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From WHITE@DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU Tue May 12 10:34:11 1992 Received: from DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU by eff.org with SMTP id AA26814 (5.65c/IDA-1.4.4/pen-ident for ); Tue, 12 May 1992 10:34:02 -0400 Message-Id: <199205121434.AA26814@eff.org> Received: from DUVM by DUVM.OCS.DREXEL.EDU (IBM VM SMTP R1.2.2MX) with BSMTP id 3303; Tue, 12 May 92 10:30:33 EDT Date: Tue, 12 May 92 10:30:22 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 6 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- DargonZine Volume 2, Issue 6 11/03/89 Cir 861 -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- Contents -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Trial Before the King M. Wendy Hennequin Seber 5-12, 1013 Knight in Shining Armor M. Wendy Hennequin Seber 24-Ober 7, '13 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Trial by Fire Part IV Trial Before the King by M. Wendy Hennequin (b.c.k.a. HENNEQUI_WEM@CTSTATEU) At the sound of a warrior's scream, Sir Edward Sothos lurched awake and grabbed his sword, ready for the attack. The air was dark and not lit by moon or stars. Light streamed from a low crack. The ship, that's right; they were on the ship bound for Magnus. Luthias was having nightmares again. Edward crossed the room and gently called the Baron's name. There was a gasp as Connall woke. "You should have the High Mage make you a sleeping potion," Sothos advised. "You haven't slept well at all on this trip." Luthias stared at Edward as best he could in the dark. Luthias hadn't slept well in weeks, not since the heat wave had hit western Baranur and Luthias received the job of Duke's Advocate. That job now took him from his Barony and his ward Myrande. It brought him to this ship, which in turn would bring him to Magnus to try his cousin and his Castellan for treason. Was it any wonder he couldn't sleep? Every time he closed his eyes, visions of horror and war erupted on his eyelids. "You might as well stay awake," Edward counseled. "We'll arrive in Magnus before dawn. We'll go to see the King right away." "King Haralan accepts visitors this early?" Luthias wondered, reaching for his book, "History of the Beinison Emperors." "He's received the message by now that we were coming," Edward speculated. "And his doors are always opened to the Knight Commander and the High Mage." "Will he want to see me?" "Most likely. You are prosecuting the Duke and the Castellan." Luthias grimaced at the reminder and glanced at the locked, iron chest which contained all the physical evidence pertaining to the case. He had pored over the contents time and again with Marcellon, who was defending Clifton Dargon and Ittosai Michiya. Both had been looking for some hole in the evidence, some clue to lead them to the real traitors. There had been none, and there had been no hints from the crystal ball over which Marcellon had brooded in silence. Crystal ball indeed. As if magic could help them now. If only Roisart were here, Luthias thought for the thousandth time, he would find the hole, reason it all out, help me through this. But Roisart was dead, Myrande was in Connall, and Luthias was alone. "I'm sure it will end well, Luthias," the Knight Commander addressed him sympathetically. "Not many in this Kingdom will think Clifton Dargon a traitor." "What do they matter?" "The King hears all opinions on the case after the evidence is presented to the court. Rest assured that I will support your cousin and your castellan." Edward smiled so widely that his scar danced. "Believe me, the opinions of the Knight Commander and the High Mage won't be taken lightly. And I'm sure that Clifton's relatives will support him." "The evidence is very convincing, Sir Edward," Luthias reminded him. It had almost convinced Luthias at one point. Thank God for Sable, who had brought him back to his senses. Luthias smiled to himself. Thank God for Sable, period. Luthias glanced at the box again. All that evidence, and he wasn't convinced. Some Duke's Advocate he was, his heart not truly in his duty or his case. Let me go home, Luthias wished, looking out the porthole to see the towers of the King's castle in Magnus pierce the 1sun like a score of spears. Although Luthias had always wanted to see Magnus, now all he wanted was to return to Connall. Go home and be a baron--he had never wanted to be a baron--and stay with Sable, assuming she had forgiven the fact that he, drunk and despairing, had tried to force himself on her. He had thought much about that last night in Connall. He wished he could remember it more clearly, but the brandy had smudged the memory irrevocably. He didn't get far with Sable--thank God he remembered that much!--but he had toyed with her, as his father had strictly prohibited two years before. "If you toy with her body, you'll toy with her heart! I forbid you to touch her!" His father had actually scared him. Luthias couldn't fathom why Sable allowed it to go as far as it had; she had told him before--not in so many words--that she wanted no man but her beloved to touch her. Yet she had allowed Luthias' touch. Luthias shrugged at himself and lit a candle to read by. He hoped Sable had forgiven him. She must have, Luthias concluded; she tried to say good-bye, but he in his shame and guilt could not face her. But still, Luthias did not know for certain. All he wanted was to go home and find out. Again he wished, Let me go home. King Haralan, as Edward had predicted, admitted the party from Dargon immediately, despite the early hour. "Marcellon!" was the first person the King greeted. "How good of you to return!" Haralan exclaimed, only slightly sarcastically. Good mages are rare and difficult to find. "Good morning, Edward," the King said the Knight Commander. Edward bowed. The smile vanished. "I received your message. The Duke of Dargon is accused of treason?" The High Mage nodded gravely. "By whom?" The Baron of Coranabo came forward. "At the trial of Ittosai Michiya, the witness said the accused and a Bichanese merchant spoke of a plot by Bichu to take Dargon with the help of the Duke." "A Duke," Luthias interrupted. "Who are you, sir?" the King addressed him sternly. "I am Luthias Connall, your majesty," he replied proudly. He knelt, as his father had taught him was proper. Marcellon gestured to Luthias and added, "The Baron of Connall is the Duke's Advocate, your majesty." Slightly amused at Luthias' gesture, the King motioned Luthias to rise. "You are the Duke's Advocate?" Luthias nodded. "We shall question you, then, Baron. First, who is this Ittosai Michiya who was tried?" "He is a man who left Bichu because he won a duel of honor and was sought by the dead man's family," Luthias explained. "He has lived in Dargon for two or three years. He once worked for Lord Dargon and then went on a quest in the countryside." Luthias paused, then added, "He is now my Castellan, your majesty." The King's eyebrows rose. "Indeed. Was Castellan Ittosai found guilty by the Tribunal?" Baron Vladon stepped forward to answer. "We never came to a conclusion, your majesty. We brought the case to you, as it involved Duke Dargon." "There is evidence, Baron?" the King addressed Luthias again. Luthias nodded. "Is there anyone to defend Duke Dargon and Castellan Ittosai?" "I shall, your majesty," Marcellon replied. "The Baron of Connall has been kind enough to allow me to go over the evidence." "Very well," the King concluded. "Well, we have already summoned the nobles. Are the Duke of Dargon and Castellan here?" 1 "They are on the ship, sire," Edward told him. "I've already sent a detachment to escort them to the Keep." "Very well. We will begin this afternoon." The King nodded to Baron Vladon, Rish Vogel, Baron Coranabo, and Luthias in dismissal. The older men filed out of the room, but Luthias lingered a moment, attempting to decide. Now was the time; there would be no other chance, and he couldn't do this thing. Ask the King, Sable had said, and maybe she had been right. He turned, but was uncertain how to begin. Luckily, the King saw him. "You wish to speak, Baron Connall?" "Yes, your majesty," Luthias began after a heavy sigh. There was only one thing to do, and he would do it. "I wish for you to put Baron Coranabo or Baron Vladon in charge of the case against the Duke of Dargon and Ittosai Michiya." "Why? You are the Duke's Advocate; you know the evidence and circumstances better than they," the King argued. "That is why the Duke's Advocate is summoned as well, to try the case." "I know, your majesty, but I cannot try the Duke of Dargon or Ittosai Michiya." "Don't you understand the evidence?" the King prompted. "I knew your father, Baron Connall; you cannot be uneducated or stupid. Why--" "Because Ittosai Michiya is my friend. He has been loyal and good to me. He saved my brother's life," Luthias began, his tone desperate but his voice quiet. Beneath the words, Edward heard the screams of Luthias' nightmares. "Because the Duke of Dargon is my cousin and has been like a brother to me for as long as I can remember. He is my only living kinsman, and I--my brother is dead and so is my father. I can't do this, your majesty." The King gazed at Luthias thoughtfully, and the young Baron of Connall stared at the monarch with a mixture of calm and strength. Luthias knew he must be a sight: his well-formed face disfigured by lack of sleep and tension more than it ever had been by the slight, white scar above his right eye; his bearing a mixture of fatigue and strength; and his words a mixture of bravery and desperation. Well, he and Roisart had always been a pair of paradoxes... "You are the Duke's Advocate," the King repeated. "Go and do your duty, Baron Connall." Fire blazed beneath Luthias' brown eyes a moment; the flames quickly died, and Luthias' face turned to stone. He bowed stiffly, turned, and left without another word. The King turned to his High Mage, who raised an eyebrow, then to his Knight Commander, who was openly seething. "His only living kinsman, Haralan!" Edward protested through his teeth. "He doesn't deserve this from you!" "He is Fionn Connall's son, is he not?" the King inquired calmly. "The one whom Fionn Connall wanted you to train, the one you wish to make a Knight?" Edward nodded. "He'll be in no condition--" "I agree," Marcellon interrupted. "Unless you have an excellent reason for keeping him as prosecutor, I would remove him from the strain. It isn't an easy thing for Luthias to try men he thinks innocent, men who are like brothers to him. He's already lost one brother this year, your majesty. Through this trial he may cause the death of his cousin and friend. I'm not sure how he'll handle the stress." "If he cannot do so, he doesn't deserve Knighthood," Haralan argued casually. "Luthias will be knighted, all right," Edward argued, "but he'll never be the same." The Knight Commander turned to his King again. "Haralan, Luthias Connall is one of the finest fighters I've ever 1seen. There is a war coming; I'm certain now. Think whom you may be turning against you." Haralan smiled at the scarred Knight Commander. "I don't want a Knight who will turn on me, Edward. If he turns, he'll turn now, when I've oppressed him. I would rather know now what he's made of than wait until his loyalty is crucial." The King's face waxed thoughtful. "His loyalty is worth having. I want him to prove I have it. His loyalty for me has to come before any other." Edward shook his head. "I don't like it, Haralan." "Nor I, your majesty," Marcellon added. "He is the only living kinsman of the Duke of Dargon; Clifton's maternal cousins are all dead. If Clifton is proven guilty, Luthias will become Duke Dargon, despite the fact that Clifton has fathered an unborn child. Luthias doesn't want the Duchy--" "Still, people will expect that he does," the King argued easily. "And if Baron Connall cannot prove Dargon guilty with that motivation, people will accept the Duke's innocence more easily." The King rose. "And now, gentlemen, if you would join me for breakfast, I would be much obliged. There is much that we need to discuss." Luthias stormed through the halls of Crown Castle. How dare he! Clifton was the only person Luthias had left, the only living kinsman...oh, he had a few female cousins on his mother's side, girls he had never met, but Clifton was a brother! And Michiya, Michiya his friend and rescuer and teacher! And he would have to try him; the King so ordered. "Your first duty as a Knight is to your country, your home, and family," Sir Lucan had told Luthias long ago, in that hot summer when he, his wife, and Clifton's parents had died. "After these, you must serve the King." For the second time in his life, Luthias found himself not wishing for Knighthood. "Connall?" a soft, female voice called him, and slowly, Luthias turned. Facing him was a tall, statuesque woman of middle age, with auburn hair streaked by white. Luthias stared at her, confused and not remembering. The woman