By Jenni Debbage < firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November 2001
Summary: In a continuation of the author's "Universal Union" series, Lois and Kal are faced with new challenges, including charges of treason and a threat to Krypton's security, as they continue their plans to bring new ideas to the society.
This story is for those who have asked me so kindly to continue the saga of Lois and Kal-El and their life on Krypton. For those of you who are new to the list or archive it is necessary to have read the previous stories in this series to understand book 3.
I have to thank my beta readers Carol Malo and Sarah Murray, who is also my editor, for their continued help and encouragement while I've been writing this story. From the moment I began Universal Union I knew where I wanted this story to end but I didn't realise just how many detours it would take or how long it would be for me to get there. And, even now, I see doors opening on new chapters of life on Krypton… if anyone is interested in discovering what's inside.
Meanwhile, I hope that this 3rd chapter does not disappoint. And feedback is very welcome.
Universal Union Book 3: The Battle for Krypton
Whispers and Accusations
The weeks passed and time had certainly eased Lois and Kal's rawest sadness. The couple had returned to Elvar as soon as Lois' injuries would allow and there, wrapped in the care and understanding of their family and friends, very slowly they began to heal.
And one good thing came from their disastrous visit to Veren. Realising that Lois was much in need of a diversion, the Vers had agreed to allow their daughter Gellis to return home with the royal couple; a circumstance that pleased Lois, as she enjoyed the company of the kindhearted and vivacious girl. Besides, since Etta's passing, Lois was in need of a new Lady-in-Waiting and as Gellis was nobly born the Council were pleased to name her as Etta's successor. For Lois it wasn't the same, it never could be, but she firmly believed that Gellis and she would be friends.
The promised apartment bolt-hole in the palace at Elvar had been duly set aside and Lady Lois had spent much of her time on interior decoration. It wasn't exactly Lois' preferred choice of occupation but since the Council had been reluctant to accept Kal-El's suggestion that his wife be allowed to attend their deliberations, she was grateful to find something to occupy her empty hours. Hiding her feelings of uselessness behind a brave smile and with Gellis' enthusiasm to boost her flagging spirit, she threw all her energy into re-creating a little piece of her old home.
Kal had guessed the extent of his wife's hurt at the rebuff and it angered him that his Council should cause Lois further pain, but he also knew of the unkind whispers that were echoing through the halls of power; Lois', and thus his own, popularity was balanced on a knife edge. Now was not the best time to fly in the face of his Councillors' entrenched attitude and force them to accept a woman's presence in chambers.
No-one could pinpoint exactly when the whispering started but it soon became clear that certain members of the aristocracy were taking the slanders seriously. The First Lord had very definite suspicions of the source of the malicious allegations, but once again nothing could be proved. Indeed, neither Kal nor his family could even tie down just who was continuing to spread these tales. No noble man or woman would actually repeat the nasty gossip to any of the Els or their closest allies. Yet the whole family was agreed that the young woman should be shielded from the knowledge that many of the noble classes were bandying the story that her careless wilfulness was solely to blame for the loss of the heir to Krypton.
And so Lois was encouraged in her distraction of preparing a place of sanctuary for herself and her husband; a ploy that would unfortunately rebound on the Lady and the family who sought to protect her.
Totally unaware of the gathering cloud, Lois was putting the final touches to her 'home,' aided and abetted with great gusto by her energetic Lady-in-Waiting and with more subdued encouragement from her quiet sister-in-law. Back on Earth 'Thanksgiving' was fast approaching and Lois had decided to celebrate the earthbound holiday in tandem with a small house-warming party, and both Zara and Gellis were happy to assist her. It was good to see Lois smile again.
Yet somehow the smile never quite reached her eyes, and Kal was saddened that the fire that was Lois was burning so low. The loss of the baby coupled with a certain amount of homesickness had robbed Lois of her usual tenaciousness and the loving husband would do everything in his power to lift her spirits. The generous-hearted Kal, suffering too from their loss, could not foresee that his choice of actions to heal his wife would be so cruelly turned against her.
"Well, what do you think?" Lois enquired, perching on the floating platform that served as a stepladder here on Krypton. As she hung the stars and stripes flounce across the top of the large window, she frowned in perplexity. "It isn't too much, is it?"
"No! I think it looks very festive," Gellis agreed brightly. "And it does stand out well from the drapes."
Lois had searched through the swatches for a colour scheme that would satisfy herself and Kal; both were heartily sick of the royal burgundy which predominated in their formal suite, and had settled for ivory velvet which she had so liked in her bedroom at Ro-Ellion.
"That's what I'm afraid of; it's too gaudy!"
"But it's only for the celebration, it's not like it's forever," Zara pointed out helpfully.
"Thankfully, that's true! I doubt that I could stand all this red, white and blue myself for more than a few days," she confessed with a giggle as she scanned the room.
Streamers hung from the ceiling lights and little USA flags adorned bowls of harvest fruits placed about the room; the apartment certainly had a carnival-like air. In fact, Lois would be the first to admit that the flashy bunting was more '4th of July' than 'Thanksgiving' but she was pretty sure that her Kryptonian guests wouldn't really be aware of her melding of the two US holidays. Besides, she had completely missed the passing of 'Independence Day' in the emotional trauma of the summer so she hoped that her far- off compatriots would forgive her mixing of the festive paraphernalia . The youthful American wanted to prove the point that not only Kryptonians were proud of their heritage and in the vague feelings of isolation that ofttimes assailed her, she needed to reassert her roots. Lois had never been quite this patriotic back on Earth and she reflected this paradox with a wry grin as she turned to secure the bright broad ribbon while her helpers learned the new skill of balloon inflating. Lois had recruited her scientist father-in-law to invent the 'party balloon' here on this highly advanced planet. And, if he had been a little surprised to find his talents put to such a frivolous use, he was quite happy to indulge his new daughter.
A light knock fell on the outside door and as Lois called permission, Lady Lara appeared in the doorway.
"My dear, come down from there before you do yourself an injury," the older woman instructed Lois, completely unabashed by the fact that she was addressing the First Lady of Krypton. "I never had much faith in those flimsy floatboards, they're much too easy to unbalance. You should have one of the servants hang these banners."
"Lady Lara, Kal and I have already decided that servants won't be needed in this apartment… well, except when we're having a celebration dinner," Lois conceded with a grin. "Cooking was never one of my skills and I don't suppose that was one of the subjects Kal had to learn when training to be First Lord. And I doubt that I'd cover myself in glory if I succeeded in poisoning all my guests at my first dinner party."
The dowager Lady returned Lois' teasing laugh but nevertheless, swallowed a silent sigh of relief as she watched the agile young woman lower the platform and jump lightly to the floor. "Thank you, Lois! And speaking of dinner, I thought I would bring along someone who might be of some use…" Lara turned back to the hallway and beckoned to the man standing in the shadows. "Burdom," she announced with a flourish as the Ro-Ellion kitchen maestro strode into the room.
"Burdom!" Lois clapped her hands with pleasure. "Am I glad to see you. I've been puzzling over how to explain to the palace chefs, none of whom have your talents I might add, just the menu I require for a Thanksgiving dinner."
The chef par-excellence beamed at Lois' compliments and with a jaunty bow to his Lady got quickly down to business. "Milady, Lady Lara has already explained what you're planning and I took the liberty of checking up the information in our computer archives. I was hoping that you might be needing my help; there's nothing I like more than a challenge, and I'm happy to say that I can substitute nearly all the ingredients that would be found on Earth. Once I've worked my magic, I doubt that you'll be able to tell the difference."
Lois' heart fell at the word substitute, yet she smiled shyly at the helpful cook, not wishing to hurt his feelings. "Thank you, Burdom, I'm sure you'll do your very best…" Her eyes strayed to the window and up into the soft lilac hues of the afternoon sky. In her mind's eye she visited a place that was wreathed by a pale blue sky. "But I should love to taste a real turkey," she added softly.
"And so you shall, milady, only on Krypton they're of the wild variety and I believe that back on your world they're known as capercaillie." But the sometime prima donna chef was not without sensitivity and he sympathised with this young woman who had come so far from her home. He forced a deal of heartiness into his voice as he rallied the forlorn girl. "Trust me, Lady Lois, I shall do you proud and between us we will treat your guests to a little bit of good old USA hospitality."
Fortunately, his chivvying worked and Lois replied with some of her old spirit. "I knew I could count on you, Burdom, and we'll make this a party that no-one will forget."
While Lois took care of domestic matters her husband presided over yet another Council meeting. At the outset the session had seemed to be more friendly and conciliatory than those of late and indeed an absentee member had seen fit to return to his seat on the Council.
Lord Jun-Li, a seemingly quiet-spoken man in his middle- years, had been present at Kal-El's investiture and had also sworn his oath of allegiance. Yet without explanation, the nobleman had returned with undue haste to his homelands, sending his apologies to the Council for his prolonged absence.
The lands of Jun-Li bordered those of Nor, causing Kal to wonder whether the reason for this retreat and nonattendance was due to the fact that the man was afraid of how his rapacious neighbour would view support of the House of El, or whether Jun-Li was actually an ally of Rad- Nor. Since Li's retaking of his seat on the Council, it would seem that the former might be true and the First Lord dearly hoped that he had not acquired a 'mole' within his Cabinet.
Certainly, his other Councillors seemed to be welcoming Lord Li with enthusiasm and, taking in the man's modest air, Kal chose to take this reappearance as a sign that the floating support of the nobles was now moving in his favour. He had problems enough without borrowing more.
The daily and more mundane business had been duly taken care of and now the discussion was moving onto a fairly controversial subject, that of the request to join the ranks of the Inter-Planetary Federation by the planet Moy, a small and somewhat backward world. This tiny planet was situated in the outer regions of the Federation's influence and was just beginning to explore space, taking tentative steps to reach out to the worlds that shared its galaxy. In doing so, however, it had attracted the attention of the Taureans and was now in grave danger of being attacked and colonised by this marauding race. In fear, they had turned to the powerful alliance of planets for succour, approaching the Council of Krypton to be their mentors during the process of application.
It appeared, from the heated debate that was ensuing, that the assumption of this role was not the given conclusion that Kal had first thought. The Moyans were a people who were desperately in need of help and the First Lord of Krypton could not resist the urge to give aid to those in trouble… if only his Council would agree.
And there was an added incentive to persuade the assembly to his will; Moy's situation was very similar to that of Earth, or at least it would be in the not-quite-so-near future. The Moyans had already made contact with other worlds, while the people of Earth, although probing the universe, were mainly of the opinion that they were alone. And they were right in the case of their own universe; Earth was the only planet in that solar-system which sustained life. If they could only set their sights wider then they would find that life of many types abounded in the wide galaxies…
If only in the meantime, Earth was not discovered by the Taureans or some other warlike race… and an even more terrifying thought; what if some such race discovered that they might develop these extraordinary powers as he and his bodyguards had so unexpectedly acquired after spending some time under the yellow sun of Earth? His wife's home planet could become a playground for an all-powerful force of aliens. And that was why he had sworn Ching and Poli to secrecy; no-one must ever learn of the strange and wondrous changes that had taken place, not even his fellow Kryptonians.
A noisy confrontation interrupted Kal's worried musings; he really must pay closer attention — the decision reached today might provide a precedent for his future suggestion that Earth too might fall under the protection of the Federation.
"I understand fully what you are trying to say, and I do not in any way approve of the vandalism of the Taureans, but, like it or not, Moy does not fulfill the criteria for membership," Jun-Li intoned with some regret.
Zor! Kal almost wished that the man hadn't chosen this particular session to return to the fold.
"Vandalism!" Prime Councillor Trey snorted with disgust. "I would hardly describe the Taureans' behaviour as vandalism… Downright thuggery is what it is!"
Thank goodness for Trey! Just as Zor-El had predicted, he was turning out to be a valuable and trustworthy friend!
"I agree," Li conceded, "but… and I admit that I might be wrong here because I have been a little out of touch… but the Taureans haven't openly declared war on the United Planets nor have they actually attacked Moy."
"No! But they make no secret of the fact that they hold the Federation in contempt and they might well be behind many of the covert attacks on our merchant fleets," insisted Trey.
"And they kidnapped my wife." Kal's voice held a barely suppressed anger.
"But didn't the Taurean ambassador maintain that the leader of the kidnappers was a renegade; a mercenary who saw an opportunity to make his fortune when he spotted your wife strolling through a fairground without a bodyguard. He probably intended to ransom her." Jun-Li's words dropped into a sudden stillness. "Of course, I only learned of the incident second hand, so perhaps I'm mistaken and I don't wish to reopen an obviously painful subject… But can we hold the whole Taurean nation to account for this hooligan's actions?"
Deep inside, Kal seethed at the thinly veiled inference that Lois had only herself to blame for her abduction, the indictment made more potent by its seemingly mild delivery, yet he swallowed an incensed retort. No-one but the Els' closest family and friends knew of the plan to sell Lois and Etta into slavery; there had been no proof, and Lois was the only living being who had survived the terrible debacle. Most Kryptonians had assumed that Ballen and his gang intended to demand a ransom from Kal and his Council for the safe return of the First Lady, so the latter part of Jun-Li's speech was not unreasonable.
"Lord Jun-Li, I do not think that we can suggest that our poor First Lady is in any way responsible for what happened to her and she has already suffered a great loss because of her innocent misjudgment."
Damn Jen-Mai! Damn him for stating the one thing that Kal had bitten his tongue to avoid; the insidious suggestion that Lois had brought the whole sorry mess down on her own head. And the cunning Mai had done it in such a manner that he could hardly be called to account. Damn Jen-Mai!
"Oh my, oh my!" The newest member of the Council looked suitably contrite. "I never meant to insinuate such a thing. My Lord Kal-El, please believe me, I never intended to cast a slur upon your Lady's name. Please forgive my indiscretion. I'm certain that Lady Lois never conceived that such an innocent pleasure could result in the loss of your child."
Kal stared in mounting horror as Jun-Li managed to emphasise the allegation. Was the man an opinionated fool or was he part of a double act; the straight man to crafty Jen-Mai's barbs? Kal-El had never looked so severe, so imposingly royal. The ministers sitting at the long table looked decidedly uncomfortable while the prospect of Jun- Li's speedy eviction from the Council seat he had just reclaimed loomed close.
"No-one holds Lady Lois responsible!" Trey quickly rushed to defend the breach. "Ballen and his cohorts are the monsters to blame for everything that happened… and whether they acted independently or with an other cannot now be verified." The grey-haired Prime Councillor took control, sending his young ruler a silent warning to restrain his understandable ire; it would not be politic for the First Lord of Krypton to indulge in a heated argument on the subject of his wife's culpability. "Now let us return to the business in hand, the Moyans' suitability for membership of the Federation…"
"Yes, that would be best and I still reiterate that Moy does not fit the profile…"
"You have made your feelings perfectly clear, Jun-Li," Kal at last managed to speak and with just the faintest trace of annoyance. Much as though his instinct was to defend his wife with all the passion he possessed, he recognised the wisdom in Trey's warning. It would only harm Lois' position to force his Councillors into an impromptu trial over the rights and wrongs of the First Lady's actions on that fateful day in summer. Not understanding her freedom of spirit, it was a distinct possibility that they would not condone her bid to escape, if only for a few hours, the confines of her rank. Yet Kal firmly believed that most men in this chamber were not vindictive and that given time and opportunity they would come to appreciate Lois' intelligence and admire her courage. That being so, it was now time to turn the spotlight away from his wife. "But regardless of your views, the Moyans have begun to trade with their neighbours and…"
"That may be true," came the snappy retort, "but, as they're such a poor planet I can't see that the Federation has anything to gain from the trade." Jun-Li had much to say and it was obvious that he meant to be heard. Nevertheless, his rudeness was beginning to exasperate his peers.
"I doubt that gain or the lack thereof should be the yardstick of whether we support Moy's application." This slightly edged comment came from Lord Remy, the oldest statesman of Krypton, who also happened to be an uncle of Lady Lara on her mother's side of the family.. "And I would like to remind you, Lord Jun-Li, that in this chamber we accord the First Lord the courtesy due to his rank."
"Oh dear, I do apologise, Lord Kal-El. I seem to be making a terrible hash of my first meeting under your auspices… and I did so want to create a good impression… whatever can you think of me, my Lord?" stuttered the seemingly crestfallen man. "It's just that I haven't quite accustomed myself to seeing such a young man sitting in that chair… I keep expecting to see Zor-El … I know that you all have had some time to come to terms with the loss of our dear friend and leader and I would ask you to bear with my blundering, fellow Councillors and Lord Kal- El…" Jun-Li was almost reduced to embarrassed tears and round the table heads were sympathetically nodding.
Kal-El knew exactly what to think… the man was clearly an accomplished actor or he was a bungling idiot. In a very short space of time Jun-Li had managed (inadvertently or not) to accuse Lois of gross misconduct and to remind everyone in this room that their ruler was a callow, inexperienced youth, and all seasoned with just the correct amount of empathy and regret; talk about killing with kindness… Kal silently cleared his throat and his chin rose in steely determination. None, witnessing his mein, could doubt his authority.
"I think I speak for everyone in this chamber when I say that we all regret the abdication of Zor-El and we are all much poorer for the loss of his wit and wisdom, none more so than myself. But Zor is gone and he passed the baton to me," Kal stated with quiet strength. He studied the faces of his Councillors, trying to gauge the effect of his words. When he continued his voice was stern and he leaned forward in his seat, his fingertips gripping the table edge. "You might not like it; I'm not sure that I liked it… and I certainly wasn't ready for it… but it is done. For better or worse, I took my place as First Lord of Krypton and I intend to fulfil my pledge to defend my people and my world and to do my duty as Leader of the United Federation of Planets. All of you took an oath of allegiance to support my rule and so I ask for that support now. In my opinion, this small planet of Moy is taking its first tentative steps towards its place in the Federation and make no mistake, they are in danger, Taurean ships have been reported scouting that particular quadrant of our galaxy. I sincerely believe that we should protect and promote the Moyans in their request for membership."
Silence reigned in the imposing chamber, the seat of government for many centuries, as Councillors digested this impassioned speech. Never had their new sovereign spoken at such length and with such determination in this Council room. Surprisingly, most found themselves deeply impressed by his grasp of the situation.
"Might I make a suggestion, Lord Kal?" The question came from Trey's deputy, the chameleon-like Jen-Mai. Kal held his breath, but granted permission with a slight nod of his head and a small flourish of his hand. Jen-Mai rose to his feet to continue. "It seems to me that both sides of this argument have some merit. So, perhaps, a compromise could be reached. Although Moy may not fulfil the standards set by the Federation, there seems to be every indication that their peaceful existence is under threat from the Taureans and I agree with our dear First Lord, that weaker civilisations ought to be protected by more powerful and able worlds such as ourselves and our allies. Therefore, I propose that Moy be awarded a probationary membership, until its scientific and commercial progress reaches the stage where it may fulfil all the criteria for full membership of the Federation."
Why was it that all Jen-Mai's utterances sounded like he was giving a speech? Yet, theatrics aside, Kal had to admit that he was exceedingly grateful for the Second Councillor's contribution. Especially since the proposal was quickly voted upon and accepted. The Mais' camp was the last place from which Kal had expected support… and why did he have the uneasy feeling that the whole incident had been orchestrated?
After a speedy summarization of what had been agreed upon, the meeting was wound up and for a short time the Councillors exchanged less formal greetings with Jun-Li, catching up with his news and chatting about the happenings in Elvar since he had been gone. Soon many of them began to drift away, leaving only a few in the large room.
At the head of the table Kal stood with his closest advisors, Lords Trey and Remy, who both were congratulating him on the success of the Moyan project. The troubled leader, nonetheless, couldn't rid himself of the feeling of having been manipulated and he passed on his concerns to the two older men.
Lord Trey laid a comforting hand on his young master's arm, a telling gesture which would have been quite impossible some months ago. Slowly, as they combined their efforts to thwart the elusive enemy, both had learned to value and trust each other's qualities and strengths. Indeed, now Trey viewed his task as First Councillor, to protect and advise his young Lord, as so much more than a duty.
"The meeting was hardly a qualified success and I very much regret the unfortunate references to Lady Lois, but we did scrape through the motion to protect Moy and that was our main concern." The grey-haired man continued to pat the tense arm beneath his hand soothingly. "We must be thankful for that. And I find it hard to believe that Jun- Li had any ulterior motives behind his words. I've known the man for years; we did our time in the military together and sat on many of the same committees, not to mention this High Council, and while I admit that he might not be exceptionally bright, I have always considered him honest."
"There is nothing so dangerous as an honest, misguided fool… And we mustn't forget just where his home lies," the other ancient advisor cautioned. "He might very well have been persuaded to do Nor's bidding out of fear."
"Exactly what I was thinking, Uncle Remy," Kal agreed hurriedly as he watched the small group at the other end of the table conversing amicably; a group which suspiciously consisted of Jun-Li and Jen-Mai… or was he reading too much into the scenario? And even a connection between Mai and Nor had never been proven. "But perhaps I'm being paranoid. I only know that between them they managed to score a few hits against myself and Lois."
"No-one paid any attention to those comments," Remy pronounced, with more confidence than he actually felt, in an effort to rally his somewhat despondent great-nephew.
"I know what you're trying to do, Uncle, but we both know that there are quite a number of people ready to believe the worst about Lois… I just wish that it had never been brought up in this Council chamber."
"Kal, no-one who really matters holds Lois to blame!" Again Remy attempted to reassure the perturbed husband. "Most of the Councillors were shocked by Jun-Li's foolish utterances and even if they did consider Lady Lois' exploit a little unwise, no member of this chamber holds her to blame for what followed."
"I wish I could be more sure of that," Kal uttered softly as he watched Jen-Mai bid the group goodbye and stroll in his direction.
"And on a brighter note," Trey's voice rose as he too witnessed the approach of his untrustworthy deputy, "please tell Lady Lois that I'm looking forward to dinner tomorrow night."
"Me too," enthused Lord Remy, the senior citizen having completely fallen under the spell of his high-spirited niece-in-law. "I'm always interested in experiencing other cultures; I might be a very old dog but I'm not above learning new tricks."
Those words made Kal laugh as the image of his oldest relation learning to line-dance while the strains of country music TV were piped into his apartment, flashed across his mind.
"Well, to tell the truth, I'm not exactly sure myself what Lois has planned; she's keeping this one very close to her chest… I'm not even allowed into the apartment…"
"A strange state of affairs if the First Lord of Krypton isn't master in his own home," Jen-Mai quipped as he came to join them. "I'm sure that Lady Lois must be planning a lovely surprise for all of us." And his grin was just as oily as his voice.
"Excuse me?!" That last remark had taken Kal-El completely by surprise.
"I'm assuming that since this is a small gathering of your family, friends and close supporters, that you wouldn't leave out your Second Councillor and that the lack of a formal invitation to myself and Lady Minerva was just an oversight on Lady Lois' part. Lady Minerva was devastated by the slight; she was so looking forward to renewing her acquaintance with your lovely Lady."
The nerve of the man! And how did he get out of this one?! Jen-Mai had backed him when it seemed that his wish to promote the Moyans would be blocked. But on the other hand, how did he explain to Lois the presence of the Mais at her first private dinner party?
Jen-Mai clearly took Kal's silence as assent because the smarmy grin grew even broader. "Good! Lady Minerva will be over the moon! Tomorrow night at eight I believe. Till then, my Lord and fellow Councillors, I bid you good day." A quick bow and he was gone.
"Oh dear," commiserated Remy, "whatever is Lois going to say when you tell her?"
Kal could only manage a very un-kingly shrug.
Lois paced back and forth in the small bedroom; actually, by Earth standards it wasn't a small room, but compared to the royal apartment two floors below it was really quite tiny. She hadn't thought she would be so nervous; after all, she had hosted a number of formal banquets in the palace's dining hall and this was only a small party for family and friends. Previously, however, the organization had been the responsibility of the seneschal and his staff. This was her party, her creation… well, except for the actual cooking.
And the thing was, thanks to Kal's stumbling confession of yesterday, she wasn't really looking forward to it. How could he have allowed himself to be railroaded into inviting the slimy Jen-Mai and his equally annoying wife; wasn't Kal a king or something?
Of course, she knew all about Mai's unsought backing of Kal's plans in the Council chamber, which had put her husband at a disadvantage when it came to refusing the request for an invite. Given Lois' suspicious nature, she firmly believed that this new Councillor was a plant and that between them, Mai and Li had set the whole thing up. What was not quite so obvious, was what they hoped to achieve with Mai's presence at this party. This was just a small family gathering… nothing crucial.
Satisfied with her appearance in her long-flowing gown — Lois was becoming accustomed to the more courtly attire of Krypton — she wandered through the family room into the dining area, running her hands along the backs of the Earth-styled chairs as she moved down the length of the table. Bowls of harvest fruits sat on the pristine white cloth, while silver candlesticks and cutlery glimmered in the crystal lights suspended above the table.
As her eye caught a slight imbalance, Lois leaned over and straightened a little trio of flags that topped one of the fruit bowls. Her eye was drawn to the other 'stars and stripes' decorations that festooned the room. They were out of place given the nature of the celebration, but to Lois they were a reminder of her home — her identity, and, as such, they gave her courage to face the future on her adopted planet.
So much had happened to her since she had arrived on Krypton; she had experienced the happiest moments of her young life, and yet, she had been touched with great sorrow and tragedy. But best of all, she had been granted the most beautiful of gifts… the love she shared with her husband. Which was not exactly the first emotion that entered her mind as Kal somewhat sheepishly exited the bedroom.
"Don't fret, Lois," he gently advised as he came to stand behind her, his fingers softly kneading the tense muscles in her shoulders. "It'll be fine, you'll see. Mother and Father, Zara and Gellis, Ching and Poli, the Treys and, not forgetting, Uncle Remy, they're all on your side."
"Kal, this is a family party, not a skirmish; there shouldn't be sides!" Lois shrugged his hands off with some vexation. Suddenly she stilled, then abruptly whirled to face Kal once more, her face showing signs of inner turmoil as mentally she counted her guests. "Kal, that's thirteen people sitting down to supper! It can't happen! It's very bad luck! We have to invite someone else."
"Honey, whatever are you talking about? And it's far too late to send out an invite. Please calm down." He attempted to take her hand that was forcefully poking his chest.
"Thirteen is a very unlucky number… and haven't you heard of the Last Supper? What am I saying?! Why would you have heard of the Last Supper?! Having thirteen guests to dinner can only lead to disaster," Lois almost wailed.
"Is this religion you're talking about? Because, you know, I never really thought you were religious, or superstitious for that matter." A rather worried Kal had caught hold of Lois and he pulled her closer, running soothing hands up and down her stiffened spine. "You're just obsessing, sweetheart — and I know that I'm wholly to blame for that — but you must know that I wouldn't ever let Jen-Mai or anyone else hurt you."
"I'm not religious or superstitious, not normally anyway," she conceded, "but things haven't exactly gone very well recently and I'm not about to borrow trouble. We have to find someone else to come to our dinner."
As his wife frowned in concentration, Kal waited with a sense of dread to hear what her solution to her problem might be. It didn't trouble him just how many people were seated at the table but looking along its length he had to admit that it did look somehow unbalanced. Ching would be alone in the middle of the table with no one seated opposite him and even that table plan had caused some disruption between the couple, Lois having placed Zara across from the handsome Captain (the Lieutenant having been promoted due to his competent handling of the 'Ballen affair.') Kal had thought her matchmaking in this case was just a little obvious and he had insisted that his two bodyguards should change position.
In fact, Ching or Poli would only be considered as suitable guests at a family gathering such as this, and now that Mai had wangled an invitation, he wasn't completely sure that both men should still attend. Still, when he had made his misgivings known to Lois, she had immediately poo-poohed his idea, insisting that she was happier to have the servicemen than the obnoxious noble couple. Besides, she didn't wish to hurt the sensibilities of her two friends by revoking their invitations and, as this party was the first thing that Lois had tackled with enthusiasm, Kal had quickly waived his objection.
Lois took a turn around the room while she figured out just who would be available to fill in at such short notice; the guests would be arriving very soon. The bird-like physician, Tamar, would have been the ideal choice but he was out of the city attending a medical seminar. Then inspiration struck! The Els' long-serving major-domo, who was almost part of the family.
"Ernst!" The troubled hostess cried in relief. "Kal, contact your mother, she won't have left yet, and tell her to bring Ernst with them — it really ought to be another woman to balance things out, but beggars can't be choosers," she muttered as she headed in the direction of the kitchen. "I'll go and tell the staff to set another place at the table…"
"Lois! No!" Now the equally troubled host halted his wife's swift exit with a few words that sounded ominously like a command. "You can't invite Ernst, he's a serv… ant…"
His voice died away as a sense of deja vu overtook him.
"Yes, he is. And don't start with that again. Etta was also a servant to begin with and you admitted that you were wrong about her. Besides, you've known Ernst since you were old enough to know anyone, so he's much more than a servant," Lois challenged.
Kal ran his hand through his thick dark hair, a sure sign of agitation. He couldn't refute either of Lois' statements, yet Ernst was not Etta. "Lois, he's an old man and he's set in his ways, he'll be uncomfortable on the wrong side of the fence." Now Kal was almost pleading. He really didn't object to Ernst sitting down to dinner with them; nonetheless, he just couldn't shake this unnerving feeling that something wasn't quite right with the arrangement. But he loved Lois, so he attempted to explain.
"I admit that Etta dined with us at Scheih-Ellion, but that was an informal setting…"
"This, Kal," Lois' arms waved around the room, "this is supposed to be an informal setting…"
"Please, Lois, just let me finish," and he paused a moment to see if she would interrupt once more. His wife maintained a sullen silence. "We were all young at Scheih-Ellion, more open to accept change. Yet, even Etta was ill-at-ease with the arrangement to begin with. This is different; my parents, the Treys, they wouldn't really understand… but if they were the only ones involved, I wouldn't object so strongly, but the Mais would feel insulted…"
"Good! Because, if it wasn't for them inviting themselves at the last moment, we wouldn't be having this difficulty!"
"I can't argue with you there!" Kal offered Lois a rueful smile.
"And you know I don't hold with such old fashioned prejudice." With an answering, gamin grin Lois came to stand in front of her husband, leaning into his, at present, unyielding body and looking up at him with that intriguing mixture of mischief and supplication "And you did say that in this apartment we could leave all the pomp and ceremony behind us and just be ourselves."
The First Lord could not resist his Lady when she charmed him in just that way, but he wasn't about to give up without one final attempt to persuade her to his way of thinking. "Lois, sweetheart, I'm not just being awkward here, I really believe that this won't be a good situation for any of us. And, before you go accusing my people of being bigoted and backward, just remember that you're reacting out of an old superstition."
"I know," Lois had the grace to blush, not really understanding her own perversity, "but thirteen is such an unlucky number for me. I was the thirteenth student to receive Luthor's award and my date with that monster was on the thirteenth day of the month too and we all know how that turned out."
"Lois, that was the first time that I actually got to speak to you, so you can't expect me to think it was an unlucky day." Kal lowered his head until he touched her forehead with his own. "Please, Lois, trust me on this, having Ernst here would be a worse omen than unlucky thirteen and it wouldn't be fair to thrust him into such an uneasy gathering."
Surprisingly, Mad Dog Lane conceded defeat and graciously too. With a swift about-face and with only a quick quip, she whirled around and went to enquire of Burdom's progress in the kitchen. "Well don't blame me if things go terribly wrong, remember I did warn you."
But she softened her words with a gentle smile and a kiss blown in his direction. Kal could not forbear to smile at his wife's retreating back, his appreciative eyes lingering on the velvety material that clung to every curve as she cheekily wiggled her hips in his direction. Kal recognised Lois' resolve to put aside her qualms and determined to emulate her brighter mood. After all, what could go so terribly wrong in a simple family dinner party in this his own home.
He sauntered after his desirably impish wife into the kitchen. The tempting smells that were wafting through the open door drew him in — where he earned a swift smack on his hand from a now composed hostess as he attempted to sample some of the canapes laid out on silver trays. So much for being king!
In the beginning, it seemed as if the young couple's fears might have been unfounded. Jen-Mai chose to be conciliatory and though his Lady could, in Lois' eyes, be nothing less than aggravating, the two were behaving amiably. And it had very soon become apparent that the First Lady's apprehension over the question of unlucky numbers was nullified as, on the heels of the Els, the ancient Lord Remy arrived with a similarly ancient widow.
The old man's eyes twinkled and the lines on his face creased as he leaned to whisper conspiratorially to his great nephew and his lovely wife. "On the way here, my dears, I had the strangest feeling… something about numbers and bad omens… I didn't really understand, but there was something I could do about it. The Lady Brenna," and his gaze strayed to his partner who was being welcomed by the elder Els, "is an old friend, or rather the widow of an old friend. She doesn't get out much… and as I was passing her house, I sort of hijacked her. It will do the old lady good to be in some company and I hope I've solved your problem." This last was directed at the decidedly abashed but grinning Lois.
"Thank you and thank goodness for telepathy, it certainly has its uses." The now happy hostess reached to place a light kiss on the grizzled cheek. "Uncle Remy, you are the best." Then she hurried over to the little group comprised of her parents-in-law and her unexpected guest, leaving her likewise surprised husband to explain the details to her saviour.
"I'd like to add my thanks too, Uncle. Lois was in quite a state earlier; it seems that number thirteen is considered bad luck on Earth, especially in dinner guests; purely a superstition, of course…"
"But you didn't need any added evil portents considering who is coming to dinner." Remy's voice took on a more serious tone as he asked the question that had been troubling him since the previous day. "Do you expect trouble?"
Kal shook his head slowly and finished on a shrug. "I don't see what Mai could hope to gain from attending this party… unless, of course, he just hopes to bait Lois and believe me, Minerva-Mai can do that without trying." The worried young leader's gaze rested on his wife as she strove to put at ease a rather flustered old lady, who was feeling something like a fish out of water. "I just pray that Lois can keep her temper in check and that Jen-Mai doesn't have anything more sinister in mind." "Well, Lady Brenna is a harmless old soul and the family has always supported the Els, so I figured she'd be an innocuous addition to the party."
"Much better than Lois' suggestion!" And as his uncle lifted his eyebrows in a question, Kal gave a out an apologetic laugh. "Believe me, Uncle, you do not want to know!"
"Unsuitable, hm?!" Remy's glance also fell on the effervescent young creature who had landed in their midst very close to a year ago, and both his gaze and voice softened. "She has a lot to learn, Kal, but she is so quick witted… Have you noticed, she never makes the same mistake twice? But don't change her too much; I like her just the way she is."
"Don't worry, Uncle, I *love* her just the way she is," Kal sought to reassure. "It just makes me so angry that my enemies use Lois to get at me." A familiar shard of ice was forming in Kal's heart while he reprised all that Lois had been through. "It's just so hard to live with, knowing that because of me, Lois is in danger. I keep remembering how it was for Uncle Zor when he lost Rochelle…"
"That's not going to happen again," the quiet voice affirmed as Remy laid a feather-light touch upon his great nephew's clenched fist. "Most of the aristocracy were horrified by that tragedy and now they support you…"
"Then who is spreading these damaging rumours about Lois and why do I feel that there are forces out there just waiting to pounce…" Kal abruptly cut off his burgeoning fears, aware that Lois very often picked up on his moods, yet he could not stop his next thought. "Perhaps I should have left her safe on Earth."
"Nonsense, my boy! I'm certain that Lois would be the first to refute that suggestion." Remy scolded kindly. "And if, as Trey and I suspect, Jen-Mai is responsible for the whispering campaign then someday he will trip himself up. The man has far less intelligence than he thinks and his conceit will be his undoing. Have patience!"
"I'm convinced he's one of Rad-Nor's creatures," whispered Kal, "and now he has an accomplice in Li."
"Very probably, but this is neither the time nor the place to discuss such things. This is Lois' party and she's gone to a lot of time and trouble to make sure we all enjoy ourselves and I for one am going to see that her efforts were not in vain." And with a last encouraging wink to Kal, he joined Lois and his 'date' for the evening.
And indeed there had been no time to pursue the topic of Jen-Mai's possible treachery as the man and his wife arrived with the Treys and as the few servants who had been appropriated from the palace staff for the evening, appeared from the kitchens, handing round tempting hors d'oeuvres and wine, Kal chose to heed his great uncle's counsel.
The small group was soon seated around the table partaking of a meal which would have graced any American household at Thanksgiving. Burdom had surpassed all Lois' expectations as her tastebuds were tantalised by flavours of home. Even the native Kryptonians were pleasantly satisfied with the hearty food from a distant culture. The conversation too was agreeable and, if one discounted the contributions of the inane Lady Mai, most interesting.
So it was most unexpected that the first salvo was fired while the diners delighted over a scrumptious dessert of pumpkin pie, served with a large scoop of Krypton's version of ice-cream.
"Excellent, pumpkin pie," Jen- Mai announced, much satiated. "I congratulate you, Lady Lois, and your chef on such a delicious dinner. I had not thought to enjoy such a rustic meal, but I'm happy to admit my error."
"Thank you, Lord Mai," Lois attempted to accept his words graciously but her spirit bridled at the word rustic; did he honestly believe that the bland Kryptonian food, that she'd been forced to consume on many occasions, was preferable? Granted, the native eating habits might be considered more conducive to good health, but she did so miss revelling in 'comfort' food and she was pleased that Kal had seen to it that she was often indulged with tidbits from Earth, even if they were simulated.
"And am I correct in saying that this 'Thanksgiving' is an old American custom, celebrating the early settlers' survival in their new land of America?" Mai asked with a tinge of self-satisfaction.
"Yes, my lord," Lois was determined to play the role of indulgent hostess to the hilt. "In the 1620s the Pilgrim Fathers decreed a day of prayer and thanksgiving to celebrate their harvest and survival. You must have done your homework well," this last was said almost under her breath but Jen-Mai, sitting two places down on her right, caught her words.
"Indeed I have! In fact, I've particularly made a study of your culture, Milady; which makes me wonder why the 'Stars & Stripes' are displayed so prominently." The artful Lord raised his hands to point out the various red, white and blue decorations. "Surely they are inappropriate at a ceremony of prayer and giving thanks. And nowhere in our archives on the history of your nation have I found anything that suggests that this gonfalon was even thought of at this particular period."
