§ § § - December 25, 2013
Ancia didn't stay long when she delivered the breakfast trays that morning. "Pettifane is home the full day today," she said quietly. "No more we can do. But the chef cooked special Christmas food today. Tomorrow, this I promise, tomorrow we begin." She handed over the last tray, then nervously flipped her hood over her head and all but ran out.
Sabrina was silent, bent over her tray so that Natalie couldn't see her face; from her own cell she couldn't see Paul at all. Pettifane still sent someone down in the afternoons to take Paul upstairs for whatever Pettifane was doing to him; and by now his arms, and quite likely much of the rest of him hidden under his jeans and T-shirt, were a rainbow of ugly bruise colors ranging from purple to blue to black to a jaundiced yellow. Natalie could only watch him shuffle past her cell each time he returned, and hope once again that somehow they could make their escape before Pettifane escalated the damage he was doing and Paul ended up with deeper wounds or even broken bones.
None of them said anything for a long time, not even after Ancia returned to collect the trays and departed without another word. If Ancia had nothing new to tell them, there was obviously nothing good in store for them today, Natalie decided. Her half-baked hope that Pettifane might give Paul a break for Christmas was dashed to bits when the same burly guy showed up, let himself into Paul's cell and grabbed him by the arm, half dragging Paul along with him up the stairs. Natalie spent several minutes calling Pettifane every foul epithet she could think of, till the effort exhausted her and she slumped on her cot against the wall, staring into space.
She was still silently fretting over all the scary things Pettifane had told her the day before in his office when Paul came back, this time limping slightly. Natalie watched him go by; he paused long enough to meet her gaze, then hitched himself over to her cell and let himself inside. "You okay?"
"Not while that piece of crap keeps doing that to you. What'd he do this time?"
"Twisted my ankle, but good. I don't think there's any lasting damage, but he's stronger than he looks, so I'll have to give it a rest." Paul rolled his eyes. "At least till he sends his toady down here for tomorrow's torture session."
"Great," muttered Natalie. "I'd been hoping he might let you off the hook just because it's Christmas, but obviously not."
Paul grunted, then peered at her. "Haven't you seen any of that jerk's dreams yet?"
"I don't want to." Natalie huddled into herself and closed her eyes. "The whole time he had me up in his office yesterday, I was terrified he was gonna recognize me as the person who kept showing up in his dreams, especially that one about the VIP dinner, but somehow he didn't. I've been using the techniques Esko...Esko...you know, that guy from the realms—I must be losing it 'cause I can't remember how to pronounce his name anymore—anyway, I've been using the controls he taught me, but there're so many people here that I keep seeing weird stuff, bits and pieces of things...like I'm on the edge of half a dozen dreams all at one time. It's like all those dreams at once are overwhelming whatever control I've got, and I can't quite stay out of them."
"Sounds like that sucks big-time," Paul commiserated, sitting beside her and feathering back some of her hair, in tentative, almost timid strokes, using just his fingertips. "Even if they're not your dreams, being able to see anything at all probably looks like a nightmare to you. Isn't there any way you can wake yourself up?"
"Not really. If Esk...um, what's-his-name taught me how, I forgot all about it. But at least I haven't seen anything out of Pettifane's twisted little mind."
"Whatever you're doing that might be preventing that, then, keep it up. We gotta try to stay strong, Nat, you and me and Sabrina, no matter what that ass tries to do to break us. We have to believe that Ancia and those servants she's been talking to are gonna help us get out of this place and back to our lives. I know that sounds hokey, but I have to believe it, or I'll stop being able to endure the guy's beatings."
"Those bruises..." Natalie let her eyes skip from one to the next, crossing the entire collection that peppered his arms. "They look so awful."
"You think the bruises're bad, you should see what's under my clothes. He makes me take off my shirt and then whips my back with a quirt. He kicks my legs, as hard as he can. He forces me to try to bend in unnatural ways like some Chinese acrobat. If I fight back, he abuses me twice as hard. And today, the latest thing, manually twisting my ankle. I could hear myself screaming like a girl. You sure you didn't hear me all the way down here?"