looked familiar, but he couldn't place it. The lady laughed. "I know you don't remember me; I haven't seen you since you were a small boy. You look so like your father that I recognized you. You are Luthias, are you not?" The Baron of Connall nodded. "I am your Aunt Tornia." That was it. She looked like his mother, that laughing face on the portrait in the study. She was his mother's sister, the Duchess of Asbridge. Luthias could remember when she last visited; he had been five years old, and she had brought him and his twin a box of wooden soldiers. Luthias bowed to her, unable to speak. Tornia Asbridge reached out and touched Luthias hair with maternal concern. "You don't look well, Luthias. Are you ill?" "No, Aunt Tornia," Luthias replied breathlessly. "I'm...tired, that's all." It was true; Luthias felt exhausted. Well, almost true: it wasn't all. "Are you here because of the trial of the Duke of Dargon?" the Duchess asked, taking her nephew's arm. "He is your kinsman; are you here to defend him?" Luthias' throat felt like sand. "I'm the Duke's Advocate. I must try to prove him guilty." Suddenly, the Baron of Connall stopped walking and turned to his aunt. "How did you know I was Luthias, and not Roisart?" The Duchess' blue eyes looked at him quizzically. "Your seneschal sent me a letter--on your orders, I assume--which told me of your father and brother's death." Yes, that was right; after Roisart's death, he hadn't wanted to handle all that, so Sable took care of it. Suddenly, Luthias' mind 1could only see his brother's corpse, ripped by the two bolts. "Aunt Tornia, could you take me to the Keep?" "Whatever for?" the Duchess of Asbridge asked in surprise. "The worst of noble criminals are there." "I want to see my cousin." Built four hundred years ago on the southern edge of the Royal Quarter of Magnus, the Keep stood five stories high, with six towers two stories taller. For a hundred years, it had housed the King. After that, it became home to nobles convicted of horrid crimes less hideous than treason. Now, the top of the southeast tower was prison to Clifton Dargon and Ittosai Michiya. Although exhausted, Luthias climbed the stairway while his aunt Tornia waited for him below. The guards at the door halted him. "No one's allowed, my lord. You can question them at the trial this afternoon. High Mage's orders, my lord." "I am the Duke's Advocate of Dargon," Luthias explained. "I have come to see the Duke. Surely the High Mage would allow it. It is imperative." "We can't forbid the Advocate," the second guard argued. "You want to tell the High Mage?" the first returned. "Let him in!" Marcellon's voice echoed amiably from the room beyond the guards. "Baron Connall is permitted, by order of the King." Odd, Luthias thought as the guards admitted him. He walked into the half-circle room lit by the noontime sun. Ittosai stood upon seeing his lord; Marcellon and Clifton nodded. "How are you doing, manling?" Clifton asked, trying to sound like he was teasing, but the words came out harshly, impatiently, and angrily. "You don't look very well." "The King won't take me off the case," Luthias blurted. "I'm sorry." The Duke's Advocate glanced sorrowfully at Clifton, then at his friend Michiya. "I tried. There's nothing I can do. I--" "Do what you must," Michiya told him gently, his eyes understanding. "But I know that neither of you is guilty!" "Don't say that!" Clifton snapped, abruptly standing. "I don't want you pulled into this too, Luthias. If--" The Duke of Dargon looked away to face the horror. "I want you to take care of Lauren if nothing can be done to save my life." "Clifton--" the Baron began to protest. He didn't even want to think about that possibility anymore. "He's right, Luthias," Marcellon interrupted gently. "He may die. There may be nothing I can do to convince the King and the nobles of his innocence and Lord Ittosai's. You must keep yourself free of this madness." Luthias sighed and collapsed into a chair tiredly. "I want to do something. But there's nothing--" He looked away. "And I'll have to stand by and watch you die, just as I had to watch my father die, and Roisart die. And again, there will be nothing I can do." "Hey, manling," Clifton said softly, "you can't fight the King." Well, he could, but it wouldn't be Knightly. What would Sir Lucan have done, what would Sir Edward do? "I'm sorry I have to do this." "Do the best you can, manling," Clifton advised him with a half-smile. "I want to be proud of you." Luthias tried to laugh, but it came forth a snort. With difficulty, he rose to leave. "I'll see you soon," he mumbled over his shoulder. "Take care, Luthias-sama," Michiya said as the Baron left the room. "I'm worried about him," Clifton said quietly after the door 1closed behind his cousin. "He doesn't look well, Father, and I'm not certain--" "I'll do what I can to take care of him, no matter what happens," the High Mage promised his son-in-law. "Make certain that he marries Myrande," Ittosai Michiya suggested with the tone of a command. "That will be the best for him, and she will take care of him." Clifton smiled. "I should order him, as Duke, to do that, in case we die." "I will do what I can to make certain that doesn't happen," Marcellon promised sincerely. "There is no hope for us," Michiya snapped. "You must learn to trust in God," the High Mage gently advised. "God!" spat Ittosai Michiya disdainfully. "There is no such thing as gods!" Marcellon looked at the Bichurian Castellan and raised an eyebrow. "I have been both mage and physician for thirty years," Marcellon told him. "I have seen things impossible for medicine or magic, Michiya." Ittosai laughed contemptuously. "So I have as well. I once thought I was led and protected by a god. I roamed the countryside, doing and seeing miracles. And then this--god--led me back to Dargon. And for what?" Michiya snorted with disdain. "To see a boy murdered, to see the man who was once my lord tried for treason, to be accused of a crime I have not committed, and to see Luthias-sama go mad with the strain! There is no such thing as gods!" "We shall see," the High Mage answered. Two long days. Luthias was beginning to wonder exactly how exhausted he could become before he collapsed dead. That would be nice: Fionn Connall, dead from a fall on a horse; Roisart Connall, killed by assassins; Clifton Dargon, beheaded for treason; and Luthias, dead of exhaustion from the trial. It would be the end of the family line. At least he had managed well, he thought. Marcellon had complimented his presentation of the evidence, as had Baron Vladon. Luthias presented the evidence--all the evidence--impartially, as if he didn't care one way or the other what became of the Duke of Dargon or the Castellan of Connall. Calmly, he questioned Danal the merchant. Luthias called forth Rish Vogel to prove that the man indeed could understand Bichanese (which, unfortunately, he did). Luthias presented the document to the King. Haralan reviewed it, then had the piece of refuse read aloud for all the Court to hear. The Baron of Connall questioned Barons Coranabo and Vladon, who had found the document in the Duke's office. And Luthias himself corroborated that it was indeed Clifton's handwriting. Throughout it all, Luthias was impartial as he was with such cases in his history books. Clifton was sober and agitated; Ittosai Michiya was stone calm, as if he hadn't heard a word. Marcellon seemed simply to be biding his time. Then, it was the High Mage's turn. He questioned Ittosai Michiya, who swore on all he held holy that he would never do such a thing, and that he had not. Michiya told of the swords he bought, and the chop sticks for Myrande. Clifton, on the stand, said he was surprised at the findings in his desk and also swore he knew nothing of this so-called plot. The Duke also revealed that a thief had broken into his keep a few months ago. They had found the thief where they had found the document: in the Duke's study. The High Mage questioned Luthias, too, and the Baron of Connall corroborated that he had received as a gift a katana, and that his 1seneschal, Myrande, had been given the chop sticks. Then Marcellon questioned the nobles of the duchy who had come, every single one, except Luthias. And each said that they never would have expected that Clifton Dargon would betray the Kingdom. Half of them said they didn't believe it now. Of course, Luthias was unsure of who spoke truth. He had his doubts about that slimy Danal, and he had never quite trusted the Baron of Coranabo. Oh, all had been sworn in by the Master Priest himself, but the Baron of Connall knew that oaths did not bind dishonorable men, and the King would not permit Marcellon to cast a spell that would insure that only truth was spoken. The King believed in honor, as did Luthias, but the King, Baron Connall thought, trusted too much that all people possessed it. And on the third day, the King stood. "We are soon to decide the fate and guilt--or lack of it--of the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan Ittosai Michiya." Couldn't *any*one in this Kingdom say his name right? Luthias wondered. "We will hear our nobles' opinions." The Duchess of Narragan rose. "Your royal majesty, I advise you to behead the traitors. The evidence which the Duke's Advocate has presented removes all doubt." "I doubt the Duke of Dargon is guilty," Edward Sothos replied to this. "How well do you know him?" argued Dame Martis Westbrook, one of Sir Edward's two Knight Captains. She was tall, of light brown hair, and hazel eyes. "Dame Martis is correct," said the Duke of Pyridain, the King's Royal Treasurer. "We have the evidence here before us, but we don't know the Duke of Dargon well enough to know how much credit to give his story." "True," Baron Vladon agreed. He stood. "Your majesty, Duke Dargon has been a Duke for six years. When Lek Pyle, who had the late Baron of Connall and the current Baron's brother murdered, went to trial, he spoke of a conspiracy going on for about as long as Duke Dargon has ruled. How are even we, the nobles of his Duchy, to know if he hasn't been involved all this time?" "Quite so," Coranabo interjected. "We didn't grow up with him. He spent most of his time with tutors, or at the University. And we only see him at state functions." "None of us know him well enough to judge," Dame Martis concluded. "The Baron of Connall would," Duchess Tornia Asbridge supplied, smiling. "He grew up with the Duke, and he knows Castellan Ittosai well. Tell me, Baron," Aunt Tornia began, facing her nephew, "do you think Duke Dargon committed this crime? And what of Ittosai Michiya?" Tiredly, Luthias rose. "Your grace," he addressed his aunt, then turned to the King. "Your majesty, I am a practical man. I have evidence, physical evidence, which proves the Duke of Dargon guilty. I have witnesses who have sworn oaths and have testified to the guilt of Ittosai Michiya." Luthias paused, looked King Haralan in the eye. He suddenly felt that his exhaustion had left him, and what remained was strength and certainty. "Your majesty, my cousin has not committed treason, nor has my castellan betrayed the country which has sheltered him." The collective court murmured at the confidence of his voice and of his conviction. "You sound very sure, Advocate," the King noted calmly. "You do not believe the evidence?" "No, your majesty, I do not. I believe the Duke and the Castellan." "I can understand trusting their words above that of the merchant and of Lek Pyle," the Duchess of Narragan commented, "but above 1physical proof? How can you be so sure?" "Madam," Luthias answered calmly, looking at the pretty Duchess, "I know Clifton Dargon, and I know Ittosai Michiya." "But the documents," began the Duke of Northfield. "Baron Connall, surely you can't ignore them. You yourself said that the document was in Duke Dargon's handwriting and seal." "I did," Luthias agreed. "That didn't mean that Clifton wrote it or sealed it." "You contradict yourself, sir," Martis Westbrook pointed out. "Not at all," Marcellon easily disagreed. "A forger could reproduce Duke Dargon's hand, and as the incriminating document was found locked in the Duke's desk, the criminal who broke in and might have put it there could have easily used the Duke's own seal upon it." "This is quite an impasse," the King commented, and the people in the great hall immediately quieted to hear him. "We have convincing evidence that Duke Dargon and Castellan Ittosai have indeed betrayed this country." Behind Luthias, a door opened. A herald scurried past the Duke's Advocate and the High Mage and knelt before the King. The King motioned him forward, but continued speaking. "We have equally convincing testimony and logic which prove the opposite. Therefore I order a trial by combat." There was a loud murmur. "Baron Connall," the King continued, "as Duke's Advocate, you must summon the Ducal champion to fight for the Duchy's good." "I am the Ducal champion, your majesty," Luthias announced quietly. "I see," the