The Old Ways

Henry decided that it made sense to leave on what Brother Rinaldo was calling his quest the next morning. After all, he didn’t know the place or what dangers might be around. The unknown was always safer in the light of day. He’d returned to the Coventry House for the rest of the night. For a time, he had lain awake and waited for Anna to return. However, she never did. At some point, he had dosed off. He woke and padded out of his room, only to nearly collide with Lorenzo.

“Hey, Patch,” he said, frowning. He ruffled a hand through his hair and sighed. “Do you know if they got someplace I can wash up around here?”

Lorenzo scowled. “Why do you insist on calling me that, Master Henry?” he asked. His words were spoken in a clipped manner and Henry couldn’t tell if that was his accent or if he was irritated.

Shrugging, Henry said, “Where I’m from, near everyone uses nicknames. You don’t like it, I suppose I could call ya Lorenzo.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “You can leave the title off my name, by the way. I’m no master yet. I haven’t finish my final mission until I’ve returned the book to the Royal Library and I can’t do that ‘til I do your queen’s service.”

Lorenzo nodded slightly. “Henry it will be, then,” he said, in the same clipped manner. It was an accent, apparently. Stepping away, Lorenzo made a beckoning gesture. As Henry fell into step with him, he said, “As to washing up… most use the pitcher and basin in their chambers. Did you prefer a full immersion bath?”

“It’s what I’m used ta,” Henry said, shrugging. He frowned. “Why’d you think I was a castrato?” For a moment Lorenzo frowned at him. He sighed and tilted his head to one side. “You asked it last night and… I kinda bit your head off when I said I wasn’t. I’m just curious, now I’m not so tired and grumpy, where the question came from.”

“Your voice is… it’s as if it never lowered when you became a man,” Lorenzo said, blushing. His fair skin meant that the flush of color staining his face was very obvious.

Henry stifled a laugh and shook his head. “I ain’t a man, Lorenzo,” he said, shrugging. He looked to the other when he spotted Lorenzo looking him over critically. “Ain’t a girl either, before you ask. I’m… well, we call ‘em celyns and you probably don’t have them here. It’s… sort of between male and female.”

“Very interesting,” Lorenzo said. As they descended a flight of steps, he said, “The clerics trap water on the roof and bring it down through piping in the wall. It’s warmed by the same fires they use to bake bread.”

“Great,” Henry said, grinning. He frowned and looked over at what Lorenzo was wearing. Then, he glanced down at his own clothing. “I’m gonna need some clothes that won’t look so strange, too.”

“You will,” Lorenzo agreed. “I will acquire the proper garments for you while you bathe.” He waved towards the room and then nodded politely, before heading back up the steps.

Henry stared after him for a moment longer. Then, he headed into the room. He paused just inside the doorway when he saw that Marta was there. Thankfully, she was clearly very nearly dressed. He’d caught her in the act of stooping to tie the laces of her boots. “Excuse me,” he said, his voice soft. “Didn’t know anyone was in here.”

“I’m near done,” Marta said, waving his words away. She smiled and then moved towards him. “If you don’t mind my lingering, I’d love to ask you more about the land you’ve come from and about yourself.”

“Suppose that’s fair,” Henry said, nodding. There were public baths in Shynia and he’d been to them once or twice, so it wasn’t as though he’d never been undressed in front of a woman before. He turned away from her and, as he opened his jacket, added, “So long as I get to ask questions too. I mean: if I gotta either find the Chosen One or be the Chosen One, I need ta know more about Lacuna.”

“As you’ve said: that’s fair,” Marta said.

Nodding, Henry tossed his jacket onto a low bench. He tugged his shirt off over his head next. He kicked off his boots and then slipped off his trousers. As he climbed into the water, he looked over at Marta. He shimmied out of his drawers once he was submerged to the waist, so that she couldn’t see him clearly. “I’ll start, then,” he said, grinning. “Why do ya need a Chosen One ta start with?”

“There is war in our land,” Marta explained. “A group, they call themselves the Republican Movement, has begun attacking our nobles and questioning the rule of Queen Andrea.”

Henry nodded slightly. “Anyone ask ‘em what their beef was?” he asked. Marta scowled at him and he sighed. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, he said, “What is the reason for their discontent?”

“Ah,” Marta said, her eyes brightening. She heaved a sigh and shook her head. “They question whether Queen Andrea is fit to rule,” she said. “They also feel that the nobles have abused the power entrusted to them.”

“Don’t give them the right to attack people,” Henry said, his voice soft.

“I wonder… are mice so common in Shynia?” Marta asked.

Remembering that spies were called mice, Henry shrugged. “Our national industry is information,” he said, his voice soft. “We’re a small country and the only resources we have in abundance or fruits and vegetables. Everything else, we need to import. We gotta pay for it some how, so… we trade in information.”

Marta nodded. “And you are near the end of your training?”

He nodded and grinned. “My turn: why don’t they like Queen Andrea? Is it ‘cause she’s young or female or… something else?”

Marta didn’t answer. Instead, Lorenzo spoke up from the doorway. “I expect they fear that she will be like her father, the late King Giani,” he said. When Henry turned towards him, he added, “King Giani was a tyrant and a despot, who did abuse his rank. If the nobles truly do as they are accused, it is the fault of the late king that they treat their people in that manner.” He set a small bundle of clothing on the bench beside Henry’s jacket.

“Is she?” Henry asked.

Lorenzo shook his head and Marta cried out, “Certainly not! How could you ask such a thing?”

Henry shrugged. “Let’s pretend that I’m a complete foreigner, who doesn’t know the playing field, Master Marta,” he said. Then, he grinned and added, “Because that’s exactly what I am.” He looked from one to the other. “If you’d be so kind, I’ll finish my bath and… then, we can set out?”

“I’ll see to it that our supplies are made ready,” Lorenzo said. He caught Marta by the arm and gently guided her towards the door. “You can ask more questions of the… lad?”

“Lad’s fine,” Henry said, shrugging. Then, he dunked his head under the water. When he lifted it again, they were gone. He shook his head in amusement. Marta would fit right in back home, if the few moments he’d spoken to her were anything to go by.

