When they reached it, they found an enormous translucent tortoise, ponderously making its way across the landscape, crushing trees and bushes flat as it went. The crew was a little perplexed by this thing’s armor plating, and its ability to hide inside the armor. From Louise’s vantage point (her back set against a stone in a hillside), she could see a red glowing object in the tortoise’s head, like a ruby carbuncle. Apparently the six lead fighters could too, because Mick led their transformation sequence and they all pursued the tortoise’s head when it retreated into the shell.
An enormous flash of pink light blinded everyone, and the tortoise splashed out a tidal wave of existence, drenching everyone near it and all the landscape around. Mick emerged from the tsunami with the carbuncle in hand.
Louise felt like she was being watched, as the post-battle celebration ensued. When she looked around, she was disturbed to find Sheila standing on the hillside above her.
Sheila said, “The only reason you’re still alive is because of her, you know.” She gestured at Mick, who had been lifted onto several women’s shoulders to be carried back to the castle. “You’re being more trouble than you’re worth.”
Louise stood up slowly and walked up the hill until she was looking the woman in the eye. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it would upset your friend if anything happened to you,” Sheila said. “And that would upset the Council.”
“Because she might not play the game the way your husband wants her to?” Louise said.
Sheila gave Louise an outraged look.
“You’re quite the little helpmate and wife,” Louise went on, feeling reckless in her anger. “Continuing to honor and obey even after death.”
“You don’t know anything,” Sheila snarled, and she turned to walk away up the hill. She paused and said over her shoulder, “When I die, the Council will be seven.”
Louise just stared at her, and when Louise didn’t say anything further, Sheila continued on her way.
Mick ran up then and hugged Louise damply. “Lou, let’s get back and turn this thing over, eh?” she said, urging her into motion.
Louise went along good-naturedly, though she peered at the carbuncle and even poked it once out of curiosity. It was warm, wet, and pulsating in a very unpleasant way that suggested it might burst into tentacles at any moment. She was glad that Mick was carrying it.
Sheila was waiting in the great hall, at the foot of a staircase Louise was sure hadn’t been there before. A grey hooded figure descended the moment they came into the hall, and stopped three steps up from the floor to receive the carbuncle from Mick. Louise glimpsed gloved hands, but couldn’t see a face at all in the depths of the hood.
The Council member ascended the stairs, and Louise craned her neck and peered, trying to see some detail of the space beyond the ceiling. She was foiled by the disappearance of the stairs and by Sheila’s disapproving glower.
Mick finally dragged her away from the great hall and back upstairs.
Naked and sweaty in the aftermath of Mick’s victory rush, they kicked the sheets off the bed and pillowed their heads on each other’s thighs.
Mick said, slowly and lazily, “Louise, I… think you shouldn’t come back tomorrow night.”
Louise propped herself up on one elbow and looked at her lover. “Why not?”
“Because I’m pretty sure Sheila’s trying to kill you,” Mick said. She laughed a little. “My wily coyote woman, you’re overthinking again and you can’t possibly run fast enough this time.”
Louise snorted. “She told me the only reason I was alive was because of you.”
“Really,” Mick said, running her fingertip in thoughtful circles on Louise’s calf. “Then you absolutely should not come back tomorrow night.”
“Mick, sweetheart, what are you trying to say here?” Louise said, guessing already.
“I’ve… been in hospice, Lou. For a few weeks now. And the staff today was saying—they didn’t think I could hear—that they thought I’d go any time now.” Mick sighed. “I was going to tell you. I thought I had more time. But then, it was so goddamn beautiful being with you every night, I didn’t want to… to ruin it.” She scrubbed irritably at her eyes.
Louise considered what to say. I already knew was not a good option, even in a place where it might not be a good idea to talk about what one was capable of outside. When Mick sat up anxiously, she knew she had to say something, so she reached for Mick and pulled her down into her arms and said, “I love you.”
Mick buried her face between Louise’s young breasts and said, “I love you too. I always will.”