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Skeptic Tank!

+-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME TEN NUMBER FIVE | | ========================================== +___________+ FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT | ++ | F S F NN N E T | ++ | FFF SSS FFF N N N EEE T | | F S F N NN E T |_________| F SSS F N N EEEEE T /___________\ ========================================== | | BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine ___|___________|___ X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> CONTENTS X-Editorial 'Orny' Liscomb Flyer's Dance John Sullivan Untitled Lori Spier *Worthy of the Title, Part 3 M. Wendy Hennequin Date: 041688 Dist: 619 An "*" indicates story is part of the Dargon Project All original materials copyrighted by the author(s) <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Greetings once again! Well, it's about time another couple issues of FSFnet were sent out. In this issue we have an excellent SF story by a very promising new author, John Sullivan; also the conclusion of Wendy's Dargon series, "Worthy of the Title", and an SF short story by Lori Spier. The next issue should follow closely on the heels of this one (if the queue between Yale and CUNY permits it), and will include a new story by Ron Meldrum and the conclusion of Carlo's "Cydric" series. And there are several other stories currently in the works, and which I know are particularly interesting, and should be ready for printing very soon. In all, a huge quantity of very good fiction coming your way, enabling me to keep keep my editorials nice and short (under the pretense of not having enough room to waste on my own editorial ramblings and such). So, without becoming particularly verbose about it, I'd like to say that it's good to see you again, I hope you like the issue, and I hope it won't be too long before I'll see you again. Enjoy! -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Flyer's Dance Humans aren't supposed to dream in D-sleep. They don't do anything at all. But the computers must have noted the turmoil in his brainwaves and brought him at least partially out, because in the deep night between stars, Kei dreamed of the world called Gironde. Lissa was in the crawler. She was trying to fix the engine, coached on radio by the base engineers. "Forty minutes," she shouted, fear in her voice. Forty minutes until the flare hit, bathing the entire hemisphere in radiation. The folding shovel from the emergency kit was cheap, with a tubular handle of thin metal that kept folding back up when he thrust into the dirt. As soon as he got a spadeful up, he tossed it over his shoulder into the heap that slowly piled up against the crawler's sunward side. He kept remembering his old freshman physics professor talking about the distances gamma rays could travel through lead. Kei wished Dr. Conover were here now. He could help him dig. Kei worked on, blisters forming on his palms. The pale white light cast his face into harsh relief. "Ten more minutes," Lissa called. It couldn't have been half an hour already. The hole was no bigger. His hands were bleeding now, making it harder to grip the shovel. Kei turned to check the pile and saw a flower drift down to rest in the turned earth. He looked up in surprise and saw his grandfather, sitting cross-legged on the crawler roof. His sword was sheathed on his lap, and a small bowl of flowers sat next to one knee. With a casual motion he flipped another blossom from the bowl and watched it flutter down beside the first. "Grandfather!" he cried. Surely he would help dig. "I tried so hard to teach you about wisdom and life, Kei," the old man said sorrowfully. "I listened to you." "Are you listening now?" And another flower fell. "Grandfather, will you help me dig? I'm begging you. I'm going to die. My wife...." "You don't understand." His grandfather shook his head slowly. Lissa called from inside. There was no more time. "I have to go inside now, grandfather. The flare's going to hit." His grandfather looked ashamed as Kei dropped the shovel and went into the crawler. Kei and Lissa curled together under a last futile layer of seat cushions and winter clothing. For a time, Lissa talked to him about her home on Delta Raeli. Then she'd cried. He held her as she lapsed into coma, kissing her as she slipped away from him. Soon he would follow her. The dream faded as Kei weakly screamed his rage and pain at the baleful white sun. There was a thin sheen of ice on his cheeks when the computers woke him over Delta Raeli. Delta Raeli was a small world, cool with a dense atmosphere. The gravity was a weak .8G, making his movements more comfortable. Even with the painkillers that his medpack dispensed, his muscles ached and his nerves burned. He was constantly tired as his body vainly tried to throw off the tumor tissue growing within him. The ride down to the surface had made it worse. Apparently his story had made the newsnets because people recognized him in the terminal. He felt the stares of the curious, and heard whispered voices saying things like "radiation poisoning," and "wife died," and "lawsuit." They seemed especially fascinated by the money. Several times he heard "thirty million" whispered in a sort of jealous awe. None of them had ever worn a medpack. He hated the thing, with its blinking telltales and the catheters running into his body. He longed to whirl on them and tell them they could have the money if they could give him more than two months to live without it strapped to his torso. While they were at it, they could give him