King said slowly. On his left, Sir Edward grimaced. "You must fight for their conviction." King Haralan turned to his High Mage. "You, with the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan of Connall, may name a champion to fight for your cause." Ittosai Michiya stood and bowed toward the ruler. "Your royal majesty," the Castellan began slowly and with dignity, "with your permission and the permission of the Court and the Duke, I will fight for our innocence." Luthias closed his eyes in despair and anger. Yet once again he would be pitted against his friend! He would have to fight for something he didn't believe in, perhaps cause Michiya's death-- But then he remembered the Sy tourney and exhaled in relief. The duel would be to the death--his own death. Ittosai could beat him, and they both knew it. Luthias was unsure that Michiya would actually kill him; however, at least Clifton and Michiya's innocence and release would be guaranteed. But, Sable...he hated the thought of dying and leaving her-- He stopped the thought swiftly and angrily. Never mind. Clifton would take care of Sable, and she would take care of herself. "When shall we fight?" Luthias inquired quietly. I'm sorry, Sable, but it has to be done. The herald whispered something in his sovereign's ear. "An ambassador has arrived from the Beinison Empire," the King announced suddenly. A buzz of curiosity rose from the crowd of nobles. An ambassador from the Emperor of Beinison? Here? "Therefore, we postpone combat to hear him. After that, there need be no delay, if you are ready, Baron Connall." Luthias nodded. "And you, Castellan Ittosai?" Michiya bowed his head with respect. "Let the ambassador come forward." Pages strenuously pulled open the heavy double doors leading into the great hall of Crown Castle. Walking nervously but with dignity came two men. One was a blond, blue-eyed boy--he can't be more than seventeen! Luthias thought in surprise--who must have been the ambassador from the Beinison Emperor Untar II. The other young man, 1Luthias knew, was not the ambassador; he was Tylane Shipbrook, Sable's cousin. The young Baron of Connall wondered what he was doing there. As Tylane passed Luthias, he gave the young Baron a pained look which injected panic in Luthias' heart. Sable! The young ambassador bowed to King Haralan, who nodded respectfully in return. "Greetings," King Haralan spoke to him. "We welcome you to our home. I am told you are the Count of Tyago?" That boy, a Count? An astonished murmur spread through the Court as quickly as the Red Plague. Why, no man Baranur could hold that authority without having reached twenty-one years! A boy, a Count? Luthias regard the younger man coolly. Well, he held himself well, for a man so young, but the Baron of Connall was certain that Count Tyago was no warrior. He stood incorrectly for that. He was a scholar, Luthias somehow knew. Something in the innocence in Tyago's face reminded Luthias of his twin, and the Baron of Connall looked away as Count Tyago spoke to the King. "I greet you, your royal majesty, in the name of his Imperial majesty, Emperor Untar," the Count began in a heavy accent. "I come bringing tidings of peace in this time of war." "War?" King Haralan questioned. "What mean you, sir? Baranur is not involved in a war." "Your royal majesty," the boy-Count began again, "his imperial majesty knows well of the danger you suffer from the heathens in Bichu." Luthias grimaced at the implication; Michiya's eyes narrowed at the insult. "The Emperor has sent me to represent him here in your royal majesty's Court, and to make an offer to you." Something was nagging at the edge of Luthias' brain, but he couldn't focus one it. Tylane sent the Baron of Connall another stricken glance. Luthias worried. "As ambassador, we welcome you," the King replied. "It is good of the Emperor to send you. What is this offer he proposes, Count Tyago?" "As you will, most likely, soon be at war, your majesty," the Count of Tyago explained innocently, "his imperial majesty, Untar, offers you a hundred thousand men, troops to protect you from Galicia and the other countries to your east when you send your men to war in Bichu." The nagging tug turned into clanging bells and war drums. Luthias darted from his chair to where Rish Vogel, the Chronicler, sat. "Does this place have a library?" he hissed at Vogel, who was here acting as Scrivener. Confused, the Chronicler nodded. "Do you know where it is?" Again, Vogel nodded. "Go there, quickly, and bring me a book--'History of the Beinison Emperors.' Now. Go!" "Why?" Rish Vogel asked, leaning toward Luthias annoyingly. "What for?" "Don't ask. Do it!" Luthias demanded, shoving the Chronicler out of his seat violently. Vogel gave Luthias the look he might have given a madman, but he scurried out of the room in obedience. Luthias stood straight, noticed Sir Edward giving him a strange stare, and returned to his own seat before the King. "That is truly a gracious offer," the King was saying as Luthias sat. Apparently, the Count Tyago had elaborated, but Luthias hadn't heard a word. Vogel had better hurry with that book! "We will indeed consider it. For now, Count Tyago, accept our thanks and our welcome. We will have rooms prepared immediately for you and your companion." "I thank you, your majesty," said the boy-Count of Tyago, bowing. "I also thank you, your majesty," his companion said, "but I have relatives in Magnus. My father, the Baron of Shipbrook, sent me to guide the Count Tyago." "He did well," the King praised Tylane's father. "Our thanks, Lord Shipbrook. Welcome to the Court." Tylane bowed in gratitude. "If 1you would be so kind, please escort the Count to the guest rooms. We will hold a feast in your honor tonight, Count Tyago. You are, of course, invited, Lord Shipbrook." Both of the young men bowed and were escorted out of the throne room. Rish Vogel collided with Tylane on the way in. The Court was making a noise which reminded Luthias of a hornets' nest. The Wasp King, coming to get us! a hysterical part of Luthias thought gleefully. "What think you, Knight Commander?" the King was saying to his advisor. "A generous offer--" Panting, Rish Vogel dropped a heavy tome on Luthias' table. Without asking permission to speak, Luthias rose. "Your royal majesty," the young Baron of Connall spoke urgently, "do not accept the offer!" The King turned toward the daring young noble. "You sound rather sure of yourself, Baron Connall," he observed, smiling slightly, as if he knew a secret. "What is the matter with it?" "It's a trick, an old one," Luthias informed him, his voice quick and concerned. "Listen, your majesty." Luthias opened the heavy book before him, flipped a few pages until he found what he needed. "'In this time, the Emperor Radnok VIII wished to take the country of Alannor. It was a great and powerful country, and to take it would involve great losses. The Emperor sent many men to the country, and with them, began a rumor that Alannor's neighbor, Jardrine, would soon attack. When Alannor sent troops to Jardrine, the Emperor offered troops to Alannor's King, to help hold the country against Jardrinian invaders. When the troops were settled, the Emperor had effectively occupied the territory.'" Satisfied, Luthias closed the book. "I've never heard of this Alannor, or Jardrine," the Duchess of Narragan protested. "No, of course not, your grace," Luthias answered her. "They were both...absorbed into the Beinison Empire centuries ago." Luthias turned his attention back to the monarch. "Your royal majesty, this is an old trick. I can cite at least eight other examples of Beinison doing this. Now they are trying to convince that Bichu will attack us. Then they'll move their troops in here and never leave." "That's preposterous!" the Baron of Coranabo protested. "We know that the Bichanese are going to invade any day. The document--" "Is probably a forgery," Marcellon finished. "Your royal majesty, if Baron Connall is correct--" "Yes, I see, High Mage. If Baron Connall is correct, then the Beinison Empire has been trying to make us believe Bichu would attack. We then would attack Bichu, and while we were there, the Beinisonians could invade us. Yes, Lord Marcellon, I understand what this means," Haralan finally answered the High Mage's unfinished question. The King turned back to Luthias. "Pray continue, Baron Connall." "Your majesty, this is ridiculous!" Coranabo interrupted. "You have seen the document." "It is forged. It means nothing," Luthias asserted scornfully. "You cannot prove it forged," Coranabo reminded the Duke's Advocate. "Baron, this is only speculation. May I remind you that as Duke's Advocate, you must prosecute this case?" "Baron Coranabo," the King spoke, and the buzzing comments of the Court ceased. "What is important is the truth. Knowledge of the truth of this matter is crucial to the Kingdom. As he has presented the evidence, it is now Baron Connall's right and duty to seek the truth." Grateful, Luthias smiled at the King, but Coranabo desperately continued, "The future of this country is an attack from Bichu! Look at the document!" "I did not write that document or order it written," Clifton 1Dargon asserted firmly. "Your majesty, it is a forgery." "Of course you protest your innocence," Coranabo scoffed. "It is true. You are a traitor. You cannot prove it a forgery." "I can prove it simply enough," Marcellon offered, standing placidly. "Your majesty?" At the King's nod, the High Mage reached out and took the document. Silence covered the Court as Marcellon whispered a spell. The document glowed. Marcellon smiled. "As Baron Connall conjectured, your majesty, a forgery." "Of course you would say that!" Coranabo shouted. "He is your daughter's husband, and you are defending him! We grieve for the effect his crimes must be having on you, but you must not--" "I am willing to accept the High Mage's word," the King interrupted quietly but very firmly. "Lord Marcellon does not lie." "What of the merchant's testimony?" Coranabo pressed urgenty. He was turning a purple shade of red. "He could be lying," Luthias argued quickly. "I suspect he is. He's a greedy snake, waiting to strike. And the merchants would profit by a war with Bichu. That's why Lek Pyle hired the assassins to kill my father and my brother." "They were hired to kill you, boy, and your cousin, and had they not bungled the affair we wouldn't be in this tangle now!" Coranabo screamed. The court gasped collectively. "What mean you, that the assassins were to kill Baron Connall and Duke Dargon?" the King demanded ominously. "That's nothing, your majesty," Luthias remarked, moving with confidence and strength toward the Baron of Coranabo. "It was revealed in Lek Pyle's trial that the assassins were to have killed the Duke of Dargon and me. However," Luthias concluded, standing menacingly directly before Coranabo, "I would like to know what he means by this 'tangle.'" "It was a slip of the tongue, nothing," Baron Coranabo supplied quickly. "I have this feeling that you are not telling the truth," Luthias answered him. If Roisart were here, he would have figured everything out by now. As it was, Luthias didn't think he was doing so badly. He thought he was beginning to see. "I have the same feeling," Marcellon agreed, standing with unhurried grace. "I can read your mind, Coranabo." "You lie!" Coranabo accused. "I do not lie," Marcellon returned. The High Mage turned toward his King. "With your permission, your majesty, I will ensure that Baron Coranabo does not lie, either." Gravely, King Haralan nodded his approval. Coranabo leapt over his table, tried to run, but Luthias caught him easily, looped his arms below Coranabo's armpits, and locked his hands behind his head. Then he lifted the Baron of Coranabo five inches off the floor. "Proceed, High Mage," Luthias invited, smiling grimly. "I do not lie!" Coranabo protested. Clifton Dargon stood. "Then why did you run?" "Be seated, Lord Dargon," the King commanded. "Be seated, my lords and ladies." Everyone except Luthias, Coranabo, and Marcellon sat. "Lord Marcellon?" The High Mage closed his eyes and murmured a chant. Luthias felt static electricity in his hair. Marcellon opened his eyes and looked directly at the Baron of Coranabo. "Now tell His Majesty and the Court," Marcellon ordered, "of your involvement with this Beinisonian plot." Coranabo opened his mouth, but closed it suddenly, as if he felt that he now could not lie, and looked away. 1 "I advise you to answer," the King ordered quietly. "The Baron of Connall looks to the strength and leverage to break your back. If you are, indeed, involved with the plot against his brother and father, I am sure I will have no problem convincing him to do it." Luthias grinned the smile of an anticipating assassin. "Oh, yes, your majesty, you would. It is too quick." He looked at Coranabo. "Did you have my father and brother killed?" When Coranabo didn't answer, Luthias shook him ungently. "Did you?" "Your father--yes. Your brother was to