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Bunny woke up in her room at the Turning Leaves, a very worried Wilson at her bedside and an older, silver-haired version of Amy sitting beside her. She tried to focus on the woman. "Aunt Kiva?"
The woman smiled at her. "Good to see you awake. I was worried whatever junk they put in your food was poisoned but that doesn't seem the case."
Bunny sat up. "Where's Uncle Anthony?"
"Drinking downstairs." She smiled at Wilson. "Our host feels so bad that he let Anthony sample his private stock."
Wilson bowed stiffly. "I do apologize for this regretful incident."
"No worries, honey." Kiva turned her smile on him. "We'll meet you downstairs."
He took the hint and left them alone.
Kiva leaped up as soon as the door was closed and moved soundlessly to the door. She checked it quickly while talking loudly. "We've an invite from an elvish noblewoman to play at some dinner party. She heard we were here and was just so very excited." Her hands traced a pattern. Get dressed quickly. Don't talk about anything until we're sure no one's listening. "Let's go get a glass of Wilson's best wine before he comes to his senses and cuts us off."
Bunny slipped out of bed and pulled on her pants. Her hands moved quickly. Understood. How did you find me? "Yeah, good point. Let me find my boots."
Long story. "Look under your bed, doofus." Don't answer any questions.
"Got them!" Bunny said brightly.
Kiva shook her head. "Subtle you are not, my girl. C'mon."

Kiva turned heads when they entered the common room. Bunny grinned as Kiva stopped a conversation between two elves on her way. They went to the bar where a brown-haired man made colored lights dance for the awestruck barmaid. The lights became butterflies and disappeared in a glittering shower. He bowed, grinning at her applause and hugged Kiva. "My one and only!" He kissed her then hugged Bunny tightly. "My dear girl! Come! Let's drink on someone else's tab! Always makes the wine better."
"Hi, Uncle Anthony." Bunny let him lead her to a table in the corner, Kiva on his arm.
They settled around the table, the still-awestruck barmaid bringing glasses, a bottle of wine and some bits of pastry on a plate dusted with powdered sugar. Anthony sighed at the plate. "I miss Tag's cooking."
"Are you heading back to Tilldae? I know Amy misses you both." Bunny snagged a pastry between two fingers.
"We were on our way back." Kiva poured wine in the glasses. "Thought we'd spend the winter at home for a change."
"After this performance for Lady Abigail, we'll be on our way." Anthony sipped his wine and smiled. "I do adore Wilson's taste in wine."
Kiva sipped hers and sighed. "Too right. Man has good taste for an elf." She gestured with her glass. "You will be joining us, won't you? Not every day you get to wander in the Kingdom."
Bunny nibbled the pastry. "Of course, after all you did save me in the stables. Only right I return the favor."
A barmaid approached their table shyly, several giggling and urging her on. "Are you a bard, sir?"
"Of course!" he smiled, which stirred up fresh giggles.
"Would you play for us, sir?" The elvin girl was very nearly purple.
"With pleasure." Anthony swung the lute on his back around and started to play, singing softly as he walked slowly to the fireplace gathering attention on his way. He touched a woman's hair and made a flower bloom behind her ear.
"This is why we never pay for rooms or meals." Kiva whispered to Bunny.
He took a piece of bread from a plate and threw it in the air, the crowd gasping when it turned into a bird and shattered into bits of colored light. "I can see why." Bunny joined the applause. "He's learned a few new tricks."
Kiva leaned closer to Bunny. "We're puzzled as to why you've been attacked. None of the attempts were successful which makes me wonder who we're dealing with. I'm a little worried for your safety."
"Mine?" Bunny stared at her. "Why me? I'm just a ranger from Tilldae on some errands."
Kiva shook her head. "You, my dear girl, are Bunny English, ranger from Tilldae which is a town full of people with unique skills. You also were in on that rather infamous blowout in Novembertown. You tread the line between infamous and known. For all we know, someone's trying to impress you." She shrugged and drank some wine. "I hope they're not actually trying to do you harm. I'd hate to have to punch someone." She examined a pastry, glancing at Anthony as he started playing a drinking song. "I figure if they're elves, they'll follow us into the Kingdom. If they're human, they'll either go the hell away or wait until we come out."
