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From WHITE@DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU Tue May 12 10:33:07 1992 Received: from DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU by eff.org with SMTP id AA26743 (5.65c/IDA-1.4.4/pen-ident for ); Tue, 12 May 1992 10:32:56 -0400 Message-Id: <199205121432.AA26743@eff.org> Received: from DUVM by DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU (IBM VM SMTP R1.2.2MX) with BSMTP id 3298; Tue, 12 May 92 10:29:55 EDT Date: Tue, 12 May 92 10:29:47 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 2 -=========================================================+|) 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 2, Issue 1 03/17/89 Cir 882 -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- Contents -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ DAG Dafydd Editorial A Night in the Town Carlo N. Samson 28 Naia, 1013 Trial by Fire, Part 1 M. Wendy Henniquin 7-12 Sy, 1013 The Game Begins John Doucette 13-14 Sy, 1013 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Dafydd's Amber Glow This will be brief, as this issue is going to be very long. First, please don't be alarmed by the fact that this is Volume 2: yes, there was only one issue in Volume 1. I have decided to make each volume cover a Calendar year and, as Volume 1 went out in 1988 and it is now 1989, this issue must be in the second volume. Second, I would like to announce that Rich Jervis (voyager@irishmvs.bitnet) is handling orders for the DargonZine tshirt. He needs a few more promissory orders before he can get an estimate from the printer. The shirt will bear a design based on the the DargonZine logo in either silver on blue or black on blue. Current estimates for price are around eight dollars but a large response to this will cut the price accordingly. Please contact Rich for more information. No profits are expected as he will no doubt go in the hole from shipping costs. Lastly, the next issue of Volume 2 will be out within the month - I have enough stories right now to make this issue about three times the size it is, so you won't have to wait almost 5 months before reading more about Dargon. Thank you and good reading, Dafydd, Editor DargonZine (m.k.a. John L White) (b.c.k.a. WHITE@DUVM.bitnet) ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 A Night in the Town by Carlo N. Samson (b.c.k.a U9862@uicvm.bitnet) The sun was setting as Cydric Araesto arrived in the coastal town of Sharks' Cove. He rode through the gates and onto the main street, seeking a place to rest after his journey up from Magnus, the Crown City of Baranur. After a short while, he decided to stop at a place called "The Hawk & Dragon Inn", as it looked a bit more respectable than the other taverns he had passed. Cydric snorted at the thought that anything in this rat- bag of a town could be respectable; all manner of thieves, smugglers, murderers and whores infested Sharks' Cove, so he had heard. Some even said the local guard were afraid to venture onto the streets at night. Cydric entered the common room of the Inn and sat down at a corner table. An odd feeling came over him; it seemed like he had done this before. And indeed, he had. His thoughts traveled back several months and several hundred leagues, to the northern town of Dargon. He had come into a tavern just like this one, met a girl who took him to a Sage, who took him on a strange adventure into a realm beyond dreams. But that time, he had been searching for an answer; this time, he just wanted to get away. At the bar, a group of revelers sang and drank, led by a young girl strumming skillfully on a mandolin. Her voice was light and pleasing, yet Cydric didn't think she was a bard. He called a serving girl over and ordered a drink. When it arrived, he took a sip and stared into the brown liquid, remembering the whole Dargon episode as if it had happened yesterday. It had all started with a strange, recurring vision, which always ended with the name "Corambis the Sage" and a map showing the location of Dargon. He told no one about it, since it wouldn't do for the son of King Haralan's Royal Treasurer to be thought insane. After a few months, though, he decided to follow up on the vision. He left the castle in the middle of the night, leaving only a letter to his fiancee Lysanda, King Haralan's niece. He arrived in Dargon and met Corambis, who also had been having visions. It turned out that their visions were being sent to them by an Elder, trapped in another realm of existence, who needed Cydric and the Sage to free him. They entered the realm through a portal opened by the Elder, but when they found him they discovered that he was really a sorcerer called Nephros, who needed them as part of a ritual to free a powerful demon from the Nether Realms. But with the help of Corambis' patron goddess they managed to escape, battling giant lizards and crystal skeletons along the way. Cydric smiled and took another sip. It had been a rather exciting experience, even though they could have been killed on several occasions. Then his expression sobered as he remembered what had happened after they returned to their own realm. A royal messenger had arrived at the house of Corambis, where Cydric had been staying, and informed the young noble that Lysanda was expecting a child, and had been for three months. Cydric had no choice but to return to the capital and marry her immediately to avoid a scandal. Unfortunately, rumors of Lysanda's pre-marital pregnancy began circulating, and were confirmed when the child was born only six months later. The High Church of Magnus was extremely shocked, but the Master Priest made no official comment after being taken aside by the King himself. Still, the public knew, and soon it got so that Cydric 1and Lysanda couldn't even go into town without people giving them looks and quietly whispering about "heathen fornication". This put a strain on their marriage, and a month later they had a fight which ended with Lysanda taking the baby and moving back in with her parents. She then petitioned the Church for a dissolution of the marriage, and when it was granted she and her parents moved far away from the capital. Cydric fell into disfavor around the court, so a month after Lysanda left he decided to leave as well, much to the relief of the courtiers and to the sorrow of his parents and friends. The sound of cheering interrupted Cydric's thoughts. The girl at the bar bowed with a flourish, her song apparently over. Cydric returned to his drink. "Sharks' Cove," he silently mused. "Not the best place in the world to end up in." He shook his head. "But at least no one knows me here. Time to make a new start. Hopefully I won't make such a mess of my life this time around." "Hello there," a voice at his elbow said. Cydric looked up and saw the mandolin girl standing next to him. "The tavern's full tonight, isn't it? Hardly any place to sit. Would you mind if I sat with you? I noticed you came in here alone. But if you're meeting someone I can just go somewhere else, but if you're not, I'd like to join you, if I may. Well?" "Uh, be my guest," said Cydric, after taking a moment to decipher what she had said. "Many thanks." The girl carefully placed her instrument on a chair and plopped her slender figure onto the table, dangling her legs over the edge. She was dressed explorer- style: billowy white shirt, maroon velvet vest, cotton breeches, and deerskin knee boots. Her tawny-auburn hair, short and curly, was quite unlike the long, braided style currently in fashion among the young ladies of the kingdom. Cydric guessed that she was just a bit younger than him, perhaps no more than 19 or 20. "You're dusty," she said. "Have you just ridden into town?" Cydric self-consciously ran a hand through his short brown hair. "Yes, as a matter of fact. I've been traveling." "You also sound tired. Is that the reason you didn't applaud my playing?" Cydric shrugged. "I suppose so." "Sorry," she said, laying her hand on his arm. "I don't mean to be so forward, especially with a stranger." She leaned over. "So, what's your name?" He introduced himself as Cydric Artovan. "Very pleased, Cydric," she said, extending her hand. Cydric went to press it against his cheek, in the usual manner of greeting; but after he had done so she gripped his forearm warrior-style. "My name's Amanda Lynn." "A mandolin?" Cydric said. She laughed. "That's what everyone says the first time I tell them. Just call me Mandi." "Very pleased, Mandi." Cydric sloshed the drink around in his mug. "Well, Cydric, now that we're no longer strangers--at least not _total_ strangers--tell me, what strange force compelled you to visit this town?" "Just passing through," Cydric replied. "Passing through?" She chuckled, then gathered her legs under her. "Most people go out of their way to avoid the Cove." "Actually, I may have to stay for a few days. I'm low on money. Would you happen to know if there are any, um, employment opportunities available around here?" "That depends." She peered over the edge of the table at Cydric's lap. "Hmmm, very nice." 1 "I beg your pardon?" "Your sword and dagger, I meant. How well can you use them?" "Well enough to defend myself." "That's not quite good enough for a mercenary position. Although...." "Yes?" "Is your codpiece in working order?" Cydric grinned uncertainly. "Ah, why would you want to know that?" Mandi cocked her head and winked at him. "Prostitutes aren't all women, you know." Cydric coughed. "Ah, I'm also able to read and write. Do you know of any children that need tutoring?" A scruffy-looking man from the next table leaned over and looked at them. "Why sure, son," he called. "Take my partner here--all 'is talk's babble, it is. Thinks you could teaches 'im to grunt some words, eh son?" He and his companions laughed uproariously. "Your mother eats flies, dung-breath!" Mandi called back. To Cydric she said, "Ignore those fools." "Yeah, you just be sure and show the old son there a good time, pretty missy," the man replied, leering. He turned back to his table. "I take it the whole town needs tutoring," Cydric said in a low voice. "You've got that right," Mandi replied. "Anyway, have you ever been on a ship before? A friend of mine is looking for additional crewmembers." Cydric's heart quickened. While in Dargon he had met a man, a former ship's captain turned stew-seller, who told him about his life and experiences at sea. After hearing his stories of action, danger, and romance, Cydric had decided to give the seagoing life a try. His marriage to Lysanda, however, put an end to that ambition; but now, things were different. "What does your friend do?" Cydric asked. "Is he a merchant, a fisherman?" "A slave trader," Mandi replied. She giggled at Cydric's surprised expression. "No, he's really a shipping merchant, as you guessed. Are you interested?" "Well yes, but I've never actually been on ship before." "Oh, that's all right. You'd