At six years of age, this was the first time Maxwell had left the city, or even its inner court. He had imagined the whole city to be like his finely hewed stone house that sat in a neat row with other homes. The endless, winding rows of poorly made apartments outside the inner court came as a disappointing surprise made even worse by the throng of people who flowed up and down the streets like rain in the gutters. Max breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the outer gates, despite the looks of concern from the guards.
The freeing feeling of leaving the city did not last long. They soon rode into a large rock canyon that had endless, twisting passageways branching off on either side. As his dad pushed them onward hour after hour, Max began to wish they had stayed in the city. His legs started to get sore from straddling the horse, and to make it worse, he couldn’t ride with his dad. Instead, he rode with Mr. Penna, his dad’s friend, who kept a firm grip on him.
Near dusk they reached a small, walled camp. A meager fire burned at its center. His dad placed them as far as he could from the fire’s light. Maxwell started to wander off to explore the camp, but a firm grip on his shoulder stopped him.
“Max, stay close to us.”
“But, I just wanted to see…”
“I know Max, but not tonight, okay?”
Max searched his father’s face. His eyes burned with an intensity he had not seen before.
Max sat down next to his dad, who relaxed a little, and handed a piece of bread to Mr. Penna.
“I’m sorry you are involved with this, Chiron.”
Mr. Penna took the piece of bread. “You still have not told me exactly what has happened, Peter.”
“And now is still not the time, I’m afraid. We must reach the other side of the dead lands before they realize we are gone.”
“And who are they?”
“I have made enemies within the Protectors, Chiron.”
“By helping the lacarna, I assume?”
Peter nodded, “Yes.”
Chiron let out a soft chuckle. “I have broken a few rules myself, Peter.”
Peter gave a small smile. “Your work in the auction houses has been invaluable, but I have taken actions in direct opposition to Lord Avram. Now I have endangered myself, my son, and my friend.”
Mr. Penna grew serious. “I made my own choices; do not add me to your burden. As for you and Max, leaving the Protectors is wise. They have become corrupted.”
Max saw a tinge of anger rise in his father. “Many of the Protectors are still good, Chiron, only misled. One day, I will set things straight. I must - for the lacarna and for Max. For now, we hide.”
“You believe that if we stay out of the way they will leave you alone?”
“That is my hope. That is why we are going through the dead lands and then east to Hedgewood; few Protectors venture that way.”
“And if you are wrong and they come after you?”
“Then we move again to some place even more remote. I must keep Max safe until he can stand on his own, until he can choose for himself whether to be involved or not.”
Mr. Penna remained silent for a few moments. “Very well.”
Peter nodded then turned to the camp entrance. “I’ll keep first watch. If any messengers arrive we will leave immediately. Otherwise, we wait until first light.” Peter turned to look over his shoulder. “My friend, if something should happen, teach Maxwell only what we both believe should be. The Immortals put the Protectors in place to provide justice and peace. Someone needs to hold onto that ideal even if it is false. When later he sees differently, I hope he will fix the things that I could not.”
“I have my doubts things can be changed, Peter, but, as your friend, I will do as you say.”
Peter nodded and turned back to the camp entrance. Max tried to follow his father, but Mr. Penna took his hand.
“Maxwell, come next to me. Your father does not need any distractions right now.”
Max slid next to Mr. Penna and laid down to sleep for the night. He remained awake a while; however, as he watched his dad sit and stare up at the night sky.
In the morning they left the camp and rode out across the wasteland for several long days. Max wondered if they had enough food to reach wherever they were going. They had left in a hurry, packing little, and stopping for only a few minutes at a big stone church in a beautiful garden at the far edge of the city. There, his dad had left a small wooden box.
Max perked up when they finally reached a steep path leading up onto a grassy plain. The place seemed a lot more welcoming to him, but every now and then he caught his dad glancing nervously behind them.
Max grew more and more concerned as they rode through the night. His dad always remained calm and in charge. He recalled once when his dad stepped between two fighting men and scolded them like they were children causing a ruckus. His dad feared nothing, at least not until now. Max could feel it, and as the night wore on, he fell into a troubled sleep.
In his dream he stood in the streets of Moenia, the city they had left. Before him stood a big dog that growled at him. Max took a step back. The dog inched forward. Max turned and ran as hard as he could. He stole a glance over his shoulder and saw that the dog followed close behind, barking. He could sense the dog’s jaws snapping at his heels. Then he saw his dad running beside him. Max expected him to stop and chase the dog away, but his dad snatched him up instead without breaking stride. Max didn’t understand why his dad didn’t turn and fight the dog, but as he looked back, he saw several more join the first.
Max jerked awake to a shouting multitude. The horse shifted about underneath them. Mr. Penna’s arms tightened around him. Max spotted swords that gleamed in the moonlight. His father sat on his horse surrounded by the shining swords. Peter drew his own sword and made two downward thrusts before several hands grabbed at his leg and pulled him to the ground. Max cried out, struggling against Mr. Penna’s tight grasp. The men dove at his father. Fear swept over Max as the swords clanged together. Sparks flying from their impacts.
Suddenly, the attackers were shoved back, and in the center stood his father. The stories his father told him of the great Protectors appeared in Max‘s mind. Those heroic warriors who stood their ground and defeated everything that came their way. Max smiled. He knew his father would come out on top.
Max watched as several of the men rushed inward. With a sweep of his blade, his father easily struck them down. The others paused before turning and running off. The battle was over in minutes.
Mr. Penna relaxed the arm he had wrapped around Max. Max took a deep breath. They rode over to Peter, but before Mr. Penna could dismount, Peter waved for him to stop. Mr. Penna tried to smile, but Max heard the concern in his voice.
“It is hard to tell in the moonlight, Peter, but they seem to have given you a few wounds at least.”
Peter, hunched over and breathing heavily, straightened and returned the half-hearted smile. “A few, but I’ll manage. Those that got away may bring reinforcements. We need to keep moving. Are you okay, Max?”
Max nodded absently as he stared at all the dark spots on his dad’s armor.
Peter looked down at his armor. The metal shimmered in the moonlight, except where the blood covered it. He shook his head.
“It’s not mine, Max. It’s from the bandits.”
Max had his doubts.
Mr. Penna looked around. “Hedgewood is still a few days ride to the East; however, if I remember the map correctly, we are only an hour’s ride from the road that leads to Pike. From there we go southwest for another hour to Pike itself where we can find a healer.”