"It's as good of a plan as we can get, I suppose." Bunny shrugged.
"Besides," Kiva grinned. "You'll get to wear a dress."
"No. The last time I wore a dress, I got in a sword fight." Bunny grinned. "No thanks."

"I honestly expected this trip to be a bit more magical," Bunny commented as she accepted an apple from Kiva.
She was currently riding side by side with Kiva, Anthony behind them. All three wore plain traveling clothes and had taken great pains to look as average as they could. Kiva shrugged. "If you want some excitement, I could drop my invitation. Then we could spend a lovely afternoon lost in the woods until the Gaurd came to get us."
"Can we not and say we did?" Anthony suggested.
"Invitation?" Bunny bit into her apple. "How does this work?"
Kiva reached into her shirt and pulled out a leather thong with a ceramic pendant. "This tells the woods we belong here. Also, it gets warm when we deviate from the path."
Bunny looked around at the pale, leafless trees around them. "I can't find any animal tracks. No signs of life at all."
"Magic, my dear." Anthony yawned. "I can see it all over everything."
Kiva tucked the pendant back into her shirt. "Relax, Bun-bun. We'll be at Dux Ducis in about an hour."
"Okay." Bunny finished her apple and started to throw it into the trees.
"Don't!" Kiva called out. "Stick it in a pouch or something. Leave nothing on the trail."
"It's an apple core," she protested. "The animals eat it!"
"It's littering." Kiva tensed and jerked her head forward.
Bunny shoved her apple core into a pouch and urged her horse on faster. She got in front of Kiva, hand close to her sword. Kiva stretched, reaching for her throwing knives hidden in her sleeves. Anthony juggled what appeared to be glass balls.
The trees in front of them seemed to separate, allowing six elves on horseback wearing maroon and gray tunics over chainmail to block the path. None wore weapons but the three humans didn't drop their guard. "Sir Anthony and his lady Kiva, Lady Abigail sends her regards and wishes us to accompany you through the city."
"Lovely," Kiva said, completing her stretch and patting her horse. "An honor guard, I suppose?"
"Maybe to keep back my adoring fans," Anthony gave his balls one last toss before putting them away.
Bunny and Kiva shared an eyeroll then followed the elves.

Dux Ducis reminded Bunny of a dream she had once after a spicy meal at Ogre's. The cobblestone streets were full of elves, some carrying baskets and others using parasols to keep the sunlight filtered from the canopy of trees above them from touching their milk-white skin. Children moved by in howling, laughing packs of colored robes, drawing smiles from their elders. The buildings were round, made of white washed earthen works with roofs tiled in terracotta slates. Some had flat roofs with garden blooming despite the winter chill. The guards led them past the town square where merchants hawked wares from carts set around a stone fountain. The street was blocked by a high metal fence painted brown. One guard touched the gate and stood back as it swung open. The party rode their horses through the gate which closed gently behind them.
A cluster of mansions graced the street, series of platforms made of glass and wood set high in trees connected by bridges that seemed to grow from tree to tree. Another street branched out, disappearing into the trees but Bunny could see faint lights. "The castle," Kiva whispered before she could ask.
The guards stopped at one mansion and servants rushed out to collect their horses. An elvin woman in a plain dress with her hair in a braid greeted them. "Welcome, good people! My name is Zelda, I am Lady Abigail's majordomo."
"YOU!" came a startled child's shout.
The boy from town hurled himself at Bunny and clung to her in a fierce hug. "I'm so glad you've come! But how?" His face was a mixture of awe and excitement.
Bunny jerked a thumb at Anthony. "He's my uncle."
"Oh." The boy let go of her and grabbed Zelda's hand. "Mom, this is the lady who gave me the sugar sculpture!"
Zelda's face lit up. "She's gorgeous! You must tell me how to do that!" She collected herself. "But first, I must see that you are settled comfortably." She put her arm through Bunny's and led the rest to a platform near the base of the biggest tree. "We have to talk. That was so beautiful and I couldn't figure out how it was done!"
Bunny shrugged. "I'm not the chef. Tag made that one. I was supposed to sell it but he'll rather it went to someone who appreciates it."