back his wife. But he didn't say anything, afraid he would go too far and break down some barrier within him that was better left intact. He made his way through customs and hired a car. Lissa's father made his living shooting documentary tapes for export, and they lived in the barrier range, where the andrils were. None of the tourist trains went anywhere near them. Finally, in the car, he could relax. He settled back into the seat and gazed out the windows at the mountains in the distance. He could see andrils moving in that far distance. They were small black dots that swirled and looped in the wild winds around the peaks. Seeing them, he bit his lip to fight the tears. The Farnhams lived near the highest peaks, in a house overlooking a two thousand meter drop into fierce desert badlands on the other side of the range. He paid the driver outside, and Lissa's mother met him at the door. "Mr. Fujiwara," she said, her voice confused between sorrow and pity. Then she let out a breath and closed her eyes momentarily. "Kei." She put an arm around his shoulders and led him into the house. Her parents knew the bare details from the newsnets, but it was different when he told them. Now the tears came. Along an indistinct line the living room turned into balcony, and Kei sat, drink in one hand, looking out at the sky and the peaks, purple in the fading light. Once he had officially told them how Lissa had died, no one seemed to know what else to say. Lissa's mother finally broke the silence. "You look so," she paused, unsure of what to say. "Healthy." He shook his head. "The drugs slow it as much as possible, but I can feel them losing ground. When it comes the decay will be exponential. The last couple days will be bad, very bad." He took a sip from his glass. "What are you going to do?" asked her father. "You could go into D-sleep. You've got the money." "I could," he admitted. He left the rest unsaid. There was a faint hope that in a few years they would be able to arrest the wild cell growth that was eating him from within. But without her the world had nothing to offer him. He wasn't going to take D-sleep. There was a flash of movement outside and a cry, like a bird's, but longer and modulated. He looked off the balcony and an andril plunged through the growing darkness a few thousand feet away. Great wings folded and bent, twisting the creature into a corkscrew roll. Two trailing appendages - almost tentacles - rippled through the wind behind it. At their ends, smaller versions of the wings alternately extended and contracted to provide more control. The creature repeated its long, mournful wail as it fell away and arced out over the desert. Finally he lost sight of it in the darkness. Kei gazed into the darkness, trying to capture another glimpse of the vanished shape. For almost a minute he said nothing. Mr. Farnham looked at him and smiled. "They usually like the winds better farther downrange. But we sometimes get a few around here. Beautiful, aren't they?" Kei nodded. All he'd known about the andrils was that they were one of a very few species of large fliers known to exist. Few worlds had the right combination of light gravity and dense air for the wings to push against. He'd tended to think that they would be awkward in proportion to their size. He'd been wrong. The andril had been surprisingly graceful. "There's a mountain a few miles south of here where they gather," said Farnham. "I'm driving down tomorrow to do some taping. Why don't you join me?" He considered it for a moment, then smiled. "Thank you. I think I will." The place was unimaginatively named Grant's Peak. Rail lines and roads converged at the bottom, and there was a large parking area scattered with tour buses. Then, past restaurants and souvenir shops, an elevator system carried them halfway up the mountain to a wide stone platform open to the sky. They had come early to avoid the tourist rush. Perhaps fifty people milled about on the observation platform, talking, looking up with hands over their eyes to block the glare. Some had brought visor units or were using the token-operated versions near the rim. Farnham's film crew was waiting for him to start setting up their equipment. While they mounted the holocameras and strung power cables back to the snack bar carved into the mountainside, Kei slipped a token into a set of visors and swiveled it upward. There were six of them, circling in a diffuse group off the highest summit. With daylight and magnification he had a better view of them. They were delta shaped, with triangular wing membranes extending from the narrow triangle of body that tapered back to the point where the two trailing stabilizers were attached. They flapped their wings lazily, with a gentle rolling motion. The largest of them was about twelve feet from wingtip to wingtip. Occasionally one or two would peel away from the group and pick up speed as they fell. Then they would go into a sequence of rolls and loops, punctuated with their eerie calls. Finally they would pull out far below the observation platform and slowly climb back up to rejoin the others. When his time expired, the lenses polarized to black and Kei turned to Farnham. "Why do you think they do it?" he asked. The cameras had been set up, and two of Farnham's camera operators were taping aerobatic sequences. Behind them there was a steady whir from the tracking motors that helped keep the cameras focused on the andrils. "Any number of reasons. Mating ritual, practice in hunting or escaping predators. Just for fun. That's my choice. They're having a ball up there." Kei watched