Natalie's eyes filled, and one tear slid down her cheek. "No, but...omigod, Paul, this place is just a medieval prison. It's like that creep's trying to revive the Spanish Inquisition. If we ever get out of here, I want to file every possible charge I can against that bastard. He has no right. He thinks he's the second coming or something, but if he ever gets elected to office and has power to do what he likes...we're all doomed." She traced the outline of one of the older bruises on his arm, with the lightest contact of one fingertip. "I can't stand what he's doing to you. It makes me so damn mad."
"Nat," he whispered and slid one finger under her chin, raising her face so he could gaze into her eyes. "Aw, damn, girl...I love you. Those tears are killing me. C'mere and let me just hold you, please?"
They hugged each other hard, sitting in silence while Paul rested his head atop hers and she tried to stop crying. They sat like that till Ancia came down with the trays containing the evening meal; then Paul reluctantly released Natalie and forced his protesting body onto his feet. "I'll take my tray, Ancia," he mumbled, relieving her of one as he spoke.
Ancia watched him hobble to his cell and sit down with his tray; then she peered at Natalie, offering the next tray. "How badly is he hurt?"
"He said Pettifane tried to twist his ankle," Natalie said, and at Ancia's startled look, set her tray aside and demonstrated by using a sharp twisting motion loosely around her own ankle. Ancia's face grew shocked, and Natalie said softly, "I don't think it'll be much longer before Pettifane does something to him that'll require a trip to the hospital."
Ancia's blue eyes iced over and her face set into hard lines. "Tomorrow, we start," she whispered. "Or if we don't leave tomorrow, then it is my fault and I punish myself." With that she left Natalie's cell to take the last tray to Sabrina.
She's really serious, Natalie thought, watching Ancia lay a hand on Sabrina's arm for a moment before departing. I guess Pettifane really killed her love for him, in a way he probably never intended. Another point for our side. She crossed her fingers for a few seconds before picking up the fork on her tray and digging in.
‡ ‡ ‡
Natalie had decided to take a shower in the fully equipped bathroom, and was feeling slightly better when she curled up on her cot and tugged the thin blanket over her. She could hear Paul's intermittent snoring from his cell, and she had seen Sabrina lying still on her cot; the dungeon was quiet, allowing her thoughts to roam. Paul said he loves me, she found herself thinking. She wasn't sure of her own feelings for him just yet, but as she pondered, she realized that should another woman start vying for Paul's attention, she'd be jealous. It made her grin wryly in the dimness. Maybe I'm falling in love with him, she considered. Wouldn't that be something. I wonder if he could stand me showing up in his dreams every night. I mean, isn't that what might happen if we ever moved in together? Another question for my mentor, I guess. And I wonder what he's doing right now. I wonder if he went back to the island looking for me or anything, so he could teach me that stuff I asked about. I never got that weekend off, and now I've got all the time I could ever want, but I can't train anymore with him. And I bet I've been gone so long that I lost my job now. I wish Pettifane would go to hell. That's where he belongs... Her thoughts, already random, guttered and fragmented, and a few minutes later she slid into slumber.
Abruptly she found herself standing on a familiar-looking expanse of blacktop, with cars parked in rows in the near distance, trees swaying in a moist, heated breeze, and voices far away. Natalie scanned her surroundings and realized she was standing in the parking lot at the Coral Island mall. As she tried to figure out where Paul had left his car, she heard a quavering voice say, "I know it's here somewhere. Let's look over here."
That sounds familiar... She turned again and saw a small, slightly hunched elderly woman, wearing a dress that looked more like a housecoat, made from some colorful and heavily flowered fabric. And right behind her were three figures: Paul, Sabrina, and herself, all carrying bags. Oh yeah, Sabrina and I bought a bunch of stuff, didn't we? Lucky for us Paul didn't mind hauling around some of it... Then she realized where she was and what was happening. I'm in somebody's dream again! It had been long enough since the last occurrence of this that she had half forgotten what it felt like. This is when that old crone kidnapped us by pretending she forgot where she parked her car. Boy, were we dumb or what? She ducked behind a car, watched the foursome moving away toward an even less sparsely populated section of the lot, and then used parked cars for cover, shadowing the group. It grew more difficult to find concealment as they plodded ever farther away from the mall, so Natalie positioned herself so that she was behind the elderly woman at all times. Butterflies began to flutter in her stomach as the fateful moment drew closer. I wonder who's having this dream? I hope it's not Paul or Sabrina, because maybe then I'll find out what happened after we got sprayed with whatever that stuff was!