get used to it eventually. But are you really sure you want to join up?" Cydric was silent for a few moments. "Yes," he finally said. "Why not? It'll keep me off the streets for a while." "Oh goody," Mandi said, sliding off the table. "I think he's over at the Abyssment tonight. Do you want to meet him now, or would you rather get cleaned up first?" "Give me a few minutes," Cydric said. After Cydric had checked his belongings into an upstairs room and washed up, he and Mandi set out on foot into the darkening streets. "On second thought, maybe we should do this tomorrow. I've heard that this town isn't safe after dark," Cydric said. "Oh really, Cydric, this place isn't as bad as you've heard," Mandi said. "Are you sure?" "Of course I am." She leaned close to his ear and whispered, "It's worse." "I hope you're jesting." Mandi laughed and put her hand on Cydric's shoulder. "Don't look so worried. The Abyssment's not far. Besides, my friend's leaving tomorrow morning, as he only needs a few men to replace the ones he lost overboard on his last run." 1 "Lost overboard?" "Storm at sea. Really, don't worry, they didn't die of plague or anything. He's a damn good captain, Thorne is." The sound of their footsteps echoed on the cobblestone streets as they walked along. "What is this Abyssment place, anyway?" asked Cydric. "It doesn't sound very wholesome." "It's only the best tavern this side of the Darst Range! My favorite night spot in all of Shark's Cove." "So why don't you work there, instead of at the Hawk and Dragon?" "Well, The Abyssment has it's own musicians, and alas! they don't need another one right now. But they do let me perform with them once in a while." "I don't see why they won't hire you permanently. You're the best mandolin player I've ever heard." "Oh! Do you really think so? Or are you just flattering me?" "No, I mean it. Who taught you?" "My father. Oh, now he really deserves to be called best mandolin. He gave me my name, you know. Said it was a charm to pass his abilities onto me." "It seems to have worked," Cydric said. Mandi smiled and laughed. "Oh Cydric, you're the one with charm!" A short while later they arrived at the establishment know as The Abyssment. The sign above the door spelled out the name in black-trimmed red letters, and the words "Gaius Caligula, Proprietor" appeared beneath. "Here we are," said Mandi. As soon as they entered, Cydric saw that it was unlike any tavern he had ever seen. The tables, booths, and bar were arranged so that there was a clear space in the center of the room where a crowd of people, most of them around Cydric and Mandi's age, danced to the fast and lively music being played by the trio of musicians near the bar. Glowing spheres set in the rafters sent out rays of rainbow light into the smoky air. The aromas of tobacco, ale, perfume, and food all hit Cydric at once. Mandi began moving her body to the beat of the music. "Wait for me at the bar," she said. "I'll try to find Captain Thorne." She vanished into the crowd. Cydric decided that whatever the people in the room were doing, it certainly wasn't dancing. They were swaying and gyrating their bodies to the driving beat of the drums; he found it hard to tell if anyone had a partner, since none of them were holding hands in the traditional manner. As he made his way to the bar he passed a table at which a group of young persons were sharing a pipe. "Excuse me," Cydric said to the boy who currently held the pipe, "but what sort of tobacco are you using?" The boy looked up with glazed eyes and said, "Beezorg, yo-man, beezorg." He gave the pipe to the girl across from him, smiled dreamily, then slumped headfirst onto the table. "Ah. I see. Thank you very much," Cydric said. He continued on his way, unsure of whether the boy's statement was an answer to his question or just an incoherent mumble. "What'll you have, squire?" asked the bartender as Cydric made for an empty stool. "A Lederian, please. In a clean mug, if you don't mind." "A clean mug, if I don't mind?" the bartender echoed. "Well, what if I did mind? What would you do about it?" "Please, just get me the drink," Cydric said, trying to sound 1rugged. "Very well, squire. But supposing I brought it to you in a really filthy, really disgusting mug? What would you do then?" Cydric started to reply, then noticed that the people near him were watching the exchange with interest. "Well, I'd...." Cydric hesitated. "You'd what?" "I'd...be sick." The bartender gave a hearty laugh. "This one's all right, folks!" he declared. From behind the bar he took a mug, wiped the inside clean with a rag, filled it with the requested drink, then set it before Cydric. "On the house." Cydric thanked him. The bartender grinned, then went to tend to another customer. Looking around the room, Cydric saw that the majority of the young patrons bore little resemblance to the youths that lived in the capital and other civilized areas. Many of the girls wore short skirts that exposed their knees, and had short hair like Mandi's; most of the boys wore leather jerkins decorated with strange symbols, and some had hair that reached past their shoulders. The person to Cydric's right got up and left, and a moment later a thin girl dressed in a black-striped red chemise sat down in the vacant seat. "Are you alone?" she asked. "Ah, actually, I'm waiting for someone," Cydric replied. "You?" "How about a dance?" She pushed back a lock of her straight blonde hair. A glint of light on the girl's face caught Cydric's eye. He looked closer, and saw that she had a small gold ring in the left side of her nose. "Back off, missy, he's with me," Mandi said, approaching them. The blonde girl gave Mandi a disdainful look, tossed her head, then left. "Did you see that? She had a ring in her nose," said Cydric. "Must have been a queenie," Mandi replied. "Anyway, Thorne'll be here later. He's got some other business to take care of." "How much later?" Cydric asked. "I don't want to stay too late." "Don't worry, he'll show up. Come on." "Where to now?" "I thought we might dance a little." "Dance? But--" "You don't know how? I'll teach you." Mandi pulled him onto the floor just as the musicians started another number. "The King doesn't dance like this," Cydric said. Mandi giggled and bumped him with her hip. "What does he know about dancing? Look, it's easy. Just do what I do." "This looks extremely sinful, Mandi." "Why Cydric, that's why it's so fun! Come on!" She put her hands in the air and began shaking her shoulders. Cydric watched her for a few moments, shrugged, then began shaking as well. After a while, the musicians decided to take a break. As the crowd broke up, Cydric and Mandi quickly occupied the nearest table. "Whew! Wasn't that the most fun you've ever had in your life?" Mandi asked breathlessly as they collapsed into the chairs. "I'm exhausted," Cydric said, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Oh now, you enjoyed it, didn't you? You're a natural born dervish dancer if I ever saw one!" "Is that what it's called?" Cydric said, grinning faintly. "How appropriate. But--yes, I did rather enjoy it." He sat up a little and scanned the faces at the bar and the other tables. "Has the captain 1arrived yet?" "Relax, Cydric," Mandi said. "I told you, he'll be here." "If you say so," Cydric answered. "Yes, I do." Mandi felt her stomach, then said, "Why don't we have something to eat while we're waiting? I haven't had a single morsel since midday and I'm positively _starving_. How about you? You've been traveling all day, right? You must be completely _famished!_" "Now that you mention it, I could use a light meal." Mandi signalled to a serving boy. She whispered something to him, and he nodded and left. "What did you say?" asked Cydric. "I just told him to bring us some specialties of the house," said Mandi. The serving boy returned a short time later and placed two wooden bowls before them. "Right then Cydric, have a taste of this one." She indicated a bowl that contained several small white objects covered with a brownish gravy. "What is it?" Cydric said, eyeing the dish suspiciously. "Try it and find out." Mandi spooned up a portion and held it out to him. "Well, all right...." Cydric let her feed him. The white objects were crunchy, but with a soft chewy interior. "Interesting. There's a touch of wine in the sauce, but I can't place anything else. What is it?" "It's called 'kavaliculi', but it's better known as snails-in-sauce." Cydric made a choking sound. "_What_ in sauce?" "Snails. Don't worry, they're fully cooked." She dipped her finger into the bowl and licked up a bit of the wine gravy. "Isn't it delicious?" Cydric swallowed hard. "Quite a, uh, unique dish," he said, trying not to think about what he had just eaten. "Now try this," said Mandi, pushing the other bowl towards him. Cydric saw that it was full of what appeared to be bits of dried twigs. "Ladies first," he said. "Silly, it's only a dessert," she said, scooping up a small amount and stuffing it into her mouth. "A dessert? Well, why didn't you say so." Cydric ate some. The bits were crispy and coated with a sweet substance. "What do you think?" Mandi asked. "Hmmm. Very tasty." "I knew you'd like it! Do you want to know what these are called?" "I have a feeling you'd tell me anyway." "'Lyr-filas', or 'leaf-wrigglers dipped in honey'." Cydric smiled bravely as he felt the last bits slide down his throat. He firmly resolved not to eject the contents of his stomach onto the table--at least not in front of Mandi. "How, ah, delicious," he said. "I never knew insects could be made to taste so, um, flavorful." "They are good, aren't they? Well, let's finish the snails first--they're best eaten while warm." She handed Cydric a spoon. "Tell me something, Mandi," he said as he watched her dip into the bowl, "what do you have for breakfast? Glazed fly larvae on a biscuit?" "Only during Melrin," she said, grinning. Cydric had downed three mugs of water by the time they finished their unusual meal. 1 "It's getting late, Mandi. I think I'll go back to the inn now," Cydric said. "Oh, can't you wait just a few minutes longer? I'm sure he'll show up." "That's all right. I'll just look for a job tomorrow. I shouldn't have any trouble finding unschooled children in this town." "Don't you want to join a ship's crew and have adventure and excitement on the high seas?" Mandi asked. "Or would you rather teach some runny-faced urchin how to spell 'cur'? "What do you suppose is keeping him, then?" "I don't know. Be patient, I'm--" "--sure he'll be here," Cydric finished. "Thank you anyway." He got up to leave. "Well--you're right. I'm sorry I kept you so late. But aren't you at least going to walk me home?" "Certainly, if you'd like." "I certainly would. We're going the same way." "We are? Oh--you live at the Inn, don't you?" Mandi smiled merrily. "It's where I hang my mandolin!" Dim yellow light from street lanterns provided pale illumination as Cydric and