Peter nodded. “Alright, Pike it is.”
With great effort Peter climbed back onto his horse. He seated himself and spurred the horse onward. They flew through the night. Max cringed at the loud hoof beats, afraid the bandits would be able to follow the sound. At the intersection of the southern road, the horses cornered hard, their hooves flinging dirt high into the air. Max held on tight and strained his eyes for any sign of a town.
Relief flooded Max when, at last, the light from the oil lamps of Pike shone in the distance. The light grew stronger, and houses began to take shape when, to Max’s horror, his father’s horse veered off the road. Max’s mind raced back to the blood he had seen on his dad’s armor, and his stomach twisted in fear. Mr. Penna jerked on his horse’s reins and followed after Max’s father.
“Peter! Peter, we are almost there. Try and steer Starlight back to the right.”
“No,” came a weak and labored response. “It’s... too easy... to find. We… can’t stop here.”
Peter continued his course, skirting around the outside of the town. Mr. Penna pushed his horse harder and came up beside Starlight. He tried to grab her reins, but nearly lost his hold on Max in the process.
“Peter, we need to get you to a healer immediately.”
Peter fought to speak every word. “Town…too close…farther.”
“I don’t know if there is another town, Peter!”
Peter nodded to the field in front of them. “Road.”
Max saw a lone pair of lamps that marked the sides of another road leading out of the town. Max heard panic in Mr. Penna’s voice for the first time.
“Peter, the map I had showed that road going back towards the dead lands.”
Peter turned Starlight to follow the road. “This way.”
Max recognized the determination in his father’s voice. He knew Mr. Penna would not be able to stop his father. Mr. Penna knew too, as he spoke no more. Instead, he followed Peter along the road. Max tried to stay awake and keep an eye on his dad, but the panic of the battle and the fear of his dad‘s injuries sapped his strength. He began to drift off to sleep.
A strange voice jerked Max awake. “Bring him in here!”
Mr. Penna still held him, but they no longer sat on the horse. In front of him, several people helped his father down from Starlight. Max watched them carry him into a nearby house. From behind him, a loud thump made both he and Mr. Penna jump and turn. On the ground lay the horse they had been riding, struggling to breathe.
A calm, authoritative voice rang out over the crowd. “Bring the others.”
Several hands grabbed hold of them. The villagers ushered Mr. Penna and Max through a second doorway in the same house where they had taken his father. Inside, the villagers led them to a few chairs against one of the walls. Mr. Penna seated himself and held Max in his lap.
The villagers wasted no time in bombarding them with questions. “Who are you?” “Where did you ride in from?” “Were you attacked by bandits?”
The commotion overwhelmed Max. Mr. Penna struggled to answer. After a few minutes, a man stepped in from the adjoining room, hushing the crowd of people. He then turned to speak to Mr. Penna.
“Your friend has been badly hurt. Luckily, our Healer is one of the best and most determined around. She will fix him up, but, for now, all we can do is wait.”
Mr. Penna nodded his head wearily. “Thank you.”
“Now, I do have a few questions for you, as we are not used to having strangers show up in the middle of the night; at least not the friendly kind. But first…” The man turned his attention to the crowded room and motioned the people toward the door. “All right, everyone out.”
The disappointed villagers followed the order and left the house one by one. The man watched them leave. When the last was out he gave a bemused smile.
“That means you too, Evangeline.”
Max heard a small voice from behind a large cabinet in a far corner of the room.
A little girl, perhaps six, stepped out. She had cat-like ears that sat atop her head. A long tail came into view as she edged closer. Max remembered seeing others like her back in the city, but only at a distance since few were allowed into the inner court.
The little girl clasped her hands together and tried to plead her case. “I want to stay. I’ll be quiet.”
The girl hung her head in disappointment. The man smiled. “I have an important job for you to do instead.”
The little girl bounced up and down. “Really?”
“Yes, I need you to go over to your home and have Mrs. Tassi round up some food and tea for our guests. I know they will really appreciate it later when we are finished. Can you do that for me?”
“Yep! You bet!”
Evangeline looked squarely at Max, who now saw one eye was green and the other blue, and waved. “Bye.” She ran out the door, her tail trailing straight out behind her.
With the room now clear the man focused his attention back to Mr. Penna. “Well now, with things a little calmer, perhaps we can get down to business. I am Aric, the mayor of Swiftwater.”
He reached out his hand. Mr. Penna grasped it.
“I’m Chiron Penna. The man you care for is Peter Laskaris, a lieutenant of the Protectors. This is his son; my godson, Maxwell.”
The mayor gave Maxwell a polite nod.
“You’ve had quite a night little one. Don’t worry. Your dad’s going to be fine.”
Max only returned an empty stare. With the villagers gone and the reassurance that the Healer would take care of his dad, sleep began to overtake him.
The mayor smiled and began to ask Mr. Penna all sorts of questions. The first few the villagers themselves had asked, but the mayor soon probed deeper. The conversation faded as Max drifted off to dreams of playing hide and seek with the strange little cat girl.
It had been two years since the night Max and his father arrived in Swiftwater. The Healer, with her home-brew of salves made from local plant life, had worked wonders for his father. Within weeks he was up and moving about. However, a few of his deeper wounds never did heal completely. They left him with aches in his bones that, at times, made it difficult for him to move.
While Max’s father recovered, the villagers put them up in an old house abandoned by another villager who never returned from a trip across the dead lands. The villagers also supplied them with anything they needed, often brought over by the little cat girl, Evangeline. Max liked it when Eve came over because she always wanted to play games with him.
Once Max’s dad regained his strength, he began helping the villagers in return for their kindness. Soon the villagers accepted Max, his father and Mr. Penna as one of their own. Max, unsure of when they would leave, took full advantage of life outside of the big city they had come from. He spent day after day exploring the village and playing by the Swiftwater River, often with Eve. Other times he helped his dad around the village, something he never got to do back home. He could tell his dad enjoyed the village also. Here he laughed freely and even skipped work at times to play with Max. All this made Max’s decision easy when his father asked Max if he would like to stay in the village for good.
Mr. Penna also decided to stay and took to teaching the children in the village. Max found his own place in the village. He would help Eve at her mother’s cafe. It wasn’t a fancy place, but Mrs. Tassi provided good food and cool drinks. She made everyone feel welcome too, making the cafe the place that everyone gathered to relax and talk.
