Elderkin by Legion

Elderkin - Legion

Liegeman James Ellison jerked, startled, to stare at the ceiling of the apothecary's shop as if to see through it to the gettle whose challenging roar had just blasted his ears. He was so astonished to hear the sound in a place like Cascade, far from where a mature beast capable of the call should be, that for a moment he thought he was the only one who could have heard it. Glancing back to Mr. Lin to apologize for his inattention, he closed his lips over the words, jaw muscle tightening in confusion.

The wiry apothecary backed into a corner, shaven head shaking, murmuring, 'no fire, no fire,' over and over in his own tongue.

No fire, Jim said firmly in the same language. Cascade is safe from the flame. When the man simply clenched his hands in front of him, eyes fixed upwards, he added loudly, I so swear, Honorable Lin Si Chan.

"I hear!" Mr. Lin jabbed his chin upwards and switched to English. "I know this noise. From long ago, but I know this noise!"

"It is a gettle telling other gettles to stay away from its hunt." Jim looked up again as the beast repeated its call. "The Elderkin warning to leave or face the flame would be much deeper, loud enough to shake the building, and would be in Man's languages at well - as many as are common in the city. Please, Mr. Lin; I know that the recent burning of New York has unsettled us all, but if you listen, the difference is quite distinct."

Though trembling, Mr. Lin closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, exhaling slowly each time. Finally he nodded, though he hid his hands in the sleeves of his outer robe. "You are correct, of course, Liegeman. It was merely the… unexpectedness of the cry."

Casting out his Hearing, Jim bit down on an oath. "Nor were you alone in your misunderstanding. I fear I will have to retire from our transaction, for the moment. Duty calls."

With a half-bow, Mr. Lin said, "Of course."

He gave a bow in return and left at a sedate pace, though worry made him want to run. Many of the pedestrians on the street were standing stock still, staring into the early autumn sky, palm cupped at their brow to shade their eyes, exclaiming out loud. The majority were merely curious, Jim saw with relief, but here and there he caught the tones of fear and panic. As luck would have it, a young deputy was among those closest, and he strolled over to him, doing his best to radiate calm confidence.

"A gettle on wing has become a rare sight in Cascade," Jim said conversationally, peering upwards. "And that one's a beauty - so many lovely shades of green. Too old to be a courier, though; I wonder if it is in some difficulty. That could be a wound on its chest."

"Gettle?" The deputy gasped, spinning to face Jim, eyes wide with fear. "I've never heard one bellow so before and thought it to be one of the Elderkin." With an effort, Jim summoned up a sincere sounding chuckle. "That pitiful cry from an Elderkin? If one should loose a challenge, your bones would feel it even as your ears threatened to retreat into silence for the rest of the day."

Pointing to the sky as the beast swept by low enough to see clearly, Jim traced its shape with a forefinger. "It is large, I'll grant you that; easily twenty feet from muzzle to tail tip. But see the sweep of wings, high on a back lined with spines, instead of closer to the center? Short and massive head, balanced by a long tail, fore legs with knees instead of elbows - and the most telling at a quick glance - ear ridges instead of twin crests on the crown."

Though he did his best to echo Jim's laugh, the deputy looked near to fainting from relief. "I suppose we have grown unaccustomed to gettles in general, these past three years. Has Professor Sandburg had no success at all in locating a wrangler willing to take up a position in Cascade?"

"None, I'm afraid, not that he has given up on that particular quest." Jim glanced around, as if assessing the situation. "Perhaps you should continue your patrol and watch for citizens who have also forgotten the differences between the Elderkin and their little cousins. I shouldn't want a panic to arise from such a simple misconception inspired by recent events in New York."

Pulling his shoulders back, the deputy unnecessarily straightened his cap. "And there will be those who would take advantage of such circumstances. Good day to you, sir." He strode off at a brisk pace, and, as Jim watched, stopped to reassure a woman clutching fearfully at her child as she gazed skyward.

Jim headed for the stockyard, positive that was the gettle's ultimate goal. He didn't hurry, much as growing sense of urgency demanded otherwise, and he paused frequently to share more reassuring words where he felt they were most needed. Deliberately intercepting deputies on their normal rounds, he drafted them to his endeavor to be certain everyone knew it was only a hungry gettle flying over them, looking for food. Their efforts proved surprisingly effective; he could all but feel the atmosphere of agitation ripple back to the normal hustle and bustle of the city.

The exception was the area around the animal pens, where voices surged into anger and the promise of violence. He could not call on Incacha for help, as the gettle would likely attack the dragon on sight, seeing him as a rival for his meal. On the other hand, Ften would be a soothing influence on the beast, and a protector if a human should be so foolhardy as to interfere with its hunt. With that in mind, Jim reached through Incacha to summon the warhorse, directing him to the commons.

That done, he over turned caution for speed, no longer concerned that people would panic at seeing him rushing for the gettle's destination. Not without a twinge of conscience, Jim commandeered a horse from the first mounted officer he encountered, instructing him to find more lawmen and follow. The steed was a sound one, readily responding to his command for a full-out gallop that scattered pedestrians onto the raised sidewalks while deftly avoiding those not quick enough to recognize their risk.

By the time he arrived at the stockyard, the gettle had retired from the sky, satisfied that the new 'territory' was undisputed and had begun to feed on the animals grazing in the fields at the edge of town. At least some of the anger he could hear was from owners who had lost prized stock to the gettle's appetite, and he anticipated the necessity of reminding residents of the Elderkin law, perhaps at gunpoint, that permitted the beasts to take what they needed from any public pasture.

Jim wasn't really surprised to find that Blair was already there, perched on a fence and speaking earnestly to the people milling around, pitchforks and axes in hand. Annoyed, yes, because Blair had made himself the focus of a crowd on the verge of becoming a mob, but not surprised as it was typical of Blair to think of others before considering danger to himself. Because he seemed to have everyone's full attention, despite Jim's abrupt arrival, Jim held back to let him work his magic.

Spying Ften placidly grazing only a few feet from Blair, not incidentally between the group and the greedily feeding gettle, Jim subtly signaled the Percheron to guard his guide. Though he undid the safety strap on his holsters to ready his pistols, he relaxed in the saddle, wrists crossed on the pommel, to listen to Blair act as a voice of reason.

"I know the sheep are a grave loss to you, Mrs. Tubman," Blair said to a large-boned, somehow unfinished-looking woman. Her square face, under its knot of dirty blonde hair, was set in hard lines of ire and determination, but she nodded her acceptance of Blair's sympathy. "The wool especially, because of those magnificent sweaters you knit and sell. And there are others to whom the lost animals are more than a livelihood - they're pets, and practically part of the family."

"Yeh can't help but get attached to a beastie when yeh see to its every need," she muttered sourly. "Specially the young'uns, and yeh can't pay away the grief of that, Perfesser."

"Nor do I intend to attempt to do so, though I will say again that the law provides for a fair price for your loss, including the revenue from the products such as milk or wool." Blair leaned down a bit, elbow braced on knee, as if to bring himself closer to his audience. "But this was an event that no one could have foreseen or prepared for, much like any natural disaster that could have taken your livestock from you. Surely you can see how grievously injured the poor thing is, and in a way that must have made hunting nearly impossible. It's obviously starving. And just as obviously before it matured, it must have been a working gettle, perhaps one whose croft was originally in this very city. Some vague remembrance of kind treatment at the hand of Man must have spurred it to come to us in its extremity."

There was an uneasy murmur from the crowd at that, which Jim couldn't begin to translate, but it apparently held no mystery for Blair. "Would you turn aside a horse or ox you found wandering loose, injured, even though it might strike out at you in pain and fear? No? I thought not, for I respect the good sense of the citizens of Cascade. This truly is no different. In fact, my first concern is whether or not it has nestlings; I shudder to think of such helpless creatures slowly starving, waiting in vain for their parent to return."

That possibility, at least, Jim had a response for, thanks to Incacha's soft words sounding softly in his ear. "Her name is Li-Li, and she was indeed fostered here, many years ago. At present she is not nesting, which is a blessing indeed, for she is many, many miles from her normal hunting grounds."

He swung down from his borrowed horse and walked toward the pasture, gesturing at the deputies that had come up behind him as Blair had spoken to begin to disperse the crowd. "I need to see to her wound, and it would be better to do so without spectators that might spook her at a critical moment. Those of you with claims, I will see on the morrow at my office. For the rest of you, if you wish to keep your animals safe, I would suggest a different field for a time. Otherwise, any remuneration for its loss will be solely for a meat animal. Thank you."

Though he feigned disinterest, Jim listened carefully to the reaction of the assembled townsmen as they left, noting that most were accepting the situation with what good grace they could muster - and a few were disappointed at being thwarted at the future opportunity to make a tidy profit on a relatively worthless head of livestock. As that was what he expected, to one degree or another, he dismissed them as immediate threats and concentrated on Li-Li. As he reached the fence, Blair lightly hopped down and fell into step with him, bumping shoulders once in welcome.

"Will she let us tend her?" Blair held the gate for Jim as he passed through and latched it behind them.

"Perhaps. We shall see how she reacts to our approach, and proceed from there." After giving Ften praise and an apple, Jim walked around the gettle, giving her a wide berth and inspecting her body not only for other injuries, but ugly reminders of older ones.

At Blair's silent, hopeful prompting, Jim said, "As you know, nestlings can be very rambunctious, especially as they become fledglings, and being treated for a serious wound by a human earlier in her life could account for her defying instinct and returning from the wild."

"I see nothing untoward," he went on after a moment, growing uneasy for reasons he couldn't quite pinpoint as yet.

Li-Li watched him from the corner of her eye as she ate, clearly undisturbed at his presence. Encouraged by that, Jim murmured in the Old Tongue, Easy, little miss, easy. I'm going to help as best I can.

She swiveled her head to study him as he drew nearer, and didn't flinch or shift away when he cautiously patted her flank. For Blair's benefit, as he was practically vibrating with curiosity, Jim said, "I'm going to see to a few small things that will reassure her further, such as her Wrangler might have done for her while in the croft."

"What can I do?"

"Be sure I am not disturbed and keep a weather eye on her."

Blair bit his lower lip, but nodded. "I have not forgotten what to watch for in a fosterling; will those lessons still apply? Especially the one that proclaims a gettle will not strike without first giving sufficient notice that it is agitated."

Hands slipping under wings to test the tension in their shoulder joints, Jim answered somewhat absently. "Her wingtips will flutter and she will arch her neck, just as a youngling will. However, she will be very fast to move from display to violence, much faster than those you are familiar with."

"Ah, she has struggled so to stay aloft; there is a great deal of strain here." Jim massaged the taut ligaments to ease them, reassuring her in the Old Tongue while he did. With what could only be called a sigh, Li-Li abandoned what was left of her meal, drooped her wings to accommodate him, and sank to her belly, tail looping to one side out of the way. He followed the lines of her back down to her rear haunches, thumping her hard enough to be certain of the soundness of scale and muscle.

"She seems to like that a great deal." Blair inched closer. "Is it the same as a backrub for a human?"

"More a pleasant tickle, I think."

To Li-Li, Jim added in Old Tongue, Now, be kind here, little miss. If you stand, you'll break my hand, at the very least.

To his surprise and increased concern, Li-Li cooed at him as if to promise she would behave. Putting that aside with difficulty for later consideration, Jim gingerly probed at the deep crease between the upper thigh of her back leg and body, found it neat and tidy save for the rearmost portion of the crevice where she would have great difficulty reaching while grooming herself.

"Impacted dirt?" Blair asked, from far too close.

Sparing a moment to glare at him for not keeping his guard, Jim said nevertheless, "Given the centuries that debris may have accumulated here, likely more than that." He grimaced as his fingertips encountered slime and decay. "Fungus, mold and other unsavory growth have taken root. The pressure of their development, especially in this location, is very uncomfortable, if not outright painful."

After scooping out a handful of the sludge, he took out his boot knife to carve away the core of the irritation, taking care not to crack the now fragile scales. Once the area was as clean as he could manage, he traced out the edges of the scales at the very bottom of the crease, frowning as they crumbled under his touch. As bad as that discovery was, it was mild compared to the three layers of malformed scale buds he found underneath the damage.

Before he could do more than acknowledge the meaning of that, Li-Li crooned in the same language Jim had been using with her, Gooood.

Iron will hid his shock at her word, and he could only thank Providence and Good Fortune that Blair had been too occupied with other studies to learn the Elderkin's speech. To make matters worse, Li-Li stretched out her wings to their greatest length and submissively laid her head on the ground. The action revealed another inflamed area - the furrow below the spines where neck, back, and wings met - demonstrating she understood what Jim was doing for her.

Jim frowned, as that was the worst possible place for an abscess and yet the most likely, confirming what the multi-layers of scale buds had already told him. She had never mated or successfully molted, because a mate would have seen to cleanliness there for her and shedding her skin would have brought any irritation to surface.

Thinking it was no wonder she had begun to speak, Jim automatically moved to see to the problem, kneeling at her shoulder to reach the trouble spot. With no offspring, no partner to fill some of her long years, her mind had done what came naturally for her kind and grown in intelligence, he mused, presenting him with a pretty problem.

As he dug at the packed-in grime, Li-Li repeated, Gooood.

I imagine it is, little miss. Now the question is, will you let me tend the wound on your chest?

