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From WHITE@DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU Tue May 12 10:32:53 1992 Received: from DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU by eff.org with SMTP id AA26738 (5.65c/IDA-1.4.4/pen-ident for ); Tue, 12 May 1992 10:32:44 -0400 Message-Id: <199205121432.AA26738@eff.org> Received: from DUVM by DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU (IBM VM SMTP R1.2.2MX) with BSMTP id 3297; Tue, 12 May 92 10:29:47 EDT Date: Tue, 12 May 92 10:29:37 EDT From: "Avid Reader - Fledgling Writer" To: RITA@EFF.ORG Status: OR 1 / DDDDD ZZZZZZ // D D AAAA RRR GGGG OOOO NN N Z I NN N EEEE || D D A A R R G O O N N N Z I N N N E || Volume 1 ==========================================================+|) D D AAAA RRR G GG O O N N N Z I N N N E || Issue 1 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- DargonZine Volume 1, Issue 1 11/04/88 Cir 687 -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- Contents -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ DAG Dafydd Editorial Unlikely Partners, Pt 2 Max Khaytsus 12-16 Naia, 1013 Runaway Michelle Brothers 29 Seber, 1012, and 16 Naia, 1013 Steel Souls John Sullivan 10-11 Yule, 1013 Inquiries John Doucette 29 Yuli-7 Sy, 1013 Trial by Fire, Prologue M. Wendy Henniquin 6 Sy, 1013 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Dafydd's Amber Glow Hello, readers! Here it is, the first issue of the 'replacement' - or rather, continuation - of FSFNet. As the new Editor, I hope that DargonZine serves you all as well as my predecesor's magazine did. DargonZine is not really a replacement for FSFNet, but rather a vehicle for the continuation of the Dargon Project, which made up a substantial part of the material in FSFNet. DargonZine will not be publishing anything non-Dargon, but R. Allen Jervis (C78KCK@IRISHMVS) has consented to take up the slack and publish any non-Dargon SF or Fantasy that anyone out there would like to write and/or read. This first issue contains five stories, three from authors new to the project. The first is from Max Khaytsus, and continues his "Unlikely Partners" story, Part 1 of which was in FSFNET Vol11N2. The second story, "Runaway", is by our first new author Michelle Brothers. The first part of the story provides some background to the rest of the story, and the second part, which happens some 9 months later, happens shortly after Max's story ends - in fact, they cross to a minor extent. The third story is from another new author, John Sullivan. "Steel Souls" gives us a little insight into the character of Ittosai. It takes place between "Worthy of the Title" and "A Visit to Connall", which appeared in FSFNet Vol10N5 and Vol11N3 respectively, before Ittosai has become the Castellan of Connall. The fourth story is by John Doucette (our third new author) and is titled "Inquiries", which introduces some foreign intrigue. And last is the beginning of an exciting new story line by M. Wendy Henniquin called "Trial by Fire". A well packed issue for the initial issue of DargonZine - I hope that you readers will enjoy it. Dafydd, Editor DargonZine (m.k.a. John L White) (b.c.k.a. WHITE@DUVM.bitnet) ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Unlikely Partners Part 2 by Max Khaytsus (b.c.k.a khaytsus%tramp@boulder.colorado.edu) Terell poured together the last of the solutions. If his books and speculations were right, he would be able to keep the virus alive for days. Finding a cure would be profitable, but how often would a cure for lycanthropy be needed in a civilized land? To turn a profit he would have to have a disease to cure. If only there was a way to make people get the disease...and of course in sight of profit, there is always a way! Deep in thought Terell started his walk home. The first thing he needed was a constant source of the virus, then a place to spread it. By the time Kera came downstairs to breakfast, Rien was already up, waiting for her. To her it seemed he invested far too much trust into a common street thief. At least more than she would. Most people don't just pick up thieves off the street and hope for the best. It's not like she had any plans to stab him in the back or anything, but he was still far too trusting. "I didn't grow any new body hair last night," Kera said, slumping down in a chair across from Rien. "Good morning," he answered. "I take it you're late because you stopped to check?" "I'm used to getting up late, since I do most of my work in the late afternoon and evening." "Warriors get up with the chickens," Rien said, motioning for the innkeep to serve breakfast. "I was wondering about your sleeping habits," Kera grinned. "So what do you want me to do first?" "After breakfast we need to get your equipment and I want a wizard to check you over. Then we will worry about your training." "Sorry, I don't do wizards," Kera said, looking over what the bar maid placed before her. "If you want to be apprenticed, you will have to do what I say, especially if it is to save your life." Kera's eyes narrowed. "Why?" "I don't take apprentices so that they foam at the mouth and howl at the moon," Rien answered calmly. "Why didn't you just leave me? Or kill me? I stole from you, hurt you! For God's sake, I wanted to kill you!" "That's not my way," Rien continued in his calm tone. "I do not kill for pleasure or sport. Life is a right I can neither grant to, nor revoke from an individual." "Even in defense of yourself?" "Defense is different. Yesterday and the day before were different." "Your eyes changed color yesterday!" Kera remembered. Rien's voice became even quieter. "A gypsy once told me that what you saw happened derives from another duality within me." "Like what?" Kera leaned forward, not quite realizing that she was also beginning to whisper. "It's nothing that should concern you at the moment," Rien said. The rest of the meal passed without a word. "Where is she, old bat?" Cril screamed, throwing the old woman to the ground. "I don't know. She never came back..." was the weak response. "You're lying!" This time there was no answer. "Put her in the blocks," Cril breathed his anger to the guards. Kera had become very important to Liriss two days ago, when she made the biggest theft since she started. Apparently that was also enough to have two of Liriss' men arrested and two more beaten beyond recognition. Whomever that purse belonged to, was seemingly mad about the whole affair. For that matter, so was Liriss. Cril stepped back to allow the guards to drag out the old maid. "Be you damned!" she hissed as they half carried her out. He restrained himself from the urge to break her neck. Cril took the time to dress in medium armor before before presenting his information to Liriss. There was no reason to expose one's self to unnecessary danger. His boss has been known to kill people for as little as saying "good morning". Naturally those mornings were in no way good. This was another morning that did not seem good to Cril. All he was able to learn was that the girl was last seen leaving the alley with a tall, blond man. Odds are she never even made it inside the building. That was more than reason enough to believe the old chamber maid and believe her he did, but she was going to drown just for a show of force, for the memory of all those before her and all those yet to come...and most of all, for these who may have known the answer to his question and withheld information. Cril knocked on a door and entered. On the far side of the room stood Liriss, holding a nearly full wine glass, staring out the window in deep thought. "Sir!" Cril began, but was abruptly interrupted. "Spare me your excuses. I heard what you did." Cril took a single step back in fear. "The maid is too old to serve properly, but should you lay another hand on any of my staff, no matter how decrepit, you shall be joining them in their fate." Cril drew in a breath of relief. Refraining from punishment would not be hard. Placing the glass on the window sill, Liriss turned around. His harsh features expressed anger. "If you do not locate Kera in a week, don't bother coming back." "Grandfather!" yelled the young girl. "Some big guy wants to see you!" Rien smiled in spite of his serious visit. There was some innocent, naive quality in children that always produced this reaction. "Oh, I'm coming!" he heard the wizard's voice. "Doesn't anyone know I work at this time?" His soft expression changed at the sight of Rien and Kera. "I don't want you here and I certainly don't want her here. Go." Rien blocked the closing door with his foot. "You have to help me. You are the only expert on this in town." "No," the wizard insisted. "What I know is only history. I am no alchemist. There are plenty of others who are better equipped to help you. Please, go now." There was no arguing with the man and Rien was not about to try. He could always challenge a fighter or a thief, but uninvited pesterance of a mage could be costly. "Just one thing," he finally asked. "Tell me if she has the disease." Unwillingly Taishent pulled out the white orb and taking a step towards Kera, uttered the incantation. A faint green glow illuminated his hand. Rien looked at the glow with a feeling of helplessness. No explanations needed to be given, but at least now the truth was clearly available. "Thank you," he said quietly and taking Kera by her arm, lead her away from the door. "Wait!" Taishent called out. "If you are unable to find help in the city, I hear there is an old woman living deep in the woods south of Dargon. She may be able to help." Rien wanted to turn around to thank the man again, but something inside of him urged him to keep going. In the morning of the following day, Rien returned