Mandi stepped out into the cool night air and headed back toward the Hawk & Dragon. "So, Cydric, what did you think of your first night at the Abyssment?" Mandi asked. "Well," he replied, "if suggestive dancing, open drug use, and brazen prostitution becomes socially acceptable, it'll be the most popular tavern on Makdiar!" "Does that mean you liked it?" Cydric chuckled and made no reply. Looking up at the black star-strewn sky, he saw that there was no moon. He remembered an old childhood warning about thieves and nightshades preying on people foolish enough to be out on moonless nights. He'd long since lost his belief in nightshades, but thieves, he knew, were a grim reality. Turning to Mandi he said, "We'd better hurry back." "What for?" said Mandi, giving a little skip. "It's a magnificent night, absolutely beautiful. We should enjoy it." "I don't fancy having my throat slit by a brigand." "Oh Cydric, there's really nothing to worry about. I've walked home at night many times and as you can see, I'm still alive." "That may change one day." As they made their way through the silent streets, Cydric kept glancing at every shadow, down every alley, any place that might hide a potential attacker. Once or twice he thought he heard bootsteps. "My heart's on fire for you, hmm hmm hmm hmmmmmm hmmm," said Mandi. "Beg your pardon?" Cydric said. "Oh, that's just a song I'm composing. Would you like to hear it?" "Maybe later. We shouldn't call attention to ourselves." "And what's wrong with a little attention? I want everybody to hear this song. I want everybody to know my name!" She flung her arms wide and twirled in mid-step. "Mandi, please!" Cydric hissed. "I have the feeling we're being followed." "Really? How many people?" "Shhhh." Cydric stopped and listened intently. He heard a faint scuffling, then silence. "Well?" whispered Mandi. "I'm not sure. Two, maybe three. They've probably been behind us ever since we left the Abyssment." 1 "Oh good, an audience. Let me sing for them." "It'll be the last thing you ever do. Come on." He started walking rapidly, pulling Mandi along. "You don't have to act like a warrior for my benefit. I'm perfectly able to take care of myself," she said. "Are you any good with a blade?' "Well, no. But I can outrun anything on two legs." "Your own legs?" "Of course my own legs." "And I'm sure they're very nice legs. Now move them a little faster." Their shadowers soon abandoned all attempts at stealth. Cydric looked back down the street and saw two figures silhouetted against the lantern light. The sound of their footfalls echoed through the still night. "Damn," muttered Cydric. "What?" asked Mandi. "Don't look behind you, but they're starting to close in on us." Mandi looked anyway. "What do you think we should do? Are they going to hurt us?" "Well, they're certainly not going to ask to hear your song! Now, when I say run, run." "Okay," replied Mandi. "Last one back to the Inn is a dead man!" Literally, thought Cydric. He counted to five, then shouted: "Run, Mandi!" They shot away down the street. Cydric heard faint laughter over the clatter of bootsteps. Suddenly Mandi screamed. A dark-skinned man armed with a large curved sword stood in their path. They stopped in their tracks. Cydric looked back and saw one of their pursuers advancing toward them. The other one was nowhere to be seen. The man indicated a nearby alley. "In there," he said in a thickly accented voice. Cydric and Mandi raised their hands and walked to where he pointed. When they came to the wall at the end of the alley the man ordered them to turn around. "Your money," he said simply. As Mandi handed over her purse, Cydric recognized the sword as a shivash, a blade used by the warriors of the Lashkir Desert. He wondered what this particular Lashkirian was doing so far from home. "Now yours." The Lashkirian waved his blade threateningly at Cydric. "Look, just leave us alone and we won't give you any trouble," he replied. The man pressed the point of the shivash against Cydric's neck. "You will give it now, you blistered son of a jantral!" "Better do as he says," said Mandi. Cydric slowly reached for his belt pouch but found it missing. He patted himself all over, with the same negative result. "Sorry," he said. "I seem to have lost it all somewhere." The desert warrior let loose a string of curses in his native tongue. "Easy, friend," said another voice. Cydric saw another man, their initial pursuer, appear at the mouth of the alley. "He says he has no money," said the Lashkirian. "He said that, did he?" the other man replied, coming up to them. He scratched his stubbly brown beard. "What do you think, Scarabin, is he lying?" "Like a dog-skin rug," answered the Lashkirian. "Let us kill them both, master Kayne." "Well, not before I get to know the girl a little better," Kayne 1replied. He moved closer to Mandi, who delivered a solid kick to his shin. "Ouch! Spunky little wench, isn't she?" said Kayne as he hobbled back several paces. "Don't you try to take advantage of me!" said Mandi. "Be silent, girl!" Scarabin ordered. "And don't _you_ tell me what to do, lizard man!" The desert warrior growled. Cydric realized that she had delivered a dreadful insult to the Lashkirian. "I shall cut your throat out!" Scarabin shouted. He lunged at Mandi. "Temper, temper," said Kayne, catching Scarabin's arm. In a flash, Cydric kicked the shivash out of the Lashkirian's grip, delivered another kick to Kayne's stomach, then dropped back and drew his own sword. He was about to aim a sharp slash at Kayne's face when he felt Mandi grab his sword arm. "Let go, for gods' sake!" yelled Cydric. Instantly, Kayne came up and wrested the sword from Cydric's hand. He shoved the young man against the wall. Cydric drove his knee into Kayne's groin and shoved back. As Kayne staggered, Scarabin swung at Cydric's face. He stopped the blow with a left-arm rising block, then punched the Lashkirian in the chest. Scarabin fell back, then leaped forward, catching Cydric's head in his hands. Cydric felt Scarabin's thumb jab a spot behind his right ear, then suddenly he felt himself go weak. His knees buckled, then he collapsed to the ground. "You better not have killed him!" he heard Mandi say. She rolled him over, then sighed with relief as he dazedly shook his head. "Oh Cydric, you're all right, aren't you?" she asked, concern edging her voice. "Fine, just...fine," he replied, struggling up to a sitting position. He saw Kayne and Scarabin standing over them. "If you're going to kill us, why don't you get it over with!" he said fiercely. "Relax, Cydric," Mandi said, smoothing his hair. She turned and glowered at Scarabin. "Did you have to do that to him?" "My apologies, mistress Mandi. It was done out of instinct." "You know these people?" Cydric asked Mandi. "What's going on here?" "I suppose it's time we told you," said a female voice from the mouth of the alley. Cydric looked up and saw a tall dark-haired woman striding towards them. She was clad in black and silver, and carried a lantern. As she helped him to his feet she said, "I hope they didn't hurt you, Cydric. I told them to not to be too rough." "He's fine, all right, but what about me? I won't be able to make love for a month!" Kayne said, rubbing at the place where Cydric had kneed him. "What do you mean?" Cydric asked the woman. "Who are you? And how do you know my name?" "One question at a time, please. First let me introduce myself. I'm Brynna Thorne, captain of the trading vessel _Vanguard Voyager_. You've already met my crew, I think. Tyrus Kayne, my First Mate, and Scarabin, my best warrior." "You're Captain Thorne? But Mandi said--I mean, I thought you were--" "Thought I was what?" "Well, a man." "Is that what you told him?" Brynna asked, glancing sharply at Mandi. The young lady grinned sheepishly. "Well...." "I can't wait to hear your explanation for this one," said Brynna. "Well, you see, everyone I asked seemed interested in joining the 1crew. But when I told them about your being a woman, they sort of laughed and left." "I see." "Well, what else could I do?" "We'll speak about it later," Brynna said. She turned to Cydric. "Now then, I suppose you're wondering why I didn't show up at the Abyssment tonight?" "The question had crossed my mind." "Well, when Mandi told me you wanted to become a member of the crew but hadn't had any experience on a ship before, my first thought was to dismiss you outright. But she told me that you were desperately poor and in need of employment, so I decided to conduct a little test to see if you were suitable. I had her take you to the Abyssment, where I observed you for the whole night." "But how did Mandi contact you? I was with her all the time." "Not always," Mandi said. "Brynna was in the gaming parlor of the Hawk & Dragon. I spoke to her while you were checking your stuff into your room." Cydric nodded in understanding, then said to Brynna, "And you were at the Abyssment the whole time?" "I was indeed. And I must say, I was impressed by the way you handled yourself in the various situations you encountered. For instance, most people would have pulled a knife on that bartender, or simply left. You also seemed open-minded enough to try dervish dancing, even though it's been officially banned by the Church for ages. And you are one of the few people I've seen who hasn't immediately become sick after trying snails and wrigglers for the first time. "What this all means, Cydric, is that you seem like you'd be a good addition to our crew. I need people who are level-headed, and not afraid to experience new things. So, if you want to join us, you're most welcome. The decision is yours." "This attack was also part of my test, I gather." "Yes, it was. I was looking to see if your combat skills were any good, and from what I saw, yours appear to be above average." "Exactly what sort of trading do you do, though? I mean, there's not much need for a fighting crew unless you travel outside the patrolled sea lanes." "That's quite true," Brynna replied. "The nature of our trade takes us outside the normal routes, and consequently we run a greater risk of pirate attacks. You see, there's a great demand nowadays for unusual and exotic goods; we travel to the lesser known places of Makdiar in search of these things. We've collected heavenspice from Bichu, fire crystals from Karmitan, orchids from Sanctus Island...." "Not to mention relics from the temples at Yaltark, and sea-snail shells from the Wild Coast," added Kayne. "But understand, Cydric, that shipboard life will sometimes be hard, and there may come times when you'll wish you'd never signed aboard. And there often may be times where our lives will be in danger--not just from pirates, but from things unknown even to the most worldly wizard. Are you still interested?" "I'm willing to give it a try. And I'm not worried about death," answered Cydric. "Bravely spoken," Brynna said. "One more thing, though; do you mind the fact that I'm the captain? That is, do you object to taking orders from a woman?" Cydric paused, then said: "Not when she has a right to give them." "Wise answer, Cydric," remarked Kayne. "Does this mean you've accepted him?" Mandi asked, looking hopefully at Brynna. 