"Alliance Security Detail," Nissa supplied the information. "They keep the Alliance safe from criminals and other factions that are unlawful inside the Alliance. Uncle Norian is the Director of the ASD."
"I've never seen a shapeshifter before," Toff breathed, lowering his hands.
"Too bad Uncle Winkler isn't here," Nissa hugged Toff. Toff wasn't sure about Uncle Winkler but he was sure about the hug he got from Nissa.
"We wanted to go to Niff's for ice cream," Tory was back to their original mission.
"Let me find someone to go with you," the Queen said, standing up and stretching. Norian slid his body onto the top of the desk, showing Toff his full length, which was twelve feet. Black and gray patterns ran the length of the scaled body. "Bring some back for Norian and me, too," the Queen smiled at the snake.
"Uncle Norian loves ice cream," Tory said as they followed Drake and Drew toward the entrance to the palace. "We get to ride tonight. I love riding to Casino City."
A tall man waited outside a metal carriage at the bottom of the palace steps. "This is Radomir, an old friend of Mom's," Nissa whispered to Toff as they climbed inside the vehicle. The seats were soft and comfortable; Tory rode in the front seat with Radomir and Drake and Drew rode in the back, facing Ry, Nissa and Toff.
"What is this called?" Toff asked as Radomir did something to start the carriage and then steered it away from the palace steps.
"A limousine, young one," Radomir said over his shoulder.
"Radomir hears everything, just like Mom does," Nissa patted Toff's hand. "And Uncle Gavin, Uncle Tony, Uncle Winkler, Uncle Aryn and Uncle Rigo. Don't say anything anywhere around them that you don't want them to hear."
"We're going fast," Toff marveled as the vehicle picked up speed along a smooth road.
"We'll have to stop at the checkpoint at the walls, but we'll be at Niff's pretty quick after that," Ry said. "Have you had ice cream before?"
"I didn't know what you were talking about, but I wanted to go with you anyway," Toff admitted shyly.
"You'll like it," Nissa assured him and sat back in her seat to enjoy the ride.
Zellar, I'm in the Queen's dungeon. Gren's mental voice couldn't hold back the whine. He'd never been imprisoned before and there was something surrounding the dungeon itself that prevented him from using any of his power. A dampening field had been placed around his cell. Gren's connection to the planet's core had also been cut off and he felt that absence like an addict kept away from his drug of choice.
Energy from the core had kept Gren confident and feeling powerful. Now he had no control over his power and he hated the Queen for doing this to him. Hated Toff for forcing the issue. The baby should be dead and Gren should be basking in Zellar's compliments. Instead, he was inside a bare cell with few comforts.
What have you done, you foolish imbecile? Zellar's mindspeech was scathing. You will not breathe a word of your connection to me when they come to question you, do you hear me? Not one word! Idiot. Pathetically hopeless. Zellar went off on a rant, speaking in several languages that Gren didn't understand. Zellar finally spoke again in one that Gren understood. I will kill you myself if you tell anyone about me. Do you hear? And your death will be a slow and painful one. Zellar cut off the communication. Gren slid down the whitewashed wall of his cell and wept.
"Zellar, where are you going?" King Kenderlin of Cloudsong stood in the doorway to Zellar's suite. He'd come to confer with the warlock, but he found the warlock packing instead. Zellar turned his face toward the King, showing Cloudsong's monarch the scarred and sightless side of his face.
"I am going to someone who may be able to help us," Zellar replied. He failed to interrupt his packing, as he should have done out of respect for the King. "I am prevented from going to Le-Ath Veronis, but someone I know may be able to travel there. If we find a way, then things will go much smoother for Cloudsong," Zellar closed the lid of his packed trunk and locked it with power.
"Get everything you can from that witch," King Kenderlin snapped, his voice wavering slightly. Kenderlin was nearing the end of his years and his reason was not what it once was. He was soft clay in Zellar's hands and Zellar had his own agenda to pursue with the Queen of Le-Ath Veronis. Zellar was draining every bit of what remained of Cloudsong's wealth as well as the power from its core in order to exact his revenge. Cloudsong was expendable. Zellar's vengeance was not.
Toff was speechless. Casino City was brightly lit and people were everywhere. All kinds of people. All colors of people. Dressed in ways he might never have imagined, too, and all of them laughing, talking and patronizing seemingly endless streets of shops and restaurants. There was a line to get into Niff's when they arrived. Chasing lights outlined a Niff's Sweets and Goodies sign over the shop's door. Inside, the store was huge, with glass-walled counters through which you could see tubs of frozen treats in many colors. There were also plates and plates of pies, cakes and something called brownies.
