettled himself in his chair. "I had such a difficult time with the whole operation that I left nearly all the tasks of packing and moving to the servants I had brought with me. And with my duties as prince regent, it's taken me just this long to find the time to go through all the boxes we brought back. We simply stored everything in the suite Gerhard had as a boy, and locked it in till we had a chance to take a closer look. Well, not 'we', really—just I." He sighed. "I'm still trying to decide whether I regret doing it. I found this in one of the boxes." He turned to the antique cubbyhole desk that sat nearby and pulled out a drawer, extracting a small, thick spiral notebook with hard covers. Without another word, he handed it across the table to Christian.
Christian accepted the book and peered at the cover, which was pale blue with a sparkle effect, and then opened it. Both he and Leslie saw Liselotta's name on the inside of the cover, and beneath it, the words "min dagbok". Christian grunted and remarked, "So Liselotta kept a diary. But dozens of the women in this family through the generations have done that; so what's special about this?"
Carl Johan gestured at the book. "You'll see the little sticky-note flag poking out of the top. Turn to that page and read it."
Christian retrieved his reading glasses from an inside pocket of his suit jacket, put them on, found the marked page and began to read the diary entry for the date, which Leslie noted was early 2002. She could read jordiska, but she wasn't even half as fast and fluent as Christian; so she was content to wait for him to find whatever Carl Johan thought was the relevant passage. They were all silent for a moment while Christian read, Carl Johan watched him, and Leslie waited.
She could tell when Christian found it because he stilled for a few seconds before looking up. "Liselotta was worried about Matti's ability to sire children?"
Carl Johan nodded. "As you just read in that book, she had been talking with her cousins at Liljefors Slott. One of them must have told her that any male born to the Liljefors clan, if he survived into adulthood, would be sterile."
Christian blinked slowly once and perched the glasses atop his head, shaking it a little. "Do they have any proof of that?"
"I have no way of knowing," said Carl Johan with a helpless shrug. "I'm sure the surviving clan members would find this yet another on their long list of taboo subjects, but they need to understand that this is very important to us—because it will affect the succession. At some point Matti will have to choose whoever takes the throne after he dies, assuming he decides not to avail himself of the services of one of his Life-Giver cousins."
"Even then he'd still have to choose someone," Leslie pointed out. "He couldn't go on being king indefinitely, or else he'd be on the throne after a century and be a hundred and twenty-something, and there'd be some issues with that."
Christian let out a half-amused snort and Carl Johan's mouth quirked at one corner. "Yes, Leslie," the prince regent agreed, "that's an excellent point. He need not worry about it just now, but eventually the question will come up. And if he truly can't father children, it'll be necessary for him to designate a Prince or Princess Heir." He gave Leslie a thoughtful look. "How do you suggest we find out?"
"Short of having him tested, you mean?" interjected Christian. Carl Johan shot him a raised eyebrow, which Christian promptly returned.
Leslie grinned briefly at the byplay, then considered it. "I guess I can try asking my friend Frida, just to see if she knows anything. If she does, and she can tell us something useful, I'll get back to you and let you know."
Carl Johan nodded. "That will be fine, thank you, Leslie."
"So," said Christian, folding his glasses and replacing them in the inner pocket of his jacket, "was that all you wanted to ask us?"
"Not quite," said the prince regent, managing to look a bit guilty. "I've, uh...asked that Thomas Sjöland come to the castle tomorrow. He's bringing family members with him."
"Thomas Sjöland...?" repeated Christian, with the expression of one struggling to remember something important.
"The former atrium keeper who belongs to the jordisk branch of the LiSciola family," Carl Johan reminded him, and his face cleared. "Tomorrow afternoon about two. We'll send a driver out to pick him up along with whomever he plans to bring along."
"Well enough, but why tell us?" Christian asked.
"I wanted you and Leslie to meet them," said Carl Johan, with an unaccustomed diffidence about him. "Also, there was some interest expressed by them in meeting you; they didn't say why, but my semi-educated guess is that they're wondering about emigrating."
