The Voyage of the Minotaur – Chapter 20 Excerpt

The mood was light in Iolanthe Dechantagne’s tent. It was a bright, sunny day outside, though not too hot. A cool breeze was blowing in off the ocean. The colony had enjoyed a huge mid-day feast, and if eating the last of the fresh vegetables taken on at Enclep was not exactly a cause for celebration, at least everyone knew that they were safe from starvation. The canned food stored at the colony would last a long time, and there was still the promise of trade with the natives.

Yuah Korlann, Merced Calliere, and Phillida Marjoram sat around the desk counting ballots for the election of the Colonial Council. The paper slips upon which all adult members of the colony had written the name of their choice were divided up into piles. Though there were more than two dozen piles, one for each candidate, it was soon obvious which four piles would end up being the tallest. Calliere’s final pronouncement was a mere formality. The winners of the election and the chosen members of the Colonial Council were, in order of votes received: Zeah Korlann, Padgett Kelloran, Dudley Labrith, and in a surprise, a young Freedonian woman named Honor Hertling.

“Lovely,” said Iolanthe. “I was sure that Zeah and Dr. Kelloran would be elected, but I’m surprised at the wizard. Does anyone know this Hertling person?”

Yuah and Calliere both shook their heads.

“I believe I know of her,” said Mrs. Marjoram. “A dark-haired young woman, if I’m not mistaken. Pretty, in that Zaeri sort of way. I believe she’s known for her work helping the sick on that ship of theirs. No doubt that’s why she was chosen.”

“So she’s from the Acorn?” asked Iolanthe, ignoring Yuah’s look of shock at Mrs. Marjoram.

“Yes, if she’s whom I’m thinking of.” The woman seemed oblivious of the effect of her words.

“Excellent. One more chance to get the Freedonians integrated into our society. Before long, nobody will know they weren’t born Brechs.”

“Hmph,” said Mrs. Marjoram, but didn’t openly correct her.

“So it will be myself, Terrence and Augie, whoever replaces Father Ian, Zurfina, and these four. I think we can work with that.

“Yuah, why don’t you go bring your father in here? Mrs. Marjoram, would you be so kind to see if you can locate this Miss Hertling? And Mercy, perhaps I can persuade you to bring Dr. Kelloran.”

Twenty minutes later the three of them had returned with the three newly elected leaders of the colony, Wizard Labrith, of course being on the military mission with the Iolanthe’s two brothers, was not present. Zeah looked every bit the senior statesman, tall and straight in his charcoal suit. Dr. Kelloran on the other hand looked tired and drawn. Though still nicely dressed and stylishly coifed, she had lost weight since arriving in Birmisia and had dark circles under her eyes.

The young woman who arrived with them was, if not beautiful, certainly striking in appearance. She was so thin that Iolanthe thought her figure might have been mistaken for that of a boy without a corset and bustle. Her wavy black hair reached well past her shoulders, and framed a cute face with a small nose and extremely large, sad eyes. Her olive skin was far more tanned than was considered fashionable, no doubt due to the lengthy journey from Freedonia, and she had a deep scar across her left cheek down to her chin.

“Miss Hertling, I presume,” said Iolanthe, stepping forward to shake hands.

No sooner had she taken the young woman’s hand than a dozen gunshots rang out in the distance. It was obvious that they came from beyond the protective wall. Iolanthe broke into a broad smile.

“Wonderful,” she said. “Zeah, it looks as though we will be having a celebration tonight.”

“Yes, Miss. A welcome one.”

A young soldier burst into the tent, running into the back of Miss Hertling, and knocking her forward. She would have fallen completely to the floor had not Professor Calliere caught her.

“Kafira’s eyes!” snapped Iolanthe. “Don’t you know how to knock?”

“Sorry ma’am,” said the soldier, nervously. “Sergeant Clark’s compliments, ma’am. There is a large force of lizardmen approaching from the southeast. The sergeant has already called for all troops to man the ramparts. And the lizardmen have rifles, ma’am.”

“Where the hell did they get rifles?” wondered Calliere.

“From our troops,” said Iolanthe, gravely. “How many lizardmen are there?”

“We don’t know, at least a thousand.”