1 "It does indeed. Welcome aboard, Cydric," she said, extending her hand. "Oh goody!" exclaimed Mandi, as Cydric smilingly thanked Brynna and gripped forearms with her. Kayne repeated the welcome, and Scarabin bowed politely. Mandi smiled broadly and gave the young man a hug. "We'll discuss terms and duties later," Brynna said. "But right now we should all go back to the Inn before some real thieves show up." As the group filed out of the alley, Mandi walked between Kayne and Scarabin. "Great acting, you two!" she said. "Sorry about that 'lizard man' thing, Scar. I wasn't thinking." "I am not offended, mistress Mandi. I know your intention was to make the attack seem real to the lad," the Lashkirian replied. "But _you_!" she said, whirling on Kayne, "If you ever try anything with me again, acting or not--I'll personally see to it that you're _never_ able to make love again." "Ouch," said Kayne, chuckling in amusement. While the three were thus conversing, Brynna took Cydric aside and whispered, "Since you've no previous shipboard experience, your duties will be simple at first. But there's one thing that I'll expect you to do, above all else." "Yes?" "Keep Mandi out of trouble. My young cousin seems to have developed a talent for it, ever since she stowed away and persuaded me to let her be part of the crew." "I'll do my best, my lady--er, captain." "I can tell you right now, though, it won't be easy." "That's right, it won't!" Mandi said, popping up between them. She slipped her arm around Cydric. "You and I are going to have such fun." "I can hardly wait," Cydric replied, grinning. Mandi pinched his cheek as they walked off into the night. The End ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Trial by Fire Part I Accused! by M. Wendy Henniquin (b.c.k.a. HENNEQUI_WEM@CTSTATEU) As Luthias opened the door, the Duke of Dargon whooped, scooped his pretty wife into his arms, and twirled her in the air. Lauren, clad in a sunshiny yellow gown, clung to the Duke's neck and laughed gaily as a debutante. Luthias paused, unsure of the situation and what to do about it. He looked at Myrande for guidance. She shrugged. Above the laughter, Luthias called irritably, "Well, I'm glad you two have something to be happy about." Clifton set his wife gently on the floor and sprang across to the room to his cousin. "Luthias!" he greeted him. "You're going to be an uncle!" At this, Luthias blinked. "What? You're joking! Roisart went out and got some girl pregnant before he died?" A smile seeped across the young Baron's lips. "That wasn't Roisart's style at all." Myrande swatted him. "You dullard," she groaned. She looked at Lauren. "When, your grace?" "The seventeenth of Feber," Lauren stated confidently. "Lauren, you can't know that accurately," Clifton protested affectionately. Lauren nodded with assurance. "I just know." "I didn't think you'd start having children this soon," Luthias commented, collapsing into a chair. "Don't you want to be alone for a while?" "Oh, we'll find time enough to be alone, don't worry," Clifton assured his cousin. "Sure, cousin, and make more babies," Luthias finished irritably. "Married people have a tendency to do that sort of thing," Lauren teased her kinsman. "Of course," she continued, eyes twinkling, "it isn't exclusive to marriage, eh, Luthias?" Luthias glared at the Duke. "You told her! I don't believe this!" Clifton opened his mouth to reply, but his wife silenced him with a quick gesture. "Wait. Does Myrande know about this?" "What, about his wenching days?" Myrande asked. She smiled, waved Lauren's concern away. "Certainly. I'm the seneschal. I'm the one who holds the keys and lets arrant knaves in when they've been wenching." Luthias scowled at her teasing grin. "However," Myrande defended him, "he always made certain that there were no babies involved." He had almost been fanatic about it, as Sable recalled. Then she looked at the young Baron. "You haven't done anything like that in over two years, though." "That's because my father started hearing about it," grumbled Luthias. He glared at his seneschal. "It wasn't me!" she protested. "Don't you think that Roisart noticed your coming in late all the time?" "Besides, your father wasn't easily fooled," Clifton concluded. Seeing Luthias' discomfort, he moved behind his desk and changed the subject. What was past was past, after all. "So, Luthias, I gather you aren't having the best of days." The Duke scanned his cousin's face. "You don't look well." "Oh, I'm well enough," Luthias assured him sarcastically. "I'm just losing my mind." He flung one of the letters across the desk. "Take a look at that." Clifton opened the folded parchment and skimmed it. "The legal elections? I've already been informed," he said, handing the paper back to Luthias. "So?" 1 "Clifton, I'm going mad just trying to run the barony. I can't be Duke's Advocate, too. The mere traveling takes up so much time, and the preparation...besides, I know nothing of law. Even if I had the time to dedicate to this, I wouldn't be a good Advocate." "As I understand it," Lauren interposed, "you wouldn't be trying many cases, Luthias. You'd only be involved in cases where a member of the nobility were being tried, and then only for major crimes, such as murder or treason." "Right," Clifton confirmed. "That doesn't happen too often, manling. You should do well enough." "Can't you get someone else?" Luthias requested. "I really don't need the extra responsibility." "It's not my decision," the Duke reminded him. "By royal decree, the members of the Tribunal and the Duke's Advocate are chosen by election. Sorry." The Duke leaned back in his chair. "I hope you two are going to stay the week. The Tournament's only five days away, and besides, it's cooler here than in Connall." Luthias wiped the back of his hand against his sweaty forehead. A few grains of grit from the road scraped annoyingly across the scar above his right eye. It didn't help; nothing did. Not even the sea breezes sweeping the air of Dargon brought much relief from the heat and humidity. "I don't know," Luthias said. "There's so much to do..." "You mean you aren't entered in the Tournament?" Clifton asked incredulously. "You almost won last year!" Luthias smiled, almost sheepish. "I don't have much time for games. I've got too many responsibilities at home." "That's what Michiya said, too, and you told him to go ahead and enter," Myrande pointed out. "Besides, what duties will you have at Connall? Most of the people of the barony are coming to the city for the Tournament!" "True," Luthias sighed. "Michiya's fighting, Macdougalls is a sure bet to take the archery--" "Again," Clifton interjected. "And God only knows how many men you'll have fighting for you, Sable," Luthias finished tiredly. "And not one of them asks for you." "Someone has, haven't they?" Lauren asked, looking at her husband. "I recall you saying something to me a day or so ago about a letter..." "I had wanted to forget it," Clifton almost snapped. He opened up his desk drawer abruptly and pulled out a folded piece of fine velum. "I think you'd better see this, cousin." Luthias' mouth twisted angrily when he recognized the seal of the Baron of Shipbrook, and a red cloud of rage covered his face as he read it. "That son of a bitch!" Luthias exploded furiously. "How dare he!" Frantically, Myrande snatched the letter from the Baron of Connall. "I don't believe this," she murmured. "He threatened this in his letter to you, but this was sent before yours." "What did you tell him, Clifton?" Luthias asked, only slightly calmer than he had been. "Are you going to take Myrande's guardianship from me and give it to him?" "Are you mad?" Clifton demanded. "Do you think I'd let any woman of this Duchy marry Baron Oleran? I've already written him and told him to mind his own barony." Luthias took the letter from Myrande, read it again. "He's right that I should have found a marriage for her..." "No, he isn't," Clifton argued. "I know why your father refused to marry her off, and I agree with his reasons." Myrande stared at the Duke. "Uncle Fionn told you!" she accused, incredulous. 1 "Only because he wanted my advice," the Duke explained. "He wanted your advice?" Luthias echoed. "Well, I am the Duke." "Yes," Luthias agreed, "but you're twenty years younger than he was!" "Actually, my age made me closer to the man she was in love with, and your father wanted to know whether or not I thought something would develop," Clifton explained casually. He leaned back in his chair. Luthias glared at his seneschal. "Does everyone in the whole Duchy but me know who you're in love with? I'm the only one who can arrange your marriage, and--" Clifton grinned, amused. "Luthias, I don't think you'd want to handle this one." "I agree," Lauren advised quietly. "You're much too close--" "And you know too?!" Luthias cried, enraged. He turned toward Myrande and shoved her slightly. "Thanks a lot for trusting me, Sable." Myrande blinked once, then turned and silently left the room. The door closed quietly behind her. "Now you've gone and done it," Clifton grumbled. "And you said you had 'the touch' with women." "She doesn't keep it from you out of spite or distrust," Lauren said quietly, carefully keeping anger and accusation out of her voice. "Her reasons are just." Luthias sat again. "I don't mean to yell or hurt her," he confessed. "I want to see her happy, and she won't let me arrange it!" He slammed his fist into his open palm to emphasize the point. "She won't even tell me about it." "Never mind," Lauren soothed. "I'll go make sure she's all right. Excuse me." She touched Luthias' shoulder reassuringly, smiled at Clifton, and left his office. Clifton sighed and shook his head at his cousin. "The hell with all of this nonsense, Luthias. Go marry her yourself." "I'm getting that advice from all over." The young Baron of Connall smiled ruefully. "Roisart said the same thing in my dream last night." "Well, he's right," the Duke continued. "It would stop your constant arguing and get Shipbrook off your back." Luthias looked reluctant. "What's wrong? I thought you liked Sable. Would you mind marrying her?" "Not at all, if it were me she wanted," Luthias admitted, shrugged. "Or if she didn't care who she married. But I refuse to have her resent me because I kept her from whoever she loves." Suddenly, the Baron smiled with irony on his lips. "I'll tell you one thing, though, Clifton: if she ever steps before me again in nothing but that nightgown, I'm not responsible." Clifton lifted his eyebrows. "Responsible? Why? Was it that ugly?" Wickedly smiling, Luthias shook his head. "No. Nearly invisible." "Ah," the Duke said knowingly, relaxing in his chair. "One of