A Universal Union, Book One

By Jenni Debbage <jdse08662@blueyonder.co.uk>

Rated PG-13

Submitted October 1999

Summary: Nineteen-year-old Lois Lane, a student at Metropolis U., is asked by a young man who calls himself Kal-El of the planet Krypton to journey with him across space and become his wife. When Lois accepts and travels to the distant planet, she finds a society at once modern and old-fashioned — and, of course, plenty of danger and excitement.

***

Chapter One

The Meeting

Lois Lane was feeling atypically frightened. With hindsight, she wondered why she had ever allowed herself to be entrapped in this highly vulnerable position. Lois was a wholly independent, liberated young woman of the eighties who had been taking care of her own decisions since her parents had participated in a particularly messy divorce when she was 14 years old. At the time she had felt totally abandoned as her mother had found solace in a mixture of alcohol and nerve pills and her father had immersed himself firstly in his profession as a doctor and secondly in his predilection for pretty young assistants, which Lois reflected was the cause of her parents' troubles at the outset. Had this rejection from her father, the most important male figure in her young life, had some bearing on the situation in which she was now floundering?

Everything in her nineteen-year-old life had seemed to be progressing famously. Lois loved writing and had wanted to be an investigative reporter from the time she had first written an article exposing an exam cheating ring among her fellow students at her junior high school. That piece had brought her derision from some of her more guilty classmates but also high praise from her English teacher who had gone on to encourage her in her ambitions. The dedicated young girl had worked hard at her grades and coupled with her obvious talents her efforts were rewarded when she won a prestigious scholarship to Metropolis University's School of Journalism (one of the best in the entire country). And only a few weeks previously, she had been the recipient of the 'Lex Luthor Award for Excellence,' an accolade which was awarded personally each year to the pupil most likely to succeed in their chosen field. Since the honours banquet, when Lois had been introduced to her patron, Lex Luthor had shown an unusual interest in the beautiful student and Lois in turn had been intrigued by the highly successful man.

Lex Luthor was perhaps the most powerful man in Metropolis, he was most definitely the richest, and furthermore his empire was swiftly aspiring to be the largest in the U S. Whatever the reasons Lois found herself vaguely attracted to the handsome and charming older man. Certainly she was flattered by his complimentary attention and he had always proved himself to be a gentleman. That was until this evening. Possibly, by accepting his invitation to an intimate dinner Lois had sent him the wrong signals, or maybe it was just the large amount of wine which he had consumed over dinner that was causing him to act like a complete moron.

At first Lois had felt able to control the situation and had explained hurriedly that, though flattered by his attention, she did not view Lex as a sexual partner. In fact, she was much too engrossed in her studywork to have time for any form of romantic relationship. This information had caused him some amusement and clearly had the opposite effect than the one she had wished by giving him the added incentive of the predatory male hunter.

That she was unequivocally his prey became apparent when, on attempting to take her leave, she had found the doors of his luxurious stretch-limo firmly locked against her. Now his deceptively strong hands were pressing her back into the soft leather of the seat as his mouth trailed wet kisses down her neck towards the edge of her low-cut black dress, apparel which she had chosen especially to appear older and more sophisticated, a choice that she was now regretting.

Lois struggled desperately against her seducer but to no avail. She considered calling for help to the chauffeur, who sat immobile in the driver's seat, but she knew instinctively by the concentrated way the man was ignoring what was happening in the back of the limo that he had been in this position before and that he would turn a blind eye to his employer's rape of his female companion. Because rape it was most likely to be as Lois heard the shoe-lace straps of her evening dress rip as the garment was torn away from her body, leaving only her lacy silk bodysuit, which was destined to follow her dress in the crazed man's pursuit of his desires.

Suddenly Lois felt a cool breeze drift over her exposed skin, though in her dazed state it took her some seconds to assimilate the fact that the car door had been wrenched open. An anxious face appeared momentarily in the opening, before her attacker was pulled bodily off her and dragged out onto the roadway. Lex, taking a minute or two to regain his bearings as he switched from attack to defence, was no match for the athletic young man who confronted him. Nevertheless, he attempted to put up a fight, an exceedingly short one and was soon lying unconscious on the grass by the roadside. His driver, who also it seemed doubled as his minder, came around the car to face the unknown rescuer and ended seconds later in a heap beside his boss.

The young man, instantly dismissing his fallen opponents from his mind, stretched a gentle hand inside of the vehicle and enquired solicitously into Lois' state of health. Gratefully, she took the proffered hand and holding her torn frock closely to her body she accepted the stranger's aid to exit the limo. She surveyed the two bodies lying on the ground with a dawning look of horror.

"Don't worry," her knight informed her. "They are not permanently damaged, just knocked out, though both will have very bad headaches when they awake."

Lois didn't much care what state her tormentors were in, but she was relieved that they weren't dead. Killing Lex Luthor might cause the young man a great deal of trouble with the authorities. Lois turned her attention back to the stranger as he spoke to her again.

"Are you all right? He hasn't hurt you?"

Striving to calm the young man's concerns Lois assured him of her well-being. "I'm fine. A little shaken and a whole lot humiliated, but other than that I'm fine."

Dark searching eyes were turned on Lois. "You have absolutely no reason to feel ashamed. It is that monster who is solely responsible for your predicament and believe me if I were on K…" He hesitated for a moment then continued. "If I were at home, I would make him pay for your suffering."

Though surprised by his intensity, Lois did not doubt the truth of his words. Who was this young man? The two turned away from the scene and the girl tried to study her rescuer's face as, with her knight errant close by her side, she began walking in the direction of her dorm. On closer inspection she realised that he was not such a stranger as she had supposed. In fact, she had noticed him about the campus quite frequently in the last few days, accompanied always by two other young men who appeared, by the way they shadowed him, to act as his bodyguards. These same men she noticed now on the edge of her peripheral vision, tracking their charge as they continued on their way across the park.

To be honest, Lois had taken an unnatural interest in the stranger since she had come to the conclusion, as she surreptitiously surveyed him, that he in turn was watching her. It was weird, but she did not find this circumstance disconcerting or even annoying. She came to look for his observance and felt slightly bereft when he was not about. On the few occasions when she had caught his glance, he did not look away but instead offered her a friendly smile which she found impossible not to return.

And he was very good-looking, with his gleaming dark hair and his warm chocolate-brown eyes and a smile that rivalled the early summer sunshine. Lois frequently had found her eyes roaming over every inch of his well sculpted body. He was constantly attired in unrelieved black, but the colour only added definition to an already beautifully defined body.

Squinting a glance at him from behind the curtain of her silky fall of chestnut hair she offered an embarrassed thank you. "I haven't thanked you for your assistance. I don't like to think of what might have happened had you not been there."

The thought of her probable plight made her shiver and on seeing this the young man placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but he did not let it linger for fear that she would feel further threatened after her ordeal. However his words were comforting. "I would never let anything bad happen to you, Lois."

For a moment she basked in complete contentment, enjoying the unusual experience of feeling cherished. Then it dawned on her that this stranger knew her name, even although she was certain they had never been introduced. "Who are you? And how do you know my name?"

"I know a great deal about you. And I want you to know all about me, but my explanation may be long and incredible." A frown wrinkled his forehead as he pondered a private dilemma, then clearly deciding to risk everything, he reached out a hand to stop her continued forward momentum. "Will you come with me and allow me to tell you my story? I promise you that you will be completely safe."

His hand dropped from her arm but still remained stretched out to her. Lois couldn't believe the fact that her hand seemingly of its own violation slipped inside his. Moments later, to her complete amazement her feet were lifted from the ground and she was flying, held gently in the stranger's embrace, above the tops of the trees of the campus towards the river. It was a very short flight and when they alighted by the doors of an old abandoned warehouse down at the Metropolis docks, Lois was so bemused that she felt she must certainly be dreaming. However, the grating noise of the rusty doors as they slid aside sounded very real, but the sight that met her eyes as she was ushered inside was of nothing that had any origin on Earth.

A large glowing orb filled her vision and as she was propelled towards the ethereal object it appeared to enclose her and she found herself standing inside a solid interior made of silver metal which contained chairs and tables fashioned of the same material.

"Oh my lord," Lois whispered gaspingly. "I'm inside a space ship and I've just been rescued by E T."

"If you are asking if I am an extra-terrestrial, then the answer is yes. I am not of Earth."

"Who are you?" Lois asked breathlessly.

"I am Lord Kal-El of the house of El and when I return home I will ascend the throne of Krypton."

"K… Krypton?! Is that a country?" It never once crossed Lois' mind to disbelieve his words.

The young man smiled at her shy questioning. "No. Krypton is a planet. It is far from your world, on the other side of this galaxy."

"And you can travel all the way here?"

"Yes. My people are a very advanced race. There is much we can do that here on Earth is only thought of in science-fiction. For instance we have discovered how to travel many times faster than the speed of light. Our artificial-intelligence systems are far more advanced than those on your world. In medicine we have eradicated some terrible diseases and learned to control others. We have not conquered old age and death and we would not wish to. Down that path lies stagnation. Wisdom comes with age and the old must always give way to the young. However, we have extended our life span a little and our old people live healthy lives. My race is also telepathic, but again we are encouraged to use our voices. None of our physical attributes should be ignored and in some the voice is an extraordinary gift. My planet is very beautiful and the seasons are kind to us. Yet for all that Kryptonians are not as selfless or content as they should be. We too have our Lex Luthors."

Lois nodded, listening intently to all he had to say and trying desperately to understand. Somehow she knew that it was very important that she learn all she could about this far-off world and the young man who was destined to be its leader.

"And you will be Krypton's king?"

"King is not a word in our vocabulary, I will be named as First Lord of Krypton, but the role is the same."

"Is your father the… First Lord…?" Lois' questioning tailed away as she realised that if the answer to this particular question was yes then it probably meant that her new friend's father had passed away.

"No, my uncle holds that position for the moment, but he and his wife never had any children. My poor aunt suffered a number of miscarriages which must have been very sad for her and it couldn't have helped when the Council suggested that my uncle dissolve the marriage. But Uncle Zor would have none of it; he loved his wife and having travelled all the way to Zircon to win her, he wasn't about to give her up for anything. According to Uncle that was a very dangerous journey, a great deal more fraught than the one that brought me here to Earth, although this was a much longer trip, Earth is not being attacked by the marauders from Taurus…"

Lois eyes widened, scepticism at this strange story at last beginning to creep into her mind. For the moment, in confusion and anger, she had forgotten the mode of transport used to arrive at this destination. "Taurus!! That's one of the star signs in the Zodiac and I don't really believe in Astrology either. Just who are you and what game are you playing?"

Kal didn't appear angered by her sarcasm. Actually he was prepared for it. Lois' reaction to his revelation had been much better than he had hoped for. It wasn't surprising that she should have some doubts. After all, it wasn't every day that a girl was almost raped by her escort and rescued by an alien from outer-space and was about to receive(though this she didn't realise yet) her first proposal of marriage.

Glaring in concentration at two metal chairs that sat close beside each other, Kal blinked his eyes and Lois almost jumped out of her skin as soft colourful cushions appeared on the furniture, making them seem a whole lot more inviting. Oh, my lord! Who was this man?! Lois allowed herself to be led to the now-comfortable chairs and, as her legs were threatening to shake, she sank gratefully into the pillows. Kal settled himself next to her and when he spoke his voice was level and comforting.

"Indeed, you are correct. The Earth's astronomical signs were named for star constellations by a people who lived long ago and were more mythological and superstitious than the Earthlings of today. Who knows, perhaps they were visited by early space travellers and that's where the names originate."

Kal's explanation struck a chord with Lois as she remembered that there were those on Earth who believed that their world had been visited by extra-terrestrials in the dim and distant past. There were hundreds of novels written on just this subject, claiming proof for such strange claims.

"After all there were many star systems so much older than ours, which have unfortunately perished with age." Her new friend continued with his reasoning. "As a matter of fact, some of our chroniclers deem that Krypton was peopled by these travellers many eons ago when they were forced to abandon their homes due to some such natural cataclysm. And that theory would explain why our planet has advanced so quickly, relatively speaking."

Lois couldn't argue with something she knew absolutely nothing about and so she chose to abandon this line of enquiry as another more pressing question came to mind.

"Do all Kryptonians fly?" She didn't recall Kal mentioning this attribute when he was relating the story of his planet. She noticed that it brought a wistful smile to his face.

"I'm afraid not, Lois. Even I can't fly back at home." He sounded disappointed about this lack. "It seems that Earth's yellow sun and weaker gravity gives us powers that we do not possess on Krypton and flying sadly is one of these abilities. I've really enjoyed being able to fly."

A sense of sorrow too overcame Lois as she asked her next question. "Are you going home soon?" A lump formed in Lois' throat and she closed her eyes to hide her tears as she anticipated the answer.

"Quite soon now, I believe. You see my quest here is almost complete." Kal's voice was soft and held a slight quiver. This was the moment of truth and his happiness for the rest of his life depended on the next few moments.

"Why did you come here?" Lois' small voice enquired.

Staring into the deep brown eyes that regarded him so soulfully, Kal-El's breathing almost stopped and when he spoke his voice shook with emotion. "To find you."

***

Chapter Two

The Proposal

Lois blinked once and then her eyes opened wide. She started to speak but no sound left her mouth. Blinking twice she tried again. "Excuse me!?"

Taking hold of her trembling hands, Kal was at least relieved that she didn't draw them from his grasp. "I'm sure hearing that must be quite a shock and I will explain, if you let me…" He remained as quiet and calm as his speedily beating heart would allow as he awaited her permission to continue. She acquiesced with a small nod of her head. Kal needed no other encouragement. "As I told you, my Uncle had no direct heir, so when I was born he named me as his successor. I have an older sister, but under our law only males can succeed to the position of First Lord. Since I was a child I have known that one day I would rule Krypton and I have been raised to fill my responsibilities. One of these is to marry and provide an heir for my world. And so I have been searching for someone I could share my life with… a soulmate, as it were."

Lois was entranced by the tale. It was like the fairytales that she had read as a little girl. "And you have been travelling around the galaxy looking for this girl?"

"No! I came straight here to Earth. My choice was already made some years ago."

"When?" Lois could not forbear to ask.

"I think it was the day you fell and cut your knee when you were roller-skating, I believe that is the term used by Earthlings. Anyway you started to cry and your mother heard you and came outside. The poor woman must have been ill, because she wasn't too steady on her feet and I have to say that she wasn't very sympathetic, because she told you that you only had yourself to blame because you weren't wearing your protective pads. I remember, you stopped crying and stuck your little chin in the air and carried on practising until you had mastered the sport. I thought that you were very brave and determined and you must have been about twelve years old."

"You saw that?!" Lois asked wonderingly. Kal simply nodded. "Well, don't feel too sorry for my mother because she wasn't ill, she was just drunk. It happened a lot back then when she and my dad were splitting up."

"She must have been very unhappy." Kal still defended the woman.

"I suppose so," Lois muttered grudgingly. "But she made us all miserable too."

"I'm sorry, Lois. I realise you didn't have a very happy time growing up. But now your destiny lies in your hands."

"Yes and you don't know how much I struggled to gain my independence."

"But I do! I told you that I know a great deal about you…"

This statement caught Lois' attention and slowly she understood what Kal-El was trying to tell her. "Have you been spying on me? And how can you do that? And why would you do that?" Lois' voice began to rise an octave or two.

Taking a deep breath Kal began his explanation. He understood that he had to get this right or his dream of sharing his life with Lois would be shattered. "Yes, I have been watching you occasionally, though I have tried not to be invasive. I can do that because our scientists and protection services have probe satellites scattered throughout the galaxy. As to the reason why… I have loved you, Lois, from the moment I saw you. I was only thirteen, yet my feelings have never changed and I would be honoured if you would be my wife."

Lois was aghast. "How can you love me? You don't even know me…"

"Lois, I told you that…"

"No!! You've been spying on me. That's not the same as knowing someone."

The agitated young woman jumped up from her seat and began pacing, wringing her hands together as she strode back and forward. From his chair Kal-El watched in trepidation. Quietly he added a few words. "Well, it feels like I know you. And admit it Lois, you feel that too…"

But Lois was not prepared to be placated… not yet. "NO!! You don't know how I feel." She swung round to face him. "And what happens now? Do you kidnap me? Do you carry me off back to Krypton?"

"NO!!" This time it was Kal who cried in shock, standing to look at her directly. "You are free to go anytime you wish."

"Oh yeah," Lois took another few turns about the space ship studying the walls closely. "And how do I get out of here? You may not notice but there is no door."

"Why would you need a door? If you want to leave, just walk through the wall."

"Through the wall?!" Lois sounded disbelieving and then she remembered her entry. "Of course, through the wall." Strangely though, Lois did not avail herself of this piece of knowledge. Instead she bore down on the object of her wrath. "And what would your fine, highly advanced Kryptonians think of your Neanderthal Earthling wife?"

"They would be very happy to greet you."

This simple snippet of information had the effect of silencing Lois and for a few minutes silence reigned in the small craft, the only sound that of two fast beating hearts. Lois stared at the young man before her and then took two further paces about the room, ending back where she started in front of Kal-El.

"But why would you come all this way for me? Aren't there any suitable girls back on Krypton?"

"I'm not allowed to marry a Kryptonian, even if I wished to, which I don't. I want to marry you."

"Why can't you marry a Kryptonian?" Lois sensed a story in this and she was desperate for anything that would give her time to think.

"That's quite a long story, Lois. Are you sure you want to hear it?" Kal-El was attempting to keep the hope that was beginning to grow in his heart from spilling into his voice. The fact that Lois had not already run away was surely a good sign.

Meanwhile Lois had reseated herself and she patted the chair next to her to indicate that Kal-El should sit down. "Please tell me. I should like to understand."

Kal-El did as he was bid and made himself comfortable on the chair by Lois' side. "Over two hundred years ago, life on my planet was not so peaceful as it is now. There was a ruler and there was a council but there were also great divisions between the noble houses. The House of El was still the foremost royal line but because of marriages between the noble families there were many who claimed that they also had a right to the throne and when the First Lord died leaving no direct heir the scene was set for a horrific contest. A number of claimants put themselves forward, but finally there were only two who were prepared to dispute the throne; the rightful head of the House of El and the supposed heir, Lord Rad-Nor, who did have royal blood within his veins due to his grandfather's marriage to a daughter of the House of El. The aristocracy divided between the two factions and a civil war began that was to last thirty bitter years, killing off many innocent Kryptonians and almost destroying the planet. Finally a new son of the House of El arose and he turned the tide in favour of the ancient line. The people, tired of war and destruction, saw him as their saviour and they rallied behind him and in one last cataclysmic battle the House of Nor was finally defeated. Young Lord Kal-El was duly invested with the title and position of First Lord," here Kal blushed at the mention of his namesake, "and, united at last, the nobles and the people of Krypton began to rebuild their lives and their homes. But when peace and prosperity were restored, the High Council passed a decree which stated that the First Lord must never again marry into the noble houses of Krypton, for this gave too much power to these nobles. From that day forward the First Lady has been chosen from other worlds."

Lois remained quiet as she pondered these words. At last she found her voice. "And this is why you chose me?"

"Only in so far as I knew that I would marry an off-worlder. My preference was always for someone from Earth. Ever since I was a small boy my interest has been caught up in the happenings of your world. Did you know that Earth is considered as Krypton's sister planet? It's why I speak your language so well. Our people have a gift for languages but English, being the prevalent tongue of your world, is taught to all our children." Kal-El stopped speaking and searched Lois' face for some sign of how she was reacting to his words, but all he could discern was a slight interest for his story. He cleared his throat and began again, holding her gaze with his own. "But all that faded from my mind. From the first moment I saw you I knew my search was over. I wanted no other. Lois, I can't explain it… but whenever I set eyes on you… I knew that we were meant to be together." Their eyes remained locked on each other as each acknowledged the truth behind his words. "But I know how much you are shocked by all this and I appreciate that for you it has all happened so fast and that you have no frame of reference. I only ask that you think on what I have told you before you make any decision. However, I must warn you, if you agree to come with me then our lives will not be ordinary or easy, but they will most certainly not be dull. I can promise you though that I will love and cherish you till the day I die."

"Kal, you cannot think that I would seriously consider your proposal?"

A small smile curled his lips at the edges and his eyes began to crinkle. "Yes, Lois. I do." And as his bright smile grew wider, Lois found herself returning the grin. "Admit it, Lois. You are seriously considering my proposal."

Lois was about to contradict that statement when truth won out. "Oh my god! I think I must be going crazy. You're an alien! And you're asking me to go into outer space! That could be dangerous for me…"

"Lois," he interrupted, "I would never put you in danger. Believe me, you will be quite safe."

"But how can you know that. No Earth person has ever travelled through deep space before… have they? Have any of your people ever been here before?"

"No, Lois. You will be the first Earthling on Krypton. But you will be quite safe. Kryptonians have been travelling in space for aeons and never come to any harm and we are human beings too. Kryptonians and Earthlings are 99.75% the same and we are physiologically compatible, all our scientists agree on that. Krypton's atmosphere is slightly denser and you may need to take medication until you become acclimatised. You will certainly need to use sunblock when you are out of doors in the beginning, but since it will be winter when we return, the risk of sunburn will be minimal. Believe me, Lois, Krypton cannot cause you serious hurt. No-one back home would have agreed to my coming here if that were so."

"Hm-mmm." Lois considered this for a few seconds, intrigued by the information. "What's different about the .25%?" Her question seemed to have disconcerted Kal and he would not meet her eyes. "Perhaps we could talk about that later. You haven't given me an answer yet."

His prevarication alerted Lois. There was something here she was determined to discover. You didn't try to distract Lois Lane when she was in pursuit of information and if they were going to have a life together then he had best start learning a few things about her now. Oh my, she *was* seriously considering his proposal. "And I won't. At least not until you tell me what it is you're trying to hide."

Reading the resolve in her face, but with his heart daring to hope, he decided to come clean. "It's only a very small difference. It really doesn't affect you and me, but…"

"Go on, Kal." Her voice was soft but insistent.

"It's a blood thing. The difference I mean. Earthlings and Kryptonians have different blood groups. You have a similar thing on Earth sometimes. I think your physicians refer to it as the Rhesus syndrome and our differing blood types will cause much the same reaction. Kryptonian doctors are already working on the problem. They have tapped into Earth medical files for advice…"

"They can do that?" Lois was amazed.

"Yes. They use their combined telepathy boosted by our artificial intelligence machines. Anyway, they are quite confident that they can solve this problem. All they need is a little blood from you and from me and they can formulate a serum that will correct the problem."

"Who will need this serum, Kal?"

For a few moments it seemed that the young man would not answer, then steeling himself he went on. "Our children."

"Children! Our children!"

"Yes, Lois. There must be children. It is the duty of the ruling couple to provide an heir for Krypton."

"But your uncle couldn't."

"No. But then he had a brother who could provide an heir. I only have two sisters and the succession cannot pass through the distaff side of the family."

Lois digested this piece of information before replying. "What if I can't give you a child?" Her voice was very low and due only to the powers that he had developed here on Earth could he make out her words. "Would you put me away like the council asked of your uncle?" "Never, Lois." Kal was quick to reassure her. "Besides it won't be a problem. Since my aunt and uncle's dilemma the scientists have made infertility a priority and many childless couples have recently been helped to have a family. And I'm perfectly healthy and according to your medical files you don't seem to have a problem."

"Your doctors have already checked me out?" It was a question she already knew the answer to. "But I've never tried to have a baby. In fact I've never…" Here she felt her cheeks blush with embarrassment. "I've never before…"

"I know, Lois. You've never… neither have I. We're both … virgins."

"We are?!" Somehow Lois had thought that a prince, he must be a prince, even if that wasn't the actual term that was used, would have access to anything he wanted; mistresses, concubines, whatever they were called on his planet. "Haven't you ever… slept with…made love with anyone? I would have thought that a young man in your position would have had lots of offers… Listen to me! This is really none of my concern. You don't have to answer."

"But this is your concern. And you're right, without sounding too vain I have had many opportunities. Yet they just didn't seem right. Growing up, Lois, for me you have always been *the one*. I saved myself for you. I wanted us to learn together. Was that wrong?"

"No!" This time it was Lois' turn to reassure and in her haste she forgot her earlier prevarication. "No, I'm glad that we will learn together."

The glow that burned in Kal's eyes left Lois in no doubt that he was looking forward to this particular schooling, yet slowly the soft brown eyes darkened with a troubled shadow. For a long moment he held her gaze with his own, then his eyelids fluttered down and his voice when he spoke had lost its enthusiasm. "Lois, I'm sorry. I never meant to bombard you with all this in one night. I had planned to ask you out on a date. I believe that this is what normally occurs here on Earth when a couple is courting." Here he was interrupted by a startled giggle from his hoped for intended. "Excuse me, did I say something wrong?"

"Oh no! But 'courting' is an old expression. I haven't heard that one in years. It's sorta sweet though and you are courting me."

"All in one night it would seem. So many things have happened to you this night and it's unfair of me to expect you to accept my proposal without some time to think it through…"

"No, Kal. That's not necessary…"

Gentle fingers closed Lois' lips as Kal insisted. "Yes it is, sweetheart. If I were to carry you off now without a chance for you to reconsider, away from my influence, someday you might come to regret your quick decision and that would break both our hearts. I never want to hurt you and that is why I'm taking you back home." At Lois attempt to object he hurriedly went on. "Please, Lois, trust me on this. Your life will be changed forever. Take some time alone to think about what you really want. I promise I will not disappear. When you have an answer that you can be sure of, I will be waiting."

