Diana Santee # 9: Tildor

Chapter One

"I don't understand how you can do it," Laura said disapprovingly from where she sat in my apartment's salon. "I never left you when you were only three months old."

"Your grandson will be fine," I said with hidden amusement, paying attention to pouring flav for the both of us. "Xedri looks after him better than I do, and it'll only be for a little while. Val will have his visit with Dameron at the Tildor base, and then we'll come home."

"I still shudder when I think of it," she said, taking the cup of flav I turned and handed to her. "If you hadn't come close to that base in the disabled ship you were in, right now you'd be - "

"Getting into trouble somewhere else," I finished before she could go into all sorts of grisly details. "Laura, being a Special Agent for the Federation isn't only a matter of ability. It also depends on having an awful lot of luck."

"You reached the height of your luck when you met Valdon," she said at once after taking the first sip of her drink. "I still find it difficult to believe that he's a Crown Prince on a planet in an entirely strange civilization. I doubt if any other man alive could have made you retire to become a wife and mother."

"I am slightly fond of him," I agreed with a smile as I sat down near her with my own cup of flav. "He's a beast, but I think I'll keep him for a little while."

"Diana, you're impossible," she told me with a sigh. "Another woman would speak of keeping him forever. Look at all he's given you: this beautiful apartment in a palace that will someday be his, the position of his wife which will someday make you a queen, a priceless son, who will some day - "

"Learn to sleep all night," I interrupted dryly. "It's a good thing I don't have to go out on assignments right now. That junior beast is insatiable, and I'd end up yawning instead of ducking. It's too bad Xedri can't nurse him for me too."

"Any time you decide Vadin is too much for you, just give him to me," she stated, surprising me with the immediate offer. "Lily and Tiger would love having another child in the house."

"How are the kids?" I asked, suddenly remembering the fraternal twin street kids who had helped me out so much on Tristesse. "Have they walked off with your silver yet?"

"Diana!" my mother exclaimed, her frown full of reproof. "The children would never do such a thing, and you ought to know it. They love living with me and get along better with Mawley than you ever did. At least they listen to Mawley."

"Or at least pretend they do," I said, knowing better than to underestimate the kids. "Do they still want to become Special Agents like me?"

"They certainly do, and it's most discouraging," she said with a sigh, then glanced at me with a camouflaged smile. "In all other areas they show very high intelligence."

"That's all I needed," I said with my own phony sigh. "Having a bossy husband isn't enough. Now I have to have a sarcastic mother."

"Poor Diana," she commiserated, the words very dry. "Forced to leave a life of danger and violence for the sake of a man who only loves her above all else, trapped in the squalor of a palace, subjected to the indignity of receiving respect from everyone about her - Diana, you're impossible."

"Laura, you're repeating yourself," I started to point out, but the rest of what I would have said was interrupted by the salon's door chime. Xedri must have been busy with something else, because one of her girl assistants hurried in to answer the door. The girl bowed deeply as she stepped back, and then we were graced by the presence of Val's father, His Majesty King Thandin of Aysanne.

Thandin was a really big man, slightly larger even than Val, with black hair and eyes like Val's, and with Val's bossiness, only magnified about twenty times. We usually got along well enough - unless he decided to do something for my own good. Then we usually needed a referee.

"Dhana," he said in his deep voice as he strode into the room, using the name he always called me. "I have been informed that you saw the clinicians even in the face of my displeasure. Return there immediately and have the blockage removed again. A woman cannot consider herself a man's true wife unless she can bear his children."

"Okay, I'll go along with that," I said agreeably as he stopped in front of Laura and me. "According to what you just said, I'm not Val's wife anymore. Laura, let's you and me go find a couple of cute dates. I know a little place in Cendynal - "

Laura tsked in annoyance but Thandin was definitely not amused.

"Do not speak in such a way!" my father-in-law roared, his face darkening. "Have you learned nothing in the time you have been here? Dhana, I insist - "

"Thandin, don't excite yourself," Laura interrupted, her tone soothing. "When Diana gets like this, the best thing to do is ignore her. She won't listen anyway, so why waste your breath?"

"She will listen to me!" Thandin said sternly, glaring at me with his fists on his hips. "And where are your gowns, dhana? Why must you again wear the garb of a man?"

"How many men around here wear jumpsuits?" I asked, keeping the words bland. "But if the jumpsuit really disturbs you, I can always take it off. I won't mind going natural again, and Laura will think she's home on Tristesse."

