Diaper Study

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DIAPER STUDY

For Renée (because this was her idea ;)

PART ONE


"Are you sure you can handle it?" Yelena asked.

"For the millionth and twenty seventh time, yes, I can handle watching a tiny human for a few hours," Janco said, trying hard to keep the annoyance from his voice. New mothers could be such worry warts. Hmmm...he wondered where that term came from. Was it because people worried about having warts or the warts themselves were worrying?

"When's Ari coming back?" she asked as she balanced Liana on her hip. Yelena peered dubiously around Janco and Ari's apartment in the Commander's castle.

Granted, it wasn't the most well organized of places...well, Ari's side was militarily perfect, but his...never mind. "First, I'm insulted that you think I need Ari to babyguard Liana for a few hours, and second, Little Miss Assassin has him on a ten to twelve day mission."

Yelena shook her head. "You're still calling Onora that? She's your boss you know."

He grinned. "Even more reason to use it. Besides, it keeps her humble." Janco waggled his eyebrows at Liana. The baby giggled then continued to suck on a handful of her mother's long black hair. Drool glistened from the wet strands. Yuck.

"If you're sure..."

Janco plucked Liana from Yelena's arms. Pretty solid for a seven month old. Her short black hair curled at the nape of her neck. With her big blue-green eyes, this girl was going to be gorgeous. Scratch that, she was gorgeous. "Go, have fun on your ride with Valek and the Commander. We'll be fine."

She finally relented. "Liana's had her nap and just ate." Yelena handed him an oversized bag. It weighed more than the baby.

"What's in here?" he asked.

"Diapers, a cleaning cloth, a bib, a blanket, toys, a change of clothes, a bottle, a book and a few medical supplies."

Janco stared at her aghast. "What do you expect to happen?"

"Hopefully nothing, but I've learned to be prepared."

"Prepared for what? A siege?"

"Maybe I should--"

"Say hi to Kiki for me." He pushed her out the door and shut it. "Mothers," he muttered. Liana stared at him. "You're going to have a tough time getting away with anything," he said to her. "Between your overprotective mother and paranoid father, you're going to have to be one smart cookie to fool them." Janco smirked. "Good thing, you have your favorite uncle to teach you all you need to know."

She babbled back at him in complete agreement. Super cute. At least she didn't seem to mind her mother leaving her with him. Not too surprising. From what he'd seen since Yelena and Valek had arrived in Ixia for a visit, she'd been a happy and easy going baby as she was passed from lap to lap. Ari was going to be mad he missed them. Too bad, so sad. More love for Uncle Janco!

He set the bag on his desk and sorted through it one handed. Finding a yellow teething ring, he handed it to her. She immediately put it into her mouth and munched on it. Okay then. Janco set her down on the floor and proceeded to set up a nice little play area. Blanket spread out, toys within easy reach--she should be entertained for hours.

But when he turned around to move her onto the blanket, she was gone!

Frantic, he searched the room for what felt like hours until he found her crawling under the coffee table. Crawling! Yelena said Liana napped and ate, but failed to mention the most important thing--the infant was mobile.

He scooped her up just as she reached into his bag of tricks. Clutched in her chubby hand was Janco's butterfly knife. Thank fate it was closed. Relief rushed through him. She stuck out her lip when he took it from her. It trembled dangerously.

"Not yet, baby bunny. You need a little more coordination to handle this." Janco shifted her to his left hip and flicked his right wrist, demonstrating how to flip the knife open, revealing the double edged blade. Her eyes widened. "Nice, right?" He swung her around to his right hip and repeated the motion with his left hand. "It's important to be equally adept with both hands in case you need to hold a sword in one and the knife in the other."

Liana gurgled and he took that as a good sign.

"I'll have to see if I have any rubber training knives for you. In the meantime..." He placed her in the center of the blanket. "Play with your toys." Janco relocated his bag of tricks to the top of his desk. He glanced around the room to see what else needed to be moved only to discover Liana had ignored her toys and once again crawled away. Grabbing her before she could pull a pile of books down on top of her, Janco set her back on the blanket.

Then she proceeded to play "chase the baby." Every time he returned her, she just took off for the most dangerous thing within reach. Although Liana could have been hurt a dozen times, she thought this was the most fun. Janco, on the other hand, was not amused.