Waking Up

There was a soft, steady beating and it took Henry a few moments to recognize it as his heartbeat. He could hear the radio, as if it were very far away. It was something that had happened before, when he’d been on the edge of sleep. He could hear the morning show’s hosts talking about the current situation and how they were doing with their enforced isolation. From closer, he heard Ivy speaking in her shy, soft voice. “They said that you could maybe hear us,” she said. “I thought… I don’t know. I know you like this station and you like music, so… I hope you like the radio, Henry.”

Ivy continued to talk about how they’d found him at the library after seeing someone fleeing the scene. Her voice and the radio hosts seemed to be growing softer and further away as she spoke. As they finally faded to silence, Henry opened his eyes. He was lying in bed, but it was definitely not in a hospital of any sort. Henry sat up slowly and looked around. He was still dressed in the clothes he’d worn to the library and he was holding the book.

The room was dark and sparsely furnished, with a bed and low table and nothing more. He swung his feet off the bed and blinked into the shadows. “Ivy?” he said, looking around for some sign of his teammate. She had to have just been there. Right? He heaved a sigh and rubbed at his temple. A soft scraping sound across the room made him lift his gaze. There was a window and a slender form was climbing in through it.

“Um,” he said, moving to his feet. “Excuse me?”

“Hush,” a voice breathed. The figure lifted a small device from their waist and, with a soft click, it lit with a small fire. It was a tiny hand lantern like nothing Henry had ever seen before. In the faint light cast by the lantern, he could see long red hair bound in braids and a smattering of freckles across the girl’s cheeks. She was, perhaps, a year or so older than him. When she spoke again, her voice was faint in the way that Henry had learned in school. “If you’re too loud, they’ll hear you and know you’ve woken before we’ve had a chance to speak.”

“Right,” he said, nodding. He kept his voice as faint as she had. He moved closer to her and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but… who are they and who are you?”

“Shouldn’t you introduce yourself first?” the woman quipped, arching her brows at him.

Henry huffed a sigh and then bowed politely. “Henry Cathan Smith,” he said, as he straightened. Meeting her gaze, he added, “Called Prince Charming.”

She grinned at him. “Nainsi Sensdottir,” she said, “Called Snow.”

The introduction took Henry by surprise, but she wasn’t done yet. Chuckling, she added, “I’m called Anna Dioli by most though. Anyone call you just Charming and leave off the title?”

“Only everyone,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Team Beith uses the names of fairy tale characters for their codenames.” He frowned and then moved a bit closer to her. “So, Anna, who are the ‘they’ whom we don’t wish ta hear us?”

More

Watching and Waiting

Anna sent Orlando and Danilo at nod. “I’ll catch up later,” she said, her voice hardly more than a breath. Then, she hurried after the wizard and her companion. It was clear what had happened, but she still didn’t know what the Royalists hoped to gain from the book. What would they do with the young man who had been accidentally drawn into their world along with it? She knew what King Giani would have done. He would have either been executed and the book taken from his corpse or thrown into prison until he gave up the book… then, he would have been executed anyway. What would Queen Andrea want done with him?

Shaking the thought away, Anna focused on her cover. Dressed as she was and carrying a basket of eggs, so looked entirely harmless. If she happened to be following the Queen’s own magister towards Dellaforest, well… it was a common enough destination.

Anna wasn’t surprised when the wizard and her companion carried the young man into Coventry House. Everyone knew that the clerics would willingly care for anyone who was sick or injured. At least it didn’t seem they intended to harm him themselves. Anna followed them through the open gates and smiled brightly at the cleric who moved to greet her. “Good morning, Brother,” she said, holding up the basket. “Would your cooks be interested in fresh eggs?”

While he hummed thoughtfully over the eggs, she watched the man with the eyepatch carry the boy from the forest into the dormitory house. The wizard stood by the door speaking in low tones to one of the other clerics. This one, with his golden hair and amber eyes, could only be Brother Rinaldo. She couldn’t help but notice that the cleric seemed excited by something. She strained to listen, even as she discussed the purchase of her eggs with the cleric who was with her.

Thankfully, Brother Rinaldo wasn’t being quiet about the source of his excitement. “He might be the one from the prophesy,” he said, catching the wizard by the hands. “Marta, our land may come to peace after so long of fighting!”

“We don’t know anything about him,” Marta said, sounding less certain. “It may be a coincidence. My spell…” she trailed off when the cleric waved a hand at her.

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” he said. “This is providence. I’m certain of it.” As he turned to head back inside, he added, “I’ll bring him to the palace when he wakes. I’ve no doubt that he’ll bring the book as well.”

“Until then,” Marta said, dropping into a slight curtsy.

Anna smiled at the cleric she was speaking with and nodded. “Seems a fair price, Brother,” she said, as Marta stepped away from the doors to the dormitory. “I can bring more tomorrow, if you like?”

“Yes, thank you,” the cleric said. He took the basket of eggs and said, “I’ll collect your pay and return with that, and your basket, in a moment.” Then, he turned and hurried away towards the kitchens of the monastery.

That gave Anna the excuse to linger a bit longer. She watched as Eyepatch came back out, without the burden of an unconscious youth in his arms. “They got him settled into a bed, at least,” he told Marta. “He wouldn’t release the book, no matter what they did. It means… well, they couldn’t change his clothing either. They settled for removing his boots.”

Marta scowled and then sighed. “My spell… he should have awakened by now,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I hope the spell didn’t harm him in any way.”

Anna turned away, her gaze drifting towards the dormitory. One of the windows was opened now, as if to allow fresh air into the room. This, she knew, was something the clerics did when someone was unconscious due to magic. The thought was that it allowed the spell to dissipate more quickly. Anna would have to ask Giacomo if that was even possible. As a wizard, he’d know more than she did about such matters.

She smiled brightly when the cleric returned with her basket and a small bag of coins. “Thank you, Brother,” she said, accepting both with a little curtsy.

“Thank you, little sister,” the cleric said. “Blessings upon you and your chickens.” He bowed and then swept back into the kitchen area.

Her obvious business concluded, Anna turned away and headed for the gates. However, she noted where the stranger was probably sleeping off the affects of the spell Marta had used to summon the book. Provided he didn’t wake before nightfall, she could visit him and see the book for herself. If she had the title, it was possible that Giacomo might be able to say why it was so important to the Royalists.