those nightgowns." He smiled, thinking of his bride. Then he teased, "Why didn't you do something about it, manling? Then we wouldn't have to worry about marrying her off." "I wouldn't so dishonor her," Luthias protested, dignified. "Dishonor? I don't think any dishonor is involved." "Nor I, but she'd see it that way," Luthias sighed. "She's been saving herself, and I wouldn't deny her that privilege." A shadow crossed his eyes. "My father once...screamed at me when he thought I was fooling with Sable. He said..." What had he said? It was a long time ago, and it still shamed him. "He said if I toyed with her body, 1I'd be toying with her heart, that I'd do nothing but hurt her." "Sable's a big girl now," Clifton commented. "I also don't think any man--including you--would be able to touch her without her allowing --and wanting--it. Still, manling, you should have tried." "No, Clifton, I'm not going to try to force her to marry me. That's how she'd see it," Luthias added, seeing an objection on his cousin's face. Then, suddenly, the young Baron of Connall smiled wickedly. "Of course, if I see her like that again, I just might lose control of myself." The Duke grinned. This sounded like the old Luthias, or rather, the young one. The young Baron of Connall looked over his shoulder. "Speaking of Sable, I suppose I ought to go apologize to her. "See you later, Clifton." The Duke reached for some of his paperwork. "Staying for the tournament?" "Might as well," sighed the Baron. "Put me on the lists." He shut the door quietly. The Duke pushed the parchment away, mused silently at the situation. "I give up," Clifton muttered finally, pulling paperwork toward him. Luthias found Myrande standing in front of three tall portraits in Clifton's gallery. The long, white hall ran almost the length of the keep, and in it were hung paintings of the Dargon family, Luthias' and Clifton's ancestors. Myrande was standing before the three most recent. To her left was a grand gentleman, in grand armor, holding his helmet beneath his arm and his sword in the other hand. He was tall, dignified, solemn; his brown eyes were Clifton's eyes, Luthias' eyes. This was the Duke of Dargon, Clifton's father, Luthias' uncle, the man who had given Myrande's father his knighthood. The Baron of Connall gazed at the painting with respect. He had always admired his uncle. To Myrande's right, and Luthias', was the newest portrait, not more than seven years old. The young man in it stood, like his father to Myrande's right, with a dignified posture, but this man was surrounded by books, papers, and musical instruments as well as war. Luthias smiled at Clifton's image and thought, this is what Roisart might have been like, had he gone to the university. The center portrait held Myrande's dark eyes, however. The man in the center of the painting, a man in his thirties, perhaps, had the looks of both the Dukes of Dargon. He was seated before a desk spread with papers, and although he looked as if he were trying to concentrate, his lips were twisting into a quiet smile. He was not alone; behind the desk, a nine-year-old boy challenged a lion's head with a sword, and seated on the floor by the man's chair was another boy, a twin of the first, reading a book of fairy tales. "I hate that picture," Luthias remarked. "I know it," Sable returned laconically. "You're angry with me." "You're perceptive," she returned coolly. Luthias grimaced angrily. "I came to apologize," he snapped. "You should," Myrande returned in kind. "You know I trust you." "Then why don't you just tell me?" Luthias demanded. "I'm the one who can do something about it! Just tell me who this man is!" "No." "Why, Sable?" Luthias growled, taking her shoulders. Her onyx eyes glared at him. "Give me one reason why. One good reason." "I've given you my reasons," Sable reminded him coldly. "Not good enough. Tell me!" "I can't!" Myrande spat between her teeth. She squirmed beneath 1his hold. "I tell you, I can't. If you knew, you'd understand why I can't tell you!" "But I *don't* know," Luthias shouted, "and I *don't* understand! Don't you think I want to help you? And you don't even give me a chance!" He released her in disgust. Scornfully, he added, "I'll wager you haven't given him a chance, either, whoever he is." Myrande turned her back coldly to him, as if she didn't want to hear or see him. "By God, Myrande," Luthias exploded, "it's your own fault! You don't want him to love you--you'd rather languish on like a simpering heroine in one of Roisart's romances than give the man a chance to accept you!" "Why bother?" she asked. "I don't want his pity. Why should I tell him and watch him reject me when I already know he doesn't love me?" "How do you know? Has he told you this?" Sable was silent. Luthias wrenched her shoulders again so that she was forced to face him. She struggled, but the Baron held her fast, and while she was the more determined, Luthias' arms were stronger. He shook her once. "Has he told you?" Myrande opened her mouth, but only glared at him furiously. "No, I thought not." He released her again. For a wild, furious moment, he wanted to strike her with all his strength. He began to speak, but fell silent as his eyes met her hard stare. His eyes lost the anger and suddenly all Luthias felt was hurt--that she couldn't tell him, and that she was hurting. "Sable, damn it, if you can't tell me, at least tell him. He'd be crazy if he didn't love you. Give the man a chance." The sorrow in the young Baron's eyes and voice pierced the icy wall behind Sable's black eyes. "I can't," she said tiredly. "I can't." "Why?" Luthias coaxed softly, reaching for her hand. "For the same reason I can't tell you," she whispered. She paused and raised her eyes. Luthias felt strangely, as if she were searching for something in his face. "Luthias, I would tell you--oh, God, I want you to know--" Luthias heard her voice break, and she averted her eyes and turned away as she tried to regain control. She would not cry in front of him, Luthias knew, not if she could help it. Her hands flew to cover her face. "It's the same as always!" she cried out. Luthias reached to touch her, but for some reason, unknown to him, he withdrew his hand. "I don't have the courage," she finally choked. "Oh, Sable." Luthias put his arms around her waist and shoulder and pulled her close. She shook once beneath his arms, a silent sob. "Don't cry," he whispered. "I'm not crying," she insisted thickly. "Sable, let me do something." Beneath his hand, her head shook negatively. Luthias felt tired. "Then do something yourself. I don't want to fight you...I've got enough to fight...but I want you to be happy. I can't stand seeing you like this." "There's nothing you can do," she said sadly, her chin resting on his arm. "There's nothing anyone can do." No, Luthias denied it. There was something he could do, and by God, he would do it. Luthias slowly, gently, tightened his grip. Myrande's body snuggled against him, her form and her warmth welcome even in the obscene heat. Luthias bent toward her ear, received a wonderful view, and buried his head in her rose-scented hair to concentrate. "Forget him, Sable," the young Baron of Connall whispered. "If he's hurting you, he isn't worth it. Forget him, and--" "Luthias!" The Baron of Connall gave an inward, violent curse as he heard his cousin call him. He turned to see Clifton, Lauren, his castellan Ittosai Michiya, and two visitors approaching. Luthias 1silently swore again and reluctantly, he released Myrande. Before she stepped slightly away, the Baron saw unshed tears shining in her eyes. She blinked once, but did not cry. Luthias put his hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed it. "We'll talk later," he promised softly as the Duke and Duchess of Dargon, the Castellan of Connall, and the visitors came closer. Luthias recognized one of the men: Baron Richard Vladon, a member of the Tribunal and an old friend of his father's. Luthias politely offered his hand. "Good day, Baron Vladon." Vladon, a serious-looking, gray-haired man in his sixties, shook Luthias hand firmly. "Good day, Lord Luthias--forgive me, Baron Connall." Luthias smiled. He preferred the first title. "Luthias," the Duke of Dargon interrupted, "this is Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies. He's come to judge the tournament. Your excellency," Clifton continued politely, "my cousin, the Baron of Connall." Luthias bowed slightly to dark-haired Knight Commander, over whom Luthias towered slightly. He had met Sir Edward once, five years ago, when he was sixteen and Edward had come to visit Sir Lucan Shipbrook, Myrande's father, a few weeks before Sir Lucan fell ill and died. As a youth he had stood in awe of the stern, reserved man with the scar across his face. But Luthias grew, learned to bear his own scars like a warrior, and learned to admire the strong, black-clad Knight Commander. Luthias extended his hand. "How do you do, your Excellency. A pleasure to meet you." "How do you do, Baron," Sir Edward returned gravely, but not unpleasantly. His grip on Luthias' hand was firm and hard, the hold of one warrior to another. "An honor and a pleasure, sir. Ah," the Knight Commander continued, smiling as Myrande turned toward him. He bowed low and pressed her small palm to his cheek. "How do you do, my lady. I believe I have the pleasure of addressing the Baroness of Connall?" Clifton glanced sharply at Myrande. She paled as she heard Sothos' words. Luthias seemed caught between smiling and frowning, but did not lose any composure. "Unfortunately, your excellency," Luthias rued, "it is not the case. My friend, ward, and seneschal, Lady Myrande Shipbrook." Sir Edward straightened. "Oh, yes, Sir Lucan's daughter! How could I forget a face like that? You are the image of your mother. A pleasure, my lady." He smiled by way of apology. "Forgive my rude assumption. I saw you in the arms of Baron Connall, and naturally, I thought--" The knight faltered and smiled sheepishly. "Things are very different in Dargon than they are in the capital." "There's no need to apologize," Myrande said. Luthias' mouth twitched; somehow her voice sounded strange. He wanted to put his arms around her again; she felt too good to let go of. After a lame moment of silence, Lady Lauren suggested, "Come, Sir Edward. My father will be pleased to see you again. He should be in the library now." Sir Edward bowed to Myrande again, nodded to Luthias, and left with the Duke, the Duchess and his cousin. Ittosai lingered. "I hear you are entering the lists, Luthias-san," Michiya commented, smiling. "I am eager to meet you." "Any objection to practicing now? The servants should have returned by now with my armor and weapons." "You want to impress Sir Edward, don't you?" Myrande asked in a low voice. Luthias smiled. "Of course. He's the greatest knight in the land." For a moment, the young Baron was wistful. "I always wanted to be just like him and Sir Lucan. He's