Leslie shrugged, catching Christian's attention. "I have no problem with meeting them if they really want to." She met her husband's gaze. "My love?"
"No, I don't mind," said Christian slowly. "I just wonder what sort of questions they could possibly have that couldn't be answered by a good perusal of the island website."
"Well, maybe that's not all they want to discuss," Leslie said, shrugging again. "We'll see when we see them. Do we have any other schedule changes?"
"No, that's all," said Carl Johan, and laughed at the expression of exaggerated relief that Christian conjured up. "Yes, ungstebror, you're off the hook. You can go ahead and return to your suite to change clothes now."
"My effuse thanks," Christian retorted with overdone sweetness, rising as he spoke. He grinned when Leslie laughed and Carl Johan rolled his eyes. "We'll keep you informed. See you later. Come on, my Rose, time to get comfortable."
They waved at Amalia and the children as they strolled through the living-room half of the suite, and made their way to their own rooms, neither speaking till they had closed themselves inside. Then Leslie took in the preoccupied look on Christian's face and asked, "What do you think the Sjölands want to talk about, if not emigrating?"
Christian blinked as if emerging from a trance, and peered at her, responding, "Hm?" before her question sank in. "Oh. That's just it—I have no idea. Perhaps they merely want to be able to say they met you and me, just to acquire some dubious bragging rights."
Leslie snickered. "Well, it might be slightly weird, but I'm not going to worry about it. We'll find out what they have in mind when they get here. I wonder how formally we have to dress for that meeting?"
"At least as formally as for the interview," Christian told her through a sigh. "I may as well send this suit to the castle laundry and let them know it needs priority. Carl Johan said I should have invested in at least three of these when we went on that trip to Ellströms the day after we got here. Perhaps he was right after all." He began to remove the jacket, just as there came a knock on the bedroom door. Before either he or Leslie could respond, none other than her father walked in. "Fate take it," Christian blurted, startled.
"Father, what're you doing here?" Leslie exclaimed. Her father, who had originally built the island resort that now belonged to her as his sole heir, was a member of a clan known as the Matter-Shifters, who among other things could teleport wherever they chose to, insofar as each clan member's individual powers allowed it. Leslie's father was a particularly gifted clan member; he had made great use of his powers in the years he had run the resort, building up a unique and extremely popular vacation destination that still saw a booming business, giving Leslie a handsome income. She wasn't his daughter for nothing; she'd watched and learned from him, and did her best to continue operating the island under the same laws, rules and generosities he had instated. She saw to it that the people who had been under her father's charge, and were now under hers, were well cared for and didn't lack for the necessities.
He smiled at them now. "I apologize for my untimely intrusion, but there is some urgent news. You'll recall the fragment of the generation ship that was found in Germany a couple of months ago." They nodded quizzically. "It so happens that we've discovered there is a fairly substantial section of it missing."
"How can you tell?" Christian wanted to know.
"One edge shows definite signs of having had a blowtorch applied to it," said his father-in-law. "The affected area is black with carbon burn, and it's an almost perfectly straight severance. The missing section is about a meter long on the side that was removed from the main fragment."
"There's no way to tell how large the missing piece is?" Christian asked.
"None, I'm afraid—but that doesn't matter. Any amount of that metal can be tested and analyzed, and holds the potential for exposure and eventual possible destruction of the clans." He saw their expressions become astonished and confused, and raised both hands. "You have both spent most of your lives believing you're ordinary earth human. Now you have learned that you both have clan blood and powers; and your immediate reactions were fear, worry, even anger: not only for the necessary adjustments you were forced to make to knowing those hidden parts of your provenance, but for the knowledge of what other human beings would most likely do with anyone who possesses such abilities. You both have taken precautions to all the extent you can, to protect yourselves and others. You know that the first, perhaps instinctive, reaction of the humans of this planet would be, as they say, to shoot first and ask questions later."
"He's right, my love," Leslie said softly.