“Tell the sergeant to hold the wall,” she ordered. The soldier then ran out of the tent. Turning to the women, she said, “Thirty-five men aren’t going to hold the wall for long. Get everyone moving. We’re evacuating out to the end of the peninsula.”

His Robot Wife – Chapter 1 Excerpt

Mike Smith first noticed the bright blue sign on his sixth circuit around the indoor jogging track. It was Thursday and he came every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning to jog twenty-five laps. Twenty-five laps equaled two miles. The sign was in somebody’s yard. That’s why he noticed it. It wasn’t an advertisement like the ones on businesses you could see from the other side of the track. It was bright blue and it had yellow writing and some kind of picture. The seventh lap around, he tried to make out the three large words at the top. It looked like they said “stop the perverts.” The next lap, he looked again. Now he was sure that it said “stop the perverts,” but what did it say below that? He strained his eyes but after three more laps, he couldn’t make out the smaller words below.

He put it out of his mind and instead watched the people on the track with him as he ran. There were two girls in their late teens or early twenties who both looked too chubby to be jogging. Never the less, they lapped him about every fourth circuit. There were eight or ten people walking, mostly in pairs. But one little old man was walking quite fast, about half as fast as Mike was jogging, and he constantly leaned to the left. Mike was sure he was going to just fall right over sooner or later. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Mike hit the finish line and immediately dropped his speed, walking over to get a towel and a bottle of water. Remembering the sign, he walked to the back wall of the running track and looked down over the neighborhood. There was the sign. He pressed his forehead against the hot glass and squinted. “Stop the perverts. Vote yes on 22.” Or was that thirty three?

Wiping his face and finishing his water, Mike walked back to the cubbyhole and picked up his texTee. “What is California proposition twenty-two?” The screen immediately came to life and began playing a news story. “Just let me read it.” The video dissolved into a page of text. “Blah blah blah. Supporters include blah blah blah. The proposition will amend the state constitution to define a person as a biological entity, preventing robots seeking redress for blah blah blah. Blah blah blah essentially an anti-robot marriage proposal. What? If this amendment is passed it will prohibit the state of California from acknowledging the marriages between humans and robots currently being performed in four states.

“Son of a bitch.”

Hopping down the stairs with much more energy than he usually had after jogging, Mike crossed the blistering parking lot and climbed into his Chevy, letting the cool air wash over him before he turned on the ignition. He counted it as a blessing that all cars now had auto-cooled interiors. He wouldn’t want to have to wait for the cool air. He pulled out of the parking lot and drove up the street, turning left into the neighboring block so that he could get a better look at the blue sign. But it took him several minutes to find the correct house. Finally he stopped in front of the one featuring the placard. “Stop the perverts. Vote yes on 22.” Beneath the words was a stick figure diagram, the kind used on street signs, of what looked like a man trying to have sex with a toaster. Mike thought about getting out of his car and ripping the sign out of the ground, but he saw the face of a little old lady looking out at him through the blinds.

“Assholes,” he said, and slammed his foot on the gas pedal. The car sped away, but failed to make the screeching tire noise that he was hoping for.

His house at 11 North Willow was a five minute drive from the track, which was not nearly enough time for Mike to calm down before he pulled into the driveway. Then on his way from the car to the front door, he tripped over the yardbot, which was busy pulling gnarled desert weeds from between the red brick stepping stones. Finally, the front door lock seemed to take forever to recognize him and allow him to enter the cool interior of the house.

“The world is going to hell,” he growled as he kicked off his track shoes. “Literally. It is literally as hot as hell outside.”

“Here you go, Mike.” Patience was suddenly beside him, with a towel in one hand and a tall glass of ice water in the other.

She looked as perfect as she had the day she came out of the box. Big blue eyes, a cute little button nose, and that slender, curvy body; all of which were just outside the possibilities of a real human form. She stood there with a smile not only on her lips but radiating from her eyes as well.

“What are you so happy about?” He took the towel and wiped the back of his neck and then took several long gulps from the water glass.

“I’m happy that you’re home. Why don’t you sit down and cool off for six and one half minutes, then you can take a nice cool shower.” Patience turned and glided down the hallway to the kitchen.