Finally, he pulled the book from the bag, picked her up and sat on the couch with her nestled in his lap. "How about Uncle Janco reads you a story?" The colorful pages of the book were thick and sturdy. The title read, The Iddy Biddy Farm.

He opened it. "On the iddy biddy farm there were iddy biddy horses pulling iddy biddy plows. There were iddy biddy cows...oh for sand's sake this is the stupidest book, I've ever read. Iddy biddy cows my...er...backside." He tossed the book. "I've a better story. Once upon a time, your Uncles Ari and Janco were deep in the jungle. It was hot and muggy and bugs were crawling all over us. Even in places that bugs had no business being. We were tracking a big bad magician. Your Uncle Ari was scared so he hid behind a giant Vorskio tree 'cause any other tree's trunk was too small for his fat...er...backside. But your Uncle Janco bravely slithered on his belly through the mud and under the spiny bushes to get close to the man.

"The big bad sat in front of this roaring fire mumbling words and pulling magic. Nothing iddy biddy about it. And it didn't look good for the damsel he'd captured. But I loaded my blow pipe with a dart filled with Curare. I aimed, staying as still as a snow cat about to pounce. And I huffed and puffed and blew the dart straight into his neck. Boo yah! The guy toppled. I rescued the damsel in distress. She called me her hero. And then finally your Uncle Ari came crawling out of his hiding place. Too late again!"

With a big grin on her oval face, Liana clapped her hands. Janco took this as a request for more stories of his brave deeds. And he certainly had plenty to tell. But after a couple more, Liana squirmed and leaned forward, trying to dive off his lap.

"Okay, okay. I get it." He scanned his room. Too many weapons lay within reach. "All right. How about we go outside?" Janco packed the bag between mad dashes to redirect Liana's explorations--she was fast! Then he slung it over one shoulder and swept her into his arms. "Let's go on an adventure!"

Too bad Janco didn't have any idea of just what type of "adventure" he was getting himself and Liana into or else he'd stayed safely inside.

PART TWO

The sun shone on the Commander castle's walls. Its strange arrangement of shapes pile on top of each other on the huge rectangle, which served as the base, never failed to amaze Janco. The builder was either a genius or insane. The only symmetry to the structure were the four magnificent towers at the corners. The stain glass windows ringing them glittered with flecks of colorful light.

A bit of a chill rode the slight breeze. The warm season wasn't as...well, warm in Ixia than Sitia. Janco glanced at Liana who he carried on his left hip. Wearing a cute one piece outfit with little butterflies, she was adorable. However she needed another layer so he fished into the survival kit...er...baby bag that Yelena had provide and found a jacket and knit hat.

Dressing a squirming baby without putting her on the ground proved to require quite a bit of coordination. By the time he finished, she was covered and he was sweating. He had a second to admire his handiwork before she yanked the hat off and tossed it onto the ground.

"It's cold," he said, putting it back on.

Yank. Down it went.

This time he tied the strings under her chin--one handed. Ha! No seven-month-old is going to--

She pulled it forward this time. It came off and she threw it over his shoulder. Sigh.

"Guess that's a no to the hat." He stuffed it back into the pack.

Janco carried her around the courtyard and then over to the training yard. Brand new recruits worked with wooden swords and rubber knives while the older ones used real weapons. Setting the bag down and Liana on top of the fence, he stood behind her, holding her around the waist. She kicked her legs and clapped her chubby hands as if enjoying the practice bouts.

"Now see that fellow over there," Janco pointed to two men sparring with swords. "The one in red is blocking too wide, leaving his torso wide open, but his opponent isn't smart enough to figure it out. That guy is too busy wasting energy lunging and retreating. Bah, who trains these guys?" He kept up a running commentary. It was never too early to start teaching the basics.

"Hey, is that Valek's brat?" a young male soldier asked Janco.

All good humor fled as Janco studied the impertinent man. The soldier had been sparring with a skinny but nimble fellow. Both had used sharp rapiers.

"I suggest you apologize to the young miss," Janco said. "Right now."

"Or what? You'll throw a tantrum." He laughed, but his companion recognized the dangerous glint in Janco's eyes and inched away.

Smart man. Unlike the lunkhead.

"Or I'll make you beg for her forgiveness on your knees," Janco said.

Another guffaw. "And just how are you going to do that, Old Man?"