***

Lois had been flown back to the campus and, after alighting in the stand of trees behind her dormitory block, Kal had walked with her to the entrance like any other young man escorting his date safely home. The two body guards remained in the shadows, ever watchful of their precious charge. Who knew, perhaps Lex Luthor and his man were still on the campus waiting to serve retribution on their earlier attacker, but the area was quiet and empty. Luthor and his minder had obviously slunk off into the dark.

By the doorway the two young people said goodnight, Kal silently asking for and being given permission to kiss his love. Very gently Kal caressed Lois' lips with his own, almost afraid to use this physical contact to affect her judgment in his favour. However, when Lois leaned into his embrace, the young man was unable to resist deepening the kiss and for the first time in her nineteen years Lois felt her knees grow weak. Thankfully, Kal's arms remained around her, holding her upright until she had regained her equilibrium. With a last lingering touch of his fingers tenderly brushing her cheek, he released her. Then Kal was gone, striding towards his friends and the cover of the darkness to launch himself into the night sky, leaving Lois alone to her deliberations.

Once in the safety of her room, it was perfectly clear to Lois by the tumultuous thoughts that chased themselves round and round in her brain, that she would get little sleep this night. Had she really almost said yes to Kal-El's proposal? He was a stranger… from a strange world. How could she agree to go with him?

And yet when she was with him, when she had looked into his beautiful eyes she had felt so sure of her answer. But now, back in the familiar reality of her room, listening to the sounds of her room-mate breathing softly as she slept, she wondered if insanity ran in her family. Perhaps, she had dreamt the whole thing? But no, that wasn't possible. Hadn't Karen, her room-mate, pounced on her immediately she had set foot in the door, demanding to know how her date with Lex had gone, eagerly insisting on details, details that she had not felt comfortable about relating and so she had airily dismissed the queries, much to her friend's disappointment. But then it followed that if her date with Luthor was a reality then so was her rescue.

She did not wish to dwell on the Luthor problem, mainly because her heart and head were filled with pictures of the monumental events that had followed. However, she could no longer ignore the fact that she had repulsed one of the most influential men in Metropolis, possibly the *most powerful* man in the city and that he had been totally vanquished in the process. Somehow she knew that Lex Luthor would not take humiliation well. Would he try to take revenge on those who had laid him low? Of course, Luthor could never prevail against Kal, besides, her rescuer would no longer be here on Earth. Did that mean that she would become the vengeful man's target? Or would he attempt to pursue his seduction? Neither scenario found favour with Lois and that was assuming that she turned down Kal-El's proposal and decided to remain on Earth; to remain on Earth and continue with the life she had mapped out for herself.

But that would mean she would never again see her love; never lose herself in those lovely eyes; never bask in the brilliance of his smile; never feel his strong arms hold her close against his heart or drown in the sensations that his kiss had evoked in her. These terrible thoughts plunged her into deep despair. Boy! She really was in love with this phenomenal stranger. Stranger! Her heart cried out against that title. From the first moment, when she had placed her hand in his as he had drawn her from the limo, perhaps even from the moment she had first become aware of his presence on campus, she had felt she had known him. She was certainly more comfortable in his company than in any other she had ever known. Walking into his arms she had experienced the overwhelming impression of coming home. Yet in accepting his proposal she would be turning her back on her home, her world. Could she do that? Was it fair of Kal-El to expect her so to do?

Be fair, Lois, she chided herself. Wasn't that the very reason that Kal-El had brought her back to her dorm? She had been on the verge of giving him her consent but her young lover had sensed her unease and had insisted that she spend some time alone. In his unselfish wish that she be content with her choice, he had given her time to think through her momentous decision and all it meant to her future.

Think, Lois, think. You're a potential journalist, use the skills that you've acquired to help you make a considered choice. Your family, can you leave them behind… forever? Her father was probably not an issue; she had never been close to him, had in fact disapproved of him for many of her growing years. And he had certainly disapproved of her; firstly she was not the son he had so much desired and secondly she had not followed him in his career, the one path which might have lead to a closer understanding between them. Now they hardly ever met and when they did they were decidedly ill at ease in each other's company. Sadly, she would not miss her father overmuch.

Then there was her mother; through the years she had shed many tears over the lack of her mother's attention. It wasn't that Ellen Lane didn't love her daughter. Lois was sure that somewhere in the unhappy woman's heart there was love for her children but she was so wrapped up in her own problems and addictions that her daughters had somehow faded into the background. Yes, it would be hard to leave her mother, but she had to admit, she had long ago learned to live without her mother's care.

Which brought her to Lucy and here tears slowly filled her eyes. Long ago they had aided and comforted each other as they struggled to come to terms with their parents' battling. Over the years, while Lois had built a wall around her inner self to enable her to cope with her dysfunctional family, Lucy had hidden herself away from the feuding. In the end, whenever she felt old enough to face life on her own, she had run as far and as fast as she could from the source of her unhappiness, abandoning even her one friend, her sister. Occasionally, Lois would receive a phone call or perhaps a letter from her wayward sibling, but there was now little contact between the two. This circumstance saddened Lois, but was an extremely slim chance of reconciliation with Lucy enough reason for turning her back on happiness?

Because Lois could no longer ignore her feelings; true happiness for her lay with Kal-El. Not complete happiness. No! There would be too much of herself left behind on Earth; her family and her friends, though there was no one who was really close; her ambition to be an independent journalist and this was probably the hardest dream to abandon. Only a clear picture kept repeating in her mind, of an older Lois, editor of a top world newspaper (perhaps The Daily Planet) at the height of her career, going home at night to a lonely apartment, feeding her fish and watching silly romantic soaps and missing every day the love of her life… her soulmate.

And what would her life be like on Krypton? Her mind seemed to become a blank page when she considered that. To be honest, she really had no idea. Kal had tried to paint a picture for her but though her heart had absorbed every word her brain had trouble assimilating the facts. From what he had told her, she would find it difficult to adjust to the traditions of Krypton. Well, maybe the Kryptonians would find it difficult to adjust to her. And maybe a blank page was not a bad thing. She and Kal-El could write the story of their shared lives… together.

That was the important point; they would be together. Whichever way that Lois looked at the choice she had to make, if she were totally frank with herself, there really was no choice at all. Her heart had spoken and her heart from now until the day she died belonged to Kal-El.

Still she couldn't sleep. She was filled with excitement and expectancy and fear too. Lois Lane admitting that she was afraid had to mean something. Kal-El had turned her life upside down and this Earth woman had every intention of returning the favour on Krypton. Grinning in anticipation, Lois Lane went off to pack.

***

It was much later than Lois had anticipated when she was finally ready to return to the warehouse in the docks. Sleep had finally claimed her with the rising sun and she had remained comatose, as only the mentally exhausted can, for many long hours. The room was quiet and dim when she finally struggled back to consciousness in the midafternoon. Karen had obviously decided to leave Lois to rest and gone off to her classes. Thank goodness she had the presence of mind to kick her bulging back pack under her bed. If her friend had spotted that, she might have found herself rudely awakened and facing an unanswerable interrogation.

In the beginning Lois had been tempted to pack up all her belongings, but the realization that most of her clothes would not be suitable for wear on Krypton had given her pause. Finally she had determined to take with her only a few essentials and her most treasured possessions; the few pieces of jewellery given to her by her father at various birthdays and Christmases; her grandmother's needlework pillow; the teddy bear that Joe, her high school boyfriend, had won her at the summer fair; the dress her mother had bought her for her graduation day and Lucy's too few letters. All in all a meagre treasure trove for nineteen years of living, Lois reflected. That done she had laid down on her bed to rest and, more exhausted by the night's happenings than she was willing to admit, she had fallen into a dreamless sleep.

Yet she had awakened in a positive frame of mind. She would go to Kal tonight and tell him that she accepted his proposal. That being so, this might be her last day on Earth and she had some goodbyes to make. Her first plan had been to leave letters for her family and room-mate, but what could she say… sorry, but I'm leaving…don't worry about me… I'm only running away to outer space with a glorious extra-terrestrial. They would think she was crazy and have her committed. Of course, they would have to find her first. A weak laugh escaped Lois as tears clouded her eyes. Leaving would be difficult but staying behind was impossible.

Sometime during her soul searching Lois had finally admitted that she loved her family, even though none of them were any good at family relationships. Nevertheless, she was not oblivious to the fact that her disappearance would upset them, she just didn't now how to ameliorate their pain. In the end she had settled for a phone call to each of her parents and sister and, thankfully, the gods had been kind, because she had managed to contact each one. In Lucy's case she had dug through her letters and dialled the most current number and though the girl had moved on she had been given a forwarding address and phone number which had proved to be correct.

Strangely these last conversations had been warmer, more friendly than was normal. Perhaps she, knowing that this was the last time she would speak with them, was kinder, less judgmental than previously. Whatever the cause, Lois was grateful for the closer connection.

When there was no more to be done, Lois took a last walk around the campus that had been her home for the last year, lingering in her most favourite places. She had spotted Karen and a number of her friends as they had spilled from the college buildings at the end of the day's classes, yet she had chosen not to join them. Saying goodbye in person would be too painful. Karen would find the solitary letter she had left behind, telling her friend farewell and assuring her that wherever Lois went she would be well and happy.

With a wistful smile and a determined squaring of her shoulders, Lois hoisted her heavy back pack into a more comfortable position and headed for the taxi rank. Once inside the cab, she gave the address of the unused warehouse. If the taxi driver thought her destination a strange one for a bright young college girl, he forbore to mention it and during the ride he kept up an inconsequential conversation with the pretty student with tears in her eyes.

And now the orb and her future lay before her as she stood amongst the debris of the long abandoned building. She had an uncomfortable desire to turn and flee, but the thought of the smile that would light Kal's eyes when she told him of her decision lifted her failing spirits. During the night, Lois had acknowledged the fact that her decision would cause her grief no matter which option she chose. This was no time to renege on her resolution. Seizing her courage in a firm grip Lois entered the craft.

***

Kal-El was sitting alone by what clearly on Earth would be termed a desk, reading from screeds of computer-printout. At first, he was unaware of her entrance, so she took a chance to surreptitiously study her future husband. He was even more handsome than she remembered, but his beauty was not only physical. In the short time she had known him she had come to realize that Kal-El possessed that most precious of gifts, a beautiful soul.

Unable to contain her Cheshire Cat grin at her review of his physical attractions, Lois announced her presence by voicing a sudden concern. "You know you really should do something about security. Anybody could just walk through those walls."

At the sound of her voice Kal jumped in surprise but an answering smile brightened his face and set his eyes twinkling. "Hi, Lois." He stood as he greeted her, attempting to hide his eagerness and keep the conversation light. In no way did he mean to press her for an answer. "That's not possible. Since your visit last night the craft is programmed to recognise your aura and allow you entrance. Besides, the ship is also cloaked. No one but the crew and yourself can actually see it."

Lois gaped in awe at the technology that could manufacture a selective cloaking facility, but decided that a conversation about Kryptonian scientific accomplishments was not what she had in mind. Crossing the room, she enquired on a more personal level.

"Whatcha doing, Kal?"

Sensing Lois' skittishness, Kal was content to let her set the pace. "Homework," he indicated the papers he held with an airy wave of his hand. "Reading up on your country's constitution."

"Light reading, huh?" She now stood by his side and not willing to yet meet his eyes, Lois concentrated on the reading matter before her. A gasp of laughter escaped her lips, quickly stifled at his startled glance. "Your mind not on the job, flyboy? Or is this another Kryptonian skill, reading things upside down?"

Kal looked down at the papers and slowly he joined in her laughter, both finding escape from their stressful twenty-four hours in nonsensical camaraderie. When eventually their giggles stilled they found themselves standing so close together their bodies were almost touching. The moment of truth had arrived. As Kal's glance alighted on the overstuffed bag that Lois had dropped by the wall on entry, he dared to hope.

"Then, your answer is yes?" The trepidation in Kal-El's voice was evident and the longing in his gaze held her spellbound for a moment in time. Then stretching out his hands to her he whispered, "Will you marry me?"

Lois found that her hands, with a will of their own, sought out his and were soon taken in a gentle yet strong clasp and pulled against his chest. Through the black silk of his tunic she could feel his heart beating erratically. Her own heartbeat echoed his as instinctively she moved into his embrace and returning his earnest gaze she heard her determined reply.

"Yes!" The moment she voiced her thoughts she knew that she meant them with all her heart. Soulmates instinctively recognised each other. Seeing the awe that held him mesmerised she thought that he might not have understood, so she reiterated her answer. "Yes, I will marry you and I will go with you, anywhere you shall go I shall go." And Lois echoed that long ago text from the Bible.

She was caught up in his arms and pulled hard against his muscled chest. His lips sought hers and after first tentatively brushing her lips, his mouth claimed hers in a kiss that threatened to steal away her very breath. Long moments later the two broke the kiss recalling that they needed to breathe but they still clung to each other for support. Lois was aware that if she left the shelter of the strong arms that surrounded her she might collapse onto the floor. Thankfully Kal showed no intention of letting her loose. Instead he picked her up and carried her back to the chairs, which seemed to have conveniently metamorphosed into a two-seater couch, much more comfortable for holding each other like this. For a long moment Lois and Kal held each other close, contented just to enjoy this time when they had chosen to be together for the rest of their lives.

It was a momentous occasion, especially for Lois. She had made a decision that would alter her life beyond anything she had ever planned, anything she had ever considered possible. Until last night her ambition had been to make her way in the journalistic field; to be the best reporter that she could and to hopefully win a Pulitzer prize one day. And now she was throwing it all away for an unknown life on another world. The life of First Lady and all that might entail. And all because she had fallen under the spell of a pair of melting brown eyes and the face and body of the Adonis that went with them. Before meeting Kal, she had poured scorn on her friends who had desired nothing more in life than to find a husband and start a family and yet here she was happily shedding all her ambitions for much the same concept. Even after her night of intense deliberation she was still not sure how this could have happened to Lois Lane, the most liberated of women.

Lois' ambivalent feelings were etched clearly on her face as Kal watched the play of emotions chase their way across her lovely features. She had said yes, but obviously she had some lingering doubts. This didn't shock him, as he was asking her to give up everything that she was familiar with for a life on a far-off world, linked to that of a stranger. Kal understood that although Lois' heart had recognised him as her life mate, her mind was still having reservations.

He chose to try to soothe her troubled unspoken meanderings. He always would place Lois' well-being above his own, even if it meant that he might lose her. Cupping her face tenderly with his hand he raised her face to his and began quietly, "Lois, I know that I expect a great deal of you and I thank you for placing your trust in me, but I feel that it's only fair if I explain to you what our life together will be like." When she had given him her full attention he proceeded a little more forcefully. "As I have said, you and I will be expected to have children and especially a son, as only a boy can inherit the leadership. Which means that if at first we produce girls then we have to keep trying for a male. Fortunately, our researchers are working on ways to aid in the reproduction of a certain gender, so hopefully you will not have to go on endlessly producing babies. As to the rest; you will be expected to be my consort and help me in the rule of my people, to comfort me and to strengthen me to do my duty." These last words were stilted as though they had been repeated to him many times in his past. "And I hope that you will find none of these requirements a burden, but I do understand that you want more from your life than to simply be a wife and mother. The next part of my explanation is what *I* want from our marriage and is something that we may have to keep to ourselves until my rule is established. I have tried to describe a little of the lifestyle on my world and I know that you are intuitive enough to have realized that life for women on Krypton is not as liberated as on Earth. Women on my planet are valued, but only as wives, mothers or sisters and any man treating a lady with disrespect will be severely disciplined. However, watching you here on Earth, I have long since concluded that, relegating females into their customary roles as we do on Krypton, we are sadly losing out on so much talent and potential and with your help I intend to change all of that. It won't be easy, Lois. There will be those who will be suspicious of change and will seek to resist it. That is why we will have to wait until the people have accepted our rule and have learned to trust us before we can begin to introduce reform. But on this I am determined. Will you help me, Lois?"

The fact that Kal-El had begun to talk of 'us' and 'we' was music to Lois' ears. She had begun to think that her life as his wife would be just the sort of marriage that she abhorred. Now he had thrown her a challenge; a chance to bring some of the best of Earth's culture to a planet so far away. Lois Lane could never resist a challenge, with her eyes sparkling she raised her hand to his cheek and gently stroked her fingers across his lips and when a kiss was pressed to their tips she leaned up and whispered almost against his mouth.

"With all my heart." Then sealed her affirmation with a kiss.

***

Chapter Three

The Odyssey

At the outset of their voyage, Lois had been delighted to discover that the flimsy-seeming orb craft had only been a shuttle and that once they had left Earth's atmosphere they had transferred to a much larger and solid-looking space cruiser. Lois had been mesmerized and saddened to watch the small blue planet, which had been her home, recede in the ship's vast windows and she had been grateful for the comfort of Kal's strong arms. He had said little but simply held her close as she sobbed her heart out in an unexpected attack of homesickness. Later, when the spacecraft's powerful engines had powered up and there had been little to see but shards of technicolour lights arrowing passed the view ports as they flew at hyperlight speed across the galaxy, she had allowed him to lead her away. Yet, easing her heavy heart, she carried his whispered promise.

"Someday, Lois, I will take you back."

***

The journey had lasted longer than Lois had supposed and yet when she considered the many thousands of light years she had been told they would travel before reaching their destination, the odyssey took no time at all. But given the fact that the Earth woman was a fraction nervous of her landfall on her future home, Lois could have wished their trip to last a good deal longer.

The couple had taken the interim time to explore their blossoming relationship by teaching each other of their respective worlds. That Lois should wish to accumulate all the knowledge of Krypton that she possibly could was understandable, but she was surprised that Kal should also be keen to listen to her tales of Earth; after all, they had left that world behind and Kal had already acquired a great deal of data on her old home. The fact that Earth was her home and so was instrumental in moulding her into the woman she was today was reason enough for Kal to avidly listen to all she had to tell him of her formative years.

On a wider level, he was also interested to learn at first hand the role of a maturing female in Earth's more autonomous society. Although Kal understood that his people's more formal and reserved personalities could never totally adapt to the chaotic democracies of Earth, he hoped, in time, to introduce a number of customs from Lois' home. Kryptonian society was based on a meld of tradition, logic and a strict adherence to the laws set by the ruler and his council, all tempered by a innate belief in honour and fair play.

Kal-El might be the most important person on Krypton but with that privilege came an overwhelming sense of responsibility for those under his rule and he would never for one moment consider shirking that responsibility nor would he expect his council or the lesser nobles to renege on their duty to care for those who came under their jurisdiction. That there were certain lords who lacked his commitment to care for his subjects both angered and saddened the heir apparent, but thankfully they were in the minority. In the future the young leader hoped to hold these ignominious aristocrats accountable for their mistakes and, in the worst cases, their crimes. But he would have to go carefully. Many of these renegade lords were from powerful and established houses and would look unkindly on any interference in their territories from a young and novice First Lord. Kal would always remember his father's watchword; caution, on a long journey take small steps.

It was strange that foremost amongst, what Kal considered, his opposition was the House of Nor, ancient enemy of the Els and that they should be led by an unscrupulous and ambitious peacock who went by the name of Rad-Nor. Once again Kal-El and Rad-Nor were in confrontation, almost as if history were repeating itself and Kal could only pray that the disastrous outcome of the past would not take place in the future. All of these hopes and fears the worried young man confided to his lover and helpmeet as they journeyed towards their destiny.

And yet their voyage did not completely consist of learning and serious discussion. There was much joy in experiencing their burgeoning feelings for each other both emotionally and physically. As each became familiar with the touch of hands and lips, they discovered a shared passion that had in the past only existed for them in dreams. These all-consuming desires excited and inspired them, yet the intensity of their feelings scared them a little too and so both Lois and Kal were content to wait until they were pronounced husband and wife before crossing completely the intimacy threshold.

Meanwhile, Lois took advantage of the time to meet and interact with the ship's company, the only members of her new world available to her for the moment. In this undertaking her evolving skills as a journalist were put to good use. She found that she had a talent for encouraging people to talk to her and for finding out specific facts of their position amongst the ship's crew and more importantly about their families back on Krypton. Apart from the senior officers on board most of the crew were young and, as to be expected on a ship which travelled into the outer reaches of space, adventurous. Lois found them to be, on the whole, highly competent and more earnest in nature than the youth of Earth and yet as she came to know them better she discovered in some a gentle and droll sense of humour. In fact, the closer in acquaintance she became to her new people she uncovered many of the same traits that belonged to Earth humans and, as on her home planet, she found those she liked above others.

One particular young man found favour with Lois. He had been one of Kal's bodyguards when she had first noticed the strange trio in the university campus. She had discovered that his name was Ching, that he was a lieutenant in the Kryptonian Security Forces and assigned to guard his young lord with his life. This task he was happy and honoured to do as, only a few years older than Kal and a son of an imperial service family, the two had grown up together and their bond was deep. The other of Kal's shadows was named Poli and though his term of duty had only begun at the outset of this voyage, he was as committed to the care of Kal as his partner but went about his duties in a more light-hearted manner than the serious-minded Ching.

Now, because of the obvious joy that Kal found with Lois, the well-trained protectors ungrudgingly extended their care to this beautiful young Earth woman and if at first their motives had been purely to please their lord, they soon found themselves captivated by this unique girl. Somewhat shocked in the beginning by Lois' forthright and independent manner, qualities not normally appreciated in a woman on Krypton, they were soon won over by her integrity and courage. And if Kal's fears for their home planet were ever to regretfully materialize then the first lady might require all of these attributes.

And so the getting to know you process continued for both Lois and the Kryptonians as the ship sped through the endless tracts of space. At such a phenomenal speed the Earth woman was at first surprised that they did not crash into the myriad planets and stars that swept by them on their journey. However, it was explained to her that their course was set at the outset of the voyage avoiding all charted objects and that collisions with chance meteorites and space debris were prevented by the projected force field that protected the craft.

Lois, soaking up this new information, was reminded again of her TV viewing of such sci-fi programmes as Star Trek and the blockbuster movies in the Star Wars series. But this was not science fiction, this was reality and the amazed girl frequently was tempted to pinch herself to check that she wasn't dreaming.

***

Yet all journeys end and landfall was fast approaching as Lois paced back and forth across her room. The quarters assigned to her had been small, space being at a premium on such a craft, yet very comfortable. Besides, they were further enhanced by being situated next door to Kal-El's domicile with thankfully an adjoining door. Kal's cabin was slightly bigger than her own, but it was more lavishly furnished and unlike many of the other quarters it had its own bathroom which he generously shared with his future bride.

During the time spent aboard, Lois had worn a similar uniform to the crew, though instead of the logo of the craft in which she travelled, the shield of the house of El had proudly adorned her suits. But for her introduction into the society with which she was to spend the rest of her life, she was gowned as the first lady. Her dress of electric blue clung to her body until it dropped below her waist, then spread out in yards of swishing silk to reach the floor. A simple necklace of pale blue gem stones circled her neck and she wore tiny matching earrings, while a scatter of the same gems nestled in her hair. She was dressed to suit her role and she felt very grand if a little self-conscious. Strangely though, she had been given no shoes and she sincerely hoped the weather of Krypton would be mild as the dress would afford her little protection. Just as she mused over this fact, the adjoining doors slipped open and Kal wandered through, his arms full of a swathe of dark blue material.

"Here, Lois, slip these on. You'll freeze to death if you go out like that." As he spoke he unfurled a cloak of heavy velvet and crossed to drape it over her slight shoulders. When the cloak was in place, it was revealed that he also held blue soft leather boots and gloves which would cover much of her bare arms. Once she pulled on boots and gloves she discovered that both these accessories and the cloak were lined with something that felt very warm and…furry.

Lois was horrified. "Kal, I can't wear these. They're fur." She explained when he looked puzzled at her unexpected outburst.

"Fake fur, Lois." He explained patiently. "Earth is not the only planet that believes in conservation. Or to be more exact, cloned fur. It's an exact copy of the real thing but that material has never touched an animal. It was grown in a test tube."

"Grown?… In a test tube?" Lois was intrigued.

"Yes. Many things on Krypton are produced that way and though I would love to indulge in a scientific discourse, unfortunately we don't have the time." Kal extended a hand to Lois. "The ship is on its final descent and we should land momentarily. Our family and friends are waiting to greet us. Are you ready for this, Lois?" He asked concern showing clearly in his soft brown eyes.

The answer to that was that Lois was terrified, but she wasn't prepared to indulge her fears. Always an achiever and an independent spirit, she bore a despised pity for those who dwelt on their fears and thus magnified them. Lois believed in facing her devils, so she stuck her little chin in the air and placing a hand on Kal's proffered arm the couple prepared to face the welcoming committee.

***

Chapter Four

The Homecoming

Lois Lane, Earth woman and space traveller, stood bravely by the large doors of the space craft, waiting for the moment when she would first set eyes on the world that would be her home. Unconsciously the hand that rested in the grasp of Lord Kal-El, heir to this great planet, shook slightly and the young woman was grateful for the answering touch she received from her betrothed as he gently placed his free hand over their clasped fingers. Looking up into his eyes, she met encouragement and understanding and his conspiratorial grin revived her somewhat fainting spirit.