In the Rosetta Forest

The Rosetta Forest was still and quiet in the wake of Marta’s spell. It was as though the creatures of the woodland knew that something unnatural had occurred. Lorenzo understood that magic was necessary, particularly in this situation. After all, the book they sought was in an entirely different world. Magic was the only way to retrieve it from that other world. Marta had used the spell that was meant to bring the book to them just moments ago.

“So,” Lorenzo said, looking around at the forest, “where is the book? Didn’t your spell work, Marta?” He turned to the wizard and she was frowning. “Marta?”

“The spell worked,” she said, her voice faint. “I felt… I felt the spell work. It brought the book here.”

Lorenzo heaved a sigh. Looking around, he didn’t see any sign of a book. “There where is it?” he asked, turning back to her. “This is… we’re in a forest, Marta! We can’t wander the trees, beating the underbrush for a book! Where is it?”

Marta fidgeted with one of her braids. “Well… it has to be here somewhere,” she murmured. She walked around the clearing where they stood, moving around Lorenzo. He turned in place, watching her. She stopped and waved at the spell circle she’d crafted. “It should have appeared right here,” she said, her tone annoyed.

“Is there any reason why it would have landed elsewhere?” Lorenzo asked, crossing his arm over his chest.

Nodding, Marta said, “If someone was holding the book when I performed the spell, that would have shifted things.” Then, she turned to him with wide eyes. “What are the chances of that, though? I mean, what do you suppose are the chances that I performed the spell while someone happened to be holding the book?”

“Fairly good,” Lorenzo quipped, waving his arms, “considering that the book is not in the spell circle as it should be.” He looked around, now knowing that he wasn’t simply looking for a wayward book. He was looking for a person who was holding the book. He moved around the clearing, nearer to the edge than Marta had. “How far could a person holding the book have shifted the landing spot?”

“That would depend on whether the person had magic of their own,” Marta said. She heaved sigh and then shook her head. “Not more than five vara in any direction from the center point,” she said, waving at the spell circle.

Lorenzo nodded once and then began moving in ever-widening circles from the clearing. It wasn’t a perfect system, since he had to sidestep around bushes or trees a few times. However, he didn’t have an impossible distance to cover. After searching for several minutes, he spotted a crumpled form in the shade of a thicket. “Marta,” he called. “I think I’ve found it and the poor soul you dragged here with it.”

She hurried to his side and then ran past him to the person lying on the ground. “Why, it’s a boy,” she said, looking towards Lorenzo. “He’s hardly more than a youth!” She rolled him gently onto his back and Lorenzo got a good look at him.

As Marta had said, he was young, possibly even younger than Queen Andrea. He was dark! His flesh was the same pale brown as a nut and his hair was as black as a raven’s wing. His clothing was like nothing Lorenzo had ever seen. His tunic had no ties or opening of any sort and Lorenzo couldn’t comprehend how he’d gotten the garment on over his head. His coat was drawn closed with some sort of strange metal fastener and was crafted of a smooth material that was completely unknown to Lorenzo. His trousers were tied in place in a manner that was, finally, known to Lorenzo. His low, leather boots were the least uncommon of all his garments.

“Such a foreign look to him,” Lorenzo mused.

Marta chuckled. “He’s from another world, Lorenzo,” she said, her tone teasing. “What did you expect?” She brushed the hair from his brow and then held her hand in front of his mouth. “He yet lives, but he appears to be unconscious.” She moved to take the book from him, but frowned. “Even so, he will not release the book. We’ll have to wait until he wakes to take it from him.”

Lorenzo nodded. He stooped and gathered the foreign youth into his arms. “Let’s bring him to Brother Rinaldo, then,” he said. “He may know what ails the boy or have a way to rouse him.”

“He may just be suffering the rebound of the spell that brought him here,” Marta said, moving to her feet. “If that’s the case, he will wake on his own soon enough. Better at Coventry House than in these dark woods.” Marta hurried back to the clearing and gathered her magical implements. Then, together, they set off for Coventry House. Neither of them noticed that someone was following them through the trees.

That’s a Rotten Trick to Play

The Book of Lost Things had been stolen from the Royal Library a week ago. The task of retrieving it had been assigned to Team Beith, since the powers that be had graded it a level one mission, suited for training purposes. Since then, each member of the team had played their part in figuring out where the book had gone. Finally, it was Henry’s turn to act and he had the most dangerous role: actually retrieving the book.

It had come down to the day before he was set to act. Frank, the team leader, had asked him if he was go or no go for the mission and Henry couldn’t give him an answer. He wanted Ivy, the team’s intelligence analyst to find out who had stolen the book and why. Unfortunately, that was information she simply couldn’t dig up and now their intelligence was telling him that it was about to be moved from it’s current location. It was now or never, so to speak. Henry had ultimately decided to tell Frank that the operation was a go.

Normally, Henry would have had his team to back him up. Normally, he wouldn’t go into a situation like this alone. However, these times were anything but normal. There was a pandemic going around Ekudo and it had reached Shynia’s shores two weeks ago. Since then, the government had enacted extreme social distancing protocols. People weren’t to gather in groups of any size for any reason. The libraries, shopping centers and all places of entertainment were closed. That meant, while members of his team were stationed outside the library, none of them were close by if he got into trouble.

Henry heaved a sigh as he slipped into the library where their intelligence said the stolen book was hidden. “Looking for a needle in a stack of needles,” he said, as he glanced around the shelves. He keyed his microphone and said, “I’m in. Ice Maiden, you got any clue where they hid our target?”

“Intel says they put it in the reference section,” Ivy replied, her voice soft even though she was outside where there was no danger of anyone overhearing her instructions.

Nodding to himself, Henry set off for the reference section. He began scanning the shelves, looking up and down in search of the book. He knew what it looked like: bound in red velvet with gold etched letters indicating the title on the spine. He spotted a red book and was about to reach for it when he heard a heavy footstep on the carpet. He glanced down the aisle and saw a tall shadow with a wide-brimmed hat. Stifling a gasp, he ducked around the end of the bookshelf.