That was it. Janco plucked Liana off the fence then climbed over. He gestured to Skinny for his sword. The man hurried to give it to him, then backpeddled. Janco settled Liana on his left hip--she made an excellent counterweight and he shifted into a fencing stance with his right arm extended and right foot forward. This protected his left side.

Lunkhead stared at Janco in amazement. "You can't be serious?"

"Try me."

Liana made a raspberry noise at the man. Good girl.

"First blood?"

"Oh there'll be blood all right." Janco assured him.

"You're crazy."

"I've been called worse. Either apologize or get ready."

The man shifted his weight, lifted his sword and attacked. Janco sidestepped and elbowed the man in the ribs. Too easy. Janco tested Lunkhead's defenses and let him try a few more offensive moves. The guy actually smiled when he thought he'd almost snaked pass Janco's block.

Liana giggled and seemed to enjoy the quick motions and spins, which just infuriated the man. Good, anger made a person sloppy. Not that Janco needed the edge as he'd just been playing with the guy. But he wanted the man riled up when Janco decided to get serious.

"Big and brawny but can't even beat a guy holding a baby bunny," Janco taunted.

Enraged, Lunkhead increase the pace of his attack. And didn't even pause when the tip of Janco's blade nicked his right arm. Guess he wasn't stopping at first blood. No worries. Janco flicked his sword, dodged lunges and spouted rhymes all the while making small cuts up his opponent's forearm.

When the man's face turned red and sweat soaked his sleeveless training tunic, Janco took it up a notch. He unarmed the man, sidestepped and kicked the back of his legs. Lunkhead fell forward onto his knees, but stilled when the point of Janco's sword jabbed into his thick neck.

"I believe an apology is in order," Janco said.

"Uh...sure...I'm sorry, Miss...er..."

"Her name is Liana Zaltana Icefaran." Janco titled his head at the man's bleeding arm. "Her initials are carved into your skin just in case you forget."

"I'm sorry Miss Icefaren."

"Don't forget the begging."

"I'm sorry, Miss Icefaren, please forgive me."

"That's nice," Janco said. "Don't you feel better?"

The guy glared. Stepping back, Janco allowed him to lumber to his feet, but he kept a tight grip on the sword until the man shuffled off. They had drawn quite a crowd. Murmurs rumbled through it along with his name. Time to go. He didn't want to be challenged. There were always puppy dogs yapping at him, nipping at his heels to test their skills against the legendary Janco.

Janco turned and froze.

His boss and chief of security, Onora stood near the fence. And her expression was...murderous.

"What the hell were you thinking?" she asked, but didn't wait for an answer. "Fighting with Yelena and Valek's daughter! She could have been--"

"Oh, please. I could have disarmed that guy without a sword. She was in no danger."

"Really?" Ice coated her voice. "All right, show me." She took Liana from Janco. The baby smiled and grabbed a fistful of Onora's brown hair. "Kurt, get your sword. You're sparring against Janco, who won't be armed."

Janco clamped down on a number of curses.

"Don't worry," Onora said. "Kurt's at the same skill level as your last opponent."

Oh. Well, that...was still bad, but not as bad.

Kurt was taller, which meant he had longer arms, giving him greater reach. Not as broad as Lunkhead, but that just made him quicker. Janco suspected he was going to end up as a pincushion regardless.

The match began. Janco stayed on the defensive, all he could do without a sword. Ducking, dodging, spinning and sidestepping only did so much. Cuts on his arms, legs and torso added up, but he'd boasted he could unarm the man without a sword.

Tired and bloody, Janco was about to admit defeat when a crazy, insane idea popped into his head--the best kind! Janco charged the man. When Kurt lunged forward with the point of his sword aimed at Janco's chest, Janco slid feet-first on the ground underneath the blade. He hooked his foot around Kurt's ankles and knocked him to the ground. Before Kurt could recover, Janco pounced and yanked the sword from Kurt's grasp.

"Ta da!" he said, holding his prize high.

But when he turned to show Onora, she was gone. And so was Liana!

PART THREE

This was bad. Really bad. He'd lost Liana. Yelena and Valek were going to kill him. Granted, she was with Onora—he hoped—but if the baby wasn't with him when they returned from their ride, they'd never trust him to babyguard her again.

Janco handed Kurt back his sword, grabbed his own, and vaulted the training yard's fence. He scanned the people nearby as he calculated how long it had taken him to disarm the soldier--without a sword mind you, how amazing was that?--five, maybe seven minutes. That meant Onora had plenty of time to get lost in the crowd. Janco questioned a few of the onlookers, asking if they'd seen her.