Her mind ranged over the names of those she was about to meet, hoping that busying herself with a specific task would halt her wildly cascading thoughts. As she started to put speculative faces to the names she remembered, her flight of fancy was interrupted by the swish of the wide portal opening before her and, with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety, she viewed the vista that was revealed.

Even the lionhearted Lois was disconcerted by the scene that awaited her. The ship had landed in a very, very large hangar, where row upon row of various types of space craft were docked in ever continuing lines. One end of this giant barn like structure was open to an expanse of cloudy rust tinted sky where the ship had entered and thereafter floated a few feet above the floor between the rows of other craft until it had reached its specified docking bay. If Lois had doubted that the world to which she came was a highly advanced civilisation, the sight of these shining streamlined ships dispelled any scepticism that lingered in her mind. None of the other craft that filled this enormous building, however, could compare in size and grandeur to the vessel in which she had arrived. But then, she reasoned that the people of this planet would entrust their precious heir to nothing but the very best.

As the disembarkation ramp was lowered to the floor of this monstrous space port Kal-El with Lois on his arm took his place at the head of the crew's senior officers and, walking down through the ranks of military personnel, he made his way to the welcoming committee.

Unfortunately for Lois this group of people stood someway off on a raised dias and she prayed as she walked by Kal's side that no one would hear the knocking of her knees. Perhaps the clash of highly polished boots colliding together, as the serried ranks of soldiers snapped to attention at the couple's passing, drowned out the feeble clacking of her bones. Behind the lines of the military personnel, Lois could see other overall-clad men standing in less organized lines. Perhaps these were the civilian work force and her eyes opened in shock as she watched these men drop to one knee and bow their heads in greeting.

Oh my, did they still do that sort of thing on this planet? Judging by the gleaming metal surrounding her she was evidently on a futuristic world and yet she had a strange feeling of having been transported to the middle ages. In time, Lois would learn that this was indeed true; Krypton would always be, in Lois' eyes, a much loved mass of contradictions.

Too soon her musings were dispelled by their arrival at the foot of the small flight of steps leading up to the platform that held the high and mighty of Krypton and here she was again surprised when Kal bowed low to the old gentleman who stood at the head of the group. Not wishing to appear irreverent and much to her own amazement, Lois too bobbed a quick curtsey, for which she received a courteous nod from the watching man and, if Lois were not mistaken, a conspiratorial wink from a twinkling eye.

As Kal straightened up he quickly mounted the steps till he stood before Zor-El, First Lord of Krypton and clasping his hands together almost in a gesture of prayer he placed them within his uncle's grasp. The illustrious leader of Krypton beamed proudly on his handsome nephew. Kal was such a good boy, so bright and brave. Without him Krypton had seemed a much drearier place.

"Welcome home, Kal." The older man's voice was filled with warmth. "It is good to have you back with us. You have been missed." At these last words, Zor-El's eyes slid over to a woman who stood a little to his left.

Kal's gaze followed that of his uncle and when it came to rest on this particular lady his chocolate brown eyes softened and a tender smile touched his lips. Standing below, a faint echo of jealousy stirred in Lois' heart as she witnessed this silent exchange. She had come to believe that special look was reserved only for her. Happily, however, as she studied the woman carefully, she realized that this lady, though beautiful, was many years older than her fiancee. The lady was small and slim yet she carried herself with a regal air, which at the moment was softened by a lovely smile… a smile that was so like that of her son. The realization that this was very probably Lara, her future mother-in-law, dispelled all traces of jealousy from Lois' mind. Kal quickly crossed to his mother and repeated the gesture he had first made with his uncle only this time their hands held tight to each other for some moments before Kal released his clasp and turning to the tall man by Lara's side offered his hands again.

"Greetings, Father, Mother. It is good to be back with you again. I hope that you are well." The words were formal, but the feelings behind them were sincere.

"Indeed, we are, my son." Lara blinked back a few tears as she spoke. This public meeting was no place for her to show the deep emotions she was feeling at the return of her beloved son. Their true welcome could take place later in the privacy of their home.

Lois had felt a smidgen abandoned while she waited alone by the stairs and to hold her loneliness at bay, she had employed her reporter's instincts and viewed the unfolding scene as if she were taking notes for a covering story. Disappointingly Lord Zor-El was not at all how Lois had imagined a great leader would look, assuming of course that there was a 'look' for world rulers. He was tall, a few inches taller than Kal, but more slender than seemed healthy, and his skin was pale. Short dark hair streaked with grey topped a narrow face which was heavily lined. Were these lines, deeply sculpted on Zor's face, due to the weighty responsibilities of his position? All in all Lois had the impression of a care worn individual and yet this perception was dispelled by a pair of intelligent, sparkling eyes. Eyes which were now turned in her direction and Lois became uncomfortably aware that the said gentleman was returning her scrutiny, an amused smile dancing on his lips.

"Kal, my boy, I believe you are remiss in your duties," Zor's laughing tone belied the scolding words. "This young lady will be thinking that Kryptonians are an ill-mannered race."

The young lord blushed a rosy pink, but he hurried to amend his blunder, whispering an apology to his future bride as he escorted her to his waiting family.

"Forgive me, Lord Zor," Kal's head dipped a little at his words yet, leading Lois forward, his firm chin lifted and he declared with pride. "May I present Ms Lois Lane of the planet Earth." Kal raised Lois' hand and placed it in the palm of his uncle's outstretched hand, but Lois forestalled his action and with careful deliberation she imitated what she concluded must be the Kryptonian equivalent of a handshake.

Zor's aristocratic eyebrows rose in appreciation. "I am honoured to meet you, Ms Lois Lane of Earth." The words were delivered in clear cultured English while the older man's face crinkled with smiles. Immediately Lois reviewed her earlier assumption; some of these facial creases might be laughter lines. "As First Lord of this planet I welcome you on behalf of my family and my people." Lois' hands were still retained by Zor's long fingers. "I hope that your journey was a pleasant one."

"Thank you, sir. I was looked after very well." Lois found that her frayed nerves were steadying under his fatherly approval. "Space travel was definitely a new experience, but I liked it…it was…interesting… exciting." His smile was contagious and she returned his grin brightly.

"Yes, I too find it most exhilarating and it is far too long since I ventured into space. Perhaps when I retire I can indulge my pleasure in journeying. I know my wife Rochelle would dearly love to visit her home again."

As he talked Zor included the lady by his side in the conversation and Lois turned her attention to Krypton's First Lady. If Zor-El's appearance had surprised Lois, the diminutive figure who stepped forward astounded her; Lady Rochelle was a plump grey haired lady with an unremarkable yet kind face. At the moment she was smiling gently on the young couple and particularly on her nephew. Devoid of the comfort of children of her own, she had lavished all her motherly care on this young man.

"So, dear Kal, your quest was successful?" The lady's voice was low. "My, she is so pretty. It's all right to say that, Kal, isn't it?" And she turned anxiously to her nephew.

"Why don't you ask, Lois, Aunt Rochelle," Kal suggested kindly.

But here Lois elected to speak for herself. "It's kind of you to say so, my lady." She was spouting dialogue like a heroine in one of those historical romance novels, which she never admitted to reading, and she fought an untimely urge to giggle. This was so bizarre.

Meantime the tiny lady had enveloped her nephew and his bride-to-be in a joint hug which took Lois by surprise having learnt during the voyage of the Kryptonians' lack of demonstrative behaviour. Yet here was the most prominent female in the land showing openly her somewhat sentimental joy at Kal's return. Even his mother had forborne to touch him beyond that first formal greeting.

Attuned to Lois' reaction, Lady Rochelle whispered confidentially, "Don't mind me, child, I'm Zirconian." Then, as if that was the only explanation necessary, she continued as loudly as her gentle voice would allow. "I too bid you welcome to our world, Lois Lane, and hope that in the years ahead Krypton brings you as much joy as it has me." And a silvery tinkling laugh accompanied her greeting. Why then did Lois suspect she heard the unspoken words… and sorrow?

Fortunately for Lois' equanimity, she was distracted from her disquieting notion by the approach of Kal's parents, coming forward to make their introductions. Lara was the first to offer her greeting.

"I am most happy to have you here with us, Lois Lane. I am Lara, Kal's mother." While she spoke, she offered the Earth girl her praying hands and Lois was quick to give the customary response. "I know well how deeply distressed my son would have been had you chosen to remain on Earth."

The words were said kindly but the look Lois received was one of appraisal. Apparently, as far as her future mother-in-law was concerned, the jury was still out on whether Kal's choice had been a wise one. Well, Lois could sympathise with the woman's concerns. She had a few of her own. It didn't take a degree in psychology to discern that there were many undercurrents drifting around in this family.

A deep melodic voice was enquiring into her well-being and Lois shook herself free of her worrying thoughts, there would be time to examine them later.

"How do you do, Ms Lane? I believe that is the correct greeting given on Earth." The gentleman who escorted Lara now addressed Lois in a friendly manner. "My name is Jor-El and I look forward to getting to know you."

At last, a hello that seemed free of hidden nuances and Lois responded with a grateful if somewhat tremulous smile. Ironically the men in this family offered her an unconditional welcome. Therefore, Lois was not surprised by Zor-El's thoughtful suggestion.

"Kal-El, I'm sure that your betrothed must be feeling a little stunned by the size of her reception committee, not to mention a mite exhausted by her extended journey in space. Besides, I'm growing a little uncomfortable myself, standing around in this draughty hall. I propose that the rest of the family introductions take place at home and that the council and court can wait until the morrow." Zor indicated the curious courtiers that huddled on the dias behind the royal house of Krypton, each striving to gain an advantage point on the cramped podium. "Let's all go home."

A rolling hum of disgruntled voices met their Lord's pronouncement. The assembled nobles had been eager to assess the new bride. Now it seemed that their journeys through the inclement weather had not been necessary. At least they had all caught a glimpse of the girl and it was a general consensus that she was exceedingly lovely, though some opinions were more grudging than others.

A certain number of the noble council and lords of Krypton were concerned at the choice of an Earth woman. According to the archived history of that far-off planet the race was a particularly tempestuous and aggressive one. Of course, their own history was not without its wars and revolutions, but they had moved far beyond the disruptive behaviour that led to such confrontations. So was it wise to introduce a member of a race, who had difficulty suppressing their passion, into the calm tranquillity of their beloved home?

The more truthful lords and ladies might admit that there were still some Kryptonians whose civility was only a thin veneer. Furthermore, there were many who believed that one small woman could have little effect on the lives of a content and stable society. Happily for their own continued peace of mind they did not yet know Ms Lois Lane.

Much in the majority amidst the noble classes, however, were those in whose opinion Earth was the sister world of Krypton, if a century or so behind on the evolutionary scale. It was this group of loyal El supporters who had approved Kal's proposal and had persuaded or cajoled the doubters not to veto Lois Lane as the heir apparent's bride. Yet even amongst this championing group disappointment was rife as the nobles had wished to extend their support to the young stranger.

And so for some minutes dissension was given free reign in the cold echoing confines of the spaceport until as one the frail old ruler and his vigorous young heir turned their gazes upon the complaining crowd. For the first time Lois witnessed the control that these two men held over this planet and people, as silence fell like a smothering blanket over the gathered aristocracy. Lois didn't really approve of such absolute power and yet watching its use was awesome.

Satisfied that his will would prevail Zor-El redirected his attention to the young couple. "Kal, my boy, why don't you escort your Aunt Rochelle to the transporters. She's been looking forward to hearing of your adventures off world. I will accompany your betrothed and she and I will continue to become acquainted."

Lois didn't wholly approve either of this cavalier distribution of her person, yet she had a strong suspicion that this was neither the time nor the place to exert her modern woman liberated tendencies, so she accepted Zor's proffered arm and allowed herself to be led in the direction of the exit.

"It really is perplexing, Lois Lane, that in a society as advanced as we profess to be, that we could not build a spaceport that caters a little more for our creature comforts. When I viewed the holograms Kal relayed back home, I noticed, with some envy I must confess, that your 'airports', I believe that was what they were called, were remarkably comfortable places, with shops and eating places and… *seats*."

Lois would scarcely have described these busy overcrowded buildings back home as comfortable but she refrained from spoiling the old man's image. Besides, an unexpected surge of home sickness prevented her from decrying anything associated with Earth. Zor-El's inconsequential chatter continued and Lois wondered if perhaps this astute man had sensed her mood and was giving her time to compose herself.

"Of course, we lofty Kryptonians are supposed to prefer intellectual comfort above our physical well-being, which if you don't mind my saying so is… 'crap'…"

A startled gasp from Lois interrupted my Lord's diatribe. His mobile eyebrows rose. "What?! Did I say that wrong? And I was hoping that I could make you feel at home with my use of your language. How like an old man to put his foot in his mouth when trying to impress a pretty young lady."

"No! Oh no!" Lois hurried to explain. "Your terminology was correct, very apt and very colourful. I just didn't expect to hear something like that from …"

"From the illustrious ruler of Krypton." Zor-El suggested. "You're in good company, my dear, neither would my council. They would think I'd lost my mind and would probably have me committed, as I think they would say on your world."

"Your command of English is excellent, sir."

"It is?!" At his young companion's nod a happy grin spread across Zor's face, transforming his long-suffering mien of earlier. "Kal and I used to study the language together when he was a boy. We have always shared a keen interest in your home planet and like all Kryptonians we learnt the most common language, although I was always afraid that we might be too formal, especially since our first studies were Shakespeare and a number of English poets. Those were the books chosen by Kal-El's tutors, but I felt that they weren't right…too old and outdated, though the content of some of Shakespeare's plays was a mite risque; girls dressing up as boys; murder most foul and unseemly relationships. I decreed that they weren't particularly suitable for a growing boy, so we tuned in, via satellite, to some of your TV channels instead. I remember a particular show that we enjoyed… now let me see… what was it called…?" His brow furrowed in thought for a moment then his eyes brightened. "Yes, I remember. It was called 'Star Trek', a tale of Earthlings venturing into space, to boldly go where no man has gone before. We liked that one."

A picture of the adolescent Kal and the regal Zor avidly switching on each week to watch a US sci-fi production lifted Lois' lowering mood and the irony that this particular member of a highly intellectual race should consider a light entertainment programme more suitable than the classics was interesting and strangely comforting. Perhaps these people were not so different from those she had left behind.

As the small hand that rested on his arm relaxed, the wise old man smiled secretly. His strategy was successful, the child had lost her startled fawn look and the slender shoulders had squared. Lois Lane's fighting spirit had returned and she was ready to face whatever this new home had to offer her.

Earth-made TV programmes were not the only satellite broadcasts that Zor-El had watched with his nephew. Very quickly he had become aware of the boy's fascination with the spunky American girl and he had monitored the transmissions carefully, mainly because he didn't wish Kal's interest to focus on someone who would be quite unsuitable. In time, as he watched the girl grow into a lovely young woman, the wily ruler had concluded that the feisty, tenacious Lois Lane was just what was required on his world.

Krypton had become too sanitised, its citizens too pragmatic and dispassionate and increasingly self-satisfied. What was needed was a catalyst that would rekindle the fire that had once burned so brightly in the hearts of his people and Zor firmly believed that Lois would be perfect for the job. However, he first had to ensure that the girl's lively spirit was not worn down by the restrictions and responsibilities placed upon her by virtue of her position.

His own dear Rochelle had not been capable of withstanding the pressures and the First Lady was now a shadow of the kind, carefree, laughing girl he had brought to Krypton as his bride. Hopefully, Lois would not have the same heartbreaking problems in producing an heir as had Rochelle and Kal was made of sterner stuff than he himself had once been.

It had taken Zor many long and hard years to learn the art of leadership, listening often in the beginning to the wrong counsel and allowing self-seeking noblemen to persuade him into making too many mistaken judgements. Ominously, it now seemed that one of these past errors was returning to haunt them but this was a day of celebration and he pushed that melancholy thought aside. Through the years he had taught himself statesmanship and these unscrupulous manipulators had discovered that their generous victim had eluded them. Finally, Zor-El had taken control and appointed a less selfish council. Nonetheless, the path to reach his present altruistic governorship had been long and hard and he and his family had experienced many heartbreaks along the way.

All these lessons he had attempted to pass on to his nephew and fortunately Kal had proved to be an apt and willing pupil. Though an extremely kind and considerate youngster, Kal's friendly nature masked a strong determined will. The future Lord of Krypton would not allow himself or his lady to be bullied. And Zor had the stimulating notion that Ms Lane would be perfectly capable of standing up to the staid, stuffy council members. Life on Krypton was about to become very interesting.

The party led by Zor and Lois reached the exit at the far end of the building and, as they approached, the doors slid silently open to reveal a large concourse filled with car-size egg-shaped objects, laying horizontally on the ground. On Zor-El's arrival the first and one of the largest eggs rose into the air, pointed nose forward, and with a slight purring sound glided forward and stopped before them. Lois was reminded of the taxis rank outside Metropolis Transcontinental Rail Station, except no earthbound taxi ever resembled these streamlined hovering ovals.

"Sadly, my child, this is where I must take my leave of you for today," Zor-El addressed his youthful companion once more and Lois felt an unmistakable surge of panic at his words. This gentleman had been her guide through a new and, in some respect, bewildering experience and she was loathe to relinquish the security of his presence. Sensing her mood, Zor explained kindly. "I am sorry that our first meeting must be so brief. Kal will take you to his parents' house, Ro-Ellion, while I must return to The Palace. But, don't despair, you and Kal will visit us on the morrow, when you will be introduced to the councillors. I know, my dear, a tiresome prospect but one that I'm afraid cannot be put off any longer and afterwards there shall be a little family gathering where you and I can continue our conversation." Searching the lovely brown eyes that regarded him so candidly, he enquired hearteningly. "Shall you enjoy that prospect as much as I?"

Though the idea of a family gathering did not appeal, family gatherings never having been very pleasant in Lois' past, she hurried to assure her new friend that she too looked forward to renewing their acquaintance. "Oh yes, and you can tell me all about Kal when he was a boy. And about the…" And here Lois lowered her voice, "the councillors. There are a few who look a little… grave." Lois inserted this adjective, feeling that her first choice would not be received well.

Her words were met by a shout of laughter. "You mean tedious… and, child, in some instances your estimation is correct. However, for the most part, they are good men and I will happily direct you to the most interesting, those who I am honoured to call friends. But now I must bid you farewell." With great dignity Lord Zor-El bowed low over Lois Lane's hand, announcing to all those watching that this lady had found favour with their ruler and that she was from this day forward under his protection.

As soon as Kal had relinquished his Aunt to the care of his Uncle, the older couple stepped through the wall of the transporter and settled themselves in the comfortable interior. Three uniformed bodyguards climbed onboard and stationed themselves dutifully behind the First Lord and his Lady. Lois was surprised by the entry, though in fact she had used this same method with the Orb ship, but she was unprepared for the shell of the vehicle to become transparent whenever the occupants were inside, but she swallowed her astonishment and waved goodbye to her new friends as the transporter carried them away.

The royal transport gathered speed and was joined by two escort vehicles, taking station front and rear of the craft. Watching the small convoy disappear into the distance, Lois wondered whether the military escort was purely ceremonial; she had not forgotten Kal's disquieting words concerning a certain menacing lord.

A hand on her arm brought her back to the present and she was startled by the arrival of another transporter, clearly their own. Quickly the family of El boarded their transporter, not wishing to linger in the cold freezing fog that clung in tendrils about the courtyard of the spaceport. Ching and Poli followed closely behind and, as the purr of the engine deepened, the hovering vehicle sped off in the direction of a distant city.

Eagerly viewing the landscape of her new home from the comfort and warmth of the vehicle, Lois was entranced by the snow-clad vista. The rolling hills through which they travelled were a pristine white and the trees that marched sedately to the summits were weighed down by their frozen blanket. A strange cloudy reddish-grey sky bore down on the hill tops and tentacles of mist reached out to entrap the transporter as it travelled above the icy ground. Kal-El had mentioned that it was winter on Krypton yet somehow she had expected that on this world filled with technological wizardry, snow would be cleared away instantly. And yet as the transport was of the hovering variety it didn't much matter that the roads should be cleared. And maybe they didn't have roads anyhow. And the silent winter wonderland scenes were ethereally lovely.

The spaceport was situated a few miles from Elvar, the main city of Krypton and seat of the House of El. In this great city built on the banks of the river El, the Royal Palace, the centre of planetary government, towered above the wide streets and avenues of the town. For reasons of defence the ancient castle had been constructed many hundreds of years before on a rocky promontory overlooking the mouth of the river. Now that the planet had embraced peace defence was no longer an issue, nevertheless the impregnable walls rising from their elevated site remained a symbol of omnipotence.

Nestled below the monumental rock, the beautiful city spread out in elegant lines along the river. Spacious avenues, bordered with many fine homes belonging to the noble families of Krypton, ran parallel with the great waterway, giving each edifice a clear view of the river and the countryside beyond. Of course, these aristocrats had vast lands of their own over which they held sway yet, due to the court's presence in this city, most had built residences close to the seat of power and the longer and more consequential the lineage of the family the greater and more prestigious the mansion.

Nearby the noble dwellings of Elvar, the grand financial institutions were founded, operated by ancient banking dynasties whose influence was almost as far reaching as that of the nobles. And not to be outdone in splendour the rich merchants too had a district of their own, which vied in architectural grandeur with the older edifices.

Even the labouring classes of this city, under the benign lordship of the Els, were comfortably domiciled. These houses were considerably smaller in proportion but well constructed and were set amongst the abundant parkland that quartered Elvar. Recently the market places and artistic centres had been given a timely face lift and if there was a slum area in this city it was carefully hidden. This was a prosperous and seemingly utopian society.

And into this aesthetic setting came a citizen of Metropolis, probably one of the most untidy, dirty, seething cities that Earth had to offer and also the most exciting, thought provoking, passionate place in the galaxy. Yet, already this Metropolitan had discerned that beneath Krypton's seemingly sterile surface an emotional and greedy cauldron bubbled and roiled. And Lois was about to discover one of its sources.

***

Chapter Five

The Family of El

Being one of the oldest mansions of Elvar, surprisingly Ro-Ellion was not one of the largest houses nor was it situated close by the Palace. Ro-Ellion graced the banks of the river at the very boundary of the city, yet its remote position afforded it a privacy that the other noble homes lacked. Set at the head of a large terraced garden that sloped down to the shore, the ancient weathered stone lent a sense of permanence and strength to the family dwelling place. Now, as Lois first set eyes on her new abode in its mantle of glistening snow, it reminded her of a fairytale castle, sitting serenely amidst its winter garlands.

The transporter dropped in speed as it manoeuvred its way between an avenue of trees, their snow-laden branches dipping towards the small craft, and finally glided to a halt before a wide portico. The family alighted from the vehicle to be greeted by the heavy wooden doors swinging back and an important uniformed individual coming forward to meet them.

"Welcome home, Lord Kal-El." The man bowed low before his young lord, as did the line of similarly liveried servants (Lois assumed they would be servants) ranked behind him. "May I take the liberty of informing you that you have been missed by all at Ro-Ellion."

"Thank you, Ernst." Kal acknowledged. "It's good to be home." And his heart-stopping smile encompassed the waiting group. Slowly he turned to Lois and offered his hand to lead her forward. "My people, I should like to present to you my bride, Ms Lois Lane." His eyes softened as they beckoned her. "Lois, this is Ernst, our major-domo. He has been with us since I was a boy and without his organization the house would collapse about our heads."

This statement was not totally true as Lara was a most efficient mistress of the house but Kal's words proved how much appreciated was this long-serving retainer.

Again the old seneschal bowed low and his appreciative eyes twinkled. He too had been privy to Kal's obsession with the Earth girl and he was delighted that the young master had won his fair lady. "Welcome to Krypton, Lady Lois," Lois started at the title. This was going to take some getting used to. Meanwhile Ernst was continuing with his greeting. "And to Ro-Ellion. We have tried to anticipate your wishes and we hope you will be comfortable here, but if there is anything you need, anything that we have overlooked, please let us know and we will happily set the matter right."

There was an expectant pause and Lois realised with a slight shock that they were waiting for her to speak, something that uncharacteristically she was finding difficult to do. Get a grip, Lois , she commanded herself, you may feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, but this is no dream. This is the life you chose for yourself and the sooner you adjust to it the better. So placing a gracious smile on her face (was gracious what was required here?) she replied to the waiting major-domo and his line of servants.

"Thank you. It is very kind of you all to have gone to so much trouble. I'm sure I shall find everything I need." Lois was floundering; talking to life-long retainers was not a skill she had much use for on Earth. Was she being too informal or too standoffish? She just didn't know. She really ought to have had some etiquette training on the journey. Was there a manual available on 'How to be a First Lady'?

Her ascent into mild hysterics was halted as Kal led her down the line of house servants, introducing each of them by name as they passed. She would never remember them, there were just too many names and she panicked anew. First in line was the house keeper, Mari, followed by a handful of housemaids and footmen; next was the kitchen staff, presided over by a lofty-looking chef called Burdom and bringing up the rear the outside staff, the gardeners and handymen. Listening closely to the earthbound titles placed on each member of staff, Lois slowly realised something important and she hurriedly turned to Kal.