"I know, my Rose," Christian murmured, "but even so, I find myself wondering how we can lump every human being now alive into one category. We're so quick to believe the worst; we're suspicious before we're welcoming. Tell someone something good about someone else, and you have to provide all manner of proof; tell them something bad about another person, and there's instant belief, even if it isn't justified with proof."
"I don't like it either, Christian," Leslie's father said gently, "but the unfortunate truth is that the majority eclipse the minority, and the majority are the ones we must prepare for and guard against. Mind you, I am painting this picture in very general terms. Very few humans are either all good or all bad; the trick is finding those in whom the good prevails." He cleared his throat and smiled wryly. "In regard to finding people, our priority must be on locating the person who possesses that missing piece, and try to get it back."
"How urgent a priority is it?" Christian wanted to know.
"Why do you ask?" inquired his father-in-law, pausing in the middle of turning from them as if to depart in his usual fashion of vanishing into thin air.
Christian cleared his throat. "My great-nephew—Matti," he began, and explained what Carl Johan had discovered in Liselotta's diary. Leslie watched her father's expression change as Christian spoke, till he was frowning in surprise. "So," Christian concluded, "Leslie said she'll ask her friend Frida what she may know about this, but I don't expect her to have a great deal of information. After all, as you'll remember, Frida didn't grow up within her clan, and didn't receive the usual instruction they give their girls in regard to clan power and lore."
"Indeed," mused Leslie's father. "Perhaps it would be wiser to turn directly to the source. I will take the question to Sofia Liljefors myself, since she is with us in the realms as head of the Mind-Benders. She was one of their greatmothers, after all, and if anyone has the answer to that question, it will be she."
Christian nodded. "How soon can you find out what we need to know?"
"I'll return tomorrow evening and tell you whatever I have been able to learn from her. I apologize for my unannounced arrival this time, but I am afraid the issue in question was too important to go through the usual protocol. I wanted you two to know, in case your help is needed at some point during our search for whoever has that missing piece. How is your vacation going thus far?"
"It's been busy," Leslie admitted with a grin. "We just had a magazine interview today and I think we're going to be making a lot more appearances around the country. Even the kids are busy—Karina's piano lessons and Tobias' karate classes have had to be postponed for the duration, so they might be a little out of practice when we get home."
"They've been making appearances as well as you two?" her father asked in surprise.
"The people here see them only twice a year, generally," said Christian. "At home they're shielded from the limelight, but when we come here, everyone wants updates on them, because they're my children, and for some reason I seem to still be considered the country's favorite royal. One day someone else will fill that description, and believe me, it'll be a relief. But till then, since it's only every six months or so, we just shrug, resign ourselves and indulge the national curiosity. We went on a family excursion to Kronaborg—our amusement park—last week, as a belated present for all four of the children, and the media were out in full force. Not just that, but anyone with a smartphone who was within range had all the opportunity in the world to snap their own photos of us."
"It was weird," Leslie admitted, hunching her shoulders. "Somehow I've never gotten used to the spotlight."
"You've been spoiled by the high priority I always placed on privacy on the island," her father reminded her with a smile. "Just be yourself, Leslie, and you should be fine. I'm afraid I'd better take my leave of you; are there any other issues?"
"None that we can think of, but if you can put some priority on the question regarding Matti, we'd all greatly appreciate it," Christian said. "Carl Johan is especially anxious, and with good reason, since he's Matti's grandfather and regent."
"I understand," Leslie's father assured him. "I'll see you two tomorrow evening, then." He returned their smiles, and vanished.
Leslie frowned as she gazed absently into the space where he had been standing. "You know, I think I'll text Frida anyway," she murmured, going to retrieve her phone from the nightstand where it lay charging. "Even if she doesn't know anything, at least I'll know one way or the other if she can tell me something."
Christian watched her tap out a text and send it, then checked his watch and huffed in amusement. "It's the middle of the night back home, my Rose," he pointed out.