the greatest Knight in the Kingdom." Then 1he clapped his seneschale's back. "Come join us, Sable. I want to see how good you really are with this naginata." "You may regret it," Myrande warned. Ittosai, her tutor, smiled. "But I'll join you later." "Let us go then," Michiya suggested. He bowed in the Bichurian way to the lady and left with the Baron. The atmosphere had not cooled by the day of the tournament. Luthias had barely slept fourteen hours between the time he arrived in Dargon and the day of the tournament; it was too hot, and he was plagued by bad dreams. But the little vacation from the barony and the concentration of fighting had done him good; he had been more relaxed, and he was ready for the fight when it came. The fact that Sir Edward was judging the tournament had made him nervous, though. The greatest Knight in the Kingdom, watching him, watching Ittosai, watching all the men, young and old, who were entering the tournament. Sir Edward himself, the Knight Commander. And with war coming-- That was nonsense. He and Sir Edward had discussed it over the dinner table at Clifton's home days before. The Knight Commander and Ittosai Michiya had agreed with him that Bichu and Baranur fighting was close to impossible. Bichu's navy, primitive as it was, could hardly reach Baranurian shores, and were there ever a confrontation, the encumbered Baranurians would never be able to withstand the light, quick weapons born by the Bichanese. But still the rumors--and Luthias' nightmares of horror and war--continued. The young Baron didn't like it. Despite the pressures and the ugly rumors, Luthias had enjoyed the tournament, which had taken place earlier. Macdougalls took the archery, bow down, and no one was surprised. Carrying Myrande's colors--and the struggle Luthias endured to win that privilege surpassed the tournament fighting--the Baron of Connall won the tournament by defeating his castellan in the final round. Luthias glanced around the ballroom, slightly uncomfortable. He had always hated balls, hated dancing, and now he hated wearing the baldric of the Duchy champion. He didn't deserve it, and he knew it. Ittosai had allowed him to win. Oh, Luthias didn't realize it at the time, but as soon as he struck the final blow, he knew that Ittosai had allowed it. He understood Michiya's reason for doing it, so Luthias said nothing to his castellan, but Ittosai knew that Luthias understood. He made his way through the crowds, searching for his seneschal. He supposed he should dance with her. She was clumsy, but she did dance well, and she looked stunning tonight in a gown of ruby silk. He caught sight of her, dancing with the Knight Commander, so he moved to the side of the dance floor and watched. "Luthias!" someone called. Luthias frowned, trying to place the slightly familiar voice, and turned. Facing him was a thin young man, shorter than Luthias and slighter, blond, and hazel-eyed. He was dressed in the fashionable clothes of Magnus, as was Sir Edward, and this man's clothes were also black. He bore himself confidently, and however serious his face was, he moved as a fighter. Luthias peered at him as he came forward. Then he recognized him: "Warin!" Luthias smiled. Warin Shipbrook, like his brother Tylane, had been good friends with the Connall twins and Sable since they were small. It certainly wasn't their fault their father was crazed. "When did you get back?" Luthias asked, clasping his friend's arm. "I thought you were still at the University in Magnus!" "I've graduated," the scholar admitted proudly, "and I came home with Sir Edward. I've got to learn to rule, now that I've studied all 1the laws." Warin smiled, then sighed. "Roisart would have loved the library." He paused, tried to smile again. "And it seems I'm not the only one learning to rule." Luthias shrugged, looking away. It had been months, but part of him still grieved for his father and brother. "I do what I have to." "If you need help, you know where I am." Luthias almost laughed. "As if your father would let me near you. He hates me." A cross expression triumphed over Warin's face. He kept his deep voice low. "My father and his notion of family honor. As if he had any, throwing Uncle Lucan out of the family! And marrying Myrande to Oleran!" Warin looked Luthias in the eye. "Damn it, Luthias, give her to me, if there's no one else. I could bear living with her. She's a sweet girl--" "Whom you haven't seen for five years," Luthias chuckled. "She's grown into quite a hellcat." He lost his good humor. "A stubborn, proud hellcat, in love with a man who doesn't love her--she won't accept anyone else." The young Baron threw his hands out in confusion. "It's not for lack of anyone to marry her to--*I'd* marry her. She and I would get along excellently. But she won't do it!" Warin smiled. "Just like her mother. No one but Uncle Lucan for her!" "Sir Lucan loved her back." "True," Warin agreed. "Well, when I get my hands on the fiend, I'll kill him," Luthias vowed. "She's been hurt enough in her life." "Luthias-san," Ittosai Michiya announced himself. He bowed to the Baron, then to the Baron's friend. "How do you do," he said carefully to Warin, using Baranurian manners. "I am Ittosai Michiya, Castellan to the Baron of Connall." "Lord Warin Shipbrook," he introduced himself, and bowed in the Baranurian fashion. Ittosai continued, "There was a Bichanese merchant at the market with katanas. I am in need of a new one, and I thought that you as well would like to have one." He held out a supremely crafted katana. Luthias smiled. "Thank you, Michiya. You didn't have to do that." "You well earned it today on the field, Luthias-san," the castellan cut him off. Ittosai smiled. "We shall practice together tomorrow." Small hands suddenly appeared before Warin's eyes. Luthias smiled, recognizing them. Warin removed the hands and turned. "Myrande!" he greeted his cousin, kissing her warmly on the cheek. He stepped back, inspected her. "You've grown no taller." "Nor have you," she teased testily. "But at least you're bonnier," Warin offered. "Bonnier? I'm falling apart, and he says I'm bonnier." But Myrande was smiling. "I must go," Ittosai interrupted, "for I have promised to dance with the Duchess. But these are for you, Myrande," he stated quickly, pushing two ivory sticks, tipped in silver, which were carved with Bichanese characters on the blunt end. "Thank you," Myrande said politely. She looked confused though. "They are chop sticks," Michiya explained. "In my country, they are used for eating, but the ladies also wear them in their hair. Like this," he explained. He took the ivory sticks and slipped them, silver pointed end first, into the pile of hair at the back of Myrande's head. Michiya took a step back and admired the effect of the crossed sticks. "There. You are perfect, except your eyes are too round." Myrande laughed. "Excuse me, prease," he concluded, hearing the music paus. He bowed to his lord and his company. "I must dance with the 1Duchess." Luthias took him aside as he was leaving. "Let me know how much the katana cost," Luthias asked quietly. Ittosai smiled. "I have more than enough, Luthias-san. It is a gift; besides, you give me too much gold for my services." He bowed toward the Baron slightly. "I shall see you on the later, my friend." Luthias turned back to his ward and his old friend Warin, who were trying to catch up on four years of one another's lives in less than an hour. "Do you want to dance, Sable?" the Baron of Connall asked. She smiled shyly. "I already promised Warin." Shy? Why does she look shy? It wasn't as if he had never asked to dance with her before. Come to think of it, he hadn't. "Go ahead," young Shipbrook offered easily. "No, I'll dance with you later," Luthias insisted. "I see Clifton wants to see me." He nodded to his friends and left. "Now," said Warin, taking his younger cousin's arm, "we shall have to see if your dancing has improved." Myrande laughed. "Improved? You must be joking." She stepped with him, and they began to dance. "Are you glad to be home, Warin?" The scholar considered. "I am, and I'm not. I'm glad to see everyone again, Tylane and you, Luthias, the Duke...but still, I'm having a hard time getting along with my father--" "You're not alone." "I realize this. Has he really tried to supersede your guardianship from Luthias?" Myrande nodded. "I wonder if he's insane--belittling the Baron of Connall and trying to marry his niece to Oleran. And the way he treats Tylane..." "What's he doing to Tylane?" Myrande asked quickly. She was fond of Tylane, her cousin, and had been very happy for him when his engagement to Danza Coranabo, who had been offered to Luthias, had been announced several weeks ago. "Is he disinheriting him?" "Worse. Whenever Tylane does so much as disagree with him, he threatens to refuse Danza." "How can he do that? The banns have been announced, and the dowry paid." "Tylane's only nineteen, Myrande, and my father legally can still speak for him," Warin explained, as if he didn't really like the fact. "And disinheriting him isn't a threat; Tylane will be one of the heirs to Coranabo when he marries Danza. No, disinheritance is what he uses against me." "For what?" "For anything. For disagreeing with him. He wants total control, Myrande; he wants his family to think of him as King and God." Warin made a sound of disgust and turned away. Neither mentioned the Baron of Shipbrook again; neither wanted to think about him. Luthias approached his cousin, the Duke, and Sir Edward. The Knight Commander smiled. He and Luthias had spoken much over the last few days. "Come into the study," the Knight Commander invited. Luthias nodded and walked with his cousin and the Knight Commander to Clifton's office. "Baron!" Luthias turned his head and grimaced when he saw the Baron of Shipbrook. Unlike his two congenial sons, the Baron was tall, dark-haired, and bore himself arrogantly. Luthias didn't like him and had never liked him. He found it difficult to tolerate people who insisted that their will govern the world. "What do you want, Baron?" Luthias asked, trying to keep his voice low, steady, and polite. He motioned to his oncoming manservant to wait a moment. 