"Well no, I don't suppose it was," the dismayed American girl acknowledged; trust Mai to be able to give her a history lesson on her native country. "I admit that I mixed up my holidays a little. The 'Stars & Stripes' came much later, during the War of Independence, but I didn't think anyone would mind."
"I think they look quite splendid," Lord Remy interposed smoothly, "and I don't think it matters a great deal here on Krypton."
"Husband, they're a keepsake from Lois' world." As if on cue Minerva-Mai's sickly sweet voice joined the conversation. "A young girl, so far away from home, needs such reminders. There's nothing untoward about that… unless…"
"Unless they're an indication of where Lady Lois' true interests lie."
"Jen-Mai, just what are you inferring?" From the head of the table Kal-El snapped the question; the young ruler had had his fill of innuendo.
"Only that perhaps your wife regrets her coming to Krypton," came the slick return. "I do not suggest this in a derogatory manner, but perhaps the Lady did not quite understand what would be required of her. It's clear that she finds her duties oppressive, hiding away as she does in this Earth-style apartment. Mayhap the Lady would be happier to return to her world."
There was a pregnant silence as those around the table absorbed the full meaning of Mai's statement. But the malevolent couple had not yet finished.
"Earth beings evidently lack the Krytponian strength of morality and honour that our rank demands… "
"… and poor Lois can hardly be blamed for something that is beyond her," Lady Mai added injury to her husband's insults.
The stillness stretched for a seemingly interminable time until the screech of Lois' chair being forcefully pushed back broke the frozen tableau.
"Now listen here, buster…"
This time there was no mistaking the power of command in Kal's words and, amazingly, Lois found herself sinking back into her chair, while Jen-Mai could not quite suppress a sly sneer at what he supposed to be the First Lord's chastisement of the Earth girl.
"Jen-Mai, you are a guest in my house and as such, Kryptonian hospitality forbids me to deal with you as I would earnestly wish." Lord Kal-El proceeded with icy calm to wipe the look of triumph from his Councillor's face. "In every way, Lois stands head and shoulders above you and your spoiled spouse, and I would not further insult her by asking that she accept your apology." The infuriated First Lord rose from his place at the head of the table and took a few menacing steps towards his prey. "Leave our presence now, but know this, if I ever discover that you have repeated these insinuations outside this room, I will have you and your wife arraigned for treason."
"My Lord, I protest," Jen-Mai stuttered, realising that he had miscalculated and very aware that the man who pulled his strings did not tolerate failure. He was being well paid to undermine the marriage of the First Lord and Lady and Rad-Nor would not be pleased if he had overplayed his hand.
"Get out of here, now! Before I call the palace guards and have you thrown out!"
Confronted by the implacable countenance of Lord Kal-El, the Mais had no choice but to obey and they scurried ignominiously from the apartment. The group left behind gazed in some astonishment and awe at the metamorphosis of the youth who had shown such potential, into the powerful commander of all Krypton.
A somewhat hysterical laugh from Lois eased the state of shocked tension. "Well, that went well, wouldn't you say?!"
"Good riddance, is what I say," Lady Brenna announced undramatically. "Never could abide the boy… and his father was no different. Mai, the elder, was a friend of my brother when we were children — and a fair weather friend at that, always making mischief and blaming others for the trouble he caused. The son is obviously just as untrustworthy. Take my advice, Lord Kal-El, and rid yourself of that weasel before he has a chance to cause more bother."
To say that the gathering was somewhat startled by the elderly lady's outburst was a definite understatement, Lady Brenna having been conspicuously quiet during the meal. Yet, it warmed the hearts of the First Lord and Lady to know that they had acquired another champion at this worrying time. Indeed, the rest of the dinner guests assumed the lady's rallying tone and the mood lightened, allowing what was left of the party to be judged a great success.
The young couple who went to bed that night mutually decided to put the distasteful altercation from their minds and to bask, instead, in the warm afterglow of affection left by their family and friends. Much later, however, as Lois slept in his arms, Kal stared into the darkness and recalled Lady Brenna's recommendation. If only he could banish his troublesome second minister; yet, perhaps it was preferable to keep Mai under his eye. Unwittingly, his hand tightened on Lois' hip, bringing her from sleep.
"Kal, what is it?" So attuned to her husband was Lois, that she easily picked up on the depth of his distress. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, sweetheart. Go back to sleep."
"Kal, whatever gave you the notion that you could fool me?" Lois rose up on her elbow and, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out the drawn frown on her husband's face. "It's Jen-Mai, isn't it? He hates me… and I don't know why… it's not as if I've done anything to him; though I have to be honest here… I agree with Brenna, I don't much like him either and I certainly don't trust him."
A tender hand reached out to cup Lois' face. "It isn't you he hates, honey, it's me; you're just a way for him to get at me…"
"Oh, that makes me feel a whole lot better, Kal," Lois' laugh was ironic, "knowing that I'm just a means to an end; not even worthy of a feeling."
"See, that just proves what bad taste Jen-Mai has; you are worthy of so many emotions and all of them wonderful." The young man's thoughts were switching to more pleasant pastimes than discussing the inconvenient Mai. "Have I ever told you how lucky I am to have found you?"
Kal reached up to brush the lips that hovered so near his own and with a quick change of mood he rolled Lois onto her back, fitting his body along her side and beginning to kiss his way from her lips to her ear. For some moments Lois allowed his assault, then gently pulled back.
"I know your plan, my Lord," she whispered huskily, "… to distract me…" Her arms went involuntarily around his neck and she leaned into his kisses. "I just want to tell you that it won't work… Oh, yes please." Kal had just found a particularly pleasing spot. "But I haven't finished with you yet…"
"Neither have I," Kal laughed against the silky skin of her long neck, his breath sending shivers through her body.
Deciding that a little distraction wasn't a bad thing, Lois pressed her curves ever closer to her husband until they were almost as one. "We can discuss this later… much later," she breathlessly conceded.
With Lois this close, Kal lost all power of cognitive thought. "Anything you say, sweetheart, anything you say…"
A few days later, their world fell apart.
Kal-El stood on the same terrace from where his wife had surveyed the preparations for his inauguration so many months ago. Now winter was approaching and a heavily leaden sky hung oppressively over the city and the surrounding countryside; the rust-shot grey of the clouds reflecting in the metallic sheen on the wide river mouth. Soon the snows would fall and his lands would once again be held in an unforgiving grip of ice and snow. Kal shivered inside his heavy greatcoat, pulling the cloned fur collar up closer to his cold face. Why did the law decree that scientific interference in weather patterns should be outlawed? he mused.
And yet, the vision of sheltering in front of a roaring fire with Lois warmly tucked against his side while outside the winter winds whistled and rushed their way across the frozen landscape, did have a certain appeal.
The thought brought a dreamy smile to Kal's face as he watched the crowds mill about in the streets below — most of the traffic appeared to be headed in the direction of the Palace approach-road. Strangely, Elvar seemed just as filled with noble visitors as it had on that far off day in summer. Was there some celebration day pending that he had perhaps missed? He very much doubted that; the history of his people had been one of the first things that had been taught him when he was a child.
This was, of course, the day of the open Council session — once in each season, the nobles of Krypton were invited to join a public meeting where they could raise matters of concern with the First Lord and his serving Councillors. But, normally, that wouldn't create such interest to explain the large number of visitors.
More importantly, there was one individual addition to the populace of Elvar that caused Kal great unease. Yesterday, while Lois and he had attended the formal opening of a new addition to Elvar's public library, Kal had been disconcerted to spot his elder sister, Keira, amongst the crowd that had gathered in the wide square outside the building.
The First Lady had been particularly requested by Elvar's local governors to open the 'Earth Wing' of the library — a department solely devoted to written publications, film and TV productions, as well as copies of famous paintings and sculptures from Earth. While on Earth, in addition to watching Lois and planning how best to engineer an introduction, Kal and his bodyguards had spent some time in visiting museums(from traditional to state-of the-art), art-galleries and libraries and had scanned the most prised artifacts and books, so that on their return they could be recreated here in Elvar.
The creation of the wing, where the people of her adopted city could learn of her native planet, and the city fathers' invitation that it should be opened by herself, had touched Lois deeply. During the proceedings, the young woman had displayed all the more endearing facets of her complex personality, from earnest and intelligent at the dedication ceremony, through to elated and witty at the less formal lunch — and Kal was content to notice that Lois had won the approval of the local community.
While Kal stood aside to allow his wife to be feted by the assemblage, he surreptitiously scanned the room for a sight of his elder sister or her unwelcome spouse — he seriously doubted that the paranoid lord would let Keira-Nor come alone into the enemy camp. His search, nonetheless, proved futile — his sibling was definitely not inside the library.
On a whim, he concentrated and sent a telepathic welcome to his sister, enquiring also as to her well-being. The short answer was unexpected and the content both mystifying and shocking.
<Fear not for me,> came the reply. <Look to your own wife!>
Quickly seeking out his mother, Kal had demanded to be told if she had known that her eldest daughter was in town. Lady Lara, a worried frown creasing her brow, had drawn him aside and explained that a hand written message had been delivered at Ro-Ellion, informing her of Keira's presence in the city and appealing to her parents to stay away from the Nors' residence as any contact would only exacerbate her already uneasy situation.
It was clear that the state of Keira's marriage and home- life caused the Dowager-Lady El much consternation and the caring son was reluctant to add to his mother's agitation by pursuing the matter, yet, from that moment, Kal had been unable to rid himself of the notion that Lois was once again in danger. Unfortunately, he had no idea what kind of assault Rad-Nor had planned this time — so he prepared for every eventuality.
The day's Council meeting, being a public one, would necessitate the opening of the grand-auditorium to the assembled aristocracy and thus could allow access to a daring assassin. This was a highly unlikely scenario — all visitors having to pass through the palace electronic security system — but the First Lord had decided to take no chances and had reinforced the palace-guard and alerted his own and Lois' personal bodyguards to be more vigilant. After dinner the previous evening he had spent some time with Captain Ching, divulging his suspicions and his fears to his long-time friend and being assured that Ching would guard Lady Lois' life with all his considerable resources.
Satisfied that he had taken every conceivable precaution, Kal-El left his lookout point, high on the castle ramparts, and went to enquire whether his Lady was ready to attend her first open-Council session.
The wide doors slid open and the royal couple walked slowly into the great Council chamber. Lois had been in this hall but once; back then she had been a supplicant, seeking permission to lead the oath taking at Kal's coronation and so intent had she been on the success of her mission, that she had paid little attention to her surroundings.
On that occasion, the grand gallery had been dark and empty and partitioned off from the floor of the Council room — not so now — the hall-divider had been removed and every available space was filled with the higher echelon of Krypton society; and all discussing with their neighbour the mysterious telepathic suggestion that they attend this open session. At first, each recipient had concluded that the request had been issued by the Councillors, but on arrival in Elvar, this assumption was found to be wrong and the source of the enigmatic message had not yet been discovered. Their curiosity pricked, most of the nobles elected to attend the meeting in the hope that their questions would be answered.
The deafening hubbub stilled as the Council, led by the First Lord and Lady, filed inside and took their places. Lois sat in the smaller of the two thrones that were placed side-by-side just a short way inside the entrance, and took advantage of the moments, while the ministers settled into their chairs, to look around her. The large gallery was circular and rose steeply to the lofty ceiling, where a number of doors punctuated a balustered walkway. Somewhat disconcerted by the sea of faces that stared back at her, she turned her attention to the body of the hall. The long Council table had been moved to the back wall and the seats placed in a horseshoe shape, facing the audience, with Prime Councillor Trey at the head of the curve.
When silence reigned, Lord Trey rose to his feet and declared in resonant tones, the second public session of Lord Kal-El's governance duly opened — Lois had missed the first due to her poor health following the loss of her baby. Trey then continued to give an account of all that had been done since the last meeting, the laws that had been passed, the problems that had been solved and the new projects that had been undertaken, mainly the construction of a futuristic irrigation system in the central deserts of Krypton that would alleviate the problems of drought and prevent disagreements over water-rights such as Jen-Mai had with his neighbour during summer. A number of queries on these issues from the assembled company were answered by the ministers in question and their advisors and then the Prime Councillor moved on to new business.
Lois felt her attention span beginning to wane as the rigid and highly traditional meeting droned on. She had been intrigued to hear of the irrigation scheme, as it had had some bearing on what had befallen her during summer, but when the talk veered into technical data, the discussion soon went over her head. Instead, her wandering concentration centred on the immobile form of her husband. Part of her mind had been aware that, for some considerable time, Kal had not been totally focussed on the proceedings, but was intent on studying the audience… as if he were keeping watch on something… or someone.
Kal was trying to promote an outwardly calm demeanor, but along his clenched jaw a muscle twitched — a sure sign to Lois that her husband was not as unruffled as he would like to appear. Her gaze followed along the line of his stare and finally, her eye alighted on his particular quarry. High in the middle of the balcony, almost in the shadow of the balustrade, sat a black-robed couple — stiff-backed and pale of face. As Lois watched, their senses seemed to sharpen — Keira blanched in apprehension while Rad-Nor smiled evilly in anticipation.
On the armrest of the throne by her side, Lois was conscious of Kal's hand clenching, but she had been so intent on trying to figure out what was distressing her lord that she had missed Lord Trey's request for any other business and she had been blind to Lord Jun-Li's rising — it even took some moments before her mind correlated Li's words.
"I accuse the Lady Lois of the house of El…" here Jun-Li paused for effect and to allow his now captive audience to appreciate fully what he intended to say. "I accuse Lady Lois-El of dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming the First Lady of Krypton; I accuse her of attempting to corrupt the culture of our world and breaking down the social structure; and finally I accuse her of espionage for her home planet, Earth."
The shocked silence was tangible — then uproar ensued as the aristocratic lords and ladies could not refrain from questioning the truth of what they had just heard. They rose from their seats and addressed each other, even calling out their opinions to acquaintances situated further away in the auditorium. Some were quick to credit the charges while many dismissed them out of hand, but most were simply incredulous.
Lois was stunned. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry — or perhaps scream — yes, screaming would be good — but whether from fear or shock or anger she couldn't be sure. All these emotions were chasing through her brain and she was unaware that she had started to tremble. How could they charge her of these crimes? She wasn't even sure if they were crimes. And if they were and she were found guilty, what would be her punishment… would she be disintegrated? Would she end up in a containment chamber as a mass of floating molecules?
Slowly, she became aware that Kal's arm had slid around her shoulder and that his hand had taken hold of her shaking ones. She could see that his lips were moving as he leaned closer and she tried very hard to concentrate on his words.
"Courage, Lois!" He turned her stiff body to face him and looked deep into her eyes as he whispered, trying to reassure her of his love and support. "This is nonsense! No-one will hurt you. Lois! I won't let them — I won't let them separate us!"
A loud banging could be heard in the large chamber. From somewhere Trey had produced a gavel and was continually bringing it down hard on the arm of his chair. The noise levels dropped steadily as people began to obey his call for order and to once more sit down in their places and attend the Prime Councillor.
"Order! Order! I will have order! Anyone who will not be silent will be evicted!" Trey's voice could now be heard as the tumult settled. "These are serious charges and must be investigated! If, of course, my Lord Jun-Li can substantiate these accusations."
"Indeed I can, Lord Trey, and will produce the validation at the First Lady's trial," Jun-Li pronounced.
"Trial?!" Lois mouthed, her voice having deserted her some moments earlier.
An alarmed Kal-El squeezed his wife's shoulder and leaned close to her ear as he attempted to explain in hushed tones. "When one noble accuses another of wrong-doing then a trial must be convened to investigate the charges. It's the law! But they can't find you guilty! You haven't done anything!"
"Why doesn't that reassure me?!"
"Sweetheart, don't be afraid! I can't stop the trial but they need my permission to carry out the sentence!"
"Great! Even you've got me guilty before the trial starts," Lois bemoaned hysterically.
"Honey, that's not what I meant… it's just a precaution…"
The couple's whispered conversation was interrupted by Lord Trey, who having conferred with his fellow Councillors, once more addressed the assembly.
"In accordance with the law of Krypton, I have no choice but to commit Lady Lois-El for trial. However, before I do, I would like to enquire of Lord Jun-Li what proof he has that the Lady is a spy — I wouldn't have considered that Lady Lois would have the technical expertise to communicate with her home planet."
"That might be so, but I have it on good authority that Lois Lane has twice been in contact with Earth," Li stated somewhat pompously.
"Yes she has — and on my good authority." Lord Trey was pleased to take some of the wind out of Jun-Li's sails, especially since it seemed that Remy and Kal had been correct in their estimation of this foolish lord. "Knowing that Lady Lois was concerned for the family she left behind on Earth, I instructed our communications experts to log into Earth's telecommunication satellites and Lady Lois was able to 'phone home.' I doubt that I need to state that our technicians were able to disguise the source of these calls. There were two conversations, one to her mother and the other to her sister and both were of short duration. I, myself, am of the opinion that these conversations should remain private, but if need be, the transcripts can be made available for examination." Trey used the ploy that his adversary had earlier and stopped to allow that information to be assimilated by the listeners. "Therefore, as no other communications with Earth have been reported by our monitoring system, I rule that the charge of espionage against the First Lady be dropped."
"I agree!" Lord Remy was quick to second the motion.
"And I!" A lord from the gallery stood to attention.
And from the gallery came various calls of assent as noblemen rose to be counted. For a few moments Lord Jun-Li seemed rather confused. His gaze covered the mass of bodies before him, but then, seeming to draw inspiration from some unknown source, the man's backbone stiffened and he spoke again.
"Perhaps I have been a little hasty in my assumption that the Lady was spying, but that does not negate my other charges. Do you intend to dismiss these too, Lord Trey?"
Sadly, Lord Trey could not do so — the law demanded that the charges be answered. Sending an apologetic look to the royal couple he now considered dear friends, he raised his gavel and brought it down in a single hard blow.
"I commit Lady Lois-El for trial! She will be brought before her peers to answer the said charges, tomorrow one hour before noon. Till then, she will be held in a containment chamber, guarded by the Lords Jen-Mai and Remy." Heads were nodding throughout the vast auditorium — the law was being upheld and all was being properly conducted. Trey continued, "the Lady will be allowed the companionship and the counsel of her mother-in-law, the honourable Dowager Lady of El."
The first minister held his breath for some moments as he waited to see if anyone would object, but, though there was a hum of conversation at this last statement, no one made any formal complaint. Lady Lara was a highly respected individual, and Jun-Li and whoever else had been responsible for this new attack did not feel sufficiently sure of themselves to also malign this well thought of noblewoman.
With another bang of the gavel Lord Trey intoned, "I so decree!"
A detachment of guards appeared by Lois' side; ones she had never before encountered — it seemed the Council were taking no chances that her guards might be sympathetic to the forlorn prisoner's plight. Within minutes she was removed from her husband's embrace, Kal reluctantly allowing his arms to fall away from her. He watched Lois as she was escorted from the room, his heartbreak showing clearly in his expressive eyes.
"I love you," he mouthed, not daring to speak.
Lois held back the tears that threatened and for the first time since arriving on Krypton, she wondered if she had made the right choice in leaving Earth.
A worried and very despondent Lord Kal-El, tossed around in his bed — it was just far too big and far too empty for his comfort. This was the first night, since Lois had been ill due to the miscarriage, that they had slept apart and, even then, he had slept on a smaller bed which the Lady Ver had thoughtfully provided in the sleepchamber. Kal was finding that he didn't like being separated from Lois one little bit. He couldn't even talk to her inside his head as she was locked inside a shielded chamber. Thank goodness she had his mother to keep her company and Uncle Remy to guard her — he refused to think of the other of her turnkeys. The thought of her being lonely and afraid tightened the band that had circled his chest in an iron grip ever since the moment Jun-Li had stood up and began with those dread words…
Kal could no longer keep still and, jumping up from his bed, he strode to the window and threw it open. The icy blast of wind that hit him was no colder than the dread within his heart. How could he have let this happen? The fact that Rad-Nor was in town clearly meant that he was up to something nefarious. Kal had been so sure that he had covered every eventuality, but he had been intent on guarding Lois from a physical attack and thus had allowed himself to be ambushed by a more subtle assault.
A gentle knock fell on the bedroom door and a sympathetic and familiar voice spoke to him telepathically, <Let me in, My Lord, I know that you're awake… it does no good to brood… maybe we could talk…> Ching's thoughts died away — afraid that perhaps he had been too presumptuous.
But the habits of a lifetime are hard to ignore and the two had shared their secrets and their worries; their joys and their expectations ever since a ten-year-old Ching had been assigned to take care of Kal; a boy just three years his junior. Together they had shared their academic lessons and also learned how to fight and protect themselves. Ching had been there when a young Lord Kal-El had struggled to study the arts of leadership, politics and protocol and, just as importantly, the art of military strategy. This was the custom on Krypton — that the heir should be united with his personal bodyguard from a very early age, in the hope that a bond would be forged that would be impossible to break. And so it was with Kal and his Ching. Within moments the door opened and a relieved Captain stepped inside.
"Can't sleep, eh?"
"No… I miss her, Ching," Kal acknowledged with a sheepish grin. "One night apart and I fall to pieces. Doesn't say much for the omnipotent ruler of Krypton."
"It just says that you love her," Ching intoned gently.
"And yet, for all that, I couldn't protect her." Guilt and disgust coloured every nuance as the tortured husband flung himself across the room to stare out the window once more. But Kal wasn't finished castigating himself. "What kind of husband am I to allow my wife to be sent for trial?".
"A beleaguered one, Kal! " In private moments like this, the formal relationship between the two men would be dropped — it was a consensus they had reached long ago. Ching moved closer to his friend's side. "There was nothing else you could do. It's the law — you had to uphold it. Lord Trey knew that."
"Thank goodness for Trey; at least the charge of espionage was dropped." This was certainly the most serious of the indictments and Kal was only grateful that Lois would not be so charged. Turning to face Ching, he declared belligerently, "If she's found guilty, I won't ratify the sentence. I won't have her censured or allow them to divorce us or send her back to Earth and I definitely will not sign papers to have her disintegrated and confined in a containment chamber — no matter what it does to my role as First Lord."
For Kal's peace of mind, the Captain decided not to indulge the younger man's fretting and he let a small amount of impatience tinge his words. "Well, you can forget the last one. The charges aren't serious enough to warrant the ultimate penalty. And, besides, Lois didn't do anything wrong. No one is going to find her guilty."
"I wish I could be sure of that… but you saw Jun-Li. He's pompous and self-opinionated and he believes he's on a witch-hunt to save Krypton from the evil alien…"
"I couldn't disagree with you there, but I doubt that the other Councillors will back his bigoted charges. After all, the Council and most of the aristocracy were more than happy with your choice of an Earth woman for your wife. Now Lois might be a little more independent and feisty than what they're used to, but I think that most admire her courage. It took a lot of guts to escape from Ballen's mob." Ching could see that his words were making some impression as the dejected slump of Kal's shoulders firmed determinedly. "Rad-Nor might have found a pliable tool in Jun-Li, but the rest of the Councillors won't be so easily manipulated."
"You think that Rad-Nor's behind this?" Kal asked, at last showing some signs of animation.
"Oh yes! I believe that Rad-Nor's responsible for all of it — from the beginning — Lois' poisoning, Rochelle's death, the kidnapping! And now this crazy trial! If only we could prove it!"
Ching nodded his head in agreement, then added speculatively, "I wonder how Jen-Mai will vote on the verdict?"
"That will be interesting. I don't doubt that he's another of Nor's paid lackeys but I suspect that he has too healthy a respect for his own skin to actually risk coming off the fence. No, he'll wait to see how the wind blows before committing himself and Nor will let him. Nor won't risk losing both his pawns if this doesn't go his way." Kal took another turn around the room and dropped into a chair by the fireplace. His hands rose to cover his face then pushed up into his thick dark hair. "I'm sure you're right and Lois will be acquitted… I just wish I knew she was doing okay."
"Well, you can't contact Lois or your mother, but I stopped off at their suite on the way here and found Lord Remy firmly camped out for the night in the antechamber and he's not about to move for anything. The anteroom isn't shielded." Kal's eyes brightened at Ching's information. "And, I found that I'm pretty well acquainted with the captain of the guard detail, so I had a quiet word and warned him that there could be some attempt made on the First Lady. He promised me he'd stay alert and let us know if there was any trouble."
"Was it Mica?" At Ching's nod of affirmation he went on… "then Trey did as I asked."
Captain Mica was one of the Security Forces who had accompanied them on their journey to Earth. In fact, it was he who had led the small detachment which had been sent to the surface on short shopping trips for Lois' favourite things and, though Kal had allowed only his two personal guards to remain with him on Earth for very good reasons, he considered Mica to be a competent and trustworthy officer. Kal was relieved that Lois was in his care… or his custody, whichever way you chose to look at it. But he refused to give into melancholy again; after all, brooding wouldn't help Lois.
"Thank you, Ching, for keeping your head while I acted like a spiritless wimp…"
"It wasn't my love who was imprisoned — I don't know how I'd act if Zzz…" Ching's voice died away as his skin flushed a dull red. His love for Lady Zara-El was completely unacceptable and he was never quite sure if Lord Kal was aware of his deep feelings. It was definitely not something that the two men had ever discussed.
The First Lord watched the gamut of emotions chase across his friend's face. The relationship that his sister shared with his bodyguard was something that would need to be addressed soon, but not at this particular moment… Lois had to be rescued first. So, with much regret, Kal chose to pass over his friend's mistake. He extended a hand and squeezed Ching's shoulder — offering a silent gesture of commiseration for what Ching had to consider would be a hopeless love — even he could not be sure of a happy ending for the couple.
Giving himself an internal shake, Kal returned more optimistically to the problem in hand, "Nevertheless, I needed you to pull me out of my blue-funk and for that, I thank you, but we really should get to bed… being tired and listless tomorrow won't be much use to Lois. I might just contact Uncle Remy first, though."
"Good idea, Kal." Ching bowed his head slightly. "If you should need me, I'll be right across the corridor. Goodnight, Kal."
Once alone, Kal spoke telepathically with his Uncle and was reassured that everything was well. Lady Lara had arrived some time earlier with Jor-El and both had dined with Lois, inviting Lord Remy to join them. The old statesman was able to inform his great-nephew that Lois was in good spirits and that anyone wishing to harm the First Lady would do so over his dead body. With a surprised grin, Kal told his uncle that he hoped that would not be necessary and with a lighter heart, a lonely First Lord managed to find sleep.
Thankfully, for Kal's equilibrium, Lord Remy had chosen not to inform his great-nephew of the conversation he had overheard after both he and Jor-El had left the ladies to their night's rest. Alone, with a woman she had come to trust and rely on, Lois curled up on the silken counterpane of the bed and gave way to a flood of tears.
"Oh, my dear," Lara sat softly down by her daughter-in- law's side and very tenderly smoothed her hand up and down the weeping girl's curved back.. "You have a good cry, Lois; it will do you good…"
"Maybe I shouldn't have come here…" Her words were muffled by the bed cover and by her tears. "No one wants me here…"
Lara strained to hear and was swift to reassure. "Lois, you know that's not true!" The older woman pulled against the supine body, dragging the sobbing young woman to face her. "Lois, Kal loves you, and he needs you here with him. He needs his wife."
"He needs an heir… and I kill babies…" Lois refused to look into her mother-in-law's face and her fingers tangled in the silk coverlet.
Shocked to the core by the dejected child's statement, Lara placed her hands on either side of Lois' face and forced her to look into her eyes. "Lois, no! That's just not true! You are not to blame for the loss of the baby and I don't care who says differently or how many times they say it — they are wrong and unforgivingly cruel!" Once certain she had gained Lois' attention, Lara went on, her voice imbued with determination. "My dear, I want you to listen to me… really listen. My son is a remarkable young man and I've known, almost from the time he was born, that he was destined to lead my people — and he will be a fine leader, perhaps even a great one. But Kal is not infallible, and his role is an isolating one. He needs advice and support and love to help him to fulfil his destiny. The counselling he can get from his ministers — and not all of it will be good, but that's a topic for another day — and he has family and friends who love him dearly. But none of that is enough." The elderly noblewoman paused to assess how deeply her words were affecting her listener and she was not disappointed; Lois' smooth brow was drawn in concentration. "It would seem my son is so made that he needs to share his life with one special person and in all of the wide galaxies, Kal chose you, Lois, to be his anchor… his safe haven… the other half of his soul." Lois' sobs had stilled and the silence of the room was broken only by the sizzle and spark of the glowing fire burning brightly in the grate. "When first you arrived, dearest, I admit I was a cynical and selfish old woman, doubting that you could be any of those things for my son and selfish enough to want them only for Kal's sake. Now that is no longer true. I want the best for my son and for my daughter too. Lois, you have made a place for yourself in my heart; you are quick-witted and persevering…"
"Annoying, you mean…" Lois interrupted with a watery smile.
The surrogate mother returned the smile and raised a hand to brush away the tracks of her daughter's tears. "… resolute… and courageous beyond measure, and you are no longer alone. For as long as I have breath in my body, I will be here for you. So, please, my dear, you mustn't give up."
A hiccup surprised Lois and she laughed self-consciously, but the glow was back in her soul. "Give up?!" she snorted. "Lois-El never gives up!"
Another hiccup and the two women fell giggling back onto the bed. Outside, Remy listened quietly at the door. He had been a little worried for his beset young relative. The old man had not been blind to the fact that Lois was putting on a brave front all through the evening meal. However, it seemed that Lady Lara-El had managed to console her and to lift her spirits to such degree that they were laughing…
Good! The old lord laughed too. He had always known that that niece of his was made of the right stuff, even when she had been a flighty young girl and was chasing after her shy betrothed. Poor Jor-El! He hadn't stood a chance against his birth-wife — he still didn't — but then Jor never seemed to mind; he was happy in his laboratory. And they were a contented couple, each sure of the other's love.
That night, keeping a lonely watch, Remy settled himself on the large couch in front of the fire, his old bones grateful for the warmth. Earlier, his fellow supervisor, Jen-Mai, had paid a short visit to assure himself that the accused was still under lock and key, then had taken himself off to spend the night in more suitable quarters. Jen-Mai enjoyed his comforts. In the quiet of the night, the old man sent up a fervent prayer to the fates, that the younger Lord and Lady of El would also be allowed to share a long and happy married life.
My Lady's Champions
The large hall with its lofty auditorium was, if possible, even more crowded than the day before. Word of the shocking trial of Krypton's First Lady had obviously spread like wild fire and many high-bred Kryptonians who had been missing from the previous day's proceedings had decided to make the trip to attend the hearing. This being a public trial, there was also a section set aside for the accommodation of the lower classes of the city.
Since the early morning hours, a great number of ordinary citizens had turned up, queuing patiently, like a huge undulating snake, in the castle approach road. The people of Elvar liked their youthful, energetic Lady and they had come in their thousands to publicly offer her their support in her time of trouble. From all walks of life came My Lady's champions — city councilmen, merchants, bankers, artists and craftsmen. Representatives of all these classes would be allowed inside the chamber, while the others would follow the trial on huge holoscreens set up in varying positions throughout the city. Elvar was a like a busy hive of bees; abuzz with anticipation and an uneasy fear.
A wall of speculative sound hit Lois as she walked into the grand chamber, preceded by her two lordly jailors and flanked by her guards. The captain of the guard detail had spoken only a few words to his charge, yet somehow he had managed to convey to Lois that he had her best interests at heart. Captain Mica's covert, yet heartening smile sent fleetingly in her direction just before the heavy doors parted, gave the Lady of El the courage to enter the room with a firm step and her head held high.
Lois had been somewhat puzzled, and more than a little upset, to find that she had been given no access to a counsel for the defence. Over dinner the night before, her in-laws and Lord Remy had sought to explain the Kryptonian judicial process. Lord Jun-Li would begin the prosecution and all those who had, or thought they had, incriminating evidence against the accused would request Lord Trey for permission to present the 'said evidence' to the court. Similarly, those wishing to challenge these alleged proofs and those wishing to speak in defence of the accused would petition Trey for the right to speak — any person, from any walk of life had the right to a hearing. Afterwards, the defendant would be judged, on the evidence presented, by the High Council and by the First Lord.
The Earth girl had been appalled to learn that such a supposedly sophisticated civilisation should have retained such an unfair and archaic legal system. It appeared to her that it was easily open to abuse; a Councillor might have a vested interest; goodness, in this case Jun-Li was the prosecution! But, when she had voiced her very strong objections, she had been assured that Jun-Li was only one man and that the other members of the Council could be trusted to judge impartially. Lois was not completely convinced. However, after a good deal of soothing and persuasion, she was willing, for the moment, to reserve judgement. When had she grown so docile? Back on Earth, she would be shouting her protests to the rafters or, at least, writing about them in her college newspaper. But that was the whole point, she was far from Earth, and one thing she had learned on her adopted planet was that sometimes prudence was a virtue. Lois Lane was receding and Lady Lois-El, First Lady of Krypton, was emerging in her stead.
Silence descended on the auditorium like a blanket as all eyes turned to stare at the slender figure of the accused as she was led towards her chair. It was the same throne as yesterday but it had been moved to a small dias on the opposite side of the room. Lois sat composedly and stared straight ahead at the larger, empty throne, refusing to acknowledge the surely, disapproving gaze of the crowd and unwilling to show them her hurt and her loneliness. She was hungry for the sight of Kal. Did he too feel empty and afraid?
There was not long to wait. Within moments the doors opened once more and the Councillors paced solemnly into the room and quickly joined Remy and Jen-Mai in their neat horseshoe formation.
Then, all in the great chamber stood as one body and Kal-El was there and, for Lois, the rest of the world faded away as she was caught and held in his warm, sherry-brown stare — the emptiness was filled and the fear fled. Inside her head, she could hear his soft, husky voice repeat these words of comfort.
<Don't be afraid… You're my wife… I won't let them harm you…>
Kal-El wanted to say so much more, but even this small message was risky; the law forbade any telepathic communication with a defendant. But there was no legislation against a smile or a glance, and he beamed gently, with heartfelt relief on his wife, studying every inch of her beautiful face and form. Kal was not fooled by her rigid posture — he knew what it cost her to stand stoically before the curious crowd, and she must suspect that many of them were out for her blood. The First Lord believed, optimistically, that this was not actually true and that his Lady would find many champions in the midst of his people. But there was no time for further speculation as Lord Trey was formally opening the trial. The room quietened.
Standing, the noble lord began. "By the power invested in me, I call upon Lady Lois-El to answer the charges brought against her, by Lord Jun-Li, minister of the High Council to Lord Kal-El and the planet of Krypton." His voice continued in a monotone as he read the list of charges… dereliction of duty… gross misconduct… the malicious intent to corrupt the moral and social structure of Krypton.
Lois wondered if Trey had really needed to use the word malicious with such relish — that certainly couldn't have done her chances much good — while Kal worried whether his and Lois' plans to dismantle the class-ridden society could possibly have been discovered. They had been very careful to discuss this only in private and in places where they considered themselves secure… but, had they grown a little lax?
The formal charges had been read and Trey was requesting Jun-Li to step forward and present his findings. The little man rose pompously, seeming to swell with the righteous power of one who knows he is on a crusade to triumph over wickedness. The self-appointed exorcist trooped centre-stage and in a voice that would be the envy of many a bible-thumping pastor back on Earth, he began his indictment.
"My Lord Kal-El, Councillors, noble men and women and citizens of Elvar, it gives me no satisfaction to stand before you today and bring such charges against the First Lady, but nevertheless, I feel that I must do my duty to save my planet from the influence of one who was not born or raised with the high intellect and moral standing as we on Krypton." The magisterial gentleman paused for effect.
Kal hid a sceptical grimace behind his hand — Jun-Li was reading from the same script as Jen-Mai — and yet, he was worried; just how much did this witch-finder know?
Satisfied that his audience was hanging on his every word, the little prosecutor continued. "As some of you may know, I have been in seclusion on my own lands for some time and recently, I returned to Elvar to take my place on the High Council of Krypton. It pained me to discover the changes that have taken place in the royal city, and indeed, in the lax attitude I discerned amongst my fellow aristocrats, many of whom were discussing Earthen television and cinema productions and listening to very strange music — if music it can be called — churned out by young men dressed in very weird costumes and with their faces painted in bizarre patterns — young men who, I have since found out, on their own world enjoy creating mayhem and have no respect for authority…"
"You've been watching Punk Rockers and I agree, it's hardly musical. Why don't you try Country Music; you'll find it much more melodic and soothing," Lord Remy interrupted informatively. "And you can learn how to line dance too — a very good way for we elderly people to keep in shape."
"Very good for the heart and circulation," a voice from the hall suggested with authority and following the sound, Kal spotted it's source, another diminutive Kryptonian had risen from his seat in the audience, Physician Tamar.
"If it's culture you're seeking, Earth has an abundance of classical music…" This voice came from another section of the auditorium.
"And some excellent playwrights and novelists…"
Jun-Li's head was moving from side to side as men and women stood to add their support for Earth's entertainment media. Inside, he was shrinking as he felt himself losing control of the situation. His mentor would not be pleased.
"Pornography…" A drawling, cultured voice prompted sneeringly and Kal was almost certain who had spoken, but Rad-Nor was too far away to be sure.
"Yes, exactly!" The prosecution seized on the suggestion. "Television channels and videos of men and women doing unmentionable things to each other." Jun-Li smiled in satisfaction and more than a little relief.
"Oh, Lord Jun-Li, are you suggesting that there is something immoral about sexual relations between a man and a woman?" Trey asked mildly.
"No, of course not! There's nothing wrong in normal relationships between a husband and wife, as long as they keep their affairs private. I'm talking about certain types of broadcasts which promote all sorts of perversion and bestiality."
"Then, please enlighten us, Jun-Li." For the first time Lord Kal-El joined the discourse. "I'm afraid that I've never viewed such broadcasts but you appear to be an expert on the subject. Nor was I aware that our tracking systems were picking up such communications. My Lady asked to be allowed to listen to some of her favourite musicians and also tune into a number of mainstream television programmes — all of which I'm sure would meet with your high-blown opinions." All eyes were rivetted on the young, yet highly disciplined man sitting with ease on the large throne. "I doubt that Lady Lois-El should be held accountable for whatever else is finding its way, illegally, onto the holoscreens of Krypton. As you, obviously, watch these broadcasts and seem to know a great deal about their transmissions, then I'd say that the security forces would be interested in asking you some questions."
There was a hum of conjecture about the hall and Jun-Li squirmed with the air of a trapped rabbit as he regarded the mass of curious faces surrounding him. This was not the way things were supposed to be going.