"We'll still probably get a reply before Father comes back," she said, and he shrugged amiably. She set her phone aside and, literally, kicked her shoes off. "That's better," she announced with force, causing Christian to burst out laughing. "Let's change into something comfy and have some lunch. I'm starving."
Still laughing, he agreed, and in a few minutes they had exchanged their formalwear for jeans and casual shirts. The same stone floors of the castle that were unbearably cold in winter retained a pleasant chill in summer, and it felt good to walk barefoot down the halls. It was something that would never have crossed Christian's mind before he met Leslie, and even then it had taken quite a few years of marriage before he picked up her habit of going barefooted whenever she could. But Christian was willing to try anything once, and had no problem jolting the castle staff and his family by doing something unorthodox; so Leslie found herself snickering softly every time he smirked at the startled or aghast reactions of various servants they passed in the corridors. "You are such a rogue," she finally told him as they stepped out into the castle's vast central hall, known to one and all as the great entry. This was the one and only point of ingress or egress from the entire building, stretching three stories high as well as across the building's full width.
"So you've said," Christian observed jocularly, taking her hand and leading her along toward the back of the great entry, where the dining-room entrance was the last doorway on their right. "But what good is life if you can't have a little fun now and then?"
"There's that," she agreed, and he chuckled again and brought her into the royal dining room. Some of the family had already gathered here; Christian and Leslie noticed that most of the children were there, including their own four. Their youngest, four-year-old Anastasia, spied her parents and scrambled out of her chair to meet them.
"Mommy, Daddy!" she squalled, colliding with Christian, who lifted her up. "Guess what, guess what! Cousin Roald said he wants to go to Kronaborg and he's gonna take all da kids! So we get to go 'gain!" She wriggled with excitement. "I love Kronaborg! All dose fun rides and lotsa yummy stuff to eat!"
"Did Cousin Roald invite you and your brother and sisters?" Leslie asked.
This seemed to give Anastasia pause; she pondered the question for a moment, then shrugged. "I dunno. But we can ask him and den he'll take us."
Christian laughed. "Hmm, that we'll see about, lillan min. For right now, let's have some lunch, and then we'll see what Cousin Roald says." He put her back on the floor and watched her scuttle to her chair. "If he does take them, I think we'd better put a word or two in his ear about restricting the junk food he allows ours to eat."
‡ ‡ ‡
While his daughter and son-in-law were enjoying some time off in the latter's native land, Leslie's father transported himself to the secret chambers hidden in the moon's interior that all the clans knew of as "the realms". During his many centuries living on the planet, he had gone by one name which he'd given up once he had been forced to retire from his earthly business and bequeath his island and its resort to his daughter. Due to his extraordinarily strong Matter-Shifter power, along with vestiges of several others whose provenance even he wasn't fully certain of, he'd been named leader of a tribunal that had been ignominiously disbanded a couple of years before after one of its members had talked most of the others into an elaborate kidnapping scheme. Thus he was known in the realms simply as "Leader", and had grown used to the appellation.
He searched now for Sofia Liljefors, head of the Mind-Bender clan, who could manipulate emotions and plant suggestions in others' minds. The clan had always had its own strict internal rules about use of their power, but all the same, they had been notorious in the leader's son-in-law's country, their former home. After a major disaster had wiped out most of the clan, its remaining members had migrated en masse to Leslie's island, where they had just begun prospering and settling in. Sofia, one of the matriarchs of the clan, had been brought to the realms when she was at the edge of death on the planet; now healers visited her daily, due to her frail health. As usual, Sofia was in her own small chamber, tending to a collection of potted plants that she had insisted on having transported to the realms when she came to live there. She looked surprised at his arrival. "Leader! It's been some time since I saw you last," she said, using the ancient common language of the clans, which she had learned easily thanks to her mental powers.
He returned her smile and presented a slight bow. "So it has," he agreed. "I have a complicated question for you, so if you become fatigued at any time during my visit, please let me know and I'll depart immediately so you can rest."
Sofia, looking intrigued, lowered herself gingerly into her chair. "Please sit," she said, gesturing at another chair nearby. "You have my interest now."