"No, sir," said one man. "But you should see the medic."

"Why?"

The man gestured and Janco glanced at his arms. Cuts bled, staining his shirt. None deep enough to be sealed but he need to change before Yelena came for her daughter.

"No time right now," he said. "I need to find..." Another possibility occurred to Janco. Onora could be hiding in plain sight, using her magical ability to blend in with her surroundings. He groaned—he'd never find them. Except...Liana also possessed magic...well, sort of. She blocked others from accessing the blanket of power, which Onora needed even though she didn't consciously draw from it. Just like Janco being able to sense when magic's in use. Yelena called them One-Tricks. So Onora couldn't hide and he couldn't use his tracking ability, which left using...

His brain. Sigh. Now he wished Ari was here to help. Okay, he could do this. He needed to think like Little Miss Assassin. Did she plan on keeping Liana for long? He searched around the fence. No diaper bag. Then the answer would be yes, she planned to keep her for a while. So then where would she go? Her office!

Janco dashed into the castle, weaving through servants and soldiers, gathering quite an array of curses along the way. Not caring, he pelted full speed to Valek's...er...Onora's office. The door was locked. Tripled locked and no amount of pounding and pleading for forgiveness caused it to budge. Stopping, he sagged against the wall. If Onora was trying to punish him, she was doing a pretty good job of it.

He extracted his lock picks and set to work on the three complex locks. Janco hadn't met a lock he couldn't pick—not yet anyway, but some required time. Time he currently didn't have and rushing only caused delays. Sigh. The first lock was a pin and tumbler with lots of pins. Using his torsion wrench and diamond pick, he lifted the pins, aligned the cylinder and... Ta Da! The corridor remained silent. Gee, tough crowd.

The second lock was a fiendish little devil--similar to Little Miss Assassin--requiring a fair amount of concentration and determination. He had plenty of determination. As for concentration...he'd focused that one time during the Richter ambush and there was that other time when Ari was captured and—oh right, lock, baby, now.

Sweat stung his eyes and mixed with the blood already soaked into his shirt, igniting all those cuts he'd gotten from Kurt. After an eternity, the lock clicked open. One left. Janco just about wept when he examined it. Son of a sand rat! What sort of twisted mind came up with this nasty piece of iron. Gritting his teeth, he set to work. Another eternity passed followed by an epoch. He imagined Yelena and Valek searching the castle for him—both armed. Thank fate, the lock popped. The door opened, Janco sprang inside, and... The room was empty. He wilted.

He searched just in case they were hiding. But, unlike the piles and books and general mess of Valek's office, Onora was a neat nic. She'd cleaned out and organized all of Valek's files right away. Unfortunately, she'd ordered Janco and Ari to help—not fun. At all. The conference table was clean, nothing underneath or behind the desk.

Next place? Onora's apartment! Good thing Janco was friendly with the guards on duty and they owed him a favor. He hightailed it—who comes up with these words?—through the short cut. And skidded to a stop when he encountered that creepy crawlie feeling that meant magic was in use. Could it be Onora hiding nearby? He hoped.

The little-used corridor was empty. He crept to the end. Voices hissed in whispered anger. Janco peeked around the corner. Two men faced each other. Their postures radiated fury and one had his hand on his sword. They wore soldier uniforms. Janco didn't recognize either one. Not that unusual since he'd become a special advisor to the Commander, but still.

One of the men pulled a knife and the hair on Janco's arms stood on end as a wave of magic reached him. Oh boy. One or both of these guys was a magician. Here in the Commander's castle where magic is not allowed—well, only a select few could use it. Certainly not these two goons. What were they doing here? And why?

And, more importantly, what was Janco going to do about it?

PART FOUR

Two spies had infiltrated the Commander's castle and Janco just had to stumble onto them. Of all the rotten luck. They argued in a deserted corridor of the castle over which one of them was going to give "the boss" the bad news.

Out of sight around the corner, Janco leaned on the wall and considered his options. One, arrest them--at least one of them was a magician so he had a good reason. Except, he wouldn't learn the identity of "the boss." Who thinks of these names? Probably someone with an utter lack of imagination.