A tall, serious-faced gentleman in military uniform stood to attention amid the confusion and marched to the front of the gallery. Commander Jace, head of the communication's security section, cleared his throat loudly in order to gain the attention of the Council and the crowd. The gossiping died away.
"First Lord and Councillors, perhaps I can throw some light on the subject in question," the soldier formally addressed his government and when he received permission he quickly continued. "I am sorry to inform you, but our monitoring systems have been picking up unlicensed communications of the nature that Lord Jun-Li has described. We believe that they are being bounced off a transmitter on the space station Caytan, but so far, we have been unable to locate the receivers, mainly due to the fact that the transmissions are shielded by highly expensive and technical wizardry. If Lord Jun-Li has any relevant information, it is his duty to bring it to us."
Lord Kal-El leaned towards his security officer. "Commander Jace, is there a source here in the castle and do you suspect my wife of any wrong doing?"
Jace cleared his throat once more and, momentarily, Kal was afraid that he had asked such a direct question — was Jace an enemy — would the man lie to incriminate Lois? Yet, Kal had always found Jace to be a trustworthy and helpful official.
"I'm afraid to tell you, sir, but yes, there is a pickup point here in Elvar city. Unfortunately, none of our monitoring systems have been able to break through the cloaking and pinpoint the exact spot."
"Then these vile transmissions are perhaps being received in Lady Lois-El's Earth-style apartment," Jun-Li pointed out sharply with emphasis on the words vile and Earth- style.
"No! I can tell you, without a shadow of doubt, that the First Lady is not the culprit."
The residents of Elvar amongst the throng began to look uncomfortably askance at their neighbours. Who was receiving these signals?
A covert sigh escaped Kal's lips as he let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding and a quick glance at Lois informed him that she too had been devoid of the ability to breathe.
"And you have proof of that statement, Commander?" Jun-Li enquired, his self confidence slipping slightly
"Yes, indeed!" Jace was warming to his task, extremely glad to be able to help the royal couple and especially the young Earth lady who had shown such an interest in his position and was so grateful for the assistance he had given her. "Lord Kal-El, when you requested that a communications network be set up to provide Lady Lois with transmissions from Earth, I decided to oversee the procedure myself. All the First Lady's transmissions and communiques are recorded and monitored electronically, and if there were anything untoward the techno-intelligence systems would have brought it to our notice. Even shielded transmissions would register, though we wouldn't be able to decode them. However, no such messages have been recorded."
"Then Lady Lois-El is not the guilty party?" Trey cross- examined.
"I can retrieve the monitoring files from the system and play them for the court, if it were necessary. But I can assure the court that, though we cannot say for certain who is receiving the transmissions, we can definitely rule out Lady Lois-El as the recipient."
"Then I doubt that we need to hear these recordings at present." Trey faced the gallery and announced decisively, "And, since it seems that our First Lady has no knowledge of the illegal transmissions from Earth, I'm dismissing the charge of corruption."
"But, Lord Trey, what about the new department at the Library of Elvar devoted to all the publications and culture of Earth?" Jun-Li whined.
Again, from the gallery, another gentleman rose in deep dudgeon. "My Lord, I protest! Everything held in our library is legal and of a highly moral standing." On this occasion, it was the leader of the city fathers who gave vent to his indignation. "And even if it were not, while Lady Lois-El graciously opened our new wing, she did not choose the contents or exhibits, though she was a very helpful and knowledgeable source of information." And satisfied that he had cleared up this point in favour of the girl he had come to respect and admire, the gentleman returned to his seat, a ghost of a smile hovering on his lips. He had omitted to tell the gathering that the First Lady also asked many astute questions regarding the administration of the city — somehow he felt that the aristocracy weren't yet ready for the revelation that they had a disciple of Earth's feminist movement within their midst.
"The charge is dismissed," and as Trey spoke, in a similar action from the day before, he banged the gavel to enforce this announcement. "And Jun-Li, if you do have any pertinent information, I suggest you talk to Commander Jace at the end of these proceedings." Trey's warning to Jun-Li was clear — drop the charge or find himself suspect. "Continue with your other charges, Lord Prosecutor, and let's hope that you have something more concrete than you have yet produced."
A harried and somewhat shrunken Jun-Li bobbled forward to address the gathering once more. "Yes, Lord Trey, the charge of trying to subvert the social structure of Krypton." Both the First Lord and Lady stiffened perceptibly at these words. "The question of Lady Lois- El's choice of Lady-in-Waiting, namely the serving girl Etta."
Relief flooded the royal couple and the dowager Lady of El — the only other Kryptonian present who understood a little of Kal's and Lois' purpose for this world. Thank Zor, that the elevation of Etta was Li's target. But this contretemps gave warning of how carefully the couple would have to be in pursuit of their long term goal; caution must be their watchword.
Heaving a sigh of resignation, Trey sought to enlighten this foolhardy Lord. "Lord Jun-Li, at the time the Council sanctioned Lady Lois' choice of Lady-in-Waiting, we can hardly turn around now and charge her with the crime of subversion — you might as well indict the whole Council. Move on to your next charge."
A pregnant pause stretched out while the chief prosecutor remained immobile, staring off into some undefined point in the auditorium. It seemed as if he had run out of steam. Kal, however, was not fooled; he was exactly aware of what Jun-Li was seeking — instructions from his master. And it seemed that these silent orders were issued swiftly as the pretentious accuser returned to his task, yet with less than his earlier enthusiasm.
"Fellow Councillors, I intend now to show where Lady Lois- El's true loyalties lie and in what low esteem she holds this world of Krypton." The censorial voice had developed a distinct wobble and the man took a deep breath before proceeding. "It has come to my notice that a few days ago the Lady of El gave an intimate dinner-party in her private apartments to celebrate an American holiday…"
"And this is a crime?!" Lois could not contain her exasperation.
"Lady Lois-El," the First Minister reprimanded.
"Sorry, I'll be good," Lois offered with a semi-contrite smile.
Jun-Li was getting his second wind and he grinned superciliously at the defendant. "Not in itself, no! But, Prime Councillor, the Lady's state of mind regarding Krypton is relevant to my final charge."
"Then please hurry along with your point, Lord Jun-Li, this trial is lasting over long," Trey warned.
"It appears that the Els' private apartment was adorned not with the symbols of Krypton but with the paraphernalia of Lois Lane's native land, commonly known as the Stars and Stripes."
There was nothing common about the Stars and Stripes and Lois almost jumped right in, but she had learned her lesson. "Lord Trey, may I speak?"
"Of course, Lady Lois-El," The grey haired chairman of her judges and jury emphasised her Kryptonian title. "It is perfectly correct for you to speak in your own defence. Please, go right ahead."
For the first time since Kal had strode into the room, Lois rose to her feet and faced this preening pigeon, and controlling her racing heartbeat, she calmly asked, "Lord Jun-Li, what is that design you are displaying on your chest?"
The man appeared flustered for some seconds. "What has that got to do with anything?"
"Please answer Lady Lois' question," Trey advised.
"It's the crest of my family, the badge of the House of Li."
"And does this badge decorate your home, Lord Li?"
"Of course it does! Every noble house on Krypton displays the badge of their house!"
Lois nodded her head sagely in agreement. "And would I be correct in assuming, if you or any other noble travelled outside Krypton, that you would still wear your crest and adorn your living space with the symbol?"
"Indeed I would, girl!" Li was rattled. "And I would be proud to do so!"
"Jun-Li! My wife has a title and you have not been given the right to dispense with it!"
The First Lord's warning cut sharply into the charged atmosphere and yet, in truth, Kal was desperately trying to repress a grin — he knew exactly where Lois was headed. A harassed Li bobbed a quick bow in acknowledgement.
"I have no quarrel with you on this point, Lord Li," Lois admitted reasonably. "Where I come from we don't go in much for family crests, but we do have national flags, which the people of Earth also are proud to show. I had not thought that the enlightened population of Krypton would believe it criminal in others that which they themselves consider an honour to do."
"Touche, Lois," smiled Kal from behind his hand as the rest of the audience grinned in growing esteem of this spirited young lady.
"I believe the Earthen expression is 'hoist on your own petard.' Now, if you've finished, Lord Prosecutor, perhaps we can all go home?" Lord Trey was of the opinion that most of the Council and witnesses in the hall were growing increasingly irritated with the proceedings and he was ready to wrap the whole thing up.
"But, My Lord, I have not yet addressed my final and most serious charge," Li desperately sought permission to plead his case. He was only too cognizant of what might be his miserable future if he failed to gain a conviction… presuming, of course, that he had a future. Why ever did he get in bed with the devil?
Trey was conflicted — this trial was a travesty of justice and he should, by rights, throw it out. Nonetheless, to do so might not be in Lady Lois' best interests; too many nit- picking aristocrats would remember that she had not been found totally innocent. He had to let this farce play to its conclusion.
"Very well, get on with it, Lord Li, and let's make this worth the court's time." Trey could not hide his annoyance.
Jun-Li would have like a few moments to compose himself, but conscious of the mood of impatience that pervaded the hall, he decided that speed was of the essence — and surely he would find support from his fellow nobles for his final indictment. After all, the girl's actions in Veren were bordering on criminal negligence and so he would prove. Li stepped forward with renewed conviction.
"I wish to review the happenings of that fateful day in the city of Veren when Lady Lois's wilful pursuit of her own frivolous pleasures led to the tragic loss of all our hopes — the heir to the House of El and the throne of Kryton."
In the lofty chamber, filled with overheated bodies, one could hear a pin drop. More amateur dramatics, Kal thought as he reviewed the audience, trying to gauge their reaction to this last pronouncement. Unhappily, he was entirely aware that some of his class actually agreed with Li's summation. So intent was he on his study, he did not immediately realise that he was being addressed by his wife's prosecutor. Lord Kal-El turned an imperious eye on the little man — two could play at theatrics.
"I beg your pardon, Lord Jun-Li," he drawled with emphasis, "I did not hear my correct title…" Li had addressed him only as Lord Kal-El, "… so I was not aware you were talking to me. Perhaps you could repeat the question," Kal ended helpfully.
"First Lord," Li stressed, annoyed by the rebuke, yet heedful of the fact that this juvenile leader was actually in the right. "I asked if you were angry when you discovered that your Lady had left Veren Castle without your permission or without any security detail."
Kal did not answer straight away, remembering that there had been anger mixed in with all his other emotions that had assailed him on discovering Lois was missing; he was not, however, about to admit that in this forum — rather he chose to focus on another part of Li's assumptions. "My Lady was not a prisoner in the castle and she didn't need my permission to go where ever or how ever she wished to go."
The disapproving prosecutor looked decidedly sceptical and Kal-El cringed inwardly. He wasn't being totally dishonest but he was being a little economical with the truth.
"Come, come, First Lord, you surely don't expect this court to believe that you hadn't warned your wife of the danger of wandering around the streets of Veren without a bodyguard." Jun-Li had sauntered to the front of the gallery again and swept a magisterial hand over the hall; this line of attack was going well and he could sense the audience hanging on his every word. He was, however, disconcerted when he turned to face his quarry — the boy was smiling…
"As a matter of fact, Lord Jun-Li, I had assured my wife that she was completely safe in the city of Veren." That wasn't the total transcript of that conversation between Lois and himself, but it was definitely all that he was about to divulge. "Perhaps, my Lord Prosecutor, you should charge me with misinformation, for it was certainly my assurances that prompted Lady Lois to leave the castle with only her friends…"
"Or I should be charged with failing to ensure the safety of my royal guest!"
Another, different voice joined in the cross-examination and all heads turned to discover who was the late arrival. Standing on the central stairs of the auditorium was an imposing man of middle years, his entourage filling the stairway behind him all the way to the still open doors. The noble Lord of Veren with his Lady by his side, held sway over the expectant throng.
"Lord Dax-Ver, your arrival is most… unexpected!" Jun-Li stammered, plainly flustered by this turn of events.
"I fail to see why, Councillor." Dax took a few steps forward but remained some way above the floor of the hall. "I heard of this trial yesterday and I came poste-haste. If blame is to be apportioned for the abduction of the First Lady, then I am here to accept my punishment."
Breaking the tableau and determined to regain the upper hand, which was not an easy task while he had to look up to the man, Lord Li laughed disparagingly at the newcomer. "I don't think, Lord Dax-Ver, that you can be held accountable for those within your city or the exploits of the First Lady."
"I disagree, Jun-Li! As Lord of Veren, I am ultimately responsible for all that happens within its boundaries. And, knowing I had royal guests, I should have made certain that my security forces were especially vigilant — Ballen and his cutthroats should never have made it through the gates."
"But according to my sources, these Taureans were in disguise and you could not know what they were plotting… ."
"Jun-Li!" Kal's voice was razor sharp. "At your last supposition, you were of the opinion that Ballen had acted on chance when he abducted my wife. I presume that you no longer think that's so?"
"And, if we are to assume that Lord Ver was unaware of Ballen's presence and the kidnapping plot, then doesn't it follow that Lady Lois-El would be just as oblivious?" Lord Remy joined in the interrogation.
"I… I'm not sure what to think…" Li muttered in desperation. "I only know that the Lady was guilty of… ."
"… Of not knowing she was a target of an evil plot," Lord Trey interjected, "and that is hardly a crime. And if Lady Lois was a little unwise, then let me tell all of you gathered here that she has paid for her misjudgment a thousand-fold; to us the loss was of the heir to the throne… to Lady Lois and Lord Kal-El it was their child. Let us not forget that." Those in the great hall who had come to witness the humiliation of an alien, squirmed shame-faced in their seats, while those who supported the Els nodded in compassionate understanding. Satisfied that this tragic episode could now be brought to a close, the chairman of the judicial body declared, "this case is dismissed!" And with an exultant flourish, the gavel descended in a resounding thud.
The lap of water eddied round the rotting wooden piers of the dock and blended with the constant drone of windblown sleet on the broken shutters. The weather this night was filthy and this travellers' lodge was certainly no cleaner. The troubled, pinched-faced man ran a tentative hand along the mantle above the meagre fire and frowned in disgust at the smoky-black smear on his finger tips. He shivered, and the cause was not only the dank cold which filled the hovel — Jun-Li was afraid.
Why on Krypton was he here, when he could be lounging in warmth and comfort in his townhouse? Yet, even, Jun-Li had to admit that the message, delivered by a black-cloaked figure in the corridors of Elvar Castle, did have some merit. Given that his campaign to arraign the First Lady had collapsed miserably, he understood that the authorities might have some questions for him. He did not know the identity of the messenger, the man's cloak had a large hood which had been pulled over his face, but he realised who had sent him and the short note that was pushed into his hand, instructing him to come here, was not a request but an order, and it did not pay to disobey his powerful neighbour. Li had a family at home, and he had no doubt that the infamous Lord whose bidding he had chosen to do, would have no qualms in taking retribution on his loved ones if he failed to toe his master's line.
He accepted that it was his own fault and that if he got in bed with a devil like Rad-Nor, then he could expect no mercy. The thing was that he had believed in his crusade. He had never supported the popular choice of an Earth woman to be wife to the First Lord and, though things hadn't gone his way today, he still believed that one day the rest of the noble classes would see that he had been right.
Now, for his pains, he was skulking in some iniquitous den in the down-trodden district of Elvar's long forgotten dockland. Once, this had been a thriving port where great ships had plied their trade across the oceans, transporting merchandise to all the lands in Krypton. But time and technology had caught up with the seafaring brotherhood and now hovercraft or short haul spaceships had taken their place. Kryptonians took to the water only for pleasure in these modern times and new, luxurious marinas had been built in every coastal city to accommodate this leisure activity. This derelict section had been left to the down and outs, the people on Krypton who chose to live outside the social structure or the law, and in this prosperous city there were not many of those about — the El family looked after its own — as he had discovered, to his cost.
But not only the Els had protected Lady Lois. Her support had come from many houses, not to mention the security forces and the important city factions. Following Trey's dismissal of all the charges, Li had stood dumbfounded as the First Lord had crossed the Council hall to Lois-El's side and formally escorted her from the dock, then, throwing caution to the wind the happy husband had swept his wife into a huge bear-hug. The girl had responded by locking her arms around his neck and lifting her feet from the floor. The audience had clapped and even cheered, when Kal had planted his lips firmly on Lois' mouth in an undignified display of affection. Was Jun-Li the only one in the hall to consider the behaviour ill-bred and totally unacceptable in the First Lord and Lady?
Much to his dismay, the defeated prosecutor had been jostled and pushed aside as the Els, the Vers and other well-wishers had joined the Ministers in an ever expanding group around the couple — all offering their congratulations to the First Lady on her vindication. Jun- Li had slipped away unnoticed and deflated, at least, so he had thought. But someone had watched his escape and sent a messenger with the missive that had brought him to this awful place.
A soft, furtive knock interrupted his reverie and he crossed to the door and tentatively opened it a crack. It was better to be more safe than sorry in this zorforsaken hole. The dim light of the passageway gave away little information about his visitor — except for the fact that this person was swathed in a thick dark cloak — probably the same man who had delivered the message. Li stood aside to give the unknown caller access and soundlessly the phantom figure slipped inside.
"Zor! But this place is a mess!" exclaimed the gentleman as he viewed the room with mounting revulsion. "How can you stand this?" Then he laughed scornfully. "Oh, I forgot… you have no choice."
The shielding hood had slipped back from the visitor's face and Jun-Li gasped in recognition… he had seen this man before… in the castle… "You! I know you! What are you doing here?" Jun-Li demanded, fear and bravado vying for position in his voice. Had the authorities discovered his hiding place already, and was he about to be arrested?
Still smiling the man spoke reasonably. "I've come to give you your fee for services rendered. Don't you want it?"
The frightened host relaxed visibly at these words… which was a mistake.
"Oh," said Jun-Li brightening somewhat, "I had not thought that Rad-Nor would pay me, since I failed in my attempt…"
"Rad-Nor always takes care of his servants."
Almost too swiftly for Jun-Li to contemplate what was happening, the messenger stepped closer to his prey and, pulling an injection gun from beneath his cloak, he held it against the exposed scraggy neck of a shocked Lord Li. From the second that the lethal gases permeated the blanched skin, Jun-Li felt their deadly effect. He stared in stunned terror at his assailant, clutching at him with claw-like hands for support. But his fingers would not obey his clouding mind and he found himself sliding slowly down the man's body to the floor — his sight was fading and his breath fluttered within his throat. With great disdain the assassin laid the stricken man on the floor and, even before the door closed behind him as he hurried away, Jun-Li was no more.
Peace and Goodwill
The winter months that followed Lois' trial were, for her, the happiest and most peaceful that she had spent on her new home. The ground swell of opinion was evidently turning in the Lady of El's favour. Perhaps her adopted people were feeling rather guilty for putting her through such an ordeal as a public trial.
To make up for their judgmental behaviour over Lois' celebration of Thanksgiving, the Council and the city administrators had decreed that this year Elvar would enjoy a new feastday, the Earth holiday of Christmas. There was no religion as such on Krypton, but its natives were not adverse to celebrating a day that promoted goodwill and fellowship to all, both strange concepts in this class- bound society. Nevertheless, Lois had to admit that, in most cases, the noble fraternity really did take responsibility for the care of their people.
Christmas lights, strung amidst blue-green pine garlands, decorated the city streets and holly wreaths adorned nearly every door, prompting Lois to ask if the holly bush was native to Krypton. The more Lois learned about her new home, the more she was amazed at how in some ways the two worlds were so similar and yet in others, so diverse.
Groups of Carollers appeared on street corners and in squares, singing Carols in which the words had no meaning for them and yet to the First Lady were at once familiar and comforting. And most pleasing of all was the knowledge that it was done out of care for her.
On the day of Christmas, a feast was prepared in the castle and Kal generously provided a slap-up dinner in community halls around the city and invited all his people to attend. The royal family had made a whistle-stop tour of all the venues and a happy time was had by all. With a wry smile Lois recognised that she had travelled clear across the galaxy to experience a Christmas that wasn't mired in crass commercialism.
If there was one fly in the ointment, it was the knowledge that once again, their enemies had eluded them. Immediately after the trial, Commander Jace had attempted to question Lord Jun-Li about the matter of the illegal broadcasts, only to find that the man had disappeared. A search had quickly been set in motion — a search which abruptly ended when Li's body was discovered in the run- down lodge by the old harbour. Unfortunately the subsequent investigation turned up little information. Believing firmly in the premise of keeping themselves to themselves, the inhabitants of the district had seen nothing, and, even if they had, they were not inclined to confide in the authorities. The security chief and his team of investigators had reached another dead-end. But one disturbing fact did emerge from the incident — the manner of the man's death. He had been killed by a lethal high-powered injection, the same method used in the first attempt on Lois' life. And as before, the killer had donned a personal force field, allowing him to come and go without trace. It was a grim reminder that the unknown assassin was still at large.
Lois' first year on the planet of Krypton ended in the blaze of a laser-light show. As on Earth, the people of this planet celebrated the closing of a chapter and the birth of a new year. Soon after the revelries ended, Kal- El moved his household to their country home, Schieh- Ellion.
The freezing weather seemed to slow down the pace of life on Krypton and Lois again found herself soothed by the sparkling white wilderness and invigorated by the outdoor activities in the crisp, clean air. The only shadow on her horizon was the memory of last year's visit when Etta had been her unexpected mentor and friend in this strange new world.
Thankfully, the whole El tribe decided to join the couple on their retreat and Lois had little time to dwell on melancholy thoughts of Etta's loss. Besides, she had a task to fulfil — Lois had not forgotten her mission to ensure that Zara's and Ching's love for each other was not a forlorn hope, and in the privacy of this winter wonderland she found the perfect setting for her matchmaking.
Surprisingly, Lois found that though her husband was not actively encouraging her manipulations, he was not attempting to stop her either. It seemed that the stronger his affection for his wife became, the more benign he felt toward the attraction between his sister and his friend. Kal's love for Lois had become the mainstay of his life and he was disinclined to deny these same emotions and strengths to two people for whom he cared deeply.
So it was that Zara and Ching found themselves invited on many of the couple's outings and very often left alone in each other's company. Truthfully, the First Lord was not certain whether this action was wise but he could not bring himself to destroy the obvious joy that his sister and bodyguard were experiencing. In the privacy of his country estate, he watched a once-hidden love blossom.
On a sun-sparkled day, when the temperature had risen enough to tempt the youngsters out of doors, the two couples had decided on a sleigh ride. But such had been the beauty of the lake in its snow-clad bower, the four had readily agreed to leave the sled and walk in the welcoming sun. For days the skies had been heavy with dark, dreary clouds, which at fairly regular intervals had let loose a storm of ice and snow, keeping the members of the household shut-up indoors. Now on this bright, calm day, the couples delighted in letting out their pent-up energy.
There had been a slight altercation at the outset when Poli had unfortunately assumed that he would be one of the party, but Lois was determined that Zara and Ching should have this time together, away from the eyes of others, and Kal thankfully concurred. Poli might be a friend, and one that both Lois and Kal trusted, but the unlikely romance between the Lady Zara and Captain Ching was one that no-one else should witness. Help came from an unexpected quarter; Gellis, being from a land of warmer climes, heartily hated the cold and had no inclination to venture out in the almost freezing temperatures. With the consummate ease of a natural flirt, she prevailed on the handsome Lieutenant to keep her company, and Poli, being the type of young man who never turned down a pretty girl, quickly complied. The possibility of yet another unsuitable alliance didn't concern Kal. Gellis and Poli might deal well enough together, but there was no special attraction there. Lois, however, did look searchingly at her lady-in-waiting. Did Gellis suspect the connection between Zara and Ching? And if she did, then it seemed she approved. Or perhaps Lois was just reading too much into a chance occurrence.
Having secured the unicorns in a sunlit clearing and left them with a bagful of hay, the young people clambered happily over the rocky shoreline. Here, by the water, the ice and snow had receded a little, making walking a little less hazardous. A thin skim of ice still clung to more shadowed coves, and a competitive game of ice breaking by stretched limbs and thrown stones soon developed. Some way from shore a rocky outcrop rose from the silver-skinned water and this soon became a target for the two men as they vied for position as stone-skimming champion.
Of course, Lois would not allow the fact that she was female to get in the way of her competitive spirit; she had been fairly good at this skill back on Earth. Concentrating on the task, she smoothly skimmed a flat stone across the water and watched in delight as it bounced once, then twice, then dipped below the surface. The watchers groaned comically, but Lois was not to be put off. Kal and Ching took their shots and showed how it should be done. With ever increasing daring Lois stepped closer to the water's edge, until she placed her weight on a slightly imbalanced stone, and with a startled shriek, her feet slipped from underneath her. Her howl surprised a family of snow geese rooting in the nearby weeds, and with protesting squawks and an urgent flapping of wings, they took off into the soft lilac skies.
Quick as a flash, Kal caught Lois up in his strong grasp and her cries turned to laughter as he swung her around and around. The sharp fresh air had lent roses to her cheeks and her face, framed warmly in its white fur hat, glowed with joy. The enamoured husband could not resist claiming a rescuer's kiss. For long moments all thoughts of stones and throwing faded from their minds as they lost themselves in the heat of their embrace.
When, at last, they returned to the world around them, they found themselves alone. Lois surveyed her husband with a questioning eye. Since coming to Scheih-Ellion neither had voiced their opinions on the relationship between Zara and Ching, yet it was obvious that Kal had undergone a change of heart. Now Lois decided to take the bull by the horns and broach the forbidden subject.
"Shouldn't we go in search of Zara and Ching?" she asked experimentally.
Kal gave the question some consideration before answering. "No, I think the two of them are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Besides, I can think of much nicer things I'd rather do," he added teasingly.
"You don't think they need a chaperone?"
Rubbing his chin with his hand he gazed solemnly at his bright-eyed lady. "Well, if I did I certainly wouldn't recommend a scheming little minx like you." His eyes twinkled with laughter. "You've been planning this almost since you arrived on Krypton and found out how they felt about each other. And don't try to deny it!" The grin had reached his lips and they twitched at the corners.
"I don't deny it! But you — you were angry before, and now it doesn't seem to bother you. In fact, you've conspired just as much as I have, to leave them on their own. And don't you deny it!" Her finger waived just below his nose for emphasis.
"I won't deny it either!" Kal's expression steadied. "But don't ask me why, because I'm not sure I could give you a definite reason. It's just that I've changed lately — or maybe I should say that you've changed me. I love you, Lois, and I know that I couldn't live without you. Oh I'm not saying that I would die if you weren't here… I know that life does go on and I have responsibilities. But my life without you in it would just be an existence. There would be no happiness, no warmth and no sense of belonging. My body would still function, but my heart… my heart would be dead. You are my heart, Lois; you fill me with life."
"You know, for a spaceman you're the most romantic person I know. I could never have married an Earthling."
Again conscious thought was forgotten as they communed in the age-old way of lovers. Sometimes actions spoke more deeply than words. And yet, Lois wasn't prepared to drop the subject of Zara and Ching's relationship. Pulling back a little she regarded him seriously.
"So, you've decided that Zara and Ching should be allowed to be together?"
A rather self-conscious Kal stepped away from his questioning wife and started to stroll along the shore. "To tell the truth, Lois, I haven't really decided anything. And before you start scolding me," Kal raised his hands in supplication, "if it were possible, I'd be happy to grant them permission to be a couple…"
Lois broke in sadly but with a degree of resignation. "But you don't think it is possible?"
A sorrowful sigh was her only answer and Kal's eyes shadowed guiltily. "We shouldn't even be giving them this amount of encouragement. In a way it's cruel… but I just can't deny them a little of the happiness that I've found with you."
Slipping a hand inside Kal's arm, she brought him to a halt. "I'm sorry," Lois whispered as she came to stand before him, placing her hands on his solid chest. Even through his thick coat and the gloves that coved her hands, she could feel the heat of his body.
"Sorry?" Kal could only grunt the enquiry. "What for?"
"For placing so many demands on you." This time it was Lois who started to walk forward, her head lowered as if she were searching the ground. "You told me how it was on Krypton and I agreed to come with you. But there's so much here that I don't agree with, and I expected you to change it all at once. And it isn't fair to you. Lara warned me. That first night I spent at Ro-Ellion, she told me that you would have to be careful not to upset the balance of power. And I didn't listen… Lois Lane never listens. I've brought you nothing but trouble…"
"Lois! How can you say that!" Kal had caught up with her and he swung her to face him, placing both hands on her shoulders. "You've been poisoned, kidnapped and almost sold into slavery, and put on trial for crimes which were never really crimes in the first place."
"But that never would've happened if *I* hadn't lost the baby," Lois cut in with swift self-derision.
"Sweetheart, no!" A gentle hand cupped Lois' face and Kal's thumb lightly traced the outline of her lips, effectively stopping any further self-censure. "Lois, don't do this to yourself. It happened and there's nothing we can do to change that, but it wasn't your fault." This last was said with quiet yet firm determination. "We just have to go on and someday there will be another baby."
"I know." Lois' accord was so low that Kal had to strain to catch her words, but her arms slid round his waist.
Pulling her closer, he rested his chin in the fluffy fur of her hat. "You know, after all you've been through, it seems to me that I'm the one who's brought you nothing but trouble."
"Well, perhaps we were both a little naive; you in believing that your Kryptonians were nobler than they actually are and me in believing that they should adjust to me and not the other way round."
Kal drew away a few inches in protest and regarded her with some alarm. "But I don't want you to adjust, Lois!"
"Kal, be serious! Everyone changes… grows… otherwise we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again." Lois saw acceptance and some regret settle in Kal's eyes. "But don't get too comfortable, because I doubt that I'll ever change completely. We have a saying on Earth 'when in Rome do as the Romans do' and I intend to take some of that advice, but that doesn't mean that the Romans were always right. In fact, the Romans couldn't really adapt to life changes and we all know what happened to them." At her man's bemused look, Lois continued. "Ever heard of the 'Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire'? It's really compulsory reading for all rulers and no doubt you'll find it in the new Earth wing of Elvar's library."
Again Kal's mouth began to twitch and unable to suppress his laughter, he pulled Lois tighter to his side. "Are you trying to tell me that we Kryptonians take ourselves too seriously?"
"If the cap fits… wear it!"
"Let me guess, another Earthling saying?" Lois smiled at his quick understanding. "But joking apart, Lois, you're probably right. Only it takes time to change the habits of a few centuries of lifetimes… and I have one for you… 'Rome wasn't built in a day'."
"Oh you… you!" Lois sputtered. "You've read the book!"
A small hand swiped at the First Lord, but in cowardly fashion, he took off running in the direction of the sleigh, pursued by a little tornado of a wife.
In a small stand of trees, not far distant from the royal pair, another couple stood holding each other's hands and making unspoken promises with loving glances. Zara and Ching had shared a number of stolen moments courtesy of their understanding friends, and neither could be sure whether the sweet torture was a good or bad thing. But one thing was certain; they had found every stolen moment a joy. When Zara broke the silence her voice trembled.
"We shouldn't be here. Kal and Lois will soon notice and come after us."
"I don't think so, Zara," Ching smiled gently at her fears, as his hand stroked soothingly up and down her cloaked arm.. "They were a bit busy when we left. Besides, haven't you noticed how often we've been left to our own devices lately, and I doubt that it's all been by chance."
Zara stared anxiously at her escort. "You think Kal knows?"
"I think Kal has known about us for a long time." The tall Captain slid an arm around Zara's shoulders in a comforting gesture. "But he's not usually this accommodating. I just don't understand why he's giving us so much freedom to be together."
"You don't think…" Hope shone in Zara's large eyes.
"No, Zara!" Ching hated to be the one to dim that shining optimism, but reality had to be faced. "You know that's not possible. For some reason, Kal has allowed us this time together, but soon we'll return to Elvar and real life will take over and you'll go back to being the younger Lady of El and I'll just be your brother's bodyguard."
"You're never just Kal's bodyguard," the resigned young woman remonstrated. "You're his friend, his very best friend." Zara stared into her boyfriend's face. It might be foolishness but for a short space of time she would think of him this way. "But you're right; we shouldn't have false hope. I want to tell you, even though we can't ever be together forever, that I wouldn't have missed this time for anything else in the world."
"Me neither, Zara."
A kiss was inevitable and for a time stillness settled in the small dell. A far-off shriek filtered into the silence accompanied by a rumble of deeper laughter, recalling the couple locked in each others' arms to the presence of their fellow adventurers. Sending Zara a smiled apology, Ching broke away and appropriating her small hand, he began to pull her towards the direction of the voices.
But Zara wasn't prepared to leave and she resisted his tug; there was something she wanted to discuss — something she was almost afraid to voice. "Ching, don't you think that Kal has changed recently?"
This brought the man wrapped up in his military greatcoat to a halt and he swung back to face his expectant love. "How do you mean?"
Zara offered a small shrug, not knowing exactly what she meant. "Oh, I don't know. He's less Kryptonian. Not that being Kryptonian is a bad thing." The tongue-tied girl smoothed the ground with a restless toe. "He's just more… more…"
"Earth like?" And that was more of a statement than a question. "I was with him on Earth and strange things happened to us there… but I can't speak about that. And it was more than those weird things; he actually enjoyed the chaos, the noise." It seemed that Ching had a hard time understanding that premise.
"He's always been interested in Earth, you know that, and he loves Lois. It's never mentioned to me of course, I'm just the baby of the family; except that Lois treats me as an equal, and that's one of the reasons I like her so much," Zara babbled nervously. "But I do notice things, and Mother is sure that Kal wants to change Krypton to be a little more tolerant… more Earth like."
Ching's eyebrows rose on that thought. "Zor! I knew he had a hidden agenda, but that's a tall order."
"And if he did…" Zara let her words die away; this was almost too scary to contemplate, but her dreams refused to be ignored. "If Kal could change things, then maybe we could be together."
This time the Captain's brows almost disappeared into his hairline. Yet he shook his head sadly, not willing to let himself believe in that amazing outcome. He accepted the fact that he and Zara were out of each other's reach and it was just too cruel to imagine otherwise.
"No, Zara! Don't even think like that!" He spoke more sharply than intended and he breathed deeply to calm his racing thoughts. "You and I both know Kal, and he won't break the law. He'll do whatever is best for his people and that's only right and proper."
"I agree. Kal will always put his people first." Zara halted for a second or two but she was committed to airing her deepest ideas. "But if Kal truly believed that it was best for Krypton, then he would have the courage to change the law. And Lois would support him. I think that some of the things Kal loves best about Lois are the qualities she learned growing up on Earth."
This was a totally new concept for the loyal Captain. Ching accepted his role in Kryptonian society without question and he would always do his duty. Yet, when Zara had been betrothed to an unworthy man like Rol-Fre, he had found himself uncharacteristically at odds with a government who would allow such an injustice to occur without a second thought. However, what Zara was describing was a huge undertaking and he wasn't sure if he was ready for that amount of change. But he knew and admired his Lord Kal-El, and he'd stake his life on the fact that Kal would never contemplate doing anything remotely harmful; the man just didn't have it in him. In that moment, Ching made a commitment; he couldn't know what the future would bring but he chose to back Kal-El all the way down the line. With a resolve in his voice that had been lacking earlier, he told the woman he loved.
"Who knows what's in store for us or Krypton, but I will always love you, Zara… and love is the strongest life force there is. I never believed that before, but it sent Kal clean across the galaxy to claim his bride, and it gave Lois the courage to leave her home for a world she'd never even known existed. Perhaps there will be a place for us someday."
Kal's shout reached them from somewhere a little way off. "Zara, Ching, it's time to go. It'll be getting dark soon and the weather will ice up. We'd best get back home!"
Reluctantly the two forbidden lovers walked towards the voice. Soon they would be going back home to Elvar and this interlude, when for a few short weeks they had pretended privately that they were a couple, would be over. The prospect was distressing.
It was hardly surprising that the budding romance soon came to the notice of others, and, on the return of the expedition, the merry party were confronted by concerned and slightly outraged parents. Lord Jor-El, uncharacteristically taking the initiative, ordered the four young people into the private sitting room. Gone was the imperial ruler of Krypton as a somewhat sheepish Kal led his fellow truants into the room and an angry mother and father challenged their errant offspring.
"What exactly are the four of you up to?" Jor's voice was unusually stern and, when no answer was forthcoming, he turned to his daughter. "Zara, I won't insult you by accusing you of a childish infatuation, but you must know that this… this liaison is impossible. And Ching, while I know we can't always control the direction of our hearts, I had thought you more honourable than to encourage my daughter in this… foolishness…"
"Father! That's unfair!" Kal attempted to interrupt but he was immediately silenced.
"And as for you, Kal, I'm particularly disappointed that you have not only condoned the affair but have actively sought to promote it. You more than anyone must know in this current climate that such a thing could rock your position, and lose the support of many of the nobles who are just warming to your rule. I can't believe that you acted so senselessly." The older man's ire was receding a little and now he appeared more confused and downcast. His words petered out and his wife took up the tirade.
"I warned you to go carefully," Lara insisted, "and after everything that's happened lately, I thought you would heed my warning, but instead, Kal-El, I find you indulging in a romantic fantasy."
"Lara, it's not Kal's fault." Lois walked forward to face her disapproving in-laws. "I'm the one who's been throwing Zara and Ching together and I think…"
Whatever Lois thought was not to be learned for the moment, as Kal quickly cut in. "No, Lois! I knew Lois was matchmaking and I didn't put a stop to it."
"But why would you do that?" his mother asked in amazement. "Haven't we been through enough trauma with Lois' trial?"
"Maybe it was because of the trial. I've almost lost Lois three times now and I've got a fair notion of what kind of desert my life would be without her in it." Kal shrugged his shoulders, almost feeling his way amongst his emerging emotions. "I'm well aware that your objections are reasonable. I've gone over them a hundred times in my head. But I keep coming back to the same conclusion; love is the most important thing — in any universe." Kal's unconscious gesture of pushing his hands into his hair came into play. "Mother, you're in love with father — even after all these years — and don't tell me that's of no consequence, because, being in love myself, I just wouldn't believe you. And I want the best for my baby sister; I just happen to think that being with the man she loves and who loves her in return is the best possible life for her. I don't want another sister to be tied in a hateful marriage." Kal searched the faces of those around him, hoping for some glimmer of support. "Please help me out here! I'd be grateful for any suggestions."