have lived when you and Dargon died. He would have become Duke. We could have trapped him into war," Coranabo spat defiantly. "I would have married Danza to him, and when the Beinisonians came in, I would have taken, by right of age and family, the Duchy of Dargon." "You pretentious--" Luthias hissed. "That is why you tried to marry Danza to me!" "What of this treason trial?" the King inquired calmly. "We had to get rid of Duke Dargon. He advised too much against the war with Bichu. We chanced that we could have convinced Baron Connall." Luthias wanted to squeeze his neck. "And Castellan Michiya?" "A tool," Coranabo answered defiantly. "Just to accomplish our plot." "Who," the King demanded, "is 'we?'" "I and the Beinisonians." Luthias growled. "You see, your majesty, I was right. They were planning to invade. They were trying to advise your majesty to invade Bichu, so that they could easily take the country." The Baron of Connall jostled Coranabo again. "Am I right?" Coranabo was silent for a few more jostlings. "You are right!" Coranabo screamed finally. The Court gasped. "And you would have been mine, you would have married Danza had it not been for that whore of a seneschal of yours--" Abruptly, Luthias thrust the Baron of Coranabo from his hold. Coranabo landed hard on the stone steps of the King's dais. The King motioned the guards forward, but they did not take him. Their eyes were instead on the Baron of Connall. Luthias had never burned with such white rage. His hands were clenched so tightly that Marcellon feared for the bones, and Clifton, for the first time in his life, realized just how dangerous and deadly his cousin was. Flames raged behind the Baron of Connall's eyes, and when he spoke, his words were furious and rough. "You had better thank God that you and I are in the presence of the King!" Luthias shouted. "You would have paid dearly for that insult otherwise!" Coranabo laughed malevolently. "I kill your father and brother, and nearly succeed in killing your cousin and your friend, and you worry over an insult!" "The King's justice will take care of the others," Luthias spat at him, his words hard and sharp as steel swords. "But that you dare to call a lady in my protection, my ward, my seneschal--" my Sable! "You would have paid dearly." Coranabo laughed disdainfully. "Take him," the King commanded the guards. Swiftly, the guards laid hold of the Baron and presented him to his King. "You are guilty of treason," King Haralan pronounced gravely and clearly, so that all the Court could hear. "It is our duty as King to serve justice." The King's face softened, and he smiled at the young Baron of Connall. "It would seem to us that the most just of punishments for you, Coranabo, would be to turn you over to the Baron of Connall." Luthias flashed the King a wicked, grateful grin. "However, it would hardly serve the law. We therefore strip you of your lands and sentence you to death." 1 Luthias paled, thinking of tiny Danza Coranabo and Tylane Shipbrook. "Your majesty, please wait," Luthias called out. The King, puzzled, looked at him. "His death I don't dispute," Luthias explained quickly. "He deserves that surely." The young Baron of Connall frowned. "He deserves it many times over. But his daughters are not guilty of any crime. Don't take their dowry from them, your majesty. They do not deserve any punishment." His royal majesty the King raised his eyebrows at the precocious Baron. "You speak wisely, Baron Connall. Bring us a map," he ordered an assistant. The servant promptly brought the King a map of the Duchy of Dargon. "You own the strip south of the Coldwell," King Haralan remarked to the prisoner. "We will divide your land in half," the King determined. He took a pen and drew a line along the river that separated Coranabo into two parts. Then, he crossed out the border between Connall and the southern half of Coranabo's barony. He stood straight and faced the Court. "I now pronounce that the Duke of Dargon and the Castellan Ittosai Michiya are innocent of all charges and free of the Court." Luthias closed his eyes, and his shoulders relaxed. He smiled, and put his head on his hands tiredly. Free. He had freed them. He felt weak with relief and shaky with joy. Across the aisle, Ittosai Michiya was smiling at the announcement. Clifton laughed like a boy. Marcellon sat, looking satisfied. The King turned angrily to the Baron of Coranabo. "We pronounce you guilty of treason, Coranabo. You are stripped of your title, and of your lands south of the Coldwell. You are sentenced to death." The King looked at the guards. "Release your hold, but do not allow him to escape. Baron Connall, come forward." Slowly, Luthias obeyed and knelt. Haralan looked at him benevolently. "We forced you to try this case," the King revealed. "We wanted to test you. You have surpassed the test, Lord Connall, and you have shown wisdom and control beyond your years." The King raised his eyes to behold the entire Court. "In years past, our ancestors were wont to give the title of Count to those who served them well and loyally." King Haralan unsheathed the decorative sword that hung at his side and touched each of Luthias' shoulders with it. "We pronounce you now, Luthias of Connall, in reward for your loyalty and service, Count of Connall, with the lands of your ancestors and those we have taken from Coranabo to support that title." Shaking, Luthias stared at the King with weak astonishment. Him, a Count? But the title Count was given only to those who had served the King in the highest manner. It was so rare--the last of the Counts had died two hundred years ago! And he had done nothing outstanding. He had only done what any man would have. "Rise, Count Connall," the King ordered. His legs feeling rubbery, Luthias did so. "Because of your wisdom, we also appoint you a our ambassador to Beinison, to reject their proposal and represent us in the Beinisonian Court." King Haralan then spoke directly to the new Count. "It is rare to find a man who so trusts the King's justice," Haralan remarked. "We will serve all Coranabo's other crimes by severing his head. We give you leave, Count Connall, to avenge the insult to your ward." Luthias smiled calmly and bowed his gratitude to King Haralan. He turned toward Coranabo. Sir Edward suddenly spoke softly. "Remember, Count Connall, that you may not draw a sword in the presence of your King." Luthias smiled at the Knight Commander. "I do not need one, your Excellency," the Count of Connall stated placidly, and without taking his eyes off of Edward Sothos, Luthias slammed the back of his hand 1against Coranabo's jaw. His jaw snapped loudly, and he flew fifteen feet into the waiting arms of the King's guards. "Thank you, your majesty," Luthias said, and he went to his cousin and his friend. Giddy with happiness, the new Count of Connall was drinking that evening at the feast. His cousin, the Duke of Dargon, was laughing, happy that it was over. Messengers had already been sent to the Duchess of Dargon, and to Myrande. Everything was finally all right. Sir Edward watched Count Luthias with the eyes of an older brother. Perhaps young Luthias could actually get some sleep tonight. And then, by pronouncement of the King, Luthias would return to his home and quickly leave it for Cabildo, the capital of the Beinison Empire. "You did it, Luthias-sama," Ittosai Michiya said to his lord. Michiya was grinning, ecstatic at his release, and at his appointment. The King of Baranur had honored Luthias' castellan by making him a royal emissary to Bichu. "And now, I may go home." "Yes, but you have to take that idiot Chronicler with you," Luthias pointed out jokingly. The King had mandated that Rish Vogel accompany the Ambassador to Bichu. Ittosai Michiya rolled his eyes. "You will come back?" "In the spring, when you return from Beinison," Michiya promised. "We will compete in the Melrin tournament, and perhaps, this time, I will not allow you to win." Luthias grinned and pushed on the Bichurian's arm. "Maybe I'll give you both baldrics and save us all the hassle," Clifton muttered good-naturedly. "You two are the best we've got." "The father speaks," Luthias mused, his smile lop-sided. "Watch Lauren give birth to seven full-grown Knights. Dargon will be well protected." Luthias became serious. "Clifton, will you be regent of my lands while I'm away?" "Of course." The Duke of Dargon looked into his cousin's eyes. "What do you plan to do about Myrande?" "I'm giving her a choice," Luthias announced. "Either she marries the man she loves or--" "Good evening, gentlemen," came an even greeting. The Duke of Dargon, his cousin, and Ittosai Michiya stood as the King approached. He was accompanied by the High Mage and the Knight Commander. The three man bowed to the monarch. "I see you are enjoying yourselves. You look much better, Count Connall; I am glad." "Thank you, your majesty," Luthias returned, bowing again. "You have told me, Lord Ittosai, that you will enjoy returning to Bichu," the King prompted. "Indeed, your majesty," Michiya replied, bowing and grinning. "I can now return to my family with immunity." "And how do you like your reward, lord Count?" Luthias appeared to think about it, although there was no need. "I never wanted it, your majesty. I never wanted to be Baron or Count or Ambassador. I only wanted to be a Knight." King Haralan laughed. "So does my elder son, Kalien; yet he too must bear a title. Sir Edward assures me, however, that you will be Knighted eventually." The King came forward and put a hand on Luthias' shoulder. "I must confess, Luthias, that the reward I gave you is more to my benefit than yours." The Count of Connall gave him a serious look. "You receive the land, certainly, and you will become one of the richest men in your Duchy, if you aren't already. But the title Count: it isn't that you don't deserve it, but I cannot send Beinison a nobleman of less rank than the one they sent to Baranur." Luthias nodded his understanding. It was a wise move. "And, Count Connall, 1your skill in war will make you useful to me there." Again, the Count Connall nodded. "Your knowledge and your control will make you a good ambassador, Count Connall." "He will make you proud, your majesty," the Duke of Dargon assured his King. "He has always made his lords proud." Luthias smiled gratefully at his cousin, then turned back to the King, who had not removed his hand from Luthias' shoulder. "As the rewards are as much to your benefit as mine, Luthias, is there nothing your King can give you that would be to your benefit alone? Is there something, besides the Knighthood that you must earn, that you want?" Luthias gazed at the floor and sadly shook his head. "No, your majesty. What I want you cannot give me." Haralan raised his eyebrows. "Ask. As King I have quite a bit of power." "You cannot give me the lives of my father and twin," Luthias stated flatly. "That is a bit difficult," Haralan admitted with amused ruefulness, "even for a King." "That is a bit difficult even for a mage," Edward remarked cheerfully. "Difficult for a mage?" laughed Marcellon. "That's difficult for a god!" "What else would you want?" the King pressed. "There must be something." "I want to go home," Luthias sighed, "but you cannot let me do that; you need me in Beinison." Luthias took a heavy breath. "The only other thing I want is for Sable to be happy." The King appeared confused. "Forgive me; who is Sable?" "My ward, Lady Myrande." "Ah, the seneschal whom Coranabo maligned so blithely," King Haralan said. "And to make her happy is beyond my power?" "Yes, your majesty," Luthias affirmed. "I cannot tell you how to do it. She loves someone who doesn't love her." The King appeared grim. "I think," Ittosai Michiya ventured, a knowing smile on his visage, "that I could tell you how." "Yes, your majesty," Clifton added. The Duke of Dargon apparently shared insight. "I know how." "Well, then, my lords," the King began, "if--" A rough pull tugged Luthias' face away from the King. A frantic Tylane Shipbrook stood there. "Luthias!" he cried. "Thank God I've found you!" The Count of Connall gripped Tylane's shoulders. "What is it?" Luthias inquired, the worry he had felt previously returning. Tylane's eyes were as pained as before. "What is it? What's happened?" "My father's got Myrande," Tylane began. "He took her and is going to marry her to Oleran on the twenty-fourth." All the blood seemed to disappear from Luthias' face. Luthias felt his chest go numb, and he stared like a madman at his friend. He shook Tylane's shoulder in panic and frustration. "How? I had her guarded-- My God, they'll kill her!" Sable! What would they do to her? If they-- Daydreams of rape, torture, and pain filled Luthias' mind. Wildly, he tried to put her away and listen. "Father drugged her and took her with guards. I doubt your archer Macdougalls even knew there was anything wrong." Luthias face was ashen, and his eyes were wild. Voices seemed far away and unreal--my God, Sable!