As he stepped off the train onto the weathered wooden platform, William Holmes had to stifle a reflex to pant; the station’s thatched roof offered little protection from the midday African sun. You are a lion, he told himself sternly, and you have no business being bothered by climate. Never mind that this was only the third trip he’d taken in Africa and the first in its summerthere was a principle involved. William had always stood firmly on principle.

“There you are, William,” a voice called from across the station. Another lion hurried toward him, at least twenty years his junior, dressed in khaki shorts and a comfortably loose shirttoo casual for a manager of the Royal African Mining Company, in William’s estimation, but far more practical than the stifling suit William himself wore. “It’s good to see you.”

William shook the shorter lion’s offered hand firmly but briefly, then hefted his briefcase. “I take it we’re right off to the meeting, Richard? We’ve got our tribal witch doctor waiting?”

“Ah, yes.” Richard took off his straw pith helmet and ran a hand through a short-clipped mane as he cleared his throat. “They do want her to be called a diplomat

“I’m not stupid, dear fellow,” William snorted, taking the hat and putting it back on Richard’s head. “This is the first time these impala tribesmen have actually sent someone out as a representative rather than insisting we go there to meet tribal leaders, so I suppose it’s progress.” He waved over a porter. “See to it my luggage is sent to the Royal African Mining Company’s office and on to whatever hotel they’ve arranged.” The porter nodded and hurried toward the indicated bags.

“Right.” Richard cleared his throat, smiling weakly. “Well. They tell us she’s empowered to make binding agreements.” He shook his head with a grunt. “I can’t believe we’re going through this charade, William.”

“We’re not in colonial times,” William replied, rapping his walking stick on the wooden railing as they stepped out of the station, looking down on the city. “We’re negotiators now, like it or not.”

There were no carriages here but the streets were even more crowded than London’sa mass of Africans, the occasional Dutch or Briton, all species, shapes and sizes, hurrying about their business, hawking wares to passersby. Reds and tans and greys dominated the haphazard grid of streets and closely-set buildings, with vivid orange and yellow painted walls dotting the panorama. Grand, almost Nordic-looking stone structures stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Arabic designs and the occasional thatched wood roof. The humid air reeked of fresh produce and urine and straw and dust.

“More’s the pity,” Richard said, hurrying down the steps onto the street. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking of these impala as simple savages, William. They’re not as ignorant of what’s valuable to us as they were a generation ago. No more trading beads for land.”

William laughed. “Come, Richard, I know the economics here. You’re a wealthy man and the company’s scarcely sending you more than they’d need to pay a desk clerk in Nottingham. Truth be known, I think we’re going through this show because the impalas don’t like us standing a half-foot taller than their chiefs.” He started following the other lion along the side of the street, keeping out of the crowd as much as possible.

“They’re sending me far less than a desk clerk’s salary, I’ll have you know,” Richard said with a laugh. “It’s the money going into escrow for my return that’s the real payoff. You’re right, of course, but even so

“What’s going on up there?” William pointed with his walking stick. “There’s some kind of commotion.”

“The street’s always a commotion.”

“No, no.” He pointed more forcefully, waving the tip around. “There.”

The pedestrian sea churned, moving rapidly out of the way ofsomething, a loud murmur rolling toward the lions like a wave. A head stood high above the crowd. “It looks like a…stilt-walker?” William said.

“Yes, I suppose. I suppose. Under the robes.” The stilt-walker was an impala woman, who looked like she’d be tall even without the stilts. “That’s quite tall. Nearly twenty feet up, it looks like. And…quite a costume. Her hips look like they’re in the right place for the height.”

William nodded, watching, then silently exchanged a quick, disbelieving glance with the other lion.

The impala woman turned her head in their direction. Her ears swiveled, and she changed direction. The crowd parted like a curtain drawing back.

“Dear God,” Richard breathed.

For an impala, she was a beautiful woman, luminous black eyes highlighted by the thin ring of white fur characteristic to the species. Her coat was a rich sienna, and the robes that the lions had thought hid her stilts were of a luxurious purple. And she was positively festooned with jewelrya jade necklace, brass bracelets, silver hoop earrings. As she approached them, she slowed.

Both lions looked down. Her feet were slightly digitigrade, ending in two curved toes capped with hoof-like nails. They clacked on the ground as she moved. And they were definitely not stilts.

