"So this is what you and Country get up to when you leave the consul?" a gravelly voice drifted over to where Orison was temporarily sunbathing to dry off.

Slathering another layer of balm on as he saw Rithus flagging for his attention in the watery distance, Orsion replied, "There is no better feeling than turning work into play but don't get it twisted. Swimming and diving constantly is tiring as the Abyss."

The elder Tulius brother, Claudius said, "You've barely been able to keep up with the roasting rack here. All I see is a kid trying to justify skinny dipping on a day decent folk are working. By the way, that isn't a creek out there. Be careful one of those fishes with teeth doesn't come along and nibble off your little worm."

Orison sighed, "There's about five times more bundled up down here in the tidal pool, waiting for us to be done for the day... Or did you think the saltwater pond back at the consul was just a neat decoration? As for your other concern, with Rithus out there getting his midday meal on the go, the only things I've ran foul of were jellyfish. If you heard what your fisherman's daughter had to say about you, you'd be begging me to take a turn,"

Taken aback, Claudius said, "Wha-What did she say?"

Orison smugly said, "Healer-patient confidentiality but fish bellies and cave eels were mentioned."

After a little more taunting and negotiation, the next couple of days left Orison a great deal less over exposed and prune skinned than he expected. To ease his guilty conscience for duping the guy, Orison mixed a little precious restorative into the sun burn balm he gave Claduis, calming the man's scarred profile from terrifying to just intimidating. And if Orison found himself fighting some bitterness over certain admirable traits of Cladius' that he'd likely never measure up to, then that was a complaint only the grave or the next collection of miasma would ever hear about.

On the added third day of collections, Orison finally found a large cluster of the tubular plant he'd been looking for. After having discovered far fewer than he anticipated in the surrounding region, he had Rithus redistribute a few seeds and mature plants to secluded areas that were difficult to reach. Nature rewarded the effort with the discovery of an old clam bed.

Such a thing didn't mean a great deal to Orison but Rithus and Cladius attacked the proposition of pearl diving with child-like glee. Attracted to a faint magic signature, Orison found a black 'life pearl' that a matron clam sometimes produced, along with two more black seed pearls. Afterwards, he stopped looking, allowing the Marshlander to battle with the poor Centerland soldier. Fortunately Rithus was a kindhearted man or Claudius would have likely walked away with little to show for his effort, occasionally 'accidentally' tossing an 'overlooked' shell towards the soldier.

On the way back, Claudius asked, "What are you going to do with yours, Rithus."

The old Marshlander looked at the small pouch in his hand and said, "This o-I would like to find where th-my daughter has settled and send them to her. Maybe Lady Mother Droya or Morrel knows of a way. What will Honorable Claudius do with yours?"

Lightly shaking his pouch, smiling at the clinking sounds coming from within, Claudius said, "Thought I might get a pair of earrings made for my local sweetheart here and then get the rest strung as a future engagement present to send my brother home with. Honorary patrician will get his hectare of land turned to five somewhere on the inner side of the eastern claimed land. I don't think he'll have problems getting that childhood friend tomboy he followed around all the time to say yes.

"The Creator knows he's spent more pay on parcel keeping in touch with her than anything else and in his little over three years of service he has more stored away in deposit than I've managed in over seven. I signed for a half-career ten and he did a minimum voluntary five. He's always been a mite smarter than me.

"Since things have started looking up, he's heading home to start preparing for life out of service while I stick around here to see if things will get good enough between the Ashl- obsidian elves and Centerland, for me to try to make a camp wh*re into a housewife. Such a pretty young thing having a hard way of it. The best I can figure, two damaged people make a good pair."

Orison stopped Stupid Horse to evaluate Claudius' seriousness, then said, "I'm going to break my own rule just this once but you have to promise me you'll keep level and respect Yulian's decision, whatever it may be."

Claudius just looked blankly at Orison so he prompted again. "Legionary Cladius, I want your word that you'll respect Yulian's decision and not mention what I am about to tell you.

Claduis confusedly stammered out, "A-alright. You have my word on it."

