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"It's good to see you again, your majesty," Chris said, as he took a seat on the camp chair and gratefully accepted a cup of water from a raccoon in a green wool tunic.

"Thou speakest with a forked tongue," replied the red-furred fox seated across from him at a computer keyboard. "Else thou wouldst free our people from bondage at the hands of their captors." The words lingered on the computer screen across from Christopher. He wasn't sure who'd managed to set up Carolingian miniscule as the font, but it was appropriate, he admitted.

"Our agreement with the… with your captors… only extends as far as this," Chris explained. "And it was a concession hard-won."

"These villains are truly the most ignoble of heathens," scoffed the fox. "Would that we had our good sword and shield and a further twoscore brave knights: we would show these heathens how good Christian men do battle. Nay, we would ask simply for one man: Rafaelo, wisest of crows. No doubt he would have contrived some infernal machine or clever strategem to make good our escape. But in the absence of valor and wisdom, we must instead turn to the virtue of fortitude, and endure the manifold indignities heaped upon us by our villainous captors." Eugenio the Second (by the Grace of God, King of the Forest, Lord of the Plains, Duke of the Grand Fir and the Undergrowth, Count of the Swamp, Warden of All the Streams and Rivers, and Lord Protector of the Cities of Man, Defender of the Faith), paused in his typing, tilted his regal head to one side and scratched behind his ear, worrying at a flea that had been pestering him for some time.

"We continue our efforts to ransom your majesty and free him and his men from their captivity," Chris lied, "but I have not come here to speak of such matters."

"Then speak, good sir. Let us know how we may be of assistance to the Chinese Empress."

Christopher St. John Smythe-Bromstead winced inwardly. Explaining D.C. al Fine's position in the Coalition to Eugenio the Second hadn't been easy. Second Mission considerations had forbidden him from explaining the exact nature of the Global Occult Coalition. The best he'd managed to do was to convince the fox that he was an emissary of a foreign Empress. (He still wasn't sure how the Fox had drawn the conclusion that the "far-off kingdom" he represented was China, of all places.)

"Her Imperial Majesty faces a dilemma," Chris said through gritted teeth. "A dilemma which could easy be solved with the aid of thy royal self. The dilemma concerns the Thirteenth Crusade."

"That was none of my doing," Eugenio the Second retorted, curling his tail around his red-furred body. "Twas the doing of Duke Casper Bushtail, a knight great in courage but not overly blessed in brains. 'Twas his decision to gather up his brethren and strike out for the Holy Land without the full might of the Forest at his back."

"A decision he made on the basis of your Majesty's decree…"

"Our decree was that an army should be gathered for the purposes of taking back the Holy Land," Eugenio insisted. "Not that Duke Bushtail and his kin should sally forth willy-nilly like cats driven by a washer-woman. Often have we regretted this fact, for were that brave knight and his cohort by my side, we would not now be languishing in captivity."

… mostly because you'd be dead. The Foundation doesn't put up with escape attempts lightly, Chris thought. "Nonetheless," he said, "the Duke and his kin are not at thy majesty's side. And now they have found themselves in dire straits. They have set up a stronghold in a distant land," If the next city over in Scotland can be considered distant, that is, "and they are now besieged on all fronts," I guess that's not a bad way of saying that the Coalition and Foundation are getting ready to burn down their damned castle for scaring the shit out of that Girl Scout troop that found their fence made of severed rats' heads on the end of tiny little pikes. "They have sworn to fight to the death. I have come on behalf of the Empress to see if a way can be found to spare the lives of these brave warriors." And if I had it my way, I'd let those MTFs burn the damn castle down with flame throwers and thermite. Damn the Scary Lady for trying to get me to find a 'soft kill' solution to this bloody mess.

Eugenio the Second, son of Eugenio the Just, Regent of the Granite Throne and Ruler of the Forests, sat down on his haunches and laid his chin dejectedly atop his forepaws.

"We are tempted to tell thee nay," he replied, after a long period of contemplation. "We have known the horrors of captivity. We have suffered greatly the outrages these heathens have inflicted upon us. Did you know that they have… have mutilated the Brothers Douglas, and their sister besides? Unmanned them they have, and done worse to the lady. 'Twas an outrage not to be borne."

"I am… aware… of those misdeeds. Suffice to say that they shall not be repeated," Chris said carefully. And I'm pretty sure even the Foundation isn't going to try to neuter any more of these guys, either. Not unless they want another PHYSICS Division Strike Team getting ready to blow this place to smithereens.

"… then we shall do as you counsel, Sir Christopher. Though it sticks in our craws, we shall write a missive to Duke Bushtail and his fellows urging them to surrender. But in return, thou must do one thing for us, Sir Christopher."

Here it comes, Chris sighed.

About an hour later, he finally emerged through the airlock door, clutching the rolled-up parchment sealed in red wax in one hand, carrying his folding camp chair in the other. The masked guard stationed at the door took the document from him as he emerged, placing it inside a small plastic tube and sending it up a pneumatic pipe to parts unknown.

"There," Chris growled, to the balding white-coated man standing before the bank of computer monitors. "You heard what he wanted. Now get it to him."

"I will have to clear it with my superiors first. This request was already made, and it was denied," the balding man replied.

"Are you going to make me into a liar? I gave my word of honor back there. Shook his… paw… and swore on the good name of God and all my descendants. You've already got a priest coming by once a month. Transfer him to this project full-time. Let them build their damn church."

"You made that promise, not me. The best I can promise is that I'll bring it up with my superiors," the balding man insisted.

"Then do it. Now. And make it very clear to them that failing to do so will not put the Foundation in the good graces of the United Nations."

"You sound angry, Mister Bromstead."

"You're damn right I'm angry!" Chris shouted. "I spent years… over a decade, even… building up diplomatic relations with these guys. We were on the verge of relocating them without incident. But the Foundation just had to come in and do a grab-and-snatch right under our noses. And now they're riled up and angry. You're sitting on a powder keg here. You heard the way the fox was talking. At some point in the near future, they're going to decide they've had enough and martyr themselves for Jesus. And your damned leadership isn't making it easier by arbitrarily denying them their freedom of worship!"

Chris stormed out of the room, ignoring the other man's loud protests and rebuttals: he was in no mood to hear any of it. He grabbed the black canvas hood out of the guard's hand and put it on over his own head, tying it shut, before letting the guards manhandle him into the back of the car.

He heard the car door slam shut, and the vehicle pulled away into parts unknown. It would be another hour before he arrived, give or take fifteen minutes, depending on how long the driver wanted to drive around in random circles.

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