Laura closed her eyes for a minute, but Thandin turned even more red and started sputtering. He knew well enough that Laura and I came from a nudist world, but he'd chosen to ignore the fact in all ways.

"Dhana, I will listen to no more of this," he finally got out. "Go and change to a gown and then return to the clinicians. I command it."

"You've commanded me to do things before," I pointed out, reminding him of something he shouldn't have needed a reminder about. "Aren't you tired of waiting to be obeyed?"

"Diana, don't speak to him like that!" Laura hissed, abruptly looking embarrassed. "Not only is he Val's father, but he's also a King."

"He's a king-sized buttinski," I answered with a snort, again speaking the obvious. "Just because he runs everything else on this planet, he thinks he can run my life as well. I'll bet when he finds out that we plan to swim raw in the pond in the forest this afternoon, he'll make a fuss over that."

"Swim without clothing?" Thandin blurted with a gasp, actually looking shocked. "Where any might see you? Laura, I had thought you were a woman of finer upbringing. I find myself truly surprised that you would - "

"Just a moment!" Laura interrupted sharply, suddenly touched on what I knew was a raw spot. "I assure you, Thandin, that my upbringing is just as fine as yours is. There is nothing shameful about going unclothed, contrary to the beliefs of too many of the uninformed. The people on my home planet go unclothed all the time, and in our opinion we're the better for it. It seems to me you're making much too much over such a small thing."

"A small thing?" Thandin returned in a shout, his skin darkening again. "One can hardly consider it 'small' in the matter of exhibiting oneself for all to see! The action would be indecent enough for a man to engage in; that a woman would dare is beyond the bounds of belief."

"So the actions of my people and me are indecent, are they?" Laura snapped, getting quickly to her feet. "And most especially so because I'm a woman? Well, let me tell you something! I'm appalled at the provincial attitude of men on this planet, but I refrained from saying so because I'm a guest in your house. I run a corporation on my planet that most of your men would not begin to know how to handle, and my daughter is just as successful in her chosen field as I am in mine. Your son is lucky that she ever agreed to marry him, and if they parted it would be his loss, not hers. I've never seen the need for marriage, but I did not interfere when - "

"No need for marriage?" Thandin exploded again, shock really loosening his tongue. "Now I know why my son's dhana was so difficult to lead in the proper direction. How else was she to behave when she had nothing but ill-considered examples to guide her. I will insist - "

"Ill-considered examples?" Laura screeched, her hands turning to fists at her sides. "How dare you - "

I sat back and watched the battle of the century with a laugh I couldn't hope to hide. Laura was a woman with a lot more finesse than I'd ever have, but it wasn't wise pushing her too hard. Thandin the King would know he'd been in a fight.

The two of them were really going at it when the hall door opened and Val came in. He stopped dead to blink at the combatants for a minute, then came farther into the room.

"What's going on here?" he asked, then raised his voice and roared, "I said, what's going on here?"

Laura and Thandin stopped shouting at each other to stare at him, then both started talking again at the same time.

"Hold it," Val said, one hand raised toward the two of them. "You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Are you small children that need to be stood in a corner before you'll behave? What started this?"

My mother and Val's father looked at each other with thinly veiled hostility, and then Thandin drew himself up.

"I beg your pardon, madam," he said formally if a bit coldly. "It is hardly fitting for a host to criticize the beliefs of his guests, and I apologize for losing myself."

Laura looked as if she would have preferred to continue with the argument, but then she took a deep breath that seemed to steady her.

"The fault was mine," she said, the words quiet. "As a guest I'm ungracious indeed to ignore the feelings of my host. I hope you'll accept my apology."

"Not at all, dear lady," Thandin said much more smoothly, responding at once to Laura's finesse. "Your actions have always been above reproach. I cannot understand what began such a heated exchange."

"Maybe we can find out," Val mused, and I noticed that he'd started to stare at me. "Diana, my love, have you been up to your old tricks again?"

"Who, me?" I asked with complete innocence. "I'm just waiting for a streetcar. I didn't have anything to do with the fireworks."

"Now that I think on it, it was your dhana's remark about swimming that angered me so," Thandin said slowly as he joined in staring. "A remark, I believed, that was pure happenstance."

"And also a remark that wasn't entirely true," Laura put in, making the staring unanimous. "I said I'd swim in the pond with her this afternoon if the area was private enough so that no one would be offended. The appointment wasn't definite."