She gestured with a hand at Richard, a gentle pointing motion. He swallowed audibly as he looked up at the hand, several feet over his head. “You must be Richard Smithson.” She made the same gesture toward William. “And you, William Holmes, from the…home office.” She smiled down.

Richard nodded wordlessly, taking off his hat with both hands and clutching it to his chest.

“Y” William stopped and cleared his throat, aware he sounded a little hoarse. “Yes, I am, Madam,” he said, forcing his voice to be slow and solemn.

“I am Swarakubwa.”

“The ambassadress?” Richard blurted.

She kneeled in front of them, which left their heads well under her shoulder level. “Yes. It is good to meet you both.” She held out a hand toward Richard.

He stared at it, extended a hand, and looked uncertain, trying to determine how to shake a hand whose central pad was wider than the spread of his fingers. Swarakubwa solved the problem by closing her hand around all of hisand most of his forearm. Richard stiffened, eyes widening. When she let go his teeth chattered a moment.

She extended the hand to William.

William glared at Richard out of the corner of his eye. They were not there to be intimidated. He thrust his hand out and shook her finger firmly. “We expected to be meeting you at the embassy, Miss Swarakubwa.”

“‘Swara’ is fine,” she said with a smile. William scowled inwardly, taking that as a sign he’d mangled the pronunciation subtly. “Forgive my failure to wait, but as you can see, I would have some trouble fitting into your embassy.”

“Or in most buildings, yes,” William said. “You’re a…most extraordinary height.”

She nodded, rising to her full height. “I am,” she agreed. “My people say it is a gift from the gods.”

William smiled, taking a certain solace in her superstition. It didn’t quite keep him from registering that he wasn’t even eye level with her hipbut it helped.


“Well,” he said, “since the embassy is out, then, where are we to conduct business, madam?”

“I would humbly offer my hotel room,” she replied. “The Harare Inn has made special accommodations for me.”

“Have they,” Richard mumbled, staring up at her.

“I know it is, is, an unorthodox setting for diplomacy.” She spread her hands wide. “But it is as close as I can come to showing you the hospitality of my home.”

“Of course.” William grumbled silently. Half of the point of meeting here, off tribal lands, was to prevent the impala from having the advantage of a setting unfamiliar to the lions. Even so, this citythe country’s biggest and most metropolitanwas a far cry from Swarakubwa’s simple village. It wasn’t too much of a setback.

Both lions strode as quickly as they dared, faster than they customarily walked, acutely aware that despite their speed Swara was visibly slowed as she led them toward the inn.

Even to William’s eye the structure had a welcoming grandness to iton the outside, weathered but well-maintained stucco a modest two stories tall with a peaked wood frame roof, architecturally more functional than decorative. Inside, mahogany walls, polished stone floors, and a magnificent chandelier hanging down from the peaked ceiling. An invitingly dark bar could be seen through an arched doorway past the front desk.

Swara not only ducked but literally crawled through the wide double doorway. Inside she could straighten up to her full height. At the room’s side, the ceiling’s lowest point, her ears brushed the roof beams, and she had to walk around the chandelierit hung lower than her shoulders.

Richard made a soft, strained noise in his throat as he watched her navigate the room. “Show bravado,” William hissed in the other lion’s ear. Richard swallowed and nodded fractionally, and they both walked down the hallway Swara motioned them toward. The ceiling in the hall was still high, but the impala had to stoop to navigate it.

“Here we are.” She stopped in front of a thatched door as tall as she was. “This small room has been many things, from warehouse to dance floor to arms depot. The hotel has graciously allowed it to be my home away from home.” Swara held the door open for them.

Both lions stepped inside. The room was perhaps five hundred square feet and two stories high, and the walls were draped with fabric, colors seemingly chosen at random. Electric torches in the room’s corners provided cool light, casting shadows over the room’s simple furnishingsa writing desk and chair against one wall, a neatly-made mattress on the floor, and three lounge chairs facing the bed. The lounge chairs were a normal scale. The mattress and the writing desk and chair were on Swara’s scale. Cooking utensils sat in a neat group on the deska kettle, a mortar bowl and pestle, two large glass pitchers.

Swarakubwa motioned toward the lounge chairs. “Please, sit. We shall drink together.” She walked to a lit fireplace on the other side of the room, knelt, and scooped raw coffee beans out of a burlap bag into a metal basket, then placed it in the fire. “So we are here because you seek diamonds on Impala lands and we do not seem forthcoming in granting you permission, yes?”