Well away from any cars, and not too far from the berm of tall bushes that hid the mall lot from the road that led to the inter-island ferry, Sabrina turned to the crone to ask a question. At that moment the old woman whipped out a small can from a pocket and sprayed the threesome directly in their faces. Natalie could still remember the peculiar smell of the stuff—like bitter flowers, and some kind of weird sweet scent, maybe vanilla-scented molasses, she recalled—and winced, wishing she could stop what was happening, but afraid to reveal herself just yet.
She watched herself, Sabrina and Paul cough, choke and gag for twenty seconds or so, then drop to the ground almost simultaneously. The dream, however, remained vivid, and Natalie felt a tiny sense of victory. So it's that old woman who's dreaming. What'd she do with us?
She shifted position to stay at the crone's back, just as the old woman replaced her spray can into the pocket of her housedress and then crouched for about a minute. When she stood up again and peered around, she was no longer old. Natalie gaped as she took in the sight of a sweet-faced young woman—no more than a teenager from the look of her—with long hair that gleamed metallic gold in the sun. Before Natalie had time to give much thought to this transformation, the woman turned back to her three insensate victims and stretched both arms out straight, palms down, so that her hands hovered directly over them; then she turned her palms skyward and slowly raised her arms, at which point the three bodies levitated off the ground and floated a couple of feet above the pavement. The woman then gathered the dropped shopping bags and either piled them atop the floating bodies or hooked them over dangling hands, raising the bodies a little farther to keep the hanging bags from dragging the ground. Then she maneuvered the whole burden along the parking lot, more or less back the way she had brought them, till she found Paul's car.
Natalie watched, stunned, as the young woman grasped the handle of the nearest car door, stilled for a moment in concentration, and pulled the door open as though Paul had never locked it. One by one she put shopping bags in the back seat; then she removed Sabrina's and Natalie's purses and dropped them in beside the bags, before next digging into one of Paul's pockets after another before she found his wallet and keys. Natalie watched her drop the wallet into one of the shopping bags, then slam the door and walk around the car to the driver's side, where she proceeded to lock the keys into the car. Holy crap, Natalie thought, hovering behind the car parked next to Paul's and watching all this through the windows. She didn't rob us? I thought for sure all our stuff was gone forever! And she must be like Yoda or something—look how we've all been floating like that, this whole time!
Having completed the disposal of her victims' belongings, the young woman returned to them, laid hands atop them, and closed her eyes. The next thing Natalie knew, she was standing in the dungeon of Pettifane's estate, watching the girl separate her, Sabrina and Paul and lay out each unconscious form on the cots in the cells where they'd awakened.
There was nowhere for Natalie to hide in here, and in any case she was too overwhelmed by what she had seen to remember to do so, or to keep quiet. "So that's how we got here," she exclaimed aloud.
The girl gasped and whirled, visibly recognizing her and throwing several bewildered glances back and forth between the unconscious Natalie and the one who stood in front of her now. Then she asked in a high, little-girl voice, "Are you twins?"
"No, we're both me," Natalie said, without thinking at first, processing the childlike mien of her abductor. "I mean..." Then she got a little sense back and drew herself straight, spearing her antagonist with a stern glare. "What's your name?"
"Qu...Quenatra," came the reply, delivered with a newly worried look. "Are you...are you going to punish me? You...you can't. Mister Petty-fain said I could do this, and he'd have a surprise for me after I did it. He said if I did it right, he'd be real proud of me."
"Oh," mumbled Natalie. It was a lot to take in, but she was worried that the dream would end before she could learn more, so she pressed forward. "Your name's what, again... Quenatra?" She pronounced the name to nearly rhyme with Sinatra, and to her relief the girl nodded. Natalie cleared her throat. "That's a nice name."
This was the right tack to take, for Quenatra beamed at her. "Thank you! What's your name?"
"I'm Natalie. Um, Quenatra...do you, um, live here or something?"