Chores finished, Eve, an endless ball of energy, she would proceed to drag Max along on whatever whim came to her that day. He rarely had much choice in the matter. It didn’t bother him though. Most of the time he would have gone anyway. She was odd, and he liked that.
Max’s friendship with Eve did have one downside; her constant attempts to surprise him. She was agile, and the thin coat of fur on the bottom of her feet made it almost impossible to hear her coming. Despite her fiery red hair and her long tail of the same color, he always noticed her a moment too late. Before he knew it, he often found himself lying on the ground with her perched on top of his chest.
After living the village for a year, the villagers made Max’s father sheriff. Not that the town needed much of one, but from time to time trouble did arise. Tonight was one of those times. His dad had carried Max to bed and tucked him in when a loud knock came at the door. A man shouted.
“Mr. Laskaris, I’ve spotted a bandit in the village not far from your house.”
Max did not recognize the man’s voice. The image of the battle on the road flashed through his mind. Max gripped the blanket. His father rubbed Max’s head and smiled.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. You stay here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“It’s only one. I think I can handle that. Don’t you?”
Max gave a weak smile. “Yeah.”
Peter left Max’s room. Max heard the front door open and a conversation start. He listened intently, but the voices faded as his dad and the stranger moved away. Without warning a loud whisper came from the open window next to his bed.
Max practically jumped out of his skin, despite having recognized the voice. He took a deep breath to calm himself while Eve climbed in through the window.
“Eve, I told you, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I’m sorry, Max, but we’ve got to get out of here.”
Max‘s eyebrows furrowed. “What? Why?”
Eve took hold of her tail. “It’s not safe. Please come with me.”
Max smiled. She always grabbed her tail when she felt nervous. “Eve, you’re silly. Dad will return any minute.”
“No, Max, something is wrong. Please come with me.”
Max’s smile faded away. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed. “I need to check on dad.”
Eve grabbed Max’s arm. “No, Max, you must come with me.”
Max had never seen Eve so scared. His heart raced. He stood and tried to run after his dad, but Eve pulled him back and shoved him towards the window. Max hit the sill and tumbled out. Behind him, Eve nimbly climbed out. He regained his footing only to have Eve grab his hand and pull him along. She took him behind several houses then cut between a pair of them. Max had seen no one else until they crossed the main street in town. Here, he glanced to his right and saw a large number of men standing outside of his house, none of them from the village. He tried to stop in order to find his father, but Eve jerked him along into the cafe. She took him in through the kitchen, back to a row of cabinets that lined the floor. She opened the door to one of them.
“Get in, Max”
Max didn’t move. “Those men out there…?”
Eve shoved Max into the cabinet. He managed to turn round to face Eve. The fear he had seen earlier had disappeared, replaced by a fierce determination. As he watched, claws shot out from the top of Eve’s hands, extending several inches beyond her fingertips. A chill ran down Max’s spine.
She has claws? Why didn’t she tell me she had claws?
Eve spoke in a soft tone, contradicting the sharp weapons she had just revealed. “I’ll be right here, Maxy.”
Eve closed the cabinet door. He heard the lock slide through the handles. Max tried to shake his head clear.
What is happening? One moment I’m in bed and the next I’m crammed into a kitchen cabinet. Now Eve’s turned into a wild beast.
Shouting came from outside the cafe, dulled by the walls and cabinet door. Max knew those sounds. He had heard them the last time bandits had attacked his father. Now, though, he could not even watch. The shouting stopped. He had never experienced such silence. He tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. After what felt like an eternity of dark silence, he heard the individual shouts of villagers calling for someone. He didn’t hear his father’s voice among them. Finally, Mrs. Tassi’s relieved voice came from outside of his hiding place.
“Eve, there you are. Do you have Max with you?”
Eve didn’t respond. Max wondered if she was still there. He tried to speak himself but found his voice gone. Mrs. Tassi spoke again in her caring tone she reserved only for Eve. “It’s okay sweetie. They’re gone. No one is going to hurt Max.”
“He’s in here, mother.”
The small, weak voice sounded nothing like Eve. Max reeled. In one night she had been scared, then fierce, then as fragile as he had ever seen her. His heart rose into his throat.
What happened tonight? What happened to dad?
Footsteps approached the cabinet. The door opened. At first the light from the kitchen blinded him, but slowly his eyes adjusted. Mrs. Tassi crouched in front of the cabinet.
“You can come on out now, Max.”
Max crawled out of the cabinet as best he could. When he emerged Mrs. Tassi picked him up and held him. Eve stood over to the side. Her claws remained out, but the tears that now flowed had put out the fire in her eyes.
Mrs. Tassi laid a soothing hand on Eve’s. “It’s okay, Eve. It’s over. You protected him. Now why don’t you put those things away?”
Mrs. Tassi forced a tiny smile on her worn face. Eve sheathed her claws and wrapped her arms around Mrs. Tassi.
“That’s my girl. Now, go outside and find Mr. Penna and bring him back here.”
Eve hesitated for a moment. She turned to Max, looking lost for a second, then ran out of the kitchen.
Max swallowed hard and found his voice again. “Where’s my Dad? Why did you send Eve for Mr. Penna instead of Dad?”
Mrs. Tassi took a deep breath and let it out. She stroked the side of Max’s face as tears ran down her own.
“I’m afraid your father can’t come, Max.”
As Mrs. Tassi carried Max out to one of the tables, his mind raced. What did she mean, dad couldn’t come? Was he hurt again? If the Healer was taking care of him, why can’t I go there?
Max started to get angry. He wanted to see his father. Mrs. Tassi sat down in a chair and began to rock slowly back and forth. Max’s anger faded, replaced, once again, by fear. Footsteps sounded at the door to the cafe. He twisted in Mrs. Tassi’s arms to see Mr. Penna standing before him with Eve peeking round from behind. Mr. Penna crouched in front of him.
“Maxwell, my son.”
Mr. Penna held out his arms. Mrs. Tassi let go of Max and he reached for Mr. Penna.
Mr. Penna took Max tightly in his arms. “Though both of us thought him to be more, your father was indeed a mortal man. Tonight others have taken him from us. I can only give you myself in his place. I am sorry, Maxwell.”
Deep in himself Max had known what had happened. He clenched Mr. Penna and sobbed. He felt Mr. Penna cry with him as Mrs. Tassi and Eve embraced them both.
