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Somebody coughed softly, waking Pepper from her light doze. She wistfully glanced around for Iron, but it seemed she was alone this morning.

Ash, one of the warriors from Fury's faction, stood in her doorway, her body language showing caution but no tension. "Flint and I spotted a party of Raksura earlier this morning. They should be here before midday."

"How large?" asked Pepper.

Ash shrugged her spines. "Small. Probably the trading party the groundlings mentioned a few nights ago."

Not for the first time, Pepper wondered if it were usual for line-grandfathers to have their own faction of Raksura and use them to infiltrate the groundlings for information. She'd never seen any indication in the other Courts she'd visited, but then, she would bet any visitors to Pebble Meadow would have no idea what Fury was thinking behind his irritable expression.

"A queen, a few warriors and Arbora, from what we could see," Ash continued.

Pepper groaned. "So we'll have to greet them formally." Suddenly Iron's absence was more irritating. "Have you told Hill yet?"

"Coal is taking care of that," said Ash, naming the third of her clutchmates.

Pepper stood and stretched, every spine standing on end. "If you see Iron, send him up here," she told Ash. The warrior's expression didn't flicker, but Pepper suspected she also saw how pointless the request was.

Ash took her leave silently.

--

Pepper went through three different combinations of bracelets, necklace and circlet before she settled on one she felt sufficiently impressive.

Iron had failed to miraculously appear at any time during the morning, which probably meant he and Brush had got wind of the incoming trade party and wanted nothing to do with it. While Brush was usually Pepper's willing accomplice in getting Iron to cooperate with his duties as first consort, Brush hated strangers as much as Iron did. Perhaps even more so, given his background.

Crown was waiting for her outside her bower when she finished her preparations. His spines rippled nervously. "Fury asked me to escort you to the greeting chamber if Iron didn't turn up."

She gave him a gentle smile. "Thank you, Crown." If she couldn't have her consort, she could at least have the finest specimen of a warrior she had ever had the fortune to meet.

Crown relaxed at her approval. He had adapted to his warrior's body amazingly well, in most respects, but sometimes it seemed he was still expecting to be the small and invisible mentor he'd been before the change.

They swept into the room behind Fury. Crown backed off to a respectful distance as soon as they entered.

They exchanged greetings and introductions with the newcomers, the air stiff with formality.

"I was given to understand that you had a consort," stated the queen, looking Pepper up and down curiously.

"I do," said Pepper, not letting any of her tension show. "Iron is indisposed at the moment."

The queen's spines rippled as she obviously debated whether or not to take offense.

"He did leave some unique offerings for our trade today, however," continued Pepper smoothly. "They are some of his personal favourites." Glancing at the queen's own decorations, she decided to start with the musical boxes, then the kinetic jewellery.

The queen's spines rose in anticipation. "I would be very interested to see." So, this was the purpose of the visit after all. That would make this easier.

--

When Pepper returned to her bower, Iron had reappeared, curled up in groundling form, his cheek smudged with dark oil and something else blackening his fingers. She watched him sleep for a moment, not managing to stifle her smile.

He woke after a moment. "Pepper?" he mumbled, turning away from the light.

"Did you sleep at all last night?" she asked.

"Brush and I were working on something," he replied, which meant no.

"We have a trading party visiting," she said, with a hint of reproach. "It would have been polite for you to greet them by my side."

Iron groaned. "I've already had this talk from Crown," he whined.

"Well, we had to do some fast talking to convince the visiting queen not to take offense, but we traded three of your kinetic bracelets for enough herb cuttings to keep the mentors happy for months."

"Knew you could do it, Pepper," Iron mumbled. "You're the best."

Pepper sighed heavily. "I shouldn't have to," she protested, her smile threatening to come back.

Iron didn't reply, having fallen asleep again. Her duty dealt with, Pepper left him to his sleep.

She'd almost caused an incident the last time a queen had asked if she didn't want a more 'traditional' consort. Whatever Iron lacked in attention to his duty - which was considerable - his trinkets were a worthy addition to the Court's trading assets.

END