1 "A word with you, nothing else." Luthias' mouth quirked with annoyance. He didn't exactly wish to speak with this man, now or ever. But he was the Baron of Connall... He looked at the Duke, who nodded. "Come to the study, and speak." "I wish to discuss my niece's marriage to Baron Oleran," the Baron of Shipbrook announced as soon as the door closed. Curse him! Tactless brute, bringing this up at a ball, in front of the Knight Commander! Luthias' eyes caught the metal of the Bichanese katana at his side. It was an excellent weapon, quick and sharp, just the thing to remove this cretin's head. Fine thing, for the Duke's Advocate to be tried for murder... "We have arranged for the ceremony to take place on the twenty-fourth of Seber." "There will be no marriage," Luthias contradicted, his voice firm and low. His hands began to curl into fists. "You have no right to deny her this," Shipbrook stated guardedly. "I am her kinsman, and I know best for her. If you have your will, you will keep her as your slave for the rest of her life, but she deserves better--a home and title of her own." "I am her guardian, and I have every right to protect her," Luthias replied carefully. "I will not have her wed to Oleran." "She is of my blood. I have more right to her--" "You have NO right," Luthias seethed, his words slipping tightly between his teeth. "You gave up any rights to her and her family when you cast Sir Lucan out! Myrande is my ward, and it is I, sir, not you, who holds sway over her life." "Lucan left her to your father, boy, not to you," Shipbrook argued. "You have neither the wisdom, nor the--" "Sir Lucan left her guardianship to the Baron of Connall; I am the Baron of Connall, Shipbrook, and I shall judge what is best for Myrande." Luthias wondered fleetingly how his cousin and the Knight Commander would react if he began to strangle the Baron of Shipbrook before their eyes. "She was left to Fionn Connall--" "She was left to the *Baron* of Connall," Luthias repeated angrily. "I have seen the words, sir. Now leave!" The young Baron's hands were at his side, clenched so tightly that the entire fist was white. His eyes were wild and dangerous. "You want her dishonored, an old maid to be mocked!" "I want her alive and happy!" Luthias shouted. He wished he had more--or less--control. "You want her miserable, or dead. Get out of here, Shipbrook!" Shipbrook took a step back, seeing the fury in Luthias' eyes. Silently, he left. Luthias cursed him mentally. He shook his head, as if to clear it, and bowed his head when he saw Sir Edward. "I apologize, sir, for my outburst." "Think nothing of it, Luthias," the Knight Commander said gently. "Excuse me," the Duke said, and he brushed past Luthias on his way out. "Not a discreet man, this Baron of Shipbrook." "No, Sir Edward." "Not at all like his brother," Sothos continued. "Sir Lucan was a good man. Is it all that hard to find a suitor for his daughter?" Luthias smiled, and his fists loosened. "Not at all, Sir Edward. Her cousin, Warin Shipbrook, has offered, and I would marry her, but she doesn't want either of us." "Proud?" "And stubborn," Luthias agreed. "But I'll get around it...eventually." He didn't add that he hoped that Shipbrook would do nothing stupid before he, Luthias, could figure out how to handle 1Myrande. "Good luck to you, then, Luthias," laughed the knight. "However, I called you here for something of a different nature." Luthias sat. "What?" The Knight Commander perched himself on the edge of the desk. "I know--just as you and your Castellan say--that war with Bichu would be ludicrous. But I still sense war coming; from whence, I know not. Do you have any opinions?" "The countries to the east are too small; would Benison risk it? They've waged wars without warning before." "True, but I doubt they would be so stupid as to attack us. We're too evenly matched with them." "Of course," Luthias said. "No matter what, the army needs preparations. Did you know that your father had asked that you train beneath me?" Luthias blinked. "What? No--he never told me..." "Yes, the Duke tells me he was killed before he had the chance." Edward smiled. "I wanted him to tell you this part, but your father had intended for you to come to Magnus and become a knight beneath me. Your brother, I'm told, was to have gone to the University." "I knew Father was planning to tell Roisart that on our birthday." "I see. But he didn't live that long." Luthias nodded. "In any case, Baron Connall, I would ask that you return to Magnus with me, to become a officer in the Royal Army." Luthias leaned back in the chair and considered. "Am I to be Knighted, then?" Sir Edward smiled. "I would think so, but not yet. You're a fine fighter, Luthias, as far as that goes, one of the finest I've ever seen. But there's more to Knighthood than fighting. Honor." Sir Edward frowned. "Were you aware that your Castellan threw away his chance to win the tournament?" Luthias nodded. "Why did you allow it?" "Because I understood why he did it," Luthias explained. "Knighthood involves truth, Luthias. You won dishonestly, and you accepted the prize and honor for that victory without a word." "I would think that discretion is also a knightly quality," Luthias argued easily. "There are rumors of a Bichanese attack, Sir Edward. If Lord Ittosai won the tournament, the panic would rise. A Bichanese man better than every fighter in Dargon, better than the Duke's cousin? The people would go mad. How long do you think Ittosai would have lived, if he had won? I would rather sacrifice the truth than my friend's life," Luthias concluded firmly, his jaw tight. Ever since he was a tot training under Sir Lucan, Luthias had wanted to be like him--a great fighter, a great Knight. But if wanting to keep Ittosai alive was a fault to Knights, then he wouldn't be one. Sir Edward sighed. "You are right, Lord Baron Connall." He smiled. "I would be pleased if you would join me in Magnus. I think you would be Knighted by spring." Wild hope rushed inside Luthias. Go to Magnus--become a Knight in the spring. Go to Magnus... "My lands," he murmured. "Myrande." "What?" "I'll have to wait and see, Sir Edward," Luthias replied. "I have no one to govern my lands, and the way Baron Shipbrook is, I doubt I should leave Lady Myrande." "Bring her with you." "You said things were different there. They wouldn't understand my friendship with her." "People aren't very tolerant of...that sort of thing," Sothos agreed. "The Princess' marriage was dissolved due to that lack of tolerance. But you said you wanted to marry her." "She won't let me," Luthias rued, but he smiled slightly. "I will 1think on it, Sir Edward." A knock sounded. "Come," Sir Edward invited. Baron Vladon entered the room. Behind him stood the Baron of Winthrop and the Baron of Coranabo. "Please excuse our interruption, your excellency," Baron Coranabo apologized. "We must speak urgently with the Duke's Advocate." Sir Edward glanced at the Baron of Connall. "Should I leave?" "No, stay, Edward," Vladon advised his cousin. "It is well that we should have a Royal Official as a witness." Witness? "What is it?" Luthias asked, wary. "We have evidence," Coranabo began slowly, as if it were difficult for him. Yet his eyes were cold, not at all as if he were uncomfortable. "That there is a conspiracy to start a war with Bichu." "I know there was," Luthias replied gravely. "My father and brother died because of it." Baron Winthrop, obviously unsettled, coughed. "My boy," he addressed the Lord Baron of Connall, "this is gravely serious." Luthias grimaced. "Tell me." "There are witnesses," Coranabo continued slowly, "that say that some people of this area are plotting with Bichu against the Kingdom." "Who?" Luthias demanded. "Your Castellan," Coranabo told him, "Ittosai Michiya." ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 The Game Begins by John Doucette (b.c.k.a JDOUCETTE@UPEI) A man dressed in plain grey clothing entered the bed-chamber and went to the figure sleeping peacefully in the elegant four-poster. He bent down and gently shook the slumbering figure awake. "Primus," he said with great respect tinged with fear. "Wake up, my lord." The figure turned over. "I told thee I was not to be disturbed under any circumstances," he said in a whispering voice. "Y-Yes, Primus," the servant stammered. "B-But--" "ANY circumstances, Lothan. If thee cannot carry out my most trivial commands, then I must search for another man-servant." Lothan trembled in the darkness. He knew what the Primus meant when he said he would have to search for another man-servant. None save those who were part of The Order could know the identity of the Primus. Lothan swallowed hard. "F-Forgive me, my lord. Dra'nak Valthorn has returned." At the mention of Valthorn, the Primus sat upright in bed and fixed Lothan with a piercing stare, even though the room was in near-total darkness. "If this is a contrivance to save thyself, thee art a dead man, Lothan," he said without emotion. "No, Primus! I swear it! The Dra'nak stepped through the portal only ten minutes ago!" For long seconds, Lothan could feel the unseen gaze of his master upon him. "Inform the Dra'nak that I will see him in my study in one quarter of an hour," the Primus said to his terrified servant. "Y-Yes, Primus," Lothan said, the relief plain in his voice. He bowed once and fled the room. Dressed in velvet-soft black robes, the Primus of The Order entered his private study accompanied by his ever-present guards, also members of The Order. Waiting for him was Dra'nak Valthorn, one of The Order's enforcers, the most feared men, next to the Primus, in The Order. Of the four Dra'naks, Valthorn was the most powerful, second in ability only to the Primus himself. The study was large, almost a laboratory. There were books everywhere, as well as three large tables for conducting experiments. The portion of the library closest the entrance was devoted to leisure. A small table surrounded by six chairs sat in a corner. Behind the table were book shelves containing hundreds of midnight-black bound tomes of magic. One could almost feel the magic emanating from them. Seated at the table was a man wearing the same clothes as the Primus and his guards wore. In fact, all two hundred members of The Order wore black robes. Their servants, those that had servants, wore grey. Valthorn rose and bowed to the Primus from the waist. His robes' cowl was pushed back, revealing the face of a man in his late thirties. "Cho dakh, Primus," he said in a deep voice. "Cho dakh, Valthorn," the Primus replied. "What news?" "I hath succeeded in tracking down one of the cabal's members, Primus. I was not able to determine the identity of his confederates. However, I was able to extract some information as to their purpose." "And it is?" "They intend treason, Primus. I am not certain whether they wish to secede, or whether they wish to take our Master's throne." "Hath thee uncovered any mention of Baron Myros?" the Primus asked intently. "Nay, Primus," Valthorn replied. "Hath some event occurred that 1would suggest otherwise?" "Myros hath journeyed to Magnus." "Baranur?" Valthorn said incredulously. "Yes. Baranur. Celeste hath reported to me that Myros doth undertake this journey to visit an 'old friend'. She suspects Myros of having ulterior motives. Our Master decided to make Myros Ambassador to Baranur, in order that we may more readily observe him. I hath given Celeste the task." "Celeste? Dost thou trust her?" "Trust, Valthorn? Nay, I do not trust her. But she knows what will happen to her if she betrays me," he said with the faintest trace of a smile. "What dost thou wish me to do regarding the cabal, Primus?" "Summon the Conclave," the Primus said