to visit Terell, who he had not seen since the day of his initial visit. Many changes had taken place in the alchemist's mind since then. "I can't have you running around all the time!" Terell yelled at Rien. "I need you to provide me samples when I need them, not at your leisure!" "I came here to get a cure, not to be bled into a glass. There is only so much blood I can provide for you." Terell paced his lab, glancing at filled and empty glassware. "How can you expect me to find you a cure if I have no samples to study?" Rien shrugged. "How can I expect to be cured if there is no life fluid in me?" Grabbing a vial off the shelf, Terell thrust it to Rien. "Drink this. It will relieve your fatigue." And indeed it did so. With a single sip Rien collapsed to the floor, spilling the potion and breaking the vial. The sound of breaking glass filled his ears even after darkness filled his eyes. Kera searched out the scribe's cart at the market place and carefully approached, searching the crowd for familiar faces. Public appearances like this could be dangerous now. "Ellis, do you have the book I asked for?" she inquired of the shifty man watching the cart. He glanced around and motioned her to follow him to the side of an enclosed booth. Shielded by the wall, he produced a book and handed it to Kera. "The Realities of Myths" read the silver lettering on the cover. Kera flipped it open to reveal the seal of Dargon on the inside. The book immediately snapped shut. "You stole this from the Duke's library?" she almost exclaimed. "You said you only wanted to borrow it for a few days..." "And Rish Vogel just handed it to you?" "Well, no...it's kind of on a secretive loan." Hiding the book in the folds of her cloak, Kera thanked Ellis. "I'll have it back to you in a few days," she promised. "No hurry. No one knows what happened to it. Keep it." Kera smiled and turned to leave. "Wait," Ellis stopped her. "There are a lot of people out there who want to see you dead. Be careful. I heard some men are looking for you. I am sure if you come back now and tell them you were detained, they won't punish you." Pulling the hood of her cloak up, Kera disappeared into the crowd. The decision she was about to make would be very final. The ringing continued in Rien's ears even after his sight returned. With great effort he focused his eyes on his surroundings. He was sitting upright, in some laboratory, with his back against a wall. A heavy wool blanket was draped over him. Someone was spilling some liquid down his chin. "Stop dribbling and drink it," he heard Kera's voice and turned his head. His detached thoughts registered a liquid splashing on the blanket. 'The potion!' he thought, trying to avoid the glass, but only succeeded in spilling some more of it. "It's only water," he heard Kera's voice again. "Drink it." He did. A minute passed as Rien tried to compose himself. For some reason his body still did not follow the instructions he gave it. 'What was that damn potion?' "Terell..." Rien tried to voice his thoughts. "He's not here," Kera's voice sounded again and he again felt the glass at his mouth and swallowed. "My clothes..." Rien struggled, realizing the blanket was the only thing he had on. "Bring me his clothes!" Kera ordered and Rien struggled to look up. A vague shape and running footsteps were the only evidence of another presence. "You didn't have any when I found you," Kera told Rien and gave him another sip of the water. Rien's head was beginning to clear and the ringing in his ears subsided. Again he looked around the lab. The most noticeable feature was a body in a pool of blood. "Who was that?" Rien asked. "An assistant, I guess," Kera answered. "He tried to stop me, so I jabbed him a few times." Rien tried not to look disapproving. "How long was I here?" "Today is the 15th of Naia; it's past sunset." "Almost two days..." Rien murmured. "What did that damned idiot do to me?" "There are a lot of scratches on your right arm," Kera said cautious not to disclose that her examination had been more thorough than that. Rien pulled his arm from under the blanket. It barely responded. On it were three deep incisions that still produced traces of blood. "He bled me. Damned idiot!" Running footsteps again filled the room and a young boy appeared with a bundle of clothes. He carefully handed them to Kera and backed off. "Are you strong enough to get up?" Kera asked Rien. He nodded and stood up, clutching the blanket. "I assume you want me to turn around," Kera grinned, handing Rien his clothes. "Up to you," he answered and let the blanket drop. Kera instantly spun about to face the wall. "I see you have no problems with modesty." "Do you?" Rien asked, starting to dress. "I might not have had a great childhood, but I did have some social values implanted in me." "Oh, those..." Rien said. "Modesty was not a very big thing where I grew up." "This might come out a bit foolish, but just where did you grow up?" "East of here, a very long distance away." "Past the mountain range?" Kera insisted. "Past the mountains," Rien agreed. "In the forest on the other side." "I've never even been outside of Dargon," Kera sighed. "You may get your chance soon. I just lost all my trust of Terell. Tell me what happened in the last two days." Kera leaned against a table, still facing the wall. "I went to see a friend yesterday morning, asking about that book you wanted..." "Did you get it?" Rien interrupted her. "It should be on that big table with straps," Kera answered and continued her story. "He told me to come back in a day, so I returned to the inn to wait for you. I began getting worried by the time it got dark, but decided to wait until morning. In the morning I picked up your book and went back to the inn to see if you were back, but only found that my room had been ransacked. Yours wasn't touched, so I had all of our stuff moved to an inn down the street. I don't think anything was taken. "It was late afternoon by the time I decided to go look for you. You mentioned Terell before you left yesterday, so this shop seemed like a good start. Terell wasn't here, but his apprentices were. The big one didn't want to let me see the work area, so I grew suspicious and started a fight with him. I guess all bookworms are weak by nature." Kera paused, having finished her story. She waited a moment, then asked. "Are you done yet?" "One way to find out," Rien answered. Kera cautiously turned around. Rien sat on the large table in the middle of the room, legs crossed under him, examining the book she had brought. He was dressed. "This book belongs to the Duke of Dargon," Rien accused. "Uh-huh," Kera said carefully. "You said it was very important, so I spared no effort." "Doesn't matter either way," Rien said. "We'll be dead, should we fail. Liriss is after you, Terell has it in for me, the town guard is probably after us both and with lycanthropy on top of this...seems pretty grim, doesn't it?" Kera simply nodded. "Let's go get our stuff. We'll meet Terell here in the morning and be out of town by night fall." Kera moved about the room in the bulky field plate. "This is very heavy," she complained to Rien. "How do you expect me to fight in it?" "You'll get used to it," he said, checking to make sure nothing was left behind. "A horse saddled for the first time is also uncomfortable, but it gets used to carrying both gear and rider." "A saddle is probably more comfortable than this," Kera continued. "This is only for your protection," Rien said. "You'll get used to wearing it and fighting in it or you won't live very long. Grab your pack and let's go." The innkeeper was the only one up downstairs. He lazily looked at Rien and Kera clanking their way down the stairs. A look of surprise spread on his face. "Leaving so early, sir?" he inquired of Rien. "One has to get up early to go hunting," Rien responded. "Looks like you're ready to hunt a dragon," the innkeep laughed. "A small one," Rien said and placed some money on the counter. "A deposit for the room," he said. "We will return." "Do you require assistance with your horses?" the innkeep hurried to ask, placing the coins in his pocket. "Thank you, but no," Rien answered. "Then good luck on your hunt!" "You intend to come back?" Kera asked Rien once outside the inn. "No, but if we are traced this far, the innkeep's belief that we will return may delay pursuit," Rien answered. "I believe in dealing with only one problem at a time." "Do you think Liriss will follow us?" "Might. I'd rather expect the worst and be faced with only pleasant surprises." He stopped near Kera's horse. "Get on." "How!?" "Place your left leg in..." "In armor?" Kera interrupted him. "Unless you have other means of protection, yes." "It looks like it's going to rain," Kera said. "The armor might rust." "Well maintained armor will not rust from getting wet," Rien answered. "Get on." Kera looked at the horse apprehensively, then grabbing the sides of the saddle and placing her left foot in the stirrup, tried to pull herself up. The horse shifted uncomfortably. "Don't pull," Rien instructed. "Jump up and swing your leg over, just like you do without armor." "Yeah, right!" Kera exclaimed and after a moment of preparation did so, landing in the saddle with a grunt. "That hurts!" "Be glad it wasn't full plate," Rien answered, swinging into the saddle of his own horse. "Does that hurt men too?" Kera asked mockingly. "Only if they don't know what they are doing," Rien answered. The two made it down to Terell's laboratory-shop by sunrise. Using the key they took from the store a few hours before, they unlocked the door and walked in. The boy, who they locked in, hurried to the back of the room in fear. "Give him some food and have him stay