Max stared out the window at the cafe down the street, wishing Mr. Penna would hurry and finish the lesson. It was a sunny day outside, and he wanted to enjoy it, but he doubted Mr. Penna would let him out early. Since becoming his sole guardian after Max’s father, Peter, died eight years before, Mr. Penna insisted on his studies.
“Maxwell. Maxwell! Are you paying attention?”
Max turned quickly away from the window and faced the front of the room where Mr. Penna stood, arms crossed, shaking his head.
“As I was saying, Maxwell Laskaris,” Mr. Penna sighed, “the Lifestone can create life itself, and its use is responsible for this world we now live in.”
“Isn’t the Lifestone just a fairy tale, Mr. Penna? I mean, no one has reported seeing it in centuries. Besides, why would we even need it? Things are fine here with the Protectors watching over us.”
Mr. Penna massaged his forehead as he turned away from Max. “You and your ideas about the Protectors again. You know, your father exemplified their good qualities. There are few others like him.” Mr. Penna faced the window, “I never had a better friend than your father and I promised him I would teach you as he wished. I hope he was right.” Mr. Penna let out a long sigh and turned back around. “I suppose it is getting close to practice time and that crazy lacarnian girl will be waiting for you. That is enough for today. You are excused.”
Maxwell didn’t give Mr. Penna a chance to change his mind. He leapt up from his seat, ran out of the house, and headed for the cafe down the street.
Eve, or, as Mr. Penna calls her, ‘the crazy lacarnian girl’, should have finished her chores by now. I‘ll grab Eve and head to Tyco’s for sword training. After a full day of lessons from Mr. Penna, I need a little action.
The villagers knew Max’s routine as well as he did. Mr. Penna might be his caretaker legally, but the whole village acted in his father’s place. He liked having so many people care for him, though they often tried to protect him too much. He didn’t complain about it, not after Mr. Penna told him they did so because they felt responsible for his father’s death. In fact, it helped drive him to be even more like his father, to show them he could stand on his own. His body was already on its way to being a carbon copy; the same dark, unruly hair, brown eyes and even the same slender, muscular body. He still had a couple of inches to go to reach his father’s height of 6 foot, but that was only a matter of time.
Now he just had to work on acting like his father. He already helped the villagers by running errands and repairing equipment. He even acted as “sheriff” for the other kids, breaking up fights and settling arguments. While it cost him some friends, the villagers had begun to look at him with the same respect he had seen them give his father. Unfortunately, as soon as he brought up his sword training, they went back to treating him like a little kid. Thankfully Mr. Penna had the final say on his dream of becoming a Protector, although, at times, even he acted reluctant to allow him to train.
Max put his thoughts aside as he reached the café and went inside. “Eve! Come on! Let’s go!”
Mrs. Tassi grabbed Max’s shirt and pulled him to a halt. “Land sakes, Maxwell! Watch where you’re going!”
“Oh, sorry, Mrs. Tassi. Hey, where’s Eve?”
“She’s in the storeroom trying to get rid of a mouse for me.”
“Is she done with her work for today?”
“She is if she can get rid of that filthy rodent.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Tassi.”
Max worked his way past the tables and customers, back towards the storeroom, opened the door, and stepped in.
“Hey, Eve, I hear you...have a …rodent…problem?”
The room was almost completely dark, only a few small slivers of light seeping in around the edges of the covered windows. Max turned and started to step back outside of the room, but stopped when he heard a low, quiet growl from behind him. Max sighed and his shoulders slumped.
“Le...Let’s think this through, Eve.” Max started to turn back. “You really don’t wa-“
Max finished his turn in time to see a dark shape spring out from behind one of the crates in the storeroom. The thing lunged straight for him. The impact knocked him out of the room and onto the floor in the hallway. It took a few seconds for Max to regain his breath. As he did he heard the faint breathing of the thing on top of him. Max rubbed the stars out of his eyes and focused on the face that hovered inches from his own.
Eve laughed. “Hi, Maxy.”
“You know, normal people shake hands rather than pouncing when they greet each other.”
“Well, thank goodness I’m not normal then. I mean, what fun would that be? Besides, it’s not my fault that you don’t pay more attention to your surroundings.”
“You know I can’t see in the dark like you can.”
“See you? I heard you when you came into the cafe, smelled you from there too.” Eve waved her hand in front of her nose and laughed again. “When’s the last time you took a bath? Besides, think of the pouncings as extra training.” Eve put on a more serious tone much like Tyco’s. “Learn to observe your surroundings.”
“Alright, alright, you win. You also do a good impression of Tyco.” Max let out a groan. “Now could you get off of me? You may be light on your feet, but you still weigh plenty when you’re crouched on my chest like this.”
Eve stood up and offered a hand to Maxwell. He took it, and she helped him up. Max dusted off his backside.
“Weren’t you supposed to be after a mouse, anyways?”
“Yep! Caught him shortly before you showed up. It made a nice little snack.”
Eve licked her lips as if she’d just eaten a delicious piece of pie. Max scrunched his face up in disgust.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Eve just smiled. “Well, I am part cat after all.” She didn’t need to tell him that. He was well aware of it. He had become accustomed to the ears and tail during their friendship, but her cat-like behavior still amused him. On sunny days he would often find her lying on top of a house fast asleep. At night she ran around in the fields chasing moths and bats.
Eve had an insatiable curiosity as well. She would crawl in holes, trudge through ditches, and climb anything in sight so that no place went unexplored. Her clothes, a loose shirt with two pockets and a line of buttons up the front plus a pair of baggy pants, all well-worn and ragged, testified to these adventures. Max, on the other hand, often came back with an assortment of scratches, cuts and various bruises. At least someone in this town let him get into trouble. Of course, she always had to get him back out of it. He smiled. Except for one misadventure where she fell in the pond. He’d told her that branch wouldn’t hold, but she really wanted to catch the butterfly.
As Max’s thoughts circled back to considering what a live mouse tasted like, Mrs. Tassi came down the hallway. “Well, did you catch that filthy rodent?”
“Yep, sure did, Mrs. Tassi.” At this, Eve brought her tail around, the end of which wrapped around a small mouse. “She’s just a little one.”
Mrs. Tassi took a half step back and raised her voice a little. “I don’t care what size it is. Just get rid of it! Then you can go play with Maxwell till closing this evening.”
“Okay, Mrs. Tassi.” Eve turned and flashed a devilish grin to a stunned Max. “You didn’t think I’d actually eaten it, did you, Max?”