--but the shoulders were warm. Again, he shook Tylane. "Drugged her? Then he'll drug her again! She'll marry Oleran and he'll--My God--!" Sable! And I am supposed to protect her! Sable! "No, she's not eating," Tylane explained. 1 "Not eating?" Luthias' voice rose to a squeak. A vision of beautiful Sable, ravaged by hunger till she was little more than a skeleton covered with skin, flashed before his eyes. He released Tylane and shot a frantic hand through his hair. "Not eating? My God, she'll starve before I can get her--she'll die--" My God, Sable dead! "No--Warin's sneaking her food," Tylane explained. "But--" Luthias had turned to Clifton and gripped his cousin's shoulders desperately. "We've got to go get her, Clifton!" "I know, I know," Clifton attempted to soothe Luthias. "We're leaving in the morning." "No, now!" Luthias demanded. "God knows what they--Oleran--my God!" he finished, his oath powerful. "My God-- Michiya," he turned to his castellan. "I will help you," Ittosai vowed. "If they have harmed her--" "Harmed her?" Luthias repeated with incredulous anger. The Count Connall's face became a fiery mask of fury. His voice became rough and ferocious. "If they hurt her," he began, seething, "if they even touch her, I'll kill them!" "So you *are* in love with her," Edward's soft chuckle interrupted the Count's tirade. Luthias turned to the Knight Commander and stared in panicked astonishment. "I had thought so, but--" "Of course I'm in love with her!" Luthias shouted. "Do you think I'd be--" As if he had been slapped, Luthias abruptly stopped and blinked. He turned slowly to Clifton and Ittosai Michiya. "Did I just say," Luthias asked deliberately, "what I think I just said?" Ittosai's grin was completely unmerciful. "Yes," he answered with simplicity and triumph. "And it's high time, too, manling," Clifton growled. "I've got to go get her," Luthias was mumbling. "I can't let them--" "I can give you her hand," the King offered. "Your majesty, I'm her guardian," Luthias reminded the King. "I don't need you to give me that. But you can give me this, your majesty: allow me to leave immediately." "Go pack your things," the King granted, and Luthias dashed off with dragging Ittosai Michiya in much the same way he would have taken Roisart. "Duke Dargon, come with me." Just as the ship was docking to take Luthias back to the Duchy of Dargon, the King summoned the new Count to a private audience. Luthias wanted to tear his hair in frustration at the delay, but he went, his walk quick and frantic. The King sat in his private chambers in a comfortable chair. Opposite him sat the High Mage and the Duke of Dargon. The Knight Commander stood nearby. Luthias bowed breathlessly and hastily. "You are ready to leave then, Count Connall?" "As soon as I can collect my cousin, Lord Ittosai, and Rish Vogel," Luthias confirmed, his voice as hurried and breathy as his movements. "I ask your majesty that you allow the High Mage to come as well." The King raised his eyebrows. "He is a physician; they may have hurt her." And Luthias grimaced. He hated thinking about that. What they could have done to her in all this time... "I have searched for her in my crystal," Marcellon told Luthias. "She is in a tower, but she is unhurt." "Still--" Luthias began. "I have no objection, Marcellon," the King cut the Count off. "Go; it will give the Count some peace of mind, and the Baron of Shipbrook and the Baron of Oleran may indeed hurt Lady Myrande." Marcellon smiled and assented with a nod. "Now," King Haralan continued, returning his attention to the anxious Count, "to business. 1I have given your cousin the Duke authority in this matter. If your ward is unhurt, the Barons of Oleran and Shipbrook are to be sent here to the Keep. If they have harmed her in any way, they are to be executed. I will not tolerate this sort of behavior in my Kingdom." Luthias nodded and wished with all his might that King would hurry. The more time they wasted--! The King smiled at him. The King seemed to be full of smiles, and Luthias wished to leave. They had to get Sable! "You love this young woman, do you not?" To expedite matters, Luthias nodded once. "Will you marry her?" "Yes, your majesty," Luthias answered confidently. Clifton grinned. Luthias followed suit. "Perhaps even if she refuses me." Clifton laughed loudly at the idea. "Very well. Take this." King Haralan offered the Count a piece of parchment. "You asked me to gain Lady Myrande's happiness. The Duke of Dargon has explained to me how this lady loves a man, unknown to him. Ask her to marry you, Count Connall. And if she refuses you, give her this paper. It will, I hope, insure the happiness you seek for her." Luthias took the parchment but gave the King a puzzled look. "It orders that she marries the man she loves." "But I don't know who--" "It's all right, manling," Clifton assured him. "I know." "Now, if you give me leave, your majesty--" Luthias began hastily. The King laughed. "I hope that you will allow this your bride to come to the War Council I have called. Duke Dargon, see if you can bring her. She must be quite a lady to have caused this much of a panic." Clifton laughed, and Edward confirmed, "A veritable Alana, your majesty." "Alana?" laughed the King. "What better consort for the war-god?" chuckled Marcellon. "She is Alana indeed." "Have you gotten her the moon-jewel, then?" the King asked Luthias, his blue eyes twinkling. "Moon-jewel?" Luthias questioned. "What are you talking about?" "It's this legend," Clifton explained. "You see, the war-god--" "A legend? You sit here telling me stories, and Sable could by dying!" "Get him out of here, Dargon," the King laughed. "God speed you. Marcellon, take care of them. And, Count Connall," Luthias, half out the door, turned. "I can give you two weeks once you reach Dargon. No more. A fortnight after you reach Dargon, I want you on a ship bound for Cabildo." "Yes, your majesty," Luthias assented, and he raced to the ship. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Trial by Fire Part V Knight in Shining Armor by M. Wendy Hennequin (b.c.k.a. HENNEQUI_WEM@CTSTATEU) "We'll reach Shipbrook Harbor an hour after dusk," Clifton Dargon informed his cousin as he approached. Luthias was leaning on the side of the ship, staring at the ocean. "It should only take a half an hour or so to reach Shipbrook's keep from there." "The sooner the better," his cousin replied, not taking his eyes from the calm, vibrant water. "It's been too long already." "Can't make the wind blow any faster, manling," Clifton remarked, leaning on the edge of the ship with his cousin. "Don't be flip, Clifton. She may be dead already," Luthias snapped. Angrily, he threw a bit of wood at the water. "When I think of what Oleran and Shipbrook must have done to her--" "Easy, manling," the Duke of Dargon soothed, placing a hand on Luthias' shoulder. "If she were in that much danger, Lauren would have sensed it and let Marcellon know by now. Besides, Tylane said Warin was looking out for her." "Well, knowing Shipbrook, Warin's been kicked out of the estate by now, and Sable--" "It'll all be well," Clifton assured him. "Don't worry, Luthias. We'll take care of it. And if they've hurt Sable--" The Duke of Dargon grimaced; he didn't relish the thought of Myrande's being hurt. He had grown up with her, and he cared for her as if she were his sister. "Then we'll do as the King says and execute the pair of them." "Won't bring her back," the Count of Connall pointed out, tossing another bit of wood at the silent waters. "Didn't bring Roisart back." "Don't worry," Clifton repeated. "We'll be in Shipbrook within an hour and a half. I've sent messengers to Lauren, and she and some of my forces will meet us there. We'll get Sable and you married within the week." Luthias allowed himself to smile a little. The Count of Connall was silent for a moment. "I still can't believe it." "Believe what?" "That I'm in love with her." Luthias appeared puzzled. "I know that I'm in love with her, but I don't believe it." He shook his head against the thought. "I don't feel any different about her than I ever did, than I did last week, last month, or before my father and Roisart died. It's--strange." Clifton laughed merrily. "Come on, Luthias," he choked, "you've been in love with her for years! Of course what you feel for her hasn't changed. You just finally found the right word for it." Luthias gave his cousin a sobering look. "Why are you so surprised about it, anyway? Myrande is very special; she's..." "A consort for the war-god," Luthias finished, repeating Marcellon's words. He finally looked at his cousin the Duke. "What was that legend you and the King were talking about?" "Legend?" "Something about a moon-jewel." "Oh, that," Clifton chuckled. "It's about the war-god Gow and the night-goddess Alana. They used to be worshipped here--still are, in some parts of Baranur, and in most of the Beinison Empire." The Duke turned toward his cousin and lounged against the side of the ship. "The war-god fell in love with the night-goddess, and to woo her, he slew this terrible monster, and brought the night-goddess back the treasure: the moon, as a jewel to wear around her neck, and the stars, as a mantle for her hair." 1 "Moon-jewel," Luthias repeated, slightly contemptuous. He flung another piece of wood into the water. "I probably won't even have time to get her a betrothal ring." Clifton smiled. "It won't matter to Myrande; believe me, Luthias." Luthias gazed seriously at his cousin. "Come on, manling," the Duke invited, putting his arm around Luthias' tired shoulders, "we've got a damsel to rescue." Luthias smiled slightly, tossed the last bit of wood into the river, and followed his cousin to their cabin below. Myrande opened her eyes as Warin Shipbrook entered her room at the top of the highest tower in Shipbrook Keep. She had been sleeping much lately. She had never been so lazy--or sleepy--in her life. It came of having only one meal a day, the one Warin brought her before dawn each morning. She sat as her cousin approached, reached for a brush, and began to stroke her hair with it. "I didn't mean to wake you," Warin apologized as he approached. Myrande smiled him serenely; the nap had done her good. "Father wants you to prepare for the wedding." He looked away, then abruptly set the goblet he had brought on the table. "Here is some wine." "Did your father send it?" Myrande asked, struggling with a snarl in her dark locks. "I wouldn't have brought it if he did," Warin answered scornfully. He stared at his cousin's ebony eyes. "I don't know if you're thirsty, but you may want it anyway." The snag in her hair finally loosed itself. Myrande resumed the rhythmic brushing. "Why?" she asked. "I don't want to be drunk for this, Warin." "You want to have your wits about you when you marry Oleran?" Warin wondered. "Yes. In the ceremony, I am asked to accept the bridegroom," Myrande explained patiently. "If I don't accept Oleran, there's no way I can be married to him." "This won't make you drunk," Warin rushed. "It will make you dead." Myrande stared at him, shocked. "You want me to kill myself? You've been risking your inheritance for weeks to keep me alive!" "I thought Luthias would have come by now," Warin retorted. "It seems he has more important things to do." "Luthias does what he has to," Myrande retorted, her black eyes snapping at the insult. "If he could be here, he would be here." She tossed her head proudly. "He will come to get me as soon as he can." "Well, he isn't here, and I think he'd rather see you dead than married to that monster Oleran." "Maybe so," Myrande returned calmly, still brushing her hair. "And, barring no other solution, I would rather be dead than married to a man who will beat me and rape me." Myrande rose, set the brush on a table, and faced Warin. "But I won't kill myself. Luthias has lost too many people already. The Duke of Dargon and Ittosai Michiya may be dead by now. I'll be the only person he has left." "Your life will be hell," Warin warned her seriously. "You should see what Oleran does to the horses and the servants!" "Better my life is hell than Luthias'," Myrande said firmly. She went to the mirror, picked up the brush again, and began to pile her hair on the back of her head. "Luthias will overturn the marriage, assuming I can somehow be tricked into accepting Oleran. If I'm dead--" Myrande remembered how Luthias had been when Roisart died. If she were dead, would he then love her? There was no way to know, and no way she would leave Luthias. She had promised, on that night when he had kissed her and she had pushed him away, that she would always 1be there for him. Married or single, she would be. "Take it away, and let me dress," Myrande ordered Warin gently. Stiffly, Warin bowed and took the wine away. As the door shut, Myrande slipped the chop sticks into her hair. Alarm bells were clattering as Luthias, Count of Connall, Clifton, Duke of Dargon, the High Mage Marcellon, and Ittosai Michiya arrived on horseback at Shipbrook