Jim glanced at Blair, but he was completely absorbed in the close examination of what he considered an adult gettle, paying no heed to Jim's crooned dragon speech. Well aware that the Elderkin would not be pleased if Blair learned of the true nature of their 'little cousins,' Jim said in English, "I'm going to need supplies to care for that gash. Can you find a runner to fetch them for us?"

"Honeycomb, and honey itself, a great deal of it, I'd say," Blair said instantly, pulling himself back to the matter at hand. "Pot and fuel for melting it, of course. What else?"

"Lye, only enough for a dusting, and iron shavings from the smithy, if possible. Tell Beekeeper Midgeman that I will provide a liberal bonus if she will deplete her stores as much as she dares, especially if she can provide me with a bit of royal jelly." Jim wiped the grunge on his hands onto the grass and wished for a proper washing. "Do you need coin?"

With obvious reluctance, Blair headed for the fence, but stopped to look over his shoulder. "No, I have enough for the runner and Juniper will trust us to settle our tally promptly. Should I contact Incacha? While he must be cognizant of the events here, I believe he will be wanting a report."

"Agreed, but a thorough account will mean more to him than a hasty one, which I'll provide later, after I've made arrangements for our friend here. She will need shelter, steady meals, and as little disturbance as we can manage, given the circumstances." Jim surveyed the area, as if that occupied him, and added, "You may borrow Ften, if you wish, to make it to the University on time. Nor do I think you should delegate those responsibilities today. The more who hear an accurate reckoning of Li-Li's arrival, the better, given the populace's general anxiety in the aftermath of New York's tragedy."

Blair sighed heavily and continued on his way, talking all the while in the surety that Jim would hear him. "Nor do we need to give Chancellor Edwards another grievance against me. You would think from her complaints that she honestly believes that I invent or exaggerate the causes for my tardiness and missed duties. It was truly not my fault that I was the only person available who spoke French when the Ambassador was forcibly detained by that lady of the evening. Or that I was the one to discover the remnants of Dr. Lodesmith's Traveling Revival and Cooking Show. And that time…"

As was his habit, Jim kept half-an-ear on his guide and companion as he strayed into one of the monologues that he often indulged in while moving between one activity and the next. Blair's stream-of-conscious ramblings were frequently entertaining and very informative, not that Jim was willing to confess that to anyone - especially Blair. Smiling, if only a bit, he coaxed Li-Li into sitting up on her haunches to give him access to her injury.

The gash was about three feet long, running from just under her collar, down to her left side at a slight angle. It was several months old, at least, and hadn't healed well because of the necessity of hunting for food. Gettles, like their Elderkin relations, didn't get infections, but the dead and decaying flesh from the original damage, as well as lack of proper nourishment, had prevented the development of healthy tissues. Warning her that she wasn't going to like what he did next, Jim braced himself for her reaction and quickly carved away a sizeable portion of the putrefied flesh.

Though Li-Li keened piteously and flinched from nose to tail-tip, she didn't strike out at him.

There, there, Jim said. It hurts now, but will feel better soon, I promise. When I'm done, you'll be able to rest peacefully and heal, with all you want to eat available at your slightest whim.

Gooood?

Yes. Bad first, but then good.

Bad now. Li-Li actually seemed to consider the oath Jim had given her. She dropped her muzzle down to bump her nose against his chest. More bad, then good?

And a treat besides.

Li-Li straightened, tucked her wings firmly against her back and held her forelegs out of his way. Do bad.

As fast and efficiently as he was capable, Jim cut away the majority of the unhealthy muscle and skin, then thumbed a gem from the patch on his uniform and activated it with a flick. Placing it on the worst of the damage, he stepped back and let the cleansing fire from the stone cauterize the wound. Li-Li rumbled in pleasure from the heat, wings relaxing again, and she curled her tail around her feet, the very end playfully tapping against Jim's calf.

By the time Blair returned to claim Ften's reins, Li-Li had fallen into torpor to digest her meal, eyelids at half-mast. Despite the possibility of Chancellor Edwards's displeasure, Blair remained until their supplies was delivered by wagon, asserting that this time, at least, he had witnesses to the cause of his tarrying. After Jim laid a fine layer of lye and iron to prevent mold and fungus from attacking the vulnerable flesh, Blair helped spread the honey for a bandage and the wax as makeshift scales to protect it.

"The rest?" Blair stepped back and absently licked a golden drop from his wrist.

"I'll feed it to her when she's hungry again, which won't take long, given the severity of the wound. The royal jelly in it, even in that small quantity, will stimulate the production of new skin and scales; the honey will provide the energy for the process." Jim sat on the ground, suddenly exhausted. "Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that she will re-grow what was lost, and it will take months, if not over a year, before she does."

Standing by him, Blair lovingly smoothed the short hair over Jim's ears, offering comfort and strength. "She's going to complicate our lives considerably, isn't she?"

"Starting with the uproar we can expect from Captain Banks when we inform him we will need a deputy to watch over her when neither of us are available to do so. Her condition could take a downturn in only hours, leaving us little time to act, making a guardian a necessity." Jim scrubbed a hand over his face, a sign of weariness he would only allow Blair to see. "Nor can I think of a single wrangler or his apprentice who could be drafted to assist us in her care. The Elderkin would never countenance recruiting any willing warm body for the task, as Wilson did when he hired you. Fortuitous as that was for us, the practice left too much room for the abuse that rendered Cascade without a croft."

"No doubt the time she needs will be portioned out of the precious little we have for ourselves." Blair sighed heavily, echoing Jim's own melancholy at that realization.

Their various responsibilities usually kept them apart or too occupied to do more than share loving touches and smiles for most of their days. Blair's generosity with those small shows of affection was too frequently all that Jim had to nourish the sentinel part of him that needed a source of constancy and stability to function well. His too-human heart, so long starved of love, clung to the promise of their shared nights and the infrequent visits to the wild for the sole purpose of being alone together. If theirs were not the same intricately interwoven lives that other sentinel and guides had, it was theirs, and it more than sufficed, as far as he was concerned.

Turning his head so he could brush a kiss over the palm of the hand caressing him, Jim rested his cheek against it for a moment, closing his eyes to the world around them. Hearing Simon's arrival in the distance, he bestirred himself and stood, deliberately leaning into Blair as he did. They both caught their breath, exchanged a look that fairly smoldered with desire, and casually moved apart as Simon stomped into the pasture.

Jim went to meet him, allowing Blair to make good his escape to the University. Though Banks was fair fond of him, at times he was as exasperated as Chancellor Edwards by the scrapes that Blair became ensnared in without trying. It had gotten to the point that he 'blamed' Blair for everything the pair of them got into, which was hardly fair, but amusing to all involved, regardless. At the moment, though, if Blair felt as emotionally raw as Jim, their friend's humor at their expense would be more painful than entertaining.

As if sensing that - and perhaps he did, Simon did not rise to his position by being insensitive to which way the wind was blowing - Banks simply barked out a demand for a report. Gratefully Jim fell into that familiar routine, clarifying his own thoughts on all still left to be done for Li-Li even as he laid them out for Simon's review. In very short order the Captain had been brought up to date, and the two of them reached an agreement on the logistics of preparations necessary for the next few days.

Night had fallen when Jim finally left Li-Li under the mindful eye of Sheriff Sergeant Joel Taggart, a trusted friend who wasn't ruffled in the slightest by the nature of his charge. A pavilion had been thrown up to provide shelter for both the hefty black man and his ward, with a few creature comforts provided to make the long night less onerous. By Jim's estimation, Li-Li would be torpid for many hours as yet, her condition unlikely to change, and there was no point in her guardians being cold and uncomfortable during their watch.

Though he felt like trudging, Jim marched smartly to the high rock out-cropping in the nearby forest where Incacha kept his own watch, hidden from Li-Li and all others by Elderkin cunning. His determination to present a professional front did not stop him from stepping into the hug the great dragon had for him, soaking up the generous warmth from Incacha's wings and chest. That done, Jim sat on the crook of Incacha's arm, wing draped over him almost like a cloak to shelter him from the evening rain, and told his tale again, giving far more details than he had to Simon.

At the end, Incacha shifted all four limbs uneasily and drummed his finger claws on the ground. "Gettles are so very solitary when they reach breeding age, it never occurred to the Brotherhood that they might return to their fosterages. And Li-Li was among the first to nest with humans. What other revelations can we expect from the many others entrusted to your care?"

"I think she is an extraordinary gettle in extraordinary circumstances," Jim argued. "You have told me that there are exceptional ones, geniuses in their own way, born on occasion, which is why those who know to look, seek signs of intelligence in even the youngest, and periodically find them. However rare it must be, surely there have been others like Li-Li who never mated and grew into the gift of reasoning earlier than normally expected."

"It does happen from time to time." Incacha looked away, into the past. "They are best and brightest among the generations, if they survive their stay at Graytac. Most do not. The many years spent raising offspring, expending the energy and resources to molt repeatedly and going without to feed their young, seems needed to grant them, not just endurance, but the strength of will to survive." He came back to the present, eyes wise and patient. "You already care for her."

"It's easy to do so; she's very sweet natured." Jim didn't need sentinel Sight to see where the conversation was going. "I suppose that's a good thing; we're going to be on our own with her, aren't we?"

"She cannot remain in Cascade. It is simply too great a risk. As she cannot fly, you will have to coax her into leaving for Graytac by other means. Not only is it the safest place for her to heal, but if she is as developed as we think she is, she will be drawn there soon, regardless."

"Soon by my calendar or yours?" The question was only half facetious, and Jim said far more seriously, "That will take time, no matter what measure we use. Winter will be on us soon, making conventional travel very difficult, especially for an injured gettle. Captain Banks and Major Crimes will suffice as my replacement in essential duties here, but Rainier will be very unhappy to lose the services of their most popular professor for many months. Perhaps we should not include him on the journey."

With typical draconic bluntness, Incacha said, "Blair cannot accompany you. Custom has already been bent or circumvented for him as much as can be permitted. In this matter, he must follow in the footsteps of all guides and sentinels. Our reasons for the traditions surrounding Graytac are sound ones, necessary ones, James."

Leaning into him, face averted so Incacha couldn't see the pain he had just caused, Jim admitted, "I can't argue with you, though I must remind you that Blair has already shown himself as trustworthy as the best of us and very gifted in many ways. I know his heart and mind; he will understand if he ever makes the Journey. But I agree, Graytac is not for the unsuspecting and unschooled, especially a guide as brilliant as Blair."

As if he were unprepared for Jim's accord, Incacha continued his reasoning. "Can you guarantee his reaction when he learns the secret we hide from all, in plain sight, as he surely will if he tends to Li-Li in Graytac? We are the ones often considered untrustworthy once that is revealed; more than one of your kind has turned from the Elderkin, enraged at what they perceive as our betrayal of them, once they understand. There are far too few who, like yourself, truly comprehend the enormous risk for us in merely allowing Man to live in the Americas, let alone taking them as Liegemen."

Summoning forced cheer, Jim said, "All I will promise is none will be able to predict what Blair would do, save that it would be so unique as to be surprising, if not astonishing."

A wisp of smoke escaped Incacha's snout. "There is that."

For a while Jim simply huddled against him, trying not to think or feel, but eventually Incacha gave him the gentlest of nudges. "Go. Find your chosen mate and make merry; fill your heart and soul a reservoir of his presence to hold you while you are gone."

Jim stood and tugged at his uniform as if to remind himself of who and what he was. "Incacha… Brother… I am not sure I will be able to return once I discharge my duty to Li-Li; Graytac may claim me as it has others, as it nearly did once before. Yes, I survived many years without a guide, thanks to you and Ften, but I was much less then than I am now. Blair has, has, blessed me with such generous outpouring of spirit that my gifts have expanded in ways I can scarcely describe."

"I have seen this, as has Minzimtah. We have shared many of the techniques Blair has used with you in hopes that others will profit from his teachings as you have. But you have not walked the true path of Sentinel and Guide with him, which baffles and astounds us by turn. What could the pair of you be if you had?" Incacha lowered his head in shame. "As you have not, we can only hope that being parted from him will result only in a dampening of your abilities, which I will initiate, if possible. Please trust that you and Li-Li will be very closely safeguarded during your travels; your gifts should not be called upon very often or very extensively."

Much as he had on occasion longed to be as others, Jim could not stop a shudder at the vulnerability of being without his senses. Though he was trained to defend himself even if he should be totally at the mercy of his gifts, he would rather walk naked and unarmed into a battle in one of the Old Countries than try to live without the advantages they gave him. He had far too many enemies; too much to protect.

"I know what I ask you." Standing to leave himself, Incacha rustled his wings uneasily. "I go to confer with the others on the Council. Tenonstah has this night's duty. Among other things, we will seek a way to separate Blair from you at his violation, so you do not have to make excuses to leave him behind when you depart. The rail spur from Big Sur has been finished as far as Rimfire; we will provide funds for you to use a rail car to transport Li-Li so she does not have to suffer the discomfort of a freight wagon. It will also be faster."

Putting aside personal concerns, Jim listened to the rest of the plans Incacha and the others had tentatively put in place, then made his farewells, honestly able to forgive the Elderkin for what they were about to subject him to. He had, after all, sworn service and allegiance to them. If his life was to be spent, at least it was in exchange for one that could go on for millennium after him, ever growing in wisdom and knowledge.

Surprisingly at peace, which he hoped would last until Blair's departure, Jim made his way home, wishing that his mate would be waiting for him, despite the late hour.