them for the rest of the day, while the crew filmed, never becoming bored. The compositon of the group gradually changed as some drifted away and newcomers joined the show. Kei learned to identify a few individuals who had specific marks. One in particular had lost part of the membrane that formed the left wing and had to restrict its choice of maneuvers to favor the weakened limb. He named it Ahab and watched it over the others for the rest of the day, impressed. Gradually he noticed that it did just as much as the others; it simply had to find movements to get the same results. A message for him? Kei smiled, amused by the fancy. Ahab didn't understand. He could go into D-sleep and hope. If Lissa were still alive, he wouldn't have hesitated. But without her it didn't matter. There would be a great deal of pain and, at the end of the long sleep, just another world without her. No gain. His life had tapped out. In Ahab's terms, there was no one to perform for. He wondered what the great flyer would do if it were the last one of its kind. He decided it would probably dive straight into the desert floor. They were free to fly, but there was little joy in flying alone. That night he stood alone on the terrace, long after the Farnhams had gone to sleep, looking out at the stars over the canyon. Cool winds ruffled his hair and wailed through distant passes. He thought he could hear the cries of andrils even farther away. He knew they traveled in groups, but their cries still sounded lonely to him, and forlorn. He wondered if any of them ever crashed, ever pushed themselves too far and hit the ground before they could pull out. Perhaps that was why they flew, to make life bearable for as long as they could, waiting for the time when they would risk too much and die, secure in the absolute knowledge of identity and extent. Kei stood silently for a time, remembering Lissa's humor, and the soft feel of her skin. He considered his future, the painful death that was racing toward him. Then he looked back, at his grandfather and his pantheistic world of beauty and death. His present seemed to be vanishing to a point with past and future simultaneously spiraling in on it. The past had been given him by birth, the future by gamma rays, and the present .... The present was a rush of wind and a black shape that eclipsed the stars with a strident wail. Kei stepped back, startled, then dashed to the wall, searching for the switch he knew was there. He groped until he found it, and floodlights illuminated the balcony and the space around it. Kei moved quickly back to the railing. The andril was arcing upward now, unafraid of the pool of light. He could make its form out clearly, the wide body and trailing stabilizers, and the torn wing. It was Ahab. Ahab allowed its momentum to bleed off as it neared the top of its loop, then it suddenly flicked its body forward and locked its wings, gliding toward the balcony. The great wings, supported by bone only at the leading edge, billowed back like parachutes and the animal seemed almost to be hovering, less than fifty feet away from him. Kei could see its eyes in the floodlight. They were perfectly circular, deep and black. Ahab stared at Kei as it slowly drifted toward him. He felt as if the animal were probing him, evaluating. It could last for only an instant. Ahab's wings couldn't hold it against its growing momentum. Before that momentum carried it into the cliffs, the andril gave him another cry, not mournful at all but shrill, challenging. Then it folded the weak wing under its body and fell, plummeting to one side and out of the floodlight. His grandfather would have called the andril a kami. For an instant, Kei understood that sense of the mystical. He had been thinking about his present and the sign had come, overpowering and undeniable. His present was with the andrils. The suit had made Kei a very wealthy man. There were no servo gliders on Delta Raeli, but there was money to have one sent out on the next ship. It was three weeks before it arrived, and Kei went to Grant's Peak every day. And every day, among the group that came to fly the mountain winds and thermals, there was Ahab. Gradually Kei realized that the andrils often repeated the same complex sequence of manuevers again and again in the course of a day. Ahab was one of these. His sequence was long and complicated. It took him up, high above the peak, in a beautiful series of climbing rolls, then he dove past the platform doing rolls, loops and spins so complex Kei couldn't assign them names. The sequence ended very close to the ground as Ahab finally pulled out and glided away across the desert. Kei studied the sequence mercilessly. He taped it with Farnham's holocameras and watched it at night in the living room, over and over and over until he knew it as well as he knew his name. Farnham finally overcame his nervousness and asked him what he was doing. Kei spoke distractedly, not looking away from the hologram display. "I'm going to fly with them." The servo glider looked like a primitive aircraft from the beginnings of human flight, one of those absurd contraptions one saw collapsing in old black and white 2D tapes. But it would fly. Kei stood within the frame that held it above the observation platform and slipped his arms into the sleeves that stretched across the underside of the wings. The servo glider was a forest of cloth, tubing and wire around him. He slipped his fingers into the gloves and tested the control surfaces. The crowd applauded as the rudder pivoted and the serrated cloth wings moved slightly. Farnham came