And once again, Lois hurried to back him up. "No-one could wish that for Zara. And we're not totally foolish. Kal and I both know that we can't go public with this at the moment." Her heart cracked at the look of dejection on the lovers' faces and she forced a more positive tone into her next question. "There must be some way that can make their union acceptable — we just have to find it."
"Lois! You're right!" Kal caught her up in his arms and ecstatically swung her round the room.
"What?! What did I say?" Lois demanded breathlessly.
Setting Lois on her feet, but without relinquishing his hold on her, Kal explained. "There is a law — an ancient law, seldom used — but it states that for acts of courage and initiative in times of emergency, the First Lord has the right to en-noble any Kryptonian who, he believes, deserves the honour."
"So you could make Ching a Lord?" Lois asked with increasing optimism.
"I hate to spoil your enthusiasm, my son, but the operative words are 'in times of crisis' and Krypton hasn't been at war for over a hundred years. A few battles with some alien forces in deep space, but nothing else, thank goodness." Jor announced reluctantly. "That law is almost forgotten…"
"But, Father, it's still on the statute books…"
"And it was only ever awarded for outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy," Lara reiterated her husband's objections. "And we're not at war!"
"Not yet!" Lois mumbled sullenly.
All eyes settled on the outspoken girl and Kal found himself wishing that, just sometimes, Lois would keep her own counsel. Nevertheless, this was his family and perhaps they deserved to know his fears. Caution lowered his voice and the others drew closer to listen.
"Lois and I have been talking, and we both think that if Rad-Nor can't succeed in ruining the line of succession and getting rid of me…"
A shocked gasp escaped from Zara's lips and for the first time since they'd entered the room, she joined the conversation. "But that would be treason! Surely he wouldn't dare?"
"I'm sure there isn't much that Rad-Nor wouldn't dare," the First Lady warned. "And with Kal and me gone, he could be considered as next in line for the throne."
"The Nors once contested the leadership and he's married to Keira. And even if the Council wouldn't recognise his own claim, a son, born of the house of El and into the house of Nor, would be the only heir." Now that he'd started to unburden his worries to his family, Kal felt they should be told everything. "And with a minor on the throne, the power would belong to the baby's guardian — in this case, Rad-Nor."
"Then thank the fates that Keira has not produced a child," an anxious father couldn't hold back his unnatural thoughts; once, Jor would have been delighted by the arrival of a grandchild.
"I don't think we should be so sanguine," came Lara's bald statement. It was the elder Lady El's turn to be the focus of everyone in the room. "I met secretly with Keira… in the palace… after the trial, before Rad-Nor swept her back to his fortress. Keira is at last with child and if her calculations are correct we should be grandparents by late spring."
"So Rad-Nor will have an heir!" Jor-El shook his head sadly. "Zor help us all!"
"Poor Keira!" Even though this piece of news could mean that both himself and Lois might be in more immediate danger, Kal's thoughts were for his sister. "Now she'll be even more of a prisoner. She has something that Nor wants and he won't let her near her family, in case she seeks refuge with us."
"Maybe it'll be a girl!" Lois refused to look on the black side. "And you did say that a female couldn't inherit the throne."
Kal nodded in agreement. "Very true, Lois. We shouldn't start worrying about something that might never happen. And, before I was interrupted with the news of my future niece or nephew," he stressed the word niece, "Lois and I were about to tell you that we firmly believe that Rad-Nor will eventually run out of patience and cease his convoluted plots and try to seize the rule by force of arms." The young First Lord's face was grim, but, in the firm chin and earnest eyes, there was also resolution to face whatever catastrophe Nor might inflict on his planet.
Lady Lara's face fell — and not just at the thought of her lovely home plunged again into the devastation of war. She had hoped that when Kal began his speech — Lois and I were about to tell you — that they were going to announce their own pregnancy. That would have been so wonderful and not only for Krypton, but for the family and, most of all, for Lois and her son.
"Not that I would wish a war on anyone, but there might be plenty of opportunity in the future for Ching to perform some super feat and then Kal could knight him, or whatever it is you call it on Krypton," Lois pointed out pragmatically.
The prospect of fighting was something that everyone in the room viewed with dread. It was a future that they all hoped would never occur. For a very long time Krypton had been free of terrorism and violence, but no-one could ignore the atrocities that had taken place in this past year. Six gloomy faces stared back at each other as they reflected on the coming months. Finally, Kal spoke flatly.
"But if that happened, Mother and Father, surely you wouldn't have any objection to having Ching as a son-in- law… would you?"
"I'd consider Ching a great improvement on Rol-Fre." Lara's sardonic streak appeared with a tug of an ironic grin at the corners of her mouth.
Lord Jor-El wasn't tempted to share in his wife's smile. Though his heart beat a little more lightly at the cautious hope glimmering in his youngest daughter's eyes, he couldn't totally dismiss his concerns. "I'm not at all sure that we should be even contemplating the chance of a war, but if some such thing did occur and Ching was knighted, I might consider the possibility. We've known Captain Ching for almost all of his life and I've always found him honest and trustworthy… but there is the question of whether a newly created lord could provide my daughter with the comfort she deserves."
"And I have to tell you, Ching, that Zara does enjoy her comforts," Lara warned her prospective son-in-law with mock seriousness.
Zara stared wide-eyed at her parents, stunned that they were actually discussing the possibility that Ching could be her husband and almost too afraid to believe that they would agree to the union. Yet this exaggeration of the truth stung her into replying. "Mother, that's not true! I am not mercenary! Don't pay her any heed, Ching."
The Captain meanwhile, stood silently, like a startled deer — too terrified to move and too incredulous to appreciate that his impossible dream could one day become a reality. Only a short time ago down by the lake, Zara and he had almost resigned themselves to the fact that they were destined to be apart.
Aware that Lara was teasing, while the more serious-natured Jor was dealing with a father's worries about his youngest daughter's welfare, Lois decided to lighten the mood. "I'm not exactly sure what sort of salary a captain in the security forces is paid, but it is a steady job with very good prospects and I happen to be on very, very close terms with the boss." Pressing herself against her husband's body, she cooed seductively. "I could put in a good word for the captain."
"Lo-is!" But Kal could no longer hold in his amusement and he burst out laughing.
Graciously accepting the inevitable, the elder Lord of El gravely gave his consent. "Then I agree, if things work out in Ching's favour. Welcome to the family, Ching."
It was not an ideal or a certain conclusion, but for the moment the family chose to push this knowledge to the far reaches of their minds. There was much hand clasping, slapping of backs and even a few hugs as the El family congratulated the young couple. Both Zara and Ching were bemused, yet slowly a dawning happiness was overtaking them — it had all happened so suddenly and so easily. But after a few minutes of unbridled joy, Lara decided it was time to return everyone to reality. She hated to disappoint her baby, but it was necessary.
"However, whatever promises have been exchanged today must remain within this room. No-one except we four must know of this betrothal, not until Kal-El can raise Ching to the peerage and I'm sorry to have to remind everyone that this marriage can only take place if Ching can become a lord." Lara looked round the room and was relieved to see them all nodding in affirmation, but she had to make the message clear. "If word of this meeting ever got out then we would all be accused of subverting the social structure and I think we've had enough of trials for now. So I would ask you, Zara and Ching, to please be circumspect in your dealings with each other, at all times. Rad-Nor seems to have spies everywhere and we mustn't give him any further ammunition."
Yet even Lara's warning couldn't quite dispel the happy atmosphere. Everyone appreciated the seriousness of the situation and all agreed that the engaged couple would have to pretend that there was no relationship, but for the present, they unconsciously and unanimously decided to enjoy the moment. The celebratory atmosphere endured throughout dinner, though none of the four disclosed the reason for the merriment to the other diners, and neither Gellis nor Poli were sufficiently intuitive to look below the surface. Actually, Lois did have a few suspicions about just how much her lady-in-waiting knew of the state of affairs, but she was untroubled. Lois was certain that Gellis could be trusted.
It was only when both the senior and junior El couples retired to their chambers that they gave into their apprehensions. The direction of their lives had drifted into unchartered territory, and, while Lois was the first to admit that she had fulfilled one of her goals, she also realised that she had navigated them into dangerous waters.
But personal matters were soon set aside when news arrived of the ambush of the newly arranged monthly supply ship sent to the planet Moy. The cargo had been stolen and the ship's company brutally murdered. Such a dire communication sent the First Lord and his family hot-foot back to his capitol city. The theft of the cargo was unfortunate but more distressing was the fact that the transport had carried military personnel; a platoon which had been sent to Moy to instruct the Moyan army in methods of defence and weaponry. They had put up a brave defence but had been overwhelmed by superior numbers, and along with the crew they had been butchered. Kal had been acquainted with some of these men and, besides, all those killed were his people; he felt their loss deeply and with grim determination the cavalcade set out for Elvar. The perpetrators would be discovered and brought to justice.
The Earth girl had been shocked to realise that the Kryptonian fleet had been vulnerable to assault. After all, on her journey to Krypton they had travelled across the galaxy at hyperlight speeds and the ship had remained cloaked for most of the journey — and what had happened to the protective force-field?
These questions had made Kal grin, despite his consternation. Lois never forgot a thing he had told her, at least on important issues — on some of the smaller questions her memory conveniently developed holes. Taking time out from the mad rush of packing up for their departure, the perturbed First Lord had explained that many other fleets could achieve hyperspeeds and that often supply ships, while traversing more populated areas and on shorter routes, would employ faster-than-light travel for brief periods only, and that sadly not all merchant ships had modern stealth facilities. It was highly probable that the enemy had acquired the technology to decode their cloaking devices. And as for the force-field — it took a great deal of energy to maintain a protective barrier, so most traders were very frugal with their use.
As Lois watched the ancient stone castle on its rocky promontory retreat into the distance, she sadly contemplated how, once again, death and destruction had broken into their contented and idyllic interlude. Before leaving Earth, Kal had told her that Krypton was an ordered planet, but since her arrival, she had made a study of her new home's most recent history and discovered that this was not always so.
Zor-El also had lived through some troublesome times on ascending the throne, and that was without the added threat from the Nors. Admittedly, Zor's problems had been mainly diplomatic ones and not actual physical attacks. But then, the previous Lord Nor, while being pompous and very often objectionable, had not shared his son's ambitious or psychopathic tendencies.
Would Kal and she ever be rid of Rad-Nor and would their lives always be so tumultuous? More to the point, would she enjoy a life more ordinary? Lois suspected, with some disquiet, that the answer to the last question would be a resounding no. If only people wouldn't keep being killed — she had to admit that she hated that part.
And each life lost weighed heavily on Kal's conscience; as if he assumed responsibility for not being able to keep them safe. It wasn't necessarily a healthy attitude for a person in his position, but it did show clearly the depth of his commitment and compassion and Lois loved him for his caring. This was what she needed — a goal, a role in her new life. As the distance to Elvar diminished, so Lois' resolve increased. She would do everything in her power to ease his pain and to help bring down the man responsible for all their troubles.
Lois' determination was soon put to the test as throughout the winter and spring the number of assaults on the merchant fleets increased, until trade routes to all destinations came under attack. No matter what precautions were taken with the safety of these convoys they were still losing men and ships to the elusive attackers. Differing routes were planned and military vessels accompanied the slower and less well defended merchant craft, but it seemed that the enemy was always one step ahead; they always seemed to know the numbers and class of the support vessels and the co-ordinates of the journeys and planned their attacks accordingly.
The identity of the enemy also remained a mystery. Piracy of some form or other had always been a problem in the outer reaches of deep space but mainly they had concentrated their attacks on older, privately owned merchant ships. Now it seemed that these freebooters had joined forces and were becoming more daring in their choice of targets. The Kryptonian authorities were more than a little suspicious that the Taureans were behind the newly formed threat; however, as the ships displayed no outward signs of planet of origin and were mostly of varying types and makes, this couldn't be verified. Yet the raggle-tag fleet was well organised and their fire power was considerable. They did not always succeed in their attacks but they did cause a great deal of death and destruction. Many Kryptonian families mourned the loss of a loved one due to the conflict and soon the whole planet lived under an atmosphere of a world at war, even though the fighting wasn't, as yet, on their doorstep.
Lord Kal-El and his Council were frustrated and angry. At the outset, a communique had been sent to Taurus requiring the leadership to order their privateers to desist in these attacks. Unfortunately, the ruling junta had denied all knowledge of the acts of piracy and so were unable to comply with the request. They had continued in their negation of responsibility throughout all further negotiations either with the High Council of Krypton or with a hastily convened deputation from the Federation of Planets. And yet it was obvious that these space marauders must have a base and one that was out with the jurisdiction of the Federation. How else could they disappear so easily after each incident?
Kryptonian forces and those of their allies tried desperately in those early months of the new year to police the space ways, but with vast galaxies to patrol and quadrants where signed treaties forbade them access, they had, as yet, been unable to discover the enemy's home base. And despite their suspicions of the race of Taureans, many, thus far, had not even begun to question just where the piratical fleet was gaining the inside information which enabled the ambushes to inflict such destruction.
Lord Kal-El and his wife, however, were in little doubt of who was responsible, and under the cover of his mother's birth date celebrations, the couple had gathered together all those whom they most trusted to discuss what could be done to unmask the culprit.
The gathering was scheduled at Ro-Ellion as the big family home had long ago installed thought and sound shielding equipment which was always updated to the latest specifications. There was a similarly shielded room in the castle, but the First Couple didn't want to alert suspicion by its use. Ideally, Kal would have liked to protect the whole of their 'little apartment' but, given that the trial was still sharp in everyone's memory, he was reluctant to provide the small band of nobles, who still regarded Lois with distrust, more ammunition with which to attack her. Whatever they did at present must remain open to scrutiny, but he made a firm promise to himself and Lois, that as soon as the situation calmed, Lois would get the privacy that she needed and so much deserved.
Meanwhile, on a clear rose-tinted night in the Kryptonian spring, a small band of dedicated conspirators met, under the cover of an innocent birthday dinner for a well-loved matriarch, to begin the fight-back on an elusive and ruthless foe. Secrecy was important for the success of their plotting; no one out with the small close-knit circle should learn of their plans.
Lady Lois-El was excited and elated. Her lively and resourceful nature demanded that she not accept intimidation — and she had been acquiescent for too long. Now there was a chance to retaliate against those who had sought her downfall, and in a manner that was balm to her soul. Investigation and plotting and carrying through those stratagems were life's blood to the Earth girl and her spirit was so charged with wit and energy that she almost glowed. Certainly, on the journey to Ro-Ellion and all through dinner she had found it hard to remain still. And now, when the meal was passed and the toasts to Lara were drunk, as the party collected within the protected room, Lois' infectious enthusiasm bolstered Kal's resolve.
When all were settled comfortably, the First Lord opened with a statement of intent. "I think each of you already knows the real reason behind this gathering." While he spoke, Kal looked searchingly into every face and found each gaze rivetted on his own — his mother with concerned inquisitiveness; his father with his customary gentle support; Lord Trey, who already suspected the nature of his plans, returned his look with grim determination; while Uncle Remy's eager interest reminded him so much of Lois. The three younger members of the group, Lara, Gellis and Ching waited in stoic silence; they would support the royal couple no matter what they were asked to do. Lastly, his glance covered the woman by his side and at her answering smile of encouragement, Kal continued. "We are here tonight to begin our quest to bring down our enemy — Rad- Nor."
A stillness filled the room as each member of the group assimilated just what such a proposal might entail.
"I think that might be a difficult task, my son," Jor-El put in reluctantly, opening up the discussion "Rad-Nor protects himself well."
"I know, Father, and that's why we can't attack him in person, but I believe his acolyte might be vulnerable."
"Which one?!" Lord Remy asked with his impish sense of humour.
Kal subconsciously returned the cryptic grin. "I think that this time our goal is Jen-Mai."
A few eyebrows were raised at the mention of the Second- Councillor, though truthfully no one was surprised. Mai hadn't won many friends in this small community and most of those present had, on a number of occasions, speculated that this slippery character might be the Taureans' informant. Nevertheless, suspecting and proving did not always go hand-in hand and it seemed no-one was prepared to air their views on the subject — except, of course, Lois, who bounced out of her chair and faced the company.
"Come on, guys! Mai has to be responsible for the leak! According to what Kal has told me, the Mais' estate isn't very productive and yet neither of them act as if they're short of money. You've all seen the clothes they wear; Jen-Mai has to have an alternative source of financing Minerva's finery — those jewels of her's are worth a king's ransom. And he was the one who kept Kal occupied while Etta and I were being kidnapped."
Lord Trey sent his First Lady a slightly censorious look. There was nothing he would like better than to see Jen-Mai discredited, but the man was vindictive and this young woman was occasionally too daring for her own good; he feared for her safety. "Milady, you really must be more circumspect; there was nothing to connect him with the kidnappers," he cautioned. "I'd agree that he's the most likely suspect, and that he probably works for Nor. But they've both covered their tracks well and finding proof of our suspicions may not be easy. And we cannot move against either without firm evidence. Fortunately for us all, Jun- Li rushed his fences but his case is an example of what can happen when going to trial without finding proof to back up an accusation."
"There was no proof for Jun-Li to find," Kal chided Trey softly, "but Lois and I take your point and that's why we've brought you all together today."
"We have a plan," Lois announced, barely managing to suppress a temptation to crow. "Back where I come from we have a saying, 'give him enough rope to hang himself' and that's exactly what Kal and I plan on doing."
"Oh there's nothing I like better than when a plan comes together," Remy offered brightly. "So, do you care to fill us in on this plan?"
"That's exactly why you're here, Uncle," Kal was quick to inform. "But first, I have to remind everyone that this has got to remain our secret — otherwise it just won't work and Mai and Nor will escape, free as birds."
"I doubt that we have to tell you that we're sworn to secrecy, Kal." That from his mother, who was privately praying that this wouldn't be a wild-goose chase. "And I hope this is a workable scheme, because Mai and Nor are getting away with murder."
"I understand how important this is, Mother, and with a little bit of good fortune, we should be able to unmask Mai for the traitor that he is… but whether we can tie Nor into this setup depends mostly on taking Mai alive," everyone remembered what had happened to Rad-Nor's past employees, "and persuading him to confess."
Kal's eyes never left the assembled conspirators, flickering over each one in turn as he tried to assess their reactions to his revelations. He needed all of their co-operation and he was heedful of the fact that it was a risky undertaking and one, he conceded, which wasn't wholly ethical. Yet desperate times called for desperate measures and as Lois had so forcefully pointed out, they were dealing with men to whom lying and subterfuge came so easily. It was also a complicated plot and one where they would have to call on others to play a part. At anytime it could fall to pieces if their targets got the slightest notion that they were being duped. But he was getting ahead of himself; first he had to convince these people closest to him to accept the plan.
Meanwhile Lois was growing impatient — sometimes Kal obsessed too much for his own good. "Kal, enough stalling and get to the point." Her voice sounded hard-edged with exasperation.
"Lo-is!" he exclaimed in high dudgeon, but he quickly complied with her request. "Some of you might not be too pleased by our intentions, but if you could hear us out without interruption, then Lois and I will gladly listen to your objections… and suggestions." Out of the corner of his eye he could see Lois chomping at the bit. "We intend to lead Jen-Mai up the garden path."
His audience seemed somewhat bemused by this statement and were still regarding him expectantly. "Sorry," he grinned with a touch of sheepishness. He'd spent so many hours discussing this scheme with Lois that he'd automatically used another Earth metaphor. "Another of Lois' terms! It will involve careful planning, but basically we feed Mai with false information about the next convoy and see if that gets back to the Taureans."
The elder members of the group exchange troubled glances, until finally Trey vocalised all their concerns. "But such defence plans are usually reviewed by the Security Council, of which Mai is a member, and I surely don't have to remind you, Kal, that to lie to your Council would be considered highly irregular, if not illegal."
"But that's the beauty of our plan…" Lois almost sounded self-satisfied. "Kal doesn't have to lie… well not exactly… just not tell the whole truth. I'm the one who has to lay the false trail and I'm pretty good at that, believe me."
"Sounds intriguing! Do tell us!" Lord Remy was certainly entering into the spirit of the conspirator.
Chairs were pulled closer together as the little band huddled in the nature of all good agent provocateurs and voices naturally lowered even though they were in a soundproofed room. Between them, like two well-oiled cogs, Lois and Kal recounted the intricate plan — feeding each other lines and taking up the recital when the other failed to find the words. It was an old ruse and one which had been used on Earth since ancient days, when the citizens of Troy had been fooled by a wooden horse. Lord Kal-El would give his Council certain facts, which would be the truth but would simply hide other facts. It would be Lois' job to bait the trap. When the tale was told, the others sat back in their seats and contemplated in silence for some moments.
"I think it's a great plan," the young excitable Gellis announced. "And I'm looking forward to my part." Then noticing that she was being regarded with some asperity by the older and more important members of the group, the lady-in-waiting subsided, a little crest fallen. "Of course, no one asked for my opinion, but I'd just like to say that I'm willing to do anything to help out." But Gellis wasn't without courage and she recovered with a dignity uncommon in one so young. "It's just that my brother was amongst the defenders of the last convoy and he was injured and some of his soldiers were killed. I'd be happy to be a part of anything that can stop this horrible killing."
Lara offered a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry, Gellis, I'd forgotten about your brother. I hope that he's feeling better. And thank you for reminding us of the seriousness of this situation and that we must put an end to it before it escalates into an all-out war."
"I agree, Lara. I think the plan has merit and, as none of the rest of us have come up with anything half as workable, I say we should go ahead and implement it." Remy recommended.
Always the more cautious of the two Councillors, Trey sounded more sceptical. "But it's such a complicated ploy — we would have to choose our players carefully and they would have to be sworn to secrecy."
Kal nodded in sage agreement. "I'd advise that we keep our recruits down to a bare minimum, but I believe that we can get away with that by designating one commander on a need- to-know basis in each section involved and informing the Council that it's for security reasons. The captains of the first convoy will carry sealed orders which are to be opened only when they're in space…"
"And all their contacts will be with our man in the communications section," Lois added. "And we place a force field round the fleet so no untoward message leaks out."
"Yes, we must make it look like we're taking every precaution with the safety of the real convoy, which of course, we are." Remy's eyes began to twinkle with appreciation. He did love intrigue — it made him feel young again.
"And our other fleet?" Lara's mind was working overtime, anxious to cover every detail.
Kal wasn't surprised that it was his mother who had asked that question; she had always been quick to see the whole picture. "A small force but made up of our fastest and best attack ships and crews. I'm confident they'll be able to damage if not destroy the pirates. Besides, the object of this mission isn't to rout the Taureans, but to discover the identity of their spy."
"And that's where the girls come in? You want them to feed false information to Lady Mai?" the dowager Lady queried, the direction of her worried thoughts written clearly on her normally serene face. She didn't doubt for a moment Lois' ability to dissimulate, and she was fairly sure that Gellis could carry off her part, but her daughter Zara was a straightforward, shy girl and play acting would not be her forte. And yet Zara had kept hidden her feelings for Captain Ching; it had taken a perceptive stranger to uncover that secret.
"Do you think you can fool Lady Minerva-Mai?" Jor echoed his wife's anxieties.
Lois flashed an answer. "That shouldn't be a problem. Ever since it's become fairly well known that Kal confides most of his dealings to me, I've acquired a new best friend. She follows me around like a stray dog, rooting for scraps. And when she hears a special tidbit that will result in my falling flat on my face once it becomes public, neither Minerva nor her slimy husband will resist taking the bait."
"But won't they act immediately and report you to the Council for talking indiscreetly?" The elder Lord of El had steered clear of political intrigue for most of his life. To him, the world of science was a whole lot easier to understand and to chart his way through; test tubes and theories didn't bite back — well not often.
"Lois and I don't believe so… let's face it, the Mais are bound to conclude that the denunciation of Lois' indiscretion would have a greater impact if it came on the heels of the loss of another of our convoys." Kal explained.
"Oh yes, I can just see the headlines," Lois annunciated her words by a display of her hands sketching the banner headline in the air. "'First Lady's careless talks costs lives!'" Then with a snap of her fingers she confided. "They won't be able to resist!"
"No they won't!" Lord Remy warbled gleefully then quickly donned a more serious demeanour, proving that the elderly mind was still as sharp as ever. "Who would you have lead the diversionary fleet?"
"It would require someone in whom we have absolute trust." Trey stroked his chin anxiously as he considered the options.
"I've already discussed the proposal with Dax-Ver and he's agreed to come out of retirement to command the squadron," Kal disclosed, reminding everyone that Lord Ver had once been a five-star general in the security forces, "with Captain Ching as his aide de camp."
At these words Lara-El's gaze flew to her daughter. How would Zara take the news that Ching would undertake such a dangerous mission? And yet there was no visible shock in her child's face. Perhaps Zara had strengths she had never suspected and perhaps the younger members had already discussed these plans — sending Ching on this risky but important sortie would give the Captain plenty of opportunity for advancement. But Kal-El was continuing with his briefing and the Lady turned her attention back to the issue at hand.
"It won't be a big force, a transport ship to fool the privateers with two crack squadrons of fighters hidden on board and a couple of our largest battle-cruisers in support — enough to resist the opposition, and, if we're very lucky, to capture at least one of the attack vessels. Mind you that's only a secondary goal. The main thing is that if the enemy do show up, then it means that our suspicions were right and the Mais have passed on the information; information that Lady Minerva will conveniently overhear Lois discussing with Zara and Gellis."
"Yes, I think that might work." Trey was slowly allowing himself to be convinced that their machinations would succeed but, nevertheless, he intended to make sure that it would be as fool proof as was possible. "Dax-Ver's force would have to be gathered in secrecy."
"Not necessarily!" The First Lord's narrative was invigorated and it didn't take much to guess that he would have liked to be part of the force. "Dax has quite openly voiced his frustrations with the military's high command on their failure to confront these freebooters and he's already taken himself off the reserve list and requested the battleships and two squadrons…"
"And he's ready to take off in search of these pirates just as soon as his fleet is space-worthy and he gains the Council's permission…" Lois' excitement was also evident as she took up the explanation.
"Well, we can certainly make sure that the Council approves his mission — can't we, Trey?" Lord Remy obviously favoured the scheme and was intent on carrying his more circumspect fellow Councillor along with him and to the relief of all, the grey-head of the Prime Minister began to nod slightly.
Realising that Trey was on the brink of agreement, Kal pushed a little harder. "I'm positive that between the three of us we can persuade the Council to accept Ver's involvement. After all, they're at their wit's end on what to do about these attacks and the people are very concerned — they expect results from the security forces. Dax-Ver has an awesome reputation and I think the Council will be only too glad to send him out in pursuit of those responsible for the attacks."
"And they'll allow Ver to act on his own initiative and no one will know exactly what his position may be…" Again Remy fed the correct line.
"Allowing Dax to be close enough to the vicinity of the decoy transporter to come to its aid," Kal said with a flourish.
At the mention of the decoy, Trey sat up straighter in his chair — he had found a flaw. "And how do you propose to launch the merchant vessel without everyone finding out? And get the two squadrons on board?"
"That won't be difficult!"
Lois and Kal grinned conspiratorially at each other as they spoke in unison, then Kal fell silent allowing his Lady to continue; after all, this was Lois' conception, although he had helped her form it into a cohesive plan. That had felt so good — working together for the good of his people.
"Once the original convoy is publicly on its way, a single transporter will launch secretly from the security force's base on Ver's land. Dax and Kal have a trusted commander in mind to take charge of the vessel…"
"If the Mais find out they won't be suspicious — in fact, they'll be expecting this after eavesdropping on Lois' gossiping…"
"And no one else outside our own group will know the purpose of its launch, so it's quite likely to go unnoticed…"
"And the squadrons will be with Ver who will rendezvous with the trader in space and transfer the fighter ships… ."
"And then we just wait and pray that the enemy take the bait."
Between them, Lois and Kal had delivered the final act of the plot and now they waited in breathless anticipation for the listeners' verdict. A moment or two passed in silence.
"And have you already decided on a communications officer?" Trey enquired. "Because if you haven't, I'd recommend Commander Jace; he seems to be quite taken with Lady Lois."
To Catch a Mai
Within days of the meeting at Ro-Ellion Dax-Ver's flight was duly commissioned and sent into the wide galaxy to search out and hopefully apprehend the marauders. There had never been any real doubt that the Council would dismiss this well respected veteran's request and neither the First Lord nor the two Councillors who had joined his conspiracy needed to exert much influence to sway the hastily convened cabinet meeting. As with the general populous of Krypton, the government was extremely distressed by the continued attacks and was willing to try any new strategy to bring the perpetrators to justice. The very latest vessels that the security fleet had to offer were placed under Ver's command and 'a roving commission' was granted without much opposition. In an uncharacteristic blaze of publicity, the task force had taken off from Elvar's spaceport. Amazingly, the worldly Kryptonians placed a great deal of faith in this experienced officer and the mood of the small crowd who had gathered to wish the departing ships farewell, showed a cautious optimism.
And now that the first stage of the plan was underway, the arrangements for the latest trading convoy could be placed before the Security Council for ratification. All went smoothly; Lord Kal-El's proposal on naming a trusted officer to deal with all communications with the convoy and a tightening of all protection systems were readily agreed upon. The deputy Prime Councillor, Lord Jen-Mai, speedily seconded his superior minister's recommendation that Commander Jace should be nominated Space-traffic Controller for the outbound fleet. He had even gone further and suggested that an additional protection frigate should join the convoy; the man was playing the role of a concerned minister to the hilt.
The obvious question of whether Dax-Ver's force would be offering assistance in guarding the convoy, was raised, and again by Lord Mai. The First Lord had been tempted to answer that question, but instead had allowed the Commander-in-Chief of the military to inform the group that Dax-Ver had been informed of the time and co-ordinates of the convoy, through the restricted channels, of course, and that Ver had promised to attack the enemy with lethal force when and if they showed up.
Lord Ver's wording of his communique brought a small smile to Kal's lips — the man hadn't exactly said which convoy he would be protecting, but no-one attending the meeting seemed to notice. Relieved, Kal sat back into his chair as the final orders for the convoy's departure were rubber stamped. He had been right to allow his assistants to deal with most of the points raised, and, as Trey wound up the meeting with a reminder that the safety of the spaceships' crews was dependent on the integrity of all those present, the First Lord was satisfied that all pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. Now it only needed Lois to do her part and the trap would be set — just who would be caught when the trap was sprung would answer the most important question. And would the net they cast be wide enough to catch the biggest fish?
A few days later, while the Commander-in-Chief informed a small and more buoyant gathering of Councillors that the merchant fleet was now one third of the way on its journey, and was, as yet, unmolested, the ladies of the court sat in the glassed in rampart of the castle. In the cool days of early spring it was one of the First Lady's most favourite spots. She could enjoy the sunshine without the chill from the still cool air, and here, in the heated environment, there were always some flowers in bloom. But on this occasion, her choice had a more covert reason; the leafy arbours provided a certain amount of privacy, and an even greater opportunity for any eavesdropper to find a safe hiding spot.
Zara and Gellis sat near the outer wall of glass, chatting on inconsequential matters while they waited for Lois to join them, as was her custom when Kal attended to affairs of state. Both girls shared an amused grin as they noted that, also as usual, they had acquired a certain shadow, if the term shadow could be applied to a vision of brightly coloured silk and shining blonde tresses.
Lady Minerva-Mai had paid close attention to the habits of her quarry and she waited in anticipation for the naive Earthling to show up. She agreed with her husband's suggestion that sticking close to the silly girl would, at sometime, prove profitable. It was a commonly known fact that the equally foolish and love-struck youth who sat on the throne, confided all his state business to his wife, and it was only a matter of time before the girl screwed up.
And the Mais would be there to see that the two undeserving children would pay dearly for their folly of believing that they could preside over the world of Krypton. Then, with their assistance, the rightful and more grateful ruler would take the throne. Minerva-Mai envisioned that her husband's role of king-maker would bring them vast rewards. And it would not be long now before all their scheming came to fruition; the people were sick of the present leader's inability to thwart the mysterious enemy and soon would look elsewhere for succour.
Dax-Ver's interference had been unexpected and worrying but Jen and his master were confident that their allies could outfight the new threat, and the result could be turned to their advantage. The loss of the popular hero could be the final nail in Kal-El's coffin. Minerva was so lost in her contemplation of riches and power that she almost failed to notice Lois' arrival. Fortunately for the envious Lady's expectations, Lois seemed overly excited and her entrance could hardly be ignored.
"Zara! Gellis! You'll never guess what I've just heard!" Seeming to recall her public whereabouts, Lois lowered her tone. "It's amazing, mind-blowing and, if I don't say so myself, it's something that I had a hand in." The First Lady looked around her surreptitiously, almost grinning in relief when she spotted Minerva-Mai hovering nearby, with all the innocence of a baby — a baby piranha. Good! Today the fish were biting! "But it's a little too open here, perhaps we should go over there by the pond."
Lois led her little band of conspirators towards the leafy bower. A small pond filled with golden carp (well, Lois thought that was what they were) had been built in a corner of the glasshouse and comfortable benches had been placed by the edges to accommodate those who wished to sit in tranquillity to watch these graceful creatures swim amongst the waterlilies. Trees and bushes bordered the secluded area, screening it from public view, but Lois knew that it provided a determined eavesdropper with the perfect hiding place. It had been from these same bushes that Etta had witnessed Rol-Fre's sexual assault on Lois when he had followed her into the conservatory. Was that a year ago? And now both Rol-fre and Etta were gone.
Giving herself a mental shake Lois-El focussed her attention on the present. Their attempt at play-acting had to be convincing and Lois was prepared to give it all she had.
"Sit down, sit down," she breathlessly instructed her companions as she sank gracefully onto the pillowed bench, dragging in her flowing skirt to allow Gellis to sit by her side and beckoning Zara to pull up another chair.
The three girls allowed some moments to pass while they settled themselves comfortably, and in doing so, gave the 'pink shadow' the opportunity to insert herself amongst the thick greenery.
"I must tell you my news," Lois burbled on eagerly and with a great deal of self-satisfaction. "But, ladies, this was my idea, so I tell you, I should get the credit when everything works out right!"
A stealthy rustle of leaves could be heard which was quickly stilled. For a swift second the eyes of the three young ladies were irresistibly drawn upwards to the hidden camera buried deep amongst the foliage of a climbing plant which in turn, clung to the side of an old stone watchtower that buttressed the newer glasshouse. Late last night Ching, Jace and Kal had crept into this room and fitted the tiny surveillance module and now Commander Jace was monitoring the events beneath its watchful eye.
Almost with a start of shock, the Lady of El placed a hand on her newly acquired jewelled necklace as it vibrated gently beneath her fingers. It was the pre-arranged signal from Jace, confirming that their spy was in place and he was ready to record the action. The game could begin.
Gellis fired the opening salvo. "Do tell us, Lois! Don't keep us in suspense!"
"Gellis, our Lady will tell us in her own good time! Don't be so demanding." It was a well known fact that Zara was a serious-minded young woman and she was determined to play her role to the hilt. Yet she drew her chair a little closer to the others in preparation of hearing a momentous snippet of information.
"Oh, I couldn't keep this a secret if I tried," Lois cooed, "and I know that I can trust you both. But you have to promise me that this is just between ourselves."
"We promise!" Zara swore emphatically.
"Good! Because Kal would never forgive me if word of this got out. I'd probably be sent back to Earth in disgrace." Lois looked a little doubtful for the moment. "Perhaps it'd be best if I didn't tell you."
"No! Lois-El, that's not fair!" The lady-in-waiting pouted in beautiful pique. "You can't begin to tell us something then stop before you give anything away."
"It's not nice to tease, Lois," Zara remonstrated but more gently.
Far below in a private communications room, Jace sat before a holoscreen, grinning at this performance; these girls were good. Minerva-Mai was so eager to egg Lady Lois-El on that she was almost falling out of her bush. Quickly Jace checked to see that the scene was recording; it would be a tragedy if all this acting talent went to waste. Satisfied that the evidence was being documented, the officer turned with interest to the proceedings.
With great dignity, Lois allowed herself to be cajoled. "All right! But remember, no telling tales!"
The listening Lady Mai snorted in derision, silently. Didn't the stupid Earthling realise that she was warning her ladies against the very thing that she was about to do? Not that Minerva was complaining; this was evidently just the thing that she and Jen had been waiting for.
Seeming to come to a decision, Lois folded her hands in her lap, the very picture of a demure First Lady. "You know how the latest convoy left Elvar a few days ago." Lois paused to acknowledge the girls' nods, then she dropped the tone of her voice without diminishing its range. "Well, that's not the *real* convoy!"
"No!" Both girls cried in hushed shock.
But after a moment, Zara came back. "I don't understand! What isn't the *real* convoy?"
"Stupid! The cargo fleet that left the other day isn't the real one," Gellis crowed, showing off her superior understanding.
"Yes, that's right!" Moving to the edge of her chair, the noble tale-bearer hurried on. "It's a decoy! And it's empty! When the pirates show up they'll discover that the cargo bays are full of empty crates. Well, not empty, just filled with worthless gravel."
"So there won't be anything for them to steal," announced a delighted Gellis. "Oh I like it!"
"And that's not all. Lord Dax-Ver is shadowing the convoy and whenever these pirates show up, he'll pounce and then we'll see just how good these killers are at fighting."
"They'll be annihilated! My father is the best commander there is and he'll destroy them!" Gellis believed that a little crowing would not seem out of place at this point.
But Zara was not to be outdone in the thespian stakes. "Oh no, I hate fighting," she moaned, horror stricken. "Somebody you're friendly with always gets killed. And you know that Captain Ching, my brother's former bodyguard, is on board, and it'll upset Kal terribly if anything should happen to him."
"Well, I don't like to say I told you so, not in a case like this, but I did think it was pretty insensitive of Ching to up and leave Kal in the lurch like that. And all because he has more hope of advancement on active duty." Lois felt justified in spreading the false notion that she was displeased with the Captain, aware that Minerva-Mai was probably gloating at the thought of dissent in the El household. Then giving an airy toss of her head, the First Lady dismissed the fate of the erstwhile bodyguard and continued with her story. "Of course, the crews don't know about the switch because it was done in secret. Kal couldn't risk the chance of it getting back to the enemy. And there's more! And this is the really clever bit and it was mostly my idea!"
"What was?" Gellis impatiently asked.