The Voyage of the Minotaur – Chapter 19 Excerpt

Terrence followed his gaze and saw spread out across the savannah, a line of lizardmen. They were so well camouflaged that they blended right into the rising landscape behind them. They stretched out to the left and the right so far that they created a half circle around the humans, and this at a distance of more than a mile. Many of the lizardmen were painted red and white and black, and most wore feathers. Most also carried the swords, made of wood and flint, that the men had seen before.

“Kafira,” said one of the soldiers. “There must be a thousand of them.”

“More like five thousand,” said Labrith.

“Talk to them,” said Terrence to Augie, indicating the two lizardmen with them. “Find out if these are our friends or the enemies.”

Augie hissed. Sarkkik hissed back. Augie translated.

“We know of your people. Though it is far away, we know of your people living in Mallontah. We know how they have enslaved the natives there. We know you intend to do this here. We have shown you to Suusthek.”

“What does that mean?” asked Terrence. “We have shown you to Suusthek.”

“Oh, sorry. My mistake,” said Augie. “Not ‘show’. It’s ‘delivered’. ‘We have delivered you to Suusthek’. Oh, that doesn’t sound good.”

“We have dealt with you in good faith,” said Terrence.

“Your blood runs warm. You cannot be trusted. We have heard your talk. Szuss can hear your speech. He hears how you want to rule the land.”

“Bugger!” shouted Terrence.

Sarkkik hissed again.

“He says ‘now you die’,” translated Augie.

Terrence turned around and walked two steps then turned around again. Then he pulled out his .45 revolver and shot Sarkkik in the head. It seemed as if the reptilian would fall backwards for a moment, but this was prevented by his tail. He rocked back, then from one side to the other, and then collapsed in a heap. Before Sarkkik had hit the ground, Terrence had fired a second time, and Szuss had a hole through his skull as well. He fell forward onto his alligator-like face.

More than a mile away, a deep rumbling sound rose up. It was a low gurgling, growling noise. It came from the massive army of lizardmen and it grew louder and louder as five thousand warriors joined in.

“Formation!” shouted Augie. “Get into formation!”

The soldiers rushed to form two lines, one behind the other, ninety men wide. The formation looked pathetically small compared to the line of reptilians that dominated the landscape.

“First rank, kneeling positions!”

The front row of soldiers knelt. The rear row stayed standing.

“Fix bayonets!”

Each soldier pulled a wicked looking dagger from a sheath on his belt and attached the six and three quarter inch blade to the end of his rifle.

The throaty sound of the lizardmen continued for several minutes. Suddenly and seemingly without a signal, it stopped. Then like a wave moving from the ocean onto the beach, the lizards surged forward. They moved quickly, at a sort of slithering trot, brandishing their stone-encrusted swords as they came. And they were silent—eerily silent.

“Ready!” called Augie. “Aim!”

“Fire!”

The one hundred eighty soldiers fired their rifles in unison and more than a hundred reptiles fell to the ground. The hole created in their moving line quickly filled in with others of their kind, and kept moving forward.

“Ready! Aim! Fire!”

The soldiers fired again, and another hundred reptile warriors fell. Running headlong into thundering death, the lizardmen directly in front of the humans began to falter, while to either side, they surged forward. Terrence had holstered his pistol and pulled the .30 caliber rifle from his shoulder.

“Uuthanum rechthinov uluchaiia,” said Labrith, and a lightning bolt, beginning at his fingertip, spread out shooting through the bodies of a dozen reptile warriors.

“Fire at will!” shouted Augie. The soldiers began to pick their own targets.

“Watch your flanks!” he shouted. Fanning out slightly on either side, the humans began firing on the lizardmen coming in from the sides.

“Uuthanum beithbechnoth,” said Labrith, and a missile of magical energy darted from his fingertip, striking one of the lizards square in the chest, killing him. A half second later a second magical dart shot forth, and then a third.

Seconds later similar magic missiles shot from the lizardmen’s lines, hitting two of the soldiers. Terrence aimed his rifle in the direction from which they had come. The reptiles had their own magic user. He was easy to spot too. Unlike the others whose greenish skin was painted black or red, he was covered in blue. Terrence shot him through the throat.

Suddenly the lizardmen stopped coming and dropped down into the tall grass. So sudden and so well coordinated was the move that it seemed that they had just vanished into thin air.

“Hold your fire!” shouted Augie. “Are they crawling? Watch the grass!”