“Little birds shouldn’t leave their flocks,” a low voice said. “That’s when foxes catch ‘em. That’s when foxes eat ‘em!”

Henry cried out as a hand grab his elbow. Without thinking, he struck out with his free hand. He felt it connect with something and the grip on his arm was gone. He spun away from his attacker and bolted around the end of the aisle and up it. He heard his attacker growl and then heavy feet were chasing him. He tried to lose the thug in the stacks, praying that the darkness of the library would help him. However, the thug was just too close for such tricks to work.

He couldn’t even snatch a moment to call for Frank or the others, even though they were just outside. Finally, he skidded to a stop simply because there was nowhere to run. Breathing a curse, he whirled back the way he’d come. The thug was standing there, holding a lightning gun on him. Henry’s eyes widened and he grabbed the nearest thing at hand: a thick book.

“Don’t think that’ll save you, little bird,” the thug said, smirking. “Nah, you’ll learn why it’s a bad idea to mess with Boss Keller… or, well, your friends will when they find your body.”

Henry stumbled back, still holding the book. He tripped on something and fell, landing on his backside. He blinked away tears and glared up at the thug. “You gonna shot me, stop chattering like a magpie and do it,” he snapped.

The thug snorted a laugh and shook his head. “What’s with all you little birds? Always in such a rush to die,” he said.

There was a flash of light and Henry closed his eyes. He felt as though he were jerked sideways. Then, he was falling from an impossible height. Was this what it felt like to die? He’d always imagined a tunnel and light and peace. This was nothing like that. He had just decided that maybe he hadn’t died when he felt a jarring impact and then darkness swept him away.

The Next Emergency – 5

Andy sat beside the bed where Leon was sleeping. He wasn’t badly injured and he hadn’t lost too much blood. However, it was severe enough that they wanted to keep him overnight. When he was released, they’d want his arm kept in a sling for a few weeks. He wouldn’t be allowed in the field.

Somehow, Andy couldn’t bring himself to feel upset about that last. He heaved a sigh as he smoothed his hand through Mariya’s fur, focusing on the soft, smooth locks between his fingers. He had so much he needed to tell Leon and very little of it was good. At the same time, he wasn’t ready for his partner to wake yet.

“Hey, Andy Capp,” a soft voice said.

Andy’s eyes flew opened and he bit his lip. Releasing his breath in a huff, he said, “We’re both out of the field.”

“Nate took you out of the field for what you did?” Leon asked, his brows furrowing.

Grimacing, Andy said, “She says it’s not a punishment. It’s… until I come to terms with what I’ve remembered. She wants… My doctor will have to clear me.”

For a moment, Leon simply lay on the bed with a frown on his face. “That make sense,” he said, finally. When Andy tensed, Leon reached out and set a hand on his knee. “Don’t misunderstand me, Andy Capp,” he said, in a gentle tone. “It’s just that… I know that this isn’t easy for you to know. It’ll take some time for you to get your head wrapped around it.”

Andy nodded. In a softer voice, he added, “She wants to see… if maybe the Organization’s doctors can get rid of the conditioning too.”

Leon grimaced.

Dropping his gaze, Andy said, “She… called it a d-dangerous liability. If Dr. Caudill hadn’t been there to call me off…” he trailed off. He could feel himself beginning to panic.

However, Leon surprised him by saying, “Name five things you can see.”

“What?” Andy asked, blinking rapidly. Meeting Leon’s gaze, he said, “You… the window, the trees outside, a lamppost… cars?”

Leon grinned. “Name five things you can hear,” he said.

Although he didn’t understand what Leon was doing, he said, “My voice, the machinery, the public address system, my – my breathing, and – and I can hear my eyelids fluttering. Leon, what are you…”

“Name five things you can feel,” Leon said, nodding encouragingly.

Frowning, Andy shook his head. “Your hand on my knee, Mariya is sitting on my foot…” he trailed off and closed his eyes. “My clothes… I can’t think of anything else.”

“You also aren’t panicking anymore,” Leon said, his voice soft. When Andy looked at him in surprise, he smiled. “We’ll get through this, Andy Capp. Whatever happens, you aren’t alone anymore.”

Tears welled in his eyes, but dashed them away with the back of his hand and smiled. “Thank you,” he breathed. Heaving a sigh, he nodded quickly. “You’re right, but I needed the reminder.”

“That’s why I’m here, partner,” Leon said, nodding.

Heaving a sigh, Andy said, “There was an incursion by ACRE at the Brussels field office.” His voice was soft and his tone serious, but he was perfectly calm as he spoke. “They got away with certain Organization files. The Section Two agents that were sent are trying to figure out exactly which ones.”

“That’s bad,” Leon murmured, scowling.

Nodding, Andy said, “There’s more… Kolya and Kit were both injured in the attack.” His brows furrowed. “Kolya will be out for a couple weeks, but he’s at home for his recovery. Kit… is at OWL medical in Albany. He’s in rough shape, but he’s conscious and the prognosis is good.”

Leon heaved a sigh and flopped back again his bedding. “He’ll be fine,” he murmured. His eyes closed for a moment as he repeated the words.

Nodding, Andy said, “From your lips to the Great Father’s ears.” Heaving a sigh, he threw propriety to the wind and climbed onto the bed, to curl up against Leon. “We’ll all get through this, Leon. ACRE won’t win, whatever files they may have gotten.”

“From your lips,” Leon said, his tone wry. He kissed Andy’s brow and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. In a few moments, Leon had drifted back to sleep. Andy reached down to lift Mariya up beside them. Then – as she curled up against him – he drifted off to sleep as well. If the nurses were bothered by the scene, they also had the good sense not to disturb their slumber. Heaven knew it might be the last true rest they would get for some time.

The Next Emergency – 4

Leon followed Lorenzi and Authier into the room where the meetings were to take place. He frowned when the pair turned to stare at the doorway. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Andy was standing just outside the room, allowing Mariya to inspect every corner for possible intruders. Turning to the pair of agents, he smiled. “He’ll join us in a moment,” he assured them.

True to Leon’s prediction, Andy joined them as soon as Mariya had finished checking the room for him. “I have both post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attack disorder,” he said, as he began his own check of the room. “I… can’t enter a room unless I know it’s safe. Mariya is trained to check for intruders hiding in corners… among other things.”