in the other room," Rien instructed Kera, relocking the door behind them. After Kera left, he started looking over the vials located on the shelves. Things useful on quests were often found in places like this and while not having a lot of experience with magic, Rien felt he could lay a little claim to knowledge of herb lore and simple alchemy...especially if labels were available. By the time Kera returned, four of the vials stood separately on the table. "What's this?" she asked, taking a seat across from the door. "Three of them save lives, the other takes them," Rien continued rummaging through the shelves. "It's going to be a long journey. We may need them all." Kera nodded slightly. "What are you going to do about Terell?" "Listen to him. He may have a good reason for what he did." "What if he does?" "Let him continue his work." "And if he doesn't?" Rien faced Kera. "A reason that I do not find satisfactory does not necessarily have to be bad. When he provides his reason, I'll make my judgement." "And the boy?" Kera asked. "The child is only an apprentice. He did only what he was told; I can't blame him for that." "Sometimes I wish things were simpler," Kera sighed. "The simpler your life, the harder you would have to work to keep it that way," Rien answered, finally giving up on the rest of Terell's potions. He sat down, looking at Kera, who turned to face him. "A maid in Liriss' chambers told me to be careful of what I wish for. Someday someone may grant it..." "And you won't like the results," Rien finished the famous proverb. "I don't believe that's true." "What do you mean not true? Do you think it's not true for everything?" "I don't think any of it is true. It depends on who hears your wishes, not what the wishes are." Kera opened her mouth to speak, but the sound of a key turning in the door lock forced both her and Rien to take cover behind the furniture in the shop. A moment later the door opened and someone walked in. "Kapatil? Baska?" Terell's voice sounded as the door slammed shut. Rien permitted the footsteps to get past him, before getting out from behind his cover. Terell spun around and tried to back out, but the door to the laboratory was locked. "I will give you one chance only to explain your actions," Rien stated. Terell's response was drawing a dagger. "Damn half-breed! I should have killed you two days ago." Rien's eyes flared as he drew his sword. "Damn bastard half-breed!" Terell muttered again, swinging his dagger. It impacted against Rien's chest plate, doing no more damage than a light scratch. Rien thrust his sword forward, flawlessly penetrating the alchemist's upper chest. He looked on as his victim slid down to the ground, letting out his final breath. With it the truth of the events of the last two days fled forever. Kera's hand clamped down on Rien's shoulder. "Half-breed?" He shook his head. "An old, evil man." Kera looked at the slain body against the wall for a moment. "I guess we're finished here. Let's leave before the town guard finds us." "We're not leaving just yet," Rien walked over to the main door and relocked it. "Right now we need to get some rest." "We can't stay here!" Kera protested. "We'll be discovered! With him!" She thrust her hand out, pointing to Terell's body, grimly staring at the arguing pair. "I will put up a sign that will announce the shop as being closed for the day and at nightfall we will leave town. One day will not steer anyone's suspicion and we need the rest. At least you do." "I have been up for almost two days now," Kera admitted. "But being in your shoes does not seem like an appealing alternative." Rien smiled. "Be ready to leave at dusk." Cril and three of his men stepped out of the latest inn to be checked. Doing the work himself made him feel better, since a found trail was quickly lost the day before, due to a subordinate's negligence. This last visit uncovered a lot more than Cril had hoped to learn. Kera and her new companion left early in the morning on a hunting trip. There were two clear alternatives--follow them or wait. The wait could be extremely long. Their rooms were paid for a week in advance and Cril had now well under that for a deadline. He looked up and down the street in deep thought. There was no need to test Liriss' threat by waiting around. To follow would give a better chance of success. That was the only thing he had left to do. "Spread out," Cril told his men. "Two armored individuals can't be hard to find. Ask everyone!" The guards proceeded in different directions. Shortly before dusk Rien sat down to speak with Terell's remaining assistant. The boy sat quietly in a corner, fearing to even bring his eyes up to look at Rien. "You are afraid of me. Why?" The boy did his best to regain his posture. "You killed Master Terell..." "And you are afraid of my companion as well?" "I saw her kill Kapatil..." the boy whispered. "Do you think we will kill you?" Rien inquired. "Yes," came the barely audible response. "If you promise to do something for us, I promise we will let you go..." "You do?" the boy looked up. Rien nodded. "You must promise not to tell anybody that we were here or what we did and you will be free to go." "Really?" the youngster's eyes looked hopeful. "But you must promise! And keep that promise...or we will come back and find you." Rien's expression was hard. "You will say that some men came and killed everyone and that you were scared and ran away." The boy nodded silently, dropping to his knees. "I swear it, Sir!" Rien waited patiently to stress the moment. "You will leave after we do." He quickly got up and exited the laboratory. "What happened?" Kera asked him in the other room. "I wish I didn't have to scare him like I did," Rien admitted. "He looks no older than ten years." "Did he agree to keep quiet?" "I said we'll come back and find him is he tells anyone... I haven't seen anyone that scared in along time." "Will we?" "If anyone learns of what we've done here tonight, I fear we will no longer have to worry about that issue," Rien said. "Do you need help with your armor?" he tried to change the topic. "Just a little," Kera said. "My arms don't bend backwards." At dusk they unlocked all of the doors and set on their way out of Dargon in a strong downpour. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Runaway Part 1 by Michelle Brothers (b.c.k.a. brothers@tramp.uucp) "What the hell do you mean she's disappeared?" bellowed Teran, slamming his flagon onto the table, slopping liquid over the brim. "Damn it, Apollo, you were supposed to be keeping an eye on her!" Blue eyes flashed dangerously in the man's fair face. Apollo toyed with the idea of beating a hasty retreat, but decided against it. The fact that Teran would probably beat him to the door was almost as daunting as what would happen to him when he was caught. "I followed her into the market, just like you told me to," said Apollo, keeping his voice steady. "She shopped around a bit, bought a few things, then the next thing I knew, she was gone." Teran's glare darkened. Apollo forced himself not to cringe under the man's penetrating gaze. "You're one of the best people I've got and you lost her." Teran's voice was quieter than his glare and sounding all the more dangerous for it. His fingers drummed rhythmically on the table top, near his double edged eating dagger. He stood up slowly. "I have the twins looking for her..." Apollo said desperately. "That doesn't excuse-" The door to the room slammed open, effectively cutting Teran OFF. A PAIR OF IDENTICAL BROWN HAIRED BOYS STOOD, FRAMED IN THE doorway. Apollo whirled at the sound. "Well?" he snapped, masking his relief at the interruption in anger. "She's not in the city anymore," said one of the pair, fingering the cheap copper medallion around his neck. "She wasn't in the market or the area around it." "I checked the docks," said the other twin. He looked from one glaring man to the other. "According to...someone I know there, she got passage on the Dolphin's Anchor. It's headed for the mainland. A city by the name of Foroni." Apollo paled and Teran let loose an explosive string of curses. The twins looked at each other, then slipped back out the door. Their hastily retreating footsteps could be heard over the blond man's muttering. Apollo turned back to Teran, who had sat down again. "Have to get her back here," he murmured, oblivious to Apollo's presence. "Can't make a damn move without her." "Why?" "What?" Teran's head snapped up, realizing that he hadn't been left alone by the twins exit. He smoothed the obvious anger from his face and forced himself to relax back into the chair. "Why can't we make a move without Eliowy? Why is she so important?" Apollo leaned against the wall and folded his arms, looking more confident than he actually felt. Steady black eyes studied Teran from across the room. "She has to lead the attack from the castle," said Teran frankly. "You know that." "There are other people far more capable to lead that attack," snapped Apollo, pushing himself off the wall. Black hair flopped into his eyes. "Why her? Why not you or Vargis or even me?" Teran was silent. "Does it have something to do with that little trip she went on last year?" pressed Apollo, advancing a little closer to the table. "Something she found along the way to make her more formidable, perhaps?" Teran was still silent, but his bright blue eyes glittered. "A new power, perhaps?" Apollo advanced another step. "Magic, maybe? IS THERE magic involved?" "No!" Teran didn't specify which question the violent negative was appended to. "Then what the hell is it? Why is Eliowy so gods-damned important?" Teran rose slowly to his full, nearly seven foot, height, glaring down at his black haired companion. Apollo