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(Realm of Elysia)

Coming to the end of the bamboo forest, Bren and Desere emerged together into an open field full of green grass topped by poppy-like red flowers. The sky above, a soft violet hue, seemed to bring out their color strongly. However, neither woman noticed the heavens for the sight before them. Gasping and standing for a long moment, Bren looked upon an Asian woman standing before the biggest animal she’d ever seen. The shoulders of the large bear was fully twice as tall as the lady. Far from being scary, the black and white creature seemed docile, pleasant, as the woman offered it a long, green, leafy bamboo branch.

Brenzel, looking at the scene, said, “Panda?”

“Yes,” Des said softly.

The woman, noticing the two friends, waved them over, smiling.

Desere, tugging at the back of Bren’s dress to get her attention, said, “Bren, Pandas are Truth Sayers. They never lie, and no one can tell a lie in their presence. Just so you know.”

Brenzel, half listening to her friend, moved forward towards the strange sight. As she came nearer, an odd feeling of inner peace took hold of her.

The huge animal sat back like a giant teddy bear on a child’s bed and, taking the bamboo branch, began stripping the leaves.

I’m Ling

I’m Ling, both women heard the Panda say in their minds as she studied them.

Looking up into her furry face, Bren thought the bear almost seemed to smile.

“I’m Brenzel Marie Finnegan,” Bren said, as she resisted the urge to hug the Panda’s large foot that came up almost to her midriff.

Desere, standing slightly behind Bren said, “I’m Desere of Aukum.”

The woman, still smiling, bowed and took her leave.

Don’t worry Desere of Aukum, there is nothing to fear here. I want to talk with Brenzel, the giant Panda said in Desere and Bren’s minds.

Bren thought to herself, Fear? When do people ever have fear in Elysia?

“Thank you,” Des said, bowing, stepping further behind her friend.

She is pretty, Ming, Ling said, you definitely owe me two cookies.

Yes, yes, I will give them, another voice answered.

Do you know Guanyin?

Brenzel, feeling totally at ease, asked, “Are you from Tian, do you know Guanyin?”

Oh yes, we know her, we know her long time. Ming said in Brenzel’s mind as he lumbered up and sat by Ling. Ling, offering part of her bamboo branch to him said, Ming is my Mate, he loves me.

Ming, looking at Ling, said, It’s true, I love her forever, she is beautiful, don’t you think?

Their big round faces looked at one another, then back at Bren, and their thoughts spake in unison, Do you love The Traveler?

Bren, startled by the change of subject and their directness, found she couldn’t even muster up a shred of embarrassment before confessing, “If you mean Joshua, yes, very much.”

Desere, knowing who Traveler was, looked at her friend in astonishment, but kept quiet.

Do you want to be his mate? Do you want to have his children? Ling and Ming said together.

“Of course,” Bren said with equal honesty, while dying inside.

I like her

Good, I like her, Ming said rolling over on his back.

You will make a good mate for The Traveler, we like the match, they said at the same time, voices melding into one another.

Brenzel, realizing too late the magnitude of what Desere had warned of, stood totally disarmed. Having her true heart about Joshua revealed in such a matter-of-fact fashion didn’t seem to bother her at all. Even the slight embarrassment she felt was dimmed by a feeling of no shame. In fact, the only thing she wanted to do was nuzzle into Ming’s belly as he lay on the carpet of grass. Bren felt as though she could and would tell them anything, even though a small part of her thrashed about helplessly, trying to break free of their warm, fuzzy feelings.

You must come back and visit with us and Guanyin in Tian, Brenzel of Eden, Ling said, we would love to show you our home.

“Thank you, that would be lovely,” Bren said, then found herself asking, “May I bring my friend, Desere?”

Looking at the Fire Dancer, who remained motionless and barely breathing, Ming said after a brief pause, Of course dear, your friends are our friends.

I know you want to

Rolling over slightly more, Ming said, Come on, Brenzel of Eden, hug my tummy, I know you want to!