"Uh-huh. Mister Petty-fain said I could, after my daddy was gone." Quenatra's face clouded over. "I haven't seen my daddy since I was really little. I wish he'd come back, 'cause I miss him a lot. But Mister Petty-fain is nice to me. He lets me eat my favorite food, and I have lots of animals to take care of in my room, and pretty pictures, and I can look out my windows and see lots of trees and flowers and birds flying. And Mister Petty-fain has horses. They are soooooo friendly." Quenatra brightened again as she described all this. "It's a nice place. And sometimes Mister Petty-fain asks me if I'll do something for him, so I do it, and he lets me have new pictures to color after I do it."
"Wow," Natalie managed, trying to picture Pettifane being nice to anyone and not quite succeeding. "So what do you do for Mr. Pettifane?"
"I bring him new people, like I brought you and those other two. I know how to find them. My daddy used to know a man with an island. And Mister Petty-fain asked me to get you and those other two. He showed me pictures so I know what you look like. And it was so nice, 'cause he let me go out of the house every day for a whole month. He said to wait for you to come to that place where I found you, and he told me what to do. And so I did it, and when I came back he gave me a whole bunch of new pictures, and he even gave me two big new animals for my room. So I guess I did it right."
Natalie's head had started to spin. "Oh...wow, new animals," she said inanely. A sense of urgency began to grab hold of her. "What...um, how did you know the name of that place where you found us?"
"Mister Petty-fain said it, but I forgot it. I just knew that I had to go to a big place with a lot of stores and a lot of cars. He said someday you'd be there. And Miss Lilly-fore helped me too. She's even nicer than Mister Petty-fain. She said that you and the other lady have a power that lots of people don't have. Mister Petty-fain says that I have all these powers, and there are some people that have powers, and he wants to keep them away from all the bad people in the world. That's why I live with Mister Petty-fain. He and Miss Lilly-fore told me everything I had to do." She looked pensive all of a sudden. "But I couldn't get on that other island. Just the little one with the place that has the stores. I got on the other island before, 'cause Miss Lilly-fore came with me and we went there on a boat. But when I went there with my power, I couldn't go. I had to wait at the stores."
Natalie tried to process this, but she was close to information overload by now, and she was afraid she wouldn't remember any of it once she woke up. But Quenatra's narrative rang a bell in her memory, and she realized then that it dovetailed with Ancia's explanation of what she had done to enhance Princess Leslie's nightmares. "Okay. How come you couldn't get on that one island?"
"Something was there and it wouldn't let me in if I went there. I don't know what it was. I had to walk there with Miss Lilly-fore."
Natalie nodded, then became aware of a change in the scenery and looked around her. She and Quenatra no longer stood in Pettifane's dungeon; now they were in an enormous chamber, its rock walls and ceiling almost too far away to be seen. The humidity in the air was actually visible. "Whoa, wait a minute, where are we? What's this place?"
Quenatra blinked and looked around, then hugged herself as if she were cold. "I don't know. Sometimes I dream about this place. I don't know what it is though. There's never anybody here, but I can hear people talking." She stiffened, then put a finger to her lips. "Shhh! I can hear people now."
Natalie tuned into her surroundings, and sure enough, she detected fragments of voices, just on the edge of her hearing. From what little she could tell, they seemed to be calling, in frantic, worried voices, although she couldn't make out any words. She focused on Quenatra, who also seemed to be listening. "Can you tell what they're saying?"
"No. Shhhh, I can't hear them," Quenatra whispered.
"Do you try to talk to them?" Natalie persisted.
That got Quenatra's attention and she stared at Natalie blankly. "No..."
"Can I try?" Natalie asked softly.
Quenatra hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. I guess so."
Natalie made a half-turn away from Quenatra and tipped her head back a bit to aim her voice toward the distant ceiling. "Hello! Can anybody hear me? Hellooooooo!"
For a few seconds there was no response; then, just as Natalie was about to try again, she heard a feminine voice. "Come home, my baby! My little one, come home!"
Quenatra whimpered, and Natalie looked around to see that the girl's face had become totally expressionless, though there were tears in her eyes. "Home," she breathed.