held his ground stubbornly. "That is quite enough," said Teran, expression completely neutral. "I want you to find the Anchor's destination and make arrangements for me to follow. Don't argue!" he snapped, as Apollo opened his mouth. "You will go now and do as I've told you. I'll have the bribe money ready as soon as you find me a ship." There was a brief stare-off then Apollo nodded sharply and headed for the door. He looked back. "I'll find out, Teran. Sooner OR LATER." HE LOCKED GAZES WITH TERAN, THEN LEFT, LEAVING THE DOOR open. Teran sat down once more. "Hopefully later," he said softly. "Hopefully much later." By the time Eliowy arrived in the town of Dargon, it was pouring rain. Water dripped down her hood, into her eyes and down her neck, chilling her. Her well worn boots were covered with mud and they squished with each step. Her small pack, which contained little more than a change of clothes, a few personal belongings and a hand harp, had become almost unbearably heavy during the last hour of walking. The sword banging at her hip was like a dead weight, dragging her down. Eliowy stared down the road leading into the center of town. It was deserted except for a few heavily cloaked figures hurrying to their various destinations amid the clusters of houses. None of the people seemed like the type to give directions. Eliowy sighed deeply, pulled her hood further down over her head, scattering droplets against the rain and resumed her trek into the city, her way dimly lit by an occasional heavy shielded street lantern. A few of the buildings along the way were lit, but none of them were an inn; not that she had the money to pay for a room. Three...no, four coppers would barely get her an indecent meal, never mind alone a dry place to sleep. "Damn," mumbled Eliowy. "Maybe I can play for my supper. Maybe they'll let me spend the night too. Maybe they'll like my playing enough to hire me." Lightning flashed directly overhead, closely followed by thunder. The rain abruptly increased. "Maybe I should worry about finding an inn first.," decided Eliowy glumly. "Nothing like a dose of cold, wet reality to ruin a perfectly good fantasy." She resumed walking, keeping her head lowered to keep the rain out of her eyes. She had walked about a block when a glimmer in the mud caught her eye. A silver piece lay in the road, rain having washed the mud from it. Lightning constantly flickering from cloud to cloud, caused the coin to flash dimly. Eliowy waited for another burst of lightning before bending down to pick it up. What a stroke of luck! "What have you found, youngster?" someone asked. Eliowy jerked back in surprise, tripping over her cloak, as she tried to stand. She found herself staring up at a trio of hooded, armored men. A lantern made it impossible for her to get much more detailed. The foremost figure moved a step closer and lantern light glinted off the long wood and metal sheath at his side. Lieutenant Kalen Darklen stared down at the young woman sitting on the ground before him. Rain ran down her face like tears, plastering her hair to the cheeks and soaking her tunic. Lantern light glinted off cloak clasp and weapon hilt and gave her eyes an odd amber shine. "You all right, miss?" Kalen asked, taking a step forward when the girl didn't get up. Her fall hadn't been hard enough to do damage, so there was no reason for her to continue sitting in the mud. He reached down to give a hand up. Eliowy scrambled back as the foremost figure reached out towards her, not hearing the man's concerned question. She stumbled to her feet, putting muddy foot prints on the hem of her cloak and tangling her scabbard in its folds. She stared at Kalen as he drew his hand back. The pair eyed one another for a few moments. Kalen with curiosity. Eliowy with rapidly growing panic. "They must have heard," she thought wildly. "Town guards are always talking with each other..." She stepped back. A puzzled frown crossed Kalen's face. "What is the matter with you?" he stepped forward decisively, to get the girl's face back in to the light. THAT SETTLED THE MATTER FOR ELIOWY, WHO PROMPTLY PANICKED AND BOLTED. With a started shout Kalen and company chased after her, the bouncing lantern making the shadows dance crazily along the walls. People were not in the habit of running from the guard, even in Dargon and Kalen's curiosity, not to mention his concern, was aroused. Eliowy dodged down the first side street she could find, cloak flapping behind her. "They know!" the thought pounded through her at the same speed as the racing of her heart and the pumping of her feet. "They must have heard bout Tench!" Another junction loomed ahead of her and she skidded into a right turn. Eliowy had arrived in Tench after several long months of travel and all she had cared about was finding an inexpensive inn and some food. Instead of this, she ran across three men who took exception to her having a weapon much finer than their own. Eliowy's fight to keep her most valued possession ended with one man dead, another injured and the third running for his life. Terrified that the last man would call the town guard after her, Eliowy fled the city, not realizing that he and his fellows would not admit to having been beaten by a lone girl. The footsteps grew closer and she slipped into another alley filled with crates, trying to use her size to her advantage. The fading sounds of cursing behind her was testament to her success. She paused, took several deep breaths, then resumed running. Eliowy rounded yet another corner and was back on the main street into and out of the city. Without thinking, she started across the street towards the waiting shadows of a nearby alley and was almost trampled by two armored figures on horseback. In her mad scramble to get out of the way, Eliowy slipped and once again landed full length in the mud. "Are you all right?" demanded one of the riders, swinging down from his mount. "Leave her, Rien. We haven't the time," the other rider, a female, shifted uneasily. "We have enough time to be certain she's all right," said Rien calmly. He reached down and helped Eliowy to her feet. "Be careful where you're going next time. You might have gotten hurt." "Sorry," gulped Eliowy. Her eyes scanned the area behind Rien. "I've got to go now!" She turned, shook off Rien's helping hand and ran. Rien returned to his horse. "Hey!" he heard and turned to see the lieutenant of the guard charging towards him. "Did you see a young girl come this way?" panted Kalen. Rien pointed in the general direction Eliowy had run in. "Thanks!" Rien remounted his horse as Kalen trotted away. "Let's go. And you don't have to tell me that was the city guard." His partner simply smiled and looked smug. Eliowy leaned against the wall of a building, breathing heavily. It looked like she had finally shaken her pursuers. Now all she had to do was find her way back out of the city and she'd be home free. Shouldering her pack with a sigh, Eliowy moved out into the street again, right into the arms of Kalen Darklen. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Steel Souls by John Sullivan (b.c.k.a. JSULLIV@VTVM1) From the seawall I watch as the sun flows down to the ocean, bleeding red into the water. The wind from the sea is cool and vigorous. It blows my hair in a black cloud around my head and whips the heavy fabric of my clothing until it snaps like the sails on the ship that brought me here. I come here whenever I can, and sometimes I work my way down the rocks to the water's edge to dip my fingers in the sea. It is my friend, the sea. I am stranded on this alien soil, but I can touch the sea. And the sea touches Bichu. The wind turns colder as the evening deepens. The sun has almost completely set now and the dockmen slowly filter away to homes, to taverns, to wherever they go. Some look at me as they walk away, noticing my different clothes, my face. They are peasants, uneducated and of no status, but they belong here, and they can see that I do not. They look at me with distaste as they pass and I try to ignore them and look at the remaining spot of the sun. Sages have told me that when the sun sets on Dargon, it rises over Bichu. If that is true, then my father is waking now, and remembering that I am gone. It has been a year since I left Bichu in disgrace. For a year my family has been shamed, my father without an heir. I fled from honor, and my life becomes more intertwined with this place every day. So my father awakes and begins a second year of sorrow and shame. His shame feeds on my own and feeds it in turn. How can I ever go home? The tavern is called Grey Talka's. It is an ugly place, near the warehouses and the docks, noisy and full of smoke, smelling of vomit and cheap ale. I sit alone at a table in the corner, my swords beside me for the people here are not to be trusted. A maid brings me a tankard of ale and I examine it for a moment, then dump the contents on the floor, carefully clean it with my sleeve and return it to her. "Another," I say, "this mug." She says nothing but returns with it to the long table where the keeper has set up his barrels. In Bichu a hosteler so insulted would either seek a champion to defend his reputation or close his tavern. Here, so long as I pay for the slop, I may pour it wherever I wish. The barmaid returns with my ale and collects her copper, saying nothing. The ale is bitter and poor. I drink it in large gulps, shaking my head to fight it, and order another. Time passes. "Mo iti do itte!" The barmaid does not come, and the men at the other tables glance at me, their eyes nervous behind their dullness. I realize that I have spoken in Bichanese. "Bring me another!" I lean forward, resting my elbows on the