"I must learn this skill..." Zelda waited until everyone was on the platform before tugging on a cord. The platform rose slowly. "Would he teach me?"
"You'd have a hard time shutting him up," Kiva said with a laugh. "Leave it to Tag to upstage Anthony."
Bunny grinned and enjoyed the sight of the guards becoming smaller as they moved higher.
The platform came to a smooth stop at a platform where an elf woman in elaborate robe, her golden hair loose. She smiled at them and gracefully courtesied. "Welcome to my home!" Her smile evaporated when she saw Bunny. "Who is this person, Zelda? I invited two, not three."
"She is Miss Kiva's maid and can help me in the kitchen, ma'am," Zelda said matter-of-fact.
"Oh." Abigail's smile returned but seemed tight at the edges. "Very well. Will you have someone show them to their quarters? I have some things to discuss with you."
"Of course." Zelda touched her son's head. "Joseph, would you show our guests to their rooms?"
"Yes, ma'am!" He bowed to the humans. "This way, please."
Zelda trailed after Abigail, turning her head to wink at Kiva before they left the platform and disappeared into the house. Joseph covered his mouth to stop from giggling. Kiva offered her hand. "Would you believe this is my first time sleeping in a treehouse?"
"Really?" He took her hand. "It's like any other house, only in a tree. I'll show you."
The house looked as if it was a part of the tree, the exterior the same color as the bark. The windows were the only indication that it wasn't a part of the forest. Joseph held open the heavy wooden door and let them enter.
Inside was minimalistic, the walls painted a lighter shade than the bark. The floor was wood but had tree rings and the ceiling had what looked like branches and leaves with a cluster of glowing berries lighting the room. A set of high-backed chairs, a chaise lounge and a stiff-looking loveseat held court around a low round table made of glass. Furs were draped artfully over the chairs. "The sitting room," Joseph informed them as he closed the front door. "This is where Lady Abigail receives visitors." He grinned at them. "C'mon, there's more... This is the formal room."
He led them through an archway to a large room with a long glass table with chairs made of some darker wood surrounding it. An unobtrusive door was placed in a far corner of the otherwise round room. Windows gave the illusion of being outside. Double glass doors seemed to lead to a platform outside big enough to set the sitting room and the formal room on it and have space to spare. More glowing berries lit the formal room and clusters formed a ring over the platform outside.
"Here is where the family has their meals and is where Mi'lady will be having her dinner party." He pointed at the platform. "That is where they would be sitting if it were warmer." He walked to the door in the corner. "This is the kitchen."
He swung the door open and they walked into a room that was almost hot. Tables, foodstuffs, and a roaring fire greeted them. Zelda was discussing something in the language Joseph had used with Bunny with a man in an apron. He nodded and wiped his hands on his apron and went back to chopping vegetables. She smiled at them. "Welcome! Jo, this is not their quarters."
"But Mom! Miss Kiva had never slept in a treehouse before!"
She shrugged. "I guess if the question comes, we can say Anthony needed to see where he would be performing." She took a basket from a table. "I was going to your quarters to offer some refreshments so I will just walk with you."
Joseph frowned. "Mom, just say you're not pleased with me." She smiled and nudged him.
They walked back through the formal room and the sitting room to the landing platform. A suspension bridge rose gently from the platform to another platform in a tree then split into four, each leading to clusters of platforms. All were lit by the glowing berries. "These are our quarters." Zelda led the way across the bridge.
"What are these berries I see everywhere?" Bunny asked.
"They're called moon berries. They only grow up high." She reached out and picked a cluster, handing it to Bunny. "They give us light in the evening and provide a constant temperature."
"They're warm!" Kiva exclaimed when Bunny handed her the cluster. The berries flickered and went dark.
"You killed them," Anthony teased.
"Moon berries are a parasite." Zelda took them toward a cluster of platforms father than the others. "They do not harm the tress and absorb the sun's light."
"Neat." Bunny said with a nod. "Wish I could take some home."
The platform had steps leading to miniature replicas of the house. Zelda opened the door to one. "These are your quarters."