"I can't decide whether I want strawberry ice cream or a brownie sundae," Nissa stood on tiptoe to see everything from her place in line.
"I'll get whatever you do," Toff decided. If Nissa liked it, it had to be good. Radomir stood beside Tory at the head of their little group, Drake was beside Toff and Nissa while Drew stood behind them with Ry. The desserts were worth the wait when they finally got to the counter and ordered; Toff moaned in pleasure the minute he tasted his brownie sundae.
"If Uncle Roff brings us, he's always swamped by people admiring his wings," Ry said. "He likes to come here, but not when there's so many people around."
Three giggling girls passed their table as they ate. "Did you see? I asked him to bite me and he smiled!" One of the girls was nearly breathless as she held an ice-cream dish in her hand.
Toff stared at the girls as they rushed out the door.
"Fangers." Ry said the word with disgust. Toff didn't understand the term and was about to ask but Nissa offered him a paper napkin, so Toff ignored it for the moment.
"Mom, there was a big crowd at Niff's," Tory handed the box of ice cream to his mother inside her study. Norian was still there in snake form and Queen Lissa pulled out a dish of ice cream and set it in front of him. Toff stared as the snake dipped into the ice cream, eating it with seeming pleasure.
"He really loves ice cream," Lissa smiled at Toff. "I hope this doesn't frighten you. I know you're not used to this." Toff found himself smiling shyly back at the Queen.
"I'll get used to it," he said. Nissa reached over and took his hand. Toff would get used to shapeshifters and anything else if he could see Nissa now and then.
"Now, young ones, it's off to bed. Off-day tomorrow and the day after. If you have reports, off-days are good for that," Drake shooed them out of the Queen's study.
"We have to finish an assignment for Morwin," Ry grumbled as they walked down the hall toward the residential wing.
"He gave me a report to do, too," Toff agreed. "I've never written one, so he showed me some samples and gave me a comp-vid to look things up."
"What did he ask you to do?" Nissa was still holding Toff's hand and he didn't want to let her go.
"He assigned a report on a Faldaran battle six hundred years ago that involved a branch of Fae and the humanoids who lived there. He wants me to write what the impact of the battle had on the current conditions of the planet."
"Sounds interesting," Ry grinned.
"Or not," Tory was grinning, too. Ry gave Tory a sideways kick. Tory retaliated with a shove.
"They always do that," Nissa muttered beside Toff.
"Looks like fun," Toff murmured back.
Toff felt depressed. Nissa had been whisked away right after lunch. Tory and Ry weren't happy either.
"She'll be back in three days for her birthday," the Queen came to hug Toff's shoulders. Toff knew the Queen was misty-eyed, too.
"At least Uncle Shadow released her mindspeech so we can talk," Tory said.
"You have mindspeech?" Toff stared at Tory.
"We do, but it was muted until Sissy came up missing."
"And it will be muted again if you misuse it," Queen Lissa gave her tallest son a hug around the waist.
"But what if I want to send a message to Nissa?" Toff blurted.
"We'll let you use more conventional methods," Queen Lissa squeezed Toff's shoulders after letting Tory go. "Write her notes and I'll see they get delivered."
"You can do that?" Toff allowed his hopes to rise a little.
"Of course. Ry can even send them, if you ask," Tory swatted Ry on the back of the head.
"In the meantime," the Queen glared an admonishment at the two Princes, "I'd like to go with Tory's Uncle Jayd and Aunt Glinda offworld to shop for Nissa's birthday. Want to come along, Toff?"
Toff stood rooted to the floor, he was so stunned. He nearly stuttered when he found his voice again. "Roff said he'd pay me for my work at the winery. Can I borrow against that so I can buy something for Nissa too?"
"Honey, you'll receive an allowance for a few chores in the palace, plus whatever Roff pays you," Lissa reached out to touch his cheek. "Just pick out what you want to give Nissa and I'll take it out of that."
"Come on, dude, let's go get dressed for shopping." Toff was hauled away between Tory and Ry, shock on his face at being called dude, among a multitude of other things.
"I like this." Toff pointed at a comb that held a jeweled flower. It reminded him of the magnolia tree that stood outside Father Willow's cottage. Willow had the only magnolia tree inside the Fae village and Toff loved the velvety petals of the huge flowers when they bloomed. "It will look good in the top of her braid, don't you think?" They stood inside a jewelry shop on Hraede. Uncle Rigo had come with them—this was his home planet, according to Ry and Tory. It was also the safest world in the Alliance. King Jayd and Queen Glinda of Kifirin had come too, with their twin daughters Jase and Jehrie. Ry couldn't take his eyes off them, Toff noticed.