table; my head is heavy so I rest it in my hands. I'm weary of this land, its coarseness and barbarism. Decent men are so rare here that when they discover one they murder him from a place of concealment with crossbows. Their honor is blood in the table linens. The barmaid must be frightened of me, for the keeper himself brings my ale. He doesn't set it down, but demands three coppers instead of one, hoping I will leave. Several men have gathered in a nervous group near the kegs, waiting. His ale isn't worth three coppers, but neither is it worth one, and I have no intention of being intimidated by these peasants. I take a Bichanese crown from my pouch and let it glitter on the table. "You'll bring me as much as I ask for and leave me alone, won't you?" He looks at the flash of gold for a moment, then snaps it up and sets down the tankard with a muttered "Of course, milord." He goes back to his kegs and argues quietly with the others. After that word circulates that I'm not the street character they took me for; I have money. A few even consider taking me. I see them sizing me up, trying to appear dangerous. Meeting their gaze is enough to send them slinking back to their tables like rats. Crude beasts in a land of animals! I stand on the seawall to be upwind of them. When I can stand the tavern smell no longer I flee into the darkness of the streets, but the streets stink as well. The entire filthy city stinks, like the unwashed people, their disgusting rotted meat, their uncivilized habits. Even the ones who attempt to be civil cannot overlook their delusions of superiority. "We'll teach you to dance in our fashion, Lord Ichiya," with the slightest nuance of mockery on the honorific. "I've learned your language from reading your poets," he says, speaking like an addled child, disappointed when I do not fall at his feet in gratitude. I hate Dargon. I've admitted it and the hatred flows through that crack and washes over me like a flood. Even drunkenness here is low. Instead of freeing the spirit, it drags me down into the filth in the gutters. I walk rapidly through streets unfamiliar in the night, trying to find some clean place but there is none here, not in the street, or in the dishonor of the people. "Bastard dogs!" I shout at the dark, crumbling buildings in Bichanese, then "Zyatai an!" lapsing into Bichoi, the lower class dialect of peasants and beggars. Perhaps they will understand this. "Koshaddan! Tokodoshi esuna ko!" The hoarse cry echoes in the abandoned street and I laugh. I can imagine my mother hearing me, learning that I know such language. I can see the look on her face, as if I had greeted guests by pissing in their teacups. It has been a year since I saw my mother and thieves prowl these streets. I had scarcely left the ship when they began hurling themselves at me clumsily from the dark. With Roissart and Luthias they came and countless other times, as if this land itself feels my alienness and reacts with all the violence it spawns. But I can resist Dargon for there is violence within me as well. Around me, in the darkest corners of the alleys, furtive shapes move when they think I don't notice. No one moves through these reaches of the city unobserved at night. But these see my swords and move with caution. I realize that I have ceased my shouting and the fire moves in my blood with more than the ale. I sense their brutality, ebbing and flowing like the tides and I find some part of me that needs it. I begin to call to the inky shapes like a lover. I sing old Bichanese drinking songs, anything at all. I weave in my steps as the drunkenness crests within me. For a block they shadow me, and more. "Why are you waiting?" I cry in Bichoi, "I am foolish with drink and my purse is heavy." Come to me now, now. They come, two figures, weaving toward me, running from behind me, one at each quarter. They hold their swords reversed, their bodies curled around them. From that grip they will slash upward from their left then thrust down. I step, step, one more then one leg wavers under my weight and I stagger. Then, as my katana feels the fire as well and leaps into my hand with a metallic singing, time expands into the montage of battle. There is the sharp cry of the duellist and the right foot planted behind for the spin. The tip of a sword nicks my clothing as I spin away from it and I can feel my blade moving like a part of myself. The clatter of a parry and I continue my spin. Even drunk I can take these fools apart. I luxuriate in the force of my body's motion, the kinesthetics of the sword. A dark form before me as I complete the turn and my left hand completes its following arc and slaps against the lower menuki, fingers wrapping around the base of the hilt. The hand shifts the balance of the sword and I hold my breath, feeling the descent. And then the bite of the steel. The ecstasy of it! The bite, oh, the bite. Dim light brings the morning and the wind is chilling. I am on the floor of my rooms, drenched in sweat. I have committed murder. The watchmen who came soon after, drawn by the commotion, saw dead thieves and an acquaintance of Lord Dargon, and did not hold me. But I know the truth. There is no honor in inviting attack from an inferior fighter to justify a killing. There is only shame, cowardice, weakness. It's strange how little a moment of shame leaves of life. Once there was family, honor. Now there are only disjoint snippings from time, not unlike the way of a battle. The trunk with my belongings, opened less frequently every day. The remaining length of unused rice paper tucked under one arm, flashes of street life around me as I walk toward the harbor. Fishsellers, marketwomen, apprenticed boys running on the errands of their masters as if nothing has happened. Near the docks I discover a bowl of fish stew in my hand, the stewmonger expecting payment. I give him my purse. Then there is only myself, the sun rising behind me, the wind, the seawall and the nervous tossing of the sea. There is only one way to remove a stain such as this. I wonder if my parents across the ocean will feel the sting of the blade. I kneel on the seawall, the end of the ricepaper beneath my knees to keep it from blowing away in the wind. My katana weights the other end. I watch my hands wrap a length of cloth cut from my sleeve around the blade of the shorter wakizashi, once, twice, three and then four times. Then I hold the blade, one hand ginger on the cloth wrapping, the other butted against the hilt. When I was born my father expected only that I would carry the name of our family a step or two forward and not do it dishonor. I have done nothing else. I have fled from a challenge to the family name to this forsaken place, and I cannot even uphold the basic tenets of honor here, in a place without honor. Oh father, how I have shamed you, how I've shamed myself! There is only one way to undo the violence I have done to the reputation of clan Ichiya. Enough stalling, enough wallowing in the magnitude of my shame. A flash of courage to cleanse it. A stillness comes over me. Honor welcomes the intention to restore it and helps quiet the fear. The sounds of the town around me fade away and I breathe shallowly, in time with the rhythmic beat of the surf against the seawall. With the next wave, the surge of strength through my arms, and then peace. It comes. The water climbs, foaming white, the pitch of it rising, and then it crashes with a tremendous booming sound against the seawall. The muscles of my arms tense and move. And in the next instant I fall sideways, knocked over by some impact. There is pain, and grating of flesh against stone. For the briefest moment I am confused, like one just waking from a vivid dream. Then I see a body, on hands and knees over my legs, having dived into me from the right. Rage floods through me instantly, as if it has always been there. The ignorant brutes can't even keep from interfering in my most private moments! I kick his chest with both legs, knocking him away so that he rolls back until he is a pace away from me and seated in a clumsy sprawl. As quickly I roll forward to my knees and move after him. The wakizashi's wrapping begins to unwind and trail behind the blade like the tail of a comet as I raise it sideways, holding it over my head for the quick slash downward. As I loom over the man he moves forward, pride and ferocity in his bearing. He snaps his head back to expose the vital areas of the throat and barks "Ko choro an!" "Do what you must." The ritual words stop me as if paralyzed, frozen in attack posture, the wakizashi still held overhead. The cloth still hanging from the blade waves in the wind. I recognize the face of the stewmonger, eyes locked into my own. He is frightened, but he does not move. There is an instant to wonder how he comes to know our customs so well. Then he says the words again, softly this time and, unlike that damned fool of a chronicler perfectly, with no trace of accent. "Do what you must." He is right. I have murdered; I cannot expunge their blood with my own. In death there is escape, but the situation remains behind. It is only an escape, the apotheosis of self-pity. There is no honor in death to avoid responsibility. The realization is painful. Something I have been taught since childhood is a lie, but the stewseller is right! Honor requires the facing of responsibility, living with it, dealing with it. I will do what I must. I will go on. There is a clatter as the wakizashi falls from limp fingers to the stone. I fall forward, sobbing like a child and he draws me in and holds me silently. It's a hard thing; nothing has seemed to take on such scope before. Life had always seemed so brief a thing. When we rise to our feet there is blood, soaking my clothing, dripping into the crumpled length of rice paper. The blade of my wakizashi has slashed my side during the aborted thrust and my fall. Working quickly and efficiently the stew seller bandages it with the cloth from the blade. He is a man of many talents, my rescuer. I wonder why he contents himself selling fish stew on the docks. From a pocket he takes my coin pouch and returns it to me. "If my stew is so bad, I shouldn't charge so much for it." A light comment, denying the seriousness of the incident. He is telling me that the matter is closed. I bow deeply and he returns the bow, then turns and walks back toward his cart. I retrieve my swords and return them to their place. Suddenly freed, the bloody length of rice paper whips away in the wind. It is carried over the harbor for perhaps the length of a ship before fluttering down to float on the surface of the water. My blood soaks into the water, and the outgoing tide carries it toward distant Bichu. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Inquiries by John Doucette (b.c.k.a JDOUCETTE@UPEI) The guards at the end of the hall immediately snapped to attention upon noticing the black-robed figure approaching. Although the robes the individual wore hid all distinguishing features, the guards recognized who it was without so much as a second glance. It was fear, and a little common sense, that dictated their gesture of respect. Unpleasant things happened to those who displeased this man. The fact that their lord held this dark figure's abilities in high regard also warranted some display. He stopped at the doors to Lord Myros' study and waited, arms clasped within the sleeves of his velvet-soft robes, as one of the guards entered the study to inform his master of his guest's arrival. A moment later, the guard exited the study. "My Lord Myros will see you now," he announced in a deep voice. Without so much as a gesture of acknowledgement, the visitor entered. It was a moderately sized study, but it more than made up for its lack of space with the quality of the collection of books Lord Myros had acquired over the years. There were first editions of some of the finest books dealing with the art of war, and second or third editions of books dealing with such varied topics as governing, economics, and literature. In the center of the room sat a round oak table of the finest quality and around this were placed five exquisite high-backed chairs upholstered in dark purple velvet. A fireplace set in the wall opposite the entrance to the study was happily alight with a fire that was just now beginning to burn down. The candles in the candelabras were extinguished, thus casting the room into dancing shadows made by the firelight. Lord Myros sat in a sixth finely crafted chair by the fireplace, sipping brandy. He made sure that he and his visitor were alone before speaking. "Well, Celeste," he said, staring into the fireplace, "are the rumors true?" Celeste regarded Myros for a moment before answering. In his early forties, Myros looked like a man ten years his junior. His trim, fit body bore the scars of a lifetime of battle. Myros had long since lost count of the skirmishes and petty wars he had fought in. His blond hair was cut close in the military style. His blue eyes could be alive with emotion one moment, and as cold as ice the next. He was known for his ruthlessness towards his enemies, and his generosity towards his friends. A valuable ally, Celeste thought. Or a dangerous enemy. "I don't have all night," he said sharply. "Yes, my lord," she replied. "I was merely sorting out pertinent facts. To answer thy question, my lord, Baranur is rife with talk of an impending Bichanese invasion. The general consensus among the king's advisors is that Baranur should attack Bichu first before Bichu's forces are concentrated. King Haralan hath been giving this line of reasoning serious thought--" Myros laughed uproariously. "The fool! The Bichanese will cut him to pieces!" "If I may continue, my lord," she said icily. Celeste was not fond of interruptions. "There are two in Baranur who advise against attacking Bichu. The first is Duke Clifton Dargon. His Grace believeth most strongly that Bichu would never attack Baranur in the face of that nation's powerful navy. He also hath an earnest desire to avoid war. The second is Haralan's Knight Commander, Sir Edward Sothos. Sir Edward thinks it ludicrous to attack Bichu for purely military reasons, not the least of which is the unenviable task of supplying an army so far from home." "The combined efforts of both of these powerful and respected men, particularly Duke Dargon, hath thus far prevented any conflict." "So Edward is Haralan's Knight Commander, eh?" Myros muttered to himself. "You said something, my lord?" "Nothing of importance. What of Bichu? What are they planning?" he asked. "Regretfully, my lord, my scrying powers cannot reach such a far off land. Only the Bichanese know what they are planning." Myros rose and began pacing, pondering possible courses of action. After several minutes of this, he set his brandy down on the table and turned to face Celeste. "I think it's time we paid a visit to Baranur. I'd like to see how my dear friend Edward is faring. You will come as well, of course." "Of course, my lord," she said. Both knew that the price Celeste would ask would be high. Baroness Elaine Myros strolled the battlements in the warm Yuli breeze. She paused in her wanderings to take in the beauty of the sunset. The cloudless sky was crimson red. Elaine had never seen the sky this color. What does it portend? she thought. "There you are, my dear," Baron Myros said. She whirled around, a startled look on her face. "Corneilious!" she said. "You frightened me!" "I apologize, Elaine. I didn't mean to. I didn't realize you so deeply in thought. What's troubling you?" "Nothing, Corneilious." "Are you sure?" he asked dubiously. "Yes," she replied. "Really darling, there is nothing wrong. I was just enjoying the beauty of the sunset." "Ah. Well now that that's cleared up, I have a surprise for you." "Oh? What is it?" she asked expectantly. "We're going on a trip to Baranur." "Baranur? I've never heard of it." "Not many in the Empire have. It's a country about three months journey away. I have friends there, and I'd like to visit them. We haven't seen each other in almost six years." "When are we leaving?" "In about a week. It will take that long to organize things." "That should give me plenty of time to get ready," she said. "Do you know much about Baranur?" she asked her husband. "Some," he said. "Why don't we go to the study and I'll see if I have any books dealing with it?" "You should," she said with a smile. "You have a book on just about everything." Myros laughed. "Shall we?" As the sun dipped below the mountains, Myros and his wife descended the steps to the courtyard arm in arm. Others were discussing Myros' planned visit to Baranur. An hour previously, Celeste had finished gathering the spell components she needed. Now she stood in front of a body length mirror. The mirror's surface was a swirling, impenetrable grey mist. Celeste waited patiently. After several minutes, the mist gradually began to calm and then faded entirely. The figure reflected in the mirror could have been Celeste but for the fact that it was a man. "Cho dakh, Primus," Celeste said in greeting. "Cho dakh, Celeste," he replied in a voice that was barely above a whisper. "You have something to report?" "Yes, Primus," she answered. "Myros plans to journey to Magnus on the seventh of Sy." "Magnus?" he said, a faintly surprised look on his face. "A long journey. What dost Baron Myros wish to accomplish there?" he inquired. "He claims he wishes to visit a friend residing there, Primus. From his tone, this friend is more likely an enemy. I suspect that Myros has other motives than simple revenge, Primus. Unfortunately, I know'st not what they are." The man in the mirror paused, considering options. Celeste waited in respectful silence. Finally after ten minutes of pondering, he spoke. "There is only one reason that I can determine that would be sufficient to cause Myros to undertake such an arduous trip. He is undoubtedly scheming some method of turning the strife between Baranur and Bichu to his advantage. Perhaps he seeks allies." He nodded his head as if agreeing with himself. "Our Master must know of this. Thee hath done well, Celeste." "I thank thee for thy praise, Primus," Celeste said humbly. "What are your instructions?" A ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "Thee will go with Myros as thee hath no doubt already agreed. Thee may even keep his money." His smile disappeared. "Remember where thy loyalties lie, Celeste." The mist reappeared and quickly faded. Celeste now gazed upon her own reflection. Icy fingers of fear gripped her heart. He knows! she thought. How could I have been so careless? She began shaking violently at the thought of what the Primus would do to her if she transgressed again. I must remain calm. "Control," she repeated to herself over and over again. Within a few minutes, to all outward appearances Celeste radiated complete control and competence. Inwardly, she was still terrified. She went to the table and mixed a potion that would help her sleep, and more importantly, would cause her not to dream. She drank her concoction and was asleep in moments. The day dawned bright and clear. Myros stood on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. Preparations were almost complete. Myros' bodyguard of fifty men were mounted and ready to move out. Celeste had arrived two hours ago. Myros and his advisors had been ready one hour ago. Elaine said she would be ready