"They're all speaking English," she whispered.

"Yes, Mother thought that it would make you feel more at home."

"And we've all been taking a refresher course in your language. It was most enjoyable." Ernst interjected.

Tears pricked behind Lois' eyes and threatened to spill over. "Thank you all so much. It is a very kind thought and I do appreciate your efforts."

At that moment, aware that her future daughter-in-law was close to weeping and having a dislike of public displays of emotion, Lara stepped forward. "I think that some herbal tea would be nice, Ernst." Calm and serene as always the Lady of El directed her little party on into the house. "We will take tea in the garden room, Ernst." "Very good, milady. You will find Lady Zara there."

Once again, Lois allowed herself to be led away, this time through the corridors of the ancient house until they emerged into a spacious glass house burgeoning with exotic plants, reminiscent of the orchid house that Lois had once visited at Metropolis' Botanical Gardens. Riotous colour and heady scents abounded, very incongruous with the wintry white and grey scene outside the windows.

Seated amongst the foliage a slim young woman was reading from a small electronic book. Her dark hair hung like shimmering velvet to her waist and at present hid her face from view of the approaching group. However, as soon as she was alerted to their presence, she laid the book quickly aside and sprang from her chair, running to Kal's side and throwing her arms around his neck. So much for Kryptonian pragmatism. Kal's younger sister evidently was not uncomfortable with a show of feelings and neither was Kal as he hugged his sibling enthusiastically in return.

"I am so glad to see you, Kal. I was afraid that something bad might happen to you on such a long journey. Your ship might have been hit by an asteroid or attacked by the Taureans or the Earthlings might not have taken kindly to being visited by aliens. They might have locked you up in a lab and dissected you like a frog." She babbled breathlessly.

"Well, as you can see none of these terrible things occurred." Zara stood back as he spoke and checked him over to make sure that he was telling the truth. "I and all the members of the expedition returned safely."

Because Lois was watching this exchange with deep interest, she caught the meaningful look that passed between brother and sister, a look which neither of their parents seemed aware off. Had Lois stumbled across another secret? With an unconscious sigh of gratitude Zara hugged Kal's neck again and whispered an almost inaudible thank you in his ear.

"That's enough, you two," Lara's command ended the sibling's embrace. "Zara, you are a grown woman now and you really must refrain from these sentimental outbursts."

The young woman seemed rather dejected at her mother's scold but Kal was not to be so easily subdued. "What's wrong, Mama," and he used his boyhood endearment. "Are you by any chance jealous?"

A reproving frown met this demand, a frown that was speedily dispelled by a warm throaty laugh. "My son, you are incorrigible, but you are right. Come and give your mother a hug." Her arms opened wide and Kal stepped inside them, circling his arms about her waist and hugging her back.

Lois found herself letting out the breath that she had been unaware of holding inside. Memories of seeking yet not receiving an embrace from her parents had made her heart ache fleetingly for Kal-El. But there had been no need, even on this planet with its strict traditions of formality, behind closed doors this particular family yielded naturally to their feelings, a circumstance emphasised by the embrace that was now being exchanged between father and son.

"Kal, don't you think it's about time you introduced me to your betrothed?" Zara had regained her earlier high spirits and now was demanding to meet with her new sister.

And for some time the family indulged in a pleasant exchange of ideas and information, laying the foundations of what would hopefully become a strong friendship with the newest member of the family circle. Tea was brought in by the unobtrusive Ernst and after serving her family, Lara broached a more serious topic.

"I invited Keira to be here with us today, but as you see, sadly she did not deign to accept the invitation." Lara sat more upright in her chair as she divulged this piece of information.

"My love, I don't know why you troubled." Jor-El sitting close by his wife's side reached over and patted her hand consolingly. "You must have realised by now that Rad-Nor would never willingly set foot inside our door."

"I'm quite aware of that fact." Lara's voice showed some annoyance at his words. "I did, however, expect Keira to make the effort to come alone to welcome her only brother back home."

At the name of Rad-Nor, Lois' interest was alerted. Recalling the conversations, which she had with Kal on board the spacecraft, surely that was the name of the Lord who was causing the El family such worry? Now it seemed that Kal's elder sister was connected in some way to the guy.

"Mama," Kal's tone was conciliatory. "Rad-Nor wouldn't give Keira permission to travel to Elvar alone."

"And why would she need his permission? Everyone knows that their marriage is in tatters; that they lead separate lives. Why can't she visit her family?" This last question was coloured by a mother's worry over her elder daughter's unhappy life style.

Lois blanched! Keira was married to the enemy! But why hadn't Kal told her this during their talks? She didn't appreciate being left in the dark yet the conversation was proceeding so she turned her concentration to the flow of harsh words.

"Painful though it might be to admit, Lara, I believe that Keira blames us for her disastrous marriage." Jor-El's shoulders slumped at this admission. "We should never have acquiesced to the council's proposal for the marriage."

"Zor-'s too, don't forget." The mother tiger's voice was sharp with regret. "Your precious brother agreed to the alliance and how could we have withstood their joint wishes. Besides, we had no idea, back then that the boy would grow into an ogre."

"At least be honest, Mother," Kal added rather disapprovingly. "There's been bad blood in the Nor family for generations."

"If the marriage is so very bad, why does she not divorce him?"

Four shocked pairs of eyes turned on Lois. At least three of the owners of the astounded gazes had not expected any input into the conversation from that quarter. Kal, on the other hand, after the initial shock had worn off, realised that Lois interjection was inevitable.

"I'm sorry, Lois, if it seems we have been ignoring you. As you can tell this is a very emotive subject for us and I will explain… everything." He shot both parents a challenging look as he spoke but neither one offered any resistance. "But first you have to know that here on Krypton there is no divorce, unless requested by the husband and sanctioned by the council. On Krypton alliances between the noble families are often cemented by marriage of the offspring of these houses. These betrothals normally take place when the children are young but once entered into they are binding. When the children grow to adulthood the wedding ceremony takes place and the two houses are united. This is not always an ideal way for a marriage to be successful but it is the Kryptonian way and surprisingly it works in most cases. Sometimes the couples even fall in love with their arranged partners."

Kal extended his gaze to pointedly include his parents and Lois was delighted to see a faint blush stain both faces as they became aware of their son's implication. As two representatives of the foremost houses of this planet theirs was indeed an arranged marriage and both families had profited from the alliance; the Els acquired new territory and the people of Ra gained a powerful protector. Happily for the couple love too had blossomed between the beautiful highborn Lara, only child of the house of Ra and Jor the quiet, studious second son of the royal family. But though Lara and Jor had found contentment in their union, accustomed as they were to this practise, neither had considered that their daughters should not be contracted in political marriages.

"After their defeat in the civil war, which I have already told you of," Kal continued with his explanation. "The Nors retired into their heartland to nurse their wounds and rebuild their devastated country and for nearly two hundred years they remained in obscurity. Then some years before my birth the incumbent Lord petitioned the newly enthroned Zor-El and his council for permission to return to public life. Believing that the family had repented of their warring ways, the request was sanctioned and Lord Re-Nor duly took his place in the court and council. Echoes, however, of that far-off travail still lingered and in an effort to prevent a recurrence, the Nors were offered an alliance with the Els. A betrothal between Rad-Nor and Keira was arranged and in due course the wedding took place and the union was consummated." It was apparent from Kal's mulish expression that this marriage was not one he had agreed with, but no-one had taken much notice of the opinion of a twelve-year-old boy. "Unfortunately, it has not been a happy union but there is little that can be done to set things right."

In Kal's discomfiture Lois had her reason for her betrothed's omission. The adolescent Kal had been shamed by his family's compliance in the completion of his sister's marriage contract to a man he deemed completely unsuitable. Sometime in the near future she would make it plain to him that she should not be shielded from the unsavoury points of his family history. In the meantime, however, Lois was determined to discover all she could about her soon to be relations.

"So your sister is stuck in a loveless marriage?"

"I'm afraid so." Dejection filled Kal's voice at the admission.

Lois looked condemningly at the family of El sitting about her. "But that's terrible!" The guilty four refused to meet her eyes. "Kal, we have to do something about that!"

"LO-IS, NO! It is not for you to interfere in what doesn't concern you." The words were delivered like a whiplash.

Only once had she heard Kal employ this tone when on board ship he had come across a serious dereliction of duty by a lazy crew member which might have resulted in the breakdown of the spacecraft's protective shield. Back then she had understood his ire, even sympathised, but never had she expected him to turn such anger on her. Yet watching with eyes wide she realised that Kal too was taken aback by his outburst. His look of vexation was replaced by one of deep remorse and in her mind she heard his voice asking to be absolved. At once she recognized that not even his closest family was privy to Kal's future intentions to reform life on Krypton. She remembered Kal's words of warning that there would be those on Krypton who would resist reform and, having now experienced for herself a little of the turbulence behind the structured lives of this society, she had a deeper understanding for the need for secrecy. The knowledge that she alone shared his innermost plans warmed her heart and, contrary to all her former habitual responses to censure, she bestowed on him a forgiving smile.

If this exchange between the young couple perplexed the others, it was not remarked upon. Instead Jor-El interposed kindly with just a hint of censure. "Kal, it was most unmannerly of you to speak to Lois in that way. Evidently life on Earth is very different and you cannot expect Lois to adjust all at once to our ways. Indeed, it was most kind of Lois to wish to help your sister but I'm afraid that Kal is correct in this," the senior El had turned to his new daughter as he reiterated, "we can do nothing for Keira until she chooses to come to us and lodges a formal complaint to the judges about her husband."

A derisory sigh escaped from Lara. "And even then Rad-Nor would only be warned to restrain his behaviour and perhaps, if the complaint was upheld, be forced to pay a monetary penalty but the marriage would still stand." Even though Lara seemed depressed by this course of action, it was clear she was resigned to the laws of her planet and if she had read more than her husband into Lois and Kal's interaction she pushed it aside for the moment. It was much too soon to make a judgement on whether this Lois Lane would be a good influence on her son and sadly Lara acknowledged that her opinion would hold little sway with her son should she seek to delay the union.

The time for such soul searching was now over, brought to an end by the re-entry of Ernst into the room. With an apologetic cough the major-domo announced. "Beg pardon, milord, Physician Tamar has arrived. I have taken the liberty of showing him through. And may I enquire if the evening repast will be served as usual in the dining room?"

"Yes, Ernst, we will eat at the normal time and Physician Tamar will be joining us for dinner." Lara instructed.

"Very good, milady."

As he spoke, Ernst stood aside and a small man came smartly into the room. "Good greeting, Lord Jor and to you my lady." The visitor bustled around the room saying his hellos to the family and being formally introduced to the new bride. Tamar was invited to sit and for a time the conversation centred on Kal's trip to Earth until Kal announced with some apprehension.

"Lois, Tamar's visit is not purely social. We are a little concerned for your well-being and Tamar would like to examine you to make sure that your health has not suffered from the voyage."

To say that this took Lois by surprise would be an understatement, besides Lois felt extremely well if a mite tired and this she proceeded to tell her fussy fiancee. "I'm fine, really and, as I recall, you assured me back on Earth that the journey and life on Krypton would cause me no harm. Isn't it a little late to start worrying?" And she tossed the uncomfortable Kal an accusing glare.

"If I may answer your question, Lady Lois," Tamar stepped into the breach. "Kal is in some respects correct but the gravitational pressure on Krypton is stronger than that of Earth and without a little medical help it might cause you some discomfort. In time your body will adjust but that does not mean that science cannot help you along the way. And to proscribe an accurate dosage of the drug I must first carry out a medical examination."

Lois also remembered that Kal had mentioned medication but she was too alarmed to be rational. "Drug, what sort of drug?!"

The physician hid his astonishment well. Normally grand ladies did not ask so many questions. Still this child was a stranger, it was only natural for her to be cautious. "Strengthening ones," he informed his patient, but he could see that she would not be so easily put off. "They're something of the same nature as anabolic steroids, sometimes used by athletes on Earth to enhance their power and performance. However, we have removed all the nasty side effects and this medication on Krypton is given to patients to help the body fight off many crippling diseases. It is a tried and tested drug, but as you will be the first Earthling to receive it, your condition must be carefully monitored. I would be remiss in my duty was I not to do so."

Allowing herself to be assuaged, Lois continued her cross-questioning more kindly. "Are there any other surprises awaiting me health wise that I should know about?"

"Well, there is the question of the red sun…"

"Kal-El explained that one; sunblock should do the trick."

"Trick, milady?! If you mean that it will keep you safe, then yes."

Lois crossed to the windows and gazed out at the darkening sky. "But sunburn doesn't seem to be a problem for now," she smiled. "What else?!"

Caught off guard by her quick demand, Tamar stammered. "Bl… blood, Lady Lois. I need a sample of your blood."

Now they were getting to the point and Lois was none too pleased. She and Kal-El weren't married yet and already these Kryptonians were concerned with the welfare of their precious heir. "Children, right?! The serum for the children?!" Lois asked plainly aggrieved.

"Oh no, Lois!" In his haste to lessen her distress Tamar had forgotten her title. "A serum cannot be produced until the antibodies appear in your blood stream and that won't occur until after you've given birth to your first child. All that is way in the future and you mustn't concern yourself with such problems now. No, the blood sample is to enable us to clone your own blood, in case in an emergency you need a transfusion. Hopefully, it will never be needed but we store a blood sample of everyone on the planet in case of accidents."

Lois was reminded of Kal's words before they disembarked about many things being grown in test tubes, but who would have thought of manufacturing blood? Still, it did do away with the sometimes unsatisfactory donor system. I wonder what else they cloned? Presently, though, this man deserved an apology. She had jumped entirely to the wrong conclusion and the recipient of her rudeness had only been concerned for her well being. But that still didn't mean that she was comfortable with taking an examination. She disliked going to doctors and resisted visits whenever she could.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you." Her smile to Tamar was genuine. "I suppose that I'm more tired than I thought. Perhaps we could do this some other time?" "Lois," Kal's voice warned. "Tamar is a busy doctor and he has come here specifically at my request. And I think that the sooner you start taking the medication the less Krypton's gravity will affect you. It really is in your best interests."

Realising that she was being unreasonably churlish, Lois capitulated. "OK, where do we have to go?"

"We don't have to go anywhere, Lois." Kal informed with a pleased grin. "All the big houses have their own med-centres."

"And this is a particularly well equipped one too," Tamar added. "Which isn't surprising since it's owned by one of Krypton's eminent research scientists."

Jor-El blushed self consciously at this unexpected compliment while Lois stored away this further piece of information on her new kin. She rose reluctantly to her feet. She'd agreed to this exam but she still had reservations. Assistance came from an unexpected quarter.

"Lois, would it help if I accompanied you? I don't appreciate being poked and prodded myself, so if you would like some morale support I'd be happy to oblige."

At last a point of contact with the standoffish female. "Thank you, Lady Lara, I will accept your offer." Other than the fact that Lois disliked examinations in general, she was also ill at ease about giving this stranger the right to study her body. Somehow the knowledge that Lara would be close at hand was soothing.

"Please call me Lara." The Lady of El's voice was warmer than previously. " You are family and there is no need for titles between us."

***

Surprisingly, the dreaded examination was painless. Kryptonian medical science was advanced to such a degree that all Lois' vital signs were noted by a hand-held scanner and even the blood letting was executed with swift efficiency. Using the computing facilities in the medical lab, Tamar quickly calculated the correct dosage for Lois' medication and injected her with a high-velocity pressure gun which she was informed blasted the drug into her system. Delivered in this way the drug would immediately work to strengthen her metabolism against the debilitating consequences of the planet's gravity. The doctor also taught her how to operate the simple gun and whenever she felt confident Lois could take over the administration of the drug. The question of how long Lois might need this medication could not at this time be answered but in Tamar's estimation it should not be overlong.

***

The patient and her party returned to find that the evening meal was ready to be served in the dinning room and the two women joined the other members of the family and guest as everyone took their places around the long table. Lois was glad to see that Lieutenants Ching and Poli had also joined them for dinner, two more friendly faces did not go amiss.

As expected Jor and Lara sat at opposite ends of the table, but Lois was thankful that while Kal sat at his father's right hand she had been placed opposite him on Jor's left. Zara was next to her brother and Ching followed, with Physician Tamar next to Lois and Poli across from Ching. The seating arrangement seemed perfectly balanced yet being highly observant, Lois noted that Zara blushed rosily when the two servicemen slid into their places at the table. Perhaps teenage Kryptonian females were no less impressionable than their counterparts on Earth when confronted by two handsome males?

The early talk around the dinner table proved to be lighthearted and convivial but towards the end of the meal the little doctor became strikingly ill at ease. Apparently something was causing him some mortification and his discomposure began with Poli's enquiry into the whereabouts of Lord Rol-Fre, Zara's intended. In this instance, Lois was not in ignorance of the engagement. She was even aware that this young man's wayward behaviour exasperated his future brother-in-law and leader.

Meanwhile Zara was answering the question. "Lord Rol-Fre is visiting his great-grandfather who sadly is very ill and might be dying."

"Hmph," Tamar attempted to clear his throat as his face flushed brick red, embarrassed by the revelation he was about to make. "I'm afraid that's not so. Oh, the old lord is on his death bed, or so I've been told, but Lord Rol-Fre is not in attendance, a circumstance much regretted by his poor parents. On my way here from visiting a patient, I cut through that particularly seedy part of the city. Why do we need such a district?" The somewhat genteel doctor asked dejectedly. "Shouldn't we be above such practices? But I digress, I witnessed the young gentleman with some of his like-minded friends coming out of a… pleasure palace."

From Tamar's disapproving expression Lois needed no translation of what a pleasure palace might be but she was surprised to hear such a venue mentioned at this high class table.

"You mean falling out of the place," Kal remarked in scathing tones. "No doubt Rol is celebrating his inheritance prematurely."

"Kal! That is no way to speak of your future brother." Lara scolded.

"I only speak the truth, Mother. Rol-Fre is an empty-headed carouser. And I'm only amazed, after our tragic experience with Keira, that you and Father have not broken the betrothal."

"That's impossible! His family would be humiliated and a slur would be cast on the name of an ancient house." Jor-El announced in horror.

"The only slur that would be cast would be on Rol-Fre's character." Kal retorted.

"Exactly!! And the House of Fre and their allies would be pressed into the opposing camp. That would hardly be a politic move, my son, and frankly I had thought you better taught than to suggest such a thing."

"Perhaps I believe that my sister's happiness is more important than a political alliance." Kal's stubborn streak was surfacing.

So too were his mother's anxieties. "Kal, you cannot mean that. Is this irresponsible behaviour the result of associating with an Earth woman?" Lara blurted out without her usual carefulness.

"Mother!!" The look directed at Lara was as icy as the winter winds that blew over the Kryptonian landscape. "For your information, I have long considered Rol-Fre to be an unacceptable husband for Zara and I needed no prompting from Lois to arrive at that conclusion."

"Besides, never having met the man, I would hardly make such a judgement on hearsay." Lois added, aggrieved to be blamed for something for which she was not liable.

Those sitting round the table looked perplexed and gazed in every other direction than at the stranger amongst them. Finally Lara spoke up. "I'm aware that might be how matters proceed on Earth, Lois, but here on Krypton it is not a woman's place to make important judgements."

How quickly had the conversation degenerated into this unpleasant reminder of Lois' place in her new home but Kal was not prepared to abandon his fiancee.

"Nevertheless, Mother, I do value Lois' opinion and don't pretend that you have never sought to influence Father's decisions because I know better." Actually, Kal was being conciliatory here. Within the privacy of their home his strong-willed mother often overruled her mild-mannered spouse. "But to return to the point in question, I do not approve of Zara marrying another such as Rad-Nor."

"Oh no, Kal. Rol is not so bad." Zara interjected, more anxious to finish with this disquieting subject than to defend her unruly betrothed. "Capricious perhaps, a little selfish too but there's no badness in him, I swear. I'm determined to do my duty."

"Good! Then there's an end to it." Jor-El quickly interposed before Kal could continue the altercation and lead his family and guests back to less dangerous topics. The earlier bonhomie, however, had disappeared and dinner soon ended with Tamar taking his leave and the others rather stiffly bidding each other goodnight and taking themselves to bed.

***

Amazingly, the chatelaine of Ro-Ellion insisted on escorting her son's affianced bride to her bedchamber. Kal hovered protectively close to his Lois but was shooed away by his high-handed parent at the door to the apartment. Passing slowly down the passageway to his own quarters, he reflected that his love was well able to hold her own in a battle of wills with his mother yet he had hoped that the matter of Lois' emancipated past would not have risen quite so soon and that she would have found an ally in the much respected Lady of El. He resolved to have a discussion with Lara on this subject at the earliest opportunity.

Inside Lois' chamber Kal would have been surprisingly pleased by the tete-a-tete which was in progress. As the older woman closed the door on her troubled offspring she turned towards the Earth girl and immediately offered a flag of truce.

"Forgive me, Lois, for allowing a mother's anxiety to lead me into rudeness. I'm well aware that a female's role on Earth is somewhat more equal to that of their menfolk than here on Krypton. I have often viewed your home world with, I must confess, a certain amount of envy."

Lois, while not willing to relinquish her righteous pique totally, answered with good grace. "Well, the situation back home isn't quite as equal as it might seem. Some bastions of male dominance still survive, but we females keep chipping away," and here she punched the air for emphasis. "Someday soon we'll have total autonomy."

"And, believe me, I wish them well." Lara crossed to a comfortable chair by a blazing fire which warmed the room and gave off a comforting glow. Seating herself, she invited Lois to take the chair opposite. "I also am aware that Kal-El has a similar scheme in mind for Krypton and, while I support both your ideals, I must strongly advise caution. Kryptonian male bastions might prove more impregnable than those on your world and, with the balance of power being in a rather volatile state, I would beg you to go carefully. Both you and Kal must be cautious not to push those neutral lords into the opposing camp."

Intrigued by another view of current affairs, Lois forgot totally her displeasure with her future in-law and accepting Lara's offer to sit, she perched on the edge of the seat and questioned eagerly. "Are things so very bad with regards to Rad-Nor?"

A knowing smile spread over Lara's face. "I see my son has already taken you into his confidence and that's good… very good. Sometimes a wife is one's most trustworthy confidant." It was evident that the older woman was relaxing into this conversation as she settled herself deeper into the cushions of her chair. Her voice when she continued took on a conspiratorial pitch. "Sometimes I have thought that Zor's life would be so much easier if Rochelle was more conscious of the problems he faces as First Lord. Much as though I care for my good sister, I have to admit to a certain lack of strength of character in Rochelle. It may please you to learn that I have no such thoughts of you."

Lois was dumbfounded by this turn of events. Only a short time ago she had assumed sadly that she would encounter fierce opposition from Kal's mother while now she was starting to regard Lara as a future confederate.

"As for the current situation regarding my abominable son-in-law; Rad-Nor is using his attachment with our family coupled with his own ancient claim to royal blood to give himself airs far above his station. For the moment, thankfully, it is no more than that. It's my belief that he is yet unsure of his support but he is seeking to increase his power base. Then too Kal-El is a very unassuming, popular young man which ironically might prove to be a problem."

"Popularity would not be considered a problem on Earth." A dubious Lois stated in defence of her fiancÚ.

"Not if one was seeking election, no." Lara conceded. "But on this world it takes an extremely strong hand to keep the more obdurate noblemen in line and Kal's open friendliness is sometimes construed as weakness."

"A sad misconception," Lois suggested, "and one made only by those who do not know him well."

"That's true. My son, to my dismay, has at times adopted my stubborn tendencies. Happily he has also inherited Jor's gentleness and wisdom. I'm confidant that in time Kal will make a great leader for our people."

"And I intend to do all I can to support him." The promise was made solemnly.

Lara rose and crossing to the sincere young girl, placed a hand comfortingly on Lois' shoulder. "Yes, I can see now that you have the best of intentions, but please heed my advice. Nor is a monster and he has spies everywhere waiting to pounce on any untoward mistake you might make in order to discredit Kal." Relieved to see Lois nod her head in understanding, the older woman unbent further. "And if you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to scream your frustration into, please seek me out. I shall be only too happy to oblige. Between us we El women will be a match for any Nor."

Regarding the stalwart woman before her, Lois reflected that if Lara had been born on Earth the noble lady would very probably have been in the forefront of the feminist movement. Smilingly she accepted the kind offer of assistance. It comforted her to know that she had unexpectedly made such a close and influential ally and the two women bade each other goodnight with greater warmth than Lois had thought possible.

Left alone in her room, Lois took the time to survey her surroundings. The walls of the chamber were panelled with a rosy-hued wood and a large fire burned in the ornate grate, warding off the freezing winter air. Soft furnishings of ivory velvet filled the adequate space with heavy matching drapes covering the windows. A canopied bed completed the room, looking so inviting that Lois wasted no time in getting herself ready for bed and, climbing underneath the folded back quilt, she found herself yawning sleepily. Just as she slipped into a cozy state of unconsciousness, she heard Kal's anxious thoughts inside her head. With a drowsy sigh she assured him of her well-being and sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.