"Hello!" Natalie shouted, at the top of her lungs, and at that moment her entire uni-verse transitioned in half a blink. She found herself lying on her cot in her cell, and the echo of her own voice off the walls petered out even as she gathered her wits together in that first second after waking. She lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, grabbing hold of the remnants of the dream she had just witnessed, desperate to retain all she had learned.
Then she realized she was being stared at, and focused on the front of her cell, where Paul and Sabrina were both looking in at her. When they saw her return their gazes, they both came inside and took seats on her cot, one on either side of her, as soon as she sat up. "Sounded like you were dreaming," said Sabrina. "You okay?"
"Yeah...oh man, I wish I had something to write on," Natalie groaned fervently.
Paul's expression changed and he blurted, "Wait a minute—did you see somebody else's dream?" At Natalie's nod, he demanded, "Who was it?"
Natalie sucked in a breath. "I think it was the Matter-Shifter that Pettifane's using to keep us prisoner in here."
Paul whispered a curse, and Sabrina gasped. "Omigod, are you serious?"
"Yeah—let me tell you what I saw, and what she told me, before I forget it all. That way three of us know what happened." Natalie proceeded to describe Quenatra's dream as best she remembered seeing it, and what she had found out from the girl. Paul and Sabrina gaped at her throughout, both speechless. "So," Natalie concluded, a little breathless, "it's not really Quenatra's fault. She's like a little girl about five or six years old. She knows what she's doing, but she doesn't know it's wrong. She's just trying to please Pettifane, because he's the father figure in her life."
"Holy frickin' crap," Paul intoned, impressed.
Sabrina sat up. "When we see Ancia tomorrow morning, we need to tell her that we absolutely have to rescue Quenatra. We can't just leave her here."
Paul snapped out of his astounded trance and pointed out, "That's gonna be a problem. Ancia said this kid's locked in her room."
"And if she's that important to Pettifane—I mean, he did have her bring us here—he wouldn't leave her door unguarded either," Natalie added. "She's a Matter-Shifter, just like Princess Leslie's father, and when he came and helped us rescue you and Prince Christian and the others that first time, Sabrina, he was able to open the gate even though it was locked. I guess Matter-Shifters can do that. They might lock the door to Quenatra's room, but it's not to keep her in—it's to keep everybody else out."
"What's to stop Quenatra from just leaving, if she can open a locked door?" Paul wanted to know.
"Pettifane's little mind games, that's what. He says he's protecting her from all the terrible people in the world, and she just swallows that, because she has some sort of mental impairment and doesn't know any better. She does what he tells her because he's put himself in place of her father, and she doesn't question him."
Sabrina looked thoughtful. "Then we'd have to convince her that we want to help her and that Pettifane's not the nice guy she thinks he is. That'd take some doing, I bet."
"It might, but Ancia might be able to help us. Quenatra knows Ancia, and it sounded to me like she gets along with her pretty well," said Natalie. "Sabrina's right. We can't just leave Quenatra here. She's too valuable a weapon, in Pettifane's hands."
Paul nodded, gazing at his knees, and murmured, "Okay, so Quenatra comes too." He looked up then. "Y'know, if she's that powerful, then she could just teleport everybody right out of this place—everybody who wants to go, anyway—and we could all go home and then file our charges against Pettifane."
"We can't go right back to the island," Natalie reminded him. "There's something blocking her. That's what she told me. I think I remember Princess Leslie's father talking about shields in that first rescue, but I can't remember what he said. Anyway, she could just lower the shield to pop us out of here, and then she could take the three of us to Coral Island and we could pick up your car and get home that way."
"Not if the keys are locked inside it," Paul said. "You told me you watched Quenatra lock them in, in the dream."
Sabrina rolled her eyes. "So Quenatra opens the door like she did the first time. Could we just stop coming up with stupid ways to complicate this? Now that we have some chance of actually getting out of here tomorrow after all, I don't want anybody trying to burst my balloon. Let's think positively, and as soon as Ancia comes down tomorrow morning, we all tell her about the dream Natalie saw."
§ § § - December 26, 2013
Ancia was late with breakfast, and apologized for it as she handed out trays. "Petti-fane left late," she said. "I planned to speak with more servants after he was gone, while I waited for your food to be ready. I have three more who say they will help—they want to be gone from here also. So we are now twenty-one."