His Robot Girlfriend – Free at Smashwords

Mike Smith’s life was crap, living all alone, years after his wife had died and his children had grown up and moved away. Then he saw the commercial for the Daffodil. Far more than other robots, the Daffodil could become anything and everything he wanted it to be. Mike’s life is about to change.

His Robot Girlfriend is available free wherever fine ebooks are found.  You can download it free in a variety of ebook formats at Smashwords.

The Voyage of the Minotaur – Chapter 18 Excerpt

Many people on the shore were watching as the two ships steamed out of the bay and no doubt many people had many different emotions flowing around within them at the sight. Some might have felt frightened with the realization that their last tenuous lifeline to the world of civilization was now severed. Some might have been excited that the challenge of taming the new world was now theirs and theirs alone to pursue. Zeah Korlann didn’t know what he felt. He didn’t have time to dwell upon any feelings however, he had plenty to do.

By the time the sun set that evening, he had accomplished quite a bit. He had arranged for new work details for the former Freedonians. Like the colonists who had arrived eight days before them, these individuals would be expected to provide six months of service to the colony. After that, they could purchase land and begin whatever lives they wished. That was the theory, anyway. He had also overseen the clearing of the first bit of forest outside the protective wall. The first shops and stores would be built here hopefully, when that six month period had ended. Zeah looked forward to visiting a bakery there. Inside the walls, they had finished constructing a large smokehouse. And finally, that afternoon, the colony’s first fishing boat had floated out into the bay.

Zeah had two stops to make after dinner and before he went back to his own apartment. The first was to the headquarters tent of Miss Dechantagne. He would have gone to report to her in any case, but he felt doubly obligated to stop because the Royal Colonial Governor was alone. Her brothers had left at first light the day before with one hundred eighty soldiers and accompanied by a half dozen reptilian aborigines. Their mission was to elevate one of the local chiefs to dominance, and at the same time show off modern Brech firepower—put the fear of God into the locals, let them know who was the boss. Nobody expected stone spear equipped lizardmen to be able to face the power of four platoons of riflemen, and both brothers had spent their time in the army. Still, it was a combat mission, and things could happen.

Knocking on the tent pole that served as a doorjamb, he was rewarded with a “Come in.”

Miss Dechantagne was not alone. Zeah’s daughter Yuah was in the tent. She was sitting in one of the folding chairs in front of Miss Dechantagne’s massive desk and Miss Dechantagne herself was sitting in the heavy oak swivel chair behind it. The two women were sipping cups of tea.

“Hello Papa,” said his daughter, standing up to kiss him on the cheek.

“Good evening. I didn’t expect to find you here.”

“We were just having tea,” said Miss Dechantagne. “Would you like some?”

Only Zeah’s carefully regulated composure allowed him to reply without stuttering. Miss Dechantagne inviting him to tea? The heat must have somehow addled her.

“No, thank you. I just wanted to check in and let you know that everything is on schedule.”

“I’m quite excited about the smokehouse, myself,” said Yuah. “Mrs. Colbshallow is already planning sausages.”

Zeah looked at his daughter with a raised eyebrow. It seemed that the governor was not the only one who had lost her mind. Yuah was sipping tea and making small talk with Miss Dechantagne.

“Thank you Zeah,” said the governor. “I’m pleased to see that our new arrivals are proving to be more of an asset than a hindrance.”

“Indeed.” Zeah stood for a moment

“You should go get some rest.”

“Very well. Good night.” He nodded to the women and stepped out the tent flap. The two women laughed. Zeah shook his head and walked off.

His second stop was to see Egeria Lusk. She had completely recovered from her wounds at the hands of an unknown attacker and had in fact, spent much of the day supervising work on the Result Mechanism, though she had left the actual pressing of buttons and throwing of switches to someone else. He knocked on the door of her apartment and again was asked to “come in” and again found two women sitting and sipping tea. This time it was Egeria and Sister Auni, the Kafirite cleric. Sister Auni rose as he entered.

“Good evening, Mr. Korlann,” she said. “I was just leaving.”

“No need to leave on my account.”

“No, no. We’ve had a lovely talk, but now I must get back to my own room.”

“Well, good night,” he said, as he held the door open for the clergywoman.

“I’m so glad you came by,” said Egeria, once Sister Auni had left. “Please sit down.”

“Thank you. What were you two talking about?”