With a furtive glance over her shoulder, Lois beckoned her enthusiastic listeners closer. "The ship carrying the real cargo is leaving Veren's spaceport even as we speak, secretly. Hardly anyone knows about it, so it should be able to reach its destination safely. And even if anyone did find out about it, no-one would pay it any attention. I mean, who would suspect that a solitary ship would be carrying anything of value, especially in these dangerous times."
"And that's what you thought of?" Zara shot her sister a sceptical stare.
The First Lady of the land gave an emphatic nod of the head. "I'll admit that it wasn't easy to convince Kal that my plan could work, but…" and here Lois grinned slyly, throwing herself into the role of manipulative minx "… when I really set my mind to it, Kal is like putty in my hands. He saw the sense of it eventually. The bad guys will be so busy chasing down the decoy fleet and fighting off Dax-Ver's troops, that the real cargo will sail safely on its way. And then Kal-El will tell his stuffy Council and everyone else just how clever his wife is, and then they'll have to allow me a seat on the Council."
Lois clapped her hands in triumph. Privately, she hoped that she hadn't overdone it with her last ad lib. Yet Jen and Minerva-Mai expected her to be a silly, over-ambitious egghead and she'd decided to give them exactly what they'd looked for.
And yet, if she were honest, even deeper in her heart of hearts that was precisely what she wanted; to work alongside Kal as an equal partner; to share in the troubles and the triumphs. But she didn't want it for the recognition — well, only a little. Like Kal, she wanted to make a difference in this world; to make it a better place for all Kryptonians. If this scheme worked and Krypton was finally rid of the threat posed by Nor, then she and her husband could concentrate on bringing a more open and liberal society to Krypton.
"Wow!" An awed exclamation from Gellis brought Lois back to the task in hand. "And you did all that by yourself?"
"Nnoo, not all by myself," Lois admitted grudgingly. "I thought up the idea but Kal and Lord Trey worked out the details."
There had been some question about whether Trey should be mentioned in the girls' conversation, but the Prime Councillor had been adamant on his inclusion. Clearly, if the plan were to be believed, then the First Couple would surely have needed assistance in setting the whole thing up and some very high-powered aid at that. And it was also felt that Jen-Mai's insidious envy of his senior would provide him with added incentive to bring the plotters to their knees.
Now the act was drawing to a close; Lois had detected another furtive rustling of branches, as if their audience was eager to leave. Time to wind up this playlet.
"Remember, Ladies, you promised me faithfully that you'd repeat this to no-one. I'm sure you both realise that my Lord would be mad as fire if he found out we'd been discussing the plan. I dread to think what he'd do," Lois added on a quiver of fear. The Mais obviously thought Kal too mild-mannered for his own good and that should give them something to think on.
"Oh, I understand, Lois, sometimes Kal has a temper that hardly anyone suspects," Zara followed her sister-in-law's lead, deciding happily that she had an unexpected penchant for playacting. "But you can rely on us. We would never tell a soul."
"Good! Now we just have to wait and see our enemies humbled!" Lois sat back in her seat once more and clasped her hands in satisfaction.
Was that a sarcastic laugh, quickly smothered, that drifted through the dense greenery behind them. Evidently Minerva was contemplating the same scenario but with a different prey in mind. A smooth swish of a distant door reached the group by the pond, and, seconds later, Lois' necklace gave another tremble, confirming the fact that Lady Mai had left.
In the audience hall, Lady Lara was conversing with a more elderly group of ladies when the portal leading from the conservatory slid open and an excited, pink vision came hurrying through. Lara could not resist the temptation to enquire.
"Lady Mai, good morrow to you," Lara called. As she greeted the startled woman, she glided across the room with stately dignity, satisfied to see a shadow of annoyance cross Minerva's face. "I see that you're still with us here in Elvar."
"As you see, Lady Lara-El," Minerva-Mai could barely hide her exasperation at being stopped in her tracks, yet she could barely snub such an important Lady. Well, that fact was soon to change but for the present she had to go carefully. "My husband deems it important to lend his support to your son at such a difficult time and my place is with my Lord."
The dowager Lady El inclined her gracious head. "I commend your husband and yourself for your diligence. Times are definitely difficult for my son, but with such stalwart support from Councillors as dedicated as Lord Jen-Mai, I'm sure things will improve very soon."
"I'm sure they will, my Lady." It took all of Minerva's will to keep a smirk from appearing on her face. Things were certainly about to improve, but not for the Els. Meanwhile, she could turn this chance meeting to her advantage. "May I crave a favour of you, Lady Lara." Placing her hand on the older woman's arm she drew Lara a little aside. "The thing is, I'm feeling a little unwell and I've decided to return to my townhouse…"
"Unwell?! Nothing too serious I hope. Would you like me to send for a physician?"
"Oh no! There's no need for a physician and I don't want you to trouble yourself over me. It's just a slight indisposition… you know, a woman's problem." Minerva confided. "Men don't understand, because if they had to put up with what we women go through every month, then the scientists would soon have found a cure. I'll be better if I can lie down for a little while."
Lara smiled sympathetically; she might not agree on many topics with Lady Mai, but, in this case, the woman had a point. "I'm sorry, Minerva. What is it you want me to do?"
"Jen-Mai is at the Council meeting and Zor knows when it will break up, and I don't feel well enough to wait here. Could you tell him that I've gone home and that I expect him to follow me as soon as possible."
"Off you go home," Lara instructed. "And don't worry; I'll see to it that Lord Jen-Mai follows directly the meeting closes."
Minerva thanked her helper with one of her sweetest smiles and, with a hand raised to her head, she drifted wraith- like from the hall. And people were of the opinion that Lady Lara-El was an intelligent woman! Hah! She'd just recruited the woman in a plot against her own son! Were the Els genetically stupid? Rad-Nor certainly thought so, and she was beginning to discover that the man who sought to usurp the throne was correct.
The scheming woman would have been disconcerted to read the mind of the Lady she left behind. Lara too smiled as she watched the 'invalid' leave the room. That woman had probably never experienced a 'feminine' problem in her life; under the syrupy-sweet exterior beat a heart as hard as ice. And she expected me to aid her plotting! Well, this time Minerva would have her wish, but, hopefully, the outcome wouldn't please the blonde witch. Moments later, Lois, Zara and Gellis appeared and the four moved away from the other women gathered in the hall.
"Where's she off to?" the First Lady asked edgily.
"Home!" Lara confided to her girls. "The poor Lady isn't feeling so well and I've been instructed to send her Lord home immediately."
"You think they'll contact the enemy fleet from their townhouse?" Lois lowered her voice.
Lara offered a troubled shrug. "It seems pretty risky to send a message from here in Elvar, but they must have a way of getting the information out."
"Well, Commander Medi has the house under surveillance and Jace is monitoring all transmissions from that quarter, so we should be able to discover whatever method they use."
"Commander Medi?" Gellis asked in some surprise. "I thought that Poli was going to be recruited to watch the Mais."
Once more, Lois shot her Lady-in-Waiting a considering look. Was Gellis interested in Poli? Kal and she had discussed this possibility and yet both were convinced that there was no romantic connection between the young people. However, Gellis did often speak of Poli so perhaps she and Kal had missed something.
Somehow the prospect of a love affair between the two didn't fill Lois with pleasure, and she couldn't be sure of why that should be. Gellis had four elder brothers and sisters, and as the Vers were in no need of further alliances, the baby of the House of Ver had not been contracted in an arranged betrothal. So there was no impediment to an attachment from that quarter. And it certainly wasn't because of the differing backgrounds; Lois had worked tirelessly to unite Zara and Ching. She'd have to keep a close watch on Kal's remaining bodyguard and her Lady-in-Waiting. Meanwhile, Gellis was awaiting an answer.
"Commander Medi is head of security. Zor-El trusted him completely and Kal has found him to be very dedicated and efficient. And besides, Kal doesn't want to involve Poli in anything that could backfire." Lois laid a warning hand on the younger girl's arm. "We've embarked on a dangerous course of action and if, by any chance, we're wrong in our suspicions, then we could all end up in deep trouble. But most of us have the security of a noble house behind us, Poli has not. Even the two Commanders are high ranking and have long and distinguished careers to support them and Ching's family is highly regarded in military circles. Kal decided it was best that Poli knew nothing about our scheme and I have to insist that his wishes are obeyed."
Suddenly Lois was as autocratic as her husband could be on occasion and all three women quickly gave their promises. Gellis was a little red of face, but Lara looked with admiration and some amusement on her daughter-in-law; Lois was growing into her role of First Lady with a great deal of aplomb.
Within minutes of Lois' warning, the gentlemen of the Council, led by the First Lord, joined their womenfolk in the audience chamber. Clearly the security meeting had terminated and, from the untroubled expression on Lord Kal- El's face, the little female group deduced that everything had gone as planned. The Dowager-Lady of El, at once, passed on Minerva-Mai's message to the Second Councillor, and, with abject apologies, Jen-Mai quickly took his leave. Those left in the hall watched him go with varying degrees of interest.
Kal took his wife's hand, his expressive eyebrows lifting inquisitively, but, for the sake of those listening, he enquired loudly, "My Lady, have you had a good morning?"
"Oh yes! I spent sometime in the conservatory, My Lord. You know how I enjoy sitting amongst the beautiful plants; I find them very conducive to contemplation," Lois informed her husband with a knowing smile. "But this morning I was joined by Zara and Gellis and we had a very fruitful conversation. However, I'm a little worried about Lady Mai; perhaps we should send someone to enquire as to the state of her health."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Lois," said Kal, smiling down on his wife. "Perhaps some of your lovely, hothouse flowers would be an appropriate gift for the poor Lady. Shall we go and see to that?"
And with that announcement Lord Kal-El swept his Lady from the hall. The courtiers gazed approvingly on the young couple; their First Lord and Lady were indeed a caring and compassionate couple.
But once outside, all thoughts of flowers and best wishes for Minerva-Mai were forgotten, as Lois recounted the happenings in the glasshouse. While they conversed, Kal led Lois to the bank of elevators and, entering the one reserved for the use of members of the royal family, they were carried speedily and smoothly to the very bowels of the castle. Buried deep in the bedrock, the technological and communications departments could be found and the couple hurried to the security section.
Lois had never been in this part of the castle before and she was astounded by the starkly-lit warren-like passages. Here, there were no modern lighting panels and older, single spotlights had been inserted, at close intervals, into the solid rock roof, giving the place a harsh, cold glow. Her guide's footsteps never faltered, however, as he made their way determinedly through the maze.
"I'm glad you know where you're going, Kal. A person could easily get lost in this rabbit-warren. And is it my imagination or is it colder and draughtier down here?"
And with that she shivered, causing Kal to stop and, divesting himself of his surcoat, he draped it around her shoulders. "I'm sorry Lois, I should have sent one of the servants for your cloak, but, to tell the truth, I was so anxious to find out what's happening that I didn't think, and, besides, I'd rather no-one knows that we're down here." Kal pulled the collar up closer to Lois' chin. "But you're right; this is hardly the salubrious part of the castle. In fact, when this place was built, it was distinctly bad for your health to be incarcerated down here; these were the dungeons and many a poor soul spent their last days in these cells. When the castle was renovated, they decided to place the security departments down here; not my idea, as it all happened before I was born. Zor did have them modernised and made more comfortable; put in airconditioning and kryptonium heating, but, if you ask me, they'll never be anything other than draughty caves. Thankfully, though, the military don't seem to mind. And if you do get lost…" The First Lord moved over to a small, brightly lit panel embedded in the smooth wall. "You'll find these all along these corridors — press the green button and, hey presto…"
The slightly monotone voice of an artificial-intelligence- machine issued from a hidden speaker and enquired if it could be of any service. Forbearing to answer, Kal pressed the button again and the little panel returned to standby mode. "Just tell it where ever you want to go and directional arrows will appear on the floor to lead you to your destination."
"Cool!" This was Lois' first thought. "This castle is amazing! Ancient dungeons turned into high-tech offices!" Then a second, more horrifying thought struck. "Kal, you mentioned confinement chambers; you know, the things where you're held as a mass of molecules. There not down here, are they? Sort of modern-day-type dungeons?"
"No, sweetheart!" Kal grinned sympathetically at his wife. "I told you — that sentence hasn't been used on Krypton for years. But we do have a couple of correction centres; I suppose they would be the equivalent of your Earth prisons, except more emphasis is placed on rehabilitation than punishment and crime is fairly rare here on Krypton, so neither have many inmates. But both establishments have confinement chambers and, I believe, one is in current use. When I was a child, one of Krypton's allies was attacked by an unknown force of aliens. They were not genetically human, though that wouldn't have precluded them from our alliance. But they were a vicious, evil breed who sought the destruction of any who did not conform to their idea of a life force. They totally wiped out the planet they first attacked and continued their march across our galaxy, intending to ravage everything in their path. It was then that Lord Dax-Ver led a combined spaceforce from the Planetary Federation and, thankfully, managed to destroy the enemy. But to this day a few of the captured aliens are held in those chambers."
"So that's why everyone has such faith in Dax-Ver's abilities…"
"I should have told you, Lois, but there's been so much going on… and you seemed to have such an aversion to our capital punishment."
"I understand, but I want to know everything— not just the things that you think I'd like to hear." Lois placed a reproving hand on Kal's tense arm. "And, Kal, even though these aliens are evil, does that give you the right to imprison another species — and in that horrible manner?"
"Lois, we did try to communicate with them first," Kal explained, somewhat aggrieved. "But they refused all our efforts — not to mention the fact that they kept trying to escape and if we got too close, they tried to kill us. We couldn't reason with them and we couldn't turn them loose to go on killing; so we did what we had to do. I'm not too happy about it either, but remember they had murdered a whole planet without a trace of mercy."
"Good old Kryptonian pragmatism!" But realising she had upset her Lord with her sarcastic outburst, Lois added with some sympathy. "I'm sorry, Kal. I don't suppose your people had much choice; but," and Lois had reached the point which really upset her, "just how long will you keep these aliens floating about like that?"
"Lois! We're not inhumane and we did re-integrate them after a number of years, to see if they were willing to listen to reason; but this species seems intent on killing and devastation. The only safe method of containment was to de-materialise them again. But they won't be around forever; even in a suspended state their molecules will eventually die at the end of their normal life span."
"Wouldn't it have been better just to execute them?"
"Lois! Kryptonians don't believe in needless killing! De- materialisation might seem pretty drastic but it is reversible! And it's no different from suspended animation; the participant feels nothing… no pain…"
"Huh! I suspect they feel a whole lot when they know what's about to happen to them!"
"No more than a prisoner on your world going to the electric chair, or the gas chamber, or whatever method of execution your people have devised…"
"Touche, Kal!" Lois had the grace to blush and she found herself studiously staring at Kal's chest.
Kal's hand stretched out and lifted Lois' chin till she returned his gaze. "Lois, I'm not really in favour of our ultimate penalty either, but there are so many other worthy matters I'd rather attend to first, and I need your help. So please let's not quarrel about this," Kal almost pleaded.
Under the stare of those beautiful sherry-hued eyes, Lois' aggravation faded — what was the fate of a few murderous monsters compared to the troubled shade in her husband's eyes. Moreover, they had their own present-day devils to fight. "You're right, Kal. There are more important affairs to settle; Jen-Mai and Rad-Nor, and I shouldn't have distracted you. Now, where will we find Commander Jace?"
"You can distract me anytime you want." The tension eased, Kal's voice took on a teasing note. "In fact, I insist on it," and he quickly snatched a kiss, but just as quickly he turned to business. "Come on, it's not far."
In a small private office, they found Commander Jace, sitting before a large console and a wall of holoscreens. Still displayed on one of the screens was the now deserted conservatory, but the others showed much busier scenes; the outer courtyard and main gateway of the castle; the streets below the great rock and finally various views of the section of city where the Mais' mansion was situated.
Lois had never visited this particular home before, the Mais not being on her calling-card list. So she was surprised to find the edifice in a less affluent district than she had conceived, and that it should be so small and inconsequential — nonetheless, the crest above the door was unmistakable.
"That's the Mais' house!" She couldn't contain her shock. "Somehow I pictured something larger!"
"Well, honey, traditionally the Mai family isn't rich…"
"Maybe they married into money," Lois suggested helpfully.
"No! None of the richer families ever looked very favourably on the Mais and Minerva's family might be old but it's pretty impoverished."
"Didn't the Mais support the Nors during the Civil War?" Commander Jace asked deferentially, but with the certainty that his leader was not unapproachable. "I know it was a long time ago since I read the history of Krypton at school, but I distinctly remember there was some connection."
"You're right, Jace," Kal answered simply. He had learned to know this officer and to respect and admire him. One positive aspect of adversity was that you discovered who were your true friends. "The then Lord Mai was married to a cousin of the Nors, but, even then, the family had a healthy respect for their survival and they hurriedly switched sides when it looked like the Els were going to win. Since then, they've developed an uncanny knack of insinuating themselves into positions of power; mostly by means of flattery and manipulation. But, let's hope that this time, Mai has out-reached himself…"
A buzz of static interrupted Kal and another holoscreen flickered to life, showing the personage of a stern yet confident Security Chief. "My Lord Kal-El, I'm glad to see you're with Commander Jace. As we surmised, Jen-Mai has just arrived home and in a state of excitement. He entered the house moments ago; unfortunately the house is protected by a forcefield, which I haven't yet been able to deactivate, but I will continue to monitor the situation very closely."
"Commander Medi is at the house?" Lois sounded a little put out by this piece of information. "Won't the Mais know they're being watched?"
"I doubt it, Lois. They really don't suspect that we're onto them, though the fact that they're using such a complicated protective device proves that they're being very cautious."
"And that they have something to hide!"
"That too, Lois, but don't worry — the commander is hidden in the house across the street, which is not only shielded but is projecting its normal image…"
"You can project images?"
"Yes, Milady," Jace smiled amiably at this inquisitive Earth girl. Like many of the Kryptonians who had come into close contact with Lois, he appreciated her eager interest and, more importantly, her quick understanding. "Of course, the programme wouldn't really stand up to a technological probe, but it's definitely enough to fool the unsuspecting."
"And the Mais think they have us fooled…" The First Lady's voice trailed off as she stared at the closed facade of the crumbling townhouse.
"I'd stake my leadership on that, Lois."
"Well, let's hope that you don't have to," Lois replied with a slightly worried grin and a squeeze of Kal's hand.
"And Commander Medi is a very experienced man," the seated Jace assured the couple as he scanned the various views before him. "He'll be extremely careful."
"Do you think that Mai will try to contact the Taureans telepathically?" enquired the now thoughtful girl.
"Wouldn't do him any good; the Taureans aren't telepathic." Kal shook his head. "And I doubt whether he'd send a thought message to an intermediary from his home, or from anywhere in Elvar. Remember, all thought transferences are monitored and even coded messages can be broken."
"But you can't pinpoint their exact spot?" Lois recalled the conversation she'd had with Kal and Zor-El when she'd first found out that the authorities spied on their peoples' thoughts; she had not been amused.
"Normally, we just scan the overall area, record and, in most cases, delete messages; thoughtwaves are too ethereal to trace back to source," the communications expert restated. "However, with the house under close surveillance, we could prove that the message was sent from within."
"But the Mais don't know they're under surveillance, so they could try to make contact that way."
"I suppose. Yet, I agree with Lord Kal-El; I doubt they'd be so foolish to risk such an important communique to telepathy or any other medium that could be traced back to this district."
"You tap phones as well?" Lois' sarcasm displayed her continuing disapproval of this practice, even if it was for the public good.
"Lois, you know we don't have phones; why would we? But our computers do talk to each other. And you've watched enough broadcasts to know that we transmit holograms both publicly and privately. And, by the way, you're right, all forms of communication are monitored." Kal spoke huffily, still a little peeved that Lois should be so sensitive about such things. Yet, honesty compelled him to admit that, had he not grown up with this modus operandi, he too might find it difficult to tolerate. Was it another Kryptonian usage that needed changing? Lois' next statement, however, quickly brought Kal's concentration back to the present task.
"So if the Mais don't use any of the normal communication methods, what do you think they'll do?"
For some seconds the threesome exchanged puzzled glances, then a slight action drew their attention back to the holoview of the townhouse and Commander Medi's voice could he heard, whispering conspiratorially.
"A small transporter has driven up in front of the house — can you see it?"
"Yes," Jace found himself replying in stealthy tones. "Is anyone inside it?"
On one of the holoscreens, the watchers saw the commander raise a spy-viewer to his eyes. "No," came the quick answer from Medi and Lois at once assumed that the spyglass must enable the commander to see through the surface of the transporter, for the top looked solid to her. But the man was talking again and she returned her attention to the screen and his words. "They must have sent for a hired- transporter because there are no markings or crests on the bodywork…"
"They evidently want to remain anonymous…" Kal's hushed statement was broken into by the furtive opening of the scarred wooden door and the two Mais, their respective blond and black heads covered by hooded cloaks stole swiftly to the waiting vehicle and slipped inside — the taller of the two carrying a dull metal box. "What was in the box, Medi?"
"I'm sorry, My Lord. The x-ray device couldn't penetrate the box; it must have been lined with lead."
"It could have held some kind of transmitting device," Commander Jace suggested. "It's the right size."
Under the watchful gaze of those in the communications room and the security chief's on the site, the transporter rose from the ground and took off towards the nearest boulevard which would lead it into the hills beyond the city.
"Shall I follow them, sire?" asked Medi in hurried tones.
"Yes, as we arranged. But, Medi, stay well back; don't give yourself away," The First Lord instructed. "It's imperative that we don't alert them to our presence."
"I understand, My Lord, but what if I lose them?"
While he spoke the commander was getting into his own fast transporter, which was also devoid of any markings, and heading out in the direction of his quarry.
"That's not so important," Kal reaffirmed the well rehearsed plan. "We never intended to apprehend them at this time. If you can give us the general direction then Commander Jace can scan the area for any covert transmissions."
Medi nodded his understanding and proceeded to concentrate on keeping the Mais within his range while the three followed the action closely; the pictures relayed to them by a camera mounted on the commander's vehicle. Momentarily Lois enquired in some exasperation.
"Don't you have the streets monitored by hidden cameras?"
"No, Lois!" Kal's exasperation matched that of his wife. "And I'm surprised that you would ask that question, since you disapprove of our checking oral and thought messages. Long ago most of the public areas of the city were kept under surveillance, but that was to catch criminals, and when we more or less eradicated criminal activity and violence, the cameras were no longer needed. As they broke down we just didn't replace them. We'll just have to rely on Commander Medi."
"Oh, okay! I'm sure he'll do a thorough job. And I wasn't complaining; I'm glad that our people don't have 'big brother' breathing down their necks at all times."
Sending his Lady an apologetic look Kal admitted ruefully. "Actually it would make our task easier at a time like this, but I'm glad too that our people are free."
For quite some time silence pervaded the room as the three concentrated on the action on the holoscreens. Commander Medi proved his experience as he followed at a discreet distance, keeping other transporters between himself and the Mais, yet never losing sight of his goal. Whilst in the city, it was easy to hide amongst the other traffic, but as the two vehicles drove on into the suburbs and the buildings grew more sparse and the amount of traffic lessened, Medi found he had to drop further behind.
The Mais in the hired transporter headed out into the countryside, completely oblivious to the fact that they had acquired a tail. It was a pretty risky undertaking, travelling to the contact spot in broad daylight, yet Jen- Mai conceived that the overheard information was too important to ignore. Between them, he and Minerva would bring all of the 'goody-goody' Lord El's planning to nought. Their Taurean allies would ambush this single merchant-ship and, using the stolen high-tech artillery, they would attack and destroy the original convoy and Dax- Ver's support fleet. Mai laughed aloud at the irony of it all; using Kal-El's own plan to ruin him. The Els would be discredited and the Council were bound to look favourably on Lord Rad-Nor's bid for the throne.
Minerva's girlish giggle joined that of her husband. "Aren't you pleased that the Earthling's stupidity should lead to our triumph?"
"Yes, indeed, my pet. I never was a supporter of the notion that Earth was our sister planet; they're a much too backward race," Jen-Mai chortled, "but I might borrow an Earth cliche and say 'poetic justice,' my dear, 'poetic justice.' And, since we've delivered the boy-king into Rad-Nor's hands, Nor is bound to show us his gratitude and give us the position we deserve."
For a fleeting moment the blond beauty looked doubtful. "You don't think we should've contacted Lord Rad first?"
Did Minerva place a specially husky intonation on the name of their master? It was a well-known fact that Nor appreciated sexy women and his wife certainly qualified in that category — she was also not averse to flattery. Jen- Mai promised himself to pay close attention to his wife's conduct when dealing with Lord Nor. It wasn't that he was jealous or that he wouldn't countenance a discreet connection, especially if it meant advancement for himself… yet, at this moment, it was a complication he wasn't ready to deal with.
"No! There's no time, Minerva! And I'd much rather present the destruction of the fleets as a fait-accompli — that way no-one can steal our thunder."
"Good thinking, my husband. And won't Rad be forever grateful to us." Minerva-Mai oozed satisfaction — the cat who had received more than her fair share of the cream. It was a good thing for her husband's peace of mind that he was too preoccupied to trouble to search her thoughts. Minerva-Mai was picturing herself as the woman behind Nor's throne. Of course, Rad-Nor already had a wife but that plain, pasty-faced Keira-Nor would be no match for a woman of her talents and attractions. But word had it that the dull female was pregnant at last and that might prove a stumbling-block to her plans, specifically if the child were a boy. And yet stumbling-blocks could be removed — just as the rather large one sitting in the transporter by her side would disappear in time. Minerva-Mai instinctively knew that Rad-Nor was just as predatory as she in dealing with unnecessary minions — that was why they would work with each other so very well. But that was for the future; meanwhile, she needed Jen-Mai to pave her way into Rad-Nor's bed; well, not exactly his bed — she'd already been there — but into the position of Lady Nor, First Lady of all Krypton.
The approaching hills brought an end to the Lady's meditation; very soon now they would send the message and begin the chain of events that would lead to the realisation of her every dream. And judging by the self- satisfied look that adorned Jen-Mai's countenance, he too was thinking similar thoughts. Evidently he had no notion of her future betrayal and that was the way she wanted it to remain — for now. She would have to go carefully. Pasting a glowing smile on her normally pouting lips, Minerva smoothed a soft hand sexily up and down his arm.
"Soon, my Lord, soon all that we have worked for will be ours."
Her suggestive touch rose goosebumps on Mai's skin, along the path her fingers wandered. He really was a very lucky man; he had a beautiful wife who would do anything for him and soon he would have more power than he ever dreamed and riches too. Life was looking very good. What a glorious thought, to finally lord it over his superior, that pompous, priggish Trey. The Prime Councillor had never made a secret of the fact that he mistrusted and disapproved of his deputy.
In a very short time Trey, along with any other member of the Council who supported Kal-El, would share in the foolish First Lord's dishonour and the thought of turning the tables on a man who had spurned his every offer of friendship was particularly pleasing.
And the money! Rad-Nor had been paying him well for his services thus far, which had been extremely fortunate for both Minerva and himself had expensive tastes. But even the current remuneration fell short of his requirements; the bankers and moneylenders were beginning to bay at his heels. Mai desperately needed the large sums of money and land that had been promised him on the fall of the House of El. Soon those greedy, trumped-up financiers would be at his beck-and-call and he would make them pay for their presumption.
The hovercraft bore its agreeably daydreaming passengers to their prearranged contact point and the two exited quickly, almost falling over themselves in the desire to set in motion the path to their dreams.
The situation, however, was not quite so satisfactory for the security officer who was tailing them. On the main hoverways he had managed to remain some distance back and blend in with the other travellers whilst still keeping the Mais in view, but since they had turned off and headed for the hills Commander Medi had had to move up for fear of losing them in the winding forest-lined hoverpaths. At one point he had gotten too close and turning a sharp corner had practically tail-ended them. Dropping back, he had warned himself to be more careful. Of course, it would have helped if he could use his scanning device, but the group had decided it was more prudent that his transporter remained cloaked and it was not possible to activate both facilities together. It was highly unlikely that a hired transporter would actually have a scanner onboard, though not impossible. So it was felt it was better to be safe than sorry and rely on Commander Jace in the distant communications centre to follow the progress of the Mais by satellite.
The two floating vehicles flew deeper into the low rolling hills until the lead transporter swung sharply onto an old dirt-track road, which was really not much more than a break in the tall trees. Medi, not realising that his quarry had turned off, had gone some way when he was alerted by Jace and he quickly backtracked till he reached the only opening that would afford the passage of a hovercraft. By the side of the track was an old faded sign, bearing the crest of the House of El and beneath the crest the words stating the entrance to the Kan-El Kryptonite Mine.
Back in the control room, Kal grunted as he watched the action unfold. "They're using one of our redundant kryptonite mines for the rendezvous. That place has been abandoned for decades — it ran dry during my grandfather's reign. The warehouses and powerhouse were dismantled years ago, though I believe there's an administration block still standing. The mineshaft itself was made safe, though I'm sure some enterprising criminal could have found a way inside. "
"Actually, it's a pretty clever ploy. While they can transmit on a preset wavelength there's probably enough residual kryptonite there to disrupt our scanning satellite. Even if I were to get a fix on it in time, I doubt we'd pick up more than just static."
"And Commander Medi can't get close enough without risking exposure…" Lois exclaimed with vexation.
"And we must let them send that signal!" Kal's irritation matched that of his wife. "Jace, do your best; anything we can discover about that transmission might be important." Then Kal turned his attention to his field operative. "Commander Medi, I think that you've done all that can be expected without actually confronting them and we definitely don't want that. The Mais and Nor must be allowed to think that they've got away with their treason — we have to know if the decoy ship will be attacked. Wait undercover and then follow them back to Elvar."
"Then I continue with my surveillance." It was a statement rather than a question. Everyone of Kal's recruits knew their roles well.
"Yes! But if you believe that they're beginning to suspect anything then pull back. Jace can keep them under surveillance from here." The First Lord finalised his instructions; then with a smile that was both appreciative and filled with boyish charm, "and Commander Medi, thank you for a job well done. My wife and I are grateful beyond words."
Watching Commander Medi's gruff yet pleased response to his First Lord's words as the connection was closed, Lois realised that it was this natural candour and respect that Kal showed for his people which bound them to his side. As Kal-El settled into the role of the ultimate leader of Krypton, and as those under his command learned to know him well, more and more Kryptonians fell under his spell. And with a secret smile, Lois admitted that she was no different — she had already travelled the galaxy to be with him. Commander Jace's voice broke into Lois' thoughts.
"I'll continue monitoring the area with our spy satellites and who knows I may get lucky and pick up something we can use when Mai is brought to trial."
"That would be good! But even if we can't decode the message, at least, we can prove that they're somewhere where they shouldn't be…"
"And acting very suspiciously…" Lois added helpfully.
"But that's not a crime, Lois," Kal pointed out.
Jace cleared his throat and offered some consolation. "But I will be able to document a time for an unlicenced transmission and if I can get a fix on its destination, then that could be corroborating evidence."
"Whatever you can do, Jace will be a great help." Kal offered the commander his clasped hands and the man quickly got to his feet and accepted the unexpected gesture with deep feeling. Normally First Lords did not offer such an intimate show of friendship to their military personnel. It was another example of Kal's instinctive flare for leadership — now there were two high-ranking security officers who were not only firm supporters of the House of El but of the young man who was its leader. Kal began to escort his Lady from the office, but turned before they reached the door. "Jace, we're having a meeting at Ro- Ellion this evening to discuss the progress of our plans and afterwards a small supper will be served. Lady Lois and I would be very pleased if you would join us."
Commander Jace flushed a dull red; he had expected to report to his superiors but to be considered a fellow conspirator was more than he'd looked for. "Thank you, sire, and let's hope I've something worthwhile to report."
The couple returned the man's optimistic salute then left. Looking around at the various banks of equipment that kept watch over these lands of El, Jace acknowledged with a wry grin that his little domain seemed duller for the lack of the vibrant presence of the First Lord and Lady. Shrugging off an unusual surge of emotion, he settled down to his task of tracking an elusive and covert signal. His position of Security Commander of Communications was important and one he'd always taken great pride in doing efficiently, yet never had he been so determined to aid his young ruler. Jace would do his uptmost to make sure that this diabolical plot to usurp the throne would fail.
At the appointed time all members of the secret conclave gathered once more at Ro-Ellion. No one was late — everyone was aware of the importance of the plot and all were anxious to learn of the success of the various stages of the mission.
Jor-El, who had been at the site of the decoy-craft's take off and had returned post-haste by orb-ship from the lands of Veren, opened the meeting.
"My friends I'm relieved to report that the merchant ship is safely on its way to the rendezvous with Dax-Ver and no one seemed to suspect any hidden agenda regarding its launch. Lord Ver's security officer kept watch for any intruders but there were no unexpected visitors to the spaceport."
Trey was nodding his head in satisfaction. "Good! Good! And just as we surmised, Jor, your absence wasn't remarked by anyone at the castle and even if you were missed, then I'm sure the courtiers would think you at home in your laboratory, studying an experiment or writing a thesis or some such thing."
"I'm glad my eccentricities come in handy on occasion!" The mild-mannered Jor poked a little gentle fun at his well-known unconventional behaviour.
And the lighter note continued while Commander Jace replayed the recorded holovid of the scene in the conservatory to the accompanying laughter and kudos from the rest of the group. However, a more serious note developed as the two Commanders related the accounts of their subsequent investigations. The older and heavier Commander Medi was the first to step forward.
"My Lords and Ladies, I followed our suspects out of the city and into the hills to the north of Elvar, to the old Kan-El mine. Not wishing to alert the suspects to my presence, I waited in the background for some considerable time until they re-emerged and then followed them back to the city, where they remained in their townhouse for the rest of the day. I activated the surveillance holo-cameras while I came here to Ro-Ellion and I'll check up on them later tonight."
"Thank you, Medi. You've done everything we have asked of you and it would be providential if you kept the Mais under watch until this thing breaks. Knowing what they are up to in the meantime would be a bonus and we don't want them escaping when we mean to arrest them," Kal stated as the others nodded sagely.
"My Lord, if I may speak, I have some good news to report." Jace noted his leader's approval and quickly continued. "After you left my office, I continued to try to tune into the signal which we were expecting the Mais to send and, as we suspected, within minutes a message was transmitted from the inside of the Kan-El mine. Regrettably, I was unable to actually decipher the message due to the kryptonite radiation, but I was able to home in on its target — Spacestation Caytan. They were rather clever, bouncing it through a couple of satellites, but its final destination was Caytan and that I can prove."
"Can you monitor the movements of ships in and out of Caytan? Or even messages that might be relayed to the enemy fleet?" Kal's sharp-edged questions betrayed his anxiety.
"My boy, you know that's impossible," Remy remonstrated kindly. "Caytan is a freeport and we're bound by the Federation's treaty not to interfere."
"So that means that any criminal can just operate out of Caytan without fear of reprisals?" Lois' disgust with that set of circumstances shone clear. She'd never been to the place, but since Etta had related its existence while they'd been imprisoned on the mountain, Lois had instinctively hated and feared it. "Why doesn't the Federation just close the hell-hole down?"
"I'm afraid that's not an option," explained Trey with uncharacteristic patience. "When the Planetary Confederation was first proposed during the reign of Kan- El, not all worlds wished to join or to assume the high ideals which the Federation sought to promote. Some civilisations came reluctantly to the union and others refused point blank to join and were even prepared to resist with force. It seemed that for a time there would be galactic war — the very thing that we'd most hoped to avoid in forming the Federation. There were a number of very worrying skirmishes and bloody acts of terrorism; it was a dreadful time and Krypton and its allies sought for a way to end the escalating mayhem. Eventually a compromise was reached with these opposing planets that allowed them to co-exist with the members. Quadrants on the boundaries of the galaxy were set up as free zones where any planet or people could pursue its business without interference by others. In return these nonmembers agreed to desist in their attacks on the budding Federation and signed up to a certain code of practise — as long as they don't openly persecute any innocent world then space-stations like Caytan will be left alone."
"Convenient for Taureans and this bunch of pirates… and Nor!" Lois derided but she understood that the Federation had made the best deal possible so she refrained from further comment.
"Besides, even I doubt that the enemy fleet is openly working out of the space-station," the First Lord admitted. "That would break the code of practise and leave them open to a raid by the Federation's Security Force. The directors of Caytan wouldn't put up with that. But, clearly, there is a contact base on the station and it would be to our advantage to know what was going on."
"That won't be a problem, sire. I can monitor all transmission and, believe me, they'll never trace the surveillance back to Krypton," Commander Jace announced with pride.
"Good! Then we rely on you, Jace! And, gentlemen, I'm sorry if this line of investigation doesn't sit well with your principles…"
"Kal, dear boy, don't worry so! When fighting with devils like these sometimes it's necessary to dirty one's hands — even noble Kryptonian hands," counselled wise Uncle Remy.
"And I agree with my friend… we need to defeat Rad-Nor and his gang of thugs by any expedient, otherwise he will wreak havoc on this world. And don't fear that you're alone in this, Kal; any good-thinking Kryptonian will know that you're the rightful leader and the best they could ever hope for." Trey spoke from the heart and throughout the room heads nodded in accord.
"Now, it appears that we need only to wait to see if our fish take the bait." The dowager Lady El at last joined the conversation. "And then, hopefully, Lord Dax will play his part and finish off these marauders; we can arrest the Mais and to save themselves, they will implicate Nor and life can return to normal. So let's all go into supper."
The Lady forbore to mention that which was uppermost in her mind — then she would get her daughter back, if fate was kind and Rad-Nor wasn't so vile as to threaten the life of his wife and child.
The Bitter-Sweet Smell of… Revenge?
An agonising day crawled by in a welter of strained nerves and anxious starts. Kal-El and Lois attended an awards function for 'Young Musician of the Year' at Elvar's prodigious 'Rochelle Institute' — the tragic late-First Lady had been a great lover of music and children and had amalgamated both her interests in the opening of this renowned school. Every year the pupils gave a matinee concert which was attended by the royal couple and afterwards an award ceremony would take place where the most talented youths would be rewarded for their efforts by the First Lord and his Lady.
It was hard to sit still and listen to the lovely music while your thoughts and fears were far across the galaxy with colleagues and friends as they faced a dangerous battle with an enemy of undetermined force. Lois fidgeted in her chair as she gave Kal a sideways glance and a quiver of irritated annoyance swept over her. How could he remain so calm when she was a squirming mass of twittering nerves? And yet as she watched she saw the telltale muscle twitch along his jaw and occasionally his hand smoothed through his hair — a sure sign that he was just as jittery.