"I see," Val said, now looking at me quietly. They had all come over to my chair in order to stare down at me more easily, and I was beginning to get a bit uncomfortable.

"Why is everyone looking in my direction?" I demanded. "Is it my fault that Thandin thinks I'm not a real wife any longer, or that Laura thinks I'm too good for my husband?"

"What?" Val said, looking at Thandin and Laura. The two of them tried to explain that they had said something like that but they hadn't really meant it, but neither of them was coming through very clearly. Finally, Val held his hand up again.

"Suppose we get all this out into the open," he said with what looked like true weariness. "Laura, do you really think I'm not good enough for Diana?"

"Of course not, Val," Laura answered with a wry smile. "You know you've always had my support, even from the beginning. Diana needs a man like you, and I couldn't be happier that you're her husband. I - just lost my temper and said things that weren't really true."

"I'm glad to hear that," Val said with what looked like true relief. "I'd hate to lose you as an ally." Then he turned to Thandin. "And you, father. Did I work so hard making Diana my wife just to have you deny her to me?"

"Valdon, my son, this situation disturbs me," Thandin answered seriously. "Your dhana has had the block replaced which keeps you from giving her your children. And more than that, she told me long since that with the block in place she feels free to - ah - dally as a man would. Can you not see the lack of wisdom in continuing with such a state?"

"Father, I told her to have the block replaced," Val said, back to sounding tired. "I'm not worried about her 'dallying' with anyone, and if we were staying on Aysanne there would be no need for the block. But with the upcoming trip, I'll feel better if she's protected. She seems to attract the attention of men everywhere she goes, and no matter how discouraging she acts toward them they still pursue her. I won't let her out of my sight while we're traveling, but as they say in her Federation, it's better to be safe than sorry."

"Perhaps you know best," Thandin agreed reluctantly. "I now recall the tales you told of your time with her before you brought her home. But why did she fail to say it was your wish? I would then have spoken directly to you."

"I have a feeling she's getting bored again," Val said, turning to study me. "Diana, can't you control yourself a little while longer?"

"I think I've controlled myself pretty damned well," I said, finally getting angry. "You and Thandin always act as if I'm here for no other reason than to take orders from the two of you. If I want something done, it's totally unreasonable and your father won't hear of it; if you want the same thing done, it's perfectly all right and understandable. Damn it, Val, is that any kind of fair?"

I'd gotten out of the chair to face him, but he just looked back at me soberly.

"Yes, Diana, it is fair," he answered. "It happens to be the way things are done around here, something you know perfectly well. You also agreed to go along with the arrangement, and that's what makes it fair. Are you planning to go back on your word?"

"No, but - " I started, but I'd already said the one word Val had wanted to hear.

"If the answer to my question is no, then why are you making trouble?" he persisted. "Would you like it if I left you behind when I went to Tildor? I can, you know. There's no reason for you to go except if I allow it.

"Val, you wouldn't!" I gasped, suddenly really upset. "You promised me this trip. You wouldn't leave me behind?"

"I will if you keep acting like this," he answered, and there was no doubt he meant what he said. "Diana, either you'll behave yourself or you'll be punished. Do you understand me?"

I nodded miserably, and he kissed my cheek.

"That's my girl," he said, satisfaction heavy in his voice. "I know you'll be good from now on. Father, I came looking for you because there's something that needs your attention. We have a …"

The two of them left, deep in a discussion about their problem, and Laura came over to smile at me.

"He's even more masterful than he was before," she said as she patted my shoulder. "I never would have believed it was possible, but he's done wonders with you. No yelling, no tantrums, no refusal to obey him. You know he won't take you with him if you misbehave so you don't misbehave. It's a pleasure to see."

She patted my shoulder a second time and then went to the buffet to get herself some more flav, and all I could do was sink back into my chair almost in shock.

What's happened to me? I demanded silently of I-don't-know-who. What's happened to the free woman I used to be? Val said behave or you don't go, and I stood for it? Since when did I need anyone to take me places? If I want to go somewhere I go, and to hell with anyone who doesn't like it!

I stood up again feeling really grim. Val loved me, but it looked like he didn't love me enough to let me be my own person. Everything had to be his way or not at all, and I'd had all of that attitude I cared to take. Val had been living in a dream, but it was time he woke up.

"I'm going out for a ride," I told Laura abruptly as I worked to get control of my ragged emotions. "I'll be back later."