Orison explained, "I don't know if you've noticed but it's Yulian's cousin that's really been working hard for the spare coin outside of selling fish. As for your girl, she claims to only take coin from you since you and your brother got hurt. I can at least attest that since I've been here I've only seen or heard of her slipping away with you.

"She came to me a few evenings ago asking if I had a certain special kind of tea. She was putting up a strong front but I don't think that's what she really wants. To give her time to think it over, I told her that since she was still shy of two weeks late she should give it a couple more days just to make sure she wasn't irregular because that tea is not a good thing to be taking if the need isn't there.

"To be clear, there is little doubt in my mind. There's already some hardness low in the abdomen and she complained of nausea the last two days before she came to me, that seemed to fade mostly away after morning. Now, none of this is a guarantee of anything, she might just be a bit off due to stress and constipation or something but I doubt it. Mostly I think she just knows that with it only being her and her grandpa, she can't afford a child without help...

"Just tell her what you told me and see what happens. If she doesn't say anything about it, don't ask. She'll either come to me or she won't. She either wants you to know or she doesn't. The only reason I told you is because I don't want a lifetime misery hanging over her head because you waited too long to let her know your intentions and she follows through because she has no hope. Honestly, I had hoped she'd have the courage to tell you but I can understand why she wouldn't. She's an, er, obsidian elf and a camp follower. In a normal situation, there's little chance that anyone that pays for companionship in the consul would believe a claim of parentage from someone like her and even if they did, not great odds they'd want to take responsibility."

Continuing on their way, Claudius interrupted the silence to say, "Hefty got burned by a girl running a daddy scam back at Glass Coast. You don't think she's starting up to run one do you?"

Orison said, "If she didn't have the weight of her own feelings, a silver and my words against cruel facts, she'd have gotten the tea that day. She's not a dumb girl. She knows I was buying her time to either soften or harden her heart."

More to himself than anyone else, Claudius vented his thoughts aloud. "It was just a thought I'd rolled around in the back of my mind. There was always a chance she'd pop out a kid and get some widower or dim guy to take her in. I just thought, if she was still selling her heart off in pieces when my service time was up, she could just hitch up with me. I'd try my best to save up some gold, give her a kid to remember me by and take care of any others she might have before she had to bury me."

To help shake off the oppressive seriousness after the silent trudge resumed, Orison said, "No one's going to ask me who gets the pearls I found?"

"You're mom." "Lady Mother Droya." they answered simultaneously.

Carrying through the evening, with some help from Nadir who was surprisingly decent at basic smithing, the pearl finding trio had some simple but nice settings. Two sets of earrings, a broach for Rithus and cage piece to go with a repurposed gold rope necklace for Orison, was made from five smelted gold coins with one silver coin and a copper one. As soon as they were cool enough, Orison 'repaired' in the pearls and with a promise to return the favor, rushed off with his acquisitions to see Droya.

An envelope of velum tied up with twine held Orison's first 'official' gift to Droya, which he handed over with a shy smile and said, "I hope you like it, mom."

Chuckling, she said, 'Did you finally get around to making me that horse scroll?"

Orison smiled wider and shook his head. Not one to savor anticipation, Droya cut the string and slid the contents into her hand.

Smiling herself but trying to act stern she said, "This is very nice, Orison, but black pearls are expensive and-"

Orison interrupted to quickly explain, "We found the pearls today and Captain Nadir helped us make the settings. The important part is the Matron Life Pearl. It allows the matron to know which of her children are still alive. Before the school of divination was lost to mages these could be used in a lot of ways. Now, a person who has magic talent can drop a bit of their blood on it while instilling magic and from that point on, all it needs is for another talent to run a bit of magic into it and it will shine as long as the person who put their blood on the pearl is alive.

" Also, if you're close enough, it will shine brighter towards the direction the bonded person is. Just don't use it too often or the bit of magic it has will unravel and stop working. It's a naturally occurring enchantment so there are a lot of things that can make it act weird but nothing harmful."

Droya looked at the pearl with mixed feelings and said, "It's a beautiful and thoughtful gift, sweetling. Thank you."

