She took her oath, and trembled with excitement and pride as she recited the sacred words. Her back was straight, heels together, chest out, the tip of her middle finger barely touching the outer edge of her right eyebrow.
It was too good to be true; it was a sweet dream from which she would rudely awaken. But for now, oh for now, she would enjoy it, and look to the future. God help any man who woke her up.
"Ah, but sweet and most helpful daughter of my heart—"
"Don't start that stuff again," the daughter of his heart warned him.
"Lois, surely you can tell me something."
The newest princess of the realm looked up from cleaning her Beretta and glared at the king. "Sekal, get it through your gigantic, thick head. I'm not helping you lay my mom, okay? I'm not giving you any sort of hint that's gonna help you hustle her into bed. I mean, you're a great guy and all but… yech. This is my mom , okay? Just… work it out on your own, okay?"
"La la la bah bah bah hmmm hmmm I'm not listening… la la…"
"Very well." The king stood up and started to stomp out in a huff. At the last moment he turned and said,
"She will be mine," and then he was gone.
Lois rested her head on the tabletop. "Oh my God, I am so creeped out right now…"
"What is it, dear one?"
She perked up as Damon entered the room. "Your dad, Damon. He's driving me most sincerely crazy.
He's got the hots for my mom, how weird is that?"
"Not especially… weird. Your dam is very attractive for a woman of her advanced years."
"Not as advanced as you think; my dad knocked her up when she was fifteen."
"He struck his mate?" Damon looked horrified.
"No, no, it's slang for pregnant. She got pregnant with me when she was still a kid herself. But jeez, they've only been here… what? A month?"
"Your mother and her companions? One moonround, yes."
"And he's, like, all over her. It's weird."
"My mother was one much like yours, I think."
Lois had put her handgun back together and was now getting organized, but she looked up at that.
"What? Your mom was fromJersey ?"
"No, but she was not from our world. She just appeared one day, much like you did."
"And your dad met her and fell hard for her and that's why he's been alone so long," she mused aloud.
"He's been waiting for someone closer to his own age, someone who comes from where we came from… hmm. That's very interesting, Damon."
"I know many interesting things," he said solemnly.
"Did she ever want to go back? Your mom?"
"No, I believe she was happy here. Although she did miss some things, as you miss the Dairy Queen."
"Don't say it. I've been dreaming of Dilly Bars. You guys need way more dairy products over here.
Though I'm not sure a Blizzard would qualify…"
"My mother talked and talked about the Hitchcock when I was a child," Damon said. "Do you know the Hitchcock?"
"I've heard of him," Lois replied carefully. Ah-ha! Maltese! Her brother-in-law's funny name suddenly made sense. Damon was lucky he wasn't named Marnie. "Did she ever say how she came here?"
"Just that she was dreadfully unhappy where she was, and that her prayers were answered."
"Oh. I wonder what happens," she mused, "if someone here is unhappy. Do their prayers get answered?
Anybody here ever just… pop out of sight?"
"To my knowledge, no. You might answer my prayers now," Damon suggested, smiling and holding out his hand.
Lois rolled her eyes. "You talk like you didn't just get some nooky two hours ago."
"An eternity of sunrounds," he said solemnly, then boomed laughter when she tickled his ribcage.
Maltese, second in line to the throne, Prince of the SandLands, was, as the sister of his heart might say, bored out of his freakin' gourd.
"What is a gourd?" he mused aloud.
"What is a freakin'?" his youngest brother, Shakar, replied.
"Perhaps Lois will teach us her language."
"Or perhaps her mother will, 'less the king has her in his sheets already," Shakar said, and laughed.
"I do not think it will be as easy as you say. Look at our Lois. She was most unhappy to be made princess after the Bridefight…"
"For roughly one sunround," Shakar pointed out dryly. "Then our brother worked his customary magic, and now we have a new princess."
"Still," Maltese said stubbornly.
"I hope they—the travelers—choose to stay. Or at least, I hope Lois's dam chooses to stay. For Father's sake, if not Lois's. I wonder if her sire will pop up?"
"She did not miss her sire," Maltese said. "She did miss her dam."
"Do you think Lois wished for her, as she wished for her 'footlocker'?"