I walked out of the apartment and closed the door behind me, ignoring all the questions Laura had started to ask. I was in no mood to give polite enough answers, even for the points I could actually answer.

Instead of going directly to the stables, I made a stop in the storage room where Laura's trunks were being kept. She had brought a large number of cartons of cigarettes for me, but by the time she'd arrived I had quit smoking because of the baby. I hadn't started up again, but now seemed to be a good time to revive favorite old habits. It didn't take long to break into the storage room, and I was on my way again in a matter of minutes.

The stables were deserted except for two of the grooms. They bowed to me and asked if they could be of help, but I wasn't in the mood for help so I took care of my red flanai mare alone. She was a new mother too, and there was a good chance that Val's black was the one who had done the dirty work. As I worked at getting the flanai saddled, I had the passing thought that if it was left to the males of the universe, all females would be pregnant all the time.

Once all the prep work was done, my mare and I took to the deep woods as fast as we could go. Her extra long mane and tail flowed in the wind, and the way she kept trying to look at me led me to believe she knew something was bothering me. Flanai are more intelligent than any other saddle animal you'll come across anywhere, and they never have to be broken to be ridden. They always seem to enjoy carrying someone on their backs, as if it were a partnership they themselves had thought of.

When we got far enough away from everyone and everything we slowed down and then stopped for a while. I dismounted in a glade with good grass, and found a place to sit under a tree. Once I was settled I lit a cigarette - then almost choked before I realized I'd have to got used to smoking all over again. And it looked like there were a lot of things I'd have to got used to all over again.

I sat around brooding about what had gone on between Val and me for a couple of hours, then discomfort forced me to start back. Vadin had been on soft food for two months, but I'd still been nursing him along with it. The clinicians were going to dry me up soon, but hadn't done so because they wanted to wait until the last minute. Now I'd missed one of Vadin's feeding times and I could really feel it.

In spite of the damp, sticky feeling under my jumpsuit, I saw to my mare before I went back to the House. The salon was empty, but Xedri was in the bedroom with Vadin. My son was awake and cranky, and Xedri shook her young, auburn-haired head and started to scold me for disappearing, but then she got a good look at my expression. She closed her mouth again, excused herself quietly, and left me alone.

Vadin quieted down when I started to nurse him, and I relaxed a little as I stared at my son. He was so diminutively perfect that something in me melted when I looked at him and it was impossible not to smile. I'd never, ever had the urge toward maternity, but he made me glad he was there. I was willing to kill for him or die for him - even if he did keep me up half the night.

His tiny hand leaned against my breast as he nursed, and his familiar features shifted in a short blur to finally settle down again. None of us had known if Val's people's ability to change their features would be dominant enough to show up in Vadin, but he hadn't disappointed anyone. He'd be able to change himself like anyone else in the Confederacy with original Absari blood once he was old enough.

When Vadin was asleep, I went to my bathing room to change my jumpsuit. Xedri was there waiting for me, and she looked like she wanted to be annoyed.

"My lady, it has grown quite late," she told me, at the same time avoiding my gaze. "His Highness came by to remind you about the party this evening, and said you were to be sure to be on time. His Majesty's guests are extremely important and must not be slighted."

"Naturally," I commented, the words coming out very dry. "It would be rude to slight anybody, especially if that anybody is male. And if I recall correctly, Prince Zaerdon is definitely male. The rest of his family probably is too."

"My lady, does something disturb you?" Xedri suddenly asked in a hesitant way. "You seem … different than always."

"Not different than always,, Xedri," I corrected, looking around the dressing area rather than at her. "Just different than lately. And you'd better got used to it, because it's back to stay. Is the pool water clean?"

"Of course the water is clean," she said, now sounding even more agitated. "However, you have no time for -"

"I have all the time I need for any use I care to put it to," I interrupted, really tired of having to live according to other people's schedules. "Get me a towel."

She stared at me for a moment, finally understanding that any attempt at arguing would be a waste of time and breath, then hurried away for the towel. I stripped and got into the pool that was my bathtub, swam for a while, then came out and dried.

Xedri came with me to the large closet that held all my clothes and started the racks moving, but I had no intention of wearing a gown. Instead I chose a tight, low-cut jumpsuit that was red-orange and white, with matching white boots. I hadn't been able to wear the thing while I was a redhead, but being a brunette again gave me real freedom of choice. Xedri looked at what I intended to wear and groaned.