***

It seemed, this once, that a wish had been granted. Jim looked up at the windows of the loft he and Blair shared, and found them lit by fire and candlelight. Without trying he could hear Blair's heartbeat sounding in the steady cadence that meant he was awake, perhaps reading, definitely relaxed and serene. A sniff informed him that a cold supper of cheeses and fresh fruits awaited, and a small smile briefly found its way to Jim's lips. That had been their meal the first time they had dined together - so to speak - and it had been by campfire. He'd had a fondness for smoky cheese ever since.

Heart lighter, he ran up the stairs to his home and let himself in, already half-aroused. The door opened onto the scene of a decadent picnic, spread on a large fur throw in front of the fireplace, complete with fine china, crystal stemware, and a bottle of Champagne in a silver bucket filled with ice. A small cone of fragrant incense scented the air, somehow complimenting the hint of wood smoke already present, and a romantic aria sobbed quietly from the Victrola.

In the center of this sensual feast the most sumptuous delight of all sat cross-legged, head bent over a book, glasses perched on the end of his nose, curls falling like a riotous curtain around his face. To add to the splendor of the scene, Blair was as bare as the day he was born, and just as unselfconscious about it, which only enhanced his beauty in Jim's eyes. His only ornamentation was the blood red opal he wore in his ear, and had at Jim's request since he'd fallen under Elderkin protection.

Blair looked up as he moved toward him, hastily shedding his own clothes, and graced him with a come-hither smile that finished the job of raising Jim's manhood high and ready. Carefully marking his place, Blair set aside his book and leaned back on one elbow on a pile of pillows, legs stretched out, one knee up slightly, not to hide his erection so much as to emphasize it. The pose was deliberately provocative, not that Jim needed the extra stimulus, and the flickering shadows from the fire teased him by hiding, then revealing, the strong lines and planes of Blair's body. A faint shimmer of oil, visible only to Jim's gaze, gleamed here and there, telling him that Blair had already prepared the way for what he wanted.

Jim had his own notions of what was going to happen this night, and had more insight about how important every single minute had become. On some level, he supposed he'd always felt their time together could well be limited, but now, that insight was at the heart of him, as it would have been for any human going off into danger. Though the last thing he wanted was for Blair to look back to these final hours and grieve or rage that Jim had known it was the beginning of the end for them, Blair himself had made it possible for the evening to be a memorable one. Perhaps, once the sorrow was spent, he would even be able to cherish those recollections.

Forcing that aside, forcing everything aside but the promise of joy in front of him, Jim dropped to his hands and knees to crawl the last few feet over the lush fur. Letting his need, love, and excitement show in his face, in his slow, almost threatening prowl, he opened all his senses in reckless abandon. The punch of Blair's quickening breath and rich scent of his arousal finished the task of erasing any concerns save what pleasure to take first.

An involuntary twitch of a foot as he approached set his path for him, and he bent to lightly kiss, then suck each toe, then the instep and top of the foot before switching to the other to do the same. Giving it a farewell lick, he stropped his cheek over the ankle and up over the sweet curve of calf, fingers lightly trailing behind on the other leg. At Blair's faint gasp, he skipped the ticklish back of his knees, and pillowed his head on Blair's thigh, stretching out alongside him, free hand skimming over hip and waist as high as he could reach.

Breath warm and fragrant, Blair sighed, hand resting lightly on Jim's shoulder. "Your sensuality undoes me, always."

"It amazes me that you have the patience for it, let alone take pleasure in it so." Jim nuzzled the softly furred sac with its vulnerable treasure. "Demand it, even."

"Your previous lovers were idiots," Blair asserted, then abandoned speech for quiet murmurs of encouragement.

Obeying him, Jim lipped his way up the sturdy shaft, paying particular attention to the sensitive ridge under the crown before settling over the ruddy cap. Making a tight ring of his mouth, he sucked lightly, coaxing Blair into thrusting upwards. He resisted, just enough that Blair had to work himself bit by bit into the heat waiting for him, then abruptly relented and took him into his throat in one stroke. With a shout, Blair began to use Jim's mouth in earnest, driving them both toward their finish.

Jim loved performing this act for him - loved the way all senses could take their fill so effortlessly. Taste had always adored Blair's flavor, Touch soaked in the satin-hard texture of Blair's member, Scent was inundated with promise of Blair's release which was the most tantalizing of fragrances, Sound gloried in his cries of pleasure, and even Sight was satisfied by the peeks up at the full glory of Blair's expression as he was lost in the search for his release.

A thrum of blood and nerves against his tongue warned Jim that Blair was close, and he reached down to grip himself hard so as not to be brought off with him. Much as that was a delight he took on a regular basis, tonight he wanted a great deal more, and that gave him strength to hold back when Blair moaned his name and delivered his essence for Jim to happily drink down. As soon as he teased the last drop from the slit, he slowly drew away, still petting and soothing.

Taking care to position Blair just so - bottom on two pillows, head on another, curls spread out in a corona - Jim lifted Blair's legs onto his shoulders and breached his center with a single, long, smooth slide of flesh into buttery soft flesh. Murmuring 'I love you' and 'Blair' over and over, he unhurriedly pumped into the waiting channel, watching with avarice as Blair's maleness began to respond to their loving. Blair himself drifted back from the wonderful place where climax had sent him and busied himself with giving more than the automatic response of his body.

He answered Jim's next plunge with a powerful lift of his hips. "I know what you want."

"As if you don't love it as much as I." Stubbornly Jim kept his eyes open, fighting the inevitable fall into ecstasy.

"Greedy."

"For this? For you? Yes. Always." Jim emphasized each word with a hard thrust, aiming for the sweet spot inside Blair.

"Uhn! Won't…ah! last… if you… God! Jim!"

"Not necessary for me to do so, is it?"

Blessing young hormones, Jim decided that Blair was securely on the rise toward another climax, and finally surrendered to his own needs. He bent to take a long, deep kiss, also blessing Blair's flexibility, and lost himself in the consuming joy of both physical union and Blair's love. Lust demanded he straighten and use all his strength in their mating, and he pounded away fast and furious until his own seed erupted from him, sending him into euphoria.

When he gathered his wits again, he eased free of Blair's clinging opening, despite Blair's clutching hands, and lay on his stomach, panting. Arms under his head, he waited, not precisely patiently, but eager and certain of his effect on his partner.

"If it wouldn't be denying myself as much as you, I would turn over and go to sleep," Blair all but purred into Jim's ear.

"You could," Jim admitted, hiding his grin in the crook of his elbow. "After all, more than once in a night could be considered, ah, pure indulgence."

Blair snorted. "Then we have always over indulged, as you often are not content with more than that in a single encounter." He kissed the nape of Jim's neck, raising goosebumps all the way down to Jim's backside. "Thank Heavens!"

"As if you are not the one to demand an encore when we have leisure enough - and often when we don't!"

"Mmmmmm," Blair agreed, mouth busy exploring the line of Jim's shoulder blades.

Humming to himself in contentment, Jim relaxed into the luxury of being touched and handled for no reason other than because Blair enjoyed bestowing the attention on him. Likely it would take more to arouse him to passion again than Blair's sweet caresses, but that didn't matter. If he wasn't erect when Blair entered him, he soon would be from the pure sensation of being taken, and he could always finish himself if Blair's stamina was not up to the moment. He rather doubted that would be a problem, though he truly did not care, one way or the other. For him the surfeit of feeling was what he truly needed to be satisfied.

His repose lasted until Blair's wicked tongue found his pucker and began to lavish every tender fold with tiny licks, gentle nibbles, and broad sweeps of his tongue, interspersed with deep, penetrating kisses that teased instead of satisfied. Mindlessly grinding against the fur, Jim moaned his approval and spread himself as wide as he could. One hand cupping and squeezing Jim's manhood, Blair continued his wonderful torment until Jim pulled his knees under himself, lifting his ass high in blatant begging.

Regardless, Blair did not relent in his oral assault until Jim was rocking back for more, pleading with broken phrases and groans. He lurched up onto his knees behind Jim, gripping Jim's hips so tightly it would leave bruises neither of them would care about, and set the head of his member at Jim's opening. Ramming in with a ruthlessness that should have hurt but only sang marvelously over Jim's nerves, Blair set up a brutal, frantic, determined pace that Jim met, matched, then surpassed, pushing them both to the edge of endurance.

They could not hold to that frenzy long, and Jim was the first to succumb to Mother Nature's imperatives. Head thrown back, he shouted Blair's name and spilled, not needing a single touch on his erection. The spasms of release shook him until he quaked with relief and ecstasy, barely able to stay up to meet Blair's final thrusts. With a last plunge that Jim was willing to swear penetrated to his heart, Blair screamed and filled him with his cream, soothing a bit of the rawness Jim was just beginning to feel.

He gradually collapsed over Jim's back, mumbling incoherently and still restlessly petting Jim every where he could reach. Familiar with Blair's rapid descent into stupor after a rowdy love-making session, Jim chuckled and weakly twisted until he could gather his mate into his arms.

"Wake me up when you're ready to move upstairs or leave for the day," Blair ordered, more or less clearly. "Who knows when we will be able to be in the same room together, let alone the same bed?"

"I will."

"Best should."

Blair slipped away into sleep, and Jim lay curled around him, fingers playing in his hair, until the fire died away into embers.

***

With practiced ease, Blair hopped on the trolley car before it could pick up speed, satchel swinging from his shoulder as he dropped a token in the box. Though the car was only half-full, he hung from a strap at the front, preferring to watch their progress as they slid along the rail toward the University. He nodded a greeting to the driver and several of the other passengers that he knew as regulars on this route.

Returning the nod, the driver said, "How's the Little Miss coming along then, Professor?"

Secretly amused that Jim's nickname for the injured gettle had not only become common knowledge, but common usage, Blair bounced his free hand back and forth in equivocation. "It's only been a week, Mr. Sawyer; all she's really doing in eating and sleeping, which is exactly as should be, for now. No sign of new scales, yet, but it is a bit early for it, and a hint of new skin, but only a hint. Still, the Liegeman is optimistic that Li-Li will make a full recovery, in time."

"I heard she flew to take her last meal," a lady near the rear offered.

"A high pounce, only, ma'am, and at the Liegeman's insistence so that her flight muscles and ligaments would stretch a bit to keep them healthy. You might pass word that next week he's putting a bounty on large, fast rats for her to hunt, again to see she moves around a bit more for exercise." Blair returned her pleased smile, then beamed it at a man closer to the front who wasn't as happy to hear the news.

He took up Blair's silent invitation to join the discussion with a noisy harrumph of disapproval. "She's outlived her usefulness; you should just let nature take its course."

"Usefulness to the populous in general, perhaps, but the Elderkin have their own place for the gettles in the greater scheme of things. I'm not Scholar enough in ecology to venture a guess what that might be, but I must say, from my own point of view, Li-Li's return to Man is fascinating. Few beasts, once they've departed for the wild, ever voluntarily return to Man's service again. Anyone who's found it necessary to put down a feral dog or cat will tell you that."

The woman eyed the grumpy man with disfavor. "And as the Elderkin are so graciously providing funds for its care, it's no never mind for us, anyhow. We reap the benefit of a bit of extra coin coming in here and there, like that bounty, the beastie gets a bit of kindness, and it's no skin off our noses either way."

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other passengers, and Blair mentally stepped back from the debate to observe as the topic was genially batted back and forth. He had been somewhat startled that the city, as a whole, had adopted Li-Li as one of their own, but after participating in several exchanges like this, he'd finally come to understand that many saw the gettle as an oblique promise from the Elderkin that Cascade was in favor with them. It didn't seem wise to discourage the notion, as yet, though he could see several potential pitfalls in the attitude.

Not for the first time, Blair worried that he and Jim were too isolated from their fellow liegemen and companions. It would be good to know if other towns were as anxious as Cascade was, or if they, too, had found some talisman or wishful reasoning to convince themselves that they would not burn as New York had. Perhaps they or the Elderkin had records of the aftermath of events such as that one. Given how thorough their preparations had been for every circumstance the High Court could have engendered when Cascade had undergone that trial, he deemed it likely.

By the time the trolley was close to his stop, the conversation had taken a new direction - the reasons behind New York's tragedy. It was, he saw with some amusement, a not very subtle attempt to extract details from him that might not have been in the newspaper articles or wireless reports. He let most of their remarks pass without comment from himself, confident that any ill-will voiced would be corrected by those who saw themselves as righteous and above slanderous gossip.

The grumpy gentleman, however, shot a remark at Blair that he could not let by.

"Hasty? You truly believe that the Elderkin's actions were hasty and ill considered? Sir, those gang members burned New York's liegeman and companion alive in their home during a fierce winter storm. Literally barricaded all possible exits and put the building to the torch, killing them along with a dozen other residents. And bragged about it, Sir! Bragged! They counted on their numbers to defeat the law's efforts to bring them in, as they had for their many previous crimes, discounting the Elderkin entire."

"Well, now, Professor, I'm not saying those killers should escape justice - just that it should have been through the local constabulary and courts."

"Forgive me, but from where I sit…" Blair thumbed the fractured purple gettle scale he wore on his jacket pocket like an insignia to show his status as companion."…I much prefer knowing that the Elderkin take my safety as a personal obligation. My Liegeman and I spend far too much time alone in the wild or among the most unsavory of our citizens not to need the extra protection provided by being under their jurisdiction."