Two, he could just leave them and follow up later--he knew what they looked like and both were wearing soldier's uniforms. That'd be the quickest thing to do. Again, he'd miss out on meeting the boss. Three, he could wait for them to finish and follow the loser to the boss, and learn why they were here. And the winner was...option three. Sigh. Janco was one of the best because he didn't shirk his duty. Well...not this time.

The goons finished their argument. Janco hid as they left. And instead of searching for Onora and Liana, he was stuck ghosting behind these idiots who dared come to Ixia for nefarious reasons. Yelena and Valek would never trust him to babyguard Liana again. At least the baby was safe with Onora.

The idiots in question left the castle and split up. One headed to the barracks, while the other aimed for the south gate. When the goon left the castle complex without drawing anyone's notice, Janco figured he tailed the magician. Good.

They entered Castletown. The spy kept glancing behind him. Not the smartest puppy in the litter. Who trained this guy? And because fate decided Janco must not be miserable enough, the cuts along his arms, legs, and torso started to throb with pain. He sighed again.

After a bunch of I'm-trying-to-be-inconspicuous moves--another sign of ineptitude--the spy entered a dilapidated warehouse. Seriously? How cliched can you get? Janco tried to peer inside, but the windows were covered in grime. Although, it didn't take a genius to guess this was the lair of some black market dealer.

Janco looped around the building. It sagged under the weight of its roof. Paint peeled from the wooden siding. The door to the back alley was locked, but a window two stories up was ajar. Too easy.

Except when Janco started climbing, his skin crawled with magic. The desire to be somewhere--anywhere--else pulsed in his veins. The power increased as he ascended higher until he fought for every single inch. Sweat stung his eyes, ran down his back, and collected in unmentionable places. And don't get him started on what it was doing to his collection of wounds. He cursed both Onora and Kurt multiple times.

Sheer stubborn determination kept Janco moving. He reached the window. Once he climbed inside, the magical pressure dissipated. Swaying with relief, he paused a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness.

He'd entered an office. By the amount of cobwebs, dust, and mouse droppings, he doubted anyone had worked in here in ages. Janco crept to the door and eased it open. Voices sounded from below. He caught the words "inventory" and "border patrols." It was enough to confirm his guess that this was a black market operation. He wondered what illegal goods warranted the magical protections. Curare? Theobroma? Harman sap? If he had his way, all that magic crap would be tossed into a giant pile and burned.

Janco stepped onto the metal walkway, allowing his weight to settle slowly to avoid loud squeals. He peered over the railing. Why did all these warehouses look the same? Large open areas with crates piled high. Bare cement floors. Chains and pulleys extending from the ceiling. Metal see-through stairs. Did they expect something to spill on the steps? Was that why they eschewed normal wooden stairs? And the smell...think rust, oil, mold, and dead animal all mixed together. The entire place was creepy.

He didn't see anyone. But he counted at least four distinct voices. Moving closer to hear them better, he tiptoed halfway down the stairs.

"...scouted...castle...found a farm..."
"...water...well...unguarded..."
"...one more shipment...have plenty...poison..."
"...should be easy..."

His blood turned to ice. This went way beyond selling black market merchandise. They were plotting murder! Janco needed to leave. Now.

He spun to retreat. But the steps suddenly gave way under his feet. With a cry of alarm, Janco plummeted. Pain shot up his legs as he crashed to the hard floor. Too bad that wasn't the extent of his problems. Because he also landed in the middle of a cage.

A loud metallic bang sounded overhead. He glanced up as the magician locked the hatch.

"So predictable," the magician said with a big grin. Then he looked up. "I told you he wouldn't be able to resist. A bit of magic, some suspicious activity, and he was hooked."

Janco followed his gaze. Standing on the other side of the cage were four more thugs. All armed. All staring at him with highly amused expressions.

"You were right. I just didn't think it'd be this easy," said one of the thugs.

And then it dawned on him. They weren't planning on poisoning the castle's water supply. He'd been their target all along. And like the biggest idiot in all of Ixia, he'd walked right into their trap.

PART FIVE

Janco stared at the four goons through the bars of his cage. They were your typical muscle-for-hire types with large biceps and small brains with identical smirks planted on their wide faces. Not like he could talk. He hadn't shown much intelligence when he'd followed the magician. The man's ineptitude was all part of the ruse.