"My lady, His Highness will be furious," she nearly begged, all but wringing her hands. "His Highness will - "

"Let him be furious, and let him do anything he pleases," I said, trying not to growl. "What I wear is my own business."

Very obviously Xedri didn't agree with that sentiment, but I got dressed without giving a damn. If Val got furious with me that was just too bad. He needed a little shaking up after all those months of peace and quiet. My former partner had gotten to be just as dull as everyone else in this place, and I hadn't even noticed.

When I was finally done dressing, I added the last finishing touch. I hadn't carried my knives in too long a time, and I had no intention of going without them again. I put one in my boot and one in the neck sheath down my back, and then I was ready to go.

The party was being held in Thandin's salon, and the men at the door stared at me but opened up anyway. I strolled inside, glancing idly around, and the conversational hum died to nothing. Val's whole family was there except for his brother Traemon and his sister Falci, because those two didn't live at the House.

Val's brothers Dalthin and Laeros stared at me with shock plain on their faces, while his sisters Simni and Meldi looked curious and more than a little interested. Queen Jenvi just raised her eyebrows slightly and let a faint smile touch her, but King Thandin and Crown Prince Valdon looked thunderstruck. I walked over to the last mentioned two and smiled pleasantly.

"How's it going, folks?" I asked in a friendly way. "I didn't miss anything did I?"

Thandin and Val couldn't seem to find the right words, but Zaerdon, who was standing with them, didn't have that trouble.

"It is indeed a pleasure to see you again, my lady," he said frostily with a bow. "I trust you've recovered from the unfortunate feeling of faintness which kept you away earlier?"

Zaerdon was a tall, thin man with a supercilious - now read "snotty" - attitude that had always annoyed me. Since he was one of Thandin's allies I hadn't been able to show my annoyance, but right now all bets were off.

"What feeling of faintness?" I asked innocently. "I've never felt better in my life. I was out riding and lost all track of time, but that's the way it goes. I find I never remember Someone else's appointments nearly as well as I remember my own. Don't you find it the same?"

"Not entirely," Zirdon responded with a frown. "And I believe that my lady considers my appointments to be hers as well. She would never think of arriving late if there were guests in the House, nor would she array herself in clothing unbecoming to a woman."

"But I've been told that this outfit is very becoming," I purred to his obvious disapproval. "Do you mean to say that you don't find it attractive at all?"

Zirdon glanced up and down my body in what looked like an automatic way and then cleared his throat.

"Unbecoming does not mean unattractive," he said hoarsely, and I would have bet that he was regretting only being able to look without touching. "It merely means … unbecoming."

I smiled without commenting, and then turned to examine the people who were standing behind him. His wife was there, a short woman who was pretty but quiet, and their two sons and one daughter. The boys were good-looking and were giving me an appreciative stare, but the daughter didn't seem to care for me at all. She was almost as tall as I was, and really beautiful in a cold and distant way. Things were going much more smoothly than I'd expected them to, but then Val stepped up to me and took my arm.

"I hope you'll pardon my wife's strange behavior, Prince Zaerdon," he said with icy politeness that wasn't really aimed at his guest. "I'd been thinking about taking Diana on a trip with me, but it's affected her so oddly that I've decided to leave her behind after all - so she can recover."

It was perfectly clear that the announcement was supposed to "bring me back to my senses," but that particular happening had occurred some hours earlier.

"I've already done any necessary recovering," I told Val with a warm smile, feeling a lot of satisfaction over interrupting whatever Zirdon had been about to say. "You have a good time on your trip and I'll tell you all about mine when you get back - if I'm back."

"What do you mean, your trip?" Val demanded, suddenly startled out of the role of High Prince. "You're not going anywhere."

"Guess again, friend," I answered with my smile now turning faintly amused. "I need a little vacation from this place. The cobwebs are starting to make me sneeze."

I unhooked my arm from his loosened grip and turned away, quickly deciding to visit the buffet for a cup of flav. It was almost surprising to find that that mild, creamy, tea-like drink was all I wanted, but that was the way I felt. I didn't need anything stronger to drink now that I was alive again, and when Val followed me over to the buffet I didn't even care.

"Diana, what's gotten into you?" he asked in an agitated whisper as soon as he reached me. "You're acting like a stranger."

"Take another look," I suggested as I lit a cigarette after pouring myself the flav. "It's more a matter of getting rid of a stranger."