The leader's smile grew a little wry. "I feel obligated to warn you that it may be of a very personal nature. Are you still interested?"
"I reserve the right to withhold my answer to that until you've told me what your question is about." Sofia grinned briefly. "Please, go on."
The leader nodded and cleared his throat. "Very well. You are aware, of course, that Lilla Jordsö's current king is the child of two clans, the Life-Givers and the Mind-Benders, thanks to his parentage. He has, of course, the powers of neither; but it seems that my son-in-law's brother, grandfather of the king and also his regent, recently discovered a diary that the young king's late mother had kept."
Sofia was frowning now, and he paused to register her expression before asking, "Do you wish to comment, perhaps?"
"I think I know what you're leading up to," she said heavily, her gaze losing focus. "I had little actual contact with Liselotta, but I knew her mother, Jorda, all too well, no thanks to her constant carping and her overprotectiveness of her only child. The fact that Liselotta's firstborn was a boy was stunning enough to us all; that he lived beyond his birth was little short of miraculous."
"You may be aware that it was actually due to the fact that his late father was a powered Life-Giver," the leader informed her. "The child did in fact die shortly after his birth; but Prince Gerhard asked to say a private farewell to his son, and unknowingly used his power in so doing. Had it not been for that, King Matteus would never have lived to take the throne."
Sofia's eyes had grown wide with astonishment. "So that's what happened!" She took this in for a moment or two; then the leader watched a gentle sadness settle over her features as she shook her head. "The boy has had too much thrust upon him at too young an age. I do hope Prince Carl Johan will be able to remain in good health and sound mental condition long enough for the boy to reach his majority."
"There is no reason he shouldn't," the leader remarked with a touch of humor, "and if he should somehow meet his demise before that happens, his younger brother—my son-in-law—will no doubt rush directly to his side to restore his life."
"Fate take us," murmured Sofia, looking overwhelmed. "Prince Christian has the power as well? Is he aware?"
"He is," the leader said with a nod. "But forgive me, please—before we begin to follow a tangent that has nothing to do with the purpose of my visit, I must ask you a question that has been troubling Prince Carl Johan ever since he discovered Liselotta's diary. He found a passage that mentioned Liselotta's concerns about her son's ability to father children."
At this Sofia stilled and stared at him, and he inclined his head in her direction. "You see the problem. My son-in-law told me about it, and I advised that I would present the question to you. It seems Liselotta was told that any male born into your clan would be unable to sire a child should he somehow survive birth."
Sofia gave a great, long sigh and closed her eyes. "Unfortunately, it's true," she said, her voice a little tremulous. "Because it's so vanishingly rare to produce a male in our clan, that fact has taken on the tarnish of rumor or legend. We never really thought we would have to address it. But I could not find a way to approach either Liselotta or Jorda about it, and then when Matti became king, I was too ill to broach the subject. It's one of the closely held clan secrets that only the greatmothers are privy to."
"I see," murmured the leader with a thoughtful nod. "I didn't mean, of course, to intrude upon your privacy—"
Sofia waved this away as if it were a moth fluttering around her. "No, this was a matter of importance to the royal family. You must certainly inform Prince Carl Johan of this, so that steps can be taken to secure the succession. Even if the king is still only a child, it's best that the family has the knowledge now, to give them a chance to discuss it among themselves and make whatever decisions they must."
The leader nodded. "I will inform them as soon as possible, and I extend my sincerest thanks for your willingness to share the information." He let a few beats elapse, then shifted in his chair and adopted a lighter tone. "I see your plants are thriving..."
They talked for a little while before he noticed Sofia flagging, and he made his excuses and arose, departing quietly, with a last thanks for her assistance. Retreating toward his own chamber, he considered what he had to tell Christian's family, and then let his mind drift away to the issue that had been occupying it for the last several weeks. They were the closest they had been in many millennia to determining the ultimate fate of the doomed Body-Menders clan, but it was going to take a great deal of time and research to solve the mystery once and for all.