He eyed the magician who was still crouched at the top of the cage. A creepy crawlie sensation crept up Janco's spine as the man stared back. Then the man stood and went down the stairs to join his thugs. While not as broad or as thick, his long lean frame oozed power. With his white blond hair and ice-cold blue eyes, the man was probably a member of the Moon Clan in Sitia. What was it about that clan? Did they have a special school just for evil magicians? The Too Evil For You School of Villainy. Pah.

"You were after me all along," Janco said.

"Give the man a prize. No wonder everyone says your partner's the smart one," Evil said.

While Janco briefly considered being offended, he knew the advantage was his when an opponent underestimated him. "I guess I should be flattered you threw this party just for me," Janco said.

"If that makes you feel better, go ahead and be flattered."

"Can we skip all the blustering and threatening and just get to the end?" Janco asked. "What do you want?"

"From you? Nothing. You're simply bait. A juicy morsel to dangle on the hook for our real quarry," Evil said.

Now that was just insulting. "Who's your fish?"

Evil huffed. "You insult my intelligence."

"It's only an insult if you actually have intelligence, which you do not. Do you really think any one of my friends and colleagues is going to fall for this?"

"You did. And your young boss is so new, she's all shiny."

If they're after Onora, they were in for a big surprise. "That's because she carries an abundance of knives." But Onora was watching Liana. He hoped! And knowing Little Miss Assassin she'd leave him here just to teach him a lesson. That thought wasn't helping.

"Fair point," Evil said. "But I never said she was our fish."

After a few more jeers, Evil and his quartet of goons left. Janco chuckled. They just did number seven on his list of stupid things criminals do--not keeping eyes on their prisoner. Janco didn't have his sword, but he had lots of goodies stashed about his person. Handy things like lock picks, knives, and a snack.

He examined the cage. It was bolted to the cement floor and tucked under the metal stairs that went up to the second floor of the factory, which didn't smell any better down here. The hatch was in the center of the cage's roof. The lock looked...odd, but not impossible. Janco removed the diamond pick and his tension wrench from the seam of his tunic, stuck them in his mouth, and climbed to the top. Hooking his legs around the top bars, he pulled his body to the center.

Now came the tricky part, picking the lock while hanging on. He stuck his arms through the bars and used his elbows to hold his weight. Not the most comfortable or easy to maintain position, he felt the strain in his shoulders almost immediately. Also nausea churned up his throat. Better hurry. He inserted the tension wrench and pick and worked on aligning the cylinder. Except, the metal tools grew warm in his fingers. The heat went from uncomfortable to painful in seconds. It scorched his skin and he dropped them with a curse.

Evil had protected the lock with magic. He cursed the man and the parents who'd spawned him. Janco dropped to the floor. He didn't want to acknowledge it, but he was well and truly stuck. He might have to suffer the indignity of being rescued. The amount of gloating would never cease.

He sat in a corner, waiting to see how this played out. The only thing he did know for certain. Yelena would never let him babyguard Liana ever again.

Soon he was bored. So very bored. Janco yawned and stretched his legs. He'd been stuck in this cage for years...well, maybe only a few hours but still! His cuts had stopped bleeding, and now throbbed dully. Beating an armed opponent while unarmed was quite the coup. Yet here he sat, counting the cuts--24--for something to do.

A slight noise drew his attention to the factory. A typical abandoned warehouse--can't these people ever pay their bills?--there were wooden crates stacked five high, winches and pullies with chains hanging from the ceiling. The cement floor was stained with old grease and things he'd rather not think about.

And then Onora, his boss, appeared on the other side of the bars. Janco scrambled to his feet and hissed, "It's a trap."

"I know and they did a good job of it, too," she said, gesturing toward him.

Janco bit back a groan. "Yell at me later. There are four of them plus a magician. Go and bring back a battalion."

"A battalion? Surely, you're not worth a battalion."

"Onora," he growled.

"Okay, okay. You're right four is too many for me. I'll be back with help."

But Janco spotted movement behind her. "Too late."


PART SIX

Onora spun and disappeared from sight. The familiar creepy crawlie sensation of magic caressed his skin--the evil magician was getting ready to strike. Evil and his goons drew their weapons and spread out to flank her. Janco hoped she'd already slipped past them. Little Miss Assassin was fast. Super fast.

Evil waved his hands and more magic pressed on Janco. Then Onora reappeared. She was just about to sneak past the thug on the left. Instead he rounded on her and lunged with his sword. Her knives seemed to jump into her hands. She countered with ease, but then the others rushed her. Onora turned and bolted. Four was too many for her. Plus the magician!