I walked away from him again and stood alone, sipping flav, smoking, and trying to decide where to go. I'd thought about heading back to the Federation for a visit, but there were too many places in the Confederacy I hadn't seen yet. Maybe I'd start with Absar and take a little tour…

"I feel I must comment on your style of dress," a voice said, and I turned to see that Zaerdon's daughter had come over to me. She stood in a very expensive gown with all the right accessories, and her smile could have frozen a sunspot. "Your … costume appears so different, one can consider it nothing but … quaint."

The woman was trying one-upsmanship, but that sort of attack hadn't worked on me since the time I was very young.

"Don't feel too bad about not understanding, honey," I told her with my own version of a put-down smile. "You can't be expected to know any better."

She lost her own smile as I drank my flav unconcernedly, and ice cubes began to form on the walls of the salon.

"How dare you," she hissed as she drew herself up. "I am the daughter of a Prince, and will not be looked down upon by a - a - "

"That's right, just keep trying," I encouraged her, the amusement I showed adding to her fury. "You'll think of something eventually."

"Diana, stop it!" Val ordered angrily as he came up to us, interrupting our cozy conversation. "Aelvi is our guest, just as her father is."

"Aelvi is your guest, just as her father is," I retorted without turning. "In case you've forgotten, things like this have nothing to do with me."

"Please, Prince Valdon," Aelvi said in a tragic, helpless way, suddenly all sweetness and light. "I consider it unnecessary to make a scene over a matter such as this. A lady should never involve herself in such … ignoble exchanges."

"You're gracious as always, Aelvi," Val said warmly with a bow for the bitch wannabe. "Other women would do well to follow your example."

"If it were possible," Aelvi murmured, her modest, downcast gaze only glancing in my direction. "Oft times ladylike behavior is too difficult for a - a - "

"Hyper-A is the term you're looking for," I supplied when she groped around again, more than tired of the nonsense. "Like this."

I turned slightly, took the knife from my neck sheathe, then threw the knife into the draped wall near the door. Since I hit exactly where I was aiming, the drape ended up pinned to the wall in a stylish fold.

"Being a hyper-A is something nobody else around here can lay claim to," I said after turning back to the woman. "You keep right on being a marvelously gracious lady, and I'll stay with what I've got."

Aelvi looked pale and shocked, and when Val opened his mouth to say something I cut him off.

"As for you, you can save your mealy-mouthed lectures," I said, having no trouble reading his expression. "If you admire Aelvi's behavior so much, make her your wife."

I turned my back on the two of them and strode away, casually tossing my empty flav cup to Laeros as I passed him. He caught it with a big grin, but he always had been a fan of mine.

When I got to the wall I'd thrown at I reached up to pull my knife loose, but I was suddenly grabbed from behind and turned around.

"Not so fast, brat," Val grated with that old look back in his eyes. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Anywhere I damned well please," I told him, ignoring his unhappiness in favor of my own. "Get your hands off me."

"You gave me your word - " he began, that same old song and dance he kept playing, but I'd had more than enough of it.

"I'm taking my word back," I interrupted this time, as close to fury as I'd been in what felt like ages. "Women have been known to change their minds - remember? Now let go of me. Your … guests must be feeling ignored."

"I can see someone else is feeling ignored," he said with a very strange look on his face. "We'll talk about it later."

"Talk to yourself," I told him, pulling away from his hold. "I'm all out of listening time."

I started to turn back to the knife but he grabbed me again, forcing me up against the wall with my wrists behind me. I struggled with all my strength, but he had me pinned with his body.

"I think I can get my point across to you," he said with what actually looked like amusement. "Let's start here."

He leaned down and tried to kiss me, but then had to get one of his hands loose to tangle it in my hair to hold my head still. I didn't want his kiss, but the effort was nothing like the refined little pecks he'd been giving me for the last few months. He gave the kiss all his attention the way he used to do, and for a while I was back to the days when we were nothing but partners, fighting and loving any damned time the mood took us.

"I'll need privacy for the next topic of discussion," he murmured when the kiss ended. "Don't go way." Then he turned slightly to the other people in the room. "Father, Prince Zaerdon, I ask your indulgence. An emergency has just come up and I must see to it at once. If I don't make it back tonight, forgive me. I'll apologize properly in the morning."

When he turned back to me there was a devilish grin on his face.

"Now, wife," he said with that strange look even more evident in his expression. "Let's go and talk."