after a moment's consideration. "This decision must not be taken lightly." "At once, Primus." The chamber where the Conclave met was hundreds of miles underground. It was a circular chamber, sixty feet in diameter. It was unlit except for an area in the center of the chamber twenty feet across. Illumination was provided by a brilliant globe of light suspended thirty feet above the floor. Contrasting sharply with the polished white marble from which the chamber was hollowed out, seven large, black stone chairs were spaced evenly about the periphery of the lighted area, facing inwards. Seated in one of these was the Primus. He was dressed, as was custom when the Conclave was in session, in his formal robes of office. Midnight black, they were inscribed with runes that glowed a silvery radiance. The cowl, normally drawn over his head so as to hide most of his features, rested on his shoulders, revealing a man whose face was marked by the passage of countless years. He kept his snowy-white hair shoulder length, for longer hair was difficult to conceal under his robes' cowl. He had been Primus for so long that his given name was but a dim memory. The Primus sat back in his chair, waiting for the other six members of the Conclave to arrive. His thoughts were on days long since fled. Days when Galicia was young. Five hundred years ago, the final victor emerged from the Consolidation Wars and proclaimed himself Emperor of Galicia. Two hundred years of bloody warfare had finally resulted in a lasting, if forced, confederation between the Galician city-states. The new Emperor, realizing that not all of his new subjects were overjoyed with their new ruler, called together all the mages that he knew were absolutely loyal to him, and created The Order of Galicia, now known as The Order. No one but the Emperor and his most trusted advisors even knew The Order existed. To head The Order he chose the one man he trusted completely, his personal magist. This mage, known as the Primus, was tasked with protecting the Emperor's person and with gathering intelligence concerning the Emperor's enemies. To accomplish this, the Primus could call on the resources of two hundred of Galicia's best mages. A fortress was constructed to house The Order, a fortress whose location was kept from the Emperor. Only those of The Order knew where it was. The fortress was warded by powerful spells; the only way in or out was by way of a teleport chamber. Other spells prevented anyone on the outside from using their art to view the happenings inside. Still other spells existed that would activate only under certain circumstances, such as combat. The Primus at the time, the very same man who was Primus at present, formed a council to help him run The Order, a council he 1called the Conclave. Realizing the need for a secure meeting place, both from physical and magical attack, he began to work on a chamber deep underground. It took him two months to hollow out space for the chamber. Another month was spent on applying various spells to the chamber to proof it against magic. Among those spells was a spell that formed a column of force that trapped the light emanating from the light sphere in the central area. The column also prevented individuals inside the lighted area from seeing out, and those outside from seeing in. Within the column itself, a permanent dispel magic spell was in effect, so that none of the Conclave members could use magic on each other. The only way to reach the chamber was by teleportation, and then only if the mage in question was a powerful one; not every mage could teleport himself the distance required to reach the chamber. The Primus was brought out of his reverie by the arrival of the first member of the Conclave. Valthorn stepped through the force-wall, turned to face the Primus, and bowed from the waist. "Cho dakh, Primus." "Cho dakh, Valthorn." Valthorn took his seat, the second from the Primus' left, and waited. He did not wait long. Within the space of the next three minutes, the other five members of the Conclave stepped into the lighted area, greeted the Primus, and took their seats. "Thee art aware," the Primus began, "of the recent happenings regarding the discovery of a cabal working against our Master. What thee art unaware of, with the exception of the Sehrvat Primus, is that Dra'nak Valthorn hath discovered the identity of, and interrogated, a member of this cabal. Unfortunately, this individual did not see fit to impart to the Dra'nak a great deal of information. He did reveal the cabal's intentions, however. They intend to commit treason. We do not know whether they wish to secede, or whether they wish to try to oust our Master." "Therefore, this assembly hath two decisions to arrive at: whether or not our Master should be informed at this early juncture, and we must decide what action we shall take with regards to the cabal. What say thee, Xavier?" Xavier, Lokhmahst of The Order, turned in his seat to face the Primus. "We must inform our Master of this at once, Primus," the sixty year-old mage said. The Primus had been afraid of this. The Lokhmahst, or loremaster, commanded great respect within The Order. "Were circumstances different, Xavier, I would say aye to thy suggestion. However, the information gathered thus far is not worthy of our Master's attention." "How so? We hath uncovered a plot to commit treason against our Master. Whether this treason is against his person, or against the state, he must be informed." "What of the rest of thee?" the Primus asked. "What art thy opinions?" "What Lokhmahst Xavier hath said hath value, Primus," Valthorn said. "However, I agree with you. There is not enough hard evidence against the cabal. If we were to inform our Master, the members of the cabal might get wind of our discoveries and conceal themselves even better than they now are." "I side with you also, Primus," said Derek, the Sehrvat Primus. The position of First Servant originally entailed being head of the Primus' household and in charge of acquiring servants for those members of The Order that wished to have servants. Over the years, the duties and responsibilities of First Servant evolved to include overseeing the hiring of mercenaries for tasks that were unworthy of a member's participation, or tasks in which The Order could not risk 1direct involvement. "What of thee?" the Primus asked the three remaining Dra'naks who had not voiced an opinion. "I support you, Primus," Dra'nak Anton replied. "Xavier," Teng answered. "You, Primus," Lenore stated. "It is decided," the Primus said. "Rest assured, Xavier, that I shall impart knowledge of the cabal to our Master the instant we hath better information." Xavier nodded slightly, acknowledging defeat gracefully. "What then, is to be our course of action?" The Primus considered for a moment. "This matter is too delicate for direct involvement." He turned slightly to face Derek. "Dost thou hath someone that could be relied upon?" Derek thought for a moment. "I believe," said the Sehrvat Primus, "I know of three that could be useful." "Excellent. Thou shalt seek these three out and hire them forthwith." "Yes, Primus." "Our business is concluded. The Conclave is disbanded. Cha loth, Ull." One by one, the Conclave bowed to the Primus, bidding him farewell in the ancient Galician all members of The Order were required to learn. Valthorn was the last to depart. "Cha loth, Primus," he said. The chamber echoed with the sound of chanting as the members of the Conclave teleported to the fortress. "This is all your fault, Tarn!" Justin said as he parried a thrust from his grey-clad attacker. "Me? What did I do?" the little thief asked plaintively as he knocked another arrow. Justin caught his attacker's slash on his shield and delivered a vicious kick to his opponent's knee, sending the luckless man crashing down the hill. He whirled on Tarn. "You just couldn't resist, could you? You simply had to let your natural tendencies run away with you, didn't you? Didn't you!?" "I didn't steal anything! Honest! I wanted to, but I didn't!" "THEN WHY ARE THEY TRYING TO KILL US, YOU LITTLE--" Justin stopped short at the sight of Tarn aiming his bow in Justin's direction. "Now wait a minute, Tarn. There's no need--" Before Justin could finish, Tarn let his arrow fly. Justin cringed as Tarn's arrow whizzed past his ear and struck something behind him. Justin turned around to see one of their assailants staring blankly up at the sky, an arrow embedded in his chest. "Would you two..(parry)..mind..(parry)..rejoining..(parry-riposte)..this debacle?" Julia asked somewhat heatedly. Just as Justin was about to re-enter the fray, the enemy retreated, leaving six of their comrades behind. "Now it's only fourteen-to-three," Justin commented. "You're just full of cheery pronouncements today, aren't you?" Julia asked. "Look," Justin said, turning to face Julia, "this wasn't MY idea!" "You're the one who suggested we take the southern route in the first place!" "I'm not the one that got the town guards upset!" "This isn't the time or place!" "I hate to interrupt," Tarn said, "but we seem to have a visitor." Justin and Julia forgot their argument and looked in the direction Tarn was pointing. A man dressed in black robes was walking calmly up 1the hill. "Damn," Julia said. "They've brought up a wizard." Tarn aimed his bow at the approaching mage. "Wait, Tarn," Justin said. "If he wanted to, he probably could have killed us without showing himself. Let's see what he wants." Reluctantly, Tarn lowered his bow. The mage stopped twenty feet from the crest. "I wish to speak with thee," he called out. "May I approach?" Justin looked to Julia for confirmation. "Not much else we can do," she said. "You may." The mage travelled the remaining distance between himself and the group on the hill-crest unhurriedly. He coldly regarded the corpses of the six slain attackers. "Fools," he said. "I must apologize for the actions of my retainers," he said to the three companions. "They were over-zealous in their pursuit of my wishes." "And just what are your wishes?" Justin asked suspiciously. "I hath a task I wish thee to perform for my Master." "And just who is your master?" Julia asked. The mage reached inside his robes and pulled out a chain with an amulet on it. He handed it to Justin without saying a word. "She asked you who your master is," Justin said, trying to control his mounting anger. "What sort of answer is this?" he demanded. "Look at the amulet." Justin looked down at the amulet in his hand. "By the gods," he said softly. "You're as white as a ghost, Justin," Julia said, the concern plain in her voice. "What is it?" Justin held up the amulet for her and Tarn to see. It bore the relief of an eagle with a crown upon its head. "The Emperor's crest!" Julia breathed. "Here's where the fun begins," Tarn said. ------------------------------------------------------------------------

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