“She’s not simply an emotional support dog, then,” Authier said, frowning thoughtfully. “She’s a trained service animal.” When Andy nodded, he continued, “That would mean that your psychological issues are on the level of a disability, Agent Surikov.”

Andy nodded without turning to face them. “Until I was paired with Mariya, I was entirely housebound, Agent Authier,” he said, his voice faint. He shook his head. “It didn’t seem to matter… I could work from home using email and video conference calls. I did my shopping online or by having stores deliver my groceries.”

He gave a weak laugh. Turning to face them, he smiled. “My doctor would even come to my apartment for our sessions,” he said. “It was at her insistence that I got a service dog. That… reopened the world for me. It enabled me to travel to a writer’s conference and… in the process, I met Leon.”

Leon nodded. “He’s come a long way in just three years,” he said, smiling faintly. Changing the subject, he asked, “What security measures do you have in place for the meetings?”

“This area of the hotel will be closed to everyone who isn’t directly connected to the delegates,” Authier said, nodding slightly.

Andy continued his circuit around the room. “And have you… what is the word, Leon? Scrutinized?”

“Vetted?” Leon said, grinning. Andy had been living stateside for nearly seven years, but he still had trouble with certain words and idioms.

“Vetted?” Andy repeated, scowling. At Leon’s nod, he smiled at Authier. “Have you vetted those people who will be allowed in the area quite thoroughly?”

“We left that up to their own governments,” Lorenzi said, shaking his head. “If their own governments trust them…” he trailed off.

“Their own governments may well trust them to do harm to Prince Roderick, Agent Lorenzi,” Andy pointed out, his voice soft. “We shan’t know if that were the case, until we check them all quite thoroughly ourselves. Yes?”

“I’m beginning to see how you came to be an enforcement agent,” Authier murmured.

Andy grimaced. “I was formerly with Vector, Agent Authier,” he said, his voice soft. “That training and… an incident that preceded my leaving the organization are, in fact, the root causes of my psychological issues.”

“What kind of training did they put you through?” Lorenzi asked, frowning slightly.

Andy grimaced and turned away. Changing the subject, he said, “I don’t like these windows. They’re too large and open.” He pointed through the glass, adding, “A sniper could position themselves in that building yonder and have a clear view of the delegates.”

“Curtains?” Leon suggested.

Shaking his head, Andy said, “Wouldn’t stop a determined sniper, however… if the material were of the sort that would block heat signatures…” he trailed off.

“I’ll get in touch the local field office and see if the folks in Section Eight can get us something we can use,” Leon said, nodding.

“You might have someone check that building previous to the meetings, as well,” Andy suggested, glancing at Authier and Lorenzi.

When the time came, Andy and Leon did one last sweep of the room. Leon had a few words with Barcroft, who assured him that everything that could be done had been. The building across from the meeting room had been swept. Everything seemed quite in order.

Satisfied that the delegates attending the meeting would be a safe as they could possibly be made, Andy and Leon went to fetch them from where they had enjoyed breakfast. As they were heading into the conference room, a pretty blond hurried up to Barcroft and spoke with him softly, but urgently.

Andy sent Leon a concerned frown. Nodding once, Leon hung back from the group and the stopped as Barcroft stepped up beside him. “One of the people in King Kahgli’s entourage doesn’t check out,” he said. “Armer finally managed to verify that he’s not who he said he is.”

“Any hint that King Kahgli knows?” Leon asked.

Barcroft shook his head firmly. “From what we’ve been able to learn, she thinks he’s who he’s claimed to be,” he said. “The only reason Armer figured out the truth was that she chased down one stray detail that didn’t fit with the rest of his history.”

Leon nodded and then quickened his pace. “Which one?” he breathed, as he was about to slip into the room.

“Delarn,” Barcroft breathed. Setting a hand on Leon’s shoulder, he added, “I’m sure we don’t want him to know our suspicions. We’ll stay just outside the door, until you call us in.”

Nodding once, Leon stepped over to Andy. “Delarn is our guy,” he breathed. “How do you want to play it?”

Andy chewed at his lip for a moment, watching as the delegates began to settle down in their places around the table. The members of the various entourages either stood or sat behind the person they accompanied. “We need to let him make his move,” Andy breathed. He looked up at Leon. “You stay close to King Thorinn and Rory. I’ll get as close to him as I can without arousing suspicion.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leon said. He sidled around the room, moving in as relaxed a manner as possible. At the same time, he moved over to where King Thorinn was sitting and settled himself against a pole just behind Rory’s seat.

Frowning, just a bit, Rory glanced up at him and arched his brows. When Leon gave him a sunny smile, he heaved a sigh and turned away. Clearly, Rory could sense Leon’s tension. Hopefully, the same would not be true of Delarn.

Almost unconsciously, Leon sought out his partner. He couldn’t help but smile as Andy let Mariya lead him over to where their target was seated with the woman he professed to serve. His complete attention seemed to be on the little dog. He spoke to her softly and coaxingly in Ukrainian, making a great show of attempting to brush her. Anyone who knew her would know it was an act. Fortunately, Delarn didn’t know the little dog or her owner all that well.

Finally, just as the meeting was called to order, Andy managed to wrangle the little dog and began brushing her, kneeling just behind Delarn. Of course, the whole thing was an act, staged to give him an excuse to be near their suspect. Still, Leon thought the performance was masterful from both dog and human.

“We have one matter on the table,” Thorinn said, looking around at those who were gathered. He paused for a moment and then waved at Sereda. “Thus far, Princess Sereda has acted as the representative of the Dwarva to the League of Nations. Are we satisfied with this arrangement? Should we divide our representation, so that she only represents the Dwarva of the Depths? Alternatively, should she remain the representative from the Dwarva and let the other huldrafolk put forth representatives of their own?”

King Velodar, of the elves of the Tree-Decked Mountains cleared his throat politely. “Speaking for my people,” he began, “we don’t feel the need to have specific representation to this… League of Nations, though we would like to be informed of what they are doing.”

Both of the other elven monarchs nodded in agreement with his words. The Elven Elder of the Hidden Valley turned to his dwarven counterpart and added, “Princess Sereda suits our needs quite well as your representative. Does she not?”