***

But Metropolis' once most promising investigative journalist's first twenty-four hours spent on Kryptonian soil had still another furtive disclosure to reveal. Although not quite sure what had first disturbed her slumber, the young woman was certain that someone had passed her doorway and was now standing in the hallway outside. Someone who might even be crying.

All her reporter's instincts on alert, Lois slid from the comfortable bed and, ignoring the chill of the room now that the fire had burned lower, she crossed to the door to press her ear against its heavy surface. Even through the thick wood Lois could hear the quiet hum of a whispered conversation punctuated now and again by a stifled sob. Intrigued, Lois opened the door a tiny crack, praying that she would make no sound that might warn her quarry of her eavesdropping.

The hushed murmuring seemed to emanate from the end of the passageway where a large window, stretching from floor to ceiling, let in the silvery moonlight illuminating the couple who unwisely stood before it. The pair were so preoccupied each with the other that Lois decided to take a chance and slip into the darkened corridor.

In silhouette it was difficult to discern who the two might be but is was clear to the watcher in the shadows by the way their hands clung together and by the intense gazes they exchanged that the two were experiencing some deep emotions. The female's weeping grew louder and the man's voice rose slightly in consternation.

Lois cursed as the dialogue drifted towards her. Of course, the couple were speaking in their own tongue. Yet as she continued to listen, although she could not relate to the words, she well understood the caressing tones and the passionate body language. Too afraid to move for fear of drawing their attention to herself, she stood in silent stillness to witness that which ought to have been shared only by the lovers.

"Zara, we always knew that there could never be a place for us. As a daughter of El you were always destined to marry a nobleman of the highest rank and I just don't qualify. My only wish was that your husband might have been more worthy of your hand. Kal-El is correct. Rol-Fre is a drunken buffoon who does not appreciate what he has."

"What difference does it make, Ching? If I can't have you, I care not what becomes of me."

The girl's voice was full of sadness, but the identity of the pair was no longer a mystery; Zara and Ching. A quick indrawn breath from Lois might have alerted the couple in the window to her presence had they not been so involved in each other's tumultuous feelings.

"No, Zara, please do not say so." Desperation roughened Ching's words. "I need to know that, even if we cannot be together, you will at least have some measure of contentment. I doubt I could go on if you were not somewhere on this plane of existence."

It was obvious by the crack in the man's voice that he was terribly troubled and the listening Lois vowed to herself that she would strive harder to master the language of her new home the better to understand the secrets which would affect her life and that of this family.

"Never fear, Ching. I am not so poor spirited that I will try Aunt Rochelle's method of escape." A tiny laugh of self derision escaped from Zara. "Or, who knows, perhaps I am not brave enough. I only know that I will do what my family require of me to the best of my ability. But do not expect me to be content, Ching, for only with you could I find happiness."

At this admission Ching pulled the weeping girl into his embrace and for a moment he pressed his lips to hers, tasting the salt of her tears as his mouth then traced a path across her cheek. Now Lois was left in no doubt that she was observing a lover's tryst.

"Zara, my love, if only I had the right I would promise to make you happy for all of your life."

From the contented sigh that emanated from the young woman caught up in her clandestine lover's embrace this was clearly a promise that the lieutenant could easily fulfil. Yet reality speedily overtook Zara and she pulled herself from Ching's arms.

"This is madness, Ching." Stepping back Zara showed all the resolve of the El family as she dashed at the traces of her tears with the back of her hand. "If we were caught here like this you would be severely censured and sent away to our most-distant outpost…" Her voice stilled as she contemplated such a bereavement.

"And your parents would be angry with you. I know it was wrong of me to ask you to meet me like this but I have missed you and I had to know how you were faring."

"Oh, I understand. I missed you so much too. But we can't risk discovery. I couldn't bear it if you were exiled." Determination straightened Zara's spine. "We must take care for each other and enjoy whatever friendship is permitted us. Isn't that better than nothing at all?" "I'm not sure of that anymore, Zara." The man's voice was a mere whisper.

Once more the earnest Lieutenant kissed his forbidden love, but it was a kiss of farewell to their impossible dreams. With head held high he strode of down the corridor, passing unheeding the woman hiding in the shadows.

Left alone by the window, the moon silvering her dark hair with a shimmer of light, Zara gave way to wrenching sobs that echoed the breaking of her heart. Then in a rush she too hurried past Lois, seeking the seclusion of her chamber.

In the draughty passage Lois at last acknowledged the intense cold that was seeping through her bones. Retreating to her room, she sank with gratitude into the comfortable cocoon of her bed. She reflected that, while she had been unable to follow Zara's and Ching's conversation in detail, this she was certain of; the pair were star-crossed lovers. And if there was nothing to be done to solve Keira's marital problems, she resolved to do her utmost to put an end to Zara's loveless engagement. Tomorrow she would discuss what could be done with Kal. Did Kal already know of this secret liaison? And he didn't approve of Rol-Fre. Surely he would be agreeable to a termination of the betrothal? Worrying thoughts tumbled through her mind but thankfully precious sleep came to reclaim her.

***

Chapter Six

Distinguished Lords and Ladies

Next morning, however, Lois discovered that finding some quiet time alone to spend with her fiancÚ was a hopeless wish. She had been awakened before sunrise by a chambermaid bringing her a very early cup of morning coffee. When Lois was given the welcome beverage, she expressed surprise that such a popular American drink should be served in her adopted home but the young servant quickly explained that the expedition that had accompanied Lord Kal-El to Earth had discovered all of Lois' most favourite foods and drinks and had brought them back to Krypton. The real thing, the awed girl had confessed, not your second-rate synthetic variety which in Etta's humble opinion could never match the original for quality. Of course, the chef would have to find the Kryptonian equivalent ingredients for most of the dishes but Etta seemed to think that the estimable Burdom was equal to the task. And the maid further confided in an amazed but confidant voice, which was clearly parroting the views of her superior, that the people weren't the only comparable species on the two planets, evolution having followed very similar lines on both worlds.

The girl's inconsequential chatter flowed over her new mistress as Lois sought to assimilate the many disturbing details she had unearthed about her new family the night before. Talk about a baptism of fire. If Kal considered his kin to be an ordered example of a modern Utopian society then boy, did he have a lot to learn. Considering what she had witnessed yesterday, both openly and covertly, Kal's family history would not be out of place on any TV soap channel. Yet the one thing she had dreaded, when she had listened to her lover's litany about his structured world, had been the fact that the somewhat sterile atmosphere might cause her to be bored. Bored, hah!! That was the furthest feeling from her mind.

Etta had been gaily chatting along while she bustled about the room, straightening a vase here and flouncing up a cushion there, but now the maid subsided into a pointed silence and the sudden quiet of the room attracted her lady's meandering attention. Centring on the girl, Lois discovered her standing by the door to a huge walk-in closet which had been hidden behind the panelled walls.

"If my lady would be pleased to choose an outfit for herself today then I can activate your bathing cycle." The maid smiled happily as she indicated the contents of the cupboard.

Ignoring the intriguing thoughts that the girl's last words had created, Lois enthusiastically joined Etta in the doorway and both gazed in delighted surprise at the contents of the large wardrobe. As the two women wandered down the rows of clothes which lined one wall of the long closet, Lois was astounded by the colourful array of frocks and pantsuits that met her gaze. There was suitable attire for every occasion with, lined on the shelves close to the floor, shoes and boots to match each item. On the opposite side of the cupboard were rows of drawers which, on random inspection, Lois found held scraps of silky underwear and lacy negligees. It appeared that Kryptonian ladies were not above wishing to look their very best but whether for their own or their husbands' benefit Lois was not yet aware.

A knocking at the door announced the arrival of Zara and in the self-assured youthful lady who entered the room there was no lingering trace of the distraught teenager of the dark hours of morning.

"Good day to you, Lois. I hope I find you well." Her words were formal but tinged with a friendly warmth. "Mama sent me to remind you of the audience at the Palace today."

"I'm fine, Zara, but I only wish I could forget about my appointment. What do you wear to an audience with the distinguished Lords and Ladies of Krypton?" Lois' anxious fingers fidgeted with the outfits of velvet and silk hanging on the rails. "I'm a nervous wreck. I just know that all these grand nobles are expecting me to fall flat on my face."

"Oh no, Lois, it is the nobles' place to prostrate themselves before you and Kal."

"No kidding! They still do that sort of thing here?" Lois asked incredulously and then remembered the actions of the personnel in the spaceport. At the picture in her mind's eye of these dark-clad lords and ladies laid out along the ground like dead birds after a crow shoot Lois' anxiety gave way to a fit of giggles. Uncertain at what had amused their strange visitor but happy to see her relax, the two Kryptonian girls joined in Lois' infectious mirth.

Sometime later into the midst of this hilarity walked a puzzled yet pleased Kal-El. Listening to Lois' laughter as he strode down the hallway to her room lightened his spirits which had been in something of a turmoil since he had taken leave of her. He had been a little comforted by the sleepy telepathic message of last night and he had this morning spoken with his mother who assured him that she was well pleased with his choice of wife, albeit remaining closed mouthed about the subject of her conversation with Lois.

Swathes of colourful clothes were strewn about the furniture of the room giving evidence of an impromptu fashion show and at the centre of the upheaval a happy yet perplexed Lois stood regarding the scattered jumble.

Now barely suppressing his own urge to join in the glee at the scene before him, he crossed directly to Lois' side and placed a welcoming kiss on her lovely smiling mouth. "I'm glad to see you so happy this morning, Lois."

"Kal! And I am so glad to see you," she said, returning his kiss. "Now you can help me decide. We've narrowed the choice down to three but now I'm stumped so you can cast the final vote." And babbling gaily Lois waved her hand at the dresses that were being held by herself and her companions. "Come on Etta, don't be shy. Let Kal see the frock."

Suddenly self-conscious in the presence of the young master, Etta flushed and lowered her head. Yet Lois being completely oblivious of the awkwardness of the moment rallied the girl once more. "Kal can't decide if he can't see our choices." She explained, not unkindly, slowly comprehending that she had committed a faux-pas which had placed Etta in a delicate situation. How could she ever come to terms with this class-ridden society when she disapproved of it so strongly?

Sensing the maid's embarrassment and anxious to alleviate the dilemma, Kal smilingly added his encouragement but when the flustered maid was persuaded to hold the item aloft it was found to be a silvery cobweb confection which Kal immediately turned down.

"Thank you, Etta. But no, definitely not! Too ghostly!" Kal shook his head then turned to Zara's exhibit. This creation was of dark amber and might have been suitable for a less auspicious occasion. "No, too muddy."

Which left the remaining outfit hidden behind Lois' back. The twinkle in her eye proved that Kal had chosen wisely and that his fiancee had already made up her mind before he entered the room and only needed his approval. The velvet robe of deep burgundy with long sleeves and high neck to ward off the cold complimented the chestnut lights of Lois' shining hair and accented the colour of her sparkling eyes. Its somewhat severe cut would cling to Lois' slim form while the skirt cut on the bias would flounce around her ankles as she walked. It was found too that the gown had a matching surcoat, trimmed with dark brown fur, the perfect raiment for a cold winter's day that held the promise of a further snowfall.

The choice of garment successfully complete, Kal took his sister off to allow Lois to complete her toilet with the help of her maid, reminding his fiancee as he went that if she wished to partake of breakfast before they left for the Palace, she should not linger.

***

The silver egg containing a slightly nervous and wide-eyed Earth woman swept beneath the tall gates in the soaring curtain of wall, crossed a large enclosed square which was bordered by stone statues of long-dead custodians of this edifice and halted before a pillared walkway. Alighting from the transporter, her hand firmly clasped in Kal's steady grip, Lois' eyes lifted to the ceiling high above her. Family crests were carved into the wood, blazons of the houses which had supported the Els down through the centuries and finally as they reached the portal at the end of the walk, above the door hung the shield of the House of El.

To a visitor from Earth the coat of arms resembled a large S in the centre of a strangely shaped triangle. Lois had often seen the crest before, had even worn the badge on her uniform on board the ship, but here, displayed in its full glory, it seemed the embodiment of power. The doors below slid open and the party stepped inside.

The Palace at Elvar was an awe-inspiring jumble of contradictions, a meld of the very old and the very new. The outer structure was as ancient as the house at Ro-Ellion, but where Ro-Ellion's primordial glory had been carefully preserved and tended with loving care, the interior of the Palace had for security reasons been vastly updated.

The elaborately wrought iron light sconces had been replaced with panel lighting that brightened as the visitors passed through the corridors and dimmed as they went on their way. Guards were stationed at various points in the passageway, but Lois suspected that these were purely traditional. The heavy wooden doors too had given way to shining metal portals that opened with the barest whisper and the magnificent stairway in the hall which lay before them was now redundant, its task taken over by the glass-constructed elevators standing in its shadow.

The members of the El family fitted quite comfortably into one of these spacious lifts and silently they were carried to the floor above and to the audience hall of the castle. Two royal guards stood on either side of the large doorway and they snapped to attention at the approach of the visitors. Silently the doors slid apart and Lord Kal-El with his betrothed clinging a little tightly to his arm led his party inside.

Conversation stilled and all eyes turned to the visitors. Almost instinctively the courtiers fell back, allowing a straight passageway through the crowded throng to the dias at the far end on the room. And as they walked along the length of this opening, Lois was now not surprised but still somewhat discomfited by the communal dropping to their knees and bowed heads of the assembly. Oh boy, I will never get used to that! The others in the group accepted the salute as normal and passed by with little notice until they reached their ruler on his dias. Now it was their turn to show obeisance, though in this case only a small bow seemed to be required and Lois repeated her gesture from the previous day and bobbed a curtsey. The formal greetings were exchanged by the family and that done Zor-El turned his visitors to the main body of the hall.

Taking Lois' trembling hand in his own he led her to the front of the platform. His voice was not loud but pitched to reach the furthest corners of the room. "Distinguished Lords and Ladies of Krypton, I give you Ms Lois Lane of Earth, betrothed of the noble and puissant Lord Kal-El, heir to the throne of Krypton. The bond between them has the blessing of myself and my council and tomorrow at the house of Ro-Ellion, the marriage will be formalized. On behalf of my family, I bid you welcome at this happy occasion."

Lois' gaze searched wildly for Kal-El, who, she thankfully found, had slipped close to her side. However, unaware if it were correct procedure to actually speak at this moment, she contented herself with throwing him a questioning and reproachful glance. This was the first she had heard about the date of her wedding and while she appreciated that there was no reason to wait she felt that she might have been consulted. Huh! What was she thinking?! This was Krypton, home of the dominant male gender, why should they consider her opinion? She was only the bride.

Reading her thoughts, Kal at least had the grace to look sheepish. But meanwhile the assembly had risen and a shout of Lord Kal-El and, astoundingly, Lady Lois swelled from a hundred throats. Lady Lois looked panic stricken and had it not been for the firm hold of her fiancÚ on one hand and her leader on the other she might have run from the room. Two voices of differing age groups but of similar intent whispered in her mind.

"Courage, my dear!"

Gratefully she accepted the encouragement of Zor and Kal and stood with a smile frozen on her face to acknowledge the formal salute. Slowly the hall returned to its usual steady buzz as, the formalities over, the courtiers returned to their earlier conversations. Lois, pulling her hands away and balling them into small fists, immediately seized upon the distraction to face her betrothed, determined to privately inform him of her displeasure at the lack of consultation on such a personal subject. Her tirade was interrupted by an anxious Zor-El.

"Don't be angry with Kal, child." His voice was kindly but nevertheless held a note of command somewhere in its depths. "Like you, he was completely unaware that a date had been set. The High Council and myself passed the resolution this morning and I'm sorry if our perfunctory action upset you but under the circumstances we had no choice."

Lois sensed a hidden intrigue and was not surprised at Kal's whispered demand. "What has happened?"

The smile never left the wily old sovereign's face but he drew the young couple aside and lowered his voice considerably. "Early this morning the security services intercepted a thought transference…"

"You can monitor telepathic messages?" Lois was amazed and also annoyed. It had been her ambition to be a journalist but even she baulked at the prospects of a person's thoughts being spied upon. "Isn't that a gross invasion of privacy? So much for your just and honourable society."

"Quite right, my dear." Zor had appropriated her hand again and was patting it consolingly while in an aside to his nephew he observed brightly. "Such forthrightness is so refreshing, is it not?" But the wise gentleman was also aware of her bridling at his patronage and returned his attention to stilling her concerns. "Forgive an old man his teasing, Lois, but your frankness is like a breath of fresh air in these stuffy sterilized climes."

His sincerity shown clear and Lois found herself warming to the lord of all Krypton once more, yet she could not ignore the fact that it seemed on this world 'big brother' was certainly watching you. "Are all telepathic conversations monitored?"

A resigned groan escaped from Zor. "Persistent too, I see."

Kal nodded in agreement. "Mad Dog Lane, I think her college friends nicknamed her. Never lets go of the bone once she has it between her teeth."

Slowly a natural smile was overtaking Lois but she wasn't prepared to give up. "Are they?"

"Most residences on Krypton are shielded from our monitoring devices thus private conversations both oral and telepathic are safe from eavesdroppers and there are small hand operated shields that work at close quarters. None of these contrivances are illegal and we appreciate the individual's right to privacy but the security of the state cannot be totally ignored, therefore all other mind communications are checked over by artificial intelligence machines. Most are discarded immediately without any human ears ever listening in and only those that are suspect are brought before the security chiefs and in due course to the attention of the council."

"What did you hear?" The humourous tone had completely deserted Kal-El.

"A communication detailing your arrival yesterday and passing along a highly informed description of Lady Lois and the state of your relationship."

Lois blanched. "Who would do such a thing?"

"Unfortunately, my dear, we can't answer that. Monitoring thought transferences is a difficult science. They are not so substantial as sound waves and give off only minuscule amounts of electrical pulses. Therefore, they are less easy to trace to source. All we can tell is that the waves emanated from somewhere in Elvar and were received and answered by someone living in the south western quadrant of our world."

"Which is?"

"Nor's country." Kal's voice was sharp with worry.

"That's why we, the council and I, thought that it would be safer to have you two married as quickly as possible."

"Am I in danger?"

"Well, it might only be an old man's fear. Rad-Nor has never yet openly broken any laws or his oath of allegiance. He may just be curious." Zor added hopefully.

"And I would never let anything bad happen to you Lois, believe me."

"And on behalf of the High Council I would also like to promise our support." A new voice joined the conversation and Lois regarded the owner with some trepidation.

The man who came forward was welcomed with smiles by Zor. "Lady Lois, permit me to introduce you to Lord Trey, my Prime Councillor and closest friend."

This newest acquaintance proved to be of similar age to Zor-El with grey balding hair and a more substantial build yet his demeanour lacked the sense of the ridiculous that lurked behind the public face of Krypton's ruler. Lois was not quite sure whether she liked this Prime Councillor, however she did recall that Kal had thought him to be a competent and honest member of his uncle's government. Perhaps he improved on closer acquaintance.

The formal hand clasp with Lord Trey completed, a series of other introductions took place until Lois' head was reeling with the memory of a number of serious faces cowled in varying dull coloured robes with strange flowing headgear. She would never remember the names that went with these stern visages.

Finally the ceremonial greetings were over and with a silent sigh of relief Lois heard Zor-El instruct Kal to carry her off into the body of the hall and introduce her to his own friends, the younger members of high society. To say that the joint was jumping would have been a gross exaggeration, yet amongst the Kryptonians of her own age group the atmosphere was considerably less formal and there was the added comfort of having a friendly face in Zara. Ching and Poli too, although not belonging to the noble classes, hovered on the edge of the attendant group offering their silent support and, after the initial shyness passed, her peers were eager to discover about life on another planet.

Lois was beginning to relax and enjoy herself and Kal, witnessing his fiancee's unbending, started to recount his own sometimes hilarious experiences on a strange world. The mood of the gathering lifted and infectious laughter spread through the great hall as more of the nobles joined the group around Kal and Lois. While the couple was the centre of attention of the growing band of courtiers, a loud trumpet blast heralded the advent of another party. A startled pause hung over the assembly at the unexpected arrival and the attention of the throng focussed on the opening portal.

The personage at the head of the small procession now entering paused on the threshold for effect and relished the frozen stillness that followed. The gentleman was of average stature and slim build yet he carried himself with all the arrogance of an emperor. His body suit was also black but embroidered with scrolls of jet beading and his flowing surcoat was of a dull silver foil like material, edged with a luxuriant black fur (somehow Lois sensed that this trim had never seen the inside of a test tube ). Rings adorned every one of his long thin fingers while a heavy white gold chain, sporting his family emblem, rested on his barely adequate chest.

Having made sure that he had gained the attention of all those present, the newcomer strode through the hall, daring those who hindered him to step out of his way. Within a few moments he and his party had reached Zor's podium where the man sketchily made his obeisance.

It was clear from the frown on the countenance of the First Lord that he was not at all pleased with the interruption. Although he had been conversing with his colleagues and friends, he had been keeping a covert eye on Kal and his betrothed and he had been happy to see that the girl was blossoming in the friendly attention she was receiving. Zor could not rid himself of the disquieting notion that this nobleman's arrival had been timed perfectly to disrupt the inauguration of Lady Lois into court society. Nevertheless he pushed his concerns to the back of his mind and took his place on the throne to accept these new gestures of deference, grudgingly given though they might be.

"Welcome Lord Rad-Nor, Lady Rad-Nor. We did not think to see you at our court today." Zor addressed the intruders.

The newcomer's eyebrows lifted in exaggerated surprise. "But surely you issued a command to all lords and ladies of Krypton to attend the homecoming of Kal-El." The haughty man stared up at Zor for a moment then turned his attention to his peers, waving his hand in an arc around the crowded chamber. "Who am I to disobey my leader when so many of my fellow nobles have arrived to witness the wedding?"

"Oh, I would say that command is too strong a word, Lord Nor. I simply requested those who wished Lord Kal-El well to join me on this happy occasion." Zor's voice was cold as he duelled verbally with this man he disliked and distrusted.

"Then surely I was expected at the marriage of my good brother." Nor now directed his gaze at the couple standing close together in the centre of the hall. "Or did you perhaps suspect that I did not wish Kal-El well?" came the silken yet challenging riposte.

"Of course I expected my sister to attend my wedding," Kal took up the gauntlet, "and as her husband, my family and I anticipated your presence." The young man could not bring himself to offer a welcome.

A contemptuous smirk lurked on Rad-Nor's face. "Good, then that's settled, we are all so overjoyed to meet one another. Keira, wife, why don't you greet your brother and his new bride." This was an order and the woman who was addressed so coldly stepped from behind her husband and came slowly and truculently across the hall. Meanwhile Nor turned, snapping petulantly, on the watching crowd. "Why don't you all accord this little family reunion some privacy?" His menacing tone startled the enthralled audience and those listening embarrassingly turned aside.

Lois' regard focussed on the lady approaching and her breath caught in her throat at the obvious family resemblance. Lady Keira shared her brother's colouring and high cheek bones, but where his generous mouth curled into a ready smile, this woman's lips turned downwards at the corners and her dark chestnut eyes lacked Kal's sparkle. According to all Lois had been told, Keira was only a few years older than her brother but her almost haunted mein leant years to her appearance. Her voice too, when she reached her goal, was muted and lack lustre.

"Welcome, my Lord Kal-El." Her clasped hands rose but Kal, uncharacteristically for a member of his race, brushed them aside and pulled his sister into his arms.

"It is so good to see you, Keira." He spoke quietly but sincerely, then drawing back he searched her eyes for a corresponding sign that she too was pleased to be with him but the lady lowered her eyes and refused to meet his questioning gaze.

Meanwhile, silent as a stalking feline, her spouse had followed and joined the siblings' greeting. Kal frowned as beneath his hands his sister's shoulders tightened involuntarily at the interruption.

"Now, Kal-El, I understand why you were so insistent on a female Earthling." Impudently Rad-Nor let his glance leerily stray from Lois' head to her toes. "Had I known that their women were so… so desirable, I might have joined you on the trip."

Kal pulled Lois slightly behind his body, shielding her from the continued suggestive gaze, yet now was not the moment to openly challenge the boor. Ignoring, as best he could, Nor's effrontery, the introductions were made coldly then Kal quickly led his Lois away, very saddened by the fact that he was abandoning his sister to her noxious husband. The young bridegroom's gore was rising and he felt that he would be unable to control his temper if exposed much longer to Nor's gall.

A depressing gloom settled over the gathering and shortly the nobles began to make their apologies and take their leave. The El family were amongst those early retirements, but not before Lady Lara had a brief but uncompromising conversation with her eldest daughter, extending an invitation for Keira to join them later for a family dinner. Keira unfortunately but not unexpectedly declined, informing her mother that she was to attend a subsequent Nor gathering which she was required to host. More surprisingly, Zara's betrothed also sent his apologies for the evening, Rol-Fre choosing to keep company with the Nors instead of attending the more sedate meeting at his future in-laws'. Surely this was indicative of the younger Fre's loyalties.

So it was that the pre-wedding supper was a quiet affair, being spent in the company of the First Lord and Lady and his leading councillors. The soiree ended at an early hour and the family went to bed shortly after in anticipation of an extremely busy and important day on the morrow.

***

Chapter Seven

Union

A shaft of sunlight falling across Lois' bed brought her from her slumber as the curtains were opened a small way by a solicitous hand. She was happy to wake, her dreams being of an ambivalent nature; at once happy in her choice of husband and at other moments troubled by an uncertain future in a strange new world.