“We’ve already obtained mining rights from your country,” William said, taking a seat and opening his briefcase. “Work with your people is…a matter of courtesy, of assuaging your concernsof détente, if you will.” He made a show of rifling through copious sheafs of paper, although his notes on this meeting were barely three pages.

The impala laughed softly as she shook the coffee beans, turning the roasting basket from side to side. “And a matter of said government recognizing our tribe as sovereign over our lands, Mr. Holmes, which is why you, specifically are here.” She glanced over at him with a smile. “The Company needs someone here empowered to make binding decisions to, as you say, assuage our concerns.”

“Just so,” he said, lifting his brows. “The Royal African Mining Company wants to take every step possible to assure you that we’ll be sensitive to your people’s love of the land, your heritage.”

The scent of the coffee beans was starting to fill the room as Swara gave them another shake. William had heard tell of a “coffee ceremony” among some tribes before, but he’d paid little mind at the time, being more of a tea man himself.

“With all respect, Mr. Holmes, that has not been the history of mining companies on this continent, has it?” She glanced over at him. “When we speak of reverence for the land, you hear only superstition.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Miss Swarakubwa.”

“We talk of heritage, but it is a living tradition. Farming the land requires it to be healthy, yes? Clean air. Clean rivers. Living and healthy plants and animals.” She took the coffee basket out of the fire and went to the writing desk. Emptying the beans into the mortar, she picked up the bowl and pestle, returned the basket to the side of the fireplace, and headed back toward the chairs, sitting down just in front of the bed.

William forced himself not to pull back reflexively. Richard scooted his chair back two inches. Even sitting, she towered over them.

“Your competitorsand your own facilities to the northhave not been kind to the land, Mr. Holmes.” The impala fixed her gaze on him as she mashed the beans with the pestle. “Not only are lands destroyed where they are mined, but slurries run into the river, poisoning fish and plants downstream. Lights and noise scare away animals, smoke clogs the air…the land is changed far beyond the presence of the mine itself.”

“Natural waterways have carried away waste for eons, dear lady,” William pro-tes-ted. “Poisonswhich, I might say, I feel is too strong a word for our byproducts, which are after all only other minerals extracted from the earthare diluted to a point where the water is safe to drink downstream.”

Swara jabbed the pestle against the stone bowl with enough force to make a resounding crack! echo across the room. Both lions flinched. The impala went back to the writing desk, picking up both glass pitchers. She returned to kneel by the lions, holding out the pitchers as if they were drinking glasses.

“This pitcher is from the river that runs through my tribal lands,” she said, lifting the one in her left hand. The water looked ordinary and clear. “And this pitcher is from downstream of your mining operation near Kimberly.” She lifted the one in her right hand; the water was cloudy, tinted slightly red, and gave off an acrid scent. “Which would you prefer I brew the coffee with?”

William’s ears flattened. “Madam, while I do not wish to question your word, our company’s technicians assure me that our effluent is not beyond the capacity of a river to handle. Of course, you must draw the water from a sufficient distance downstream

“This is drawn from where a village lies, in which most of your native workers live.” She lowered that pitcher slowly toward the kettle. “I am told that you are bringing in more British workers now, as the natives claim to be too ill to work. The managers say they are just lazy, though.”

He looked up at her gaze, which had grown even more intense, then down at the pitcher. “Please use the water from your village,” he said, gritting his teeth.

“You are sure? If this is safe for me to drinkand the natives by the mine are assured it issurely it is safe for you.”

Truth to tell, William had no idea how safe the water was, but he knew how much the company spent trucking in water for its British employees at the plant. “You’ve made your point,” he muttered, glancing away.

Swara set down the first pitcher, and poured the clear water from the second into the kettle, then poured in the coffee grounds. She hung the kettle over the fire, and settled into a kneeling position there.

Richard cleared his throat. “M-Miss Swarakubwa, focusing solely on the…possible negatives of the mine unfairly downplays the economic boon to those who are employed there.”

She glanced at him with raised brows, but said nothing, instead watching the kettle.

“They say a watched pot never boils,” William said absently, brushing back his graying mane.

“They also say that all good things come to those who wait,” she replied. “I think you are in more of a hurry than I.”

Richard harrumphed. “We’ll pay far more than any other employer in this region.”