He bent, picked me up, and then carried me out of the room. I tried to kick loose from his hold, but it didn't do any good. He just grabbed tighter and heaved, and I was over his shoulder instead. He laughed as he strode along, and everyone we passed stared at us. I had no idea what he thought he was doing, but he gave me no chance to stop any of it.

When we got to our apartment we went through our salon and straight into the bedroom, on the way passing an open-mouthed Xedri.

"Please take Vadin into your room, Xedri," Val said as we passed the girl. "My wife and I have a few things to discuss, and I'd rather not disturb the baby's sleep."

Val waited until Xedri had taken Vadin and disappeared through the door leading to my bathing room and her own quarters, then without warning he dumped me on the bed. I tried immediately to roll off it again, but he pulled me back and held on.

"No you don't," he said with a laugh as he got me pinned again. "I'm not finished with you."

"That's what you think," I countered, the words a growl. "You're more than finished, but you're not bright enough to know it. Why don't you go back to the gracious Aelvi. She's obviously much more your speed."

"Is she now?" he mused, paying no attention to the way I tried to break free. "You wouldn't be getting jealous, would you?"

"Of what?" I asked with a snort. "The two of you are made for each other. She'd probably be grateful to be untouched for months."

"That's not fair!" he protested, finally losing that annoying amusement. "You just had a baby."

"That was three months ago," I told him. "Three Aysanne months, which is better than four months back where I come from. But don't let it bother you - I'd never dream of forcing myself on you again. I wouldn't want to jostle you out of your nice, comfortable rut."

"Are you saying living with me is dull?" he demanded in outrage, actually having the nerve to look shocked.

"You said it, I didn't," was the only possible response. "Let go of me, grandpa. I have a lot of things to take care of before I move on."

"So you're moving on, are you?" he said, the shock having changed to wariness. "Where do you plan on moving to?"

"I'm taking Vadin back home," I said, making the decision as I said it. "When he gets older, the two of us can tour the Confederacy. Then he'll be able to decide for himself where he wants to live when he's grown. And I'll see to his education."

"I'll just bet you would," he said with his own snort. "And then my son would end up working as an agent, just like his mother. Well, you can forget it, Diana. Vadin stays here and so do you."

"For what reason?" I challenged. "So the two of us can be ordered around, and put on display for visiting dignitaries, and bored out of our skulls? Oh, but I forgot. Vadin is male. He'd probably end up giving me orders too."

"It's amazing how right those clinicians were," Val said with a headshake, suddenly back to being amused. "When I pointed out how settled you'd become, they guaranteed the change wasn't likely to last very long. Your body chemistry had shifted, and you were preparing to have a baby. Just wait until after the baby is born, they said. Then watch out. I forgot all about it until the party tonight, but you certainly reminded me."

"How nice that I'm right on schedule," I said dryly, refusing to let him get another rise out of me. "But the fact remains that you're still in my way."

"And that's where I plan to stay," he said, leaning down just a little closer. "I don't know how I could have forgotten how much fun fighting with you can be, but I do know that I missed it."

"Val, you're out of your head," I told him without hesitation. "I have no intention of fighting with you or anyone else around here. I'm going home and back to work."

For an instant I saw that stubborn-mule look in his black eyes, but then he suddenly seemed to change his mind.

"Okay," he said, leaning up as he let me go. "You want to go back to work, I won't stand in your way."

"That's better," I said, wasting no time in getting to my feet. "Let me know when you want to see Vadin and I'll arrange it."

I headed for my bathing room door, but he yelped and cut me off.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" he demanded, fists on hips and thunder in his eyes as he looked down at me.

"Back to work, remember?" I said slowly and clearly, wondering what the problem could possibly be now. "The thing we were just discussing about ten seconds ago?"

"Don't be cute," he growled, definitely not in the least happy. "You weren't supposed to take me up on that offer."

"Oh, I see," I said with a nod as the picture became more than clear. "I was supposed to cry and beg to be taken back to your masculine arms. Well, it didn't work out like that. Better luck next time."

"Next time hell!" he roared, obviously right on the verge of losing control of himself. "You're my wife and you're not walking out of here!"

"I'm a hyper-A," I answered, everything that had been piling up on me making it impossible to feel even the least bit intimidated. "Try and stop me."

I began to circle around him, but he moved directly into my path and reached for me again. I knocked his hand away and followed with a jab to his middle, and then all the lights went out.