Keep. Luthias was armed, as was Michiya; the Duke had said that he didn't expect a fight, but the two warriors thought it best to be prepared. Michiya had even brought a crossbow. Luthias and Michiya were different than the other men. Marcellon was serene, if somewhat amused; Clifton seemed grim but placid. The men-at-arms that had come from Dargon were grim, as was their Duke, but they were somewhat jovial about it, as if the rescue of Lady Myrande Shipbrook were nothing but an excuse to celebrate at a later time. But Luthias was insanely worried and furiously angry and deeply frightened. Ittosai was also worried and as hell-bent as Luthias on revenge if Myrande had been hurt. Riding to Shipbrook Keep, Luthias had idly wondered aloud, a bent smile on his face, "Are you in love with her too, Michiya?" Ittosai looked away, as if the matter were beneath him. "Do not be silly." Then they arrived, and the warning bells clanged to announce them. Frightened guards of Shipbrook Keep saw the force coming and hastily shut the main gate. "Surround the walls," Clifton ordered. "Leave the largest detachment here at the gates with myself and the Count of Connall." The Duke of Dargon turned to his cousin. "Here goes, manling." "Hurry it up, Clifton," Luthias snapped. "They were supposed to marry her to Oleran today! If the beast has touched her--" "Easy, Luthias," Marcellon ordered with stern equanimity. "All will be well." "Who comes?" bellowed a man from the top of the walls. "The Duke of Dargon," Clifton shouted his answer, "and the Count of Connall. I demand to speak with the Baron of Shipbrook and the Baron of Oleran!" "I will fetch them, your grace," the man promised. "Hurry!" Luthias screamed at him. "We could break the gates," Michiya was suggesting. "Do we have a...how do you say it?...a battering tree?" "Ram," Luthias corrected. "It would work, but we'd have to fight our way through." "I am not afraid," the Bichurian said. "Nor I," Luthias assured him, "but it wouldn't be practical. It would take too much time to find Sable. By that time, they'd have her out of the castle." "True," Michiya agreed. "Why do you come, Duke Dargon?" Shipbrook's voice echoed from the walls. He appeared as a shadow above the gate. Two other shadows, a slight one and a heavier one, stood with him. Next to Clifton, Marcellon murmured a spell, and a great light shone on the top of the walls. Shipbrook, Warin, and--Luthias assumed--the muscular Baron Oleran, shielded their eyes. "You are not invited to my niece's wedding." Luthias was about to shout something defiant, but Clifton held up his hand. "Quiet, and let me handle this." The Duke focused on the Baron of Shipbrook. "Open your gates and allow us to take Lady Myrande away." "I have a right to marry my nice to Oleran," Shipbrook returned. 1"I am her kinsman--" "I advise you not to resist," Dargon shouted angrily. He waved the sealed parchment that Haralan had given him. "I have orders from the King for your arrest and Oleran's." "On what charge?" Shipbrook asked pompously. "Kidnaping, for one," Luthias shouted. He stared at Shipbrook, his eyes burning. Suddenly, he realized that Oleran was no longer there. "If you resist," Clifton continued, "you will be put to death. Allow us entrance!" "Never!" "I am quite serious, Shipbrook," Clifton emphasized. "I will have you put to death if you do not allow us entrance peacefully." "You cannot enter by force," Shipbrook challenged. "Would you like to see us do it?" Luthias countered. "You have my ward, Shipbrook; you have no claim on her. If you do not return her to me, I am quite prepared to take her from you." "You have no right to trespass on my grounds," Shipbrook returned, his voice veiling a warning that scared no one. "I--" Suddenly, he turned to Warin and shoved him away. "Let them in? You're no son of mine! Get away from me!" Warin stood still for a moment, then walked away, anger evident in his step. Shipbrook turned back to his unexpected guests. "You may also leave." "You defy the King's justice?" Clifton asked haughtily. "I'll defy anything opposed to my family's honor!" "Fool," Clifton muttered to his father-in-law. He shouted to Shipbrook, "We will force ourselves in, then." Again, he turned to Marcellon. "Can you open the gates?" "Line up the men," Marcellon commanded, "and give me room. I'll take care of it." The men-at-arms shifted back and drew their weapons. Luthias and Ittosai dismounted and placed themselves at the very front with Clifton. Michiya loaded and cocked his crossbow; Luthias drew his sword. In front of the soldiers, Marcellon raised his arms. The doors slowly opened, as if affected by the spell that Marcellon was about to cast. Puzzled, Marcellon lowered his arms slowly. "Even I am not that good," he muttered. He turned to Clifton and his army. "They are letting us in!" Without further words, Luthias sprinted into the gates. Warin was waiting with the gate key. "You opened it?" Clifton asked, not far behind his cousin. Warin gave the key to the Duke. "He is a fool," young Shipbrook admitted, "but I have no wish to see him dead. He is, after all, my father." Luthias snatched Warin's arms roughly. "Where's Sable?" "In the tower," Warin explained swiftly, casting a hurried look over his shoulder at five of Shipbrook Keep's towers. Furious at the ambiguity, Luthias shook him. "Which one?" he hollered. "Where is she?" "The center one!" Luthias released him abruptly and sprinted toward the high, center tower which bordered on the courtyard which the Ducal forces were quickly filling. Michiya rushed with his lord, and Warin hurried to follow. "The highest room!" Warin shouted as Luthias threw open the door. Without even acknowledging the direction, Luthias began to fly up the stairs, taking them two or three at a time. It was too important not to waste any time. Those monsters-- Slightly less frantic as Luthias, Michiya followed slightly more slowly; his legs were shorter than tall Luthias'. Warin, who was in poorer shape than the warriors, 1accompanied them as best he could. Luthias was bolting, the wind in his ears. He didn't truly see where he was going. All he knew was that he was going to the highest room. Sable would be there. The young Count strained to hear the sound of Myrande's voice. Was she dead? What if she were hurt? Where was Oleran? Oh, God, if she is hurt--if they have--Sable! Luthias collided with the door. It was bolted from the outside, and it had a heavy lock on it. With a bestial cry, Luthias threw the bolt off the door and tried to open it. Locked. The Count of Connall grimaced briefly, then threw his shoulder against the door. It didn't budge. He battered it again, feeling no pain in his shoulder. The door remained solid and unmoved. Well, damn it, he'd break the thing into splinters before he allowed them to hurt Sable! With obstinate determination, Luthias threw himself against the door. It better move! "Luthias-sama!" Michiya's voice called him. It didn't register in Luthias' ears. He assaulted the stubborn door again. Ittosai grabbed the Count's arms. "What are you doing?" "I'm breaking the God-damned door down!" Luthias screamed. "Get out of my way!" "It is too slow," the Bichurian complained. "Stand aside; I know a better way." Luthias, blind with fury and purpose, somehow managed to move aside. Michiya backed up two or three steps on the landing and made himself ready. "Wait!" Warin called, a dozen steps below. "I have the--" With a Bichanese war cry, the Castellan of Connall raged forward and landed a solid, powerful kick directly beneath the lock. The door flew open. Without waiting, Luthias barreled through the door, thinking wildly that he would have to have Michiya teach him that trick. Ittosai nearly stepped on Luthias' heels in his haste to follow the Count. "Key," Warin finished weakly. Luthias found himself in the top tower room, a round, stone room with a canopied bed and some tables and a fireplace. Across the room was a stone staircase leading to the flat, round ceiling of the room. Being dragged up the staircase by an irate Oleran was-- "Sable!" Luthias screamed, rushing forward with his sword drawn. She turned and stared at him, her black eyes wide, and then she smiled at his very presence. Oleran saw the grin and hit Myrande hard across the temple with the pommel of a very large dagger which he held in his free hand. Myrande made no sound, but Luthias saw a trickle of blood flow, like a tear, down her cheek. "Oleran, you son of a bitch!" Luthias screamed. Sword in his right hand, Luthias dashed across the round room to the stairs and proceeded to take them four at a time. He saw Oleran yank Sable through a trap door, then it slammed shut, almost hitting Luthias' head. Without thought, he pushed through to the roof of the tower and rushed forward to make an end to Oleran. "I suggest that you stop where you are, your Excellency," Oleran's urbane voice greeted him. Luthias, for some unknown reason, stopped in mid-step and slid until he was still. Oleran stood on the edge of the roof by the waist-high crenolations. He held that large dagger's point at Myrande's breast. "Thank you, your Excellency. I am sure that neither you nor I wish Lady Myrande harmed. But I assure you, your Excellency, that I will do just that if you come any closer." Luthias stared at the man: Oleran was tall, muscular, and handsome, despite the fact that he more than twice Luthias' age. His left arm held Sable's waist securely; the right hand confidently held the dangerous dagger. Uncertain of what action to take, Luthias kept 1his body still as his brother Roisart's, but he did not release the sword. Behind him, the trap door crashed open, but Luthias did not look to see who came. "Now, sir," Baron Oleran continued, "you will make it possible for me to leave here with Lady Myrande." Luthias opened his mouth to make a scornful reply, but Oleran added, "And I do suggest that you order your Bichanese friend to lower his crossbow. By the time the bolt reaches me, your Excellency, Lady Myrande will be dead." Without turning or removing his eyes from Oleran's, Luthias held out his hand. Luthias felt Michiya lower the crossbow behind him. Luthias took a step closer; Oleran pressed the point; a drop of blood appeared on Myrande's blue dress. Luthias halted. Oleran removed the dagger and pointed it at the Count. "Better, your Excellency," Oleran praised, smiling. "And now--" Myrande suddenly collapsed double over Oleran's left arm. Angry, the Baron slammed his dagger's pommel into the back of her neck. "Stand! What do you think you're doing, woman?" the enraged Baron demanded. Myrande appeared to retch. "I'm afraid of heights," she cried pitifully, putting her hands over her dark hair as if she were panicked by the altitude. Nervously, she played with the piled tresses. Heights? Luthias thought wildly. "You will, your Excellency," Oleran was saying, holding Myrande twice as securely, "procure for us horses--" "Let's see who can climb highest," an eight-year-old girl named Myrande had once challenged the twins. She had climbed the tallest trees in Connall. Sable, afraid of heights? Behind Luthias, Michiya smiled. Fast as a whirlwind, Myrande turned, buried one of the Bichanese chopsticks two inches deep in Oleran's right side, and pushed herself away from him. "You bitch!" Oleran screamed, raising his dagger to murder her. Luthias dove for his ward, caught her in his arms, and twirled away, putting himself between Sable and the dagger. Myrande screamed his name. There was a burning in his back, and Luthias heard the crossbow snap with deadly finality. Oleran cried out once. Luthias held Sable tight, and she clutched him desperately. She was warm, alive, all right. Oh, God, she was all right. All right. Luthias buried his head in her loose hair and whispered, "Marry me." Then he cursed himself. Damn it, he should have been more romantic, more like Roisart, moonlight and roses, something. He could have done better for her. Sable deserved better. But she didn't seem to mind. "When?" she whispered back. Luthias tried to laugh, but it left him as a shaky pant. "Next week," he cried, "next month, tomorrow, I don't care. Soon." "Tonight?" Again, Luthias attempted laughter, but it came out like sobs. "A little too soon, Sable." He held her away from him a little, smiled. She smiled back, but she was pale and uncertain. He felt her unconsciously move her hand up and down on his back. "You deserve better." Gingerly, Michiya approached, the crossbow empty and relaxed now that it had done its work. "Myrande," he began, "Luthias-sama, are you all right?" "Fine, Michiya," Luthias answered. The Count Connall remembered, belatedly, that there was an enemy to contend with. Luthias scanned the roof. "Oleran--?" Ittosai grinned like a child. "I shot him in the neck. He went right over the edge. If he was not killed by the bolt--" Suddenly, Myrande gasped and jumped backwards, putting a hand 1over her mouth. "Sable, what's wrong?" Luthias asked. Then he felt the pain of the wound on the