“Oh, life, the universe, and everything.”

“And what was her take on it.”

“We were just chatting, really,” said Egeria. “I was sorry that we didn’t get to have supper together.”

“I didn’t really have time for supper today,” said Zeah. “I was hoping that you would join me tomorrow though.”

“I would be delighted,” she smiled.

His Robot Girlfriend – Chapter 10 Excerpt

The first quarter of the school year flew by. Despite the fact that classes were larger than ever, the children were more obnoxious than ever, parents were more clueless than ever, and the administrators were more useless than ever, Mike thought that things were going pretty well. It was he mused, probably because he was one hell of a teacher. He felt more organized and prepared than he had in years and he certainly had more energy. He walked to and from school almost every day. Three days a week he went to the gym afterwards too. Each day at lunchtime, the other teachers at his table would watch him as he unpacked the carefully crafted meal that Patience had sent with him.

The students and teachers at school saw Patience only occasionally. This was not because Mike was ashamed of her, but because he remained as he had been before her arrival, essentially a homebody. They went out to dinner once a week, and Patience would provide pleasant conversation, though she didn’t eat. Most nights though, they stayed home. She fixed him a dinner more than equal to those they found at restaurants and then they usually watched a movie on vueTee. Increasingly this was followed by some sexual activity, and Patience confirmed Mike’s opinion that his libido was on the increase, though he declined her offer to graph it for him.

Mike carefully watched the unfolding election. Though he was loath to throw away his vote by choosing the Greens, in the end there was just no way he could live with himself voting for either Barlow or Wakovia. Mendoza was the right person for the job. So he resigned himself to the fact that his candidate was going to lose and put a bright green Mendoza/McPhee ’32 bumper sticker on the back of his Chevy. Then fate stepped in. In early October, a series of announcements by Ford, Gizmo, Intel, and other major manufacturers pushed the market up past 20,000 for the first time. The government’s monthly economic indicators were even better than expected and it shot up even more. Then at the end of October, President Busby announced that the Chinese had brokered a deal in which the Russians would pull out of Antarctica. The war was over and the United States and her allies had won! The first troops began arriving home November second, just two days before the election.

Patience produced a dinner of barbeque ribs and chicken, potato salad and coleslaw, and apple cobbler on election night. Harriet and Jack arrived early and they all gathered around the vueTee in the living room to watch the returns. The twenty-ninth amendment provided a national set time for elections. The polls were open from 7AM to midnight, Eastern Standard Time. Of course ninety five percent of the voters, Mike included, had voted during the previous two weeks on the internet. By law, the news outlets were not allowed to announce winners until after the polls closed. Even so, when four o’clock hit, the states on the vueTee screen began filling in with color at a remarkable pace.

Mendoza reached the required electoral votes well before the small party watching in Springdale, California had finished their meal. The Republicans took the new south—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Cuba, and the Virgin Islands. For a while it looked as though the only state to go blue would be Puerto Rico, but then after the winner had already been declared, California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Pacifica were filled in with blue. Mike’s disgust that his vote had in fact not counted, since Wakovia had won California was ameliorated by the fact that his candidate had won the election. Evelyn Mendoza would become only the second female President of the United States, having won the remaining forty three states and a whopping 407 electoral votes.

It was late that evening, after Harriet and Jack had gone home, after the talking heads on the screen had finished interviewing the winners and losers, campaign workers, and supporters, after the victory and concessions speeches, as some of the many ballot questions were being reviewed, that Mike sat bolt upright. In Massachusetts voters had passed a non-binding vote in support of their state’s governor who had earlier in the year signed an executive order allowing marriages between human beings and robots. How had he not heard about that?

“Patience?”

Her smiling head popped around the corner from the kitchen, where she was putting away the last of the dinner dishes.

“Did you know that humans and robots could get married in Massachusetts?”

“Mm-hmm,” she nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You had other things to worry about Mike. School was just starting. Besides, Massachusetts is on the other side of the country.”

“Don’t you want to get married?”

“Of course I do. Now that I know it’s what you want.”

“Why didn’t you know that before? What about Vegas?”

“What happens in…”

“Don’t say it.”

The Voyage of the Minotaur – Chapter 17 Excerpt

“Look at all these lousy zeets,” said Graham Dokkins, as he and Senta walked between the hundreds of makeshift tents on the southwest side of the hill from the barracks.