Inside was a small living area with an over stuffed couch and a table. Area rugs graced the floor. A ladder had been built into the wall, leading to a loft. Glowing crystals filled a bowl on the low table and a paper lamp hung from the ceiling. "Adorable!" Kiva declared and immediately crawled up the ladder.
Zelda smiled in relief and sat on the couch. Joseph pulled cushions from under the table and sat on one, patting the other and looking at Bunny. Bunny had a seat, Anthony settled next to Zelda. "So... when is everything happening?"
Zelda paused. "Dinner will be served at dusk. You will be performing before and after dinner, with other musicians providing music during which would give you the chance to sit at the table and entertain the guests with your wit and charm."
Kiva snorted from the loft.
"Pipe down up there," Anthony said with a laugh. "Kiva and Bunny play fairly well. They can take over during my break."
"Really?!" Bunny squealed and bounced on her cushion.
"Oh, the sarcasm!" Anthony rolled his eyes.
Zelda smiled. "I am looking forward to tomorrow evening." She stood up and gestured to Joseph. "Come, we have a long day tomorrow."
He made a face. "But I had questions!"
"You can ask them while you and Bunny work together in the kitchen."
He looked to Bunny for confirmation, smiling as she nodded. "Okay!"
They said good night, Zelda and Joseph closing the door behind them.
"Something's up." Kiva's voice drifted down from the loft. "Can't put my finger on it."
Anthony shrugged. "We'll just have to keep our eyes open." He kissed Bunny on top of the head. "Good night, niece."
She stood up and hugged him. "Good night, uncle."
He went up the ladder, leaving her to curl on the couch under a colorful patchwork quilt. "How does one turn off crystals?" grumbled Bunny before her eyes closed.

The Great Room's table had been set with the finest white linen table cloth and set with bone white china and silver tableware. Crystal goblets had been arranged beside each place, hothouse flowers arranged in silver bowls on the table. The guests, dressed in their finest, made polite noises over the dinner and to each other. Lord Terrence sat at the head of the table with Lady Abigail to his left. Anthony sat on his right, position of honored guest. Bunny and Kiva played music softly in the corner while servants cleared the dishes.
"Mother!" Jordon stood up and held up his wine glass. "I have an announcement!"
Kiva nudged Bunny and the two stopped playing. Zelda, holding open the door for the servants bearing dessert trays, waved them back.
Abigail folded her hands and looked at him. "Very well."
He grabbed Annalisa, one of the servants collecting plates, by the hand. "We will be leaving tonight! We are in love and she is carrying my child!"
His mother's face became a smooth mask. Terrence dropped his fork. "Would you care to explain?" she said carefully.
"We have kept our relationship secret for a year and now she bears my child." He touched her stomach tenderly.
Annalisa pulled away from him. "Um, Jordon, I don't want to leave."
"What?" He reached for her but she stepped back. "I thought you loved me!"
"I don't." She shrugged. "I'm sorry."
Abigail slammed her hands on the table. "You just want our money, is that is harlot?"
"No," Annalisa took a step backwards. "I gave my notice to Miss Zelda. I'm going back to my parents' home to raise my baby."
"Which is also mine!" Jordon roared. "That is MY child as well and I won't have you neglecting it's education!"
She drew herself up. "You, sir, forget yourself. Children belong to their mothers. Perhaps when you get your own head out of your ass, I'll let you meet your child. Until then," she shrugged. "You can pick up your own dishes. I'm done."
She left the room in stunned silence. Jordon raced after her, his wine glass shattering on the floor. Abigail covered her face with her hands while Terrence rubbed her arm and muttered something only she could hear.
Guests left in muttering groups of two and three, servants waiting until everyone had gone before clearing up the wreckage.
Zelda invited everyone in the kitchen afterwards and handed out silver dessert plates with chocolate-dipped fruits. "Since they will not be eating it I see no reason to let it go to waste."
"Good point." Kiva demolished hers and stole a strawberry from Bunny. "Lovely party, don't you think?"
Bunny shook her head. "Too much excitement for me. Give me a nice, uncomplicated bar fight over domestic nastiness."
Anthony shook a finger at her. "I'll remind you that you said that when we can't leave town for months."
"Why do I have the feeling the trip home will be just as exciting?" Bunny groaned.


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August 2011


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