<Calm down, girl!> Lois ordered herself with silent determination. <How will you ever get through this day if you dwell on what's happening a million miles away. And that's another thing — you still haven't got these distances off pat. You really should have paid better attention to those lessons you were given on the way to Krypton. But you're here to listen to these kids, who have obviously worked hard to reach this excellent standard, and they deserve your complete attention. So just knuckle under girl and stop obsessing. And, oh my Zor — I'm saying Zor instead of God — this planet is really getting under my skin! And I'm thought babbling!>
But Kal had obviously heard her thoughts as the muscle in his jaw tightened again, only this time in amusement, and his hand reached out and covered her own, giving a steadying squeeze and reminding her not to let her thoughts leak. She still hadn't perfected the art of control over which thoughts she wanted to project and she found the practise even more difficult when she was suffering from stress. Kal's reminder was urgent, though his gaze never strayed from the youthful prodigy giving of his best on the packed stage.
Lois settled down once more and diverted her attention to the musician — the boy was really very good. He was playing something that was remarkably reminiscent of a cello; another sign that Krypton and Earth were so very similar. The agitated First Lady let the smooth, mellow sounds of the instrument overwhelm her as the musician displayed his considerable talents.
<How can they ever choose a winner! These young people are all so talented!> Lois thought as another question rose to assault her. But that at least wasn't her problem — she just had to present the prizes, and so she allowed herself to be diverted by the haunting strains.
The afternoon wore on and thankfully the First Lady was distracted from her worrying as they met and mingled with the enthusiastic pupils after the award ceremony. Lois had never really had much contact with children and she was amazed at how much she was enjoying the experience. Could it be the fact that she was again hopeful that she and Kal had created a new life? It was very early days — she was only a few days late — not even enough to tell Kal, and yet she had caught him watching her a time or two with a bemused and concerned look in his eye. Perhaps he already suspected and like her was too scared to voice his thought; afraid that to do so might tempt fate into dashing their hopes once more.
Besides, Lois was feeling very ambivalent about her 'might be' condition. On one hand, she was exceedingly happy that she and Kal had created this new little person out of the love they shared — but she was also well aware that Lois- El could very well be lost to the mother of the future heir and just as she was beginning to be appreciated by the Council and the people. Perhaps she was fretting needlessly; after all, she wasn't sure that she was pregnant. For now it was much better to concentrate on more urgent matters — the foiling of Jen Mai's plan and the downfall of Rad-Nor.
The couple had returned from the music college and had dined in private. The Lady of El was still feeling anxious and now, after the exertions of the day, she was content to relax with her husband in their apartment. Not wishing to return to the discussion of what might be happening in deep space, they had mutually picked up on their reading material while soft Earth love songs played quietly in the background.
Kal had given instructions not to be disturbed unless under conditions of extreme urgency and the couple were enjoying the shared tranquillity. So it was that both were surprised when Zara came knocking at their door — surprised but not unduly irritated. The directive didn't apply to family. Kal telegraphed an order and the door slid open.
"Zara, what is it?" It didn't take a psychiatrist to deduce that his sister was suffering from mental stress. "Have you news of Ching?"
"Oh no, Kal! Not news exactly! I'm sure that you'd be the first to hear any definite news!" The troubled young woman frowned, not knowing quite how to explain what had prompted her to make this visit. "And Ching would never try to contact me — he understands the need for secrecy…"
"But you do know something, Zara?" Kal asked, his voice urgent yet gentle, not wanting to further upset his sister.
"I have this… feeling… this dread that he's in danger… that he might be hurt." Zara stood in the centre of the living room with her heartache pooling in her eyes. "Have there been any messages? Maybe you're too afraid to tell me that he's…"
"No! Zara no! The communications blackout still exists and it won't be broken until they've anything definitive to report. As far as we know, Ching is still safe," the concerned brother sought to reassure.
"You must think I'm crazy coming here like this… burdening you with my terrors…"
"That's not so, Zara," Lois spoke out as she tried to halt Zara fretfully wringing her hands. "Come sit down and never think that we don't understand. It's the bond that you share with Ching because of your love for each other. Kal and I feel it too and it's not like the telepathy thing… it's more than that… it's an awareness of each others' being and you feel it with your heart and not your mind."
"Then I'm not just imagining things?"
"Definitely not! I can feel things about Kal too! When I was locked up before the trial, I could feel his worry."
"But if this feeling is real then it means that Ching is really in jeopardy!"
"Well… yes!" Lois' mouth fell open as she realised that her attempt to sooth had only made matters worse.
"Lois! We don't know that!" Kal shot his wife a warning glance. "Zara, this whole business is risky and your feelings of unease might just be a reflection of that. We don't know that anything specific is happening… " The words tailed away as Kal's eyes shut automatically and both girls were aware that he was listening to some telepathic communication.
Lois was the first to lose her patience and she shook her husband's arm. "What is it?! What are you hearing?"
"Shssh! I can't hear if you keep interrupting!"
The conversation continued for some moments — an earnest exchange evidently taking place between Kal and his contact, till finally he turned an anguished stare on his younger sibling.
"Zara, you were right! There's been a battle! The pirates attacked the decoy and they put up quite a fight." He bit down on his lip and the tic along his jaw jumped, a clear sign that he was agitated. A tug on his arm from a curious and anxious wife moved him along. "That was Jace; he's heard from Dax-Ver…"
Another stronger tug on his arm prompted Kal into action. "And we better get down to the communications room. I need to speak to Dax."
"But what about Ching?" Lois was almost afraid to ask, but felt she must for the sake of her sister who looked as if she might faint away.
A worried frown creased Kal's clear forehead and he looked as if he was about to deny any knowledge of Ching's condition, however, he quickly discarded that option and plunged on with a quick explanation. "Ching's been wounded…" Zara blanched at his words so he hurriedly added. "… and I'm afraid that's all I know for now. So let's get out of here and down to Jace's quarters — we'll find out more there."
At his words, Kal swept his women down through the corridors to the elevators; the passageway lights brightening and dimming as they went and the few palace guards who were on duty snapping to attention while their First Lord and his party hurried past. Tonight the lift seemed too slow, as three alarmed gazes watched the flickering of indicator lights count off each floor, until finally, they reached the basement. Almost at a run they entered Commander Jace's private sanctum.
There, in the bank of holoscreens, they saw a view of the bridge of Lord Dax-Ver's flagship with a somewhat dishevelled and bruised Commander of the Fleet in the foreground. No-one spoke as the newcomers took in the considerable damage to the structure and instrumentation and the more distressing sight of the wounded personnel.
"Lord Dax, I'm relieved to see you safe," Kal managed to enunciate, clearly upset by the sight of the injured, yet he forced his attention back to his duty, there would be time for compassion soon. "Jace, I take it this channel is still secure?"
"Yes, my Lord!"
"Good! And it must remain so until we've apprehended the Mais. If they hear of this there's a chance that they'll try to bolt."
"Or they might try to brazen it out," Lois suggested with a wry grimace. "After all, judging by the way they've been acting like the couple 'who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo' for the past few days, they have no idea we suspect them. They might just think that Lord Dax and his men got lucky."
"You could be right, Lois," his eyes opened wide at another of her strange quotations. "Nevertheless, we can't take the chance of having them elude us." That said, Kal turned his attention back to the man in the hologram. "Your mission was successful, Dax?"
A rakish grin split the older man's face and coupled with the sterile dressing that covered one eye, the commander reminded Lois of a buccaneer from the old days back on Earth — or, at least, Hollywood's interpretation of such an age-old hero… But Ver was continuing and Lois returned her attention back to the conversation.
"Everything went as planned, Lord Kal. The enemy fleet took the bait. They had no idea it was a set up. Yet for all that, they put up quite a fight! Once they'd discovered that the merchant ship carried no contraband their smaller attack craft engaged our fighters while the battle cruisers concentrated on my flagship, hence the considerable damage that you see." Dax's hands swept around the ravaged bridge, the camera following his path. "They even managed to board us and the hand-to-hand combat was the fiercest I've witnessed in many long years. Thankfully we overcame them in the end but not without some loss of life and a large number of casualties." At this revelation, the Commander-in-Chief's gaze fell away. He hated to lose good men, and in this instance he'd come closer to losing his own life than ever before. Ver tentatively touched his bandaged eye. If it hadn't been for brave Captain Ching…
"I'm saddened to hear that, Dax." A wave of regret assailed Kal but he forced himself to address the man on the bridge of the crippled ship. "I expect a list of the dead and injured. I'll visit all the casualties when you return, but, in the meantime, could you pass on my commendation and thanks to all of your men, especially those who were hurt in my service."
As he spoke, more vidscreens flickered into life, revealing stark scenes of twisted metal bulkheads and wounded troopers. This fight might have been a victory but it had been hard won. The dim light from the far-off vistas of deep space flickered over Kal's shocked face and he could no longer divert his thoughts from the images of destruction. Slowly he forced his intentions past a mouth grim set. "And I'll attend to the families of the dead… let them know… take care of… arrangements."
The young leader's voice broke off as he floundered in feelings of grief and guilt for all those who had given their life to do his bidding. This was what he most abhorred about his role of First Lord — having to send his people into danger while he stayed safe at home. He should have been with them, sharing in the risk of injury and death.
"This isn't your fault, Kal," came the soft voice by his ear and Lois' warm hand slid inside his own clenched fist. She recognised his pain; she shared his revulsion, but he was not responsible. "You didn't ask for this to happen… and we had to fight back."
Yet in his present state of mind, Kal wasn't prepared to let Lois in. How could she understand how it felt, knowing that because of him men had died while he'd remained well out of the firing line? Kal was isolated in a sea of self- flagellation.
"My Lord! You will do your duty, just as my men did theirs," came Dax's distant voice, taking on the note of an exacting yet sympathetic mentor. The experienced warrior recognised that this young man who had so recently ascended the throne, had been traumatised by his first unpalatable taste of whole-scale death in his service. "It's a hard pill to swallow, knowing that people died fighting under your command. But these men are soldiers, trained to fight to protect their home planet; they knew the risks and yet they willingly went into battle — willing to die to protect their families and their way of life. You too have a responsibility to protect Krypton and the Kryptonian people, but you fight in a different battleground… yet it is not a less worthy battleground. You are needed, Lord Kal-El. You are a symbol of all our hopes and a promise that while you are our First Lord we all will survive in peace and prosperity. Never forget that, Kal, my boy." The latter statement was addressed not to that symbol but to the boy whom Dax had known since childhood and who now had to find the strength to lead his people through this testing time.
In the quiet of the communications centre a young beleaguered leader stood with his eyes filling with unshed tears as he tried to swallow the lump that formed in his throat. His was the ultimate responsibility and he prayed that he could live up to all expectations. Yet with support from people such as Dax-Ver and his troops, how could he fail? He wouldn't let their sacrifice go for nought. Kal would bring down the psychotic megalomaniac who had set in motion this evil plan as the means to attain his own grandiose ends. And Kal had to succeed. The alternative was too horrifying to contemplate — Rad-Nor let loose to terrorise Krypton and all the worlds beyond. Somehow the First Lord seemed to grow in stature as determination straightened his spine.
A telepathic thank you winged its way across the galaxy as Lois sent Dax-Ver her appreciation of what he'd done for her husband. Far away Dax acknowledge the message and his eyes slid over the slight figure of the First Lady, standing stalwartly at her husband's side. He'd met the young Earthling last summer and, though the circumstances had been tragic, he'd been impressed by the audacity and will that had prompted Lois to escape from her Taurean captors and nothing that he'd learnt since then had diminished his admiration. Dax firmly believed that with this couple on the throne the safety of his home planet was secure.
Another watcher was horrified at the scenes that were displayed in all their gory detail before them. Zara's hand stole to her mouth as she tried valiantly to suppress the cry that was bubbling to her lips. Her relationship with Ching was a secret and she couldn't risk giving it away by showing more concern than common compassion would decree. Yet it was so hard… she knew he was hurt… but was he still alive? The bond still held so perhaps he was but she was still left with the problem of how to find that out. Dax-Ver was continuing with his report on the battle; the number of casualties and the now broken state of the enemy. The young sister of the First Lord couldn't just dive in with a question — it wouldn't be considered 'correct' behaviour. Lady Lois-El on the other-hand would not allow herself to be so intimidated.
"Excuse me, my Lord Dax-Ver, for interrupting, but Lord Kal-El and I have a personal enquiry to make and one which is most important to us…" Lois hesitated momentarily but didn't await permission before continuing. "We were anxious about the state of your aide-de compe Captain Ching. As you know, he was Kal's personal bodyguard since boyhood and my Lord has a special interest in his welfare."
At this reminder Kal shot a somewhat apologetic glance to the women by his side… how could he have forgotten one of the prime reasons for their panicked flight to the communications section?
"Yes, Lord Dax, I would be grateful if you could give me an update on Captain Ching's status," Kal added with dread as he watched the military commander grimace at his words.
Dax's one good eye refused to meet the gaze of his First Lord and his hand returned to worry the bandage. "My Lord, Captain Ching is sorely injured. Indeed, I owe my life to him. We had sustained some damage to our systems and the enemy took us unawares when they boarded us… they managed to inflict a number of casualties and make their way to the bridge… if it hadn't been for Ching's brave intervention, I would have been killed."
While Dax-Ver recounted Ching's part in the battle, Zara could feel her grip on reality fading and she clasped with shaking hands to her brother's arm. Kal laid a comforting hand over the fingers that dug into his flesh and sent an urgent thought to the distressed girl.
<Careful, Zara! Ching is a *friend*. Be still, little sister, and leave this to me.> Kal wished he could say more but, even knowing that in Jace's lair thought messages would not be monitored, he dared not take the risk. Yet he was also aware that Zara's torment was evident to both Commanders.
"Excuse me, Dax, my sister has a caring heart and the sight of the carnage around you has affected her sensitive soul. Jace, perhaps a chair could be found for the Lady Zara and, Lois, will you take care of her?"
It wasn't really a question and everyone hurried to do his bidding, though Lois did send him a disapproving glance. She understood very well that Kal was attempting to deflect curiosity from the almost fainting girl but she had no wish to be relegated to the background. Nevertheless, she stayed with her sister-in-law in a corner of the room — well away from prying eyes — but with her attention still firmly glued to the holoscreens.
Meanwhile, Kal was continuing his conversation with Dax. "You were about to tell us about Ching…"
Dax's interest returned from the small incident in the control room to his leader's face; the Kryptonian girl was too softhearted but he noted, with approval, that the First Lady was not so squeamish..
"Yes, My Lord, your bodyguard is at present in the sickbay being treated by the medical staff and, be assured, he will receive the best of attention. I'll see to it myself. As I said before, that young man saved my life. The alien attackers had breached our shields — they must be equipped with state of the art equipment — they most certainly have acquired powerful weapons. But I digress. They latched onto our disposal hatch, cut the controls and got inside while we were concentrating on fighting off their attack ships and avoiding their laser cannon. They reached the bridge almost before we realised we'd been boarded. You were correct in your suspicions that the pirates were a polyglot group of the most vicious fighters in the universe and lead by Taureans — we almost succumbed to their strength. During the fighting their leader fired a laser blast at me and Ching pushed me aside and took the hit himself. A very foolish but courageous deed for which I'm extremely grateful." Subconsciously, Dax, once again, fingered his bandaged eye. "I'm praying that the young man will not pay for his valour with his life."
An uncomfortable silence settled over the two distant groups — the one in a room in the depths of the castle, where the quiet sobbing of a fearful girl invaded the stillness, and the other on the bridge of the flagship where the crew quietly went about replacing chaos with order.
Aware of the awkwardness that was building in the prevailing silence, Kal spoke up. "Thank you, Dax, for your report and for all your efforts in bringing down our attackers. I entrust the care of Captain Ching to you. Please see that he gets the very best of treatment. Ching is my friend…"
"As he is now mine, and I'll have our physicians update you on his condition as soon as they have anything to report." Dax related with a small smile, then setting personal matters aside, the dutiful soldier took over. "I also have good news to impart… we managed to capture a couple of enemy ships and some of the men who boarded us; most importantly the leader of the platoon. He's a Taurean and, though they're usually hard nuts to crack, he doesn't seem particularly thrilled with the thought of spending the rest of his natural existence as a de-integrated mass of molecules. It's my belief that we can do a deal with him — a little clemency for information regarding who he's working for."
"You think he can incriminate Rad-Nor!" Immediately, Kal was on the alert.
"I have a gut feeling that this… goon, wasn't just the leader of the boarding party. His men defended him well. I think he might have been the commander of the renegade fleet and, as such, he might know…"
"Commander Ver, I bring important information!"
Behind Lord Dax-Ver, a tall gangling Major had erupted onto the bridge — a now somewhat uncomfortable officer who had just realised that his commanding officer was in communication with the First Lord. "Excuse me, sir, I shouldn't have intruded… had I known who you were talking to… I should have waited for permission."
"No, please go on!" The request came from the bowels of Elvar. "I'm very interested to know what has you so excited! But first, I'd like to know whom I'm talking to."
The major gulped. He'd never encountered Lord Kal-El personally before. Some of his fellow officers had worked with Kal-El but mostly when he'd been only the heir and yet, from all reports, the young lord was very approachable. Squaring his shoulders, the officer addressed his First Lord. "Major Klei, my Lord! Scientific advisor to Commander Dax-Ver, reporting, sire!" Shuffling to attention and bobbing his head in salute as he intoned. "I headed up a detail that's been inspecting the captured ships and I discovered something interesting…" Major Klei's narrative tailed off slightly as he realised the importance of what he was about to infer.
"Major Klei," that from his commander who stood impatiently waiting by his side. "What have you found out?"
"Well, I would need to make further investigations, of course, but I would say that, barring a few alterations for installation into an alien vessel… the dimensions are totally different, you see …"
"Klei! Get to the point!"
"Yes, sir," the major stammered. He was really more of a scientist than a military man. "I'd say that the laser cannon that was employed against us was one of our very own."
That caught Kal's attention. "Part of an earlier shipment which the pirates have stolen from us?"
"No, sire! This is one of our latest weapons! And I'm fairly certain that this model has never reached past the testing stage! I'm interested in weapons technology, sire, and I like to keep abreast of the latest issues, so I think I'm correct in saying that this particular gun has never been shipped off Krypton."
"Then how did it get on board a pirate ship?!"
"I'd say that our test centre has acquired an undercover arms-dealer!" Lois had moved forward into the light and was the only one present who was prepared to utter the unthinkable. "Nor has spies everywhere else, why not in the weapons' test area too?"
Another resigned sigh broke from Kal-El. "That would seem a distinct possibility, Lois, and now that we know we can start our own investigation. Gentlemen, and ladies," Kal pointedly chose to include his wife and his sister, "I doubt if I have to remind you that all this must remain classified until such time as we can confront the suspects. This treason is obviously more widespread than we first anticipated and I intend to dig up every last root of every nasty weed that Nor has planted." The First Lord closed his eyes as he contemplated the steps that Rad-Nor would take to defend himself. The man wouldn't be prepared to go down quietly — that much was evident. Kal could only hope that there would be enough of Krypton left to enjoy the subsequent peace. But that was for the future. "Lord Dax, Major Klei, all your efforts are much appreciated but now you must come home. Unfortunately, I cannot for the present, promise you a hero's welcome but I do offer you my thanks from the bottom of my heart."
The communication channel was soon closed down and sealed. No one would eavesdrop or monitor this connection; Commander Jace would protect it with all his skill and his life if need be.
"You know that my feelings of indebtedness also include you, Jace." And at a solemn nod from the man sitting before the console Kal continued. "Contact Commander Medi and instruct him to bring the Mais in for questioning and get together the surveillance tapes; I'd be interested to hear what explanation Jen-Mai has for their actions over the last few days."
As quickly as they had descended to the dungeons of Elvar, Kal-El and Lois bore a now deathly silent girl back to the privacy of their apartment. The force-shield which Kal had promised Lois was now in place and there Zara could give way freely to her anxieties. Before activating the shield on their sanctum Kal contacted his parents who, for the sake of convenience, had been inhabiting their suite in the royal dwelling place and very quickly they sped to the aid of their youngest daughter. There they were brought up to speed on Dax's victory and of the high price it had extracted — yet thankfully, at present, not the life of the latest addition to the family.
Both parents sympathised with their poor child and with much clucking and fussing, Lara tried to persuade Zara to swallow a calming-draught and lie down in the one guest chamber that the small condo had to offer. But Zara, surprisingly, was not about to give into the 'vapours.' Now that the shock of hearing of her loved one's injury was wearing off, she was adamant that she remain compos mentis while the rest of the plot played out around her.
To the relief of all the company's stressed out nerves, word soon came from Commander Medi that he had, in accordance with orders, apprehended Lord Jen-Mai at his home and taken him into custody. It seemed that the noble Lord was both indignant and angered at the security detail's presumption… he had also been a trifle embarrassed. Lord Jen-Mai was entertaining — not, as one would expect, acquaintances from his own noble classes but a number of nubile young females who might fall into the category of 'professional ladies'. Certainly, Lady Minerva-Mai wasn't present at this little shindig, which, although understandable (one could hardly expect a wife to attend such parties) was regrettable. However, the Security Chief assured his lord that his men were now scouring the city, covertly, of course, for the Lady and it would only be a matter of time before she was taken into custody.
It was ungrateful to worry that this one, undeniably small, loose cannon was still out there when so much of their plot had gone according to plan but, nevertheless, all the inhabitants in the apartment looked worriedly askance.
"She's only one woman, and not a very well liked woman at that. What damage could she do?" Jor-El was the first to enquire.
"You're probably right, Father, but I just don't like not being able to tie up all the loose ends." Kal worried his lip again, proving that he was more upset than he cared to admit.
"She's probably just out visiting friends and when she comes home, Commander Medi's men will be waiting for her," Lara suggested helpfully. "She'll be locked up alongside her husband by morning."
"Let's hope that's so, Mother!"
"If she does escape, she could warn Rad-Nor!" Lois hated to be the voice of doom but neither did she believe in underestimating their opponents.
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of, sweetheart! I have a very bad feeling about this!"
Said the Spider to the Fly
In the velvet dusk of a soft spring night, a small hooded figure watched as her home was invaded by men dressed in dark uniforms which looked remarkably like those worn by the security forces. Lady Minerva-Mai was returning from an evening spent with an illicit, though most definitely able and spectacularly handsome young acquaintance. The hired transporter which had brought them from his small abode in the tradesmen's district of the city had dropped them at the end of the street and there she had taken her last passionate leave of her well- proportioned beau. The Lady frowned in distaste. She really didn't enjoy slumming but in this case her forbearance had been certainly worth it. From the moment she had spotted the young builder as he had gone about his job of renovating a neighbouring townhouse, she had been sure that his prowess at work would be mirrored by his efforts in bed. And so it had proved. Of course, she wasn't about to repeat the experiment but, not knowing that piece of information, the man had happily gone on his way, pleased that he had pleasured the noble Lady and thoroughly content with his prize — a jewelled bracelet which had adorned the unknown Lady's wrist.
This second job could become quite a lucrative trade, thought the youthful adonis as he sauntered off whistling, back to his own neighbourhood. It was a pity that she hadn't held the transporter for him, though. He would have quite a long walk back to his more lowly part of town.
Minerva couldn't suppress a throaty chuckle as she watched him stroll into the night. Poor boy! He would get such a shock when he tried to cash in on his reward. The bracelet was a fake and not even a very good fake at that. Not that she didn't have the real thing, of course, but she wasn't about to wear them to the rough part of town that she'd been forced to visit. Unlike Jen-Mai, a Lady couldn't invite her casual paramours to her house — at least, if she didn't want to become persona-non-grata. It was such an unfair society!
Such were her ruminations as she turned the corner to her house. The sleek black fleet of official transporters passed her by at the head of the lane and drew to a halt before her front door; the last two drawing round the broken wall that served as a boundary to the Mais' property — their intention, evidently, to cover the rear exit.
Scurrying back into the shadows, firstly in fright and then in shock as she sought an explanation for the presence of a security squad breaking down her front door. What could they want? It wasn't illegal to entertain care-givers in one's own home. But then, there was always the possibility that something unexpected and inconvenient had happened. Jen-Mai did so like his little perversions. Minerva wasn't averse to a little sexual experimentation but Jen, on occasion, did overstep the mark and thus his need of professional care-givers; she refused to take part in his offensive fantasies.
Was this what had happened here? Had he actually injured one of his little playmates? But surely, if that had been the case, it would have been easily covered up. A bribe here and there to the other women and the servants and no- one need ever have known. And damn Jen-Mai for getting into this predicament where they had to use their limited cash supplies to silence some bothersome underlings.
But while she hid in the shadows, her husband was escorted from the house by no less personage than Commander Medi, his subordinates bundling their semi-clothed charge into a blackened-out transporter and within seconds most of the team had disappeared into the night — as speedily and unobtrusively as they had appeared. Two officers crossed the street and stealthily entered the adjacent house — a surveillance crew, perhaps? What were they watching for? And how long had they been hidden there?
With dawning horror, Minerva concluded that her first assumption was incorrect. Commander Medi, the head of security, did not attend arrests for grievous-bodily-harm or even for murder, assuming that Jen-Mai had completely lost his mind. This fact was borne out momentarily when three brightly dressed and painted females were quietly shepherded off the premises by yet another uniformed man and driven off in the last remaining vehicle. In the yellowing light of the street lamps she noted that, while the women might look fairly surprised by events, none of them appeared particularly traumatised, which meant that there had to be another reason for detaining Jen-Mai.
There could be but one other cause and these guards left behind were lying in wait for her! They probably had a warrant for her arrest! But how could the authorities have discovered their complicity in Nor's crimes? She hadn't the time to waste on speculation — she had to get out of here but where would she go? Minerva was aware that she wasn't very popular amongst the ladies of the court. Many were jealous of her beauty and her successes with their menfolk, and she certainly wouldn't be welcome in any of their homes when it became known that her husband had been arraigned for treason.
Still, there was one place where she would be welcome. A sly smile spread over Minerva-Mai's pale face as she slid along in the shade of the buildings, hurrying after her erstwhile paramour. The poor fool would be so grateful to have the pleasure of her company that he wouldn't ask awkward questions and who would think of searching for a noblewoman in such a slum district. Thankfully she had some money with her; it didn't pay to go off on her little sexual jaunts without some funds to bail her out if she got into difficulties and she was most definitely in difficulties now. It wasn't the perfect solution and it wasn't one she would be prepared to tolerate for long, but it would give her breathing space until she could contact Rad-Nor and have him arrange her escape. With a determination, borne in a belief in her own infallibility, Minerva-Mai faded into the night.
Jen-Mai had spent a more uncomfortable and decidedly more nerve-wracking night than his spouse, locked up in a small and sparsely furnished cell. There was a narrow bed and a table with one unadorned metal chair; a window high in the wall was his only source of light and he had watched the dawn creep in a narrow shaft of weak sunlight slowly across the opposite wall.
In a volatile state of mind, he had veered from tossing and turning on the lumpy mattress as he unsuccessfully sought sleep to pacing back and forth in the confines of the cramped room. And that insolent Commander had not even allowed him time to dress. The rude clothes they had given him to wear were ill-fitting and the rough material chafed his sensitive skin. Didn't they know he could only wear silk?
'I arrest you on a charge of high-treason,' The stiff- necked Medi had informed him in blunt tones. 'You might wish to remain silent until you have conferred with a professor of law on the nature of your alleged crime but you would be advised to answer our questions.'
He had been formally charged; his rights protected. But he had refused to talk to the head of security, demanding instead that he would answer only to his peers — the High Council of Krypton. And thankfully, Medi had concurred and he'd been left to sweat the night away in this abominable cell.
Jen-Mai wracked his brains for a clue as to what proofs they might have managed to accrue about his participation in the attacks on the merchant convoys. Surely he had been more than careful. No doubt his arrest was merely a ruse, hoping to rattle him enough into confessing to the crime. Well, they would discover that a Mai was made of sterner stuff. He was the Second Councillor of Krypton and they would learn to toy with him at their own peril. Medi would be arresting pick-pockets and prostitutes before this day was out!
A nameless and silent guardsman entered his cell and placed his breakfast-tray upon the table and, having nothing better to do, Jen-Mai seated himself in front of it, jumping uncontrollably as the door slammed shut once more. Almost absentmindedly he played with the food on his plate. But what if they could prove that he had provided the enemy with information that had led to the destruction of the merchant ships and the deaths of their crews? Suddenly, Jen-Mai had no appetite for food. He felt the gorge rise in his throat and he rushed into the tiny washroom that occupied one corner of his prison.
His morning passed in a solitary state as his mood swung from angry indignation to abject terror. The punishment for treason was disintegration! Oh Zor! How would he bear it! They said that once the initial pain of the body's molecules being torn apart was over one wasn't even aware of what had occurred. Small comfort that was! And how did they know? Had any of them actually experienced the process?
Jen-Mai was afraid. He wasn't brave or strong in the physical sense; for instance he'd never served in the armed forces. His forte had been in the art of politics — of pitting his wit and his powers of persuasion against others in the Council chambers. And he'd been successful too, wooing his superiors and back-stabbing those who stood in his way. Who ever would have thought that a boy from his modest beginnings amongst the noble classes could rise to a position of great importance in the High Council? His adversaries didn't know with whom they were dealing. Whenever this 'mistake' was sorted out, he vowed to take his revenge. And once again he was on a high, willing to take on all-comers — even the First Lord himself. Jen-Mai was about to get his wish.
Shortly after noon the door to Jen-Mai's cell opened and Commander Medi stepped inside, standing to attention as he addressed the accused. "Lord Jen-Mai, you refused to talk to me but perhaps you would be more willing to answer the questions of these noblemen."
As he spoke the Commander stood aside and the others filed into the room. First through the portal was Lord Trey, followed quickly by Lord Remy and by a less familiar personage who, nonetheless, Mai identified, from the robes he was wearing, as a professor of law. Lastly, as they all squeezed themselves into the narrow space, the First Lord of Krypton strode with his easy grace into the cell. The room was suddenly very crowded and Jen-Mai concluded that the ploy was intimidation and, though he hated to admit it, the manoeuvre was succeeding. But they were fools if they thought he was about to give into their games! Bristling with bravado, he squared himself off.
"I said I would answer to the High Council — the full Council! This is only a chimera!"
"Come now, Jen, calm down," Lord Remy smiled soothingly as he seated himself in the chairs that had re-integrated into the room, causing even more congestion. "You know that in cases of emergency, as long as the First Lord and Prime Councillor are present along with one other Councillor," he touched his chest as he helpfully went on, "which is me, of course, a Council meeting can be held to deal with that emergency. And there is yourself. Seeing as you have not yet been convicted of any crime, you're still a member of the Council. So you see we're acting well within the law."
"Indeed you are, my lords, well within the laws of Krypton." The one unknown personage laid his techno-books upon the table, which had been cleared of the breakfast crockery sometime ago while Jen-Mai was attending to his needs in the bathroom.
"And I'm sure that you'd consider this an emergency, Lord Jen-Mai," argued Lord Trey. "I know that I wish to have this matter concluded with all haste and I'm sure you must agree." That said he too sat next to his fellow Councillor.
Kal-El remained tight-lipped but he took his place at the head of the small table and immediately, the law-advisor slipped into the last remaining chair, leaving Commander Medi standing sentinel by the door.
"I suggest, Lord Jen, that you sit down and listen to what we have to say," Trey uttered on a longsuffering sigh. "Besides, this is merely a preliminary hearing; you will have your day in court, believe me."
Jen-Mai gave into the inevitable, plumping himself onto his cot, the only place left for him to sit, and stared ungraciously at the opposite wall. He would not remain standing before them like some naughty schoolboy while they sat in judgment, but he was not about to participate in their charade. So decided the defiant part of him while inside the coward wondered what proofs they were about to reveal.
"Good," continued Trey. "This is Doctor Jobe. He is a professor at law and head of that particular faculty at the renowned University of Elvar. He is here to ensure that your civil rights are not impinged upon and that everything that takes place within this room adheres strictly to the code of Kryptonian law. In accordance with that law and for your own protection, the proceedings will be holotaped. Do you understand?"
The accused forbore to answer and Doctor Jobe spoke up. "I must advise that it is in your interests to answer the questions."
Lord Jen-Mai cast a baleful glance over the tableau before him, but, nevertheless he did answer. "Of course I understand! Do you think I'm some kind of fool!"
"If the cap fits!" Remy scorned in a whispered aside. The old man did so like Lois' Earth expressions and used them whenever he found them applicable. For his pains he received a kick underneath the table from his unappreciative grand-nephew, though he could swear, the boy's eyes twinkled.
Choosing to ignore the by-play, Trey carried on. "You are here today because we believe that you have been passing information to the enemies of Krypton, thus enabling them to attack our merchant fleets and to destroy them."
"That's nonsense!" Mai was tempted to jump up and start pacing about the room but he determined not to give them the satisfaction of knowing they had him rattled. "If there is such a traitor — and I'm not about to concede that there is — I'm most definitely not he. I'm the Second Council…"
"The Second Councillor of Krypton!" Remy mimicked. "Yes we know! And as such you are in the perfect position to learn all the relevant information and to pass it onto your partners in crime."
"As are you," Mai threw at him challengingly.
"Maybe! But I haven't been arrested… You on the other hand…"
"You can't prove anything!"
"But we can!" Finally, Lord Kal-El entered the conversation. "We have managed to collect quite a body of proof and I'd say we have a very good chance of a conviction."
The inward craven swelled within Jen-Mai, yet he clung desperately to the hope that they were bluffing. "Then show me the evidence and once it's proved to be nothing more than a sham you can let me go." This time he did give into the nervous urge to stand, although he passed it off as playing the part of the unjustly defamed defendant. "And I'll expect nothing more than a public apology and monetary compensation for this terrible insult upon my person."
"In your dreams!"
"Sorry, Kal!" Remy blushed angelically and clasped his hands in his lap.
"You asked to see our proofs, Mai, and if you'll sit down that's exactly what we intend to do." Kal gestured imperiously at the red-faced man. "This might take some time and afterwards we'd be interested to hear what you have to say in your defence. Medi, please ask my wife and Commander Jace to join us."
Within minutes the two were escorted into the room and Trey immediately gave up his seat to the Lady, causing Jen-Mai to frown at, what he considered, a piece of ill-conceived courtesy. Quickly he returned to his seat on the bed. This whole thing was starting to feel very threatening and he wasn't certain that he could stop his knees from beginning to shake. The First Lord was talking once again and for the sake of his own survival Jen reluctantly turned his attention to what was about to take place.
"As you might be aware, Mai, the latest convoy to leave Krypton was attacked by the space-marauders." Actually, Jen didn't know of this. His fellow conspirators hadn't yet informed him. But this was welcome news and he speedily tried to hide his smugness as he concentrated on Kal-El's revelation. "However, these pirates didn't get exactly what they were looking for… you see, we had set up a little ruse and, fortunately, the real convoy made its destination safely this morning."
"Yes, I know! You used a decoy!" Jen boasted impulsively. Yet something was wrong here… Slowly he was realising how shaky was the ground on which he stood.
"But how would you know that, Lord Mai?" asked Prime Councillor Trey. "It wasn't discussed in an open Council meeting."
Jen-Mai shrugged, feverishly trying to backtrack; he really had to be more careful. "Then perhaps I overheard it or perhaps it just seemed like the obvious solution, if the convoy made it through."
"Oh, it was overheard, but not by you," Kal offered. "Commander Jace, play us the scene in the conservatory, please!"
The tiny, overcrowded room dimmed as above the table a hologram formed. With the exception of the accused and his advisor everyone was familiar with the holotape, and so were more interested in assessing the accused's reaction. Jen-Mai sat mesmerised as the little incident unfolded and, as he watched the First Lady prattle on about this silly plot concerning decoys, his confidence came surging back. Was this all they had? But this didn't prove anything… or it incriminated another party! What idiots they were! They had played right into his hands!
"Well there you have it!" Jen-Mai scoffed. "Lady Lois-El is the blabbermouth! Chattering away to her empty-headed friends about state secrets in a public place… where anyone can eavesdrop. I always knew she wasn't to be trusted."
"But Lady Lois and her friends were acting under my orders… and, before you accuse me of giving away state secrets," Kal enunciated slowly for emphasis, "Lady Lois-El was not in a public place; the incident occurred in the garden-room in the Palace of Elvar and the only person eavesdropping was a certain Lady. Perhaps you recognise her, Lord Jen-Mai?"
At his words the hologram replayed, only this time the camera panned around the area showing that the three girls by the pond were alone, except for a shadowy form hidden in the shrubbery. The shot zoomed onto the faint quivering of a bushy tree and as the large plate-like leaves parted some way, the silvery tresses and the pouting beauty of a very familiar face came into view. That stupid, stupid woman! What had she done, allowing herself to be caught spying!? But all was not lost. He could repair the damage.
"Yes, Minerva-Mai did tell me about all of this. My Lady was very worried that such an important secret should become public knowledge and that's why I knew about the decoy."
"But if you were both so worried, why didn't you bring it to the attention of the Council?" Remy's question was voiced without confrontation. "Surely, that would have been the correct thing to do under the circumstances."
Now that would be more difficult to explain but Jen proceeded, never daunted. "I didn't want to upset the First Lord by informing on his wife and, as no-one else was there to overhear and neither Minerva nor myself would ever betray the plan, we agreed to keep quiet and not make trouble for Lady Lois-El."
"That was uncommonly thoughtful of you Jen-Mai," Remy agreed, nodding airily. "But if neither of you passed on the information and no-one else overheard, how do you explain the fact that the pirates attacked the decoy which they supposedly knew nothing about?"
Was the air in this room growing thinner? "How should I know? Perhaps, Lady Lois spoke out of turn somewhere else."
"But I didn't, Lord Mai!" Lois spoke up for the very first time since entering the room.
"So you say! But why anyone should believe you, I have no idea!"
"Because, Jen-Mai, she is my wife and because we were very careful not to let her out of our sight from the moment she left that conservatory. And that's not because I distrust her but because I was fairly certain you'd try to push the blame onto Lois."
"What were you doing out at the old Kan-El mine?" interposed Lord Trey, breaking into an atmosphere that was charged with the contempt that these two men bore each other. "And before you seek to deny it…" Trey clicked his fingers and another hologram shimmered into being.