"We have something to tell you about," Sabrina said, and Ancia paused. "Natalie saw a dream last night, and it wasn't Pettifane's—it was his Matter-Shifter, Quenatra."
Ancia drew in a soft gasp, then exclaimed, "Please tell me!"
"The first half of it just showed how Paul and Sabrina and I got kidnapped," Natalie said, looking over her breakfast for a moment. "She left all our stuff locked in Paul's car, at least according to the dream. I hope she really did. When it showed how she brought us here, I forgot and said something out loud, and I got her attention, and we started talking."
Ancia looked astounded. "You can speak with someone when you see them in a dream? Is this normal to your power?"
"I guess so," said Natalie with a diffident shrug. "I think I've always been able to do it, but most of the time I don't. I've seen the dreams of too many strangers, and it'd probably freak them out if I said anything. But this was different and I couldn't help it. Now I'm glad I did. Listen to what I found out." She then told Ancia what Quenatra had revealed about herself, as well as describing the change of location and what had happened then.
Ancia's face was pensive by the time she finished, and she was gripping the front panels of her hooded cloak, compressing her lips. "Something wrong?" Sabrina asked, while Natalie started eating, finally free to work on her breakfast.
"There is a...place in her mind that has memories from her earliest days," Ancia said. "In the girl's mind. I would say her name but I can't pronounce it right. She remembered this more clearly before. When Pettifane bought my freedom from jordisk jail, the first thing he wanted me to do was to...to lock those memories inside her mind, so that she could not look at them anymore. I said I would do it. I was blind of happiness for my freedom, and I never thought if something was bad when he wanted me to do it. So I did it. The things that she cannot remember now...that is my fault."
"Can you undo it?" Paul asked.
"I am not sure, but that is just because we have never tried to take back a thing we do in someone's mind. But I will try to do it. If I tell her I will give her back her true memories if she will help us..." Ancia trailed off, clearly thinking; then she nodded after a moment. "I will try. Just now I need to talk to Edward—he is the bodyguard I know best. Mostly Edward guards the main room where the computer is, the one that controls the house and the land around it. If he will not help, I can use my power."
"Sounds good," Natalie said. "We'll wait and see what you can tell us when you come back down. Is Pettifane gone for the whole day?"
"I am not sure, but I think it's possible, because he left here later than normal. He said he doesn't really believe in holidays, but he lets his employees have them because he has to look normal to the world." She tugged her cloak more tightly around her while Paul, Natalie and Sabrina looked at one another. "It is time I go now."
"You can take this," Paul said, handing her his tray. Sabrina, who had also finished, nodded and gave hers over as well; Ancia smiled a little and bustled out.
"He has to look normal to the world?" Sabrina repeated ominously. "That sounds like he's putting up a front. Another way to fool people into admiring him and then trusting him. The sooner we get out of here, the better. He's gotta be exposed, and I for one can't wait to tell about both my kidnapping ordeals."
"If there's a couple dozen of us or so," Natalie said, "he can't just dismiss us all out of hand. The more, the better. Ancia said there's about fifty staff, right? It'd be great if she could talk them all into joining, but there's always a few who're totally brainwashed."
"As long as we outnumber them, I don't care," said Paul. "Eat up, Nat. Whenever she comes back, maybe we can ask her for pen and paper so we can write down the details of that dream you saw, before we all forget too much."
‡ ‡ ‡
Christian and Leslie had spent most of the day in their own suite alone; they had had breakfast and lunch there, either watching television or reading; and now, late in the afternoon, Susanna, Karina, Tobias and Anastasia were with them, all six of them playing a jordisk children's word game similar to Scrabble. Anastasia, who could recognize the simple words in her beginning storybooks and already knew how to spell—if not write—her own name, had insisted on being included; she had the lowest score, of course, but that didn't seem to matter to her as much as simply being allowed to play.
Susanna was scowling with concentration over her letter rack when there came a knock on the door. Everyone looked around, but Anastasia leaped to her feet before any of her siblings or her parents. "I'll get it," she sang out and dashed to the door, throwing all her weight into pulling the heavy wooden barrier back.
It was Kelsey Grönnedahl, who curtsied as soon as she met Christian's and Leslie's gazes. "Please excuse my intrusion, Your Highnesses."