right side of his lower back. Warm blood dribbled on his skin. Ittosai and Myrande sprang to look at the wound. While Myrande inspected her betrothed's injury, Michiya retrieved the dagger which had clattered to the stones unheard. "It cannot be deep," Michiya reported, scrutinizing the blade. "It has blood only on the edge." "No, it's not deep," Sable confirmed. She reached into her gown's pocket and produced a handkerchief. She folded it and applied pressure to the slash. "Don't fuss, Sable," Luthias requested briskly. "I'm all right." He was better than he had been in weeks. He reached back, put an arm around her, then held out his hand to his friend. "Thanks, Michiya." The Bichurian smiled and took it. "Do not thank me, Luthias-sama. What is it you say...that is what friends are for." Somehow (Luthias was never sure how, and quite sure he didn't want to know) Marcellon got the Count Connall and his bride, the Duke of Dargon, the former Baron of Shipbrook, and Ittosai Michiya back to Dargon Keep in less than an hour. There the High Mage examined Luthias' back and Myrande's bruises. He turned Myrande over to his daughter and sent Luthias to bed with a sleeping potion. "You need the sleep," the High Mage told him. "You haven't slept well in weeks, and there is much to be done in this fortnight, Count Connall." The High Mage grinned, rejoicing in using the young man's earned title. Luthias went to the guest bedroom in Dargon Keep dutifully, but he did not take the potion. There was too much to think about. For a while, he stared at the fireplace, holding the document the King had given him. Finally, he stood and walked to Myrande's room. He boldly knocked on the hard door. "Who's there?" Sable's voice, muffled, inquired. "Luthias." "Come." The Count of Connall opened the door quietly and entered the room. Her dark hair glowing from the light in the fireplace, Myrande waited for him, her arms hugging her knees. She was wearing a nightgown that was obviously intended for the tall Duchess of Dargon; the cuffs fell past Myrande's thumbs, and the bodice draped lower than it should have. Gently, Luthias approached her and sat on the bed. "I hope I didn't wake you," he began. "No, I couldn't sleep," Myrande confessed tiredly. "I'm not sure I want to." She paused, stared at the flames. "I've never hurt anyone before." "You were marvelous," Luthias praised her. "You were wonderful. I'm proud of you--and so is Michiya. You should have heard him bragging to Marcellon." "How is your back?" Sable asked, touching his arm lightly. "Nothing serious," Luthias related. "Oleran just sliced the skin a little." The Count Connall shrugged. "Marcellon wasn't worried. He just bandaged it. There won't be a scar." "You and your scars!" Myrande laughed, touching the (now) small, white one above his right eye. "You're so vain!" She stopped laughing, touched his cheek. "I'm glad you came, Luthias. I didn't want to be alone tonight." Luthias took her hand and pressed it to his cheek in the manner of the Court. "I need to talk to you, Sable." Myrande smiled. "You've been saying that since before the Sy tournament." She withdrew her hand. "What's wrong?" Unsure how to begin, Luthias looked away. He was silent for a long moment; then, he reached out and took her hands. They were very 1small. "Sable," he started, "I don't know why you want to marry me...I don't know why you agreed to it." "Because I want to," she explained, happy but confused. "I want to marry you." "Look, Sable," he began again, "I want you to be happy. Here." He handed her the parchment, heavy with the King's seal. Myrande inspected it dubiously. "What is it?" "It's an order from the King," Luthias told her quietly, not looking her in the eye. "I--it's an order--look, Sable, I don't want you to be trapped into a marriage you don't want. That royal decree says that the man you love must marry you. I--" God, why was it so hard to tell her he loved her? "I won't have you unhappy." For a moment, Sable stared at him with confusion and astonishment. "I thought...you knew," she said slowly, incredulously. "I thought...when you asked me to marry you...I thought you knew..." "Know what?" Luthias demanded, looking her in the eye. There was pain in his face, but it was the brave pain of a lover willing to let his beloved go free. "All I know is that I love you--" There. He said it. "--but I also know that you're in love with someone else, and--" "No!" she interrupted him with abrupt finality. Luthias shut his mouth mid-word. "There is no one else." "What?" asked Luthias, gazing at her as if she had lost her mind. "There is no one else," she repeated, gripping his forearm. "There never was anyone *else*. Only you." Myrande stopped suddenly, timidly reached out to touch his face. Her hand dropped. "Always...you." "*What?*" Luthias squeaked. Unbelieving, he snatched the paper from her and read the neat, formal words: "...We decree by Our Royal Hand and Seal that Our vassal, Luthias, Count of Connall, take in marriage Our subject, Lady Myrande Shipbrook, on account of their great love...." He stared at the paper, then at his bride. "It was me?" he questioned. "Me? But, Sable..." "You," she confirmed. "I love you, Luthias." "But...all these years...four years, Sable! And I never--" Suddenly, he was flooded with memories of exactly what he had done those four years that Myrande had loved him silently. "The women--I was with so many other--" "I know," Myrande reminded him without bitterness or judgment in her voice. "I mixed the contraceptive potions, remember?" "And my temper," Luthias continued, astonished. "I drink when...Sable, you love me?" "It isn't hard," Myrande told him, smiling. "You're a good man, Luthias, and I don't mind your faults." He snorted in contempt. "Besides, I have my faults, too." "What faults?" Luthias made a dubious sound. "You're perfect." (Hadn't Clifton said that about Lauren once....?) "Well, for one," Myrande chanted as if it were a litany, "I'm proud." "Oh, yes," Luthias agreed with utter and complete sincerity. "And stubborn." "Don't I know it!" Luthias concurred. "And I have one fault I know you never wanted in a wife." "What's that?" Luthias wondered, rolling the decree. "Virginity." Luthias let the paper drop and stared at her, stunned for an extended moment. Then, suddenly, he began to laugh. Chuckling, Myrande watched as the Count laughed, the sound of wedding bells, until tears of mirth rolled down his cheeks, until he released all the ills of the summer, until the halls of Dargon Keep rang with the homecoming of the Count of Connall. 1 Still laughing, Luthias finally gripped his bride's shoulders gently. "Ah, Sable, Sable," he laughed breathlessly, kissing her firmly on the mouth, "may I be able to cure all your faults as easily!" The Duke of Dargon was anxiously pacing the vestry adjoining the chapel in Dargon Keep. He stopped suddenly and glared at his cousin. "You could at least have the decency to be nervous!" Clifton exploded at the seated, composed Count of Connall. "But I don't have anything to be nervous about!" Luthias protested, laughing. "You're getting married," the Duke growled, resuming his rounds. "Most people consider that enough to be nervous about." Ittosai Michiya, leaning against a chair, chuckled and expanded upon the Duke's concern, although his voice showed that he was too jovial to share it. "After all, Luthias-sama, you're going to be spending the rest of your life with her." "But I've spent all but six months of my life with her already," Luthias countered. "It's been fine so far." The young Count shook his head. "I don't understand what all the fuss is about, anyway. I don't know why you and Lauren feel you have to throw this huge wedding, not to mention the feast and the ball. I don't want it; Sable doesn't want it." "She deserves the fuss," Clifton grumbled. "Besides, it wouldn't be right if she wasn't married off properly. You have to admit that." "Granted," Luthias acknowledged, "but did we need to have something this big?" "You are a Count, manling," the Duke reminded him. "We have to do things properly. That means inviting half the Kingdom." "And receiving gifts from them," Luthias finished, rolling his eyes. His town keep, two hours from Dargon Keep, was filled to the ceilings with wedding gifts. "Anything interesting?" Clifton wondered. "Lord Winston of Gateway sent me some beautiful silver arrows," Luthias told him, admiration for the weapons in his voice. "He sent Sable a silver jewel box. And we have this fine, Freothold tapestry from a Lord and Lady Thorne." "Who are they?" Ittosai Michiya wondered, feeling for the wedding rings in his pocket. He was acting as Luthias' second in the ceremony, and he took the privilege very seriously. "I do not know them." "Neither do I," Luthias admitted. He paused. "The King sent us a gift as well: our own house in Magnus." "He's being very generous to you," Clifton remarked. "And to Sable. He sent home with me twenty ells of indigo silk for her wedding gown." The Duke of Dargon grinned. "I think he wanted to make up for the fact that she has to give you up so quickly." "It didn't work," Luthias laughed. Myrande had been quite unhappy when she discovered that her husband-to-be would be leaving her fourteen days after his return to the Duchy. "Sable's ready to rip him apart." "Why do you not take her with you?" inquired Michiya practically. "I don't trust the Beinisonians," Luthias replied frankly. Michiya grimaced, but nodded. He had as little reason as Luthias to trust the Beinison Empire. Then he grinned. "This reminds me," the Bichurian began, "that I have not yet given you a gift." The Castellan of Connall reached behind him and tossed Luthias a book. With a sly grin on his face, Michiya explained, "It is a pillow book." "A pillow book?" Luthias echoed dubiously. He opened the tome and read a few lines. His jaw dropped, and he threw the book back to his Castellan with somewhat mock indignance. "What are you giving me this 1for? I don't need it! I'm not some amateur like Clifton!" "What is it?" the Duke asked. Wordlessly, Ittosai Michiya handed Dargon the book. Clifton opened it randomly, read a few words, then blushed a fine shade a purple. "Who are you calling amateur?" he demanded gruffly, shutting the tome quietly. "My wife is pregnant, isn't she?" "Accidents happen," Luthias quipped, smiling. He looked at his still pacing cousin, who scowled at him. "How soon, Clifton? Can we get this performance over with?" "As soon as Lauren comes," Clifton assured him. The Duke stopped mid-step. "You do have a wedding gift for her, don't you?" "Of course." Luthias didn't know much about weddings, but he did know that bride and groom received gifts from each other. He handed Clifton an old, velvet box. The Duke opened it and smiled at the sapphire necklace, broach, ring, hair pieces, and bracelets. "I helped your father pick these," Clifton said. Although he had only been four at the time, Clifton Dargon could still remember his uncle Fionn's wedding. "They matched your mother's eyes perfectly." Dargon closed the musty box and handed them to the bridegroom. "They'll look well on Sable." There was a quiet knock on the door. "Clifton," the Duchess called him, "you have a bride to give away." Clifton smiled. Since Luthias, as bridegroom, was in no position to give his ward in marriage, his Duke had pre-empted him by reason of rank and kinship. "Let's go, manling." The Count and his Castellan left the vestry and walked onto the sanctuary. "What do we do now?" Michiya wondered as Luthias nodded to the High Priest of the Duchy of Dargon. "Wait," Luthias answered, handing his second the jewels. Then he leaned close and whispered, "Did you get the horse ready?" The Castellan nodded, and only then did Luthias take the time to look at the chapel. The high stone walls were decorated with "all manner of sentimental stupidity," as Luthias had called it earlier. Evergreen branches, to represent long life, adorned the walls and the altar. Blazing torches, symbols of passion, burned brightly in the wall sconces. Apples and bread, representing fertility and security, were piled on the altar. Rose petals and autumn flowers were spread in the aisle framed by the guests to soften the bride's steps into marriage. Sentimental refuse, Luthias groaned internally. Roisart would love it. Soon, Luthias heard the sounds of harps and singing announcing his Sable's approach. At a nod from the High Priest, Luthias began to walk the aisle toward the door. He glanced from side to side at the guests; although they had invited the entire Duchy, Luthias had not expected so many people to come. His Aunt Tornia, Duchess of Asbridge, had sailed from Magnus for the occasion. The Duchess of Narragan and Dame Martis Westbrook had come with her. Luthias almost sighed, wishing briefly that Marcellon and Sir Edward could be here. Edward couldn't leave the King, not with a possible war on the way, and Marcellon, for the same reason, returned to Magnus and his duties as High Mage