“And when the mine comes, Mr. Smithson, what alternatives are left?” She gestured toward the cloudy pitcher. “All our work now revolves around farming, but if the mine’s operation ends farming in the region, you are not an employer of choiceyou are the only choice. When the workers in that village are too ill to work there, what do they do? When the diamonds are gone and their mine closes, what then?”

William remained silent for several seconds, finally slapping his hands on his knees and sighing heavily. “Miss Swarakubwa, I can’t believe that you and I are here solely to allow you the pleasure of telling a high-ranking Company official in person that the mine can bugger off.”

Richard made a choking noise. Swara arched her brows high, studying Holmes keenly, then lifted the kettle away from the fire with a hook. She wrapped a cloth around its handle and poured the steaming coffee into three cupsone three times the size of the others, even though the small cups were bigger than proper English teacups and held far more coffee than William would prefer.

She carried the tray to them, bending at the waist to set it down rather than kneeling. William’s grip tightened on his chair as the impala loomed, buthe hopedhe kept the pang of nervousness otherwise well-hidden. When she picked up her own coffee, she sat down on the mattress rather than the floor. So now we’re to accenting the height difference as much as possible, he thought sourly. Not that he wouldn’t be doing the same were he the tall one, to be sure.

Swara looked at them expectantly. Both lions picked up their coffees; some grounds floated to the top of the cups. William sipped gingerly, then lifted his brows. “It’s quite good,” he said, and it wasdeathly strong, but with a smoky sweetness quite unlike the coal-bitter French coffees he was usually forced to partake.

“Thank you,” she said with a nod and a slight smile. “No, Mr. Holmes, you are right. I wish to discuss the restrictions you will place on your mining operations to ensure that our way of life will not fall into the chasm you will dig.”

“What level of restrictions are you talking about?”

“Your mine shall operate from an hour after dawn to an hour before dusk. And every week, your managersyour British managers, not nativesshall join us for coffee made with water drawn from the river a mile downstream of your plant.”

He stared at her a moment, then laughed. “The latter is intriguing, but I doubt we can agree to the first. We’re expecting round-the-clock mining operationsthree shifts.”

“That is not acceptable. We shall also require that the tribe be compensated with a portion of the mine’s income, as determined by auditors from both our national government and our tribal government.”

“Your tribe has auditors?” he said, caught off-guard.

“Our tribe has those among it who know numbers, Mr. Holmes,” she said drily. “We believe seven percent of the mine’s gross profit is fair compensation.”

He spluttered. “That’s nearly as much your national government gets!”

Swara waved her free hand dismissively. “You are paying them a flat fee based on twenty percent of your own profitability projections after three years of operation. Our request is only a fraction of that.” She sipped her coffee delicately. “Unless you are suggesting that the figures you supplied to the government are lower than what you actually expect to make.”

William glowered, sipping more of his coffee. “We can’t open our books to just anyone.”

The impala smiled. “We are only requiring them to be open to us.”

“At risk of presuming too much, what does your tribe need with that kind wealth?” He shook his head. “The cost of living here is a fraction of what it is in Britainand that’s in cities, not running around in the forest.”

“Call it a rainy day fund. What we may eventually use it for is not relevant, just as how you spend your compensation is not a direct concern of your company, yes?”

“I think this meeting has given us both enough to think about for the afternoon,” William said, standing up abruptly. “I think we should continue this discussion tomorrow.”

“I think we must,” Swara said without missing a beat. He fancied she was somehow making a point of staring down at him even though she remained sitting.

“She’s acting as if she holds all the cards,” Richard spluttered as soon as they stood outside.

William stalked forward, glowering. “Your gawking up at her through the entire conversation did not help matters, Smithson.”

“As if I could help it! Dear Lord, the tallest person on record isn’t even eight feet high!”

“And she’s fully aware of it. That doesn’t change the position of power between the Company and her tribe, not a whit.” He stabbed the air in front of him with his walking stick for emphasis. “She needs to be taught a lesson.”

Richard glanced sidelong at the other lion. “A lesson?”

“That size doesn’t matter.”

After a moment, Richard nodded thoughtfully. “And what would you suggest?”

“I wouldn’t suggest anything, chap.” William shook his head. “That’s a road company directors don’t take.”

“Then I suppose I should arrange preparations for our meeting tomorrow.”