Christian smiled. "It's no intrusion at all. Come in. What is it?"
Kelsey came in, focusing on Leslie. "I received a telephone call about twenty minutes ago, Your Highness, from Hejle-Lin Andersson. She asked me to advise that she is just about to complete the restoration on the final tapestry from the royal collection, and wanted to inquire about the requirements for immigration to your island."
"Oh," said Leslie, blinking. It had been long enough since the last time she and Christian had contacted Hejle-Lin—in mid-April, regarding the tapestry restoration, which had been their birthday gift to Anna-Laura—that she had more than half forgotten about the deceptively young-looking woman whose mother had once advised jordiska monarchs. "I wasn't expecting that." She grinned sheepishly and felt Christian give her shoulder a quick squeeze. "There's not much to it. Just tell her to go to the immigration page on the island website and fill out the electronic form there, and we'll get a look at it whenever we receive it. But you might want to tell her to be as detailed as possible, when she answers the question about what qualifies her to be an island resident."
"I'll do that, Your Highness, thank you," Kelsey said with another quick curtsy. "I also saw Princess Anna-Laura on my way up here, and she asked me to inquire on her behalf as to whether you intended to join the family for the evening meal." This question she directed to Christian, who chuckled.
"We do, yes. It's at the usual hour, I take it?" At Kelsey's nod, he said, "Well enough. I think we simply holed up in here just for a bit of a break from everything."
"Quite understandable, Your Highness. I'll inform Princess Anna-Laura, if you'll both excuse me." Kelsey curtsied as Christian nodded, and performed another curtsy for Anastasia when the little girl hauled the door open again to let her out.
"Who's Hejle-Lin Andersson?" Susanna asked when Anastasia had managed to shove the door back into place. "That's a weird name."
"That's the name her mother gave her," Leslie said, "and it's not up to us to judge anybody's name. Anyway, she's the lady who restored those old tapestries that the family's had for centuries, and she's also a clan woman. Remember all the trips back in time that Karina took us on, and the lady who could tell the future? Hejle-Lin is that lady's daughter."
"Oh." Susanna contemplated the game board again, then asked with already lagging curiosity, "Aren't we running out of houses for all the new people yet?"
Christian and Leslie looked at each other and both broke into laughter. "I don't know yet, sweetie, but it might not be a bad idea to look into that when we get home again." She lowered her voice to address her husband while Susanna pored over her letter tiles. "I don't know exactly why, but for some reason I just have this feeling that there won't be a whole lot more immigration requests in the future."
"Does that have to do with your power?" Christian asked.
Leslie hesitated, then shrugged one shoulder. "To tell the truth, I'm never quite sure anymore where my power ends and a just-plain-old gut feeling begins." He laughed quietly, and she responded with a sheepish little grin. "I still have trouble remembering that I have the ability and it's under my control now, more or less. I'm not sure I could get any information out of attempting to use my power for an issue like that, though."
"I suppose we'll see in time," said Christian comfortably. "I do have to admit to some surprise that Hejle-Lin is interested in moving, though. When we visited her cottage, I got the sense that she was perfectly happy there and would never want to move."
"You're just saying that because her cottage was so isolated that you thought it was the ideal place to live in," Leslie teased him.
Christian grinned, then focused fully on the game. "Ach, Susanna Shannon, haven't you taken your turn yet?" he prodded cheerfully.
"I can't think of a good word," Susanna complained. "Lots of crummy little ones, but no really good ones."
"Sometimes you simply have to use what you have and hope for something better on your next turn," Christian said. "Just take your turn so we can keep the game moving, or we may have to stop in the middle when the time comes to eat."
Susanna made a face, but squinted at her tiles one more time before picking out three and placing them on the board. She was still setting them down when Leslie's father appeared out of the blue; the family jumped in surprise before the children scrambled to their feet and tried to hug their grandfather all at the same time.
"Yes, yes, I'm very glad to see all of you as well," he assured them. "Did you get what you wanted for Christmas?" That set off a babbling that he had to raise his hands to quell. "One at a time, please! When you've finished telling me, I'll need to speak with your parents for a few minutes, and then I'll have gifts for you as well."