Looking abashed, the gentleman still started to protest, but Blair rudely spoke over him. "And, again, I remind you of the sheer numbers of the criminals involved. As individuals, they could melt into their neighborhoods, confident that if a few spoke against them, they could call on their cohorts to provide alibis for them or, if need, be, silence witnesses on their behalf, as often as required to vex the authorities. Disbanding the city populace and scattering it amongst many towns and villages was the only sure way to break the gang's power while the liegemen sought out and executed the members."

"Did they really burn to death?" A soft voice, one of the women, asked so faintly that Blair could not pinpoint who did.

"It was the fate they visited on others, and it did not matter to the liegemen if they had a direct hand on those murders. They chose to stand as a unit, a single individual if you will, and in doing so, the crimes of a few became the crimes of all." Though Blair spoke firmly, his own stomach twisted at the fate of the criminals. That, and the pallor of the others prompted him to add, "It is not our justice, perhaps, but it is justice, and it will be a long time before any raise their hand against the liegemen without thinking of the ultimate end of the gangs of New York.

"Now forgive me, but here's the last stop for the University. I've already missed my usual one." Blair jumped off the trolley, lifting a hand in farewell. He half-expected the gesture to be ignored, given the unpleasant note the conversation had ended on, but a chorus of good-byes drifted back from the car as it quietly glided over its route.

As he backtracked toward his office, he contemplated the encounter, frowning. As far as he was concerned, the entire discussion was one more example of why the Elderkin needed more face-to-face interactions with their human populace, despite the risks. They counted on the liegemen to explain their deeds and beliefs to other Men, who, of course, discounted those justifications, because, to their way of thinking, the liegemen had no choice but to support Draconic decisions.

"Professor Sandburg!"

Blair turned to see who called, and spotted one of the lads who acted as couriers for the University offices. "Yes, Adam? It is Adam, isn't it?"

Skidding to a halt, the boy panted out happily, "Yes, it is. Missed your stop again because you were chatting, didn't you? What would you do if the Rainier only had one stop on the line?"

"Walk farther!" Blair reached for the envelope Adam carried, digging into his waistcoat pocket at the same time for a coin or two for a tip. "From the Chancellor? Again? Now what have I gotten myself into without knowing it was trouble?"

"All I know is that she was pacing in front of her window muttering, 'about time' over and over." With a cheeky grin, he took the change. "Should I fetch the Liegeman?"

"No, I'm afraid they'll double team me. Off with you!"

The boy raced away, but not without tossing back over his shoulder, "I'll stay close, just in case you change your mind about needing reinforcements."

Chuckling Blair trailed after him, opening the envelope. The message was typically to the point - My office, immediately. Substitute for your classes already in place.- and just as uninformative. For the life of him, he couldn't think of a thing that he'd done that could have put him on Edward's wrong side, yet again. That meant, to his mind, that the trouble was all in her perception, not that she wouldn't castigate him soundly for it, regardless.

Entertaining himself with various transgressions that she might accuse him of - teaching freshmen how to think, for instance! - he made his way to her office and waited until she deigned to see him. Usually, the longer she kept him cooling his heels, the less serious his infraction, so it did not bode well for him when he was quickly shown into her inner sanctum. His suspicions increased when she smiled with what appeared to be genuine pleasure and gestured him toward the casual arrangement of chairs usually reserved for important visitors. A teapot and selection of confections awaited them, and Blair nodded in agreement when the Chancellor raised the pot, eyebrow up questioningly. For a few minutes they talked casually about the usual social niceties: the weather, how is your family doing, any plans for the semester break?

Finally, Edwards turned to her reason for the meeting. "I see that you've shifted some of your responsibilities onto other shoulders until the end of term."

Swallowing his last sip of tea, Blair sat back easily in his chair. "None of them were particularly burdensome, and in the few instances where there were difficulties, I've provided additional remuneration, thanks to the generosity of the Elderkin. After all, it is to act on my duty to them that my schedule needed altered."

"And the gettle does well?"

Warily, Blair chose his words as if they might fly back to sting him. "As can be expected. The Liegeman tells me it will be at least a month before he can declare her condition less than grave. For now, she eats, then deeply rests, which is best for healing."

"Would you say that Ellison could do without your services for a time, then? After all, any helpful pair of hands would suffice at this point, providing they are quick and obedient." Edward's expression was neutral, her features almost a mask, hiding the intent behind her questions.

Regardless of her impassivity, Blair had a notion of where she was leading, and at haste he mentally sorted through what course of action he preferred if he proved right. "A basic knowledge of gettles is also required and a certain… comfort level at being in close quarters with such a dangerous and powerful beast."

"I see." Staring down into her cup, Edwards clearly considered what tact to take next. "I had heard that the Liegeman was interviewing for wrangler apprentices to train."

"He is," Blair conceded. "After all, the first wranglers were retired or disabled liegemen, so all masters descend from them, technically. It was a point the Elderkin granted when the plan was suggested out of necessity. Several Students from our Naturalist program are also being allowed to contribute to Li-Li's care, but Ellison is screening all participants with great caution. Kincaid and his cadre may be gone, but his influence lingers still, and in the most unexpected of places."

Putting aside her tea, Edwards said, "No doubt Ellison will depend heavily on your skills to make his selections, but you must admit you are not essential to the task at hand. He could do without if you were called to more… ah… immediate issues."

"Such as?"

Edwards stood and began to pace. "Dr. Sondra Liam of Seattle University has had an unfortunate accident, and her injuries will prevent her attending to her class load for the foreseeable future. As you well know, Rainier has been negotiating with her for some time to spend a portion of an academic year in residence here, with you in exchange at Seattle."

She waited for Blair's nod of acknowledgement, then continued. "As chance would have it, Seattle is already suffering from a lack of qualified professors in your field, and has approached us to lend you to them as a Visiting Scholar until the end of this semester. Your reputation is such that they are willing to provide liberal compensation to both you and Rainier if you will undertake the assignment, as well as pay all travel expenses. Not incidentally, this will leave us with an advantage at acquiring Dr. Liam at a later date at a schedule far more amenable to Rainier."

"I have no desire to spend the Holiday season in a town far from my home," Blair protested, trying to sound adamant about leaving, while not at all averse to the proposal for reasons of his own. "Nor am I at all sanguine that the Elderkin will not see my departure at this juncture as abandoning Li-Li when she and the Liegeman should be my primary consideration."

"A berth on a fast clipper ship is possible, allowing a speedy return when Seattle breaks for the season…"

"Weather permitting…." Blair broke in.

"Surely there will be at least one ship with a weather-wise sentinel on board, and the forecast is for a mild start to the winter, lasting until mid-January." Mouth twisting momentarily in distaste, Edwards sat. "It may be possible to provide a bonus of some sort if you are unreasonably delayed."

Shaking his head, Blair started to protest again, but Edwards interrupted. "Dr. Sandburg, the coin of your reputation will serve neither yourself nor Rainier if you do not invest it. You are well published for so new a professor, but if you do not conduct seminars or give public talks on your subject, especially one currently so popular with the general populace, your value will diminish greatly. To be blunt, that would be a great waste. I am well aware the Elderkin have endowed you with a worth that you cannot squander, as well, but it was your choice to attempt to serve two masters. Unfortunately, you must now decide which to satisfy."

Staring down at his hands in his lap, fingers interlaced, Blair tried to gauge how much resistance he should show. It was true he did not travel as extensively as many with his credentials, and it was because of his devotion to Jim. For his sake, Jim tried every year to free himself from his responsibilities long enough to accompany Blair on a short speaking tour, or a visit to another university, usually mixing in Elderkin obligations as circumstances would allow. It was not quite adequate for Blair to have the academic cache' with Rainier that he could have, though, and he knew it was a lack that could cause professional difficulties in the long run.

And he missed the footloose days of his younger years so very much. The world offered so many marvels, so many different peoples with amazing cultures, and being reduced to one city and its closest neighbors felt - confining. Not that he wouldn't gladly forfeit traveling all together to be with Jim, if that was what was required, but occasionally he felt practically imprisoned! Demands and responsibilities hemmed him in all sides and while he did not wish to be released of the life he led, he could not help but long for a taste of freedom, with no one to please but himself, for a short while at least.

Now was the perfect time to kick loose his traces, if only for a few months. Jim would be under the very watchful eye of the Elderkin, no matter what his task might be, until they were confident of Li-Li's health. He would have to curtail his more dangerous duties for the same reason, granting Blair surcease from his ever-present worry that Jim would need his support while he was occupied elsewhere. In addition to all that, while he had no doubt Jim would miss him as dearly as Blair would miss his lover's presence, the constant need to dance attendance on Li-Li had left them with scarcely a moment to so much as speak privately. To see without being able to touch, to be within a fingertip's reach and forbidden to cross the distance because of propriety - Blair was already half-mad with frustration and thwarted desire.

Peeking up from under his lashes, Blair decided that Edwards had laid all her cards on the table, and was now prepared to issue threats. It was not a position he wished to place her in, as it could generate enough ill-will to erase the good graces he hoped his capitulation would grant him. Enough, he hoped, to bide him until his next unexpected adventure used all that he might have accumulated.

Still, he had to give more than token resistance, and it would not do for her to ever expect an easy victory over him. "While I may be willing, the Elderkin may not acquiesce to my absence."

"And I will accept that as an answer, if I must. Their benevolence has benefited Rainier greatly, and I am not ashamed to admit that we are more than blessed because of your continual directing of their attentions our way. Simply having access to conversations between Liegeman and Elderkin is a boon to a variety of disciplines and more than many universities can ever expect." Edwards pinned him with a sharp look. "That does not mean you are at liberty to present this matter to them in casual, dismissive way. I fully expect you to be as persuasive as if assisting Seattle University were your dearest wish."

Needled, Blair sat up straighter and met her gaze. "Madam, I have never shirked my duty to either of my masters. Interrupted, delayed, intertwined, dawdled when utterly necessary, but never, ever evaded, no matter how difficult the situation may have been. If you wish, I will request that Incacha himself explain to you his reasoning behind denying me, should that be the case."

For all her self control, Edwards couldn't stop a small shiver at the thought of such a face-to-face meeting. Regardless, she said sternly, "Do not let it come to that. Now, your passage has been booked on the Livingston, an engine assisted clipper, departing in three days. My aide has the rest of your itinerary, along with other necessities."

She hesitated, but, mouth a firm line, added, "And please, Dr. Sandburg - stay out of trouble!"

Rising to leave, Blair said, "I don't suppose it will do a bit of good to protest that it's hardly my idea to become embroiled in difficult situations."

"Yet you do." Edwards tone was tired, but faintly amused, as well. "Continually. If I were the superstitious kind, I would be wondering what deity has you in their sights. Good day, Dr. Sandburg."

Thinking of Jim, the Elderkin, and the wonder his life held, Blair only shook his head, grateful of what he had and willing to pay the price. "And good day to you."

***

It was evening before Blair finished preparing for his absence, and he had fallen into the rhythm of those chores with a happy familiarity that lasted him until they were done. This time however, he had had a few, new arrangements that needed to be made, as well, to tend to Jim's needs on a more personal level than the Elderkin - or their friends, for that fact - would think to provide. Luckily the University's munificence was such that he had more than adequate resources to guarantee that at least a few of Jim's creature comforts would be looked after during his absence.

It was a fairly simple matter to contract with a restaurant that suited Jim's palate to bring breakfast to him at the makeshift gettle croft on the assumption that Jim would spend nights there as often as possible, making certain he had at least one hearty meal a day. Their part-time housekeeper agreed to stopping by the loft on a daily basis to air it out and supply the cupboards, if needed, from the list of provisions Blair provided. Mr. Kracey, the superintendent of their building, was amenable to seeing that the rooms were heated well enough to keep the worst of the chill from them in case Jim managed to spend a few hours at home.

Those preparations, with a few others he was able to manage, were as much a sop to Blair's conscience as they were to assure Jim that he was looked after even with Blair gone. Hopefully, Jim would see the love behind the acts of kindness, once he stopped grumping over Blair nursemaiding him from a distance.

Mulling over several additional schemes to do so that might be implemented while in Seattle, Blair paid the cabby and picked his way carefully through the dark to the field housing Li-Li's pavilion. The sky was moonless, and, rarity of rarity, clear and decorated with an infinity of stars that were no help to lighting his way. Fortunately the path had become so familiar he not only did not need that assistance, but could admire the beauty overhead as he walked.

When Blair turned his gaze earthward again, the tent was nearly in front of him, softly glowing from the lanterns inside. He couldn't help a smile; in the center of the radiance was a lumpy shadow that could only be Ften and Li-Li. All he could see of Jim was a small bump along Li-Li's flank that could be the top of a human head.

Wondering what on earth was going on, he lifted a corner flap to let himself in - and froze in place, smile broadening. Sitting on the four-foot-tall leather ball filled with buckwheat husks that he had had made for Li-Li, claiming it a common toy for gettles in other places, Jim read aloud from a large book in his lap, Ften's head over his shoulder as if listening to the tale. Li-Li was curled around them both, chin hovering on the other side of Jim, one eye cocked down as if to look at the book herself.

Blair had seen him read aloud to Li-Li before, saying the sound of his voice, or any human voice, was calming for the gettle. Ften, in Blair's personal opinion, was simply curious at the moment about what a book was and why his people seemed to devote so much attention to them. Either way, the three of them presented the oddest tableau he could ever recall seeing, and it touched him in unexpected, even inexplicable ways.