Orison sighed. "I know being able to go with me would probably be better but the consulate can't be neglected that long. Besides, if they ever meant us harm, we wouldn't even be safe here much less in the heart of their territory... I agreed to take a security person because I saw the sense in having a person to ward off individuals who might not follow what their leaders want but taking more would only make them nervous and increase the possibility of negative outcomes."

Droya asked, "So, are you still taking Cray or are you taking someone who has the skills to protect you?"

Orison smiled and said, "I was going to take Cray because I know he'll listen to me and hasn't soured against the natives. If it will help ease your worries a little more, I'll take Claudius. It turns out, he has some stakes in maintaining and developing positive relations. And even I have to admit, having a more experienced soldier along isn't a bad idea... Mom, aside from the other things we'd discussed before, I have one more thing to run by you."

With some trepidation, Droya said, "Go ahead..."

Shuffling around a bit, Orison managed, "It's not definite but how would you feel about taking in a maid with no official training and might, er, might be pregnant."

Droya took in a deep breath and said, "How about you explain things a bit better before I jump to wild conclusions."

Orison explained the circumstances of Claudius and Yulian.

Droya said, "As a person who received a rare second chance, I can sympathize, but giving her more exposure to the soldiers as my maid may not be the best thing for her... The men of this consulate already see her in a certain way and enough will be left behind for that image to spread to the new ones arriving soon... I have no doubts that Claudius' brother will look after her but that's part of the problem. There is bound to be a fight and that is going to strain things with Captain Nadir again. That's doubly true if someone decides to draw comparisons to me because I took her in."

Orison said, "This is just a maybe based on a couple of 'ifs' working out in a certain way. If she decides to give a more serious relationship with Claudius a try and if she decides to keep her baby, she's going to need a steadier income. It just so happens that Rithus isn't going to be here for a bit and when Morrel gets here we need to start the assessment and planning for our land holdings.

"Any hecklers can be silenced with your temporary pressing need for help around the house and consulate. After I get back, it'll be time to put together a group to prepare our home... We could creatively interpret the latitude given to the Tulius brothers to snatch them up as Urban Prefect and Depute. After all, the original missive said they could finish their service in Centerland and only offered one choice. It doesn't offer any opinion on whether another patrician with open positions could make offers or not.

"Since our demarcated territory was originally swindled from a defector, there's going to be several disenfranchised obsidian elves working on our land. Having an urban prefect with an obsidian elf wife from their social strata should go a long way towards gaining popular support. The last thing we need is disgruntled commoners ripe for the Revivalists to whip up into revolutionaries. And since the whole reason for slapping us in this situation is to pin us as the face of their diversity initiative, then lets take advantage."

Droya said, "I think you might be planning too many steps ahead but I can see your point.

Later that evening, towards the end of his volunteer hour in the sick room, Orison saw a familiar, puffy eyed but smiling obsidian elf.

Yulian said, "I don't know if I should slap you or hug you, little man."

In all seriousness, Orison said, "I deserve the first but I had to take the chance. I assume that means that Claudius kept to the letter of his promise but not the spirit?"

She nodded and said, "How can you expect a man to keep silent on the welfare of his future child. If things had went differently, I would not have been able to return here to sell my fish and if he should change his mind, it would be the same. I pray to the ancestors he will not betray the trust he asks of me."

Orison smiled and said, "Speaking of betraying trust. As a healer, I have failed you and am liable for that. As compensation, I'd like to offer you a position in my household. The position is general duties maid and after a few weeks trial, upon my mother's consent, that position may change to my mother's chamber maid. The initial pay is one gold a week. I assume your cousin can take care of your grandfather if she has your side support?..."

After a period of shocked disbelief, some assurances and an informally drawn contract, all of Orison's preparations were done. A night's rest later, Orison spent the last day before his field trip making enduring breath potions. It was a slightly risky endeavor that netted him a great deal fewer than he had originally anticipated. It also had him repairing the condenser twice and healing once. Despite the minor setbacks, his successes afforded him the bragging rights of having passed the second hurdle of alchemy, from magic assisted herbal potions to magical effect potions.