This time Jen-Mai saw an aerial view of his house and with a sinking feeling he watched as the camera depicted himself and Minerva climb into a transporter and follow them as they made their way to the disused Kryptonite mine.
"The holotape is logged at a date and time directly after you returned home from the palace, supposedly to check up on a sick wife, who, incidentally, had also rushed home immediately after eavesdropping on the First Lady. Yet, here we see that the Lady doesn't seem at all unwell nor do you look very concerned, though you do appear very intent on some task or other… something that had to be done in an out of the way spot like the Kan-El mine."
"That holotape could be a fake!"
"No it's not! Commander Medi, could you give us your report?"
"Yes, First Lord." The Security Chief stepped forward from his position by the door. "On the day and hour in question I personally witnessed a hired transporter draw up to the Mais' house. The defendant and his Lady wife boarded the vehicle and proceeded from their house in the city to the mine where they entered the old mine workings. There I waited until they came out and followed them back to the city. The dates and times are officially documented in my log." And at that, the trustworthy soldier placed his vidpad on the table.
"I also would like to authenticate the holotape," Commander Jace entered the conversation. "From my control room I witnessed these events."
"As did I," stated Kal.
"And I!" Lois confirmed.
"Also, during the time that the couple were inside the mineshaft, I picked up a signal being transmitted from the mine to Space Station Caytan."
"You can't know that!" Jen-Mai was shocked into replying to Jace's statement.
"Indeed I can! I can even tell you which satellites you routed it through."
"Do you have a recording or a transcript of this alleged message?" the professor of law enquired mildly, being perhaps the only neutral person in the little room.
"I'm afraid not, sir," the communications officer admitted reluctantly. "The message was encrypted and the radiation from the remaining kryptonite was enough to distort my equipment."
The accused man immediately seized on that piece of information, relief secretly blooming in his soul. "But if you don't know what was in the message you can hardly prove that I sent it. Someone else could have been in that mine."
"Yet you were in the right place at the right time!" Lois exploded angrily; she refused to contemplate that Mai could wriggle out of the charge.
"Nevertheless, I would have to concur with Lord Jen-Mai on this," Doctor Jobe pronounced. "Although the defendant has been seen to act very suspiciously this is not conclusive proof."
Most everyone in the tiny cell looked downcast, except for Jen-Mai who was smiling in a very superior way and the law- giver who really didn't have a motive for wishing to convict the man and was more interested in sticking to the stuffy letter of the law.
<Seems lawyers are the fly in the ointment on every planet!> Lois' disgruntled thought broadcast to her husband and he bestowed on her a sympathetic glance.
"If only I could get my hands on that transmitter!" Jace was hardly aware that he had voiced his thoughts and was surprised to find himself the object of everyone's scrutiny. "Most of these devices have a memory chip and often the receiver's position coded in. Even if they've been deleted I might be able to retrieve them."
Jen-Mai blanched. Technology wasn't his strong point and he'd only used the thing as he'd been instructed. Could this expert really do what he was claiming?
"Medi?" Kal's one word was strident with anxiety.
"I'm sorry, my Lord, my men have been searching through the Mais' house all morning and the device hasn't been found… nor have we found any other incriminating evidence."
A frown hovered on the troubled First Lord's face but only momentarily as inspiration struck. "Medi! You were there! Did you see the Mais bring that box out of the mine with them?"
The policeman had been trained in a profession where observation was the key and he let his mind dwell on what he had witnessed that day. "No… I don't believe I did!"
A surge of energy enlivened the group once more as Kal asked for the end of the tape to be replayed. And there was the answer for all to see — the couple had left the mine empty handed!
Medi anticipated the command. "I'll send my men out to the Kan-El mine. If it's there, they'll find it."
Blind panic was threatening to consume Mai and his voice rose almost to a shriek. "It's a damned conspiracy and everyone of you are up to your necks in it! You always disapproved of me; treated me like I was a second class citizen."
"I very much doubt whether you're in a position to accuse anyone, Lord Mai." Trey's voice was cold but it held an underlying trace of despair. The elderly minister had spent his life in the service of his world and he was finding it difficult to conceive that a fellow Councillor could so betray everything that he believed was just and true.
Meanwhile a small whispered conversation was taking place between the First Lord and his Lady and Commander Medi who had just returned to the room having passed on his instructions to a search team. The man carried another vidpad which he handed to his leader.
Sitting further back in his chair and appearing more confident than earlier, Kal again addressed the alleged traitor. "It seems, Jen-Mai, that this just isn't a good day for you. Thanks to a suggestion by Lady Lois-El we've just acquired further information that ties you into this crime. Do you know a gentleman called Danius?"
If it were possible, Mai turned an even whiter shade of pale. That meddlesome female had decided to look into his accounts and although he hadn't been so foolish as to deal with the established financial houses she had somehow found her way to Danius. For the first time, Jen-Mai seriously considered that he would be revealed as the spy who had sold his planet's secrets.
"I assume from your silence that you know of whom we speak but let me enlighten the rest of our gathering. Danius is an off-worlder of unknown origin who runs a highly successful gambling establishment in this city. His last known abode was on Caytan which, I'm sure you'll agree, Jen-Mai, has a habit of cropping up in this case. Lady Lois and I spent a very interesting morning in his company. The gentlemen isn't very conducive to receiving morning calls, for all the obvious reasons, and he didn't seem very happy to answer our questions. Did he, Lois?"
"No he didn't. I believe his attitude could be described as… truculent." Lois replied conversationally.
"Truculent! Oh, I'd say something stronger… downright hostile!" The little byplay was wearing on Mai's nerves and Kal adjudged it time to continue. "However, when it was pointed out to him that if he were found to be involved in a crime of conspiracy that not only would his licence be revoked and he would be exiled from Krypton but the position of his fellow club-owners would also be called into question. These establishments are tolerated under very strict rules and the fact that one of their number was acting as paymaster for a set of space-pirates would be considered a violation of these rules; the Council would have to look very closely at the operating of these clubs before allowing them to continue to ply their trade."
The inference was clear; if the gentleman refused to co- operate, his associates might just hold him responsible for the closure of their extremely profitable businesses. A highly precarious position to find oneself in and one which Danius hadn't at all relished. After a short period of reflection, he had appeared at Security headquarters with his law-advisor and dictated and signed the affidavit that Kal now held within his hands.
"It appears that Danius saw the wisdom of our suggestions and I have here a copy of his statement which I will now relate to you all — if that is considered within the law?" Kal raised an eyebrow in question at the studious professor who was beginning to feel somewhat out of his depth. Nonetheless he gave the question due consideration before answering.
"If the statement is pertinent to the charge against Lord Jen-Mai then it is permissible; this is only a preparatory interview and not a court of law where the witness would be required to appear in person."
With a slight bow of his head in recognition Kal-El began. "' I, Danius, owner of the gambling establishment 'Club Danius' do swear that at the end of the previous year, I had reason to visit Space Station Caytan — these were business requirements and in no way were involved in the following happenings. While there, I was approached by a Taurean named Ballen-2…"
"Wait a minute! Ballen-2!" Lois was completely astounded. "What! Ballen's that guy who kidnapped me and he's dead. Is this some kind of clone or something?"
"You could say that, Lois. Taureans aren't exactly a homo- sapien race — they're a bit of a mix between the human and the animal kingdom…"
"Now that doesn't surprise me! I'd say he kinda resembled a pig but I wouldn't want to insult the whole community of swine."
Muffled snickers emanated from various members of the group, though Kal stifled his own and explained. "Female Taureans are subject to multiple births — sort of like a litter and, not being the most imaginative race in the universe, they just give the members of the litter the same name and number them in the order they were born."
"Hmph! Sounds logical in a weird sort of way," the Lady conceded and having said her piece she gestured for Kal to go one with his reading.
"'… I was approached by a Taurean named Ballen-2. At first, I was reluctant to accept the proposition he offered but it soon became clear to me that, if I refused, I would be done away with and another patron from Elvar would be recruited. Not wishing to die, I agreed to do his bidding, which appeared to be to pay a Kryptonian nobleman named Lord Jen-Mai certain sums of money when requested by Ballen-2 or his subordinates. The payments were to be made under the guise of 'winnings' made at the tables in my club and for this I would receive a commission, paid into my account on Caytan. But, I swear, I wasn't told what these payments were for and I just did as I was told. Every so often Lord Jen-Mai would appear at the club and when directed I would ensure that he won heavily at whatever game of chance he chose to participate in. And that's all I did.'
This missive is duly signed by Danius and witnessed and is entered as evidence into legal records."
Silence fell as all those perused the information they had heard. Mai's demeanour had slumped as he listened to the words that incriminated him in his traitorous crime but he wasn't prepared to surrender quite yet.
"And you would take the word of a dubious off-worlder against that of a Kryptonian nobleman."
"I don't think it comes down to that, Jen-Mai," Kal explained with distaste. "These establishments are required to keep records for legal and taxation purposes and I'm fairly positive that if we investigated we would see that your 'lucky winning streaks' regularly occurred after a successful attack on our convoys."
The jig was up! Mai knew that Medi had, in all probability, already ordered the seizure of Club Danius' accounting books and besides, there had been witnesses to his visits. No doubt some upstanding member of the community would give evidence to his unusual 'good fortune.' The disintegration chamber loomed larger and Mai couldn't suppress the quivering that seemed to be involuntary affecting his limbs.
With a gruff clearing of his throat, Doctor Jobe addressed his 'noble' client. In truth, the elderly academic was affronted by this man's alleged treachery and yet, by law, he was entitled to his advice. "You are not required to comment at this point, Lord Mai, and if you wish a private consultation with me, the authorities are duty bound to adhere to your request."
The Lady of El considered this strange. When the charges had been brought against her she had not been given access to a counsel for the defence but then Jen-Mai had not yet been formally accused in an open meeting and she understood the need for doing everything in this particular case by the strict letter of the law. Besides, she reminisced with a faint smile, there had been a number of people who were willing to rush to her defence in her time of trouble. It was doubtful that Jen-Mai would find himself so fortunate.
"But," the scholarly voice droned on, "if you have any knowledge of these perfidious acts then I would advise you to unburden yourself and throw yourself upon the mercy of your superiors."
Trey leaned closer to the palsied lord. "I think it only fair to warn you that the attack on the convoy failed and that although most of the opposing ships were destroyed a number of the renegades were captured. They are now being held by Dax-Ver and on their way to Krypton where they will stand trial for piracy in deep space."
Lord Remy steepled his fingers and spoke to the empty air above him. "I wonder how Ballen-2 feels about the greedy imbecile who gave him false information that led to his capture and his certain future spent in limbo?"
Regarding the same spot high on the ceiling, Lois answered. "I'm not sure, Lord Remy, but I'd be willing to hazard a guess that the 'piglet' is as mad as fire…"
"Almost mad enough to incriminate his informant, would you say?"
"Oh yes. I'm sure he'll want to see this person share his punishment and it isn't true what they say… There isn't any honour among thieves."
"Another highly apt Earth saying!" Remy grinned in approval. "I love your language, Lois; it… it 'just hits the nail on the head' every time." And the two went off into peals of laughter.
"Enough! Enough," screamed Jen-Mai as he jumped up, his hysteria building apace. "This is my life, my future you're making fun of."
"Lois! Remy!" Kal offered a slight reprimand then turned his disapproval on the white-faced Mai. "You should have thought of that when you embarked on your traitorous course. You have only yourself to blame for your predicament. And I don't believe that you gave much consideration for the men whose deaths you caused. Are you aware of the numbers who lost their lives or were injured because of your greed? I suggest that you give some thought to their sad plight before you make any decisions about your future… or lack of one, if you're found guilty of this charge, which is looking highly likely." The First Lord rose to his feet and the two combatants regarded each other across the small space, Kal with disdain and Mai with a helpless hatred. "This interview is terminated. I think we should give Lord Mai some time to reflect on his fate and we can resume first thing tomorrow morning."
The group filed solemnly out of the narrow door, Medi being the last to leave. The three extra chairs shimmered out of being and Mai was left to the silence and the dusk. Unnoticed, the afternoon had waned during the heated exchange and the sun had shifted in its perpetual orbit about the sky and no longer shown its friendly light into Jen-Mai's cell.
Outside in the corridor Kal turned to the weary professor. "Doctor Jobe, thank you for your assistance. It can't have been easy for you, being involved in this case. It must be a long time since you've been asked to counsel an accused in such a heinous crime."
"Try never," came the tired reply. "And I hope I never have to again… but it was necessary. And I suppose it's making me sharpen old skills. Since Elvar has become such a law-abiding city my services have been directed to academia."
Kal returned the older man's smile. "And I'd rather keep it that way — you employed in the University rather than in this place of detention. However, I have to ask you to hold yourself in readiness for a return visit; I have a feeling that Lord Mai might be requesting your assistance sometime before tomorrow morning."
"I'm sure you're right, sire. And if my client seeks clemency for co-operation am I free to advise him to take that course?"
With gritted teeth Kal answered. "If both you and he believe it to be in his best interests then please do so."
The First Lord was not about to influence the traitor in any way. Too many criminals had walked free in the distant past because their convictions had been challenged on a technicality. For so many years, Krypton had been free of these expensive and time consuming criminal cases. Mostly these days, the courts presided over petty offences and civil actions which were normally resolved without much hassle. Lois' trial had been a shocking anathema which thankfully had been swiftly concluded. Now, it seemed, they were about to embark on another and all because a power-seeking individual was dictating the prose. Kal had the dread feeling that there might be more blood shed before the concluding chapter.
"I'll bear that in mind, my Lord. See you in the morning." Jobe offered his clasped hands to his young sovereign and then turned to go, his assistant quickly falling in behind him and taking charge of the now stooping old gentleman.
In the Security Chief's more spacious and pleasant room on the top floor of the Civil-Defence Headquarters, Kal-El and his supporters gathered to review the continuing developments. Medi had served some refreshments to his guests and the atmosphere though convivial was solemn. Their complicated plot was coming to fruition and no-one doubted that Mai would be found guilty when brought to trial, if indeed it came to that. Most believed that the sly quisling would eventually plea bargain — his own worthless neck in exchange for renouncing his partners-in- crime.
"Does anyone feel like me that's its a pretty depressing thought that we have to make a deal with that lowlife?" Lois asked of no-one in particular.
"I agree, dear Lady." Trey's silver-haired head nodded sorrowfully. "It pains me greatly to know that… 'lowlife' will get away with murder."
It amused Kal to hear Trey's Kryptonian courtesy melded with his wife's more earthy utterances. Lois might be adapting to the way of life on her new home but she also was rubbing off on the people with whom she came in contact. Uncle Remy had already fallen under her spell and it seemed that the more sedate Trey was no less susceptible to her acerbic charm.
"That was a stroke of genius — questioning Danius. That was the turning point. How ever did you find out about him?" Trey asked the question that was on everyone's minds.
"Actually that stroke of genius came from Lois. As you know, ever since we visited Maison last year, Lois has been convinced that Mai must have an alternative source of income."
"I did warn you about him, my Lord, when you first came to the throne. I always knew the man wasn't to be trusted."
"I remember, Trey, and I did appreciate the warning but I was too new at the job — just finding my feet, I suppose, and so many other things were happening that I didn't feel confident enough to address the problem. Besides, Lois and I did feel that we should keep the Mais close enough to keep an eye on what they might be up to…"
"Back then we only suspected that he was using his position to accept bribes for services rendered." Lois' shoulders lifted in a shrug as she took up the tale. "Selling information to the enemy was a bit of a stretch."
"But since the attacks on the convoys started, the Mais have had even more money to burn. So Lois suggested that we look into his financial records."
"We did check that it was within the law," Lois assured with a sheepish grin. "And when we couldn't find any legitimate accounts belonging to Jen-Mai or his wife we started looking for other sources…"
"And found our way to 'Club Danius' where it appeared that Jen-Mai has been a very regular and big winner since the turn of the year."
"We confronted Danius and the rest as they say is history."
"Well done, Lady Lois!" Uncle Remy was quick to congratulate. "Kal, my boy, you picked a 'right one' there for your wife. Life would be so dull without her."
"And I couldn't agree more," Trey added in his more understated way.
Lois smiled at her admirers while tears shimmered behind her eyes. She had come such a long way from her beginnings, and her life here on Krypton had not always been easy but she was feeling less and less of an incomer and these people were now her family and her friends — her very dear friends.
The herbal tea was drunk; opinions were exchanged and conclusions drawn and as the talk wound down the meeting ended. Goodbyes were said with clasped hands warmly given and, though all were content with the outcome of this day's interrogation, sadly, each was left with a nasty taste within their mouths. Lady Lois, hailing from a world where corruption was not so uncommon, was little fazed. Not so the others. They had all had their suspicions; had even worked to bring this man down. Nonetheless, it had been a salutary and disquieting experience to learn, without a shadow of doubt, that in their supposedly ideal civilisation had lurked a dangerous canker.
Another interminable night stretched out before Jen-Mai and this time without the comfort that his accusers didn't have enough concrete proof to warrant his arrest. The evidence continued to pile up against him. Once the transmitter was retrieved, Jace would verify that he was responsible for contacting the pirates. And he had no doubt that what those two thoughtless lunatics had been laughing about earlier was in fact true. Ballen-2 would have little compunction in spilling all that he knew about his informant, especially if the creature thought he could buy himself a little clemency.
He was routed! Mai had sought the downfall of this insufferably good Lord of El and he had failed miserably. There was only one price for failure and being held in custody wouldn't protect him from a madman like Nor. The containment chamber wasn't his only terror; disintegration could be reversed. His fate at the hands of his boss would be terminal.
And yet, two could play at the Taurean's game. What if he offered to co-operate in return for his own skin? After all, he had been merely a puppet in the hands of a master. Rad-Nor was the one who had set the whole thing up, who had tempted him with promises of reward and with threats — that mustn't be overlooked — to become involved in this crime. Rad-Nor was the orchestrator of all that had befallen and so it ought to be he who paid the highest price. And if Nor was trying to save his own neck he would have less time to exact revenge on his underlings.
His blind panic was subsiding as he reached a decision. Jen-Mai would ask for clemency in exchange for turning state's evidence. Once Rad-Nor had been taken into custody, Mai would allow himself to be exiled from Krypton and somewhere he would find a way of starting over again; somewhere where no one could ever find him. He'd risen from nothing before and he could do so again.
And one more thing; he'd be damned if he'd make his confession in front of that trumped up do-gooder and his common-as-muck wife. There was no way he would allow them the satisfaction of seeing him admit to his crimes. It was only a small triumph but one that brought comfort to his troubled mind. Feeling a little more optimistic, he pressed the buzzer to summon the guard and when the trooper appeared(the drone had taken his time), Jen demanded an interview with Doctor Jobe. The wrinkled old professor wasn't exactly his first choice of counsel but he would have to do. Jen-Mai settled down to wait.
Far distant, in the southern hemisphere of the planet, while Jen-Mai's deliberations were reaching a conclusion, the early morning sunshine glinted off the golden hair of a lone figure, trudging along a leaf-strewn road. The cloak was dragged tightly around the body in an attempt to keep out the chill air. In this quadrant of the world, autumn was almost over and the traveller, inappropriately, was dressed for spring.
Minerva-Mai was surprised at how easily and swiftly she had reached her goal. It was only a little over twenty-four hours since she had hidden in the night shadows and watched as her husband was arrested by Elvar's police force. The task to convince her lovesick swain to offer his help had been so simple. What had been more surprising and gratifying was that his help should prove so effective.
Assuming that word of Jen's arrest would soon be made public (in this society of open government the authorities would have no option but to broadcast the information) she had decided that honesty was the best policy or, at least, bending the truth to gain her own ends. As early morning newsflashes were beamed throughout Elvar detailing the fact that her husband was helping the security forces with their investigation into the attacks on the convoys, she cast herself sobbing onto the broad chest of her youthful admirer and played the shocked and put-upon wife to the hilt.
How could the man with whom she had lived for so many years have done something so despicable, and how could she have been so fooled by him? She had been completely in the dark about his dealings with these terrible criminals. She was innocent of any wrong doing, and yet she would be implicated in his crimes simply by the fact that she was his wife.
What could she do? Of course, the proper conduct would be to go to the authorities and cast herself on their mercy. But she had no helpful information to give them and how would she bear the shame of being married to a traitor? And how would her sensitive soul withstand the trauma of perhaps being locked in a small cell, away from the light and warmth of the sun?
If only she could get away from Elvar; back to the bosom of her own family who loved her and who would offer her comfort and understanding. Perhaps with their support and a little time for reflection, she would find the courage to return to Elvar and do the right thing. If only she had some way of getting out of the city unawares. No doubt the security forces would be checking all the public means of transport and she would be arrested and have to face the spotlight of public scrutiny and censure. She just wasn't sure if she was strong enough to endure it all.
Her young man, the silly fool, had shown himself to be sympathetic and extremely resourceful. He had contacts with merchants and builders who frequently plied their trade throughout Krypton. Every day haulage orb ships left the city for all points of the planet. There was no doubt one heading in whichever direction she wanted to go and he would be able to get her on board — for a fee, of course. Not for himself, her ladyship would understand, but for the folks who would take her to her destination. Give him a few hours and he would arrange everything.
And he'd been true to his word for here she was almost at the doors of Norden. The last short stage of her journey had been the most tedious but her transporters had been adamant; they had fulfilled their contract by setting her down in the small town nearby. Minerva wasn't used to walking and she was not dressed for it. Her high-heeled sandals kept slipping on the fallen leaves and her light wool cloak was soaking up the damp that permeated the morning air. She shivered. It was a pity that she'd be arriving on this particular doorstep in such an untidy state of dress but she had little option. Soon she would be relaxing in a hot tub and enjoying a hearty breakfast. An appreciative purr sounded in her throat as she contemplated the scene. She was also certain that Rad-Nor would be able to supply her with something more fitting to wear… but not too soon. The feral growl deepened. She might even get round to eating… breakfast… later.
The large turreted house at the head of the drive grew closer; she hadn't much further to go. Two large orb ships sat on the lawn off to the side of the grey stone building and the activity that was going on around them seemed unusual for this early morning hour. A stream of military men and servants scurried back and forth between the ships and the house like a swarm of worker ants. What was happening? Minerva-Mai quickened her step.
The dark bulk loomed large as she approached. Great, almost black towers rose from each corner of the edifice and blank-faced soldiers stood on the battlements watching her progress. She shivered, and this time not from cold. She had never visited Castle Norden before, though she had spent sometime as a guest in Rad's townhouse both publicly and privately. This gloomy building with its cyborg-like guards was not exactly to her taste though it did ooze an aura of power and menace.
At last she reached the end of her road and stood before the door of the fortress. For the first time she wondered with mounting unease if perhaps her visit would be received with the enthusiasm she had envisaged. But Minerva-Mai wasn't given to introspection; at least, not when it was a question of her sexual powers of persuasion. Shrugging off the traces of doubt, she placed her palm upon the scanner.
Lady Mai rushed nervously into the great hall — she'd been left kicking her heels in a small, chilly room for what seemed like hours and her long, lonely wait had rendered her more unsure of her welcome. Nothing, though, had prepared her for the dark frowning stare that was bestowed on her, or the icy cold in the voice of the man whom her Lord intended to betray.
"What do you want, Minerva? I can't say it's a pleasure and, as you see," Nor's hands displayed the boxes and crates that filled the room, "we're packing up and we don't have much time. Thanks to your husband, for the sake of my health I find that I have to flee my home. Because of your family's meddling I'm soon to be a proscribed traitor." Rad-Nor bore down menacingly on the small blond woman. "So make it quick, Minerva. My time and patience are swiftly running out."
The Lady of Mai shrunk a little. Matters had clearly moved on since she'd been incarcerated in the hold of that ship. It seemed as if her husband had chosen to plea-bargain. But surely she could deflect this man's ire onto Jen-Mai. Swallowing her fear, she continued with her appeal. "I'm sorry, My Lord; I did try to warn Jen not to go ahead with the last part of our scheme without first consulting you. He should have known they were onto him. I'm sure someone of your wit and intelligence would have smelled a trap," she purred sexily then pouted prettily. "But my husband wouldn't listen to me…"
"Probably the only sensible thing that the fool's done in his entire life!"
Ignoring the barb, yet with a little less certainty, the woman persevered. "You can't blame me for my husband's trespasses. You know that I would never do anything to harm you." Lady Minerva lowered her head and stared at the man before her through long fringed lashes. No man could resist her patented combination look of helplessness and seduction. Only this man appeared to be doing just that. But she needed his help. "Take me with you, Rad." And she attempted to throw her arms about his neck.
Nor fielded her off with a less than gentle shove. "What on Krypton makes you think that I would do that?" His voice retained the chill of winter.
With growing shock the Lady steadied herself. "Because you like me." The closed face above her showed no emotion. "And I know that you're attracted to me." Here she allowed her voice to melt a little with a remembrance of times past, spent in this man's arms. "You can't deny what we've been to each other."
For the first time since she'd entered the room a faint smile touched the haughty face and Minerva-Mai allowed herself to relax; unfortunately, prematurely. "Oh yes, I remember! I did find your sexual attributes a little stimulating at one point. Regrettably for you, dear lady, I find that my interest has a very short lifespan — once I've been there, I really don't want to return."
"But we had an understanding!" Lady Mai burst out in mounting dread and desperation.
"You must have misunderstood, Lady Mai. Why would I be interested in you? I already have a wife."
"Keira-El! That milksop!"
"The Lady is soon to be the mother of my child. If you're going to insult my wife then I must insist that you leave!"
"But you'd do much better with me!"
Rad-Nor raised his eyebrows and stared at the woman before him, rather like studying an insect beneath a microscope. "You! Don't be ridiculous! My wife is of royal blood! *I* am of royal blood! While you are a cheating, self-serving nobody! A product of an unremarkable and impoverished family, clinging to the vestiges of nobility. I can buy whatever attractions you have to offer in any care-givers' establishment on Krypton! And at a much cheaper rate!" An arrested look bloomed on his face. "I have a thought — we're bound for Space Station Caytan and I find I've reversed my opinion and I can give you a lift. I hear there are many opportunities for someone in your profession on Caytan, granted at a much lesser rate of reward than you're used to, but, dear lady, beggars cannot be choosers." A slender finger drew its way down Minerva's cheek. "And, if you would accept a word of advice; don't be greedy. The atmosphere on Caytan is not so conducive to a long and healthy life style as here on Krypton."
Minerva-Mai stepped back in horror. She had come here for just that purpose — to beg him to take her away, but this wasn't what she had in mind. "No! You're insane!" The now frightened woman began backing towards the door. "I won't go with you."
Nor regarded his unwelcome visitor with amusement, terrifying his victims was something he enjoyed. "As you will, Lady Mai, as you will." Then his whole being took on a more sinister aspect and the menace returned to his voice. "But remember, my influence is far reaching. Whatever revenge you are planning, I suggest you forget it. A harlot with a ravaged face will make no living at all!"
The Lady had heard enough. There was no succour for her here. She whirled and headed out of the room, out of the castle, stumbling down the road in her tattered high-heeled shoes. Angry, terrified tears streamed from her eyes, making a mockery of her once perfectly painted face. She had no idea where she would go, but one thing she was sure of, to stay here in the vicinity of Rad-Nor was not a healthy option.
She couldn't return to Elvar. If Jen-Mai was 'singing his head off' the powers that be would know of her part in the conspiracy. Minerva harboured no silly romantic notions about her relationship with her spouse; theirs was a marriage of convenience — of mutual usage. Now that the game was up, Jen was more likely to incriminate her for this crime than to protect her. And to tell the truth, he had a point; she always considered that she was the stronger and more intelligent partner. After all, she'd found her way to Norden without the aid of either Mai or Nor. Mind you, the trip down here had depleted her meagre funds. So wasn't it providential that even in her pell- mell scramble from Nor's lair that she'd kept enough of her wits about her to snatch a jewelled figurine from a side- table in the great hall? As she slowed her flight, Minerva fingered the precious artifact now residing in the deep pocket of her cloak. She considered it poetic justice that Nor should in some measure support her continued survival. And survive she would. She just had to leave this self- righteous planet and find some other place that appreciated her many talents. Her tears dried and, wiping the back of her hand over her smudged cheeks, she gazed more optimistically up into a clear, crisp lilac sky. Minerva- Mai could suffer reversals and she would find somewhere out there to begin again.
Cold, calculating eyes closely followed her exit. Rad-Nor had watched on the close-circuit vidscreen as his unwanted visitor had pilfered the expensive ornament from his house, and found himself unexpectedly reversing his opinion. A grudgingly admiring grin crossed his face at the audacity of this treacherous woman. She really was without principles; a twin soul in evil. What a pity that she was also superfluous to his current plans. However, he didn't begrudge her a last desperate attempt at freedom and if the theft of his property should enable her to escape from Kal- El then so much the better. Who knew, perhaps someday they would meet up again and if she had survived reasonably intact then he might have a use for her again.
Dismissing the inconsequential woman totally from his mind, Rad-Nor returned to the more important business of organizing his own escape. According to the warning from his source in Elvar, Kal-El did not yet have proof to demand that he, Rad-Nor, appear in front of the High Council to answer for his crimes. Yet there was no doubt that it was just a matter of time before Mai led them straight to his door. Moreover, there was a distinct possibility that the foolhardy boy-king would forgo protocol and simply appear with a warrant for his arrest, as if Nor were a common criminal and not the second most important Lord in the kingdom.
If such a thing were to occur he was prepared to fight it out. But the time was not yet right. An expedite and strategic withdrawal was called for. So much better to fight later on his own terms when he had joined forces with his allies. Besides, his spy had passed on a very interesting though mightily incredible piece of information. If it were true, Krypton wasn't the only world ripe for taking.
The Eagle Has… Flown
The First Lord and Lady fumed with frustration as they fielded the numerous questions that were thrown at them regarding the arrest of Lord Mai. 'What had he done?' 'Who were his contacts?' and, most frequently of all, 'Why had they suspected the Second Councillor?'
As had been expected, the castle audience chamber was noisier and busier than on any normal day, the morning newscasts having brought the great and the good of Elvar and the surrounding district hot-foot to the castle to discover the truth behind the bulletin. Only, at present, the Lord and Lady of El were unable to disclose any information, except to reiterate what had already been broadcast. 'Jen-Mai was helping the security forces with their investigations and an announcement would be made later.'
Lois and Kal were doing their best to keep control of the degenerating situation and were being helped in this difficult task only by Jor-El, as Lara firmly believed that her position, at this moment, should be by the side of her younger and extremely worried daughter. Dax-Ver's victorious, yet badly stricken, fleet was making its slow way back to Krypton and, though there had been further communication, no change had been reported in the condition of Captain Ching. The over-protective mother had decided on keeping Zara well away from the eyes of the court, insisting that there was more chance of the nobles deducing something amiss from the girl's red-rimmed eyes and pallor than from her absence. The merest hint that the youngest daughter of the House of El was romantically linked with a common captain in the armed forces was a complication that the family did not require. And indeed, Lara's assumption proved to be true; the main topic of conversation amongst the aristocratic throng was the shocking arrest of one of their own.
Two other members of the royal household, Gellis and Poli, hovered unobtrusively in the background but, as neither were considered of enough importance to have any information, they merited little attention from the inquisitive courtiers.
And so the torturous session went on. The regal couple soon regretted that they had ever put in an appearance in the overcrowded hall. These morning meetings were supposedly informal gatherings, unless there were any visiting dignitaries from other planets, and so attendance was not compulsory. But, knowing how the news about Mai would be received, both Lois and Kal had decided that their presence would be necessary. How many times can you repeat the same answer to the same question and make it sound that you were not talking by rote?
Lois felt her head begin to ache and her stomach begin to churn and, involuntarily, her hand rubbed at her throbbing temples. Oh not now, she berated herself, please don't let morning sickness attack me now. Thankfully, help was close at hand and Lady Lois was grateful when Gellis' hand touched her shoulder and the young lady-in-waiting's voice, telling her that she was required elsewhere, was like music to her ears. The two girls retreated from the hall while the anxious gaze of a much concerned husband watched their leave-taking.
Unfortunately, Kal was not at liberty to follow his decidedly pale-looking wife, but he wasn't unaware of what might be her ailment. For some reason, Lois hadn't thought to inform him of her likely condition. He suspected that she might not wish to raise false hope, which was understandable but unnecessary as he wasn't totally blind or dumb. They really needed time to sit down and talk and once again he fretted that this thing with Mai and Nor had come between him and his wife, and in a way that was totally unsuspected by the two villains. And how was the interview with Mai progressing? Kal felt a surge of furious frustration rise in his throat as he relived the happenings of the early morning appointment at Security Headquarters.
After being informed of Mai's outrageous demands by an apologetic Doctor Jobe, it had soon become apparent that, although Mai was prepared to become a witness for the prosecution, he would sell his information only on his own terms, and the concessions he demanded were almost more than Kal and his advisors were prepared to stomach. Another meeting between the three Lords and one Lady had hastily been convened in Medi's office, where followed a stormy discourse which severely frayed both nerves and tempers.
"No! No way! I can understand and go along with his request that neither Lois nor myself will be present at this interview. But as for the other…" Kal's voice rose alarmingly as he paced to the window and back. "There's no way that I will allow that man to go totally free! I will agree to commute his sentence to 'normal life containment' but I won't let him go!"
The stumbling block to agreement was the main thing that Mai demanded — the right to leave Krypton, free as a bird, and go travelling through the galaxy; able to pursue his mischievous ends wherever he chose to go.
"Kal, my boy," Remy regarded the angry young man with much sympathy. "None of us *want* that to happen. The man deserves some form of punishment for his crimes. "
"Yes he does!" Kal's retort was uncharacteristically abrupt.
"But he would be an exile. Unable ever to return to the land of his birth or to claim his nationality. That is a punishment!" Trey pointed out gently.
"Hmph! Somehow I don't think that would bother him overmuch. Rats don't care much about their roots!" Lois expounded.
"That's not totally true, Lois! Rats are extremely social rodents. At least, Kryptonian ones are." Remy informed helpfully.
Kal rounded on his uncle. "Will you stop it! This is far too serious a situation for you two to confuse it with your innocuous banter." And here, he threw his wife an unusually disapproving glance, his outrage robbing him of his normal patience. "The fact is that Mai caused the death and injury of hundreds of Kryptonians, not to mention stealing valuable cargo, and exile just isn't enough."
"He would also leave this world penniless; exiles aren't allowed to take with them any goods or money," Trey insisted, braving his young ruler's wrath. "I doubt that he'd survive long without friends or a backup system."
"Except bad pennies have a way of turning up again!"
"Lady Lois, please! You are not helping!" The Prime Councillor allowed a little note of irritation to creep into his voice.
But Lois wouldn't be silenced. She felt that every point should be considered. "And someone like Mai has probably got some funds secreted away somewhere. Somewhere that the authorities on Krypton couldn't sequester. It's in the rule book of 'What Every Villain Should Know' — always keep a stash hidden."
"I don't like to admit it, but Lois is probably right. And think of the trouble Mai could cause." The anger seeped out of Kal, to be replaced with an almost helpless despair.
"Yes, that's true." All traces of Remy's easy badinage had fled. "The man is a compulsive trouble-maker. But he acts out of greed and self-gratification. He's not wholly evil like his mentor, nor is he capable of forming such a diabolical scheme. Never forget why we started this." Remy rose from his seat at the table; his frail figure at odds with the compelling stature he adopted. "Yes, we had to stop the attacks on our ships but our ultimate goal was to unmask Rad-Nor and bring him to book. And for that we need Mai's testimony."
"Lord Kal, it is the only way." Trey went to stand beside his old friend and fellow Councillor. "It pains me to see the rogue get off so lightly but what other choice have we. Oh, we could prosecute Mai and get a conviction. Cut off another of Rad-Nor's tentacles! But the man will just grow another and who knows what more vengeful schemes he would come up with next."
Lois was the first to succumb to the elderly Lords' reasoning, and she didn't like it one iota. Giving in to the bad guy went against everything she believed in. She hated expediency and yet, reluctantly, she had to admit that in this case it was the only way. Crossing quickly to her husband, she stood before him, willing him to see the wisdom of the arguments. More than anyone else, Lois understood how high were the ideals to which this young man aspired. The trouble was that there were times when idealism was something that a ruler could ill afford.
"Kal!" She caught his attention with a softly spoken word and held his eyes in her intense gaze. "I feel exactly the same. I'd love to see Mai get what's coming to him for all the reasons you're thinking and for a few others of my own. The thing is, Remy and Trey are right too. Mai's only an acolyte, and in order to arrest Nor we've no choice but to agree to his terms. Who knows, someday he might get his come-uppance. Maybe he'll meet up with some of the pirates who escaped and they'll exact their own revenge. I don't think that physical combat is his thing and he'll be a sitting duck." Lois had taken her husband's cold hands into her own and, gently, she shook them. "This time, sweetheart, we have to rely on others to meet out justice."
For a long moment, Kal stared into Lois' warm brown eyes. Here was complete love and understanding; Lois would always be by his side to help him make the correct decision, even when that decision racked his conscience.
"Oh, Lois, I never thought the day would come when I would wish a pirate a steady aim." He smiled sadly as he touched his forehead to Lois'. Then the intimate moment was gone and he turned resolutely to his Councillors. "I agree! Go get your confession! But don't make it easy for him!"
"Don't worry about that, my boy!" Remy's habitual caustic humour surfaced once again. "I might agree to Mai's dictates but that doesn't mean that I don't intend to make the traitor sweat along the way."
With that assurance, the two noble interrogators had descended to the bowels of headquarters, determined to squeeze every admission possible from the imprisoned Lord. It transpired, however, that Remy wasn't the only one trying to make things difficult. Mai parcelled out his admissions piecemeal. Never giving too much away and starting with the more obvious targets. His greatest revelation he would keep till the very last and he would ensure that everything he requested was in place before he would reveal all.
Left kicking their heels in Medi's sunlit office, Lois and Kal had soon grown tired of waiting around and had returned home to find themselves under siege in the assembly hall of the palace. Kal-El had swiftly made a decision and climbing to the dias had stood before his throne to make the official announcement that Mai had been arrested on charges of espionage. He had appealed for calm, suggesting that those without particular business in the castle should return home but, in the main, his advice had been ignored.