Suddenly he wondered what the devil he was doing leaving Cascade, now of all times. Scholarly status aside, appeasing the Chancellor be damned, this odd conglomeration of entities was his responsibility - and his heart sat at the center of it. Of a certainty he was not essential to the well-being of any of them, but that not mean he was not vital to them, especially to Jim.

Most certainly Jim was dear to him, and the weight of days and weeks and months without the solid strength of him at hand abruptly weighed heavily on Blair. The anticipation and excitement of his journey to Seattle and the position there was quashed into dull dread, and all he could see in the future was the agony of parting from Jim, as well as the perpetual ache of needing him while they were separated. Guilt also threaded through him. He would not be the only one to suffer, not that Jim would admit to the pain. Jim would stoically accept the necessity of Blair's absence, and coldly retreat to the core of himself to hold back the hurt.

Why he had not weighed in such vital emotional factors when he made his decision, Blair had no idea. Perhaps to shield himself, because it was the right choice, likely even the inevitable one. Perhaps he had been blinded by pride and ambition - to be a fully funded Visiting Scholar at his age was a rare accomplishment.

No matter the cause behind his lack of foresight, he was confronted now with the consequences, and he had no clear idea how to proceed.

Jim looked up from his reading, concern flashing over his face. Hurrying to him as he closed his book, Blair crawled onto the improvised chair with him, clinging tightly with all four limbs as he sat in Jim's lap. He hid his face in the curve of Jim's neck and shoulder, grateful for the concealing bulk of Li-Li and Ften so none could see the shadow-play of his actions on the pavilion's wall. Mercifully, after reaching out to snuff the closest lamps, Jim simply held him and waited for Blair's explanation of his behavior. Ften whickered once, quietly, and lipped one of Blair's curls, while Li-Li cooed at him the way he had cooed reassurances at her so often.

Finally, Blair murmured into the dim warmth of his hiding place, "I have no choice. Or, at least, none that will not leave me bereft of honor and integrity. I have to leave for Seattle, in three days time, to take the place of an injured Professor whose favor Rainier and I have been attempting to curry for over a year. It is a great boon to be asked, and a feather in Rainier's cap that will greatly add to its reputation."

"And reputation is the currency most needed by any University." Jim sounded resigned, but under Blair's ear, he could hear Jim's heart pound harder. "How long?"

"I will return by Winter Break, in time for the holiday season." Blair waited for either a chilly dismissal as if his absence were unimportant or snarling anger disguising anguish.

Instead, Jim only tightened his hold and buried his nose in the curls at Blair's crown. "So quickly? And so long… What am I going to do, Chief? The few times we've been apart a day or two, it's felt as if I'd lost a limb. And when I thought you lost to me when you first returned to Rainier? It was all I could do to feign sanity for all those interminable weeks."

Swallowing hard against unanticipated tears, Blair admitted, "It was as if some crucial element within me had faltered, leaving me cold and weary, with no joy in sight. But I truly did not know what to do. Edwards presented me with an ultimatum and sound reasoning behind acceding to her demands." His hands tightened into fists, but he made himself confess, "At first, I was not exactly loathe to agree, either."

"No doubt you saw another opportunity in your ongoing campaign to educate humanity in regards to their relationship to the Elderkin."

The attempt a humor, failure though it was, served Jim's intended purpose of heartening Blair somewhat, and he tried to respond in kind. "It is, at least, a fresh audience." His voice broke on the last word, and he bit the collar of Jim's uniform while he struggled with his composure. "Ah, Jim, what are we going to do?"

"Choose several candidates for apprentice tomorrow, and leave each of them alone with their charge to judge how they handle themselves. While they flounder or thrive, we will be in a nearby rented room, making the most of time we have," Jim said matter-of-factly. "I had already planned to do so as a surprise to thank-you for the patience you've shown with dearth of personal time for us to share."

Blair eased back enough to be able to see into Jim's face, finding a hint of teasing for his own to wear. "Who will you have close at hand in case they flounder faster than our ability to dress?"

"Taggart," Jim said very seriously. "If he were willing for a second career, I would approach him about taking up wrangler's motley. He has a fair hand with Li-Li, and they grew quite attached to each other early on."

"Ah, good choice." He paused for dramatic effect. "You should know that Juniper Midgeman will be present, as well. At this time of year, with her bees in hibernation and her orchards dressed for the winter, she has a supply of unoccupied hours that I thought to use. She's very knowledgeable, if not experienced. Between her and Joel, we should have a few uninterrupted hours for ourselves."

Somehow Jim summoned a very authentic seeming chuckle, though the grip of his hands on Blair's shirt told the truth of his feelings. "It seems we both contrived a solution to our current lack of privacy. Amazing how a healthy libido can serve as inspiration."

"I have been told that the longer a couple associates, the more in harmony their thoughts become. We may be able to look forward to a future when you will be able to anticipate my every move, and visa versa. Which, with consideration, sounds very boring."

Jim's laugh was a great deal more genuine this time, and he slid down deeper in the leather ball, its contours giving under their weight until they were cradled in it. "I doubt seriously boredom will ever be a problem between us. You are far too quicksilver in your shifts of thought and mood, but not half as radical as the way fate delights in throwing obstacles in our way."

"Agreed. And with that in mind…." Blair stretched up as Jim leaned down, and their lips met, holding as much promise as they did passion until desire set that away for another day.

***

Four days after he stood on a pier and watched Blair's ship sink toward the horizon until he was certain Blair could no longer see him, Jim, in full dress uniform, walked through Cascade beside Li-Li, taking her to the train station. Ften stolidly trailed behind, loaded with luggage, including Li-Li's leather ball, annoyed, Jim was sure, at being turned into a beast of burden. Taggart, in civilian clothes, was on the other side of the gettle, occasionally dashing ahead to be sure of their right-of-way through traffic at an intersection. It had taken three of those empty days for Jim to convince the Elderkin that their small procession was the appropriate way for Li-Li to make her departure. It had only taken one meal alone in a restaurant, worried whispers sounding all around him, for Jim to realize how important it was for them to do so.

For better or worse, it was obvious that the residents of Cascade had adopted Li-Li as one of their own. If she were to disappear quietly in the night as the Elderkin had originally intended, they would be alarmed and upset, perhaps to the point of foolishness. In Jim's strongly held opinion, with the barely hidden tension most held from the burning of New York already in place, it would take far too little for panic to set in. The only way to deter that possibility was to be as open and above board as possible with Li-Li's leaving.

To that end, uncomfortable as he was with speaking so freely, as he made his own arrangements for his home and position while he was gone, cancelling those Blair had put in place, Jim discussed his plans without restraint. He frequently mentioned the development of a life-threatening complication in Li-Li's recovery, and that she needed extraordinary care that could not be provided for her in Cascade. To his ear, the solid, if misleading, truth behind his claims did much to ease the underlying anxiety he scented and heard, but did not erase it completely.

Likely it was only time and the steadfastness of Elderkin law and custom that would finally lay the resident's fear to rest, but Jim did the best he could. More than once he wished for Blair at his side to add his own reassurances as only he could do, and it seemed to him that many of Li-Li's well-wishers felt the same. In fact, he'd slowly developed a deep conviction that sending Blair away had been a mistake. They might have done better to attempt to convince him of the importance of remaining in Cascade when Jim accompanied Li-Li to her new home. Too many people looked to Blair as the touchstone of the city's integrity in the eyes of the Elderkin.

As Jim solemnly nodded acknowledgements to each person who stopped to watch them pass, he was more certain than ever Blair should have been a part of their march. Pushing that concern down where it would not be seen by others, he took his time reaching the station, calmly answering any questions called out to him. Taggart fielded his fair share, as well, and Li-Li turned her head this way and that, so charmingly perplexed at all she saw, that most passer-bys could not help but chuckle or grin at her.

Many expressed sympathy at her obvious limp from her injury, which was still plain on her chest. That was another reason to make the bold move of leaving in broad daylight, during business hours. Her ill-health was clear to all, reinforcing Jim's stated conviction that she needed specialized treatment. To his mind, the slight risk that Li-Li might do something peculiar that would have to be explained away was well worth the compassion conveyed on the faces of most people.

When they reached the depot, their train was waiting for them, the conductor ostentatiously studying his watch as they approached. Jim wasn't concerned; they were well ahead of schedule. Regardless, as he drew near, he said, "Is boarding being held until we're situated?"

Eyeing Li-Li with misgiving, the conductor put away his timepiece. "No, sir, though perhaps we should."

"Nonsense. We'll be riding until the end of line, and it would behoove us to be familiar with our fellow passengers along the way. After all, it's no secret we're bound for Rimfire." Jim's conversational tone drew the man in until he was walking alongside him. "Would you like to formally meet Li-Li? She's a gentle old girl. I would, however, stay away from my warhorse, Ften. He's in a bit of an ill temper at the moment, justifiably so."

Startled at both the invitation and the warning, the conductor still offered his hand. "Liam Rouchland, sir, and I'll be with you to your destination."

"Liegeman James Ellison, of Cascade, at your service." Jim shook firmly, then gestured at his friend. "Our stalwart companion is Sheriff Sergeant Joel Taggart who has volunteered his services as aide until we're ensconced on our car. And this is Li-Li."

As he spoke, Jim thumped her neck, causing her to swivel her head until it was on level with Rouchland. She blinked at him, then cooed before slowly and carefully reaching to touch one of the very shiny brass buttons on his uniform with a fore claw. Before Jim could reproach her, she put her foot down, and bumped him gently in remorse.

With a chuckle, Jim petted her along the lip line and said to the thoroughly discombobulated man, "She adores shiny objects, almost like a crow, but she won't take without permission."

"It's to the point I have to remove my uniform jacket when I'm with her," Joel put in drolly. "Apparently once I said yes, saying no at a later date did not remain an option."

"I'll take that as a warning." Rouchland sounded wry, but serious, and he led the way to the end of the train where their car apparently was. As he walked, he asked, "Will she be comfortable with the engineering crew moving through to the caboose?"

"Once I've introduced her to everyone, yes. Not that it should be a worry; I'll be spending most of my time with her, though I do have a cabin reserved on the sleeper car. Should I reserve a table for myself for the dining car, as well?" The question was automatic on Jim's part. His mind was focused more on reading the conductor's vital signs, and he was relieved that Rouchland seemed to be accepting his odd passengers.

"Yes, and one of the porters will be by to speak with you about the best times for your seating. Your cabin is in the car immediately in front of the one housing Li-Li, and you will have a steward seeing to your needs."

Before Rouchland could say more, they reached their destination, and Joel whistled, long and low. "I have never seen a box car that big - or gaudy. It's rather unexpected after the clean lines and sleek elegance of the rest of the train."

"It belongs to the Barnum and Bailey circus," Rouchland said proudly. "Used to transport elephants and the like, specially commissioned by them for just that reason. Their people measured every tunnel and overpass on every track the circus uses, then utilized the dimensions in designing the car. There are places where there's only a foot or so clearance, but the car can go anywhere the rails go."

Relieving Ften of his saddlebags and a valise, Jim signaled the horse to go up the ramp and inside, patting his flank sympathetically. "The Elderkin and the reputable circuses have a good working relationship with one other because of the exotic animals the Elderkin import for them. As they also provide any special requirements the beasts might need while with the big tops, they stay in constant communication with one another. It wasn't difficult to arrange to borrow the car, as this is the off season for the circus, and it was sitting empty."

"I've worked a circus train a time or two, so I know how much loving care is lavished on their beasts." Rouchland pushed back his cap, and scratched his head. "I should tell you there is one problem with a car that large. Like a ship at sea, its cargo needs to be very finely balanced so there's no listing. A few of the curves we'll take are almost sharp enough for the engineer to turn around and touch the caboose. If Li-Li is moving around too much or is too far outside the area we set up for her, her weight could be enough to unbalance the car and tip it over, derailing her car and perhaps a few more besides. In fact, Liegeman, depending on our speed at the time, the whole train could derail."

"If she moves outside her boundaries, would you like for me to use the emergency brake?" Personally, Jim didn't think it a likely problem, but wanted the conductor to be favorably disposed to Li-Li. He gritted his teeth, longing for the days when he would have simply stood firm on a liegeman's authority and left diplomacy to those who preferred words over action - any action.

"I'll trust your best judgment on that, and I'll see you get advanced notice on the route ahead, as needed."

"I do appreciate that."

Seemingly more out of habit than desire, Rouchland took his watch out of his waistcoat pocket and sighed. "I need to return to the passenger cars. If I can be of any further assistance, I'll either be walking the aisles or seeing to my paperwork in the first car."

"Thank you; you've been more than helpful, sir."

Jim waited until the conductor was out of earshot before leaning into Li-Li and looking around her chest to meet Joel's eyes. "Shall we begin?"

Shaking his head, Joel studied the double doors to the car. "She'll fit through, but will she agree to enter? As you well recall, we literally built the pavilion around her."

"Small spaces are no difficulty for gettles; the access to their nests often requires they squeeze themselves through. But the dens are usually in solid rock. I'm more concerned the footing underneath will be too unstable to suit her." Jim took a deep breath and flexed his shoulders and hands. "Tarrying will not bring us our answers. Just as we discussed, if you will, Joel."

"Do you really think she'll be that curious?" Joel gestured for Li-Li to settle on her haunches, unable to hide a gleam of pleasure when she obeyed. He draped an arm over the base of her neck and rested against her.

