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The dead were cleaned up: the remaining toad slugs dumped over the side, the men, and one woman, set in boxes and put below deck for better disposal back on the planet. Then the remaining principals, Ryel, Arkmar, Elena, Captain Alkwadir and the first mate Ferd, held a summit in the captain’s mess.

“I’m sorry, it’s a bit of a mess in here,” said Alkwadir.

“Hon,” said Elena, “this is kinda serious.”

“Sorry.” He rummaged through a cabinet and came out with a bottle of brandy. It looked quite fancy, but he uncorked it and took a swig and handed it on to Arkmar, who took a swig himself, grinned at the bottle and passed it to Ryel. “I thought we fought them off as well as we could,” the captain said. “They came up on us fast.”

“We fought well,” said Arkmar. “Even Miss Time Tech proved excellent with a saber.”

“Thank you,” said Elena. “I learned it all from my man. And from bar fights on Velakron.”

“They could have taken us out,” said Ryel. “Why didn’t they? Because they got what they wanted.”

“They wanted Aridel,” said Arkmar. “One hopes, right? I mean, they obviously didn’t want any of us.”

“So,” Elena went on, “what will they do to her?”

“Don’t make me laugh,” said Ryel. “This is all Aridel’s idea.”

“What? But she was fighting!”

“She wasn’t killing them,” said Ferd. “She’d whack them and they’d go down on their own. There were no dead on that side.”

Elena looked shocked. Arkmar was also shocked. “I slept right through her coming in and taking my bag,” he said. “I didn’t even notice. It was hanging by the bed.”

“She’s a pretty talented wizard,” said Ryel, “and it helps that she doesn’t have a non-lying bone in her body. I bet she threw a spell on you.”

“It makes me feel one percent better,” said Arkmar. “But it’s still bad. All that work, and she makes off with it.”

“All that work?” Ryel repeated. “Weren’t you paying attention? She has five Pieces. There’s a sixth one on the Moon. Which we are soon going to arrive at. What can she do with six pieces?” She looked at Elena.

“Well,” said the time tech, “bear in mind that she had me totally fooled, but yeah, she can crank out a spell or two from that contraption if she figures out how.”

“That’s not the real danger,” said Arkmar.

“What is?” asked Ryel.

“That she will pass it all on to her marketing department,” said Arkmar. “Her, we could steal back from. But once she sells it—!”

“And who would she sell it to?” asked Ali.

“Starts with an N,” said Ryel, “crawls.”

“He’s hardly the only possible buyer,” said Arkmar, “but any buyer she finds will have plenty of security.” He shuddered. “One place I know the pieces could end up, I never want to see the inside of. And I suppose that to be true of all the other places they could end up.”

“And then,” said Elena, “there are the other Pieces, the ones you don’t have. We have no idea how many other thieves are selling to this guy with the N who crawls and is chaotic. Six is pretty bad. Eight or ten would be worse, much worse.”

“I’m concerned about seventeen, actually,” said Ryel.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Ali. “We’re in, definitely, if we can help. Storm Queen is in.” He looked at Ferd, who grinned, raised his eyebrows, nodded and laughed. “It seems some of us are looking forward to it.”

“Not forward to it, exactly,” said Ferd. “It’s just, life’s got to be interesting, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Ryel. “Freaking interesting. Just love it.”

“You got a plan?” the big first mate asked.

“Oh, the start of one,” replied Ryel. “Enough to go on.”

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