It was true, looking at Ming’s white belly of velvety fur she did want to hug him and took his suggestion seriously. Coming close, she stretched out her arms and melted into his warm, soft fur. Cooing like a dove, her face buried, Brenzel exclaimed, “You are soooo soft!”

Chuckling, Ming said, You’re welcome.

After a long blissful hug, Des took Bren’s hand gingerly, thanked the Pandas and led her friend away, back towards the bamboo forest.

As the girls walked, the Pandas’ effect gradually lessened. With every step, Bren turned a brighter shade of red. Looking at Des, she pleaded, “Oh my God, please, please don’t tell anyone what I said about Traveler!”

Des, stopping to hug her, said, “Don’t worry, I know what it is to experience Pandas, your secret’s safe with me.”

“Swear it!” Bren demanded.

“You mean promise?”

“Yes, swear it! Please Des, if you care for me, swear that you won’t tell a soul about this.

“I promise,” Desere finally said with a very serious look on her face.

As they walked, all Bren could say over and over with her hand on her forehead, was, “Oh my God! I can’t believe I said that!”

Picnic at Borghese

(Vatican City, 1690)

A half dozen well-armed guards stood a fair distance away, hidden slightly by the shrubbery of the magnificent garden. From its zenith, the sun slowly slipped towards evening, into what would surely be a pleasant afternoon. The house of Borghese graciously allowed Cardinal Lambert and family to picnic in the relative safety of their large estate and gardens.

Fiammetta, now beginning to show, played and laughed with the boys as Tim leaned back on a blanket and watched his unexpected family.

What a strange life, he thought, finishing a Canestrelli biscuit. From a fatherless boy, to a feared Cardinal, to father-to-be. . . I could never have guessed. Thinking back through his life, Timothy marveled that this moment was possible at all. Inducted into The Order at a young and tender age, initiated into it’s cabal as if born to it, playing the role of agent for “Her Majesty,” while secretly passing information to the The Faithful, and now this: A family man.

For the love of a good woman

A wife, two children, with one on the way, suddenly made Tim feel that his life was full of meaning and beauty. Looking at Fiammetta, he knew that she was the center of his world and always would be. As ruthless as he’d been forced to be in order to protect his true motives from Cardinal Jenkins, he knew deep in his heart, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to protect his family.

Coming away from the boys, Fiammetta sat down next to Tim, winded, but happy.

“Thank you darling, for bringing us here, the boys and I are having so much fun.”

“My pleasure,” Tim said as he took her hand and held it. “How are you feeling?”

“I feel well. A little tired, but this baby seems to agree with me. I’m all right,” her eyes smiled, feeling loved by his concern.


From the side, Tim noticed one his guards approaching, and he stood, moving off a little ways to meet him.

“Cardinal, forgive me, but a messenger has come.”

Irritated, Tim said, “I instructed that I was not to be disturbed.”

“My apologies, but Cardinal Jenkins summons you, he says it is urgent.”

Sighing, Tim said, “Of course, send word that I will meet with him shortly.” Then added, “Tell your men to be on alert, allow no one else to approach.”

“Yes, Father.”

Turning, and putting a smile on his face, Tim gathered his small family and they rode off in the carriage towards their villa. Though Tim tried to be present and congenial, Fiammetta sensed something troubled him. Holding his arm, she lay her head on his broad shoulders as the carriage wheels clattered over the uneven cobblestone.

The long walk

Safely at home, Fiammetta and Maria tended to the children as Tim made his way towards the Vatican. Donning his official attire, he walked down the long candlelit hall towards the Cardinal’s quarters, for it was late.

Knocking, Tim waited.

After some time, the door creaked open, revealing the ancient man who looked even more dower than usual.

“Enter,” he said curtly.

“Yes, Father,” Tim replied. Looking around, nothing much had changed in over 40 years. The same books on dusty shelves, his desk with a plate of apples, and that old chair all reminded him of his life as a young servant to the old man before him.

“Please, sit down, Cardinal Lambert.”

Not knowing what new problem the Order faced, Tim sat, looking at the old man speculatively.

After a long pause, Jenkins said, with his most serious voice of an old, serious man.

“How far along is she.”