soon after Myrande had been rescued. There were other guests missing, too, a pair of kinsmen...and Luthias missed them most sorely of all. Slowly, the heavy doors of the chapel opened when Luthias and Ittosai arrived. Behind them was the bridal procession: Bartol, the Ducal bard, Lauren, and finally, surrounded by minstrels, Clifton and Luthias' sable bride. Her well-fitting wedding gown was of the indigo silk the King had sent; her ebony hair, left mostly loose, was bedecked with sapphire ribbons. Her onyx eyes were glowing softly, and she smiled shyly at 1Luthias, who returned the expression. My God, she is beautiful. Clearly, and without warning, the Duke of Dargon spoke the ritual words: "Count of Connall, I give my kinswoman unto thee for thy wife." "My lord," Luthias answered, "I thank thee." Confidently, Luthias held out his hand. Myrande wordlessly put her small hand into his. They turned and traveled the aisle, Myrande's full skirt and train reaping rose petals. Michiya and Lauren followed. The High Priest welcomed them by offering them his hands. The couple knelt. "May the blessings of the Almighty God be upon you, Count of Connall and Lady Myrande, upon the day of your marriage." He made a sign of blessing above them, then helped them to their feet. "Count of Connall, Lady Myrande: do you both come here of your own volition?" "I do," Luthias and Myrande answered. Luthias cast a glance at the pompous priest; Myrande rolled her eyes, and Luthias somehow managed to stifle his laughter. "Do you both seek the blessings of God and of the Church?" the priest continued in a ritual voice. "I do," answered the bride and groom. This was taking too long, Luthias thought. Couldn't that priest move any faster? "Then you must both ask, each the other, to accept you," the priest instructed. He didn't have to talk through his nose, Luthias thought. He saw Sable biting her lip; she was stifling chuckles, too. Luthias compressed his mouth. He knew he had to be serious. And then the priest said something that surprised the Count Connall: "If any here can give cause why the Count of Connall and Lady Myrande should not pledge themselves to each other, let him speak now, or speak never!" So that was why Clifton wouldn't let him bring his sword! Luthias tensed. If anyone tried to stop this-- But no one spoke, and Luthias realized that it was his turn--finally!--to recite the ritual. He had memorized it hastily, and hoped he wouldn't forget anything. "My lady Myrande," he began slowly. Please, don't let me forget the words. "I ask thee to accept me as thy husband, as the man I am. I am a man imperfect and faulted, yet this I will promise thee: I will be a faithful and true husband to thee until God takes one of us to Himself. With myself, I offer thee this gift." Luthias hated that part; it seemed like he was trying to bribe Myrande. But he handed her the sapphires. She opened the box, recognized the jewels, and smiled. "Wilt thou take me, Myrande?" "I will," she answered, smiling. Luthias felt like laughing with joy, but it was his bride's turn to speak. "My lord Luthias, Count Connall, I ask thee to accept me as the wife, as the woman I am. I am a woman imperfect and faulted, yet this I will promise thee: I will be to thee a faithful and true wife until God takes one of us to Himself." Myrande reached out a hand; Lauren put a silk-wrapped package into it. Sable offered Luthias her gift. "With myself, I offer thee this gift." Luthias undid the ribbons; it was a well-done portrait, the size of his palm, of Sable in her wedding gown. He smiled and handed the portrait to Ittosai. "Wilt thou take me, Luthias?" "I will," he said firmly. Luthias was damned if he was allowing argument on this. The High Priest raised his hands ceremoniously. "May God the Almighty bless and sanctify this union and keep them faithful and true, one unto the other, until the day when He brings them unto Himself." The High Priest relaxed his arms and looked expectantly at Michiya. "The rings!" Lauren whispered hastily. Ittosai jumped, properly 1embarrassed, and handed the priest the two golden bands. The priest made a blessing sign over them. "May these rings, symbols of your pledges, keep you one unto the other. Confirm your troth." As was custom, Luthias picked Myrande's ring from the priest's palm. "With this ring," he recited, "I thee wed." It would just be his luck, Luthias thought, to forget the words now. "This golden ring to thee I give. With my body, I thee worship, and with my goods, I thee endow." He touched ring to her thumb, her forefinger, her middle finger, then finally slid the golden band onto her fourth finger. "So be it." Her voice strong, Myrande took his ring from the priest and recited the words, repeating the ritual. She touched each of his fingers, then put the ring on him. It gleamed like her eyes. "So be it," she finished, smiling at him. Luthias squeezed her hand. "Do you, Lauren, Duchess of Dargon, and you, Ittosai of Michiya" Damn it, *no* one could say his name right! "witness this union?" "I do," replied the Duchess and the Castellan. "You are now in the eyes of God and the Kingdom husband and wife," the High Priest finished authoritatively. He looked at Luthias with irate expectancy. Luthias gave him an amused look. "Kiss her, stupid!" the Duke of Dargon called without any trace of dignity. Luthias laughed like a boy, leaned forward, and kissed his wife firmly on the lips. As was custom, he suddenly took Myrande's hand and dashed from the chapel in the symbolic attempt as escaping the feast to be alone. With a cheer, the wedding guests followed in a confused fashion. Luthias was pulling his Countess along at a terrific rate. Myrande was laughing like a girl. "You're supposed let them catch us, you know," she playfully chided her husband. "Like hell," Luthias responded. "Run!" Myrande's eyes widened admiringly at Luthias' audacity, grabbed her endless skirts, and ran. Luthias pulled her around the corner, pushed on a loose brick, and yanked her into the secret passage. "Now, let's hope that Roisart and I were the only ones who ever found this," the Count breathed, grinning at his bride. "Let's get out of here, Sable." Expertly, Connall led his wife through the dark passage, which led eventually to the garden. There, near the exit, was Dragonfire. "Thanks, Michiya," Luthias breathed. Abruptly, he took Myrande's waist and lifted her onto the horse. He gracefully placed himself behind her, took the reins, and galloped out of the courtyard. Sable leaned against Luthias and laughed. "I don't believe you did this!" The Count put one strong arm around her waist. "I don't like that bedding ceremony." He paused. "I don't want anyone undressing you but me." "Well," laughed Lady Connall. She shivered in the cool autumn air and leaned against Luthias for warmth. "Do you mind missing the feast?" Luthias asked her suddenly. "Not one bit." Myrande twisted and kissed him. "I only have you for a week more; I want as much time as I can get." Luthias glanced behind him for pursuit; there was none. He reigned Dragonfire and kissed Sable deeply. She pulled away, her arms around his neck. "And now, my lord," she began, "where do we go from here? The keep?" "No," the Count Connall denied firmly. "That's the first place they'll look." He steered Dragonfire into the woods. "We're going to 1Warin's town house, outside the city." His wife stared at him. Luthias grinned. "Warin, Michiya, and I arranged this days ago. Don't worry." "I'm not worried. I trust you." "We'll go back tomorrow," Luthias told her. "I have some things left to arrange with the trip and with the incorporation of Coranabo's lands." He looked at her. "You'll be regent as soon as you turn twenty-one." "Whatever you like. How long will it take us to get to Warin's house?" Myrande wondered after a pause. Luthias grinned. "Afraid to be out after dark, Sable?" "Not with you," she returned the banter. "I won't let the ghosts get you," he promised playfully. Sable laughed merrily. "Why should I be afraid of ghosts? They're only dead people. What dead person would want to harm me?" "Oleran?" "Inconsequential," Myrande asserted. "There are too many dead people who would want to protect me." "Like whom?" "My father and mother. Roisart. Your father." "Father..." Luthias echoed, halting the horse. He stared into the darkness, thinking something he had not allowed himself to ponder before the wedding. Myrande gently touched his jaw. "What is it?" "My father wouldn't approve of this, Sable." She stared at him quizzically. "Approve of what?" "Our marriage." Luthias looked away. "He told me to stay away from you, not to toy with you..." Myrande looked as if she suddenly understood something. "And that's why you never..." She smiled, turned his face toward her. "Luthias, he was only trying to protect me. He wasn't sure you were ready to love me as I loved you. He..." Sable shrugged. "He told me to wait for you. He planned on us marrying, eventually. He was hoping for it." Luthias met her eyes. "Really?" "Truly. I wouldn't deceive you." The Count kissed his wife, then pulled away and looked at her mutely. "Let's go," she whispered. "I only have a little time with you left." "I'll be back to dance with you at the Melrin Ball," Luthias vowed, starting the horse forward slowly. Sable leaned tiredly against him. "You're beautiful, Sable," Luthias told her, watching her in the moonlight. "Watch where you're going," she returned harshly. Luthias halted Dragonfire abruptly and put his arms around his wife. "Easy, Sable," he soothed her, "I won't be gone for long." Myrande held his arms as if she never wanted to let go. "I'm ambassador, Sable. No one's going to hurt me." Myrande's eyes were hard. "If you believed that, you'd take me with you." Luthias cursed internally. Sable knew him too well, always had. The Count turned his wife to face him. "Listen, Sable. Nothing is going to keep me from returning to you. Do you hear me? Nothing. No one." He then repeated, "I'll be back to dance with you at the Melrin Ball." "Even as a ghost?" she tried to play, but her voice sounded choked. "Don't be silly," Luthias quipped. "Ghosts don't dance." Myrande smiled, and the Count hugged her tightly. "Better?" he inquired. "I still don't want you to go," she said. "But there's no help for it, I suppose." 1 "No," Luthias agreed, "and there's no use staying out here all night in the chill when we should be home in bed." Sable laughed gratefully and kissed her husband. "As you wish, your Excellency. I would not think to dispute you." ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 QQQQQ tt QQ QQ tttttt QQ QQ uu uu aaaa nnnn tt aaaa QQ QQ uu uu aa aa nn nn tt aa aa QQ QQ uu uu aa aa nn nn tt aa aa QQQQQQ uuu aaaaa nn nn tt aaaaa QQQ ______________________________________ A Journal of Fact, Fiction and Opinion ______________________________________ Quanta is an electronically distributed magazine of science fiction. Published monthly, each issue contains short fiction, articles and editorials by authors around the world and across the net. Quanta publishes in two formats: straight ascii and PostScript* for PostScript compatible printers. To subscribe to Quanta, or just to get more info, send mail to: da1n@andrew.cmu.edu da1n@andrew.bitnet Quanta is a relatively new magazine but is growing fast, with over two hundred subscribers to date from seven different countries. Electronic publishing is the way of the future. Become part of that future by subscribing to Quanta today. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 ** ************ *** *********** **** **** ********* *** **** *********** **** ** *** ** *** *** *** ** *** *** **** ** ***** *** *** *** *** **** *** **** ****** *** ******** ****** ******** **** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** **** ******* *** *** *** *** *** *** ** *** *** **** ********* ***** **** **** ********* **** *** **** *** *** **** ** *** *** ------------------- **** *** ****** ***** The Online Magazine *********** ****** ***** of Amateur Creative Writing ************ --------------------------- >> What is Athene? Athene is a free network "magazine" devoted to amateur fiction written by the members of the online community. Athene does not restrict itself to any specific genre, but will publish quality short stories dealing with just about any interesting topic, including (but not limited to): science fiction, fantasy, religion, mystery, computers, humor, psychology, sports, politics, business >> Distribution Athene is published monthly (assuming stories come in at a reasonable rate), and comes in two formats -- ASCII and PostScript. For those who don't have access to a PostScript-compatible printer, the ASCII distribution is a text-only file much like the mail you are reading at this moment. The content of the magazine is identical across both formats. The ASCII version usually runs about 1300 lines, and the PostScript edition typically generates about twenty pages. 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