“Mmm.” William gave Richard a sidelong look, but quelled his sense of foreboding. If he managed to intimidate the impala a little somehow, bully for him. “For my part, I think I should check on my hotel. I’ll catch up with you again in the morning.”

As luck would have it, the company had set up William’s room at the Harare Inn as well, on the second floor, fortunately on the opposite end of the hotel from Swarakubwa’s quarters. He suspected it was the finest accommodation available in the city, but he hadn’t stayed in his room past the time to ensure his luggage had arrived safely and to change into more casual, looser clothes. Then he’d retreated to the bar he’d seen earlier and indulged in several pours of a surprisingly good single malt as he went over his options.

Clearly, both Swara and he wanted a binding agreement to be reached before he left. Unfortunately, he doubted she wanted it more than he did: the government had made it clear that the Company needed an agreement with the tribe to begin mining. From their point of view, inaction led to lost profits; from the impala point of view, inaction merely left things at the status quo, which Swara had made abundantly clear they preferred to the Company’s typical operations. So she had little incentive not to make severe demands.

The question is, then, what could they offer that would be cheaper for them to deliver, perhaps less restrictive, and still be agreeable?

“Better trinkets,” he said aloud, then downed the last of his third glass. “For her, bigger trinkets, yes?”

He frowned thoughtfully. Relocating the whole tribe to better farmland, perhaps. Drastic and expensive, but only a one-time expense. Would they insist they were attached to the specific land they lived on?

He rose to his feet, steadying himself with his walking stick for a moment, then headed down the hall toward Swarakubwa’s room.

The makeshift door stood partly open and he could hear thumping and growling inside. After a moment, he realized he smelled bloodboth impala blood and lion blood. “What in heaven’s name?” he muttered, swinging the door open fully.

Swara stood in the center of the room, crouched, panting. Her dress was torn and bloodied, almost shredded along her legs, and blood ran freely from a dagger still stuck in her shoulder. Around her were four lionstwo bigger than William was. At least, he supposed both of them were; one was sprawled against the writing desk in a way that looked not merely unconscious but possibly broken. Another had just fallen toward the impala, and she was in the process of shoving his body away with her foot.

Simultaneously, the third one charged her, snarling, while the fourth onestanding near the doorraised a pistol.

William abruptly swung his walking stick out like a baton, cracking it firmly over the pistol-holder’s arm. The gun went flying. The lion whirled on William just in time to be caught by the stick’s head across his temple. He crumpled.

There was a solid thump against the wall, and William looked up in time to see the lion who’d charged Swara hitting itabout six feet up. He slid down it and remained still.

“Goodness,” William muttered. “Ihrrk!”

In two strides, Swara had closed the distance between them and hauled him into the air by the scruff of his neck. He hadn’t thought staring into the face of an angry impala woman could be frightening.

“This is your idea of negotiation?” she spat.

“What? No! I

She shook him, making his limbs flop like a rag doll’s. His walking stick fell out of his hand and clattered to the floor. “They told me I could not ‘stand in the way of their jobs.’”

“I didn’t send them,” he protested weakly, knowing it hardly mattered. Damn his own intemperance. Why couldn’t he have told Richard

“Do not toy with me, Mr. Holmes,” she wheezed, wincing.

“I stopped that man from shooting you!” he said desperately. “You’re not so big that a good shot or two couldn’t be fatal!”

She took a deep breath. “Perhaps you arranged this to play the hero. It was a…convenient time for you to be walking past, when we were not to meet until tomorrow.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’d come by to talk because I want to get things resolved.”

Swara stared at him, then winced again.

“We have to get a doctor, Miss Swarakubwa. For you and for them.”

She lowered her hand, then dropped him roughly at her feet. He landed with a gasp.

“Go, then,” she said, sitting slowly down on the bed and closing her eyes.

He swallowed, then hurried down the hall.

“No, I don’t know who they were,” William told the police captain for the third time, watching the lions being taken away on stretchers.

“So you don’t know she didn’t start the fight,” the cheetah captain said.

“I can make a reasonable assumption,” William snapped, glancing over at the impala. She’d passed out when the medic removed the dagger from her shoulder. They’d cut away much of her skirt to tend to her leg wounds.

“Other than the shoulder wound, her injuries are superficial,” the medic said, looking up from the impala’s side. “She’ll need to keep the arm in a sling for two weeks at the least.” The medic was a lioness herself, brusque and professional enough to have barely batted an eye at the size of her patient. She’d fashioned a sling out of half a sheet.