“Quite,” Olafur murmured, giving a firm nod.

One of the gremlins left off bouncing in her seat to add, “We’re all fine with things as they stand.” Then her expression turned thoughtful. “Though… maybe we could add some gremlins to your staff?”

“That’s a capitol idea,” a gnomish thane breathed. He sat a little straighter in his chair. In a somewhat louder voice, he said, “That is a capitol idea!”

“It’s certainly a workable solution,” Sereda said, her tone mild. “Other representatives have members of their staff from… states within their nation’s borders. This wouldn’t be so different. If you had concerns, you could communicate them to me through them. I could see that they are informed of what transpires and then pass on word to you.”

“We could certainly try it,” King Merrul said, nodding. He glanced at Thorinn. “A dwarf from each kingdom added to Princess Sereda’s staff would ensure equity in our voice.”

“And keep infighting to a minimum,” Rory murmured.

At that, Thorinn nodded. He glanced around at the assembled kings, nobles and elders. “Each of us shall chose one or two people to send to help staff the offices at the League of Nations,” he said. “Choose wisely, of course, for they must be both trustworthy and knowledgeable of your needs in matters relating to the wider world.”

Edric, representing the Carta chuckled softly. “We’ve already got our representative in your staff, Shirley,” he said, his smile almost teasing.

“Oh, my goodness! Indeed, you have,” Sereda said, her eyes wide.

“That is our decision, then,” King Tindar said. To that, all those assembled replied with words of agreement.

No sooner had that occurred, but Delarn was in motion. Leon acted on instinct as the dwarf flung something at Rory. He threw himself between the dwarf and his target. He felt burning pain in his back, by his shoulder blade. Then, there was a startled cry and a dull thump.

“Barcroft,” Leon called, pushing away from Rory. He grimaced against the pain as he turned to see Andy wrestling with Delarn. The delegates in the room were watching the scene in shock. Agents were rushing into the room and Delarn was struggling to escape from Andy.

The dwarf turned and, in his struggles, cuffed Andy on the cheek. He managed to pull away and almost gained his feet when Andy growled and launched at him. “Andy, no,” Leon cried, knowing that the Conditioned Response had been triggered.

Andy was sitting on the dwarf now, pommeling him with his fists.

“Mir,” Leon cried, knowing that he hadn’t quite gotten the pronunciation correct, but praying that it was close enough.

Caudill echoed him, but got the pronunciation perfect. The affect was both immediate and dramatic. Andy froze in mid-strike and then gave a strangled cry. He scrambled back from Delarn, allowing Barcroft’s people to take him into custody.

Heaving a sigh, Leon went to Andy, who was sitting on the floor with his face buried in both hands, shaking and sobbing. “Andy,” he said, touching him on the arm. “It’s all right. You’re all right, Andy Capp. Just breathe.”

“I killed him,” Andy cried, lapsing into Veligradian. “I didn’t mean it! It was an accident! Oh, my God!”

Frowning, Leon said, “Hey, hey, hey! He’s not dead, just battered.” He forced Andy’s gaze upward and pointed. “See? He’ll be fine!”

Andy gave a shuddering breath and then looked up at Leon, as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Leon?” he breathed. “But… I was just…” he trailed off, then, blinking rapidly. Then, he put a hand to his mouth. “A flashback?”

“What?” Leon asked, blinking in confusion.

Meeting his gaze, Andy said, “I just had a flashback. I – I was in Petrov’s office and… I beat a man to death! And the blood! Oh, my God!” He shook himself and then looked at Leon with wide eyes. “That’s your blood! You’re hurt!” Then, Andy went into what Leon called “paramedic mode” and began tending to the injury.

He batted someone’s hands away, scolding them not to remove the knife, even while he was telling someone else to call for an ambulance. Someone brought a first aid kit and Andy began dressing the wound, binding the knife securely, so that it wouldn’t shift inside the wound and cause more damage.

When the ambulance arrived, Andy handed him off to the paramedics. He heaved a sigh before leaning in to kiss Leon gently. “I’ll come as soon as I can,” he promised. “I need to tend to things here.”

“I know,” Leon said, nodding. He could only smile, however, as the paramedics brought him out of the conference room. Finally, they knew what had happened to trigger Andy’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Killing someone had most certainly been traumatic for the sensitive young man, particularly so hard on the heels of learning that his wife had been killed. Leon was certain there was more to it than Andy had said. However, now that the memories were at the surface, the healing could truly begin. Leon vowed to be with him every step of the way.

The Next Emergency – 3

Andy trailed along behind Leon as they headed into the hotel, where they would be working for the next several days. They were being called upon to help with the security of some dignitaries that were due to speak at an upcoming meeting in the League of Nations. Since there had been threats made, OWL had been called upon to help with security.

Members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also on hand, for the same purpose. Andy was nervous about meeting people from another organization. He’d heard from his cousin how FBI agents could be towards people from Veligrad. Even if their government leaders were shaking hands and smiling at each other now, the war hadn’t been so long ago and people weren’t quick to forget those they’d once called “enemy”.

“All right, Andy Cap?” Leon breathed as he led the way to the front desk.

Andy gave him a weak smile. “I think I might be sick,” he admitted.

Leon stopped to frown at him. He set a hand on Andy’s shoulder as he looked into his eyes. “Take a few deep breaths while I find out where everyone is,” he said, his tone gentle. Even as Andy nodded, Leon pushed him towards a low overstuffed chair that was set off to one side.

Andy watched his partner step up to the desk clerk. Then, he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. Mariya settled herself on his feet, near at hand if he needed the extra comfort that petting her provided. She gave a soft bark and his eyes flew opened.

“Sorry,” an older man with a full dark beard and warm brown eyes said. “I didn’t mean to startle her. I just… you seemed distressed.”

“You didn’t startle her,” Andy said, reaching down to smooth Mariya’s fur. He gave a weak smile. “She’s trained to warn me if anyone approaches me that might catch me unawares. I… was actually trying to not have a panic attack.”

Blinking, the man settled down in a nearby chair. “Are you all right now?”