soon. "Elaine," Myros called. "We're ready to leave. Would you care to join us?" "Just a few more minutes, Corneilious." Myros was ready to scream. He was just about to pack Elaine's things for her when he was distracted by a commotion in the courtyard below. A messenger had just ridden through the gate and was demanding to see Baron Myros immediately. Myros' aide was trying to explain that he could see the baron when His Lordship was ready. Myros let the argument continue until it came to the point when blow were about to be exchanged. "Jordaan," he called, "what is the problem?" "A messenger to see you, my lord. He seems most anxious to speak with you." "So I gathered. Who have you come from?" he inquired of the messenger. "I have come from His Imperial Majesty. I have instructions to deliver this message to you personally, Your Lordship." "Jordaan, show our guest to my study. I shall be there shortly." "Yes, my lord. This way, please." Myros entered his quarters as the messenger was being shown to the study. "A messenger has arrived from the Emperor," he told Elaine. "The Emperor? What could His Majesty want?" "I have no idea. I'd best go and see him. Keep packing, dear. This shouldn't take long." Myros did have an idea of the message's content. He hoped he was wrong. He entered the study, his manner brisk. The messenger came over to greet him, but Myros dispensed with pleasantries. "Let me see it." The messenger handed him the message without comment. Myros' worst fears were true. The Emperor had learned of his impending departure for Baranur and had decided to appoint Myros as Ambassador to Baranur. His Imperial Majesty commanded Myros to determine which country should be supported in the upcoming war: Bichu or Baranur. "I was instructed to wait for your reply, Your Lordship," the messenger said. "Inform the Emperor I most humbly accept." The messenger nodded, then left Myros alone with his thoughts. How did he find out? No one but my advisors and Celeste knew of this. She would not betray me; she has no reason to. The cold realization hit him that one of those in his inner circle of most trusted advisors had to have betrayed him. He quickly ruled out Jordaan. He is absolutely loyal to me. But so are the others. Who is it? Celeste. She can find out. I'll have her use her magic. I have three months before I get to Magnus. Plenty of time. Slowly, he turned from the table and exited the room. When Myros entered the courtyard, Jordaan noticed something different about his liege. His eyes were like ice and his face a stone mask. The only time I have seen him this way was when we were in battle, he thought. What was in that dispatch? Jordaan rode over to where Myros was mounting his horse. "Is everything all right, my lord?" "Fine, Jordaan. Fine. Why do you ask?" "No reason, my lord," he replied carefully. "Then let us be off." "Yes, my lord." He turned in his saddle and ordered the column to move out. Flanked by the escort, Myros' party rode out the gate and began the long journey to Baranur. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Trial by Fire Prologue by M. Wendy Henniquin (b.c.k.a. HENNEQUI_WEM@CTSTATEU) Roisart Connall watched silently as his cousin, Clifton, Duke of Dargon, donned elaborate Bichanese armor with the adept assistance of Ittosai Michiya. The Castellan of Connall already was prepared for the impending battle. Roisart's twin brother, Luthias, armored like a hero of old, stood nearby, his sword already in his hand. Coolly, Roisart cast an appraising eye on his cousin's armor. "It's really beautifully-made," Roisart concluded. "It is Bichu's finest," Castellan Ittosai announced proudly. He finished armoring the Duke, then put on his own stout helm. "I am ready for whatever comes," the castellan said. Luthias nodded respectfully to his castellan, warned, "We'd better go," and cast a nervous look over his shoulder at the white wall. Despite the concern flooding his face, Luthias looked brilliant, brave, like a knight in a legend. He wore his father's battle-scarred armor and bore his family's crest into war. His weapon, a fine steel sword, was worthy of a king. He gripped it more firmly, ready for whatever fighting would come. "You are right, Luthias-san," Ittosai concurred. He hefted his katana. "This will not be an easy battle." Nodding, Clifton reached out to his young cousin, Roisart and grasped his shoulder. "Get the defenses ready. You'll be safe here in Dargon Keep, but they may attack the city any day now ." A sorrowful look swept Clifton's features. "And take care of Lauren." I didn't know Roisart knew Lauren, Luthias thought, then wondered at his own idea. How could Roisart not know Lauren, their cousin's wife, the Duchess of Dargon? Roisart was at the wedding. He must have been. Roisart gripped Clifton's arm. "Be careful, Clifton." Roisart released the Duke, then turned to his brother, his twin. "Luthias..." Roisart paused awkwardly. Of the twins, Roisart usually had an easier time with words, with expressing feelings. Finally, he said, "Don't worry, twin. Everything will be well. I'll take care of the Duchy, and Sable's quite capable of taking care of our barony--and herself." Again Roisart paused, but this time he shook his head sadly. "You should have married her. The Baron of Shipbrook wants to marry her to Oleran now. You shouldn't have let him have the chance; you should have married Sable yourself." Upset that Roisart should throw this in his face, and angry that there was nothing he could do about the situation anyway, Luthias closed his eyes briefly. The sword trembled in his grip. "She's in love with someone else." Fury tainted Luthias' words. "And she won't say--" "Come on, manling," Clifton ordered suddenly. Luthias knew that Clifton was trying to sound light-hearted, but the words were rough, impatient, angry. Luthias let the 'manling' go, nodded a final farewell to his twin and joined his cousin and his castellan. Together, the three threw open the gates of Dargon Keep. Surrounding the walls were a hundred thousand men--the King's army. Ittosai vanished, as if he had been merely a figure in a dream. A knife suddenly flashed past Luthias' eyes and embedded itself in Clifton's gut. The Duke of Dargon fled desperately, pursued by countless, faceless soldiers. For a moment, Luthias froze so completely that he knew it couldn't be natural; in that moment, strong, bodiless arms secured his limbs, threw him to the hard ground, and held him fast. He watched them; they were ripping his chest plate with knives. Soon, blood covered his armor, and his kinsman Clifton sprinted past, his belly wound belching blood. Luthias tried to move to help his cousin, but the hold was iron-strong. And there was a pain, an annoyance, a torture. The butchers were hacking at his chest. "Luthias, help me!" Clifton yelled, frantic. Luthias could see him bleeding, his life soaking into the earth. Anguished, Luthias cried, "I can't!" "Help me! HELP ME!" Luthias almost wept; he couldn't move, he couldn't help as the King's guards caught his cousin and threw him to the ground. But Clifton rose again and sprinted. And there was pain again, horrid pain. Luthias looked at his chest. It was open, and the butchers no longer used knives, but their own, dirty hands. With bloodied, muddy fingers, they tore at his ribs. And there was no one to help but-- "Roisart!" Luthias called. "Help me! I need you!" Somewhere above him, in the castle window, Luthias saw his brother, no longer a healthy young man, but a specter of death--gray-faced, two black bolts sticking from his side and chest. The specter shook his head sadly. "I can't help you anymore, twin," Luthias heard his brother say regretfully, and then, Roisart, too was gone. "Roisart!" Luthias cried out in horror. The apparition did not return. His physical pain increased when his anguish did; both were now sharp. Luthias saw chunks of red fly past his eyes as the butchers clawed at him. And Clifton went past Luthias again, running for his life. Desperately, Luthias struggled, but the grip was too strong. "Clifton, run!" "Luthias, help me HELP ME!" "I can't reach you!" Luthias almost sobbed. "Run!" A wave of pain claimed Luthias then, strong as thunder, sharp as lightning. For a moment, the world before his eyes blackened. From above, Luthias saw himself, his chest opened like a poisonous flower, and the butchers' hands were tugging on his aorta. The veins around his heart were stretching--THE PAIN! The pain returned him to his body. Blood, his own blood, spurted in his eyes. He could scarcely breathe. "Luthias, where are you?" his cousin called from somewhere. "I need you!" Luthias tried to scream. The pain was incredible. He couldn't breathe. "Help me!" "THEY'RE TEARING MY HEART OUT!" Then the pain vanished, and the butchers faded as Ittosai had. Luthias found himself looking at Sable. Her hands held his heart in place. Luthias closed his eyes, tried to regain his strength. "You're mine now, woman!" and the pain returned with that declaration, made by a vaguely familiar voice. Luthias opened his eyes. Baron Oleran--that son of a --was holding Sable, viciously ripping her gown off, hitting her. She cried out. Blood geysered from her temple, spilled into her hair: on a field sable, blood gules. Oleran hit her again and laughed at her pain. "Luthias!" she cried, trying to reach him. Luthias tried to move, tried to help her, but the butchers were back, playing catch with his disembodied heart. They laughed, throwing it to each other, as it pumped Luthias' life blood onto the dusty ground. And then he saw Clifton, dead, his body being dissected before the King of Baranur. Someone was binding Ittosai's arms behind his back. Marcellon tried to cast a spell, tried