Eve, humming to herself, walked out the back door of the cafe. Max shut his mouth and followed her. Outside, they headed to the edge of the village where Tyco lived.
Bemused, Max studied the white and brown mouse still entrapped by Eve’s tail. “So, what are you going to do with your furry little friend?”
Eve lifted her tail over her shoulder and dropped the mouse into her hands. “Mmm, don’t know. Maybe I’ll keep her as a pet.”
“A cat keeping a mouse as a pet?” Max shook his head in disbelief. “You know, everyone already thinks you’re crazy. Do you really want to add this as well?”
Eve turned her nose up and smirked. “They only think that because I hang around with you.”
Eve had a talent for interrupting Max at times like this. She pointed ahead of them. “Looks like Tyco is out and waiting for us.”
“Hey, don’t go changing the subject.”
Eve ignored him. “Looks like someone else is there with him. Wonder who it is?”
Max followed Eve’s gaze and saw Tyco standing in front of his house speaking with a stranger. “Don’t know. Guess we’ll find out. Let’s go.”
Max picked up his pace while Eve lingered behind, a wry smile on her face. “Okay, okay.” She gently put the mouse into her shirt pocket. Eve turned her ears forward and followed after Max. With the wind blowing towards her she could faintly hear the conversation between Tyco and the stranger.
The stranger, who wore a dull gray cloak with the hood pulled up over his head, nodded in their direction and leaned over to Tyco. “That him?”
Tyco glanced up at her and Max. “That’s him.”
Eve saw the stranger spit out a piece of a foul substance that he was chewing. “Who’s the stray?”
“The cafe owner bought her years ago. From what I’ve gathered, she’s the one that hid Maxwell the night the bandits killed his father. They’re close friends.”
Eve could see the disgust form on the stranger’s face. She started to tense up, but stopped herself when the stranger focused in her direction.
“Will she be a problem?”
“She might want to go along.”
The stranger’s mouth formed a brief, crooked smile. “Humph. I suppose we could accommodate her.” The smile disappeared. “You know what to do, then?”
Tyco nodded to the stranger. “Yes, I’ve got it.”
“Then I’ll get things ready. I’ll see you in a week.”
“I’ll have him there.”
The stranger walked to the side of the house and mounted a large black stallion tied there. Eve and Max climbed over the fence that separated the field from Tyco’s house as the stranger rode off. Maxwell walked up to Tyco.
“Who was that?”
Eve watched the stranger ride out of sight. “The horse was beautiful, but he gave me the creeps.”
Tyco nodded. “Riding across the south end of the dead lands can do that to a person.”
Eve shook her head. “I don’t know, he seemed like he belongs in the dead lands to me.”
Tyco glared at Eve, but she still faced in the direction of the departed stranger.
“It is none of your concern, lacarnian.”
Eve turned towards Tyco, an inaudible growl emitted from her chest. Max, able to sense the low growls after years of friendship, changed the subject.
“So, what are we practicing today?”
Tyco broke his gaze from Eve and smiled. “Nothing new today Max, instead I want to assess what you’ve already learned. Go get the practice swords and meet me in the circle for a match.”
Tyco moved toward a large circle drawn in chalk not far from his house. Max faced Eve. “I know Tyco doesn’t like you much, but you usually put up with him a little better than that.”
Eve looked over at Tyco. He was standing close enough that he might overhear her, so she kept to a whisper. “We don’t know much about Tyco, and I think that stranger is trouble.”
“Tyco is a Protector. He’s not going to harm us.”
“Max, there are things you don’t…”
Tyco shouted at Max from inside the circle. “Maxwell, we’re wasting daylight.”
“Coming, Tyco.” Max leaned over to Eve. “I’m sure it’s fine. If I’m wrong, you can tear the messenger to shreds later. Deal?”
Eve huffed. “Fine.”
Max laughed and ran into the house where he grabbed the wooden swords that Tyco and he used for training. He rushed back out and over to the large circle. Eve walked over to the fence next to the field and seated herself on the top bar. She tried to put aside the conversation between Tyco and the stranger. She enjoyed watching Max fight and did not want to be distracted; however, her thoughts still wandered.
The villagers knew little about Tyco. They guessed that he was in his late thirty’s. He stood six feet tall with broad shoulders and well-built muscles. His skin was weathered a bit, and his hands had the beginnings of permanent calluses.
He had arrived alone in the village a few years back. He had retired from the Protectors after a back injury prevented him from performing the rigorous usual duties of service. The villagers, having expected him to be like Max’s father, invited him to stay in the village. However, his gruff demeanor and lack of interest in Swiftwater’s affairs soon disappoited the villagers, but he did prove to be helpful in repairing houses, carts and the like. He also ventured to the woods a couple of days ride to the east to gather supplies.
Tyco’s arrival had thrilled Max. Until that time, he had no one to teach him proper fighting techniques. When Max had first asked, Mr. Penna forbade the training; however, after several months of Max’s begging, he finally allowed it. Tyco had jumped at the chance to mentor him.
Tyco started by first assessing Max’s natural abilities to best determine his fighting style. After a good bit of trial and error, Tyco discovered that Max fought best with only light leather armor while carrying two short blades. Max had speed, but not much strength. Tyco, on the other hand, had strength to spare. His weapon of choice was a two-handed long sword. Though slower to maneuver, the weapon’s length provided a good block to Max’s two swords and also allowed Tyco to deliver powerful blows.
Over the past two years, Max’s skill had improved greatly. He now at least presented a challenge to Tyco. Tyco; however, never ran out of new tricks. The increased volume and frequency of clashing swords broke Eve free of her thoughts and she focused on the fight. It appeared Max had held his ground so far. Eve knew that would change at any moment. She had studied Tyco enough during these sessions that she could predict his movements better than Max. She wished she could have a go at Tyco, but, for now she watched Max try his best.
Max swung at Tyco with his right sword; with his left held in defense. Tyco angled his blade to block Max’s. The two wooden blades made contact with a loud thunk. Tyco pushed forward with his sword which shoved Max’s back and also blocked his left sword. Max hesitated for a moment, his lack of experience leaving him unsure of how to get out of this situation. Tyco took the advantage and placed his right foot behind Max’s leg. With another further shove he tripped Max and sent him to the ground. Max blinked a couple of times from the jolt and found the tip of Tyco’s wooden sword at his throat.
“Well done, Max. You did better than I had hoped.”