"Yes, but I am uncertain if that will be enough."

With that Jim entered the car himself, standing where Li-Li could see him as he surveyed the interior. "This will do very nicely, very nicely indeed. Ften will have all the space he needs, Li-Li will have room to play with her toys, if cautiously. Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure she will be snug and content."

Playing his part, Joel said loudly, "It's not scary at all?"

"Well, Ften seems to think not, but he is more experienced at this sort of thing." Jim went in deeper, not completely out of sight, as yet, and beckoned his horse to him to finish the process of unloading him. "There you are, free of all that honey we brought for Li-Li. Since you carried it, you're due a share. Does that sound fair, boy?"

Ften obligingly whickered a positive, as if he understood the question, and on some level, Jim was certain he did.

"Perhaps with a bit of apple, as well? I have a late one here, nice and juicy. There you go." As Ften munched, Jim removed his saddle, and, switching to the Old Tongue, said, Traveling by rail is a very interesting experience. It's rather like flying without the effort, and enjoyable because you can watch the world whirl by while taking your leisure. There is company, as well, often entertaining, full of unexpected conversation and observations.

Behind him, he could hear Joel continuing the original gambit of making Li-Li jealous of Ften, rather like encouraging sibling rivalry, with Ften as the older, more privileged child. Though that line of reasoning had been more for Joel's benefit than Li-Li's, Jim thought it could help entice her on board. There were techniques he could use to force her to do as he wished, of course, but coaxing would serve as the best start of their long journey.

Taking out the brushes, he began to groom Ften, taking his time to do it as he had more than earned the extra attention. As if addressing his horse, Jim continued on in the Old Tongue. I believe my favorite part of riding the train is that for the space of my journey, I have no concerns. Another sees that I will reach my destination, my meals are provided, all my creature needs are seen to, and it frees me to simply admire the landscape and its many faces. Or to think deep thoughts about things that I'm usually far too occupied to spare the energy to consider.

Surprisingly, Ften chuffed in agreement, giving a small toss of his head as if to emphasize it. In English, Jim said, "Well, I suppose if anyone can truly appreciate being carried toward one's destination without providing the toil to cover the miles or laboring under the cargo, it would be you, Ften. I have always appreciated the wear you have saved on my feet, though I must tell you my backside cannot say the same."

Halfway expecting an appropriate response, Jim could only chuckle when Ften lipped at his fingers in search of more sweets. Giving him another apple and warning that it was the last for the day, he tried bring to mind another argument that might bring Li-Li on board. Before he could find one she might take interest in, her shadow fell over him, and he half-turned to see her peeking through the doors.

Feet flat on the station platform, Li-Li stretched over the ramp, all twenty feet of her balanced precariously as she studied her temporary home. Jim had placed her ball in the midst of the bales of picker's rags, originally destined to be recycled and now waiting for her to tear into a suitable 'nest' for sleep as she had done at her pavilion. A large wing-back chair was nearby, along with table, a reading lamp, and several books were in the seat waiting to be read. The leather demijohns of honey was stored tidily in half-enclosed cabinets against the back wall, the opposite side from where Ften' stable was situated, tack and saddle to one side on a sawhorse cleverly attached to the floor, as was the furniture.

She made an inquisitive sound, and Jim casually strolled over to her bedding, picking up a large canvas bag of feathers to draw one out. For some strange reason Li-Li was fascinated with them and could be occupied for hours by tossing a few into the air so she could watch them fall. That lure proved to be the final one.

Without using the ramp, she lifted her forelegs into the car, rather like a cat bridging a gap it did not care to jump. With a small hop that shook not only the car, but the caboose, she brought herself all the way in, claws ticking uneasily on the wood. For a moment she stayed very still, which surprised Jim. He could feel the vibrations from the other cars, the engine, even the slight swaying from the wind, but hadn't expected Li-Li to be so aware of them. Chin tucked to her chest, wings tight to her body, she tensed, as if ready to bolt. To prepare for that possibility, and fully ready to start the entire process of cajoling her back in again if necessary, Jim opened the double doors on the other side to give her an expedient exit.

Li-Li's head went up, and she cautiously poked it out that door. Making a noise that Jim wasn't sure how to interpret, she managed to neatly turn in place so she could look out the way she came. She turned again, then yet again before finally settling on her stomach with her tail tip hanging over the edge of the far door, her nose barely out the original. With a small grumble, her eyelids dropped to half-mast, and she fell asleep.

Joel had watched the entire process, barely holding in guffaws. "I think she approves," he said, sounding strangled.

"At least she's balanced in the car," Jim agreed dryly.

That proved too much for Joel, and he laughed until he gasped for air. As Jim had suspected would happen, the mirth slowly gave way to sorrow, and Joel sat on the edge of the car, eyes too bright and shiny. Petting Li-Li's snout, he gathered his control about himself, while Jim leaned companionably on the doorframe nearby, waiting until he was ready.

Turning his face up to Jim, Joel said, "I suppose it's a good thing then that the walk here tired her out, though it shouldn't have, should it?"

"No, it shouldn't. She's sleeping too much and too easily." Jim stared out at the distant mountains, already feeling the cold of them. "If it's any comfort, I'll stay with her until the outcome is known, one way or the other."

"For how long?"

Though Jim had intended to tell no one but Simon that his departure might be permanent, he abruptly decided to insinuate that possibility, for Blair's sake. Fond as Simon was of Blair, it was Joel who was actually the closer friend to him, and one who would be more disposed toward consoling him when he needed it most.

"As long as it takes." Jim sat beside him, feet swinging like a school boy's. "The last of our journey will be a trek on foot into the high mountains. If we succeed in reaching the valley that will be Li-Li's new home, and there is no guarantee of that, I will have to remain until the spring thaw allows passage out, providing she is in a condition that I may leave." Jim held in a sigh, but felt that Joel noticed the aborted move. "It will be months at best, several years at worst."

"Jim!"

"I left a missive for Blair, explaining, as the wireless did not seem to be the best method to inform him of my absence. And he will, of course, always have the Elderkin's eye on him so he will be safe." Jim found a hint of a smile to wear. "Or as safe as he ever is."

"A letter!"

Unperturbed at Joel's aghast comment, Jim went on. "He will need friends, but he need not live with uncertainty. Incacha will be able to tell him of my fate should ill fortune overtake me. And before you suggest he follow me - if he could find his way to the valley, he would be trapped there with me for an indeterminable length of time. Think of what he does here, of what his life is, and tell me that he should abandon it for Li-Li, no matter how caring he is of her."

"Not for her; for you."

"I have no doubt he would, but is that right, Joel?" Jim shrugged with his hands and let them drop between his knees as he leaned over the ache in his middle. "He fought against tradition, public opinion, and the Elderkin themselves to have the position he has. Should I toss that away for him for the sake of a beast that may not even survive? For my part, it is duty, and one I swore to willingly, eyes open, many years ago. Of the all the paths I thought that oath might take me, this is not one that I could have ever foreseen, but it is better than many."

Apparently robbed of speech, whether because of emotion or because he could present no further arguments, Joel stared at him with an odd mix of ire and grief in his expression.

The engineer gave two short, fast blasts of the whistle to warn that boarding should finish, and Jim hopped down to the platform. He offered Joel his hand to aid him in his own dismount and was surprised when Joel took it to do so, then used it to pull Jim into a shoulder-to-shoulder hug, arms bent between them. "Safe trails, fair skies," Joel whispered.

Head averted, Joel broke away. "I'll tell Conductor Rouchland that his largest passenger is comfortably situated. I'll leave the discussion of the position she actually chose for her voyage for the two of you when he discovers it." He strode off, almost visibly donning the persona of an officer of the law.

Unexpectedly touched by the equally unexpected sentimental farewell, Jim forced himself back to the task at hand, and went back up the ramp as the station crew arrived to dismantle it and store it under the car. He secured the few objects that might shift before sitting beside Li-Li's head, arm over her neck to reassure her when the train lurched into motion. With a long, shrill whistle, the engineer signaled departure, and a series of mild jerks rippled down the length of the train as each car began to move in turn.

Though Li-Li's wings rustled uneasily and her claws ticked once or twice, she remained asleep through the slight commotion, once leaning into Jim's side as if to reassure herself he was there. Before long the depot was far behind them and the train was running smoothly over the rails with the rhythmic swish, bump that was so mesmerizing to so many. Jim nearly fell to its lure, but succeeded in rousing himself into motion just as they reached the Cascade city limits.

To test Li-Li's tolerance of his absence, he went to his cabin to unpack his personal items, senses tuned toward her all the while. As he hung his clothes, he thought to change from his dress uniform to the daily one, but decided to wait until he'd established his presence in the club and diner cars. For some small while he moved back and forth between Li-Li and other parts of the train, acquainting himself with the crew, but she never moved. Ften settled in, as well, content with his bag of oats, warm under the blanket Jim had tossed over him against the chill air from the open doors.

Lunch time came, and, internally lecturing himself on the necessity of proper appearances, Jim went to the dining car to find his assigned table. The short walk through the car was among the most unpleasant of his life: the hostile, angry, even fearful stares aimed at his back as he passed the other passengers were almost physically tangible. One in particular carried such a weight of hatred that he nearly staggered, and he stole a glance at a reflection in a window to find the source.

A young man sat with an older woman, hands clutched together across the table, not as lovers might, but to give and receive moral strength and reassurance. Slight, nattily dressed in a good quality wool suit, the dark-haired man did not bother to hide his hatred, leaving Jim to wonder why he would harbor such strong feelings for a liegeman. His companion, on the other hand, was near to fainting with a fear that bordered on irrational terror. She wore widow's weeds that did nothing to disguise a lush, full figure, and had a black veil draped from her hat over her head in the style of European women traveling the Mideast where females were required to cover their faces.

The fabric was no barrier to Jim's Sight, of course, and what he saw gave him cause to perhaps understand their reaction to him. She carried burn scars on the right side of her face, which was otherwise lovely with grey eyes and framed by dark hair that matched the man's. The scars were old, faded, and she obviously came by them in childhood. Of about the right age to have been present for the last Burning, she may have been the victim of parents who had not believed until too late that the Elderkin would bring fire.

Tiredly hoping the couple was not traveling thru to Rimfire, Jim found his table, pleasantly surprised that it was situated in the rear corner, so he could sit with his back to a wall and see all who came and went. His chair was unusually wide and well-padded, with no arms so his weapons could be drawn quickly, if necessary. The linens and dinnerware were clean enough for his liking, and the first bite of food reassured him that his palate had been taken into account by the chef.

At the end of his meal, Jim laid aside his napkin and nodded formally to the steward, who he recognized as the one appointed to his cabin. "Please give my compliments. That was excellent."

The young lad, who had the golden brown coloring of Hawaiian and Oriental ancestry, along with the improbable name of Shindon O'Malley, gave a short bow. His dark, round eyes and button nose hinted at the origins of his surname, but his sturdy frame was incongruent with the rest of him, though likely served him well in his profession, Jim thought absently. As was often the case, in Jim's experience, the blend of ethnic types had produced a remarkably striking person.

Gaze demurely down, Shindon said, "The chef and I have had some experience in serving liegemen and were specifically enlisted for this trip. If there is any way that we can make you more comfortable, please let us know. There is no need for the next ten days to be unpleasant."

"Actually, I often find travel by rail agreeable, if absurdly tiring for the little energy personally expended for the trip." Jim toyed with a spoon, covertly assessing Shindon. He seemed perfectly at ease in a liegeman's presence, even a touch insouciant. "Have you many passengers continuing on to Rimfire? Or will most be disembarking at one of the other three scheduled stops?"

"The coastal express only runs once a month, and so is usually booked to capacity, as we are currently. I would have to speak with Conductor Rouchland, but I believe we will only have fifteen for the entire trip, with a few of them boarding at our layovers." Shindon gave another short bop of a bow. "Not including yourself and Li-Li, of course."

Shindon hesitated, but as he gathered up the dirty dishes, asked, "I have heard you are willing to introduce the gettle to any who are interested. Might I have that privilege?"

Jim did not show his own hesitation, but he quickly decided that the same open and above-board tactics that he'd used in Cascade would serve well here. "Of course. All I ask is that you wait until she is awake, difficult at that may be to fit into your free time. She sleeps a great deal, right now."

Brushing crumbs into a pan, Shindon kept his eyes on his task, but ventured a sly smile Jim's way. "Many find it remarkable that you and the Elderkin have gone to such lengths for the care of a mere gettle."

Mildly amused that the scamp was actually flirting with him, Jim sat back in his chair, one elbow carelessly perched on the back of it. "They should be reminded of their history, in that case. It was a disabled liegeman who first ventured to train the adolescents to work in the service of Man at a time when there was no wireless to keep the settlements in contact with one another, no rails connecting them to carry mail and vital supplies. Even now, if the cargo is valuable, a gettle is the safest way to transport it. In interfering with their natural state to press them into servitude, all liegemen by oath took the gettles' fate upon their shoulders. In addition, Li-Li was one of the first to be a courier. For her years of faithful service, do you not think she has earned our consideration in her old age?"

"I would also think that much could be learned from her about the effects of those years on her life afterward." Shindon unnecessarily straightened the tablecloth and touched up the gleam on the crystal salt and pepper service with the towel hanging from his arm. "Would it be possible to venture a guess at what the Elderkin's reaction might be if there is an adverse outcome of the gettles' association with Man?"