to help them all, but the magic was gone; nothing happened. Not far from Luthias' own, stone body, Oleran beat and raped Sable. Oleran held a sword, moved to kill her-- "Sable!" Luthias screamed, bolting to a sitting position. "SABLE!" And Luthias awoke, sitting, gasping in reality. Frantic, his hand felt at his chest; it was smooth, intact, and the heart still within it beat wildly. It was a dream, he realized, only a dream. There was no battle; he was in the bedroom of his keep. Clifton was alive and well in his own keep, two hours' ride away. Sable slept unharmed not forty feet down the corridor. Ittosai, free and safe, dreamed peacefully in the castellan's rooms downstairs. And Roisart--Roisart lay dead in the crypts far below. Only a dream, and nothing had changed. Roisart was dead, Luthias was Baron of Connall, and he was alone. No, not alone. The door to his bedchamber slammed open, and someone bearing a pole weapon was standing, battle-ready,in the doorway. Behind the intruder were two others, equally alert, bearing swords. Automatically, Luthias tensed with the reactions of a long-time warrior. As his eyes adjusted, his hand began to creep toward the blade kept beside his bed. Then he recognized the closer visitor: Sable. Luthias tried vainly to slow his breathing. To the guards, he said, "I'm all right, men. Bad dream. Return to your posts, and thank you." The guards exchanged a shrug, nodded respectfully to their lord, and left. Still panting, Luthias tried to laugh at the armed woman before him. "Here you are, taking care of the Baron again." The Baron of Connall again tried to slow his breathing as his seneschal came forward and sat on the bed. She looked as if she had been on her way to bed; her hair was partially unbound, and she was clad in nothing but a gauzy nightdress made to be worn in the kind of raging heat that had been eclipsing Dargon of late. As she set her weapon against the bedpost, Luthias looked intently at her face. She glanced around the room, as if confused. "I thought you were being attacked," Sable said. "You were screaming--" Luthias scowled: pole weapon! It was a naginata, a weapon of Bichanese origin, a gift from Ittosai Michiya to Myrande, and the castellan had been instructing the seneschal in its use. Michiya had told Luthias just yesterday that she was becoming quite a she-demon with it. Oh, he understood, and it angered him. Sable had not come only to take care of him, but to defend him, with her life. The Baron scowled again. What the hell did she think they paid the guards for? Finally, Luthias sighed, half-amused, half-despairing. He touched her hair, almost laughed. "Are you my bodyguard now, too?" "I was closer than the guards," Myrande explained. "You sounded like you were in trouble." "Quit babying me," Luthias snapped defensively. "I'm strong enough to defend myself; I don't need a woman to do it for me." "I am your friend," Myrande returned angrily. "You would do the same for me. And don't give me that stupidity about my being a woman. Macdougalls says I'm a better shot than half your archers, and with this--" she indicated the naginata-- "I could destroy seven men together before they even got a shot at me." Unfortunately, she was right: Macdougalls, the assistant castellan, had praised Myrande's archery, and Ittosai Michiya had told him already about her skill with the naginata. He shook his head and looked at her in the moonlight: a dark, disheveled, fierce woman, clothed in an almost indecent nightgown that clung in some places to her sweaty skin...Luthias felt his body tense, but he smiled, wondering if there were any woman more attractive in the Kingdom-- And then the dream returned, and the young Baron groaned and put his head in his hands. Sable put her hand on his hair; it was damp with sweat from the horrid heat of reality, from the hot horror of the dream. Gently, she stroked his head. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly. Censoring selected episodes, such as Roisart's advice and the later rape, he related what he could remember of the nightmare. "Those letters really bothered you, didn't they?" she asked, concerned. "More than you wanted to admit." Luthias attempted to smile. "Sable, you could always see through me." "That isn't true," Sable claimed, moving back a little to look at him. "And it isn't an answer, either." The young Baron's expression changed from one of bitter amusement to one of grim anger. "You're damn right they bothered me. First, I'm informed by the Justices that I am now Duke's Advocate. Now, I've got to be in Dargon City half my time, prosecuting criminals before the Tribunal--and I'm not skilled at law. Now, besides court time and traveling, I've got to do more reading. As if I didn't have enough to do!" "Don't yell at me," Sable protested. "I'm on your side, remember? If anyone knows how hard you work, I do, Luthias." Luthias smiled. She worked as hard--harder--than he did. "I know, Sable, and I'm sorry. But I'm overloaded as it is, and now this aggravation--" "Speaking of which," Sable prompted, thinking of the second missive that had arrived that day, "no one is better at aggravation than my uncle." "Yes, your stupid uncle, who never showed the slightest interest in you now wants to arrange your marriage." Luthias' mouth tightened. "That's bad in itself--I don't trust a man who would throw his brother out of his barony for no reason." "There was a reason," Myrande corrected. "He threw my father out because he married my mother before my uncle got the chance." She shrugged. "Doesn't matter. My father was happier being Castellan for your father and knight to the late Duke." "Well, he threw your father out, pretended he and your mother and you never existed, and now, he wants to want to marry you to Oleran--do you know what kind of man he is?" Myrande nodded. "I've heard the rumors." There were many rumors--nothing concrete--about Oleran, an older Baron from a neighboring Duchy. It was said almost universally that he was a brute, a killer, that he enjoyed others' pain, and tortured his first wife until she died. Sable shuddered. "You know I wouldn't marry him to save my life." "Yes, I know," Luthias confirmed, and his voice left no room for argument. "I forbid it." Sable chuckled. "You forbid, Luthias?" "I'm your guardian until you become twenty-one in Deber, and by law and by God, I forbid it!" Luthias snapped. "I'd rather murder Oleran and be imprisoned in the Keep for the rest of my life than have you marry that monster." "Don't worry," Sable advised him. She reached out and stroked his forearm. "I won't marry Oleran, or anyone else, for that matter--" She stopped, pulled her hand away. "I really should arrange a marriage for you," Luthias sighed, as if he regretted the situation. "Your uncle is right about that." Impulsively, he grasped her small hands. "Sable, tell me who this man is that you love. You might as well marry someone you care for." He squeezed her hands imploringly and peered at her dark face in the dimness. "Please...your uncle threatened to wrest your guardianship from me." Sable shook her head. "No. If he comes around on his own, all will be well, but I won't beg him to love me or be forced on him, as you seem to want, or sold to him like a horse, as my uncle prefers." "You're too proud for your own good," Luthias accused her angrily. "You should just tell him--" "And gain his pity? No," Myrande answered firmly, her chin stubborn. "I don't want your pity." She paused, as if finished, then added, "Or--his." "He'd be crazy if he pitied you," Luthias returned hotly. "Crazy if he didn't accept you and marry you--" For a wild, brief moment, it seemed like Roisart was there, and Luthias heard his words of the nightmare: "You should have married her yourself." Luthias sighed. The thought had crossed his mind before. He cared for Sable, and she for him; they got along well, and she would be an excellent Baroness. Looking at her again, in that sheer nightgown, Luthias found the idea appealing beyond its practical aspects. But she would never accept him. Sable had always been proud, and Luthias knew she would never accept his proposal, which she would think was made out of pity. Luthias grimaced. He didn't pity her; he loved her--she was his best friend--and he only wanted her to be happy. And so would the man she loved. Or else. If he could ever find out who he was! Oh, she was impossible! Luthias sighed and decided to end the argument. Not tonight, his head ached to much to argue with someone as iron-headed as Sable. He forced himself to laugh, then he hugged his seneschal. "Sable, what am I ever going to do with you?" Sable withdrew a little from his impulsive embrace. "I'll stay here and be your seneschal, Luthias, same as always." "You deserve better than to be toiling like a slave for the rest of your life." "So do you," Sable countered, "but it seems the Tribunal won't to let you get away with it." She drew a deep breath. "You should be going back to sleep, Baron." "Back to sleep?" Luthias echoed incredulously. "In this heat? After that dream?" The Baron of Connall shook his head. "No, thanks, Sable." He swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Going to read in the study?" "No, that would probably put me back to sleep," Luthias quipped. He stretched his arms above his head. He looked at her and decided not to look at her again until morning. He needed to move. "I'm going to go out and beat up the pell--can't do it during the day in this heat." He stood, looked back at Myrande's dark eyes; yes, that was safe enough. "And tomorrow, we'll go see Clifton." ------------------------------------------------------------------------


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