A new voice came into the discussion. “Problem solved!”

Everybody turned to look at a young woman perched on a chair at the back of the room. Brice had noticed her, naturally, when they first came in. First, because she was an unknown young female; secondly, because she was attractive, to boot. But his attention had soon become riveted on the queen, and he’d almost completely forgotten the presence of the other young woman.

That was odd, in a way, because the young woman sitting at the back of the room was quite a bit better-looking than the queen herself. Still not someone you’d call a beauty, true, but by any standard criteria of pulchritude she had Berry beat hands down. Her figure was fuller, for one thing, although she was also slender. For another, her somewhat darker complexion and really rich chestnut hair were a lot more striking than the queen’s. And while her blue eyes were not as dramatic as the queen’s green ones, they were still attractive in their own right.

What was her name? Brice tried to remember the initial introductions. Ruth, he thought.

“Problem solved,” she repeated, coming to her feet. “I come along too — I might even help in the distract-dumb-males-or-lesbians department, although obviously not as much as Sarah — but I can pose as Michael Alsobrook’s wife.” She pointed at Brice. “We can claim him as a child, very plausibly, given his somatic features. Michael and I might be older than we look, given prolong. That only leaves James to be accounted for and that might even be an advantage even if it’s necessary at all which is probably isn’t because by now the human genome is so mixed up with so many recessive features that keep popping up that you never know what a kid might look like but even if somebody assumes there’s no way that Michael could be the father I could certainly be his mother in which case” — here she gave Alsobrook a gleaming smile that was simultaneously fetching, amused and apologetic — “I’ve either been cheating on my husband or I’ve got loose habits, either of which might intrigue a nosy customs official –”

She hadn’t taken a single breath since she started the sentence. It was pretty impressive.

“– although we’ve got to face the fact that if anybody does a DNA match the whole charade goes into the incinerator and it’s the easiest thing in the world to gather DNA samples.”

“Actually, it wouldn’t,” said Ganny, whose spirits seemed to be perking up. “It might even help. The fact is that all of us except you are related — too damn ingrown, to be honest — and while your DNA won’t match, so what? There could any number of explanations for that. I can think of three offhand, two of which would certainly intrigue a nosy customs inspector with an active libido and an orientation toward females.”

Zilwicki and Cachat practically exploded. “No!” they both said, almost in unison.

Ruth glared at them. “Why?”

Zilwicki’s jaws tightened. “Because I’m responsible for your safety to the Queen, Princess. Both queens. If you get even hurt, much less killed, Berry’s just as likely to skin me alive as Elizabeth Winton.”

Princess, was it? Brice felt himself getting intrigued. That was less of a fantastical stretch than a young queen, after all — in fact, the more he thought about it, “queen” seemed rather stuffy — and the Ruth woman really was very attractive. Very talkative too, apparently, but that was okay with Brice. Seeing as how he’d probably be tongue-tied, anyway.

The princess jeered. “Don’t be stupid, Anton! If I’m killed — even hurt — there’s no way you’re still going to be alive either. Not with this plan. So what do you care what happens afterward? Or do you believe in ghosts — and think ghosts can be subjected to corporal punishment?”

Zilwicki glared at her. But . . . said nothing. Brice began to realize that Cachat and Zilwicki hadn’t been exaggerating when they said this mission was possibly dangerous.

Cachat tried a different tack. “You’ll blow the mission.” Sorrowfully but sternly: “Sorry, Ruth. You’re a brilliant analyst, but the fact remains that you’re not really suited for field work.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Too jittery? Too jabbery? And what do you think these three kids are? Suave secret agents? Who just somehow can’t keep their tongues from hanging out whenever they run into a female anywhere this side of nubile and short of matronly.”

She flashed Brice and his friends a quick smile. “S’okay, guys. I don’t mind and I’m sure Berry doesn’t either.”

Brice flushed. And made sure and certain his tongue was firmly inside his mouth. He had just encountered the second of the Great Truths, which was that a female intelligent enough to be attractive for that very reason, no matter what else, was also . . .

Intelligent. Bright. Perceptive. Hard to fool.

He felt a profound wish that a dragon might show up. Frightening, taloned, clawed, scaled, to be sure. But probably not very bright, and certainly not able to read his mind. Well. Read his limbic system. Being honest, there wasn’t all that much “mind” involved.

“Besides,” Ruth continued, “you’ll need somebody on Ganny’s ship who’s a computer and communications whiz. Anton, you can’t be two places at once. If things do go into the crapper, probably the only chance you’ll have of getting out is if somebody in the backup getaway ship can substitute for your skills manipulating God-knows-what in the way of Mesan security systems. ‘Cause you’re not likely to have time to do it, what with all the guns blazing in the getaway and probably having not much more than a tin can and some wires to worth with even if you did. Have enough time, that is.”

Now, she flashed that same quick smile at Uncle Andrew. “Meaning no offense.”

“None taken,” he said, smiling back. “I’m a whiz with anything mechanical or electrical, and I’m even pretty good with computer hardware. But that’s about it.”

Ruth looked back at Cachat and Zilwicki, triumphantly. “So there. It’s all settled.”

“I’m for it,” said Ganny forcefully. “In fact, I’m making it a condition. Either the princess comes with us, or the deal’s off. I could give you all sorts of reasons for that, but the only really important one is that I’m getting even with you for playing tricks on my boys.” She gave Brice and his friends a look that could best be described as disgusted. “Taking advantage of their stunted forebrains! Ed, put your tongue back in your mouth. You too, James.”

She said nothing to Brice. He felt very suave, although he’d have to double-check the dictionary to make sure the word meant what he thought it meant. Now that Princess Ruth was coming along, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to get away with his usual vocabulary habits. Use any long and/or fancy-sounding word you want, serene in the knowledge that your dummy cousins won’t know if you got it wrong.

Didn’t matter. What he was already thinking of as The Great Adventure would probably be better with a smart princess along. Even if such a fantastical creature was completely absent from the classics.