"That would create intense debate among the Brotherhood, which would likely last for several centuries before consensus on a course of action would be reached." To hide a smile at the Shindon's sudden stillness, Jim took a sip of water. "One advantage of dealing with creatures that live for centuries is that there is seldom, if ever, any reason to rush a decision. As far as Man's involvement with the gettles - we would be held blameless. After all, ultimately it was the Elderkin's decision to allow the association, accepting the liegeman's vow to protect them."

"It is a relief to hear that." Shindon straightened, now very obviously lingering at Jim's table. "Is there any other way I might assist you? It must be so very difficult to travel without your companion to see to the more specific needs of a liegeman."

The faint but definite emphasis on 'I' and 'you,' as well as 'needs' was enough to tell Jim that Shindon was making as subtle a sexual approach as Jim had ever received. His scent was rich with desire, and when he touched the tip of his tongue to his upper lip, head lowered, but looking up at Jim through his lashes, he was the very image of coy seduction. Intellectually, Jim could see his youthful beauty; emotionally, he was untouched save for the tiniest bit flattered, as any man would be.

Still, he did not want to hurt him, and professional encounters would be unavoidable in the close quarters of the train. Allowing the merest fraction of what he felt to show in his expression, Jim looked out the window at the countryside gliding past. "Difficult indeed, though it is the lack of Professor Sandburg's presence itself that is most trying. He has this air about him, this way of merely being…."

Jim shook himself out of his reverie before it could claim him entire. He got to his feet, stern and straight, briskly tugging his tunic and cuffs into place. "As none could possibly stand for him, I will not attempt to make do with any substitute at any level. It would be a waste of their time and mine, and an insult to all, though none would be intended."

For some reason Jim received the definite impression that his response pleased the young man. Shindon smiled a small, tight-lipped smile that created dimples and backed away a step. "Regardless, Liegeman, it is my charge to do the best I can for all my passengers, even if that is so small a thing as a pot of hot water for tea during a long night or a carrot for a warhorse."

Softened by the straight-forward reply and attitude, Jim said, "I will look to you when those small things make themselves known. Please feel free to stop by Li-Li's car when it is convenient for you."

He strode away without waiting for a reply, not that Shindon seemed to need it. Humming to himself, he bustled away and back to the tasks at hand. Vaguely puzzled by the encounter, Jim hardly noticed that the atmosphere of the car had changed, save for the two solid notes of hatred and dread from the widow and her companion. It was only when he reached Li-Li's car that it struck him that Shindon had engineered their conversation to put the other passengers at ease, much as Blair would have done.

Mulling over the possibility that the lad was a Guide who had not been found by a sentinel, Jim couldn't help but wonder if the Elderkin shouldn't do something about those missed souls. Their gifts, subtle and deft as they were, had better uses than steward on a train or… With a snort of humor, Jim pulled himself up short. Blair, for one, would argue that he arranged his own life to suit himself perfectly well, thank you very much. Still, thus far he would have to say that other large towns might benefit from having a guide act as an intermediary between Dragon and Human folk, such as Blair often did for Cascade.

Marking that in his mind as subject to raise during the first opportune conversation with the Brotherhood, Jim made his way back to Li-Li. She had scarcely moved, and showed no signs of rousing at all, so he busied himself with unnecessarily cleaning his weapons, allowing his lunch to settle. That done, he finally permitted himself to change into work clothes and drove himself through as many pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises as he could improvise, given his current accommodations.

It was just shy of the dinner hour when he heard the first whispers on the landing outside the door. As expected, it was a pair of the passengers attempting to bribe a steward into letting them view Li-Li. Sighing because he had hoped to be disappointed in this issue, Jim picked up a pitchfork to look as if he'd been mucking out, and opened the door before the steward could be lured into acting against his better nature - and common sense.

He graciously invited the couple just inside, allowing them to see that Li-Li was not awake. To his surprise, they still wished to visit, if briefly, and warily approached the gettle until a shift in Jim's stance warned them to go no closer. They murmured their wonder and appreciation of her, daringly reaching out after a glance at Jim for approval to touch a wing, a scale, a claw. As Li-Li slept through it all, Jim saw no harm, but felt free to use her slumber as an excuse to usher the pair out fairly quickly. Their demeanor had been so positive, though, that he found himself issuing an invitation to return when the gettle was awake, along with the promise to have a steward notify them when that happened.

Other visitors followed, and without consciously intending to do so, Jim found he had set the routine for the next few days. He would dine, create small chores for himself, read, exercise, practice his marksmanship with gun and knife, speak with the Rouchland or one of the other crew about the day's travel, and entertain guest after guest, most simply calling to inquire after Li-Li's health. His visits to the dining or club car were marked by friendly greetings and earnest conversations on the topic, along with generous offers to lend aid. The only exception was the widow and her brother, (Madam Yvette Mills and Wilson Sanders, respectively), who continued to avoid so much as meeting Jim's gaze.

In a very short time he found himself sincerely wishing the other passengers would grow bored with Li-Li's presence. Unfortunately, once when she was awake, a few of the guests caught her playing with feathers by whirling them into the air with a wing flutter and snorting at them to see where the air currents in the car would take them. The story made her a darling to all, and Jim found himself feeling like the patron of a debutante during her 'coming out' season. Much as he could appreciate the blessings inherent in the change in the general attitude about himself and Li-Li, Jim found the constant socializing wearing.

It was impossible to go off-guard, to take anyone's congenial conduct for granted, to step from behind the shield of formality and manners and simply be. Added to the ever encroaching sensory difficulties, and Jim had never been more tired or more agitated in his life. There was no peace in what little slumber he found, no rest in those few moments he had to himself. His only comfort was Incacha's brief touches to his senses and the simple company of Ften and Li-Li when they were alone.

His hyper-vigilance was such that a few miles before the first stop on their route, Olympia, he nearly drew his pistol and shot the wildcat that materialized from vapor to crouch beside Li-Li. Silently cursing himself, Jim sank back into his chair and took several long, deep breaths before studying the spirit to determine who it represented. This sort of unconscious projection was unnerving for him under the best of circumstances, despite how useful it was to know when another sentinel had crossed his path.

After a moment he identified it as belonging to Lester Haverdahl and smiled with genuine pleasure for the first time since beginning the journey. Haverdahl, or Hank as he was universally known for some reason that Jim had never discovered, was paired with his younger brother, Jaston, one of the rare family matches that Jim was aware of. The two practically shared the same mind and certainly were not averse to sharing a lover or two at the same time, a habit which Jim was intimately acquainted with. Blond, broad and muscular, and of a height to him, the pair had made a particularly cold and lonely winter a bit more bearable.

They were a generation younger than Jim, though, and had undoubtedly been directed to meet Li-Li in hopes they would discover for themselves the secret the Elderkin kept even from their liegemen. Personally, he didn't think either Haverdahl were capable of making that intuitive leap; both were solidly, almost phlegmatically, imbedded in the here and now. Not that it mattered. The important thing was that he would be able to leave Li-Li to their care for the duration of the layover and get a breath of fresh air.

Much cheered, Jim saddled Ften, and located Rouchland to request that the ramp be placed for Li-Li's car. Regardless of his anticipation and foreknowledge of their meeting, he exited warily, senses spread wide. The Haverdahls were lounging on several freight crates, their warhorses wandering nearby. All seemed as it should be, save for a small disturbance under the platform.

Catching Hank's eye, he realized that the other sentinel was aware of the boys hiding there, daring each other to sneak out to get a 'peek of a gettle, which everybody says looks a lot like one of the Dragons.' Jim had no idea how Haverdahl planned to handle the minor bit of mischief, but now was as good a time as any to inform him of the policy Jim had adopted regarding Li-Li and visitors.

Releasing Ften to allow him to greet the Haverdahls' mounts, Jim stomped on the wood over the boys' heads and shouted. "Samuel, Jason, Robert - out from under there, right now!"

He could sense them practically soiling their trousers in fear, but if they were bold enough to plot mischief, they were experienced in facing the outcome of it. It took another command before the three of them scrambled into view on the train side of the platform, expressions of innocence plastered on their faces. The set of them could have been brothers - they were ten or eleven years old, with the kind of skinny boniness that proclaimed they would likely remain slender all their lives, fair-skinned and dark-haired. The cast of their features differed too much for familial connection, though, as were the eyes.

"Didn't do nothing wrong. No rule says we can't be here, even where we were," Blue Eyes said stoutly.

"Yeah," Green Eyes agreed. "Can't get into trouble for watching the train from a different lookout."

Ah, Jim thought, the brains of the group. Blue Eyes is probably the leader and instigator, but this one makes his friends' schemes work. And you, Brown Eyes? What role do you have in this little troop?

As if on cue, Brown Eyes said, "Please, sir. It was simple curiosity, and we thought to stay out of the way while satisfying it. We would have never harmed the gettle; we know our Laws. It's just that Olympia's croft is on the far side of town from where we live, and we never even see one in the air."

To hide a grin, Jim frowned at the young diplomat, who had probably talked his friends and himself out of the worst of the punishment for their misbehavior from the time he could speak clearly. "And you couldn't simply ask myself or Liegeman Haverdahl to present you to Li-Li?"

Jim felt the Haverdahls' hidden shock at his words, but they stayed silent, probably in deference to Jim's authority in the situation. The boys seemed as astonished, and their diplomat said doubtfully, "Ask, sir?"

"It's all I've required of anyone," Jim informed him, tone solemn.

Clearly disappointed that they would not have been the only ones to gain a peep at Li-Li, the three of them exchanged looks before Blue Eyes, the leader asked, "Might we see the gettle, sir?"

"Perhaps. Do any of you have younger siblings?"

All three nodded affirmative, with the brown-eyed diplomat adding, "I have a sister still in the cradle, and they both have brothers who are toddlers."

"Then you will understand when I tell you that you must treat Li-Li as if she were an easily frightened, easily harmed little sister. And like your siblings, she's endlessly curious and very reckless with it."

"Oh, no," Green Eyes moaned, and Jim couldn't help but wonder what tale went with those heartfelt words.

"So you must treat her with great care and respect despite how very much larger she is than you, and how formidable her natural armament is. Understood?" Jim received three very grave nods. "Very well, then. Give me leave to properly greet my friends, and afterwards they will perform the necessary introductions. Stay here!" He pointed to a spot on the platform, and the trio jumped to attention on it, stifling giggles.

Satisfied, for the moment, of their good behavior, Jim turned to the Haverdahls and found himself swallowed up in a doubled shoulder-to-shoulder hug, complete with back thumping, that probably shocked the boys yet again. Not only was it a public display of affection, but coming from such austere seeming people, it was probably as unexpected as rain falling up. When Jaston pulled back, though, he studied Jim with frank discernment, looked pointedly at a saddled Ften, and nudged his brother.

Hank understood instantly, and walked with Jim toward his horse. "Go. Get the stench of people out of your nose for a while. We'll see to the gettle." He glanced dubiously at the boys. "Are the Brotherhood aware of how much freedom you are giving others around her?"

"Yes. It is done for future needs, if another fostered gettle should unexpectedly return to their old croft with no liegeman on hand to see to a safe reception. You should see the news and wireless reports!" Jim took up the reins, and looked back at the small group gathering around disembarking passengers. "Recruit the conductor and stewards to assist if too many crowd too close. And have Li-Li rear up to show her injury; it will give provenance for sending everyone away after a short while."

Not without worry, but with great relief, Jim swung up into the saddle, exchanged a wave with the Haverdahls, and gave Ften his head. Apparently as weary of being confined as he was, the horse took off at a brisk trot, aiming for the forest not far from the station. Once clear of town traffic, Ften broke into a full gallop, and Jim crouched over his neck, head down, eyes closed as he released control over his senses, his emotions, his pretense at being a civilized human being. For the shortest, sweetest eternity he was defined by the rush of wind, the pounding of hooves, and the sharp, clean scent of an evergreen forest.

Even a warhorse with Ften's great strength and heart could not run forever, though, much as Jim might long otherwise. When he slowed to a walk, breathing hard but not lathered, Jim released the reins and dropped to the ground to walk beside him, barely aware of his surroundings. Without conscious intent, his mind and senses spiraled out and away, reaching for any hint, the barest suggestion, of Blair. Despite an unexpected surge of power from Incacha to back him, Seattle was simply too far for Jim to stretch, but he refused to surrender until the dragon removed his support.

He should have collapsed back into himself, too exhausted to try further. His body should have pulled him back with demands for food and water. The imperative summons from Incacha should have yanked him into automatic obedience and battle-ready alertness.

Instead he willfully drifted Away into a sensory memory of Blair, needing that much of him, if he could have nothing else. Jim summoned a commonplace instance - he and Blair spooned together in the center of their big bed, nude, meandering toward sleep as they meandered through a conversation about anything and nothing at all. With his arms full of a warm, drowsy Blair, surrounded by his scent and the sound of his voice, Jim indulged Taste by dropping random kisses on Blair's shoulder or neck, and Sight by admiring the sleek lines of Blair's abdomen and hips, along with the firm swell of thigh and calf. Blair seemed content to sink back into Jim's strength, one hand under his own head, the other idly petting Jim's where it rested on his stomach.