He nodded.

“We’ll be in touch,” the captain said. “You won’t be leaving town for a few days?”

“I have tickets for the Wednesday outbound train.”

“I am sure they will be exchangeable for Saturday’s.”

“She’ll need someone to stay with her during the night,” the medic said.

William sighed heavily. “I can manage that,” he replied.

When the room had cleared, William drew a sheet up over her to her shoulders, and sat down by her side. Her eyes opened.

“Don’t pummel me again just now,” he said with a half-smile. “You need your rest.”

“It will wait until morning, then,” she whispered, smiling slightly in return.

He chuckled, then looked away. “I’m…I am sorry this happened.”

“You said it was not your fault.”

“No,” he said stiffly. “I said I didn’t send them.”

Her expression hardened again, and she remained silent, studying his face. At length she spoke softly. “If you were coming here to talk, what did you want to propose?”

“I wanted to ask if the company could relocate your tribe away from the lands we have mining rights to.”

“That is out of the question.”

He hesitated, then nodded with a sigh. “Of course it is.”

“Although this may only mean that you will send in troops to relocate us forcibly.” She closed her eyes. “Not you, personally, of course.”

“We’re a royal company in name only, Miss Swarakubwa. We command no armies.”

“I know your land’s history with this one.” She laid a hand on his shoulder, long fingers across the back of his neck and thumb on the front. “That is why I wanted to negotiate with someone in your position.”

“The sun sets on the empire these days,” he replied, acutely aware of the weight of her hand and trying not to consider how easily she could snap his neck even in her weakened state. “Times are changing.”

“For the better.”

“Perhaps.” He felt a sudden surge of weariness. “I confess I am not so sanguine. The new governments here are very, very poor, and no matter how much they may profess dislike of foreign powers that once ruled them, they’ll wantno, needa thriving export industry, they’ll need loans and gifts. And to get it they will accept foreign investment.”

“Not at the expense of the people and the land,” she said firmly, although she looked troubled.

“If it comes down to a choice between your government losing the profits from the mine and riding roughshod over a group of natives who don’t contribute anything monetarily, do you truly trust the cards will always fall your way, Miss Swarakubwa? What about your next set of leaders? Will your tribe vote for the next president? Did they vote for this one?”

She sighed heavily, then sharpened her gaze to the intensity she’d shown earlier in the day. “Then perhaps it is up to you and your company to set a good example, Mr. Holmes.”

He pursed his lips. “Call me William.”

“Call me Swara, then.” She moved her hand off him, resting it by her side again.

“Accepting all those restrictions will cause an uproar, Swara. It’ll probably cost me my directorship.”

“You will be fired?”

He shook his head. “No, not likely. Directors get reassigned.” He snorted. “They might send me here on a permanent basis.”

“Something your family would no doubt disapprove of.”

“I don’t have a family. I was thinking of my disapproval. The temperature here must hit the mid-90s in December!”

She laughed. “You would easily get used to it, William. And it’s positively cold in July, I assure you.”

“Hrm.” He shifted position, leaning toward her. “Sixteen-hour days. Two shifts.”

The impala shook her head. “Twelve at most.”


“Seven-hour shifts? Perhaps.” She stretched out under the sheet, kicking part of it off. “Are my legs as frightening a sight as I fear?”

William glanced down at them. “Only in the sense that I’ve seen how deadly a kick from one would be. Aesthetically, I assure you they’re marvelous. Just a few cuts I’m sure will heal in no time.”

“You are a true diplomat.” She laughed. “You know, earlier today I had considered telling you and your companion that I wouldn’t allow you to leave the room until we’d come to a deal I’d have accepted. If it had only been Mr. Smithson it might have been effective.”

He lifted his brows. “My. Hmm. Yes, I think the boy was quite terrified of you. You do enjoy taking advantage of your size, Swara.”

“If one is given a gift from the gods, one should put it to good use, don’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. I do suppose so.” He brushed back his mane with a hand. “You’ve unintentionally succeeded in that anyway, you know. I told the medic girl I’d stay here tonight to watch over you.”

“While I am sure it is in part due to a guilty conscience, you have a bigger heart than you would like to admit, William.” She closed her eyes, her voice fading to a tired whisper. “Do not be offended if I hope your company does punish you by reassigning you here.”

He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms. “As you say,” he grunted, “I might get used to it.”

March 2003