Page 9 will be up on Wednesday. Page 10 will go up on Friday unaffected.

[Image 1]

“Just one thing,” said Poppy, “the rest of the outfit is free game, but it’s really important that you just keep the neckerchief as is. I want it cleaned and nothing else.”

“Are you sure?” Shiba asked. “We have some very lovely double gauze fabrics we could make a replacement with.”

“No, no. It belonged-” Poppy choked. “It just has a lot of sentimental value for me.”

“Oh, so it’s one of those tragic mementos.” Betty rolled her eyes. “Sure, I’ll clean it. But you know, and maybe this is weird advice coming from a seamstress, but fabric is ultimately just fabric. You won’t be able to move forward if you keep trying to literally wear your past on your sleeve.”

“Okay. Thanks for the weird advice,” Poppy said, and then she stared directly at Betty until she left the room in discomfort.

[Image 2]

Kit Darling’s aeroplane exited its sixth warp since leaving Canopy, emerging somewhere over the Bourbon Sea in a smooth glide that ignored the stormy weather around it. It would still have twelve more leaps before being in range of her family’s palace, but she had half an hour to kill while the plane’s spatial coils cooled. She wished she could appreciate the wild heaving and twisting of the sea plateaus and whirlpeaks below, but her vision was impeded by the five inch glass of the plane’s flight deck surrounding her. Even pressing against the surface, with her strongest magic-stunting glasses on, the rainfall outside was too thick to penetrate more than a few feet.

Kit settled back into the plush passenger seat, and considered taking a long overdue nap, but her nerves were too jumpy. In a few short hours, the medicine she’d worked so hard on for all those months would be given its first real field test. Despite the consistent test results on the gene slugs, she’d been putting this trip off for some days now, trying to avoid confronting the responsibility of holding her father’s life in her hands. She patted her pharmaceutical bag softly, trying to find some element of comfort in it.

And then there was matter of Chicadino exploiting the opossums. Was it really okay for her to leave the situation in Poppy’s hands? Of course, she wanted to have faith in her, not just as a partner, but as the diplomat she hired, but there were so many ways the situation could go wrong. Kit squirmed, feeling helpless. Without thinking, she pulled up the contact list in her spell phone and stopped at Arthur’s number. There was still time before the next warp was possible, she could leave a short message asking him to call her in the morning. Maybe this was some big misunderstanding that could be resolved peacefully. Kit tapped the call icon and the phone rang only once before connecting.

“Hello, Kit,” said Chicadino’s voice on the other end, without missing a beat. Kit locked up, stunned. She was expecting a secretary, or an automatic voicemail, but here was Arthur taking his own calls at two in the morning without any forewarning. “Awfully late for a chat, isn’t it?”

“Er, my apologies, I should’ve waited to call you. But I’ve had some pressing concerns about some of your activities.”

“Of course you have. That’s why you were planning on confessing your dealings.” There was no urgency in his voice as he accused her. “Or were you still thinking of having me killed?”

[Images 3+4]

“Arthur, I want to give you a chance, rather, an ultimatum,” Kit dodged. She couldn’t afford to sound intimidated after what she’d said to Poppy. “I know you’ve been exploiting opossums, and I have reason to believe you’re currently holding a man against his will. My demands are twofold. Release your captive unharmed, and abandon any attempt to reclaim your illegal shipments, and I will not further impede you.”

“I refuse.” The answer was without any hesitation. “I have no captive to release, nor do I believe you’re in a position to threaten me. Destroy your own reputation if you like. You hold evidence linking yourself to a crime, and nothing more.”

“Don’t give me that, Chicadino. One word to my family about this deal and they’ll-”

“They’ll do what,” said Chicadino, “thank me for providing you with resources needed to find Renard’s cure? Compensate me for the money I spent salvaging your very public failings in running your sister’s kingdom? Perhaps you deluded yourself into believing they’d welcome the news of your relationship with open arms as well. Maybe you hoped they’d treat your so-called fiancée like an equal instead of a pet. Please. I’ve known your father longer than you’ve been alive, dear, I helped him build his little family empire.”

“If you know him so well, then you know exactly what he’s willing to do for the people he loves,” Kit bluffed.

“That’s true, he loves you. That’s why, the moment he’s lucid again, he’ll have Poppy and her spawn put into a cozy pen you can visit whenever you like, instead of putting them down outright. Don’t mistaken Renard for a kindhearted man, Kit, his affection for you may have restrained him from exacting vengeance on every opossum that crossed his path, but it doesn’t make him a tool you can bargain with.

“Oh, and one more thing. The dogma of Crodilus Panzer’s revolutionaries have been riling up the neighbors and they’re desperate for any weak link in the Empire’s outer territories to break through. You know, I believe our sea dragon’s been looking a little sickly lately.” Chicadino chuckled softly. “It’d be just awful to lose its protective Dragon Bell at a time like this.”

“I see.” Kit swallowed hard. “Well, I gave you a chance, Arthur.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind when your girlfriend comes poking her nose around my doorstep.” And then the line went silent, leaving Kit alone to watch the plane’s cooldown timer once again. There were still fifteen minutes left.