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Eyebrows rising again, I said, “That does very little to explain why you felt it was important that we be here.”

“You’re here because of what you represent: the truth.” The senator smiled, boyish once more. “People are going to believe whatever you say. Your careers depend on how many dead folks your brother can prod with a stick, how many poems your friend can write, and how much truth you can tell.”

“So what if the things we say don’t paint you in a good enough light?” Buffy frowned, tilting her head. It would have looked like a natural gesture if I hadn’t known the silver moon-and-star earring dangling from her left ear was a camera that responded to head gestures. She was zooming in on the senator to catch his answer.

“If they don’t paint me in a good enough light, I suppose I wasn’t meant to be the President of the United States of America,” he said. “You want to dig for scandals, I’m sure my opponents have road maps for you to follow. You want to report on this campaign, you report what you see, and don’t worry about whether or not I’m going to like it. Because that doesn’t matter a bit.”

We were still staring at him, trying to frame responses to something that seemed about as realistic coming from a politician’s mouth as sonnets coming out of a zombie’s, when Emily Ryman walked over and started setting plates onto the table. I was grateful for the interruption. After the way the day had been going, I was running out of “surprised” and moving rapidly into the region of “mild shock,” and this was enough to give me a chance to regroup.

Emily sat once she’d finished putting the plates down, reaching for Senator Ryman’s hand. “Peter, will you say grace?”

“Of course,” he said. Shaun and I exchanged glances before joining hands with each other and the Rymans, closing the circle around the table. Senator Ryman bowed his head, closing his eyes. “Dear Lord, we ask that You bless this table and those who have come to gather around it. Thank You for the good gifts that You have given us. For the health of ourselves and our families, for the company and food we are about to enjoy, and for the future that You have seen fit to set before us. Thank You, oh Lord, for Your generosity, and for the trials by which we may come to know You better.”

Shaun and I left our eyes open, watching the senator as he spoke. We’re atheists. It’s hard to be anything else in a world where zombies can attack your elementary school talent show. Much of the country has turned back toward faith, however, acting under the vague supposition that it can’t hurt anything to have God on your side. I glanced at Buffy, who was nodding along with the senator’s words, eyes tightly closed. She’s a lot more religious than most people would guess. Her family is French Catholic. She’s been saying grace at any sort of large gathering since she was born, and she still attends a nonvirtual church on Sundays.

“Amen,” said the senator. We all echoed it with varying degrees of certainty.

Emily Ryman smiled. “Everybody, eat up. There’s more if you’re still hungry, but I want to eat too, so you’re going to have to serve yourselves after this round.” The senator got a kiss on the cheek to go with his fish tacos; the rest of us just got fed.

Not that Shaun was going to let lunch pass without a little light conversation. Of the two of us, he’s the gregarious one. Someone had to be. “Will you be coming along on the whole campaign, ma’am, or just this leg of it?” he asked, with uncharacteristic politeness. Then again, he’s always had a healthy respect for women with food.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to accompany this dog and pony show,” Emily said, dryly. “I think you kids are totally insane. Entertaining as all heck, and I love your site, but insane.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no,’ ” I said.

“Uh-uh. For one thing, I am not taking the kids out on the road. No way. The tutors they hire for these things are never the sort I approve of.” She smiled at the senator, who patted her knee in an unconsciously companionable fashion. “And they wind up seeing way too many reporters and politicians. Not the sort you want keeping company with a bunch of impressionable young kids.”

“Look how it’s warped us,” said Shaun.

“Exactly,” she said, unflustered. “Besides which, the ranch doesn’t run itself.”

I nodded. “Your family still manages an actual horse ranch, don’t they?”

“You know the answer to that, Georgia,” said the senator. “Been in Emily’s family since the late eighteen hundreds.”

“If you think the risk of zombie palominos is enough to make me give up my horses, you’ve never met a real horse nut,” she said, grinning. “Now, don’t get your back up. I know where you stand on the animal mass restrictions. You’re a big supporter of Mason’s Law, aren’t you?”

“In all recreational and nonessential capacities, yes,” I said.

Thanks to the Masons’ biological son, Shaun and I have often found ourselves with an element of unasked-for name recognition when dealing with people who work with animals. Before Phillip, no one realized that all mammals with a body mass of forty pounds or more could become carriers of the live-state virus, or that Kellis-Amberlee was happy to cross species, going from man to beast and back again. Mom put a bullet through her only son’s head, back when that was still something new enough to break you forever—when it felt like murder, not mercy. So yeah, I guess you could say I support Mason’s Law.

“I would, too, in your position,” Emily said. Her tone carried none of the accusations I’m used to hearing from animal rights activists; she was speaking the truth, and I could deal, or not, as I so chose. “Now, if everyone wants to tuck in, it’s the start of a long day—and a longer month.”

“Eat up, everybody, before your lunch gets cold,” added the senator, and reached for the mimosas. Shaun and I exchanged a look, shrugged in near-unison, and reached for our forks.