“I believe so,” Andy said, nodding. He shrugged and then rubbed a hand over his brow. “We’re supposed to be working with a team of FBI agents and… I think I let my cousin’s horror stories about them get to me.”

“You’re one of the agents from the Organization for Worldwide Law-enforcement?” the man said, blinking.

Andy gave a nervous laugh. “You… would be with the FBI,” he said, nodding. That was just the sort of luck he would have, after all. Rubbing a hand over his brow, he released a sigh. Then, he stood and extended his hand. “Andriy Pavlovych Surikov, with the O.W.L.”

“S.S.A. Devin Lorenzi,” he replied, shaking Andy’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Agent Surikov.”

“Likewise,” Andy assured him. He waved towards Mariya and added, “This is my service dog, Mariya. My partner went to see where we were meant to check in with you and with the delegates we’re all meant to be escorting.”

“I was just sent to get the two of you, actually,” Lorenzi said. He smiled when Leon stepped over to them. “You must be Leon Reilly.”

“Nate told you about us?” Leon said, blinking in surprise.

Lorenzi smiled, a ready, easy expression. “Only the basics,” he said. Turning to Andy, he asked, “Ready to get going?”

Andy rubbed a hand over his brow. “Sure,” he breathed. He followed Lorenzi through the hotel lobby and to the doorway of a small room next to the hotel’s dining room. He blinked when he saw two familiar figures among the strangers.

He very nearly stepped into the room, but he froze just at the threshold, unable to move. He heaved a sigh. “Mariya, check,” he said, signaling the dog. She snuffled and headed into the room. She made a circuit, sniffing at all the corners. After giving a soft humphing bark at each of the agents to tell Andy they were armed, she returned to his side.

Secure in the knowledge that the only people in the room were those in plain sight, Andy followed Leon and Lorenzi inside. Then, he smiled faintly at the two surprising familiar figures. “Rory,” he said. “It’s so good to see you again.” He nodded politely and said, “Thorinn.”

“You know each other?” one of the agents said, frowning.

At the same time, Thorinn shook his head. “Andy! Leon! Whatever are you doing here?”

Leon chuckled. “We manage the Kinderhook Manor,” he said, shrugging.

“Where we celebrated our anniversary,” Rory said. He had a speculative look on his face as he added, “These agents said we were waiting for two enforcement agents from the Organization for Worldwide Law-enforcement… Yourselves?”

“Indeed,” Andy agreed. He glanced at Thorinn. “Managing the Manor is… sort of a cover story,” he explained. “Our organization uses it as a secure location for agents to lie low or take holiday.”

“It’s also a great way to raise some capital,” Leon said, nodding. Glancing at Andy, he said, “Like your books.”

After the explanation had been given, introductions were made. If the agents thought it was odd that their organization would keep a bed and breakfast or that they allowed someone like Andy in the field, they were too tactful to say so. Instead, the leader of the team, Agent Aidan Barcroft, simply set out explaining what security measures were already in place.

While he went over the details with Leon, Andy checked the room for listening devices or hidden cameras. He did find one camera, but it was obvious that had been put in place by the hotel itself. Once he’d verified that the room was secure, he returned to Leon’s side. “The notes that Nate gave us mentioned that there had been threats made?”

“We aren’t certain who would have cause to threaten Rory yet,” Thorinn said, nodding. “However, they are attempting to sway the vote on a certain matter by doing so.”

“That was why you were brought in,” Lorenzi said. “Our superiors felt that your organization had more experience in such matters than we did.”

“To what, exactly, is the vote pertaining?” Andy asked, shaking his head.

Thorinn heaved a sigh. “As it stands, there is currently one representative to the League of Nations from all Huldrafolk,” he said. His brows furrowed. “Some would prefer that representation was divided, either based on race or on geographical region.”

Rory spoke up, his voice soft, to add, “Thorinn is perfectly happy with how things currently stand.”

“But someone wants him to vote for more representation,” Leon guessed. When Thorinn nodded, his brows twitched. “Are they asking you to push for the former or the latter?”

For a moment, Thorinn simply frowned at Leon. His tone was curious as he said, “The latter. Do you think that may be significant?”

“If it was a matter of feeling that the current way of doing things failed to take the needs and desires of different races into account,” Leon said, “you might be someone they’d try to influence.”

“Because he’s married to a gnome,” Rory said, nodding. “They aren’t trying to get him to be sympathetic to their cause, however. They mean to force his hand.”

“Ask yourself: who would gain by having the representation divided by region,” Andy said, shrugging. “Whomever that is will, likely, be the one behind the threat.”

Agent Barcroft nodded. “That makes sense,” he agreed. Turning to Thorinn and Rory, he added, “I’ll have Armer begin looking into those parties.” Then, he nodded at Leon and Andy. “Meanwhile, Lorenzi and Authier can show you the meeting chamber. We’d like your opinions on the security measures we’re already taking for the talk.”

“Sounds good,” Leon said.

At that moment, Andy’s comm warbled and he pulled it out. After assembling it, he said, “Surikov here. Is that you Kim?”

“It is,” she said, her voice light and relaxed. “I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine in Brussels at the moment. It’ll be a while before they come back, but they’ll be back as a group.”

“Thank you,” Andy said. He heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s good news, Kim. Thank you for the update.”

“Not a problem, chickee,” she replied. Then, the comm went dead and Andy tucked it away once again.

“Problem?” Agent Barcroft asked, frowning.

Leon shrugged. “We’re not on the list of those fully informed,” he admitted. “However, the agents that were originally to be sent here were called away to deal with a problem in Brussels.”

Andy nodded. “A security team had been dispatched there from the Albany Field Office previously,” he added. He shrugged. “We’re a small field office, Agent Barcroft.”

“It’s nice that you were concerned for your co-workers,” Authier said, his voice low. “I’m glad to hear that they’re all right.”

“Actually,” Andy said, grimacing, “Kim just said they’d be back as a group, not that they were all right.” He looked at Leon. “Careful wording, yes?”

“Definitely,” Leon agreed. He glanced at Authier and shrugged. “No one was killed, but… someone was hurt and she can’t give us details, so… she didn’t say that in so many words.”

“It can’t be easy,” Dr. Caudill murmured, “having to read between the lines all the time.”

“It’s part of the job,” Leon said, shrugging.

