A little later, when Goth had gone off with her sisters, Pausert broached the subject of his next mission with Toll and Threbus. His relationship with the Witches of Karres was an interesting one. At least in theory, Captain Pausert was just an independent trader, with a fast armed merchant ship. But in practice he was part of the community of Karres. That was more about a willingness to do what was needed, than merely a reference to your citizenship or place of birth. And if Karres needed him, he was willing.

“The Chaladoor,” said Threbus, referring to a dangerous and mysterious region of space, the lair of pirates, the Megair Cannibals… at one time of Manaret and the Nuri globes lurking within the Tark Nembi cluster of dead suns and interstellar dust and debris.

“Oh?” said Captain Pausert warily. He’d survived one crossing of Chaladoor. Admittedly, he’d been in more danger from those inside his ship — spies and the notorious Agandar — than from forces outside it.

“There is something going on in that area of space. Since Manaret was destroyed, quite a few ships have risked the crossing. And none of them have made it. The Daal of Uldune has also thought to expand his power in that direction… And he has been repulsed.”

Pausert raised his eyebrows. He knew the hexaperson that was the cloned and telepathic ruler of the one-time pirate world rather well. Sedmon the Sixth was not a trivial foe. The Empire still trod warily around him, and the forces at his command. Whatever the danger was that lurked in the Chaladoor, it was something serious. “You… want me to do what, exactly?”

“You will be a kind of bait, to be honest, Pausert,” said Threbus. “All we want you to do is encounter the problem, and then run away as fast as you and the Sheewash drive can manage. The Chaladoor is a large, complex region. Karres could hunt for some years without encountering whatever the problem is. Problems tend to avoid whole worlds which are also spacecraft.”

He looked at his grand nephew with a twinkle. “And we do really mean ‘run’, Pausert. You’ve proved yourself far more than just capable with problems. And you’ve taken good care of my daughters in the process. But not with something that was big enough to deal with eight of the Daal’s cruisers and a battle wagon. They barely had time to say they were under attack on sub-radio, before being destroyed. Whatever it is, it is no easy foe to deal with.”

Threbus cleared his throat and continued. “You have a ship which is very nearly the equal of a single cruiser anyway, as far as speed and detection equipment is concerned. We’ll have it refitted with some more of the very latest equipment, at our expense. Your armaments are not quite to the same standard, but they are certainly up to holding off an enemy until you can engage the Sheewash drive. Now that you have also mastered the drive, and with Goth and the Leewit to help you in emergencies, we think you should be able to deal with running away. Leave us to the clean up!”

“You wouldn’t take unnecessary risks with the girls anyway,” said Toll, smiling. “My daughter has already made her plans for you. And you wouldn’t be foolish enough to try and spoil them now, would you?”

Goth’s plans were to marry the captain as soon as she was of marriageable age. At first the captain had not taken her terribly seriously — just as Threbus had apparently not taken Toll’s similar plan too seriously. And see where it had got Threbus! As time had gone on and Pausert and Goth had shared adventure and danger together, Pausert had come to realize that he was very fond of her too. But he was a normal man, and she wasn’t yet properly grown up.

Yet… the witches did have some other avenues open to them. He knew that Threbus must be at least eighty years old by now. Yet he looked to be no more than in his mid-thirties. He also knew from what they had learned on Uldune that Toll too could change her age at will. As they turned to leave, Pausert cleared his throat and braced himself to ask, “Er. Toll. About age shifts…”

Toll turned back and raised one eyebrow at him, with a quizzical half-amused, half-dangerous expression on her face. “What?” she said, in a way that would have made most men say “oh nothing. Nothing at all.” But Pausert was quite brave. Or quite stupid. He was not too sure which of he two he was being right now.

“I was wondering,” he said, “about, well, the age shift thing.”

Toll smiled. “Oddly enough, Goth’s been raising the same subject lately. The answer is ‘no,’ Captain Pausert. Compared to Nikkeldepain our way of raising children may seem a little strange to you. Karres children are very independent. They have to be. But, captain, they are still children, and need to go through stages of development, just like any other child. There are a number of important formative experiences Goth still has to go through. We did not let our children go with you lightly, Captain Pausert. We have ways of knowing that you are absolutely trustworthy. And anyway, because of the parent-pattern in their heads, we’re around in a way, even when we’re not.”

Captain Pausert had encountered the Toll pattern in Goth. He’d wished that he too could have a resident instructor and mentor, sometimes. But Karres had decided that he was best left to learn on his own. “I’ve always done my best for them all,” he said. “And if you think that is best for Goth, then we will just have to let it all happen at its own speed.”

Toll patted his shoulder. “And it will. Take a step back from it, if you can. Age shift is one of the things we don’t teach the young witches. Every single child among them wants to be grown up instantly. What child doesn’t? Well, we found that although they can cope very easily with the physical changes in their bodies, it’s not the same with their minds. Only time seems to achieve that properly.” She cocked her head slightly and smiled. “See, it wouldn’t just be an older Goth… my middle daughter is quite an old soul in a young body sometimes. But can you imagine what it would be like if the Leewit could suddenly choose to be grown up, or at least have a grown-up body?”

That was quite a thought! “Could make applying a piece of tinklewood fishing rod adapted to be a switch very interesting,” said the captain. “I think I see your point. I don’t think the galaxy is quite ready for that yet.”