“What are zeets?” asked Senta.

“That’s what they’re called. My Da says they’re evil, and they don’t even believe in Kafira.”

“Zurfina doesn’t believe in Kafira either. I mean, not like us. She says the Church is all bullocks.”

“Yeah, well my Da says she’s evil too.”

If Senta was offended at the idea that anyone would call Zurfina evil, she didn’t let on. She bounced ahead, her skipping steps seeming to defy gravity. In one hand she carried a stick and in the other her doll. Graham stomped after her.

“Why do you gotta carry that doll everywhere?” he asked.

“Cause I’m a girl, stupid.”

They reached the edge of the tent village. Some of the women from among the Freedonian refugees had set up a series of clotheslines and were hanging up clothes. Almost every piece was black, white, or grey.

“They don’t seem any different to me,” said Senta. “Except they talk funny.”

Suddenly several of the women who had been hanging clothes began to scream and they all began to run toward the tents. Looking up, the two children saw a steel colored streak flying downward from out of the sun. The steel dragon buzzed the tops of the women’s heads and then zipped along parallel to the clothesline and with a flick of its tail, knocked every other piece of clothing from the line into the dirt. Spreading its wings out to their full six-foot breadth, it stopped in mid-air and dropped to the ground at Senta’s feet. It opened its mouth to the sky and a small puff of smoke shot out.

“Funneee,” said the dragon.

“It’s not either funny, you potty twonk. You’re going to get everyone angry, and who’s going to get in trouble? Not you. Me, that’s who.”

Despite Senta’s declaration that the dragon’s actions were not funny, Graham was laughing heartily. The dragon hopped over to his feet and rubbed his head against the boy’s leg as if to share in his mirth. Graham, still laughing, slapped his knee. The dragon suddenly bit his hand.

“Sod it!” shouted the boy, his laughter suddenly gone.

The dragon looked up in the air, with feigned innocence.

“See, now you’ve made Graham angry too,” said Senta. Both the girl and the dragon looked at the boy, who had gone all white and sweaty.

“My Da didn’t say it, but I think dragons are evil.”

“Pet,” said the dragon, in a pleading tone.

“Yeah, all right,” Senta said, fishing a small brown bottle from the pocket of her baggy black dress. “But if you bite anyone else, I’m going to need a new bottle of this.”

She poured the draught from the bottle onto the wound on Graham’s hand. The liquid bubbled and fizzed on contact with the boy’s blood, but after a few moments nothing was left of the injury but a small scar.

Senta, Graham, and the dragon looked up to see they were completely surrounded by a crowd of people. The reptile leapt to the girl’s shoulder in one swift motion and curled up around her neck. Graham stood up next to Senta and took her hand in his. The people began to whisper amongst themselves. Finally one of the women stepped forward.

“Sorry about your clothes,” said Senta.

“Der drache is, how you say, vunterfull,” said the woman.

“Oh yeah, he’s great,” said Graham, sarcastically.

“He is bootifull. He is yours?”

“Yeah, sort of,” said Senta.

“You bet he’s hers,” said Graham. “She’s a really powerful sorceress and he’s her dragon. And they’re really scary and magical. Just look at them. And that’s her magic doll.”

He suddenly started laughing. The dragon made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a smirk.

“We’ve got to go now,” said Senta. “I’ve got to lock up my dragon and my troll here.”

“Hey!” shouted Graham, following Senta who was already hurrying through the opening in the crowd that magically parted before her. “Who you calling a troll, monkey face?”

The two children walked up to the top of the hill and parted without saying goodbye, but with the innocent expectation that they would see each other later and continue on just as they had. Senta made her way to a quiet place that she had found next to the protective wall. She plopped down in the grass and the steel dragon climbed off her shoulders. She stretched out and he curled up beside her and placed his whiskered snout on her stomach.

Senta held her doll up and looked at it. The doll had on an outfit just like hers. She called the dress she was wearing her doll dress for that very reason. The doll had the same hairstyle that she did. She could almost imagine that the doll was made especially for her. But it hadn’t been. She had seen it many times in the toy store before she had purchased it.

“I wonder what Geert’s doing now?” she mused. “He’s my cousin,” she explained to the dragon.