Stretching her arms above her head, she let the coverings slip down her body, completely unaware of the effect she was having on her watcher. The silken nightdress with its spaghetti straps clung to her ample curves and Kal swallowed the lump that formed in his throat at the preview he was enjoying of his wedding night. The inopportune stirring of another swelling in a lower part of his body threatened to overwhelm him and he hurriedly picked Lois' robe from the chair by the bed and handed it to the awakening girl.

Lois opened her eyes at the touch of the silk and as her glance fell on her visitor she speedily clutched the robe and the sheets to her bosom.

"Kal! What are you doing here?"

"I came to wake you," he explained, rather nonplussed by her obvious distress. "The preparations are well under way and there is not much time until the wedding ceremony begins."

"But you shouldn't be here," Lois wailed. "Don't you know that it's unlucky for the bride and groom to meet on the wedding day before the ceremony?"

"Unlucky!" Kal reviewed all that he had learned of Earth ways. "You mean an ill omen? Is this some obscure Earth custom that I've missed?"

"Well, perhaps not a custom, more an old wife's tale." Lois added grudgingly.

This information completely disconcerted her intended. "I don't understand."

"It's just some sort of portent passed down through the years." Her hand comfortingly covered Kal's. "Don't worry about it. It's all nonsense, really." But when she saw that he was not wholly convinced she decided that a little diversion was in order. "What sort of preparations?" The smile she sent him was as warm as a summer day on Krypton.

Striding over to the window, Kal threw the drapes apart and, after donning her robe, tying it tightly round her, she joined him by the window. A watery winter sun bathed the snowy lawn in a pale rosy glow and the grey, heavy skies of yesterday had disappeared, leaving a field of fresh virginal snow. Amid the wintery landscape a large gleaming dome had appeared.

"Where did that come from?" She enquired with wonder.

"Well it landed here about an hour ago when you were still asleep."

"Landed?! It just didn't appear out of nowhere?"

"No, of course not! Whatever made you think of that?" Kal's voice was suffused with laughter, intrigued by his fiancee's reasoning.

"On the space ship you made things appear. The tables and chairs appeared like magic."

"Lois, Kryptonians aren't magicians." His shoulders shook with amusement at Lois' crest fallen demeanour. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, sweetheart, but the furniture was stored in the globe ship's matrix. You saw how space was at a premium. I simply contacted the ship's computer and told those things to materialize."

"They say familiarity breeds contempt. I'm already realizing that you Kryptonians aren't so smart as I first thought. I'll probably be bored with you in no time." she teased.

Now it was Kal's turn to look down hearted so Lois quickly relented and slid her arm around her love's waist and rising on her tiptoes she placed a feather-light kiss on his lips. "Don't worry. I don't love you for your accomplishments. I love you… because I just do."

Another kiss deepened into an almost overwhelming passion and threatened to pre-empt the honeymoon night. Sighing with regret the young couple broke apart and Kal slackened his hold from Lois though his arm remained resting lightly on her shoulders. Lois couldn't control her curiosity.

"Who arrived in the dome?" Considering the size of the structure on the lawn it must be a very important personage as she had witnessed the transport used by Zor-El and he was supposed to be First Lord of Krypton.

"No-one!" Kal stated, somewhat surprised. "We will be married in the dome. The amount of guests that are expected is too great for the house to accommodate so the ceremony and the wedding feast will take place inside the dome."

"I see, the Kryptonian equivalent of the marquee on the lawn."

The pair smiled warmly into each other's eyes at the thought of their marriage and both started with shock as a strident voice broke into their reverie.

"Kal, what in Zor's name are you doing here?!"

Jumping at his mother's demand, a somewhat sheepish Kal let his arm slip from its desirable resting place. "I thought that I'd welcome Lois to the morning." He explained weakly. "We weren't doing anything wrong."

"Nevertheless, you're not supposed to be here. Don't you know that it's unlucky for you to see the bride before the ceremony." Lara repeated Lois' warning.

"Mother, that's an old wife's tale from Earth." Kal vented his new found wisdom.

"But Lois is from Earth and we must abide by her customs. Now off you go and make yourself ready for the wedding. You'll be together soon enough."

And once more Kal was shepherded out the door by a solicitous Lara, anxious that her daughter-in-law should be made to feel as at home as possible on this most important day of her young life. Immediately the perspective groom had been evicted from the room a procession of servants appeared at Lara's bidding and Lois' wedding preparations began.

***

Many of the aristocratic families along with the more influential commoners of Krypton joined together under the great dome in the garden of Ro-Ellion to celebrate the joining of the heir to the throne and the Earth woman who had been brought to this realm from a distant universe. The large space was filled to almost over flowing with well wishers and the curious and consequently the atmosphere inside the dome grew hot and steamy with the proliferation of bodies.

Standing handfast with Kal before Lord Zor and Chief Councillor Trey, a slightly breathless Lois paid close heed to the words of the Kryptonian wedding service which were repeated for her benefit in her native language. Strangely the vows were very close to those of an Earthling marriage and she found that here too she was required to repeat the promises to love, honour and obey her life mate. And if her tongue stumbled over the word obey, the congregation credited her faltering to the nervousness of a young bride.

The vows taken, a velvet covered case was lifted from the table behind the two lords who conducted the ceremony revealing a slim yet solid gold bracelet etched with the blazon of the house of El with the initials K & L intertwined on its surface. The bangle seemed to have no visible clasp yet at Kal's touch it sprang open and with an oath of life long devotion he clasped it round Lois' left wrist. It was a perfect fit.

Trey stepped up to the couple. "I now declare this Union to be sanctified by the state and I present to you, fellow Kryptonians, Lord and Lady El," he intoned and once again the cry was repeated by the gathering.

If Lois and the witnesses believed that the ceremony was now concluded they were dumbfounded when once again their leader called for silence. Another smaller box was brought from the table and Lois caught a glimpse of a smile on her husband's face. Kal slowly opened the box and nestled inside were two matching golden rings.

Gently lifting Lois' left hand he slipped the ring on her finger and his voice echoed clearly throughout the vast hall. "I give you this ring, Lois Lane, as a token of my love for you. All that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you."

Eyes glistening with tears, Lois removed the larger ring and, repeating the words of her husband, she slid the ring onto his extended finger. "I give you this ring, Kal-El, as a token of my love for you. All that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you."

Now I am doubly married, Lois surmised, smiling through her tears at Kal's heart-warming gesture. Then Kal did what any other bridegroom would do on Earth or Krypton, drawing Lois into his embrace, he kissed her with a depth of passion that threatened to steal away her very breath.

Even the blase population of Krypton were moved by the sight of the two lovers locked in each other's arms and laughter through tears overcame many as the formalities drew to a close. Let the celebrations commence.

***

There was a definite lull in the proceedings as the great and good of Krypton spilled out onto the snowy carpeted lawn, eager to escape the stuffy confines of the dome, while a small army of servants hurried to transform the auditorium into a banqueting hall. Many of those who had attended now took their leave but those who were invited to the feast were happy to take a stroll through the grounds, basking in the red glow of the strengthening sun which stole the winter chill from the crisp air or wandered in doors taking their ease in the garden room of the mansion.

During the break Kal, discerning that his wife required a few moments respite, determinedly escorted Lois away from the many well-intentioned congratulations and up to his bedchamber. This was new territory for Lois and she avidly studied her latest domain. The room was of similar proportions to her own but more sparsely furnished and the decor, although of a more masculine bent, was not unpleasant.

The main focus of the room, however, was the king sized bed—or perhaps it would be more to the point to say that the main focus of Lois' thoughts centred on what would happen later in that huge bed.

Seeing where her interest lay, Kal strove to distract her. "The room might not be to your taste, Lois, but whatever you want changed will be done."

Startled from her sensuous daydreams, she began to circle the room, nodding and shaking her head simultaneously. "No! Oh no! It's fine… fine. Well maybe a few little alterations here and there."

Lois was pleasantly surprised to discover that Etta and the other maids had succeeded in transferring all her belongings into Kal's chamber during the ceremony. Her clothes now hung alongside Kal's in the closet and the nick-knacks she had brought from Earth were scattered throughout the room; her grandmother's embroidered pillow and her toy bear now lay amongst various other cushions on the wide bed.

Which brought Lois' interest back to the bed. She walked slowly forward and smoothed her hand over the satiny counterpane. "Nice bed… very large." She turned and sat at its foot as she spoke, bouncing once or twice, then throwing herself backwards onto the mattress. "Comfy too."

"I think so." Kal joined her on the bed and propping himself on an elbow he smiling gazed down into her lovely face. "You are so beautiful." His hand gently rose to cup her cheek in a tender gesture. "So beautiful."

After a moment the smile was replaced by an ardent look of desire and he bent his head and claimed her lips as his hand strayed possessively over her body. Once again passion threatened to overwhelm them and once again, with a groan of profound dismay, he dragged himself back from the edge.

"I want to make love to you so much, sweetheart, but I don't want to rush things." His voice was thick with regret. "I just wish we had more time."

Her voice mirrored his lament. "Well, there's always tonight."

"We have more than tonight." His arm remained thrown across her body but he raised himself to look into her eyes. "Tonight I will take you to Schieh-Ellion, the mystic mountain, where the House of El was founded and where I was born. Think of our time there as our honeymoon."

"A honeymoon! I think I'll enjoy that very much." And she laughed sexily. "And thank you for this." Lois raised her left arm and gazed at her wrist and hand where rested the symbols of her union. She lifted her head and grazed Kal's cheek lightly with her lips. "The ring was a very thoughtful touch, thank you." Fingering the ring, her hand slipped to the gold band that bound her wrist and traced the inscription. "I don't see an opening. How can I take it off?"

"You can't, Lois. I placed it on your wrist, only my touch can remove it." Kal blushed as he explained. "It's a Kryptonian custom."

"Sort of like a… brand." Lois could not keep the edge from her voice.

"LO-ISSS!!"

"That's alright Kal. You didn't lie to me. I accepted what I was getting into when I agreed to go with you." Her tone was sad rather than angry and she added wistfully. "I just wish things could be different."

"They will be, Lois. I promise." And he set himself the task of kissing away her sorrowful mood.

Only this time it was Lois who broke apart when their instincts almost carried them away, pushing herself up from the bed and walking to the window, distancing herself from the source of her delicious torment. Talk… that was what was needed. And boy, could she talk.

"Talking of Kryptonian customs." Lois turned back to face Kal. "I've been meaning to ask. When Trey announced us as Lord and Lady of El…"

"Yes?!" Kal asked with amusement. He knew she was attempting to distract her mind and body from thoughts of consummation. Boy, he needed the distraction himself. What he really needed was a cold shower but he didn't think there was enough time for that. And, besides, with Lois here he would be tempted to carry her into the shower with him. On no, don't imagine Lois naked, slick bubbles sliding down her silken skin. He felt certain parts of his body respond to that image

"Isn't that your mother and father?"

How did his mother and father get into the shower?! "What?!"

"Lara and Jor-El! Aren't they the Lord and Lady of El?" The bemused expression cleared from Kal's face as enlightenment dawned. With a sigh he retreated from his pleasant reverie. "Not any more, though they will always be addressed as such. Jor decided, before I left for Earth, that if my mission was successful he would relinquish the leadership of the house of El on my marriage. Father is a scientist… a scholar. He lectures at Elvar's University of Science and Technology. He's never been interested in government, though he was a member of Zor's council when Uncle needed him. And to tell the truth, Mother manages the estates, though that's not for public consumption. Father would lose face and Mother would be regarded as some sort of weird blue stocking. But Jor is very happy to hand over the reins to me."

"And Lara?!"

Kal grinned, acknowledging the fact that Lois had so quickly learned his mother's character. "I've already had one or two run ins with her. She still thinks I'm 10 years old."

"It can't be easy for her, Kal, always having to hide her abilities." Lois was thoughtful and Kal swiftly discerned that she was considering her own position.

"Things are different for you, Lois." He answered her unspoken worries. "You're from Earth and people will expect you to be different."

"That's not very comforting, Kal … to be considered an alien."

"I love the fact that you're an alien." And he determinedly rose from the bed, intent on proving just how much he loved his alien wife, yet he was interrupted in his quest by a knock on the door and a somewhat embarrassed Etta, informing them that the feast was about to begin. So with an apologetic shrug Kal held out his hand to his bride.

They were almost through the door when Lois pulled back on Kal's hand. "My medication! I forgot. I didn't take it this morning. I always feel woozy after I take it and I didn't want anything to cloud this moment."

"Lois, it's very important that you take it. I don't want you to be ill, especially tonight."

"I know, I know."

The couple began to busily search for the small medicine chest, but found it almost immediately where Etta had left it on the bedside cabinet. Within minutes Lois had prepared and injected herself with the drug and the new Lord and Lady of El went to join their guests.

***

A rather light-headed bride walked with her groom into the dome which was now set out with rows of long tables groaning with silver cutlery and finest porcelain in preparation for the banquet. As Lois and Kal-El walked into the assembly the wedding guests, already seated at the tables, rose and applauded the couple. Lois' legs wobbled drastically and she was grateful to reach the table on the dias and to take her seat with Kal at its centre.

The guests sat down and servants began unobtrusively to thread their way amongst the tables serving up the various dishes of the feast. Thankfully the atmosphere in the auditorium had cleared and yet Lois was still assailed by the familiar dizziness. In fact it seemed so much worse than previous bouts. She tried to focus her attention on Kal who was apparently speaking to her. She could see his lips moving, if only she could hear his words. The background hum of conversations faded in and out of her consciousness and the light in the hall seemed to be dimming as if a dark veil had been pulled across her eyes. Was someone drawing the air out of the room? It was so hard to breathe?

Kal looked on in horror as Lois stretched out a trembling hand to him and he listened with dread to the rasping gasps that escaped her blue tinged lips as she struggled to draw breath. Even as he reached to help her, the fluttering eyelids closed and she slumped over the arm of her chair towards him. Lois was unconscious.

He called for Tamar and with a sudden realization of what had occurred Kal was speedily surrounded by helpers, the physician pushing his way through to the girl's side. After a short examination, at the doctor's instructions Lois' inert body was gently carried from the room and almost in a trance the anxious, sorrowing Kal followed. Behind him the crowded hall was hushed, then pandemonium broke out as the guests, their shock receding, began to ask loud, worried questions.

What had gone wrong? Just minutes before Kal had been gloriously happy. He had thought that they were embarking on a whole new wonderful long life together. Was it now to be over before it had a chance to begin? Kal, whose instinctive Kryptonian reserve had not allowed him to shed public tears, stood now at the doorway of the medical unit, silent tears tracking their way down his cheeks, while the only woman he could ever love fought to retain her fragile hold on life.

***

Chapter Eight

Resurrection

For Kal-El, heir to the throne of the planet Krypton, the hours since his wedding ceremony had crawled painfully by till the red sun had set in a blaze of winter glory and tinted the snow covered landscape with a blood-red hue.

Blood, there had been no blood. The assassin's hand had wielded a less tangible weapon than blade or ray but a weapon no less deadly had been turned against his bride.

Kal's ragged breathing and the quiet hum of the life-support capsule were the only sounds in the white sterile room. He was still now as he sat by the glass bodycase, watching intently for any sign that would portend his beloved's return to him.

Earlier the room had been a hive of competent chaos as Physician Tamar and his team had fought to save the life of the Lady of El. There had been one terrible moment when the heart of this brave young Earth girl had stopped, yet with practised skill the medical team had resuscitated their precious patient and given her a second chance at life. And, if for the present her hold on life was fairly tenuous, no one was prepared to voice this thought.

An almost inaudible swish accompanied the opening of the doors and almost as silently the clever doctor walked into the room. Without words Tamar conveyed his concern to the young man by the bed. Being a friend and colleague to Lord Jor-El, the somewhat straightlaced physician had witnessed this boy's journey to manhood and in his opinion the planet Krypton could have found no better successor to its leadership. He only hoped that in some way he could insure that Kal would not lose his chosen consort.

With a great deal of trepidation Tamar checked the monitors in the support capsule, his heart lightening at the steady readings being displayed. "My Lord, I do believe that Lady Lois has turned the corner. Her vital signs are stabilising and if she continues to improve it shouldn't be too long before she regains consciousness."

The dark eyes that lifted to the doctor's face were suddenly lit with a flicker of hope. "Are you sure, Tamar?" And the voice that asked the question cracked with strain.

"I'm certain." A smile brightened his over-anxious look. "I would not be so cruel as to give you false hope, though I do admit that it was a close-run thing."

"Thank you, Tamar," Kal spoke very simply.

"I only did my duty, my Lord, and I was happy to do so; however, I was not alone."

"No indeed." The haunted note was fading from Kal's voice as the fact that Lois was not lost to him took deeper root in his mind. "And I will personally talk to all those who helped you save Lois."

"Of course you will. However, that was not what I meant. Your bride was struck down by a particularly deadly poison. We did everything we could but our best would not have been enough had not Lady Lois fought so valiantly to live."

Smiling tenderly on the still figure beneath him, Kal raised his hand to touch the warmed surface of the glass. "I knew my Lois would never give up; Mad Dog Lane." This last was spoken in a whisper that Tamar did not quite hear and would not have understood. Then Kal's mind turned to other more disquieting matters. "You are certain that she was poisoned?" The man who demanded an answer was all commander.

"The tests are quite conclusive, sire."

Yet the worried boy was not far beneath the surface as once more Kal gave into his insecurities. "Thank Zor!" A heavy sigh followed. "I was afraid that we had been wrong and that Krypton's alien atmosphere… that my desire to bring her here… had done this to Lois."

"Oh no, Lord Kal, quite the contrary. In fact being from Earth saved Lady Lois' life."

"It did?!"

"Yes! Let me explain, my Lord." Tamar dragged a stool from the far corner of the room and sat at the opposite side of the enclosed bed. "As I said, an extremely lethal toxin was administered, probably through the injection-gun." At these words Kal's mobile eyebrows rose yet he didn't interrupt the little man. There would be time enough later to deal with that matter. "But this poison is insidious. On a Kryptonian it would have taken some time to do its deadly work and by the time the victim became ill it would have been much too late to administer the antidote. Lady Lois, being an Earth human, had an allergic reaction to the substance and so we discovered the cause and were able to treat her almost immediately. But even then it was almost fatal." Tamar looked disconsolate as he reviewed the last few hours. "Who could have wished to harm her?"

"That's something I intend to find out." And again the stern mask had dropped over Kal's face. "Tamar, I would be grateful if for the moment you would keep these findings to yourself. Someone had to have access to Lois' medicine kit and I don't want to scare the perpetrator into bolting."

***

Indeed following Lois' collapse Zor-El had immediately called a meeting of his security staff and insisted that the very best of criminal investigators be assigned to discovering who had done this terrible thing. Krypton's ruler and his security chief were in no doubt of the identity of the instigator of the devious deed, but they both were just as certain that finding the proof of his perfidy would be almost impossible. For that reason, they placed a great deal of importance on finding the person who had been hired to do the dirty work. They were not, however, confident that this would be an easy task, and yet to identify the lackey and make the scoundrel talk was their only hope of verifying a connection to the real culprit.

The problem was that the house at Ro-Ellion had been a hive of industry during that morning, bustling with the caterer's staff from the dome and the wedding guests and their entourages who arrived in ever increasing numbers. There had been a light buffet served in the large conservatory for those who had long distances to travel and therefore had left their homes very early in the morning. The family and the servants had been engaged in welcoming and entertaining the visitors, leaving free access to the mansion to whomever had the desire, both innocent or devious, to wander at will.

Neither Zor-El nor Commander Medi, Head of Security, seriously considered that the Lords and Ladies who were invited to breakfast with the family would be involved in a plot to murder but perhaps one of their retainers had been lured into infamy with the promise of reward. And, of course, there were the workers who arrived with the dome; anyone of them could have sneaked inside.

The point was that the El family had not sought to avail themselves of a video-security system. This was their home and they refused to allow themselves and their people to be spied upon. Goodwill and trust dwelt in Ro-Ellion and while that under normal circumstances might be a commendable and pleasant lifestyle, it did not assist the investigators in their task.

When late at night a tired and dispirited Zor-El finally found time to visit the newest member of his family the security forces were still no closer to discovering who was responsible for the near death of the young woman for whom he had formed such a fondness. The lighting in the room was muted but his weary eyes could still discern the slumped figure of his nephew sitting patiently by the side of the glass-covered bed.

"How is Lois doing, dear nephew?" The silence of the room prompted Zor to whisper the question.

Kal-El stirred from his cramped position and stretching his stiff shoulders he turned red-rimmed eyes towards the intruder. "Uncle! I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you and Aunt Rochelle would have returned to the castle."

"We couldn't leave while Lois was in such a serious condition." Zor approached the bed and gazed down on the pale face of the sleeping girl. "Your mother has kindly made up the guest chamber for us."

"You look tired, sir. Perhaps you should be in bed."

"I couldn't retire without seeing for myself that Tamar's optimistic prognosis is indeed correct. He tells me that he has every hope of Lois' recovery."

A tired smile on the face of his nephew told Zor all he needed to know. Then the smile was overtaken by a yawn.

"You know, Kal, perhaps you should take your own advice and seek your bed."

"No way! I couldn't leave Lois alone. I have to be here when she wakes." "I understand, Kal and in your position I too would want to stay. Would you enjoy some company?" The question was rhetorical and without waiting for a reply the old man slid into the seat that Tamar had vacated earlier. "Do you remember how we watched her play? She was always such a spirited child, and it's that spirit that will bring her back to you."

Kal simply nodded his head and for a time the two men sat in quiet communion as they watched Lois sleep. Finally, Kal's curiosity surfaced.

"Who have you placed in charge of the investigation?"

"Commander Medi." Zor had been awaiting his nephew's enquiry. "He's doing everything he can to bring the criminal to justice."

"But without success." Kal had been alerted by his uncle's downcast demeanour.

"Not so far. Ro-Ellion was extremely busy today and no one saw anything unusual. Whoever tampered with the medical chest managed to do so without any witnesses."

"Then the poison was definitely administered by the gun?"

"Yes, the scientists have established that fact. They have not, unfortunately, gleaned any other information from the box or the injection-gun. The perpetrator was clearly shielded by a personal force field, and you know they are like a second skin; while the wearer can function without impediment no imprints or body traces leak through the shield. Both the room and the medi chest were clean. The rest of the house was scanned but, with the amount of traffic through the rooms today, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Besides, I doubt the assassin shed his force-field until he was well away."

"Those personal shields are very expensive, aren't they?" Kal meditated.

"Oh, whoever did this, Kal, has very deep pockets."

"Nor was here today; at the wedding." That statement was coloured with loathing.

"Yes! But he and his company made a point of arriving late, and they didn't enter the house but went directly to the dome. And I very much doubt if Nor would be foolish enough to show his hand so soon." Kal rose sharply to protest and Zor lifted a calming hand. "And, before you berate me, I agree that Rad-Nor is behind this. If what we suspect is true and he means to make a play for the leadership, then it would be in his interests to make sure that the House of El, after you, has no apparent heir. It's common knowledge that the Els are a particularly monogamous breed. Get rid of Lois and it will take you a long time to find another wife and fulfil your duty. But before you run off and confront Nor with violence, please remember that we have no proof, and without that anything you do will be outside the law."

For a number of tense moments, as the furious young man prowled from the bed to the window and back, it seemed that Kal would ignore his uncle's advice. Yet, thankfully, his frustrated pacing halted once more by the bed and, though his hands still remained balled into fists, his voice was controlled. "And Nor wins!"

"That is so." The older man's tone was coloured with relief. "I felt sure you would understand. But, believe me, we have no intention of giving up on this. The search for the attempted killer will continue. Anyone who was in or near the vicinity of Ro-Ellion today is being questioned."

"But you don't hold out much hope of a result." This was a statement rather than a question.

"Unfortunately, no!" At this point Zor's face flushed slowly as he asked hesitantly. "I've already asked your parents this question but I feel that I must also ask it of you. "Do you know of anyone amongst the household staff who might be enticed into committing this crime… anyone who might bear a grudge for some imagined reprimand?"

Kal's eyes flashed to his uncle's face and he almost retorted in anger. Then again, he did appreciate Zor's position on this, and the mulish set of his lips relaxed slightly as he took time to consider his response. "I don't think so. Uncle, these people have belonged to the House of El for most of their lives, as have their families before them. And this is a contented household. Everyone is encouraged to air their grievances should they have any, which I have to say is very rare. I trust them. Besides, they've taken Lois to their hearts. They think she was very brave to travel so far from her home to be with me and…" There was a moment's pause as Kal decided whether to continue with his revelation, but this was his Uncle Zor, the one person who had encouraged him in his pursuit of Lois; surely he would understand. "And she treats them… differently. She doesn't gush or patronize and I imagine she'd read them the riot act if they displeased her, but she accepts them as… equals. And, once they got over the initial shock, they like her for it. I'm certain they're worried and upset about this whole thing too."

A tired and careworn young man waved his hand above Lois' capsule at his last words, then sank back into his chair and let his head drop into his hands. Intently watching his nephew with quiet solicitude, neither Zor nor Kal was aware of the faintly fluttering eyelids of the still figure encased in the glass support system.