The truth was that Mai was a man who was known to most of the assemblage. A man who had been voted by them to the position of Second Councillor. And while none had actually regarded Mai as a close friend, he had been considered a capable politician. Certainly, no one had suspected that the fellow was a despicable spy. Now that the truth was out, some lords were quick to point out that they had never really trusted the man while other more thoughtful nobles were stricken to the core that they had placed such trust in a traitor. But, regardless of their inner thoughts, only a very few were prepared to leave the palace where they would be at the heart of any new development.
Yet, contrary to everyone's expectations, the rest of the morning had passed without any further reports of the ongoing interview. Kal, left only with the support of Jor-El, continued to try to appease the fermenting court. Poor Jor, this was exactly the kind of public life that he most abhorred. Nevertheless, the quiet, studious scientist never for a moment thought of abandoning his son. When, finally, the castle gong tolled out the call to lunch and the closing of the current session, both heaved a silent sight of relief. The inhabitants of the great hall, although still unsatisfied with the responses they'd received, had little choice but to file out the door.
Father and son beat a hasty retreat from their inquisitors, leaving the stewards to escort lingering stragglers from the premises. With a request to his father to contact someone at security headquarters for an update on events, Kal sought out his wife. Strangely, he found her where he least expected her to be. Not in their comfy little bolthole, but standing on the balcony of their state apartments, gazing over the rooftops of Elvar to the red-gold-tinted river and the ocean beyond. For some moments he stood silently by her. Not touching her but offering simply the support of his company. Finally she spoke.
"They've gone then?"
"Yes! But no doubt they'll be back. I really can't blame them. They're all anxious to know what's going on. *I'm* anxious to know what's going on."
Lois still stared at some point on the distant horizon. "There's been no word from Remy or Trey?"
"Not yet! Lois, how are you?"
"Me?!" she squeaked. "I'm fine! Why should I not be?"
"Lois, I watched you leave and you were anything but fine."
"Oh that!" Of course he would notice. She would expect nothing less. "I just got a little tired of giving the same answer… And the room was so crowded, and did you notice how hot it was in there today?" This last was a blatant excuse. It was a very warm day but the castle had an effective airconditioning system. "I just had to get some fresh air, that's all."
Kal's hand touched Lois' shoulder and he turned her lightly to face him. "Lois, I know!"
"Know! Know what! I hardly know!"
"Lois," he remonstrated. "I might have been a bit preoccupied with everything that's been going on but I'm not a complete lunkhead and I have noticed certain things. You're pregnant again, aren't you?"
Her first instinct was to deny the fact and she didn't quite understand why. It wasn't that she didn't want a baby but she was feeling very conflicted about the idea.
A gentle hand cupped her face and Kal's eyes were soft and beseeching. "Lois, what's wrong? Please talk to me."
"Yes! I'm pregnant. Well, I think I am." Her voice was flat.
"Oh, Lois, that's wonderful! That's the very best news I've heard in such a long time." Kal couldn't hide the joy that rose in his soul, yet it was clear that his wife wasn't viewing the prospect of a baby with undivided happiness. "It is good news, Lois, isn't it?"
"I suppose so," Lois offered dejectedly.
"Lois? Please tell me what's bothering you."
It seemed as though she wouldn't answer but when the words came, they tumbled from her lips in a torrent of emotion. "You'll think I'm crazy and maybe I am! But before I say any more, I want you to remember that I didn't enjoy what Nor and Mai were doing to Krypton. All the killing and the bloodshed! I was as horrified as everyone else! But I did enjoy trying to foil their plans! Putting a stop to what they were doing!" Lois had taken hold of Kal's hands and her grip was desperate. "When we were working together, for the first time, I felt I really belonged in this world. I felt useful; that I was needed… that I wasn't just some sort of pretty ornament. And I think that Trey and the others really began to accept me and felt that I had something to offer."
"Lois, you did!" Kal squeezed Lois' hands in return. "You were the one who thought up the plan. It was a brilliant plan, and you played your part wonderfully. We'd never have succeeded without you!"
"You had quite a bit of input on the plan too." Lois' teeth bit worryingly on her lip, unsure of how to verbalise her next feelings. "But it's over now and I should be feeling grateful and not disappointed."
"Well it isn't really over!" Kal shrugged. "Mai is in prison but we haven't got Nor yet. But, Lois, what has this got to do with us having a baby? I don't understand."
"No you wouldn't understand. You're too good… And it would never occur to *you* to think of me only as the mother of your child and to relegate me to the sidelines." Tears were beginning to spill slowly down Lois' cheeks.
"Lois, I would never try to do that. You mean so many things to me! I could never relegate you to anywhere, sweetheart." Kal gently wiped at his wife's tears with his thumb. "And I doubt that anyone else would either. And woe betide them if they did! I would say they'd have me to answer to, but I'm very sure that you're perfectly capable of making them see the error of their ways." A tender smile touched his face and he was relieved to see Lois return it. "Lois, you are bright, intelligent and extremely brave, and Krypton society is beginning to realise just how lucky they are to have you. You having a baby won't change who you are."
Lois regarded Kal with a teary grin. "Pretty dumb, eh?!"
"You could never be dumb!" Kal took her into his arms. "And I don't want to hear another word on Lois-El's dumbness because I happen to think that she's the very best."
"We did make a pretty good team, didn't we?" Lois whispered, tucking her head comfortably beneath his chin.
"Yes, and we always will!" Kal was tempted to remind Lois that her standing would be even higher once news of her pregnancy was announced but, intuitively, he recognised that for the moment Lois needed the assurance of being praised for herself alone. "And if it would make you feel better, we can stay quiet about the baby for now. I think I'd kind of enjoy keeping that piece of news to ourselves for awhile before it becomes public property. Zor knows, the people have enough to concern them at the moment!"
"And it would give them something to celebrate when all this is over!" Lois couldn't keep the edge from her voice.
"Lois! I didn't mean…" Pulling back, he regarded her with a mixture of remonstration and apology.
"Kal, don't deny it! I was thinking the exact same thing myself!" The couple exchanged conspiratorial grins; they even thought alike. "Now let's go eat some lunch. I'm hungry! You might not have noticed but I lost my breakfast."
"No, Lois, that's exactly what I meant when I said that I notice things…"
The El family spent a tedious and tortuous afternoon trying to distract themselves from second guessing what might be taking place down at Security Headquarters. Commander Medi had reported that there had been a short interval in the proceedings for a much needed repast when he had deduced from Lords Trey and Remy that things were progressing well but very slowly.
If there had been one good spot in the long, drawn-out hours, it came in a message from Dax-Ver. Captain Ching had regained consciousness, if only for a few moments and, though his status was still cause for concern, the physicians were now hopeful of a recovery. The fleet was making steady progress in their homeward journey and expected to make landfall by the next evening. Dax also inferred that he would be in Elvar as soon as was humanly possible, where he hoped to hear of further developments in their plan. The Commander had chosen not to ask for specifics; the channel might be restricted but he didn't care to take any chances on sensitive information being overheard.
No actual details had been forthcoming on Captain Ching's condition and, not wanting to attract any undue attention to the family's interest in the soldier, Kal hadn't probed further. Nevertheless, the communique did lift Zara's spirits somewhat and the fact that Dax and his force would soon be safe at home was welcome news. For a short period, the conspirators were more optimistic about the outcome of all their labours but, as the hours wore on, despondency descended afresh. Conversations dwindled and only erupted in fits and starts as occasional and often irrelevant thoughts crossed distracted minds.
The pastel spring sky had melded into deep purple hues and the lowering sun cast long shadows in the vaulted room when, at last, Trey and Remy were ushered into the presence of the very edgy and silent group. There had been so many false starts during the unending day that it took some seconds for the family to assimilate that what had been looked for had actually arrived.
"We have it!" Remy announced triumphantly. "A full confession!"
Kal-El was the first to recover and almost flew from his chair to confront the two men. "But do we have Nor?!"
Trey followed a little more sedately and, although his face was etched with weariness, there was also some satisfaction there. "Yes! Finally, Mai betrayed his master. It's all here!" He held aloft a written scroll which surprised Lois; she had expected to see another vidpad. Then she remembered that the law required important documents to be written on actual paper, though there was, no doubt, a techno-transcript of the statement too. Was that just a tradition, or was it that a statement written in the accused's own hand would be more difficult to tamper with?
"He made it very difficult for us!" Remy confided, walking into the room and perching on the first available chair. Every eye in the room was on him and the irrepressible old man was enjoying the attention. "You'll want to read the statement, of course, but perhaps we could summarise for you all." Without waiting for an answer he continued. "As we suspected, the attackers were a conglomerate of species led by Taureans. However, whether these Taureans were backed officially by their government, Mai couldn't say. In my opinion they probably were but I doubt if they'll admit to that, or that we could ever prove it."
"That wasn't our intention, Uncle. Zor knows, the Taureans are a thorn in the side of the Federation but they're not our immediate concern here."
"Very true, nephew, very true." Remy's head nodded on its frail neck and though excitement was buoying him up, there were echoes of tiredness too in his lined face. It had been a very long day for all concerned yet it was he and Trey who had borne the brunt of Mai's vitriolic spew. "And Danius was only a pay clerk; Jen-Mai did try to incriminate him further but Medi could find no evidence to support his allegations. I don't doubt that Danius has criminal affiliations back on Caytan but he didn't know what was going on."
"But Lady Mai most certainly did! In fact, it seems very likely that she was one of the main instigators of the foul plot." Trey was outraged. He disliked the woman intensely but he still retained the old-fashioned belief that women were the fairer sex; in need of protection and care from their husbands and fathers. This new breed of women confused him; women capable of taking their own destiny into their own very able hands. Not that Minerva was a shining example of the genre but Lady Lois-El, on the other hand, was a force to be reckoned with… and a force that was in every way admirable. The Prime Councillor reckoned he had a few adjustments to make to his preconceived notions. "Medi has issued a warrant for her arrest and his men are scouring the city for her. There was a time when I would have thought that a woman alone wouldn't get very far. However, this terrible episode has taught me that some women are the equal of any men whether in infamy… or good."
Recognising that the last part of his speech was directed, in some way, at herself, Lois spoke up, kindly. "Gender never did have much sway over whether a person chose good or evil. But that's a question for another day. I have a feeling that Minerva is well out of our reach by now and, though I don't find that concept entirely pleasing, I'd rather hear about Nor."
"As always, dear Lois, straight to the point." With a lingering hint of fond amusement, Remy took up the narrative. "When it came to the final disclosure Mai got very evasive. I think he's afraid that Nor will find him out and extract his revenge but, after he realised that he would bear the full brunt of the prosecution unless he gave us the name of this mysterious mastermind, he soon capitulated. Gave us details of all his dealings with Nor; starting with his instructions to prevent Kal's marriage to Lady Lois at any cost."
"Then Mai is the unknown assassin! He tried to kill Lois!" The wrathful exclamations burst from Kal's mouth.
"No! He denies that, My Lord!" Trey stepped in quickly — fearful scenes of an angry First Lord bursting into Mai's cell and shaking his quarry like a terrier with a rat, playing out in the older man's mind. "Says he even has an alibi for the times in question and I tend to believe him. Mai might be a loathsome excuse for a nobleman but I doubt he has the gumption for physical violence. I think he was possibly referring to the opposition in Council which he tried so hard to stir up." A very relieved Prime Councillor saw the fire diminish in Kal's eyes and he hurriedly went on, not giving the young man the chance to interrupt again. "But he did distract you in Veren with that silly water dispute and he did assist in Jun-Li's denunciation of the First Lady."
"Of course, Mai insists that he was only told to keep you occupied in Veren and that he had no idea that Nor had hired the Taureans to kidnap Lady Lois," scoffed Uncle Remy, "which I do not believe. The man might not physically want to dirty his hands but in every other way he's mired right up to his slimy neck."
"But did he incriminate Nor in Lois' kidnapping?"
"Oh yes, Kal! Once he began he couldn't stop! It's all in his statement. Nor made a pact with Ballen to abduct Lois and sell her into slavery."
"And poor Etta just got caught in the middle!" Lois' hands tightened in her lap and she blinked back tears of anger and remorse.
"I'm afraid so, dear Lois," Remy sighed sympathetically. "Nor doesn't care who he hurts along the way to his seizure of the throne. But thanks to that brave girl and your own resourcefulness you foiled that plot. And still that didn't put a stop to Nor's vile ambitions. He just laid low until he'd thought up another scheme."
"Only this time he decided to use the law to end the marriage." Trey walked further into the room and took a seat by the large empty fireplace. This evening he was feeling every one of his advancing years. "He took advantage of Lord Jun-Li's prejudices and cajoled him into making those unfounded allegations, supposedly in the hope that the marriage would be annulled and that Lady Lois would be banished back to Earth. Yet he must have done so only to make mischief because he's far too astute to believe that Li had the smallest hope of proving his case."
"Or perhaps, Nor underestimated how much the nobles would support Lois," Jor-El offered, with a heartening smile for his lovely daughter-in-law.
"Perhaps," Trey conceded. "Which ever way it was, poor, foolish Jun-Li was doomed. You see, he wasn't really a bad fellow, just misguided, and Nor couldn't take the chance that Li would talk about Nor's involvement in the affair."
"So he had him killed." Kal paced around the room, feeling too agitated to spend more than a few moments in one spot. "And Mai made no mention of who this unknown killer might be?"
"No, sire! I very much doubt that Mai knows the identity of the killer." Trey's stare drifted to the open windows of the room as he contemplated the dreadful fact that a killer still lurked in the environs of Elvar. And Nor! What would be his reaction to the charge of treason? Would he place himself peacefully under the jurisdiction of the courts or would he be prepared to fight it out? Whatever happened, Krypton was in for a harrowing ride. The Prime Minister's heart was heavy as he reviewed the events that were likely to unfold in the coming weeks due to Mai's revelations.
Noticing that his colleague was lost in thought, Remy hurried impatiently on, brushing aside the destiny of the assassin. "But we do know that Nor is the ringleader and once he's taken out of the picture the hirelings will be a spent force. After Jun-Li's failure, Nor gave up on his minor plots…"
"Minor! Minor plots!" Again Kal's temper rose. "Uncle, the man almost destroyed Lois more than once, and he attempted to blow up Zor-El and killed Aunt Rochelle and the Fres. I would hardly call these minor crimes! And I certainly won't allow this other mysterious killer to remain at large on my planet!"
"Oh my, I didn't really mean to trivialise these crimes or to suggest that they should be taken lightly," the abashed old man murmured contritely. "But no-one knows who the killer is, and Mai maintains he knew nothing of the plot to kill Zor-El… only that he was aware that Nor had paid off Rol-Fre's creditors. Yet without Rol's testimony that's hearsay and I'm afraid we could never convict Nor of that particular atrocity."
Lara rose smoothly from her chair and went to stand beside her grim, white-faced son, soothingly stroking his back as she had done so many years ago when he was a child. "It hurts me too; the knowledge that Nor won't be brought to book for dear Rochelle's death. But if we can prove that he's responsible for the assaults on the convoys then the court will have enough to lock him a way for an eternity in a confinement chamber."
Lightly as a spring breeze, Lois crossed to Kal's other side, pushing back the unruly lock of hair that had fallen across his forehead with a gentle hand. "It isn't enough, my love," she crooned. "Nothing will ever be enough. But it will have to do. And Krypton will be free of his menace."
Bitten lips tightened into a determined line as Kal gave a sharp nod of his head. "You're both right! The main thing is to put a halt to Nor's rapaciousness." Walking slowly to the intricately carved mantle of the fire, he turned to face his friends and loved ones. Gone was the hurt, volatile boy, replaced again by the resolute head of state. "So, Lord Trey, Lord Remy, what other concrete proofs did Mai provide?"
The two Councilmen exchanged satisfied glances. Trey had been startled from his gloomy thoughts by Kal's impassioned outburst. He too shared the family's dismay that the loss of Zor-El's wife could not be avenged but they could at least deliver up Rad-Nor for the final crime. Settling back in his chair, Trey began the final chapter in Jen- Mai's denouement. "In the first days of the year, Rad-Nor approached the Mais and demanded that they travel with him to Caytan. It was here that they met with Nor's partner- in-crime, Ballen 2. The Taurean headed up a fleet of space marauders and a criminal contract was formed, wherein Mai would use his position of Second Councillor to pass cargo details and flight plans to the pirates who would then use this knowledge to ambush our merchant ships. Even when we strengthened our convoys with guard-ships, the insider information always allowed the enemy to outgun our forces."
"And since their first heist included some very high-tech ordnance, the pirates were able to turn our own weaponry on our ships." Remy couldn't keep still, bouncing eagerly on his chair as he joined in the telling. "And Rad-Nor funded a gun-running operation from anywhere in the galaxy that was prepared to offer weapons for sale."
At the mention of weapons, a silent message passed between the First Lord, his wife and the communications officer. There was still the unanswered detail of the experimental laser-cannon and how it had inexplicably found its way into the hands of the pirates. As yet, Kal did not wish that information to be made known even to his friends — organising Nor's arrest and disarming the armed-forces he reportedly kept within his boundaries was more than enough to deal with. Giving an infinitesimal shake of his head to warn the two others, Kal listened as his Uncle concluded the tale.
"And as the highjacking was becoming a highly profitable enterprise, renegades from every quadrant of space hurried to join in. Our merchant fleets didn't stand a chance."
"But surely all this is hearsay?" Lois asked, taking heed of Kal's admonishment and hardly daring to hope that their nemesis should at last be brought to justice.
"My Lady, that's what we too were afraid of but, actually, we have documented and audiotaped proof," Trey assured the gathering. "It seems that you were correct in your assumption that there is little honour among thieves. At least, Jen-Mai didn't trust his fellow conspirators. He had a copy of the contract locked away in one of our Finance Houses' security vaults…"
"And he'd secretly taped a number of his meetings with Rad- Nor." Again Remy interrupted. "Possibly he conceived that the promise to promote him to First Minister would be forgotten when Nor came to power. So he felt that a little leverage might be required in the future."
"Whatever were his reasons, we can only be grateful," the present First Minister imparted with some relief that the account of the interview was drawing to a close. "Mai gave permission to Doctor Jobe to sequester the contents of the security box and the Doctor and Commander Medi are even now studying the contents."
"We both took a quick peek at the stuff before coming here to give you the news and it's a definite fact; we have enough evidence to arraign Nor forthwith." Remy, his duty done, quietened in his seat and regarded those around him.
The air within the high-ceilinged chamber grew still as if a harbinger of a coming storm. High in the crenellations of the castle, birds cawed to the coming night while the sun's molten red rays dipped beneath the parapet of the balcony and even the subtle shadows of rusty grey died away. The enormity of the news they had learned overwhelmed the occupants of the darkened room and held them enthralled. The mission they had begun, such a short time ago, was at an end and their quest had come to fruition but none could rejoice. Too many deaths had taken place along the way.
Lights automatically flickered into being, startling the group and chasing away the gloom, and galvanising at least one of the room's dwellers.
"I thank you, Lord Trey and Lord Remy, from the bottom of my heart. Dealing with Jen-Mai must have been an onerous duty, and my greatest regret is that it needed to be done at all." Kal's brooding brown eyes strayed over all within the room. "Each one of you has played a part in bringing Nor to justice and you all have my deep gratitude." A tentative half smile warmed his look and was generously returned from every quarter. "But now to business! Nor is not yet within our grasp. Commander Jace, contact Mica for me, if you will. I want a troop of his best men and also Commander Medi with a civil police squad; he should be there when we arrest Nor. And we'll need two orbships. The fastest the fleet has to offer." A re-energised Kal snapped out the orders. "Somehow I don't think Nor will voluntarily obey a summons to appear before the Council."
Stepping forward from the shadows, Jace stood to attention. The commander had appeared, earlier in the afternoon, at the door of the family room bringing the secure holoscreen to enable Dax-Ver to contact the First Lord directly, and, shyly, he had accepted the invitation to remain. "As you will, sire." Jace checked his timepiece. "I can have the men assembled and ready to leave by the turn of the night."
"Good!" The commander turned to go but was halted by his Lord. "Jace, you should find Lieutenant Poli hovering somewhere outside. If so, could you send him to me, please."
A ghost of a frown creased Kal's brow at the thought of Poli. His bodyguard had acted more than a little piqued when he had been dismissed from his duties for the afternoon. Clearly, the soldier had known that something was afoot for some time, and had been hurt not to be a part of whatever was going on. Now that the mission was almost accomplished, Kal would have to explain to his friend that he had been excluded only for the best of intentions — the protection of his career and rank of Lieutenant. Kal hoped that the young man would accept his reasons and his apology. He dearly missed Poli's bright humour and ready smile which had been severely dampened by the bodyguard's feelings of exclusion. But for the moment, there were less personal problems to deal with.
"Trey, we need an arrest warrant issued for Nor and for that we need the signature of the Council members…"
"We should really call a full meeting but due to the seriousness of the situation, I think this would be regarded as a national emergency, and in that case an exigency meeting should suffice. Remy and I are already here but I think it would be wise to have a couple of independent signatures. Lords Bicho and Isa are in the city. They are good men and I can contact them and have them here at the castle within the hour. With yourself as the fifth member we would have sufficient signatures to legalise the document."
"Good! Then let's get to it. I want everything in order before we leave for Norden."
The two orbships shot up into the stratosphere of Krypton leaving behind the light clinging rain that had come with the night. Skimming along the very boundaries of space they sped southwards towards the lands of Nor.
Lois sat by the wall of the command room, gazing through the clear skin of the ship at the world far below her. From outside she knew that the craft looked like a glowing opaque orb without any noticeable windows or doors but she had learned very early in her acquaintance with Kryptonians that appearances were deceptive. Back on Earth when she had first come in contact with these strange vessels, an even stranger young Lord Kal-El had told her to imagine a door and there would be one; she had literally walked through a wall. Of course, she had since discovered that it had something to do with cloaking devices and force fields and ships' matrixes. Now she took for granted these wondrous methods of transport.
She smiled at the memory of the green girl she had been as she watched the clouds and distant land masses flow by. But who on Earth, apart from a few 'UFO kooks' and the odd scientist or scifi novelist could ever have known that life in outer space really did exist or how advanced and diverse that life actually was. Most believers in extraterrestrials conjured up a picture of grey little figures with long, skinny limbs and big bug-eyed heads when they thought of alien beings. Hey, maybe that species did exist and one day she might encounter them. Or, more likely, Earthlings were conditioned by the entertainment world into a preconceived notion of alien races. They most certainly had no inkling of this extraordinary race of humans who shared their galaxy. Perhaps she ought to write a science fiction novel setting the record straight and have Jace transmit it to Earth for publication If only she could be sure it had a happy ending, it might just make the best-seller list. And, perhaps, it was the gloomy weather that they'd left behind and seemed to be flying into, that had filled her head with uneasy thoughts.
To tell the truth, she was surprised that she was even along for the ride. But the First Lord was quite determined; Lois had been one of the prime creators of Nor's downfall and as such she ought to be present at the final scene. Of course, Kal had given strict instructions that at the first hint of trouble Poli and a squad of troopers were to fly Lois in one of the orbships out of harm's way. Her first instinct was to protest that she was perfectly able to take care of herself but then memories of last summer had invaded her mind, and, fearful that history might repeat itself, she reluctantly accepted Kal's instructions. She would do all she could to keep this baby safe.
"It won't be long now," said a quiet voice in her ear as Trey leaned slightly across her to scan the view far below. "We're almost across the Southern Sea. Do you see the islands down there? They're just a little off shore from the lands of Nor."
The Prime Councillor had been sitting by her side and dosing quietly almost since take off. It had been a great surprise to her when Lord Remy had declined to come on the trip to arrest Nor. However, as she'd looked more closely at the old man she'd noticed the bowed shoulders and the shadows beneath his lined eyes, and was it just her imagination or had his hands trembled as he'd taken her own to wish her 'happy hunting.' Even a long day spent mentally wrestling with a crook like Mai couldn't totally suppress this senior citizen's ready humour but there was no denying the signs, Remy was exceedingly tired. She'd travelled a galaxy to find a grandfather. She just hoped that she didn't lose him too soon as she had Zor. What was it Kal had told her — that Kryptonians hadn't conquered old age but that they did live slightly extended and healthier lives? Did this mean that Remy might be around for a number of years yet? Strangely, she didn't know just how old Uncle Remy was; that was something she'd have to ask Kal when things settled back to normal.
Normal! Hah! Would her life ever be normal? She was an Earth woman who was living on another world! And Zor-El wasn't dead; just gone on his travels. Perhaps he would be back someday but, sombrely, that was something Lois doubted. Zor had passed his throne to Kal and he might well conceive that his return would complicate life for his successor. It saddened her to think that she might never verbally spar with the quick-witted Zor again and see the warm understanding gleam in his twinkling eyes. And yet she shouldn't despair. Zor might have been the first friend she had made on Krypton but she now had many more. More than she'd ever had back on Earth. And that was very weird. Had the fact that she'd been a stranger in a very strange land forced her to trust more readily the people who had offered her the hand of friendship? Had her survival in an alien world made her more approachable to overtures of well-meaning help and advice?
And yet, she hadn't totally relinquished her cynicism; her deep-rooted mistrust of strangers, and she doubted that she ever would. Kal had often told her that he relied on her assessment of a person or a situation; that he found her gut-instincts to be close to the truth too often to dismiss them out of hand. In fact, he very often shared them. Another link in the invisible chain that bound them each to the other.
"A penny for your thoughts, dear Lady?" Came the voice again and she turned to find Trey smiling warmly upon her. "Remy isn't the only one who enjoys your little euphemisms. You seem a million miles away."
Lois returned his smile. "I was! Or, at least, I was thinking about how far I'd come from the girl who lived on Earth."
"That must have been very difficult for you. To leave your family and friends and trust your life to a stranger. I might have been a little wary of you in the beginning but I never questioned your courage."
"But that's just it! I can't explain it but Kal never was a stranger! From the moment he gave me his hand to help me from Luthor's car, somehow we connected. I didn't understand it, and I questioned it a bit… more than just a bit, actually… but I couldn't ignore it. I even fought it for a short time but it was inevitable. No matter how far we had to travel, Kal and I were meant to be together."
"That one great love!" Trey's voice softened and Lois could almost believe that tears were shimmering in the once austere blue eyes. "I've read about it; beautiful verse and prose. The old poets and writers of our long distant past have chronicled it but I never believed in it. We Kryptonians marry for other reasons; for wealth and power and to consolidate alliances and sometimes we even grow fond of our spouses. I know I would be quite lost without my wife and I love my children. But Kal-El's quest for you was totally beyond my understanding. I remember how forcefully he petitioned the Council for the right to ask you to be his bride." The grey head shook back and forth as Trey reminisced of those stormy meetings and, at his side, Lois perked up, anxious to hear of how Kal fought for his Lady. "Most of the Councillors and the nobles had assumed that Kal would choose a bride from a member planet of the Federation and, as the time came when he was at an age to marry, the Council drew up a list of available worlds and suitable ladies. I remember how Zor-El laughed. Of course, he was in on a secret that none of the rest of us had any idea about. Kal had already chosen his bride and, whenever the question of marriage arose, he announced that his wife would be an Earthling and that her name was Lois Lane. I can tell you that it caused great consternation amongst the Councillors." This time Trey laughed more heartily, remembering the shocked faces of the men around the Council table as they viewed the idea of a woman from a backward planet eventually being the First Lady of Krypton. Then, realising that he was now speaking to the woman from the backward planet, he blushed rosily. "But perhaps you don't want to hear about that."
"On the contrary, Trey! I'd love to know how that went down!"
"Not particularly well, I'm afraid!" Trey ruefully admitted. "I'm ashamed to say that even I wasn't thrilled at the notion. It's not that we have anything against Earth…"
"I know, I know! Many Kryptonians believe that Earth is their sister planet!"
"You heard that one?" Trey's grey eyebrows almost merged with his hair.
"Kal tells me everything. And he told me that there were some objections to an Earth woman but he didn't go into detail." Lois' look suggested that Lord Trey should now repair Kal's omission.
"Well, there really isn't much to tell. Jen-Mai, as you would expect, was the leader of the 'anti-Earthling' faction. He was in favour of a bride from the planet Capula… a strange almost insular world who are only in the Federation for protection against attack. One hardly ever sees a Capulan in any other part of the galaxy, unless it is to attend a Federation meeting. And talk about withdrawn! They never socialise! They make Kryptonians seem like the life and soul of the party." Trey gave another laugh then sobered somewhat. "Now that I come to think of it, Nor probably picked the girl for those very reasons. She was a plain, mousy little child and I'm sure that she would have bored Kal to distraction, which would have been the whole point of Nor's choice. Anyway it didn't work, thank Zor. You see Kal had a very powerful and influential ally…"
"Yes, Zor-El! He told me!"
"Exactly! Zor was my leader but he was also my friend, as he was with so many of the Councillors. We valued and respected him. We also trusted him and, after a few altercations, the majority of us let ourselves be persuaded that Kal had chosen wisely, and the trip to Earth was organised. And I, for one, My Lady, am very thankful that Kal won his fair lady. In you, Krypton has everything that it could have hoped for in a First Lady and a few other things that it didn't even know it needed. I've never told you this before but I'm glad that you agreed to come and make your home with us."
Lois now discovered it was her turn to blink back a few tears. While admitting that she'd come to accept this rather distant man as a friend, she'd never really considered that she could view him as a close confidant, and yet here he was causing her to feel very warm, fuzzy feelings. Kryptonians were most confusing!
"We should be landing very shortly." Kal's announcement broke into her weepy meanderings and she looked up to see him bending towards her. "Lois, I realise this might be a difficult request for you to follow but do you think you can stay out of trouble this time?" A teasing grin softened his implications and she answered him in much the same way.
"Who, me?! Is it my fault that trouble follows me about! That every kidnapper, traitor and nasty villain on Krypton are always on my case?!"
A broad laugh rumbled in Kal's chest but it couldn't quite dis-spell his anxiety. "You do seem to have this unconscious knack of attracting the less wholesome elements of civilisation and not just on Krypton." His eyebrows rose at the thought of their first meeting when he'd rescued her from Luthor's obnoxious demands.
"Don't worry, sire. I'll stick close to Lady Lois and I'm sure her bodyguards are very skilled in handling any untoward situation."
"Thanks, Trey, but, unfortunately, I think that you'll have to be a member of the arresting party. Commander Medi is head of the Security Force of Elvar and therefore the supreme Security Force of Krypton; Commander Jace and Major Mica can represent the military but I need someone from the High Council to enforce the warrant should Nor seek to resist. It might be … unpleasant but I would be grateful for your support."
"Oh yes, of course. I don't know why I didn't think of it." Trey stood to join his First Lord. "And let's hope that Nor yields to the laws of Krypton."
"Hmph!" That from the still seated Lady. "We can all hope but I doubt that Rad-Nor's prepared to yield to anyone or anything.."
Kal's lips pressed together and he raised a hand to worry the back of his neck. "I don't often wish it, honey, but let's hope that this time you're wrong." He reached out his other hand to help her rise. "Poli has been given the job of taking care of you, with a small squad of men. Now, I know that you're perfectly capable of winding him round your little finger… so please, for my benefit, don't lead him a merry dance. This time just stay in the background."
Lois accepted the proffered hand and replied graciously. "I'll be good… I promise."
However, the question of Nor's willingness to surrender or whether Lois would hold to her promise was never put to the test. On landing in a wooded area outside the gates of Norden, the detachment led by Major Mica quickly deployed in the grounds around the fortress while a smaller detail accompanied The First Lord, Lord Trey and the Security Chief straight up to the front door. Commander Medi, clutching the official warrant to his chest, placed a firm hand on the vidpad and waited to be answered.
That no answer was forthcoming was not totally unexpected to Kal-El. The fact that they'd been allowed to reach the door without any hindrance was suspicious. There had been no force-field blocking their access and no lookouts in the high towers to watch their approach. Norden had the look of an empty tomb.
Medi pressed his hand firmly on the scanning pad once more but to no avail. Curt orders were swiftly issued by Major Mica and his men fanned out around the forbidding walls, searching for an entrance or for someone to question.
At her position by the gate, Lois squinted her eyes to watch the operation with close interest. She felt chilled. They had left Elvar in the midst of a spring shower and had landed in the swirling mists of a cold, dreary day. Mimicking the actions of another women some hours before, the Lady of El drew her cloak around her to ward off the icy wind, only this cloak was more suited to the elements and the chill that filled her was attributed more to her melancholy expectations than to the weather.
The group by the door stamped and shuffled their feet and clapped their gloved hands together, but not only to keep the circulation flowing in the brisk temperatures. The wait was exacerbating already tightly stretched nerves.
"Do we try to break in?" Medi asked unsurely.
Kal took a few steps backwards and studied the front of the house intently. He would swear there was no one at home. "No! Give them a few more moments. Then we'll go in. But we'll need an explosives expert. If Nor's gone then it means he's been warned, and he could quite easily have left a nasty surprise for us."
Moments later two soldiers appeared from the back of the building escorting a raggedly clad and sullen looking man. Lois saw them march the poor half-starved creature up to her husband and a short conversation took place. When it ended she also saw Kal pull something from his pocket and hand it to the man. Then, with a gesture that was wholly his, a gesture that left the poor worker speechless, Kal removed his thick coat and draped it over the thin shoulders. Quickly, he turned and spoke with Mica, sending the troopers off with Nor's ill-treated workman to offer what help and assistance they could to the abandoned people of Norden.
But before the undernourished fellow could be persuaded to leave, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head to the ground by Kal-El's feet, thoroughly embarrassing the First Lord. It was an ancient custom on Krypton and yet Kal had never become comfortable with the habit, persuading his own servants that a short bow was all that was required — and even that he would've dispensed with had it not have caused some vexation. He raised the man and sent him off with promises that he and the estate workers would be taken care of. In something of a daze the man consented to show the soldiers where his family and friends were hiding, hurrying off with a warmer, newer coat than he had ever owned and a purse full of money.
Kal walked back to the head of the stairs that mounted to the door of Norden and gazed down the straight drive towards his wife and consort. This was turning into a nightmare and he longed to be in the comfort of Lois' arms. They would have to search the lands of Norden to make sure that Nor wasn't skulking somewhere but, from the information he'd received, that was very doubtful. And, judging by the state of that poor fellow, they'd have to offer aid and practical assistance to Nor's fiefdom. Rad- Nor wasn't fit to rule over a pigsty. There was clearly much work to be done to rectify years of neglect and winter was almost upon this part of the world. He'd have to set up a task force to make sure that the people would survive in the harsh climate. But first he had to tell Lois the bad news. His eyes focussed on her small form in the distance.
<<He's gone, Lois! Everyone has gone and no one knows where! The bird of prey has flown!>>
And so it was! A camp was set up in the grounds of Norden and reinforcements were requested. For days these men scoured the country of Nor from the shores of the Southern Seas to every boundary and even the small islands off the coast that Trey had pointed out to Lois as they'd flown overhead. The lands were searched electronically and manually as there was a slight possibility that some new cloaking device might shield Nor's position. But the results were the same. The people of Nor were questioned as to their Lord's whereabouts, yet that also yielded no clues; apart from the information given them by Hus, the gardener found on that first day of their arrival, they could discover nothing more. Nor had taken his family, his household and his guard and flown away just a few hours before the government men had landed.
Kal and Lois remained with the troops for several days and then they had returned to Elvar, weary and saddened of heart. It wasn't that conditions in the camp had been so bad, though the weather had been atrocious. Living in the orb ship had been fairly comfortable but both had been horrified by the conditions they found the ordinary people of Nor living under and their compassionate hearts were bruised.
In tandem with the military's search, emergency rations and aid had been distributed to these poor people whose only crime was to live under the rule of a cruel and selfish master. Nor had hidden his crimes against humanity well. Since inheriting his father's position, visitors had not been welcomed in this quadrant of Krypton. Almost immediately, Rad-Nor had a force-field activated over his domain and only those who had been invited were allowed through, and then only under strict escort.
It was inconceivable to Lois that this tyrant had been allowed to browbeat and neglect a whole country; that under Kryptonian law, unless some well proven complaint or request for help was received by the High Council, the forces of the Council could not interfere. As long as Nor could keep his conduct secret and prevent any complaints reaching Elvar, it seemed he was free to do as he wished.
This outrageous state of affairs filled Lois with righteous wrath but then she remembered how on Earth it wasn't so very different. Civil rights were being broken in many of the countries on Earth and the United Nations could do little to put matters to right. Various charities tried their best to fight for the downtrodden and bring them food and healthcare but way too many people in the third world lived under the heel of oppression. But somehow she had thought that this seemingly advanced civilisation should have been different.
And if she were to be completely honest, on the whole it did seem so. Throughout Elvar and many of the countries she had visited last summer the ordinary people seemed prosperous, happy and well adjusted. In fact, it had frustrated her a whole lot that someone like Etta, who had clearly had the potential to excel in anything she chose, was content to remain in such a lowly position. It had taken some readjusting on Lois' part to accept that in Etta's eyes her post wasn't menial. Everyone in the lands of El had a role in life and everyone was valued — from those who laboured in the fields to those who sat in Council.
It had warmed her heart and made her proud to see Kal take the frightened and introspective Hus and, calming the poor man's worries, employ him in the role of supervisor between the aid-workers and the people they wished to help. Hus lost his fine coat, much to his chagrin, but when one of good quality which was made to measure just for him was supplied, he regained his good humour and was soon hard at work overseeing the betterment of his neighbours and countrymen.
Lois too had become actively involved in the aid work, her interest being drawn to the undernourished children. To her surprise and delight, she found she enjoyed her time spent with the children and, after they had overcome their first shyness, it seemed that they too looked forward to visits from the lovely lady who didn't mind getting down in the dirt and playing with them. Old children's street games from Earth were resurrected from tracts of Lois' distant memory and these deprived Kryptonian youngsters loved them just as much as had their far-away cousins.
Too soon it was time to leave for Elvar and, though Lois and Kal were anxious to return home, they were also sorry to leave this tenuous haven which they were trying to create in this barren land before the winter snows fell and made the rescuers' work much more difficult. But a good team was in place and with the military to assist it seemed that Norden's population would survive this winter in better conditions than they had in the past.
Besides, though working to give succour to those in need was a more satisfying activity, the question of discovering Rad-Nor's destination could not be ignored. And the one underlying, troubling fact that haunted all Kal's dreams and waking thoughts, and thus those of Lois, was the fate of Keira, his sister, and her unborn child. The eagle had flown but he had taken his mate with him.
To be continued in Part 2