"I know little enough of such things, my brother. Only enough to know—"
"What a dullard you really are?" Shakar asked brightly.
"That one you will pay for," Maltese said, then pounced on his younger brother like a kitten looking for some fun. "Possibly many times will I require payment."
"Possibly many times will I thunk your—ouch!"
So they tussled and wrestled and bounced around the courtyard, but through it all Maltese had an odd feeling, as if this were some sort of play-act and not real. As if he were pretending to have fun with his young brother. Which was wrong… he was having fun… but always, always his mind was focused on the more pressing problem: Where was his mate? Why had she not arrived?
Worse: What if she never came for him?
Best to stop fretting about it. Best to put his mind to other things, like being of service to his good king and he-who-would-someday-rule. Best to stop twitching and moaning like a kitten in heat and remember his responsibilities.
Faugh. Best to take a bath. Perhaps being clean would help his head—how did Lois put it?—"get clear."
He bumped into Sierr on the way to the bathing chambers, and she smiled at him but, at his request from many sunrounds back, did not lower to one knee or drop her gaze. "Good rising, my prince," she murmured, her sky-purple eyes tip-tilted and warm. "Require you some assistance this day?"
"No, Sierr. Be on your way."
"My prince," she said as he made his way past her. Though the hallway was more than wide enough to accommodate both of them, she brushed his shoulder as he passed and he smiled to himself. It would have been distracting and nice to have waterfun with the comely Sierr; she had rolled in his sheets before.
But with his unruly thoughts all knotted up as they were today—as they had been for some time—he could not give her the attention she deserved.
Besides, she—she was not who he was looking for. He thought. He did not know what he was looking for. Or, for that matter, what he thought. Not for the first time, he envied Damon, whose charming princess had dropped almost literally into his lap.
In a rare show of events, he was the only one in the bathing chambers. Well, it was early, most people had work to be about. He did, too, i' truth be told. It wasn't worthy of him to sulk 'mongst the beriblooms and wish he were mated. He would wash quickly, and leave.
He stripped off his robe and stepped into the warm, fragrant water. He picked up a beribloom, crushed it in his fist, and began to work the lather across his shoulders and down his stomach. He heard a low sound, something like thrumm-mmmmmmm , and looked up, surprised.
He was even more surprised when the thrumming—a sound he had never before heard—got louder, and a bright gold circle of light suddenly appeared and spread wide, almost as wide as the bathing chamber. Maltese threw up a soapy forearm to shield his gaze, and as such almost missed the small form who fell through the circle of light and hit the water with a loud splash.
Just as suddenly, the noise cut off and the circle shrank down upon itself and disappeared with a whoosh. All that was left of recent events was the phantom circle imprinted on his eyes—it was everywhere he looked, and even now fading—and of course, the creature who had fallen through.
He waded to where it had fallen, stuck his arm into the water, and hauled it up as it sputtered and cursed.
Her. Hauled her up as she sputtered and cursed.
"Hello!" he cried joyfully. "I am Maltese." He hugged her to him. "I am so happy to see you!"
His response was a stinging slap on the side of his face.
"Lieutenant Anne Sanger, Women's Army Corps, zero three three six two four eight nine one two." Ann smacked the guy again. He was so big, and so, er, hard, and weirdly slippery, that her slaps slid off him.
"Lieutenant Anne Sanger, Women's Army Corps, zero three three six two four eight nine one two, get your damn hands off me ."
Obligingly, he dropped her. Instantly the water closed over her head, and she flailed about until she reached the surface. Her mind was trying to process too many things at once. The room, big and open and airy. The water, an odd color and an even odder smell… not bad, not remotely bad, but different.
And the man. Big. Muscle-bound. Blond, with storm-gray eyes. And what was with that long hair? It was down to his shoulders, the color of gold and shadows, and weirdly, it didn't seem out of place. It should have; a man with hair like that would have had to fight out of any saloon he was dumb enough to walk into. But instead it went with the tanned skin and the big white flashing teeth and the intense gray eyes. It looked good. It looked right .
"Lieutenant Anne Sanger," she said again… she expected to say it many times, per her training. It had been one class out of many: What to Do If You Are Captured. Preceding it had been: How to Break Down an Army Carbine. "Women's Army Corps, zero three three six two four eight nine one two."