In the silence of the room a low tapping could be heard which drew Zor's attention to the door. Whoever stood outside did not assume the right of entry so with a quick stare Zor ordered the doors to part. Holding themselves almost to attention on the threshold, Ching and Poli waited for permission to enter. A number of seconds passed before Kal bestirred himself to discover who waited in the doorway.

"What?!" Kal almost snapped. "What is it?! Why are you here? Have you found out who did this?"

Both men looked abashed. It was unlike Kal to give way to irritation, especially with his close friends. But, sympathising with Kal's emotions, Ching found the nerve to answer.

"No, my lord, I'm sorry to report that there has been no progress in finding the villain. Poli and I were concerned about our lady and we wished to convey our feelings… we too care for Lady Lois…"

The lieutenant's voice died away at the implacable visage confronting him and he began to look very uncomfortable. Thankfully, Kal's sense of justice prevailed as the memory of youthful adventures and adolescent problems shared with this slightly more mature bodyguard and mentor revived in his mind. Plus a bond of mutual admiration and friendship had developed between Lois and these two young men during the long voyage between Earth and Krypton. A bond Kal not only approved but chose to encourage, knowing that they would guard her life more zealously in the future.

"Yes, of course, you're worried. Forgive me. I should not have spoken so abruptly. I'm just so tired." Kal stroked a shaky hand through his thick dark hair, an obvious sign to Ching that his charge was very close to the edge.

"Don't apologise, Kal." Ching took the chance and dropped the title, aware that for the moment the younger man was more in need of the support of a friend than a bodyguard. He speedily closed the distance to Kal's side as the exhausted bridegroom buckled at the knees, holding Kal upright until he could deposit his charge into the chair that he peremptorily ordered Zor-El to bring forward. So intent was the faithful Ching on caring for his friend that he was oblivious to the fact that he was committing the sin of lese-majeste; however, in the circumstances his majesty was not about to take offence.

Under the ministrations of his uncle and his bodyguard, Kal sought to steady himself. He concluded that unless he could regain some semblance of control Zor would order Ching and Poli to escort him to his chamber and that was a place that he did not want to return to this night alone. Besides, he had to stay with Lois; she might need him.

While his associate and his ruler dealt with the fainting Kal-El, Poli's attention was attracted to a slight movement from the direction of the capsule, an action so minute that Poli almost doubted its existence. Seconds later, a small trembling hand reached up towards the dimmed light only to come in contact with the hard clear surface of the capsule which almost instantaneously disappeared at her first tentative touch, leaving her wondering detachedly if it were only a figment of her cobweb fogged mind.

"Kal, my lord! Look!" Poli directed his lord's gaze towards Lois who was now lying on a completely normal bed, covered almost to her chin by a smooth white counterpane which rivalled the patient's almost translucent skin for paleness.

Lois was barely awake, but her wavering hand was instantly caught in a strong loving clasp as Kal arrived by her side. "Sweetheart?! Lois?!" The accompanying voice was soft and warm but also insistent, rallying her to open her heavy eyelids and answer the call. "Can you hear me, Lois?"

Tremulously, yet inevitably, Lois forced her eyes to focus on the face above her, leaning over her with such loving concern. Kal-El! The handsome Kryptonian who had come to Earth for her; who had taught her what it meant to love; who had married her. Kal-El who was her husband. Slowly the events of the day came back to her, while Kal watched patiently as shadows of understanding flitted across her face ending with horror at the realization of her collapse.

"Lois, listen to me." He sought to soothe her with his words. "You're safe now. You were very ill but Physician Tamar and his medics took care of you and you're going to be fine. But you must rest and let the healing process begin."

"Wha…" Lois' voice was no more than a thready whisper and she cleared her throat weakly to try again. Ever the investigator, Lois was not satisfied to return to welcoming sleep while she was unaware of the cause of her illness. "What happened to me?"

Straining to hear the words, Kal couldn't forbear to smile a little at the typical Lane question, though indeed she was no longer Lois Lane. She was now Lady Lois-El but Kal was well aware that it would take more than a change of name to bring about a change of nature. In fact, he dearly hoped that Lois would never change. Grow perhaps; mature perhaps, but he loved her for all that she was.

"Kal?! Tell me!!" That was whispered with a hint of annoyance. Though she was sick Lois saw no reason to be kept in the dark.

For a few seconds Kal considered prevarication, at least until Lois was fit enough to hear the truth. Yet somehow he insightfully understood that Lois would not appreciate this course of action. Their marriage was an equal partnership in which they would face the good and the bad together. He had given Lois this pledge back on Earth and he would not break it at the first sign of trouble.

"You were poisoned. Someone tampered with your injection-gun. I was so afraid that I would lose you, but you are getting better." A frown clouded Kal's brow as he relived the long hours since the wedding feast. However, he pushed his depressing thoughts aside in order to reassure his wife and smiled gently at his next words. "Soon you'll be feeling much better and we have a honeymoon to continue."

Lois shakily returned his smile at this suggestion but would not be diverted. "Who, Kal?" She could only talk in short bursts but she was anxious to know everything. "Who did this?"

"We haven't been able to discover that yet."

"But we're continuing to investigate." A new voice, but one she was coming to recognise and welcome, joined in the conversation as a figure emerged from the gloom of the medi-chamber and stood by Kal's side. "I think we require the assistance of a very dedicated journalistic student who I believe never lets go of a case until she exposes the criminals."

A faint grin hovered over the pale lips as Lois fought her exhaustion to answer. "Lord Zor? Why are you here?"

"I came to see how you were, my dear, and if my nephew was taking care of you. I'm very glad to find you awake, but I can see how tired you are. Lois, you must sleep if you are to regain your strength. The search for your attacker will continue but, meanwhile, as your ruler and as a proxy for your father I'm ordering you to rest. Kal will stay with you until you sleep but then I'm instructing Ching to escort him to his sleepchamber. You both have been through a terrible experience today and things will look a whole lot better after a good night's rest." And, having delivered his edict, Zor-El lifted Lois' one free hand and gently kissed her fingertips. "Sleep well, my dear."

With an affectionate glance to Lois and Kal the old man took himself off, after a few quiet commands to Ching and Poli who promised faithfully to do his bidding. Thus it was that in a very short space of time a much heartened Kal-El was accompanied to an empty room in the medical wing of Ro-Ellion, both men discerning that Kal would much prefer this resting place tonight than the chamber where he had assumed he and Lois would be consummating their marriage.

Yet even in sleep Lois was warmed by the mind of Kal-El telepathically holding her safe from harm. If they could not share this night in body their souls would be together tonight and indeed for every night as long as they both should live.

***

Chapter Nine

Schie-Hellion

The visit to the mystic mountain was postponed only for a few days as the new Lady of El recovered from her almost deadly attack by an unknown hand. Lois, although deeply aggrieved that the perpetrator was not yet in custody and, it seemed, was unlikely to be caught, allowed herself to be persuaded to leave the investigation to the professionals and join Kal on their honeymoon.

A transporter was prepared to carry a recuperating invalid and their bags were packed and deposited in a goods carrier while Ching and Poli, along with a bemused Etta whose presence had been specifically requested by Lois, and a contingent of security personnel embarked in two larger transporters. The little convoy left Elvar in the early morning hours and, though their journey was of some distance, the hovercraft covered the ground speedily and the new member of the Kryptonian population delighted her husband with the obvious interest she found in viewing the passing scenery. The small townships of the farming communities seemed, surprisingly, so very like the mid-western states of her homeland that she felt comforted by the similarities. Yet she could not resist remarking to the heir, on all she surveyed, that the countryside through which they passed was far more old-fashioned than she had imagined. To which comment Kal pointed out that their civilisation had learned through time and many past mistakes, some of them lethal, that sometimes nature was best left to her own devices. The hardest lesson of all had been to acquire the wisdom to know what to tamper with and what to leave well alone. Hopefully, it now seemed as if the Kryptonian people had finally reached the correct balance.

Shortly before midday the cavalcade reached a mountainous region where it left behind the cultivated pastures and travelled through a dramatically rough terrain where the signs of habitation were few. The speed of the vehicles slowed slightly as they travelled along the shoulders of the high mountains and threaded their way through narrow gorges between steeply towering peaks. But just as Lois became dizzy from staring at the stark walls that rose sheerly on either side, the pass through which they sped opened out as their convoy entered a high valley which they continued to traverse for a short time, wending their way through snowy forest paths until before them, still someway in the distance, they saw their goal.

Her first sight of the castle almost took away her breath. An ancient towering structure, Schie-Hellion stood on the shores of a small lake bounded by lofty snow-clad mountains. The walls were built of a silvery granite-like stone which blended perfectly with the rocky majesty of the landscape and, reflected in the light of the red sun, the building appeared like a rose pink jewel set in a white velvet case.

Once again Lois was rendered speechless by the beauty and grandeur of this planet and she wondered, with a tinge of the old Lois Lane cynicism, whether she was being shielded from the less picturesque areas. As far as she could tell this world seemed free of pollution and blight but she determined to ask Kal if this was a true picture or were there hidden scars elsewhere on Krypton's landscape. For the moment, however, she was content to enjoy the time before her spent in this wondrous setting with the man she loved.

The marriage had remained a purely platonic one, Kal being too afraid to take the final step in their union until he was completely certain that Lois had recovered from her ordeal. Now, as Lois entered their first home together, she decided that this was a situation that would end this very night. No longer was she content to lie in her husband's arms and remain passive, a condition which she was aware that Kal was finding ever more difficult to maintain. And from this night she would ensure that he no longer had any need to control his burgeoning desires; desires that Lois was feeling just as keenly.

During the afternoon, Kal had spent the time showing Lois over the ancient home of the family El; the origin from where the family had risen to the important role that it now held on Krypton today. In those days of long ago a direct ancestor of the present ruler and his heir had assumed the care of his people. Through many long centuries the Lords of El had fought for their charges' protection and survival in a hostile world, ever increasing the numbers of souls for whom they accepted responsibility until finally the mantle of First Lord of all Krypton fell to this great and just dynasty. And this edifice of ancient stone held within its form many memories both tangible and metaphysical of ages past. As Lois walked with Kal through the rooms and corridors, she was awed by the sense of history that surrounded her. Now Lois and Kal were about to embark on a new passage of Kryptonian history and only future chroniclers would measure their success.

Supper was served early that evening, Kal fussily being afraid that the long tiring day would have been detrimental to his wife's health. Truthfully, Lois felt very well but due to her agenda for the evening she happily followed Kal's instructions and took herself off to bed with the promise that he would join her as soon as he conferred with the small security task force. The Lord of El was not prepared to allow another covert attack on his family and was taking steps to ensure their safety.

Lois, with Etta in tow, retired to the uppermost regions of the castle where the master bedchamber was situated. The room was vast and covered most of the upper floor with two smaller rooms which housed respectively Etta and the two bodyguards. A roof terrace which overlooked the icy waters of the lake was accessed from the chamber by large French windows, now covered over with thick velvet curtains. In a large fireplace a log fire blazed with a welcoming warmth. It was strange that on this technological world that every house she had yet been in preferred to rely on this natural heat and not more modern central heating systems. Still, as she gazed at the flickering flames she had to admit that real fires beat central heating for atmosphere by a long way.

Smiling in anticipation she pictured herself and Kal lying before the huge blaze learning to know intimately each other's bodies and discovering how to give and take pleasure from the other. Quickly she called Etta to her, Kal would be here soon and she had things to do. The two young women crossed into the bathroom and Lois began her preparations to make sure that this would be a wondrous night Kal would never forget.

A short time later the young bridegroom entered the dimly lit room fully expecting to find Lois asleep in bed. He closed the door quietly and crept forward into the chamber, crossing to the fireplace and sinking into an armchair. An almost silent groan escaped his lips and he dropped his head into his hands. While he had sat in the medi-centre by Lois' side, watching her frail body fight for life, he had vowed that if she lived he would restrain the passion that had been building in his body for her since the day he had first spoken with her, and allow her to set the pace of their lovemaking. But he had never thought that it would be so difficult. Holding her while she slept and recovered her strength was proving to be a sweet torture.

"Kal!?" Lois' soft voice reached him through the flickering shadows of the firelit room. "Is something wrong?" The words were full of trepidation. This was not a night when she wanted the outside world to intrude on their time together.

Kal's head snapped up and he threw a swift glance toward the bed only to have his eyes verify what his ears had already informed him. Lois was not asleep in bed. His eyes followed the sound of her voice and came to rest on her as she stood by the window. The curtains had been pulled back a little and the moon shown in through the space, lightening on a small figure clad in a nightrobe of spun silk. Bathed in the shaft of silvery light the sheer gown highlighted the silhouette of Lois' desirable curves. It was more than flesh and blood could resist and Kal stood and walked towards his bride as if in a trance. Reaching her side, he opened his arms to her and she walked within his embrace.

"Lois, are you sure you are ready for this?" he questioned in a voice thick with passion.

And in the words she had given him back on Earth she reassured him of her love. "With all my heart."

***

Over the next few days the household saw very little of their Lord and Lady, the couple choosing to remain in their bedroom as they explored this new and exciting aspect of their lives together. Each was amazed by the overwhelming desire that had overtaken them and they delighted in their own company. To see; to touch; to taste the other was so much more than they had ever dreamed.

Etta and Ching were the only staff members who had any contact with Lois and Kal, taking care of their needs and serving them the light repasts that were all the couple requested in their chamber. Yet no one was surprised or upset by these events. Indeed, the servants were amused and pleased by the happy laughter that echoed from the top floor of the castle. And finally, when the two lovers emerged from their chosen solitude, the glowing smiles that lit both faces; the endearing glances that passed between them and the way they remained always within each other's embrace, warmed the hearts of the castle retainers.

Slowly the couple allowed their attention to return to the outside world and the rest of the days spent at Schie-Ellion were filled with jaunts of exploration and strolls along the shores of the frozen lake. Evenings were spent dining with Ching and Poli and, much to the early consternation of the girl, Etta was persuaded by Lois to join them at the table. This suggestion did not exactly sit well with Kal when his wife first voiced her intention but he allowed himself to be won over, only with the proviso that Etta should agree to the plan and should not feel herself coerced.

Kal was not a snob but he was a product of a strictly class-bound society and he also appreciated that the serving-girl herself would feel awkward dining with those she had been raised to believe her betters. Yet the future ruler's ideal was to change the rigid traditions of Krypton, though if he were honest, his vision involved only the emancipation of the sexes in his own noble class and perhaps in the important families of the military and business worlds.

He now perceived that his Earth-born wife had more far reaching notions and though the results of these radical ideas scared him he was not about to dismiss them out of hand. Besides, the implementation of these additional concepts lay so very far in the future that they were not worth worrying about for the moment. Nor were they worth upsetting Lois by refusing her request, he was not prepared to spoil his honeymoon by falling out with his wife. Also, this was the backwater of Schie-Ellion where protocol was decidedly more relaxed, where the small band of household servants had known him since birth and tended to treat him with the familiarity of long-serving retainers. And lastly, although Lois was increasingly regarding Etta as a friend, she was heedful that such a situation would be completely out of place back in Elvar.

So it was that the young girl became a member of the happy band who spent their nights entertaining themselves with tales of their experiences in their respective fields and as Etta grew more comfortable in their company she even found the courage to recount a few funny stories of life below stairs which had her listeners laughing fit to split their sides.

Card games too became a form of entertainment in the early dark of the winter nights much to Lois' astonishment. She had thought that the high-minded Kryptonians would think themselves above such vices, an assumption which she discovered was not completely far off the mark. Playing for fun was tolerated and indeed some card schools were considered an intellectual duel of minds, but gambling was frowned upon. Nevertheless, there were a few private gambling clubs scattered throughout the main cities, set up by sharp off world entrepreneurs of the Space Confederation, of which Krypton was a prime member, who saw an niche in the market on this ascetic planet. Because of trade agreements between the planetary federation the management of these 'casinos' were given licence to run their clubs within strict guidelines though most of the older generation of Kryptonians would never contemplate crossing their doorsteps.

Lois, being a founder member of the college poker school, took to the new game (which Lois placed somewhere between Canasta and Bridge) with an aptitude that soon had her opponents crying for mercy but poor Etta found the going tough and, as four players were really all that was required, when the cards were produced of an evening she usually excused herself from the proceedings and took herself to bed. This state of affairs distressed Lois and her reaction was to veto the card playing but Kal reasoned that Etta would be horrified to think that she was responsible for putting an end to a pastime which was so clearly enjoyed by the others. Reluctantly, Lois admitted that there was probably an element of truth in his argument and the games continued.

Amazingly television did not exist on Krypton, although as Lois was well aware most Kryptonian households could access transmissions from other worlds. There were, however, broadcasts of a different kind and Lois was slightly puzzled when one evening after dinner the group sat down in the library dimming the lights and gazing expectantly at a cleared space in the centre of the room. Eerily, strains of soft music seeped into the darkened library and materializing before her astounded eyes an orchestra shimmered into being. Laughing at her wide-eyed astonishment Kal explained that it was merely a hologram of a concert that was taking place in Veren, another great city of this world and seat of the Ver family.

Lois was beginning to realize that her new planet was divided into provinces owned and run by the noble families and these states were in turn governed by the First Lord (who would one day be her husband) and his council. This was not a new revelation as Kal had explained much of his world's political and social configuration on the journey from Earth. Nevertheless, to actually witness the theory in practise was fairly overwhelming yet Lois was also aware that it was a practise that she must quickly come to terms with if she were to be happy here on Krypton and indeed help Kal in his secret mission.

Meanwhile, there was much on Krypton to appreciate and Lois settled down contentedly to enjoy the lovely music, her hands entwined with her lover's strong fingers and her head resting comfortably on his shoulder. Imagine her surprise when midway through the concert it was announced that the orchestra was to play a piece which would be new to viewers on Krypton; a symphony from the planet Earth, Beethoven's Pastoral, in tribute to and appreciation of the recovery of Lady Lois of El. And as the familiar music filled the room so too did the Lady of El's eyes fill with tears, moved by the kind and thoughtful gesture.

The days of contentment sped by spent mainly in the confines of Schie-Ellion's extensive grounds until the day when Kal judged his wife was sufficiently healthy to undertake a longer journey. Lois was intrigued as it seemed their destination was to remain a mystery. The only information her infuriatingly smirking partner would impart was that they were to visit a neighbour who was one of his most favourite people and, as an after thought, that she would really like this mysterious person.

Another mind-blowing shock was to greet Lois on this morn. As she stepped outside to board their vehicle she was surprised to see not the customary transporter but a vehicle from a time gone by; a partially hooded sleigh. But this was not the object of her staring eyes, standing proudly between the shafts, prancing a little in their eagerness to be off, were a beautiful pair of matched white horses. And yet these animals were not quite horses; from the middle of their foreheads projected a long pointed horn… these were…

"Unicorns!!" The word escaped Lois' lips almost reverently.

"Yes, but why are you so surprised?" Kal questioned. "I did tell you that many of our species were similar to the ones of Earth."

"But unicorns exist only in fairytales." She was still whispering as if she didn't want to upset these lovely beasts by doubting their existence. "They're mythical creatures of legends."

"Well, as I said once before, some of your legends seem to be reality in other worlds. Remember the Taureans. I suspect Earth as well as Krypton was visited aeons ago by space travellers who have left their seed on the planets they touched and then disappeared in time."

"Disappeared where?" Lois demanded, fascinated by his reasoning but as always searching for the facts.

"I don't know." Kal sounded a little peeved that she should question his theory. "It's a big galaxy and there are lots of others out there. Do you have another explanation that would account for the similarities between so many different planets?"

Lois shrugged and smiled wickedly. "Up until you found me I didn't know other life forms existed! But I'm so glad there are *certain* similarities between Earthlings and Kryptonians." And brushing past him she wiggled her little derriere suggestively as she stepped up into the sleigh, a sexy giggle escaping into the crisp morning air.

Kal shook his head in confused amusement. Krypton was unprepared for the delightful little devil that was about to be unleashed upon them. With an indulgent grin he took his seat beside her in the sleigh, covering them with the thick counterpanes of fur that would serve to keep them warm on their journey. Two burly serving men walked forward with a strangely glowing red rock and placed it in a hidden compartment beneath the seat of the sled and instantly Lois felt a warmth spread upwards through her body.

"What was that?"

"That was kryptonite, red kryptonite," Kal helpfully explained. "There are a number of different colours and all have slightly different qualities. This red variety when charged retains and conducts heat and is excellent as a source of central heating during our hard winters."

"But you use natural fires in your houses!"

"Lois, these old homes are large and pretty draughty. Real fires are very pleasing to look at but they would never be sufficient to heat the whole building."

Relaxing into the sensation of gentle heat that was radiating from the rock, Lois admitted with a sigh of pleasure, "Hmm, this certainly seems effective." She snuggled closer to Kal's side, her breath teasing the sensitive skin beneath his ear. "What do the other ones do?"

Distracted by the body that was burrowing into his side he did not quite take her meaning. "Mmm, what other ones?"

"Kryptonite! You said there were other varieties. Really, Kal," she teased. "You have to pay more attention." And she playfully batted his chest.

"Minx," he retaliated, pulling her even closer. "How am I supposed to concentrate with you breathing in my ear?" So close was she that their lips were almost touching and he swiftly took her mouth in a deeply sensual kiss. Once he was satisfied that Lois had lost all measure of concentration he broke the contact. "Green!"

Lois' eyes opened in confusion. "Green! What's green?"

"Kryptonite! You asked about the other varieties. Really, Lois, you should heed your husband."

The two laughed happily together as Ching and Poli took their seats on the driver's bench before them and picking up the reins Poli gave the command to be off. At his cry the unicorns sprang forward taking the strain of the sledge with ease and soon the powerful animals settled into a steady gallop as behind them the sleigh glided smoothly over the frozen ground.

"Actually, green kryptonite is the source of Krypton's wealth and influence." Kal's laughter subsided as he returned to more serious matters. "The crystal is the only means of powering the hyper-light drives which make inter-planetary travel possible. There are other fuels which are used on shorter journeys but no others are capable of producing speeds to traverse the galaxies. All of the planets in the Confederation use green kryptonite in their ships plus a number of worlds outside the alliance."

"And Krypton is the only source?" As Kal nodded in affirmation Lois whistled keenly. "Talk about cornering the market. This green stuff must be worth its weight in gold."

"More than gold, Lois. Gold is actually mined on many of the worlds, platinum and diamonds are more rare but kryptonite of any colour is only found on Krypton. And yes, we do make a great deal of money from the trade."

Lois' attention was caught. "And who owns the mines?"

"The families on whose lands the mines are situated."

The next question was obvious. "Does the El family own any mines?"

A grin was spreading across the face of the Lord of El. "Quite a few. When we get back to Ro-Ellion I'll show you a list of all our holdings. For now I'm on holiday and I don't want to talk shop. But let's just say, Lois, that you'll never be poor."

The young Earth girl was far from mercenary, but with a candour that was endearing she admitted, "Good, because I have to admit that I'm growing accustomed to this life style. Not that I need servants or anything but I never really enjoyed housework much. To tell the truth I don't think that I'm the domesticated type. So the fact that I don't have to cook and clean suits me fine. And it's not as if your people are ill-treated. In fact they all seem very contented and happy in your service. At least the ones I've met are and it's not like any of them are slaves or anything like that… is it?" The ramble ended in a very small voice.

Understanding that Lois was ambivalent about her new position on his world he hurried to reassure her. "No, honey, I don't own anyone." He sought to still her hands that were nervously stroking the furry blanket. "There are no slaves on Krypton. The practice is illegal and those who are born on land belonging to a certain house ought to be free to leave and seek employ elsewhere. But I would hope that all my people are content to be part of my house and that if they had a problem they would bring it to me so their grievance might be solved."

"But what if they want to better themselves?"

Aware that Lois was approaching the heart of her misgivings about life on Krypton Kal trod warily. "Passage between classes is very rare here, Lois. Kryptonians seem to accept their station in life even those at the bottom of the pile. I know that for an Earthling that is very hard to accept but I believe that the people of El are happy with their lot and it is my duty and that of my family to ensure that they remain so."

"And if any of them decide differently?"

Regarding this as a highly improbable scenario, he contemplated a moment before answering. "Then, if I were sure that they had thought their plans through, I would do my best to help them reach their goal. I am not the evil master, Lois."

"Oh I know. I never thought you were. It's just that I'm finding this 'House' thing quite difficult to take especially since I've been brought up to believe that everyone is created equal. Then again part of me has taken to it like a duck to water. It's very strange but I can't help wondering if I would feel so comfortable if I were in Etta's position."

"Lois, I would hardly have gone all the way to Earth just to find a chambermaid. You're confusing Kryptonians with slave traders again. Besides, though you aren't prepared to admit it, Etta is quite happy to be your maid and was more uncomfortable when you forced her to be something else."

Another sigh escaped Lois. "You're right. I should never have persuaded Etta to sit with us in the evenings. The poor girl is like a fish out of water. But she's helped *me* so much with my attempts to learn Kryptonian and I just thought that she would enjoy being with us. You tried to make me see but I wouldn't listen. Oh no, Lois Lane knows best. And I used to think my mother was controlling, argh!"