Andy smiled. “For us, anyway,” he added. Then, he smiled at Lorenzi and Authier. “However, we have work to do here and, for the moment, our colleagues in Brussels must take a backseat to our current concerns.”

“Right,” Lorenzi said, waving towards the door. “We’ll show you the meeting room.”

The Next Emergency – 2

“Worried about Kolya?”

Andy glanced over at Leon with a faint frown. “I’m worried about all of them,” he said, his voice soft. He heaved a sigh before giving a slight shrug. “Perhaps more about Kolya than the others, because I consider him a friend.”

Leon nodded. He’d noticed that the pair had become close in the last couple years. When they worked in the field with the members of Section three, Kolya kept a close eye on Andy. When Leon had asked, Andy had said something about training, but he’d been vague on the details. Leon trusted Andy, so he pushed any feelings of jealousy to the back of his mind. They were friends, nothing more.

“What kind of training did they give him?” Leon asked, his voice soft.

For a moment, Andy didn’t answer. Then, when he spoke, his voice was soft and Leon knew it was something he shouldn’t mention to others. “He was part of the Program, like my cousin. They trained him as an assassin,” he said. His brows furrowed. “When the Program folded… he was transferred into Vector, where he acted as a security agent.”

“Like he does now, then?”

Andy grimaced and shook his head. “Sort of, but not really,” he said. Glancing at Leon, he said, “I’ve told you that I wasn’t previously trained to protect myself, outside of the Conditioned Response?”

“Right,” Leon said, nodding. “You were meant to do your job without anyone noticing, so they didn’t feel the need to give you firearms training or self-defense training of any kind.”

“On jobs when there might be the need,” Andy said, nodding, “they’d send a security agent with us.” He looked over at Leon and chuckled. “Kolya was called upon to watch my back more than once, Leon. I knew him before we met on this side of the Pond, as they say.”

That was news to Leon. They’d acted like perfect strangers when he’d introduced them. “Does Nate know?”

“Daresay no,” Andy said, chuckling wryly. He shrugged. “With Vector… you didn’t let your superiors know someone was a friend. If you did, they made sure you never saw each other again.”

“It’s not like that here,” Leon said, shaking his head. When Andy frowned at him, his expression one of doubt, Leon scowled. “It’s not.”

“Right,” Andy said, turning his gaze back to the road ahead. “Except when you’ve been trained together. Then, they tell you point blank not to try to contact each other… ever.”

Leon blinked at Andy’s words and then chewed at his thumbnail for a moment. He remembered being told that very same thing at the conclusion of his own training. In fact, he’d never seen any of his fellow trainees again, not even after a decade with OWL. “I wonder why that is,” he mused.

“Friendship can be a liability in our line of work,” Andy said, his voice soft. Then, he shrugged and sent Leon a warm smile. “It can also be an asset.”

Nodding, Leon reached out to pat his knee. “They’ll be all right,” he said, his voice soft.

“From your lips to the Great Father’s ears,” Andy murmured in reply.

The Next Emergency – 1

“Andy,” Kim said, peering into the office. “Leon! I’m so glad that you’re both in.”

Pausing in his typing, Andy tugged his glasses downward to frown at Kim. At the same time, Leon gave her a charming smile. “What’s up there, Kim Bear?” he asked.

“Aren’t you the clever one,” Kim said, rolling her eyes.

Andy smirked. “Truly,” he said. “Homer himself walks among us.”

“I’m a poet and I well know it,” Leon said, winking broadly. “I make a rhyme every time.”

“Enough,” Andy said, shooting him a glare. Turning back to Kim, he said, “Did you need us for something?”

“Nate said she needed to see you in her office,” Kim said, nodding. “She’s got something major that needs looking into and you’re the only qualified agents handy.”

“Not surprising, seeing as we’re the only Section Two agents in the Albany Field Office,” Leon said, as he got to his feet.

Andy grimaced, as he followed his partner’s example. “We can’t have a crisis,” he said, only partly teasing. “My schedule is already full.”

“Good luck with that excuse,” Leon said, fighting back a smile. He sent a jaunty wave in the direction of Angie as they swept past her desk. He rapped on the door to Nate’s office, waiting only a moment before she invited him in.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said, nodding as Leon opened the door. She smiled at Andy. “I’m the only one here, Andy. You can come on in.”

Andy fidgeted a bit before he followed his partner into the room. “Kim said there was some sort of emergency?” he said, as he settled down at the table which dominated the room. Leon sat down beside him, leaning to one side comfortably.

Nate frowned at them for a moment before she joined them at the table. “I’d like the both of you to escort some important dignitaries to a meeting in Washington,” she said. “Emily will run the Manor in your place.”

She met Andy’s gaze when he bit his lip. “She will also keep an eye on Martyn while you are both out of town,” she added. “That way, he won’t miss any school.”

Nodding, Andy asked, “When do we leave?”

“Right now,” she said. When both of them looked at her sharply, she shrugged. “The agents that were going to play escort were called away due to an emergency in Brussels,” she explained. “Right now, you two are the only agents with the proper clearance in the area.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Leon said, nodding.

As he moved to his feet, Andy also stood. “I’m supposed to finish the edits for chapter eighteen,” he said, scowling.

She nodded. “Bring it with you and email it as soon as you can,” she said. “Once you join up with your principals, they are your primary focus.”

“Understood,” Andy said. Then, he followed Leon back out of the office. “What’s going on in Brussels?” he murmured. “Isn’t that where our section three team was sent?”

“Yes and I don’t know,” Leon said, his voice soft. He beckoned to Kim and said, “Can you find out the situation in Brussels? Keep it on the downlow?”

“You got it,” she breathed, nodding. Giving them a wan smile, she held out their go-bags. “Good luck and stay safe,” her voice carrying in the normal way. “Your tickets are in the front pockets of your bags.”

“Thanks, Kim Bear,” Leon said, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “You’re a peach!”

Andy smirked and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Lover,” he said, catching Leon by the shirt sleeve and dragging him towards the door. He knew they could trust Kim to find out if their co-workers were all right. Whatever happened in Brussels, it couldn’t be good – not if it involved members of Section Three and now had Section Two agents being called away to deal with it.

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