Tyco tossed the wooden sword to the side and extended his hand to Max. Max grabbed Tyco’s hand and let Tyco pull him up.
“There’s still a little daylight left, teach me that move you just used.”
“Sorry, Max, I have to get ready to leave in the morning.”
“Oh, are you going to the forest for supplies?”
“No, to Protector Headquarters in Moenia.”
Eve joined the two. “The messenger, right?”
Tyco nodded. “He said training has grown lax and Lord Avram has requested my input to correct the problem.”
Eve’s ears twitched, the earlier conversation coming back to her. “Why, after three years, have they requested your help?”
“I’ve been sending them information on my training with Max. I guess they liked what I’ve accomplished. It’s a shame you can’t come along, Max, so I can show them how well it’s worked.”
Eve saw Max’s eyes light up at the thought of a chance to go to Protector Headquarters. She cut off his next question. “It’s too dangerous, Max. The dead lands take a week to cross and it’s filled with Bandits.”
Eve saw Tyco smile and knew he had set her up. She grabbed the end of her tail in nervousness as he closed the trap. “The dead lands are dangerous, unless you follow the northern route along the river. Up there the Protectors have several small, armed camps along the way making passage much safer.”
Eve could feel the excitement building in Max. She tried one other thing even though she had a feeling Tyco was ready for it. “Mr. Penna won’t let you go, Max.”
Max groaned. “You’re probably right, Eve.”
Tyco acted like he was thinking hard for a moment, but Eve could tell he had been ready for that objection too. “Mr. Penna could be a bit of a challenge, Max. I know his weakness though. If you really want to come with me, I think I can persuade him.”
“You’d do that, Tyco?”
Tyco clasped Max on his shoulder. “You would be helping me by going. Let’s go see what we can do.”
As the two headed back towards Mr. Penna’s house, Tyco shot Eve a crooked smile, the sight of which made her feel sick to her stomach. She followed after them, hoping to come up with another idea to stop Max from going. When they reached the house, they found Mr. Penna in his study.
“Nose buried in a book as usual, I see.”
Mr. Penna eyed Tyco over the top of his book. “Good evening, Tyco.” Mr. Penna smiled at Eve. “A very good evening to you, Miss Evangeline.”
Eve shifted her weight from one foot to the other, still trying to think of what she could do. “Good evening, Mr. Penna.”
Mr. Penna noted Eve’s discomfort, marked his place in the book, and set it down. “So what brings you three here?”
“I need to go to Protector Headquarters to oversee their training. Max would like to go with me. I would like that as well. It would allow me to show the results of certain training techniques first hand.”
Mr. Penna scratched at his short beard. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. It would take a few weeks, at least. I do not think Maxwell is ready, not to mention delaying his studies for that long of a time.”
“I can assure you, Mr. Penna, that the road along the river is quite safe. Besides, Max has come a long way in his training, which is the very reason I would like to take him. He’s not to be easily trifled with. As for his studies,” a wry smile formed on Tyco’s face, “as you well know, he’s not going to find a better library than the one in the capital. Maybe there’s something we could pick up for you?”
“Training and a real fight are two different animals.” Eve started to relax. “On the other hand, the library at Moenia has a lot of literature I would like to have here in the village, and I suppose the boy does need to at least see the city.”
Eve’s heart raced. She hadn’t thought he would even consider letting Max go. If I tell Mr. Penna of the messenger’s conversation with Tyco, surely Mr. Penna will stop Max. Eve twisted her tail in her hands, ignoring the pain. But I can’t let Tyco know I heard the conversation. Maybe…
“Tyco, did the stranger who delivered the message say how long you would be gone? He rode off into the dead lands before we could reach you.”
Eve saw Tyco’s eye twitch and knew she had thrown him off.
“No, Evangeline, he did not, but I don’t think we would be long.”
Mr. Penna studied Eve carefully. With his attention on her, she stared right at Mr. Penna and took a risk. “You said you told the Protectors about Max’s training already didn‘t you? Wouldn’t the messenger have asked for Max specifically if they wanted to see him?”
Mr. Penna stroked his beard. “Hmm, so you told them about Max. Well, I suppose they will be eager to see him. Perhaps he should indeed go.”
Eve barely kept herself from falling over. How did he miss my hint?
Mr. Penna smiled. “He may go, and so will I.”
Eve sighed knowing he had caught her hint after all.
She smirked at the lost expression forming on Tyco’s face due to this unforeseen complication. He tried his best to recover.
“Mr. Penna, that’s not really necessary.”
“Nonsense, Tyco, someone needs to keep the boy focused.”
“But, Mr. Penna, we will be riding pretty hard for most of the trip.”
“Oh, I’ll keep up fine.”
Eve tried not to laugh when Tyco, sighing, resigned to Mr. Penna’s decision. “Okay then, I’ll see you at the stables at first light. Good evening to you, Mr. Penna, Max.”
Eve watched in satisfaction as Tyco left. She would have liked it better for Max not to go at all, but with Mr. Penna along, not much could happen. She looked back at Mr. Penna and found him studying her once again.
“Evangeline, my dear, I assume you will be joining us.”
Eve froze. Max turned to her. “Of course you are, right?”
Eve looked back and forth between the two, her ears quivering. I can’t go back to Moenia, not with Max. Besides, he’ll be safe with Mr. Penna. Won’t he? “I…I don’t want to go.”
“Ahh, come on, Eve. You are the one always wanting a new adventure, after all. Besides, it’d be a lot more fun with you.”
Eve shook her head and backed towards the study door. “No, no, I don’t think I want to. Mrs. Tassi wouldn’t let me anyway.”
“Are you sure, Eve?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Well…good night.” Eve turned and ran out of the house.
Max stared after Eve. “What got in to her?”
Mr. Penna stood and placed a hand on Max’s shoulder. “Moenia is a very different place from our little village, Maxwell. You will find that out for yourself soon enough. Well, we both better start packing. The sun’s already set and we have an early start tomorrow.”
Max ran to his room to begin packing. I finally get to see Protector Headquarters, but I wish Eve was coming with us. We’ve done everything together. Maybe she didn’t want to be around Tyco that long. He was rather mean to her today, more so than usual, but she usually ignores him. I guess I’ll have to tell her about it when I get back. I can’t pass this up, it’s another step closer to dad.
After finishing packing, Max lay late into the night with dreams of standing with other Protectors, ready to respond to anyone in need of help.