Love-making wasn't on the agenda, though Jim knew that could be changed with a single caress or a sultry word from either of them. That was part of the pleasure; the low-grade simmer of anticipation, of possibility. There was more, though, from the simple joy of holding and cherishing, with nothing more important on their minds than that. The outside world didn't exist; there was no pressure to do or be anything but there for each other.

If heaven existed, and if he could earn his way to it, it would be where that moment of bliss and love was eternal.

Letting that idea pass without speaking it aloud, as Blair didn't have much use for flowery declarations of emotion, Jim dipped to nose behind his ear, shifting slightly to perfect their fit together. Blair murmured nonsensically for a second, chain of thought obviously broken, and he squirmed in Jim's embrace to adjust their position to his own satisfaction. The movement caused his bottom to wriggle very enticingly over Jim's lax manhood, bringing a shiver of sensation that had Jim seriously reconsidering the possibility love-making in the very near future.

Blair must have caught that change of mind with the uncanny knack he had for reading him so clearly. With a soft chuckle, he deliberately rotated his backside against Jim and tilted his head back to brush a kiss along Jim's jaw. Taking advantage of the throat exposed by the caress, Jim chose a likely spot and devoured it with a hard, sucking bite guaranteed to raise a mark and eliciting more restless moves. He trailed the tips of his fingers down Blair's front and back up again, skirting all the interesting parts for the time being, which earned him a groan of frustration and a definite thrust back into his rapidly hardening member.

It was Jim's turn to chuckle, and he teasingly circled one of Blair's nipples, close enough to bring it up to a pebbled peak, yet not enough to satisfy the need for more stimulation. With his free hand, he cupped Blair's sack, thumb pressing into the dip between it and his shaft. The pressure brought him high and ready without granting any true pleasure, and Blair, the scoundrel, retaliated by going limp in Jim's grasp, muscles slack, chin on his chest to expose the vulnerable nape of his neck. The blatant show of submission, counterfeit as it was, wrung an unbidden growl from Jim, though that was the only reaction he permitted himself to show.

Hesitating for a bare second to consider his next course of action, Jim was jolted to the core as pain pierced him in the shoulders, front and back, just under the collar bone and beside the shoulder blades. Arousal forgotten, he held himself very still, trying to determine the cause of his hurt. It was familiar, in kind, if not degree, but before he could chase down the elusive memory of what it was, the ache increased to agony that tore and pulled, as if he were being lifted by hooks.

That comparison was what it took to tear him away from the illusion of being with Blair, putting him solidly back into the reality of Incacha holding him mid-air with his claws. His uniform protected his flesh from being ripped, but could not prevent the pain from the force behind the grip. Only once before in his life had his control slipped so totally that Incacha had had to resort to such an extreme measure to bring him back from a sensory episode.

"I'm here, I'm here." Jim forced himself to speak calmly, naturally, much as he wished to scream.

Incacha carefully lowered him to the ground, crouched to be eye level with him, and went straight to the point. "Why has Blair not Chosen you? Why are you still alone in the one way that matters most to a sentinel? By now his choice should have happened naturally, evolving as your relationship grew and deepened."

"He loves me, is totally devoted to me as spouse and partner. For us that is enough." It was hard not to be defensive, especially since Jim had wondered the same thing many times since he and Blair became lovers. Still, he would not have Blair thought less of for a lack that was most likely due to some flaw in Jim, himself.

Tail whipping impatiently, Incacha admitted, "The pair of you are unique, and not only in comparison with the liegemen and companions of today. The first Liegeman was a mature, well-seasoned adult when he came into our service; his wife was his companion. They had taken in her spinster older sister, who ran their household and nursery for them while they worked side-by-side, one spirit, one mind, as should be. Every sentinel still sane and functioning when they arrived in the Americas had their guide with them, having adjusted their personal lives in whatever manner necessary to accommodate the unusual needs of the couple. Those without, rarely made it to maturity, let alone to our lands."

"So I was taught, and that is why we all seek out gifted youngsters while we go about our duties - to bring them to the Settlement so they may grow into those gifts and find the one who will complete them." Jim sat cross-legged in front of his friend, scrubbing at his face with both hands. "I've seen some of the poor souls with the senses who were not discovered until they were adults, or who never met their true companion. On some level, I always believed that to be my fate, sooner rather than late. Blair is my miracle in so many ways."

"And to him you are merely lover, friend and partner. Perhaps he has never tried for more because he believes he has already has all." There was no condemnation in Incacha's voice, but rather encouragement, as if he believed that Jim could coax Blair into seeing their relationship with different eyes.

"Or because he is complete as he is," Jim argued, thinking of Shindon. "Have we ever asked what becomes of guides when they are not stumbled upon and gathered to the Settlement? Have we ever cared? It is in their nature to find a place for themselves where they feel needed, even necessary, be it in the nursery, a hospital or the priesthood. Would they not do as well in the service of the Elderkin, acting on your behalf much the same as Blair does?"

Chuffing a single puff of smoke in amusement, Incacha rose to his feet. "We have scarce begun to fathom how your partnership benefits Cascade so very well, let alone why, and now we have the riddle of Li-Li's return to answer. Yet you would place another conundrum before us to ponder. Blair may be away, but I see his influence lingers still."

Taking the cue that their conversation was over, Jim glanced at the sky and sighed. More time had lapsed than he wished to believe, leaving him with no choice but to return to the train. Of the many retorts that sprang to his tongue, he chose the one that echoed the humor that Incacha apparently wished to establish. "In many ways. Yesterday I found myself deciding against a perfectly good steak because I could hear him chide me that I have been over-indulging in rich foods of late."

"That leaves me thinking I should be grateful that he restrains himself when he speaks with me." Incacha lowered his head until he could gently tap his nose against Jim's chest. "Be well, Enquiri, difficult as it may be. I will remain close."

With no more farewell than that, he leaped into the air, wings raising a small storm of leaves and twigs that rushed upwards, as if to fly with him. Jim watched until he was beyond even his Sight, and reluctantly stood. He glanced about for Ften and saw him a few hundred feet away on the verge of the trail, grazing. From the soreness in several places on his body, he knew that the warhorse had done everything he had been trained to do to try to bring Jim back, including nipping him in tender spots. Ften would no doubt be prickly at Jim's failure to respond as he should have.

In the end, it took a stream of sincere apologies that would have embarrassed Jim if others had overheard him bestowing them upon an animal and several hoarded maple sugar pieces to win forgiveness. Jim didn't begrudge the time or patience. With matters as they stood, it was likely Ften would have to attempt to bring Jim out of a fugue again in the near future.

It seemed to him that Ften was as unenthusiastic as he to return to the train, but he trotted along at a brisk pace to arrive before they were late. In fact, the first warning whistle sounded as they jumped over the track to reach the platform. To Jim's surprise, Li-Li, along with what looked like a mob of urchins, including the adventuresome trio of boys, was playing with her ball, with the Haverdahls on the sidelines speaking earnestly to the watching parents.

As he dismounted, Li-Li head-butted the stuffed leather out into the crowd, making her car rock gently, which she appeared to enjoy. Give the unusual construction of the toy, it bounced oddly once it hit the wood, and the children scrambled to stop it, which took three or four of them, as far as Jim could tell. They eagerly rolled it back to the gettle, with the aid of any who could fit into the mass of youngsters around the ball. With a delicacy that must have startled any who didn't know Li-Li better, she ducked her head down into the swirling bodies, gingerly took the ball into her teeth, and placed it on the ramp in preparation for putting it into play again.

More amused than he had thought possible only minutes before, Jim did not interfere with next few rounds of the game, granting Ften the company of the Haverdahl's warhorses for a while. He stepped forward only when he saw Rouchland consulting his watch, a faint air of concern shading his enjoyment in the spectacle. Jim's appearance caused a small stir, not exactly of alarm, but of disappointment, in all present, including, he saw with some concern, Li-Li. Noting that the Haverdahls did not notice the slump of her wings and slowly curling tail, Jim joined them in giving their regrets to parents and onlookers for stopping the play.

The train's porters and stewards graciously ushered everyone on their way, knowledgeably answering the many questions about Li-Li's condition. In surprisingly short order, the passengers had boarded or re-boarded as the case may have been, the spectators dispersing with many a look back over their shoulder. The Haverdahls watched until the platform was clear, but Jim went into the car with Ften, who had gone up the ramp without being told. He had only one person he wished to keep an eye on - Madam Mills, hiding in the shadow between cars, wearing such an expression of confusion and disbelief, that he would not have been surprised if she had broken down into tears.

A few minutes later, Jaston and Hank joined him, speaking softly to Li-Li as they examined her injury to see if it had been aggravated. Jim unsaddled his horse and began to curry him, half of his attention on the brothers. Jaston was obviously the more learned in regards to gettles. Hands gloved against scales, he fingered the slight folds along the edge of Li-Li's abdomen, which would have expanded with the growth of her eggs if she had ever been fertilized. From there he traced the line of her lip, where molt began, leaving almost imperceptible scars each time. As Jim had before, he searched the crevice between haunch and hip, frowning at the evidence of Li-Li's spinsterhood.

Finally Jaston moved away, hands on hips as he studied her from nose to tail. "Have we doomed the species, then, by taking the adolescents in for fosterage?"

Keeping his gaze on his task, Jim said, "As far as can be determined, the others of her generation who survived did breed, as have almost all of the others who have been in human care since. According to the Brotherhood, it is unusual, but not unknown, for a gettle to be unable to find a suitable mate when they go into heat. Even moreso for one to never be able nest, but again, not unheard of."

"They were doomed to start with," Hank put in. "The population was decreasing - slowly by our terms, but steadily. Our intervention is a last ditch effort to at least stabilize it."

"Which we have done, and slightly increased it as well." Jim put aside the brushes with a last pat to Ften and joined the brothers. "It is too soon to be certain, but it appears that fostered gettles survive more often, reproduce better with more viable offspring, than those left in the wild. It will take a few more centuries, of course, before the Elderkin will be willing to voice a verdict, one way or the other."

"What a lonely, lonely life," Jaston murmured, almost to himself. "All those years, centuries even, alone. I wonder if the memory of human companionship is why she returned to us in her extremity. She most certainly does seem to enjoy their company."

"Who knows? Perhaps if another gettle does the same, we will be able to compare and theorize better. And in the meantime," Hank said more to his brother than to Jim, "Li-Li is providing a positive, even uplifting view of a liegeman's station. Today was the first time since I took up the uniform that not a single person hid disdain or aversion at the sight of me."

Moving to sit on the threshold, feet dangling, Hank draped an arm over Li-Li's neck as she wriggled into her rag bedding in her normal place in the car. "So much of what we do is behind the scenes, dealing with the criminal elements or matters the average man does not wish to ponder. Or we must sit in judgment for disputes that can only be resolved by disappointing all parties involved."

"Or worse, all they know of us is when we ride to empty a village or town before it is burned." Jim copied Hank's position on the other side of Li-Li, but he glanced significantly toward the platform between the cars where Madam Mills lingered still. "Forever after in their minds they must associate us with that tremendous loss, though we were merely the heralds of it, attempting to save the lives of those trapped between doubt and a home they would not leave."

"What can be done about it?" Though Jaston's tone was one of pure practicality, his brother must have communicated they had an audience for he, too, stole a peek toward the far door. He leaned against Li-Li's flank, absently thumping her just above the wing to her obvious pleasure. "There is so much to be tended to and so few of us to do it."

Unable to stop a soft smile, Jim turned his face down to hide his expression. "Blair has more than a few notions about that, and presses them upon the Brotherhood at every opportunity. If nothing else, he may, through sheer persistence wear them down to action."

The shrill cry of the train's whistle warning of departure cut through whatever remark the brothers might have made. Li-Li raised her head, wings unfurling slightly, but she had heard the sound often enough during the waking hours of her journey not to be particularly alarmed. Nor did the first yank of motion overly concern her, though she turned her head toward Jim to gauge his reaction. She looked down at the platform as it began to creep by, over at the waiting warhorses, then at Hank.

Missing her concern entirely, Hank held out a hand for his brother to take. "It seems we have cheated ourselves of a proper adieu by tarrying too long."

"Not that it could have been a proper, proper goodbye, given how besotted you are by your Blair." Regardless, Jaston dropped a fast kiss on the top of Jim's head, before reaching past him to clasp Hank's wrist tightly as his brother's fingers closed around his own. Hank stood, gave Jim a buss on the cheek, then jumped to the ground, Jaston leaping at exactly the same time.

With a wave, Jim shouted, "That doesn't mean I wouldn't have enjoyed your attempt to convince me!"

Their answering laughter faded away as the train picked up speed, and Li-Li leaned into Jim, cooing dejectedly. Thumb scoring along the vein under her chin, Jim sighed at the opportunity lost. By law and custom he had to wait until they asked him about Li-Li's ultimate fate. He was not permitted to tell the brothers to study Li-Li's behavior, or point out any of the curious things she might do in their presence to make them question or ponder. He had hoped she would speak, but she rarely used words as yet, despite seemingly understanding most of what he said.

Li-Li crooned again, pulling Jim's attention back to the problems at hand. If he had not had success with the Haverdahls, he had at least managed to pique the curiosity of Madam Mills. She had not returned to her seat until the conductor had chided her away from the vestibule, citing safety regulations and common sense. Mayhap he could not erase her fear entire, but if in some small way he could reduce it, it would a service to them both.

Pinning his plans on that as a diversion from all that troubled him, Jim sat with Li-Li and watched the countryside flow by.

***

On to Part 2