Janco grabbed the bars and tried to pull them apart. They didn't budge. Frustration and fear pumped through him as the clang of blades, grunts of the men, and shuffle of boots reached him. Every so often he caught sight of Onora fighting one or two or even three of the men. But then they'd disappear behind one of the crate stacks.

Desperate, Janco shoved his picks into his mouth. Burnt fingers be damned, he would get out and help her. Except a cheer rose from the men, stopping him. His blood turned to pure ice, freezing his heart.

Soon they carried a limp form toward him. Onora's brown hair had escaped her usual braid. They dumped her on the floor next to Janco's cage.

"Our client said dead or alive. What do you think? Should we kill her?" Evil asked his men.

They discussed her like she was a piece of meat. Janco wanted to rip their heads off and feed them to the snow cats.

Onora's pale gray eyes fluttered open. Disoriented and confused, she glanced around. "Janco?" She reached for him.

He knelt on the ground and clasp her hand through the bars. Suddenly filled with remorse--a new feeling for Janco--he said, "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I shouldn't have fought that loud mouth with Liana in my arms. I should have told someone about the magician instead of running after him. I shouldn't have entered the factory without back up. I'm sorry."

"You learned a lesson, then?" she asked.

"I--" He peered at her suddenly alert expression. He glanced at the goon squad. The men had stopped talking and stared at him with open amusement.

Janco released her hand and stood. "This is a trick! That's..." At a complete loss for words--a rarity--his mouth worked but no sound escaped his tight throat.

"No, it was a test," Valek said, stepping out from behind a crate along with Yelena, who carried Liana in her arms.

A test! That was worse. How could they? They didn't trust him? Betrayal, anger, sadness, and a bit of admiration--it was a hell of a set up to teach him a lesson--rolled through him.

"I guess I failed then," he said.

"There's no guessing about it," Yelena said.

"Come on, love," Valek said, taking her arm. "Time for the baby's bath."

Onora stood and dusted off her pants. "There's a reason I've implemented those new procedures. So this situation doesn't happen." She stared at him. Hard. "See that it doesn't happen again."

He nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Boys," she called. The goons and the magician followed her out.

"Wait!" He called. "What about me?"

"You got yourself into this mess. Get yourself out," she said over her shoulder.

Janco stood there. This had to be part of the trick. Right? They wouldn't really leave him locked in here. Then again, Yelena and Valek were not happy. He proved to be a bad babyguard. He waited a long time, but no one returned. Sighing, he eyed the lock. Maybe the magic had worn off and he wouldn't burn his fingers.

Nope. It remained super hot. He dropped down. The acrid stink of singed flesh filled his nose as he rubbed his fingers. He had to admit Onora more than proved her point. She had hired a magician! The Commander was either in on it or had no idea what she was up to. Kind of scary either way. Miserable, Janco plopped in the corner and rested his head on his knees.

Then a small giggle sounded to his right. He looked up, crawling toward him was Liana. Amazed he watched as the little girl slipped right through the bars. He straightened his legs and she crawled into his lap with a big smile. Clamped in one of her fists was a key. She put it into her mouth.

Janco pulled it out. "No, it's dirty."

That lower lip trembled.

Oh no. He suddenly remembered and pulled the teething ring from his pocket. Her eyes lit up and she munched on it with her single tooth, happy again.

"You're lucky that Liana loves her Uncle Janco," Yelena said.

He glanced up. Yelena and Valek stood there watching him.

"Sorry," Janco said. "I'm sure Uncle Ari will do a better job of babyguarding her."

"It depends if he passes his test or not," Valek said.

"You're going to test him, too?" Janco asked. His mood lifted at the thought.

"Not us, Onora. This is her test. We were just helping out."

Janco huffed, but had to grudgingly admit he'd been well played.

"But you can't tell him," Yelena added.

"I won't. There's no fun in that! Can I help with Ari's test?" Janco asked.

"Of course. You can babyguard Liana."

"I can?"

"Yes."

"Did you hear that, Liana?" Janco asked.

The baby gurgled.

"But next time, we're not leaving the castle. No adventures. Well...maybe not...we'll see."

"Janco." Valek's tone held a warning.

He leaned in close and whispered in her ear, "We just won't tell anyone."

THE END


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