Mrs. Tassi bustled about the cafe setting up tables. “Sun will be comin’ up soon.”
“Yeah,” murmured Eve. She sat in a chair, arms wrapped around her legs, her knees pulled up to her chest.
Mrs. Tassi stopped for a moment. “I’m sure I can find someone to help out here for a few weeks.”
Eve’s mind wandered to some far off place. “I can’t help him out there.”
Mrs. Tassi turned to face Eve. “I seem to recall a little girl who didn’t want something to be found; her teeth bared, claws extended, ready to take on a whole horde of bandits.” A little smirk, the one Eve had unknowingly copied over the years, formed on Mrs. Tassi’s lips. “I don’t think the fact she might not be able to actually take them on ever entered her mind.”
Eve looked up at Mrs. Tassi. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“You knew you aimed to protect Max, no matter the cost.” Mrs. Tassi sat down in front of Eve. “And from what you said about that messenger, you may need to do it again.” Mrs. Tassi gently took one of Eve’s hands. “What’s stopping you?”
Eve started to whimper. She looked down at the floor. “Nobody cares about the laws against the lacarna out here, but in the city I’ll be watched wherever I go. To make it worse, Max is going to the Protector’s Headquarters. I can’t go there. I won’t be able to help him, and when Max finds out that I’m the enemy; that Protectors don’t associate with lacarna…” Eve shook her head. “If I go, I’ll only be sent away. It’s easier to stay here. Then I won’t have to see him when he finds out about the lacarna…about me.”
Eve brought her tail around, tightly grabbed hold of it with her free hand, and softly cried. Mrs. Tassi, still holding onto Eve’s right hand, leaned over and put her arm around Eve’s shoulders.
“Do you honestly think that boy would send you, his best friend, away?”
“He has to if he wants to become a Protector.”
“Eve, I thought you had figured out by now that people always do what they want to. If anyone says someone made them, it’s only because they were too weak to do anything else. Think about Max’s father. Did you ever see him back down, even in the end? Then there is Chiron, who has cared for Max all these years. He certainly broke rules when he helped us adopt you, a lacarna.
Eve’s ears perked up, she stifled a sob. “What does Mr. Penna have to do with me?”
“I don’t know much, but he worked for the Protectors when he helped us get you out of that awful market. The rest you need to ask him about.”
Eve slouched. “But, just because you guys broke the rules doesn’t mean Max will. It’s his dream to be like his father, to be a Protector.”
“Don’t you remember how well Max’s father treated you? Max got to see that, and Mr. Penna has done everything to teach that boy how to make up his own mind about things. Max has also had you, Eve. He’s seen someone first hand fight for what they believe in. He’s even had a lacarnian risk her own safety for him. A thing like that is not easily dismissed. Can I promise you what Max will ultimately do? No, but he deserves a chance; the same chance you want for yourself. Until then, if you care about him that much, fight for him like you did all those years ago, no matter the cost.”
Eve’s voice steadied. “But, how am I even supposed to get into Moenia? A lacarnian can only enter with their owner.”
“I’ll transfer ownership to Mr. Penna or Max.”
“No!” Eve bit her lip and looked down. “I mean, I’ve never belonged to anyone else.” Eve stamped her foot and stared back at Mrs. Tassi. “And I don’t want to either! You’re my mother.”
Mrs. Tassi let go of Eve’s hand and stood up, smiling. “There’s my girl. Eve, that piece of paper never legally made me your mother, only your owner, and you know it. Your father and I decided you’d be our daughter and not some slave. I tell you right now, as long as you’ll have me, I’ll be your mother whether I own you or not. Now, I’ll take care of the details with Mr. Penna. You hurry up and go pack. There isn’t much time.”
Eve got up from the chair to walk towards her room. The sound of her mother’s agitated voice stopped her. “Oh, and Eve, for goodness sakes, get rid of that mouse or take it with you. But whichever it is, don’t you dare leave it here.”
A smile formed once again on Eve’s face. The anger in her mother’s voice sounded a little too forced.
The first light of dawn had appeared in the eastern sky when Max and Mr. Penna arrived at the stable. Tyco was waiting for them next to his horse, his things already packed.
“The stable master has Starlight saddled up for you, Max. I’ll help you get your gear fastened. As for you, Mr. Penna, he has a couple of horses for you to choose from. He’s in the back of the stable.”
Max walked up to Starlight. “I sure hope Starlight will be okay. I’ve never taken her on such a long ride before.”
Mr. Penna laughed. “She will be fine, Max. She has seen far more country than you can even imagine. After all, she was the one that brought your father here so many years ago.” Mr. Penna turned and started for the stable. “Now, I shall go and see what our fine stable master, Hektor, has for me.”
While Mr. Penna sought out Hektor, Max inspected Starlight. He never grew tired of looking at her. Her coat was pitch black. Here and there she had small white circular patches. From those circles, thin, short strips of white hair stretched out in various directions. These patches closely resembled the stars shining in the night; thus her name, Starlight. Her coat, well groomed over the years, still held a beautiful shine. Max had a feeling Hektor loved her as much as he did.
Tyco helped Max fasten his bedroll and traveling pack onto Starlight’s back. He brought the most basic of necessities. Max was tightening the last strap when Mr. Penna came out of the stables riding a rather plain looking brown mare.
Tyco furrowed his eyebrows. “I’ve never seen that horse before.”
Mr. Penna chuckled. “She belongs to a merchant in Moenia. The mare injured her leg when he was here a few months back. He left her with Hektor to mend. Hektor took good care of her and now she’s ready to be returned to the merchant. Seeing how we are going to Moenia, I volunteered to deliver her.”
Tyco grimaced. “In other words, you got a free ride.”
Mr. Penna winked at Max. “Precisely.”
Tyco mounted his own horse, Teak, a large brown stallion with a white blaze of hair on his head. Max could only imagine the foals he and Starlight might have because the two would not have anything to do with one another.
Tyco gripped Teak’s reins. “Well, are we ready then?”
Max’s gaze wandered up the street. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Tyco, impatient, chided him. “Then you might want to try getting on the horse. We’ll move quicker that way.”
Max mounted Starlight and moved her beside the other two. They faced out towards the open countryside. The morning dew sparkled in the sunlight, but Max sat unaware of its beauty.
“I thought she would at least come and say goodbye.”
Tyco nodded his head. “Good. It’s just as well that she didn’t.”
Max looked oddly at Tyco. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’ll see soon enough. Besides, it’s time we got moving.”