"Actually, Lois-*El*, just lately I've begun to suspect that you weren't entirely wrong about Etta," Kal admitted readily. "You'll need a lady-in-waiting to attend you at court. Normally you would choose a girl from the lesser nobility, someone you had known since you were a child, but since you don't know anyone on Krypton I think that Etta might be suitable. At first I thought her too young and timid but she's grown in confidence these past weeks and since you two get along so well I think she would be the perfect choice."

"Won't that cause talk amongst the other nobles?" Lois was quickly catching on to these class restrictions.

"Some might take offense." An amused grin fleetingly crossed Kal's face as he thought of the more conceited members of his class. "But most will just put it down to your Earth eccentricities. Besides, I care more for your comfort than any mean founded gossip. If Etta makes you happy, then Etta it shall be."

Kal-El only obscurely comprehended that he had taken the first steps towards the metamorphosis of his class-bound culture. And indeed he was not averse to the conception; Ching was his closest friend and yet Ching, although from a respected family, was not of the nobility. The road would be very long and, on occasion, extremely dangerous but at this time Kal was unaware that anything momentous had occurred. He only knew that he had made his Lois happy and at present that was his sole aim.

Serious matters having been discussed and concluded to the satisfaction of both parties, the conversation now turned to the inconsequential. Kal pointed out various landmarks as they sped towards their destination and as the bemused bride took in the glory of the surrounding landscape a contented silence settled over the swift gliding sleigh.

Soon the travelers left the lake and the forested valley floor behind them as the high rugged mountains encroached ever closer to their path. The animals leaned more strongly into their task, pulling the sledge up into the steeply sloping foothills.

Unexpectedly the ground levelled into a shallow plateau and close by a stand of trees a large glowing globe rested. In structure it reminded Lois of the orb ship which had carried her away from Earth though this craft was much less fragile.

"Does someone live here?" Lois whispered, her voice echoing in the still air.

"Yes! A very eccentric Lady!" Kal at last revealed.

"And she lives in a ship?" She kept her voice low, afraid to break the almost mystical atmosphere. "Who is she?"

"My paternal grandmother, Lady Rhana-El."

"Why does she live in a ship? Doesn't she have a home?"

"Several! But she loves to travel and finds this more convenient."

"Like a gipsy!" "That's closer than you think, Lois." Kal's voice also dropped conspiratorially. "If you cross her hand with silver she'll tell you your future."

"She tells fortunes?!"

"Well, she doesn't use a crystal ball or tarot cards but occasionally some of her 'feelings' have been known to come true."

A thought occurred to Lois and she asked suddenly, "Why wasn't she at our wedding?" Then, recalling that she had been mostly comatose during that time, she added, "she wasn't, was she?"

"No, you're right. She intended to be but, as you know, the ceremony was a little sooner than we anticipated. Grandmother was off-world visiting the Romany branch of her family."

"Ah, let me guess; she's from the planet Rome."

Kal pulled Lois towards him in an approving hug. "You're a quick study, sweetheart. Actually its called Romana, but you were very close."

"Huh-huh! Well your grandmother's psychic powers let her down on our wedding date." Lois couldn't quite ignore her skepticism.

"LO-IS!"

His reproval was interrupted by a frail lady stepping through the outer shell of the glistening craft. "Kal, don't be so touchy," she called across the intervening space. "This is all so strange to Lois it's only natural that she should have her doubts."

Lady Rhana-El walked forward to welcome the couple to what she considered her home and for the present the conversation was centred on the formalities of the introduction of the two women and the business of hurrying the group indoors out of the freezing air. Poli and Ching stayed behind to cover and feed the unicorns and to turn them loose to find shelter in the trees. That done they too entered the dome and found a meal prepared for them in the ship's control room.

Meanwhile, the young couple were seated comfortably in Lady Rhana's private sitting room where the elderly lady without preamble took Lois' hands into her own, closing her lined eyelids and furrowing her brow in concentration. Momentarily time stood still until, with a satisfied smile, the lady too sat in a large comfy chair.

"Yes, Kal, she is the *one*." Her voice was low and throaty and she spoke with quiet authority. "You have chosen well. And I am so glad to have met you, Lois, before I go."

"Go, grandmama, are you leaving us?" The question was asked apprehensively as if the reply was to be feared.

"Oh yes, but not quite to the destination you're referring to, Kal." His grandmother had read his intention and was clearly amused by the inference. She beamed fondly on her well loved grandson. "As you have just pointed out, albeit inadvertently, I am in the winter of my life and I might not have much time left to fulfil my dream; to go in search of the planet Nirvana."

"Nirvana," interrupted Lois proudly, "I know that one. It's the perfect life; the perfect place; it's an Earth legend."

"And a Kryptonian one too," Kal agreed. "You know we talked before about space travellers visiting other planets and leaving behind traces of their civilization and culture. Some Kryptonians believe that Nirvana is the home of these extraterrestrials."

"As do I and I've decided to try to verify my beliefs." This pronouncement was made with a great deal of determination.

"But, Grandmama, Nirvana is in the next galaxy and no-one knows if it still exists. Such a journey could be dangerous. We may never see you again." That notion clearly didn't please Kal-El.

"That may be so." A trace of sadness showed in the keen eyes. "Dear, Kal, you have always been the favourite of all my grandchildren, and we have shared a special bond. But now you have Lois and neither you nor the others in my family need me in their lives. Besides, no matter where I am in this galaxy or beyond I will always love you. But remember this…" Rhana beckoned Kal to her side and taking his hand with Lois' she entwined their fingers with her own. "Always stay together. Your way will not always be easy, but you shall win through as long as you have each other. Together you are stronger than one alone. Never forget that." The lady squeezed the young hands within her grasp, staring intently into the distance as if she were witnessing future events. All at once she appeared every one of her seventy-six years as her shoulders slumped and her hands trembled, but just as suddenly she emerged from her trance and her effervescent personality returned. "Enough of such serious talk. I came here to get to know my new granddaughter before I left on my travels. So come, Lois and tell me what you think of our adopted home and remember I too had to adjust to these stuffy Kryptonians," and she waved her hand towards her grandson, "you can tell me everything. And you must be hungry after your trip in that cold air…"

The rest of the visit passed off pleasantly until Kal decreed that they must return if they were to reach home before nightfall.

***

Chapter Ten

Plotting

The same steely moon that lighted the way home to Kal and Lois shone down on the far city of Elvar, illuminating an embarrassing and slightly disquieting scene. A young man was being forcefully propelled from the overheated and garish interior of one of the city's gambling dens with a strict reminder from the proprietor that his presence was not welcome until such time as he repaid his debts. The time scale given for this undertaking was exceedingly short, just 48 hours, after which time the management would be forced to apply to the gentleman's beneficiary. The implication was clear, if he wished to survive then he had to find the money to repay the debt.

As the scared boy walked on through the darkened streets, staggering a little in the freezing night air, he reviewed his options with increasing horror. Rol-Fre was not exactly sober, though due to his precipitate exit from the club, he was not exactly inebriated and the full menace of his predicament could no longer be ignored. Conflicting emotions seethed in his brain. He felt humiliated and angry. How dare these off-worlders treat a nobleman of Krypton so! He would make them pay for their insolence! But how?! That was the problem! Mostly he felt desperate.

He could apply to his father for financial aid but the last wrathful interview for just that very purpose still burned uncomfortably on his memory. Lord Dom-Fre had made it entirely clear to his offspring that he had bailed out the irresponsible young nobleman for the very last time. Rol had been born to parents who were not in their first flush of youth and throughout his adolescence the boy had been showered with all the love and attention that a couple devoid of a male heir for so many years had to offer. This had not been an entirely healthy situation and the child had grown into a spoiled and arrogant youth. And while the father had recognised their error and strove to undo the harm he was continually thwarted by his wife. To Lady Gwyn-Fre her boy would always be the perfect son.

Which brought Rol-Fre to another possibility; his mother would be sympathetic and could be relied upon to help, but unfortunately she had not the means. Aware that his wife would beggar herself for the sake of her troublesome son, Lord Dom-Fre had taken over the management of the household, allowing his wife only a small monthly stipend. There were, on the other hand, the family jewels but those that would raise enough money to cover his considerable debts were locked away in his father's security vault. A choleric oath was flung into the echoing empty streets as Rol-Fre realised that his chances of finding such a large amount of money were non-existent.

So intent was he on his dread dilemma that he was oblivious to the transporter that had pulled out behind him shortly after his untimely exit from the club and was now tracking him through the darkened city. The vehicle floated closer to the lonely figure's stumbling path and a voice could be heard from the cloaked interior.

"Lord Rol-Fre!" At first there was no acknowledgement. "Rol-Fre! A moment of your time!"

Slowly Rol turned toward the origin of the mysterious voice. "Who's there?! What do you want?!" He sounded like a petulant child.

The inside of the transporter became visible and a lone gentleman could be seen lounging in a throne-like chair. He leaned closer to his quarry and spoke again in silken tones. "Won't you join me, Rol- Fre? Let me carry you safely home? It is Lord Rad-Nor and I have a proposition for you."

Like most Kryptonians Rol knew of the Nor's reputation. In fact, he was envious of Rad-Nor's standing in the world and yet, though he courted the infamous lord's company, he feared him too. Nonetheless, the strange nobleman's next words could not be ignored.

"I can help you with your problem. You need money. I can provide it. Of course, I would expect a little favour from you in return…"

***

Rol-Fre had been drinking. Earlier in the day he had begun by taking one small drink to steady his troubled nerves but one had become two then three. He told himself it was to give him courage to face what must be done. But perhaps *it* didn't have to be done. Perhaps he should just go to Kal-El and confess to the whole sordid business. Of course that would mean that he would be exposed for the drunken reprobate he really was and his betrothal would be over. That would go down well with his family. Even his mother would be annoyed by a rift in her connection with the royal family.

And besides, though he was presently engaged to Kal's sister, he was not a part of Kal's circle of friends. By the time he had arranged to talk to the heir he was almost certain that Rad-Nor would have learned of his intention and silenced him forever. For the first time since his engagement he began to regret that he had not paid more attention to courting his fiancee, then he could have presented himself at Ro-Ellion and simply asked to speak to Kal. However, that was not an option. He was quite sure that his 'tail' (and he was quite sure he was being watched), noticing such an uncharacteristic visit, would have instructions to stop him approaching the family.

Over the past few weeks he had become cognizant with the fact that he had jumped from the frying pan well and truly into the fire when he had agreed to do Lord Nor's bidding. Rad-Nor was just as deadly a threat as the gambling den owners. To the proprietors his demise would be only a business transaction, messy but necessary, while he sensed without doubt that killing was something that Rad-Nor enjoyed.

No, there was no way back. And if he could pull this thing off then Rad-Nor would reward him generously. And he couldn't see why this plan would fail. Surely this inferior Earth woman would be unable to resist his charms. After all, his prowess in the pursuit of the female sex was legend. Rol-Fre's vanity prevented him from acknowledging that his successes were mostly with the care-givers who were paid handsomely for their services. In his view he believed that Lois-El would be no different from any other woman he chose to honour with his attention; she would be like putty in his hands.

As another serving maid hurried by with a tray filled with alcoholic libation Rol hurriedly grabbed another glass of false courage and, tossing it down his throat, he continued to stalk his prey. This had been his continuing task for several days, ever since the Lord and Lady of El had returned to Elvar, yet for the moment an opportunity to approach Lois-El had not arisen.

The royal couple had spent most days at the palace, acquainting Lois with the members of the court and her new role as wife of the heir to the throne. It had been an exceedingly busy time for the Earth girl; so many people to meet; so much to learn. Thankfully Kal and the family had stayed close by anxious to assist and protect her, a circumstance that had thwarted Rol's plans and was proving a small degree claustrophobic for Lois.

Unaccustomed to such close attention, she perversely longed for her previous anonymity. Lois was not totally unhappy. Indeed, her private moments with Kal were more incredible than she had ever dreamt and her new relations were showing her more concern than the family she had left behind. Living life in a goldfish bowl, though, was going to take a good deal of getting used to and she found herself sympathising with the Earth celebrities whose lives were dogged by the media and of whom she had been so critical.

Not that there appeared to be the equivalent of the 'paparazzi' on Krypton. Since her return to the city she had witnessed a number of 'broadcasts' (similar to the hologram she had watched in Schie-Ellion) by Zor-El and his Prime Councillor, Lord Trey, informing the population of the administration's debates and conclusions. There were also frequent news bulletins on the general happenings of the planet and the 'Federation' but the concept of a 'free press' seemed nonexistent. And yet, when Lois had raised this issue with her husband, Kal had been taken aback and more than a little chagrined that she should consider the possibility that the ruler or his council should lie to the people. Unable for the present to argue on the concept of a totally reliable politician or whether her husband was dreadfully naive, Lois chose not to further the altercation until such time as she became more acquainted with both subjects and Kal, believing that Lois' capitulation meant that she had accepted his statement without question, was happy to let the subject drop. They had still a great deal to learn about each other.

At this present moment, Lois found herself unexpectedly alone. Lady Lara, who had been leading her daughter-in-law towards a group of high-born ladies with the intention of furthering their acquaintance, had been called away to attend her daughter. Why Zara had needed the assistance of her parent was not exactly clear but the message did seem urgent. With a promise to return expeditiously, the older woman had hurried away.

Lois stared about her and finding herself surrounded by people with whom she had only a nodding acquaintance she speedily made her escape. Walking from the hall, using the closest exit, she found herself in a corridor she had not yet explored. She was alone at last and, certain that she could retrace her steps easily, Lois wandered down the corridor content to revel in her solitude.

Meanwhile, Rol-Fre smirked in self congratulation, pleased that his plan had worked so well; he had bribed the servitor well to convey the message. What could be more advantageous? Lois was alone and headed for the conservatory, which he assumed would be empty of visitors given the freezing temperatures and dull weather outside the glass walls. With the end of his task in sight, he swaggered with an air of satisfaction after his quarry.

The smug nobleman would not have been quite so content had he witnessed a slight young figure step from the shadows and, slipping out through a servants' exit, hurry to reach the only destination available to the Lady of El and her stalker.

The lone door at the end of the hallway opened into a large glasshouse built on the ramparts of the castle and as with the conservatory at Ro-Ellion it was filled with an array of strange coloured foliage and flora. Lois moved slowly forward to explore its many hued passages happy in the knowledge that on such a dank day she had the place to herself.

Reaching the boundaries of the glass wall Lois stared out, mesmerised by the swirl of grey cloud that hung low over the palace walls. Unexpectedly, she was wrenched from her meditation by a hand on her shoulder, and her heart lurched with sudden fright.

"Lady Lois, I did not mean to startle you, but I thought that you might enjoy some company." The young man smirked suggestively into her face and Lois was uncomfortable with the way he was standing so close.

"Rol-Fre, I did not expect you!" Her nose twitched disgustedly at the stale smell of liquor on the breath that hovered much too near.

The man did not move away and his hand tightened on her shoulder but, trapped between his body and the cold glass behind her, Lois found it difficult to escape. Besides, she was not unduly concerned. It was obvious from his odour and by his unfocused stare that he had been drinking and Lois had dealt with inebriated suitors before. This juvenile was not Lex Luthor!

"On the contrary, my lady! I think that you did expect me; that you were hoping I would follow." His hand slid from her shoulder and his fingers buried themselves in the soft fall of hair at the back of her neck while his other hand snaked around her waist and held her tightly. "I have seen the way you look at me. I know that you want me."

Pressed up against her slim form, Rol-Fre's body stirred with interest. He was drunk enough and conceited enough to believe his own rhetoric and he brought his mouth ever closer to hers. Yet somewhere in his fuzzy brain he had the sly sense to keep her arms trapped by the close confines of his body.

Alarm bells were starting to ring in Lois' head but she strove to remain calm and turned her head from the approach of Rol's wet repugnant lips. "I don't know what you're talking about, Rol. And you are drunk. Take your hands off me and I'll leave here and we can forget that this ever happened."

"You don't mean that, my dear Lois." Rol was completely caught up in his wishful fantasy.

"I have never given you any cause to think that I would welcome your attentions." Lois stared directly into his eyes, willing him to heed her. "Let go of me!! I'm a married woman!"

"Oh yes, married to that famous do-gooder Kal-El." The man's voice was thick with derision and a building passion. "Lois, I can show you things that your estimable Kal would never dream of." And, denied the lips which he desired, Rol trailed moist kisses across Lois' cheek.

The time for talking was over and the Lady of El squirmed forcefully in Fre's imprisoning grip, yet the young man was stronger than his slim form suggested. Lois increased the pressure to break away, determined that this time she would rescue herself. In the struggle that ensued she efficiently employed the self-defence moves she had learned back on Earth.

Suddenly the desirable female form that Rol had held so lustily became a whirling dervish, arms and legs striking out with horrifying effect for the bemused man and within minutes, Rol found himself sailing over a deceptively slight shoulder and ending spreadeagled on the ground. He stared up aghast at the picture of outraged womanhood and recognised that he had severely misjudged this particular Earthling. Shock and pain showed clearly on Rol's face as he struggled to rise.

"What on Krypton is going on here?" a strident female voice asked as Lady Lara strode forward to stand over the fallen Rol.

"Lady… La…ra!" The gasping man forced through his clenched teeth. In sly desperation Rol-Fre saw a way out of this terrible disaster. "Thank goodness you arrived. Keep this mad woman from me. She attacked me!" And he pointed an accusing finger at an amazed Lois.

Her gaze shifting between the two occupants of the conservatory, Lara asked, aghast, "Lois, what is he talking about?"

Placing trembling hands on his future mother-in-law, Rol sought to use the woman as a crutch in his struggle to rise. "She tricked me!" he claimed, distraught. "She sent a message that Zara was waiting for me here and when I arrived she threw herself upon me."

"That's a lie!" But Lois was almost speechless at this rat's temerity.

"I tried to tell her that I wasn't interested." Rol had succeeded to stand with Lara's help but for effect he continued to lean shakily on the proffered arm. "But she wouldn't take no for an answer. She said she was bored by the attentions of her saintly husband and wanted me…" A groan of indignation and scorn escaped from Lois but Rol rushed on, warming to the role of the sexually harassed gentleman. "And when I tried to leave she went crazy and attacked me. Thank goodness you came in, Lady Lara-El. I had no wish to retaliate but I was beginning to fear for my safety. If you hadn't arrived who knows what I might have had to do to protect myself. I might have hurt the poor deluded lady." These words were added disconsolately.

"In your dreams, Fre!" Lois couldn't hold back the retort but she was unhappily aware that her outburst didn't help matters. She had to defend herself from this drunken male's lying accusations. "Lady Lara, please believe me. He's twisted everything around. I would never betray Kal and certainly never with that… weasel."

"Don't listen to her, my lady." Rol's tone was becoming slightly wheedling. "She's an Earthling and everyone knows how unpredictable a race they are. There were many prominent nobles who were against the choice of an Earthling wedded to the heir."

Was that a spark of doubt that flickered in Lady Lara's eye? Who would be believed? A stranger from a far-off world with a questionable reputation or a member of a respected aristocratic family.

"Lady Lois speaks the truth!" A small voice spoke up from the depths of the bushy plants. "My Lady Lara, I saw it all, and that monster attacked my mistress." Etta walked forward into the light and it was apparent that, although she was a little afraid of the limelight, she was determined to defend her lady who had also become her friend.

"Well, of course, Lady Lois is telling the truth. Anyone with any sense can see that she's totally in love with my son and even if she wasn't she has better taste than to turn her attention to this… weasel." Lara borrowed Lois' description. Rol's shifty expression did often remind her of a rodent. "You're a fool, Rol! Whatever possessed you to assault Lady Lois?"

"No! You're wrong! The serving girl is in cahoots with her mistress."

"Rol! Do not exacerbate your crime by lies! Now you have a choice; you can leave here and say nothing of this distasteful episode or you can continue with your story and we can call the guards and you can go before the judges with your tale of sexual assault. But be warned, Etta witnessed the whole incident and I will do all in my power to protect my family." Lara's inference was clear; if required this lady was prepared to perjure herself in defence of her own and she closed the gap between herself and her daughter and placed a comforting arm around the smaller woman's shoulder.

Rol recognised defeat when he saw it staring him in the face. These three women would unite against him and, though Etta was of the serving classes, with the corroboration of the others her testimony would be believed. His head drooping to his chest, he began to leave the room, gratitude dawning in his mind that perhaps he was getting off lightly for his indiscretion. However, another blow was about to fall.

"And Rol-Fre," Lady Lara called, halting him in his tracks. "I expect you to terminate your engagement with my other daughter, Zara, immediately. Make whatever excuse you wish that harms no innocent party." The Lady had pulled herself erect as she commanded the retreating boy. "Do this or I will publicly accuse you of attempted rape."

The dowager Lady of El, while totally aware that she had made an arbitrary decision which ought to have been discussed by the family, did not regret her audacious demand. The mother in Lara objected with every fibre of her being to another of her daughters being trapped in a hopeless union to a despicable wretch such as Rol-Fre. She would end this now, and if she had to face her husband's and his family's censure for her actions, then so be it. She was, however, inclined to believe that Jor-El would concur whole heartedly with her resolution. Witnessing Rol's disreputable habits since his coming of age, Jor shared her disapproval of this rogue; yet the distressing reality was that until this incident there had been no due cause for terminating the engagement. Encouraged by the example of this young Earth girl to take responsibility for what she believed to be true, Lady Lara would seize the moment.

***

How had things gone so terribly wrong? Rol sidled slowly into the audience hall with the aura of a cornered rat. The realization of the danger in which he stood coalesced in his mind as he caught sight of Rad-Nor waiting with his wife Lady Keira to carry out the next part of the plan. At Rol's entrance the menacing Lord of Nor's brow lowered in suppressed ire.

Some time ago Nor had witnessed a puzzled Lady Lara return to the hall after her unnecessary mercy mission and question a passing servant who appeared to answer her queries to her satisfaction. When he watched her leave, apparently in search of Lois, Nor had been afraid that his plan of revelation was about to be pre-empted by his meddling mother-in-law. Of course, there was always the chance that Lady Lara-El would find her daughter-in-law in a compromising position with her future son. That occurrence would serve his purpose even better than the illicit lovers' discovery by himself and his wife. No-one would suspect a conspiracy when the two were accused by Lady Lara.

And so he had convinced himself that his scheme still had every chance of success and he waited in ill-concealed excitement for the commotion to erupt. The minutes passed and everything remained calm… something was wrong. When a brow-beaten Rol-Fre walked into the room and almost shrank from his presence he concluded that his machinations had failed yet again. The Earth woman had more lives than a cat! You couldn't get reliable henchmen these days! That miserable Fre would pay for his failure! He had spent a great deal of his hard-earned cash to bail out that idiot. And yet the fool was a Fre and an only son. One day all the lands and riches of the family would be his and whoever controlled the boy would control the House of Fre. A clever man looked to the future. He would reprimand Rol but he would forgive him and make it clear that he would continue to support the young fool's extravagant life style. The conceited puppy would never recognise that he was being used until such time when the leash would be forcefully dragged in.

***

Following the altercation in the glass house of the palace, there followed a period of calm for the royal family. The youthful Lady of El recovered quickly from her brush with a deadly poison and with her less dangerous, unpublicized assault from a drunken suitor. Indeed the former nauseating incident had one pleasing outcome; that of breaking the betrothal between Zara and Rol-Fre.

For a short time, the breach had scandalized and puzzled the nobility of Krypton, no reason having been proffered by the young Lord for his shocking decision. The senior Lord Fre had remonstrated strongly with his son to no avail and even the poor long-suffering mother could find no excuse for her son's actions.

Strangely, Lady Zara did not seem overly distressed by this almost unprecedented occurrence, and the ostracized young Lord went on his degenerate way unconcerned that he was a figure of derision or that he had broken his parents' hearts.

The lady at the very heart of the matter, Lady Lois-El, was not particularly worried about public opinion, nor was she overly concerned with that of the family. All her anxieties centred on the reaction of her husband. Her fears were unfounded. Never for one second did Kal doubt his Lois. Indeed, his overwhelming emotion on being informed of the incident was one of rage, and his immediate intention was to rush out and demand satisfaction from Rol-Fre for the insult to his wife. Fortunately, Kal was soon persuaded that such a foolhardy course of action would simply negate the cover-up and give the opposition and the mean-hearted a chance to sully Lois' reputation. And if that young man, having been baulked of his prey, sulked a very little for a few days, his relationship with his wife grew ever stronger with yet another problem overcome.

As with most scandals the public, unable to find any tantalizing information, lost interest in the affair and, after commiserating with both families and turning a cold shoulder on their erstwhile peer, the subject of the broken betrothal faded into memory.

One question still, however, remained in the minds of the El family. If the Fres had disowned their son, who was financing his profligate habits? And if their suspicions were correct why would Rad-Nor pick up the tab? It didn't take much consideration to arrive at the assumption that Rol-Fre's attempted rape was carefully planned.

Thankfully, due to Etta's protection of her mistress, Lara's faith in her daughter-in-law, and her sensible handling of the situation no untoward scandal touched Lady Lois and Nor's dastardly plot to discredit the Earth girl failed completely. But the family of El were under no illusions that their enemy would give in and accordingly they became ever more vigilant in their care of Lois. Unfortunately Nor changed tactics and targeted a different prey.

THE END

To be continued in 'Universal Union Book 2'.