Once they had, their grandfather gave them each a hug and asked whose turn was next; when Tobias said it was his, he told his grandson to take his time, while he talked to Christian and Leslie. He then gestured at his daughter and son-in-law to follow him to the bedroom, where Christian inquired, "So did you explore Pettifane's estate again?"
"I did," said Leslie's father, "and I daresay we have a new charge that is all but guaranteed to give the authorities cause to search the estate. While I couldn't get in, since the shield is still in place, I was able to look in from outside by levitating when I was certain I could not be seen." He chuckled when Christian and Leslie looked at each other. "It took me a goodly amount of time to conduct a thorough search, but it paid off. There is a massive greenhouse in a far corner of the grounds—and inside that greenhouse, I discovered row after row of potted amakarna plants."
Christian's hazel eyes popped; Leslie gasped. "And there are laws against growing amakarna, aren't there?" she prompted hopefully.
Her father smiled and nodded. "Indeed there are; I took care to check the New York state statutes, which is another reason it took me longer to get back to you than I'd expected it to. I ascertained from the date it took effect that this law was passed as a result of the last spike in the black-lightning trade—when Giancarlo Ognissanti took over his late sister-in-law's business. Black lightning is all but nonexistent nowadays, but cultivation of the parent plant remains illegal. The penalty for breaking that law is stricter than for the state's marijuana law."
"Fate save us," Christian said softly, grinning from ear to ear. "Now the only question is, how are we to inform the authorities?"
Leslie gasped again and snapped her spine erect. "Evan Mitchell!" At her father's and husband's odd looks, she turned to Christian. "Remember? Peapicker450? He said in his immigration application that he was a gardener for Pettifane!"
"Ach, yes, I'd forgotten!" Christian exclaimed.
"Perhaps you'd fill me in," Leslie's father suggested.
They explained about Pettifane's former employee. "We got a completed immigration form from the guy. He told us that he was employed as Pettifane's gardener for the last ten years—which means he'd know there's amakarna in that greenhouse. I don't know if he knew what it was, but my guess is, he probably did, considering how much it's been in the news the last decade and a half or so. If you can find him, Father, you could ask him to tell you everything he knows about how Pettifane got hold of the seeds to raise the stuff. Now those charges would stick," Leslie concluded.
"I see," her father said, nodding; there was a light in his dark eyes. "You said his name is Evan Mitchell?" At her nod: "What address did he give in the application?"
Leslie bit her lip. "Well...he gave a Long Island address, and I figured it was probably Pettifane's. But he said he's in a homeless shelter after Pettifane threw him out."
Her father nodded. "Christian, I would suggest you look up the address on Evan Mitchell's application, so that we have a better chance of ascertaining whose it is."
Christian found it within a few minutes. "It's Pettifane's estate. There are photos and all sorts of links to it. I suppose it would be logical to try to find the nearest homeless shelter to that address." He started searching, approaching the problem from several different angles, till finally he unearthed information on a shelter at the western end of Long Island, close to the major road linking it to the mainland. He read out the address. "I suspect our friend the pea-picker is likely to be there."
Leslie's father took a careful look at the address on the monitor screen, then nodded. "Very well, I'll go there without delay and find out whether he is indeed there, and if so, I'll speak with him. This may be the break we and the authorities need." He winked at Leslie. "Tell the children that I'll be back later this evening with gifts for them; our case is urgent and I think it should take priority. I'll do my best to return tomorrow." With that, he blinked out of sight.
"Blast," muttered Leslie, a thought occurring to her just too late. "We were going to tell him what Mitchell said about the Matter-Shifter's name."
Christian was grinning again as he shut down the computer. "That's all right, it will keep. Suddenly I'm a great deal more optimistic about this entire business. If that gardener was charged with growing Pettifane's contraband amakarna, perhaps he's a Spice-Grower. After all, Rogan is forever complaining about the problems he has making that damned plant thrive; how could any merely human gardener be more successful with it?" He and Leslie both laughed.
"I'm sure Father'll come up with a way to find out. For right now, let's kick it to the back burner and get back to our game, or somebody might get it into their head to try to cheat," Leslie joked. Laughing again, they linked hands and returned to the living room.