Tyco nudged Teak with his heels.
Mr. Penna smiled. “Do not worry about it, Maxwell. Tyco likes things neat and orderly. We both know that is not exactly Evangeline’s style.”
Mr. Penna followed Tyco. Max didn’t feel that’s what Tyco meant, but he wasn’t going to contradict Mr. Penna. Instead he leaned forward in the saddle, preparing to follow the others, when he heard someone call his name from behind. Turning, he saw Eve running up the street towards them.
“Hey, Maxy! Wait up!”
Max turned Starlight around, a smile forming on his lips as he also saw Mrs. Tassi running a good distance behind Eve. Max laughed at the sight. He had yet to meet anyone who could keep up with Eve when she was in a hurry. Eve reached Max in no time, not even winded by the run.
“What’s the big idea, trying to leave before I could get here?”
Max felt a little ashamed that he had thought she wouldn’t come and say goodbye. “I thought you might have had more important things to do than to see me off.”
Eve grinned slyly. “You bet I did, but then I figured as helpless as you are there was no telling whether you’d ever make it back alive or not. So, I figured I had better get my last goodbye in while I had a chance.”
Tyco and Mr. Penna had heard the commotion and came up behind Max. Mr. Penna nodded at the bedroll and backpack Eve had slung behind her.
“Good morning, Miss Evangeline. I see you have decided to come along with us after all.”
Max had not expected that. He had missed the backpack when she arrived. He only knew that last night she certainly did not want to go. Now he was confused, which happened a lot around Eve.
“I thought you only came to see us off.”
Eve swung the backpack down to the ground. “You really aren’t very observant, are you? Worse yet, it’s not even dark this time.”
Max’s face flushed red. “Now wait…” but before he could finish Mrs. Tassi arrived, somewhat out of breath. Tyco used the opening to speak.
“I’m glad you could make it in time to say goodbye, Evangeline. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say, you won’t be able to go with us since the only horses Hektor has left need to stay here for the villagers.”
Eve shrugged, unconcerned. “That’s okay, Tyco. I can walk.”
Tyco snorted. “Walk! It’s over a week’s time, even by horseback, to the capital.”
Eve got annoyed. “Unless you plan on riding full out the whole way, I’ll have no trouble keeping up.”
Mr. Penna broke in before things could go further. “I’m sure you can, Evangeline. Besides, you can ride with Maxwell for at least part of the trip. Starlight will hardly notice the difference.”
Eve perked back up. “That sounds great, Mr. Penna.” Eve narrowed her eyes at Max. “At least someone doesn’t think I weigh too much.”
Max threw his arms up. “You were crouched on my chest!”
Having finally caught her breath, Mrs. Tassi said. “Well, now that that’s settled, you’d best be on your way.”
Behind them Tyco turned Teak back around and start off again, but not before Max saw the agitation in his face. He wondered why it bothered Tyco so much that Eve decided to join them.
Oh well, maybe he’s just grumpy in the mornings. I know I prefer to sleep in.
Max reached down and helped Eve up behind him. She squeezed tight against his back, surprising him. Usually she left a little space between them, but that was without the packs strapped on Starlight. Max felt a little awkward and caught a funny grin on Mrs. Tassi’s face. He looked away and she cleared her throat.
“Well, now that you two are comfy, I brought a little of my cooking for you.”
She reached into the basket she had been carrying and brought out a cloth bundle. Max took the bundle and passed it under his nose.
“They’re biscuits I made this morning. Since they’re fresh, they’ll be good until you reach Moenia. Be sure to save them until you get close. Trust me, after a few days of those travel rations you’ll be ready for some of my biscuits.”
“Okay, Mrs. Tassi, we’ll wait. Thank you.”
Max put the bundle in one of the side packs fastened to Starlight.
“You’d better. Now,” Mrs. Tassi held out her hand, “that will be one silver piece.”
Max jerked straight which caused him to bump Eve who shoved him back. “A silver piece?”
Mrs. Tassi stifled a laugh and did her best to act serious. “You didn’t think those were free, did you? I do run a cafe, after all. Can’t just be giving food away.”
Max’s shoulders sagged. “But a whole silver piece. Don’t you think that’s a bit much?”
“Just think of it as back pay for all the food you’ve helped yourself to over the years. With you taking off across the dead lands, who knows when I’d ever get my due.”
By this time, Mr. Penna had begun to laugh so heartily he needed to grab his saddle horn to keep from falling off the horse. “Just pay her, Maxwell. You are not going to win against Mrs. Tassi.”
Max knew Mr. Penna was right. He gave in and dug one of the few silver coins he had out of his pocket.
“Okay, here you go.”
“Thank you, Max.” Mrs. Tassi took the coin and put it in her apron pocket. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She reached back in the basket and pulled out a smaller bundle. “This is for you, Eve.”
Eve reached down and took the bundle from Mrs. Tassi. She peeped under the wrappings and giggled a moment before a more contemplative look appeared. “Thank you, Mother.”
Mrs. Tassi smiled brightly at Eve. “You’re welcome.”
Max tried to turn around to face Eve but with her so close behind him he couldn’t. “What is it? When did you start calling Mrs. Tassi Mother?”
Eve put the bundle in her pocket. “It’s none of your business. Let’s get going.”
Eve kicked her heels into Starlight, who jolted forward at a fast trot. Max quickly faced forward to steady himself, but shouted back at Eve.
“I’m starting to think it was a mistake asking you along.”
Eve laughed merrily. “And just think, it’s only the first day.”
Max shook his head as he got Starlight to slow down. His thoughts swirled around the adventure ahead while Eve strained to hear the conversation between Mr. Penna and Mrs. Tassi back at the stable.
“Do not worry, Mrs. Tassi. I will wait as long as possible to tell him about Evangeline’s papers. He won’t like it at first, but I think he will understand soon enough. He is much like his father.”
“Thank you, Mr. Penna.”
Mr. Penna chuckled. “I will say, you are a sly one, Mrs. Tassi. It is no wonder why that girl gives Maxwell so much trouble. She is your daughter through and through, adopted or not.”
“I’ve done all I can for her. She’s on her own now.”
“Not if Maxwell becomes…”
Starlight carried Eve out of hearing distance, but that was fine. She had heard enough. Both Mr. Penna and her mother had faith in Max. She had to trust them that things would turn out okay. Eve, though she had no fear of falling, wrapped her arms around Max.