forward and strapped him into the safety harness, cinching it tight around his chest. He heard the whirring of the cameras behind him as one of Farnham's crews recorded the moment. Kei regretted the circus atmosphere, but hadn't been able to prevent it. Farnham had three crews ready - there on the platform, on the ground, and the third in a tracking helicopter. The newsnets had picked the story up, and the tourists flocked to Grant's Peak to see what was happening. Overhead, the andrils paid little attention, slowly circling high above the crowds as they always did. Kei looked up only once, to confirm that Ahab was there. Finally he was ready. The crowd was tired of the preparations and stood quietly, waiting to see him fly. Farnham's camera crews all checked in ready. Kei had been ready for a long time. The tumors had progressed during the three weeks he waited for the servo glider, and the medpack was beginning to lose ground in its struggle to save him. His body was visibly gaunt now, wasting away in a mad rush to oblivion. Lissa's parents, seeing him die before their eyes, were urging him to take D-sleep, but none of that mattered any more. He was ready to fly. Kei took one last look at the crowds gathered on the platform, nodded at Farnham, and flipped a switch. The bottles of compressed gas bolted to the frame opened, and, with a loud hiss, Kei was shot off the edge of the platform into open space. He gained altitude for a few seconds, propelled by the sheer force of the bottles. Then, as he was beginning to curve back down, he closed the bottles and unlocked the wings. Quickly he adjusted trim into a stable glide and drifted, exhilarated, across the desert far below. The weather was perfect for flying. It was cool, but not uncomfortably so, and the sky was cloudless, bright blue. A gentle wind blew over the mountains from the coast. With the bottles turned off, the only sounds were the wing fabric rippling in the air with a pleasant staccato sound, and the cries of the andrils above him. He pulled in one arm and the corresponding wingtip bent slightly inward, allowing the glider to gradually turn, spiraling slowly downward until he was facing the mountains again. He came smoothly out of the turn, gliding toward the cliffs, perhaps fifty feet below the platform. Perfect, he thought. Now to gain some altitude. Kei raised his arms, forcing the wings to tilt up over his head. Then, with all his strength, he forced them down. Sensor pads on the insides of the sleeves felt his motion, and the power-assist cut in. With a brief whine of servo- motors the wings flapped powering him ahead and up. He flapped again and again, laughing. He was flying by flapping his wings, the way the andrils did. Only Lissa had made him this happy. He stroked again and again and soon he was above the platform, coming into the circling group of andrils. They considered him as he appraoached. A few turned and flew away, but most stayed, greeting him with their calls. Ahab stayed, as Kei knew he would. As he came nearer Kei went into a slow, climbing loop, twisting through a quick roll at the top - the opening of Ahab's sequence. Immediately all the andrils except Ahab withdrew from the area and circled slowly in the thermals, watching. Ahab cried at him, then repeated the roll, signifying that he understood. Kei suspected that the andrils understood a great deal more than humans credited them with. Somehow Ahab had sensed something about him, had asked for his story. Now Kei was ready to give it to him. Kei was exultant as they went into the opening of the sequence together. They paralleled each other, rolling and gliding together, partners. The early stages of the sequence were slow, gradually gaining altitude until they were far above the peaks. As they continued to climb, Kei wondered if the andrils had their own version of the tale of Icarus, an andril who flew too high, extended himself too far, until the sun rebuked him and sent him crashing into earth. It didn't seem unreasonable but there was no way to be sure. He hoped Ahab would understand what he was trying to say. He followed the andril through a circle, as they finished climbing, then Ahab dipped downward. Kei stayed with him, slowly rolling to one side to increase his fall speed. Ahab started to pull up again, but Kei flapped his wings too quickly and hit the tail flaps until the servo glider stalled. It wasn't so easy to recover from setbacks. Sometimes they just followed one another too quickly. Ahab looped over him and down, ending up beside him as he pulled out of the stall. The andril looked at him, confused. He hadn't followed the sequence. Kei wondered how much of this Ahab was able to interpret. Ahab tried climbing again, but Kei glided gently downward, insistent. Finally, Ahab relented. It skipped several more climbing manuevers and dove toward the ground, picking up speed and twisting. Kei followed, joyously matching the andril through stunt after stunt. The sequence fit his meaning again. But that part of the sequence was soon over. Kei felt time vanishing to a point around him. They came out of a dive and Ahab sped ahead of him, turning to face him and carefully flying backwards. Kei was impressed. He hadn't realized that was possible. Ahab cried at him, then fell away when he could hold position no longer. Kei locked the wings in place and glided. He pulled one arm out of its sleeve and unfastened the safety harness. Ahab recovered and repeated the manuever, showing off in the rest that preceded the next part of the sequence. Ahab pulled in front of him and faced him a third time. Kei could almost see the animal smiling. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you. You showed me the way." He thought of a cherry blossom falling as he flipped open the bottles and let go of the frame. Ahab was ready to begin the next part of the sequence, and seemed confused when the servo glider shot away, arcing far out over the desert. Then it shrieked and dove. Kei closed his eyes. All of time was now. There was another shriek, very close, and then the andril slammed into him with stunning impact. He cried out in surprise as the andril's trailing stabilizers whipped painfully around him and held him against the creature's back. The two beings plummeted earthward like a rock, Ahab flapping its great wings desperately, spinning without the use of the stabilizers. Kei struggled instinctively to escape the tentacles until he realized what was happening and screamed "No!" into the rushing wind. Ahab had stopped the spin and leveled itself. It had extended and locked its wings the way it had off the balcony. But Kei knew it had no chance of maintaining flight. The andrils were barely light enough to fly to begin with. Even in the faint gravity, his body was inexorably bearing them both down toward the desert floor. He beat his fists against the andril's back, fleshy where the head met the body, and felt the tears being whipped from his eyes by the wind. "No! You can't hold me, I'm too heavy." he didn't know if he spoke the words or only thought them. Kei struggled, but the tentacles held him too tightly. He finally gave up and went limp against the andril's body crying "No," with a long, anguished sound, "Please, I'm too heavy. Don't do this. Not again." Their rate of fall was slower now, but they were still diving. Ahab had started flapping its wings again, moving quickly across the approaching sand. It couldn't slow its descent rate any more and was desperately trying to compensate with a shallow glide slope. But there was no chance. When the impact came, Kei screamed, feeling bones breaking. They tumbled as they hit, the stabilizers convulsing tight around him. And then he was still, lying on top of Ahab's shattered body. He saw several broken ends of hollow bones jutting through rips in the wings and body. He tried to roll off the body, knowing that Ahab couldn't have survived, but trying anyway. He screamed and froze again, transfixed by the agony of broken legs, ribs, and an arm. His blood mixed with Ahab's in the sand. He heard the sound of Farnham's helicopter coming for him. He was going to live. Ahab had saved him, and Kei saw just what the andril had given up for him, and what the extent of his debt had to be. He was in pain, but Ahab had died to give him that pain. Pain was life. Somehow, the medpack was still functioning. It beeped as it went through a reset cycle and started pumping painkillers into him. He savagely ripped the catheters out of his body, feeling a stab of agony from his broken arm. He refused to have his senses dulled now, no matter how much pain there was. His good hand couldn't stop gently stroking the flesh of the andril's wing beneath him, so soft and dusky smooth. -John Sullivan <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Untitled Allright, I told that Colonel fellow that we'd tell him what happened. Now, you gotta remember that we didn't know we were doing anything wrong. It's just that, see, we got real bored this summer and started fooling around. How were we to know what would happen? Ok, ok...I'll tell you how it all started. You see, me and Jimmy were never what you'd call popular. We sorta found each other and that was about all there was. Well, this summer we were sitting down in Jimmy's basement just fooling around. You know how it is, right? Well, we'd found this old bunch of magazines laying around. They had some pretty neat stories in them and some really wild drawings. The name of the magazines? I don't remember exactly. It was something about science. Anyway, like I said, there were some pretty neat stories in them. Stuff like people living on the moon and traveling in outer space. You know, stuff that just isn't real. So, what? Yeah, I'm getting to what happened. Just don't keep interrupting me so much. Like I was saying, we knew this stuff just wasn't real but we decided, what the heck, it made fun stuff to read. So, we read these magazines and then Jimmy decided to try out some of these experiments and build us a ray gun. What? Oh, the story had pictures in it showing where all the wires were supposed to go. We got the actual gun out of my little brother's toy box. You know, one of those dart guns that look like the real thing? Well, we opened that up and had plenty of room for all the stuff inside. The wires were easy to find. Jimmy had an old walkie-talkie that we stripped out. They weren't the right size, but shucks, who cared, right? Hey, don't shout at me! I said I'd tell you the truth and I'm doing it. I can't help it if you don't believe me. The crystal is from an old watch - you know, the face? That fit on pretty well and it sort of magnifies stuff too. So, we put the whole she-bang together and tried it out. What? Heck, no! We sure didn't know it would work like that! We figured it was just play, remember? I mean, this stuff isn't real! So, can I go home now? Oh, power..... we just used a battery out of Jimmy's toys. It didn't need much, just a little something. Anyway, we're real sorry that we blew up the Army's tank. We just wanted to play war with the soliders. -Lori Spier <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Worthy of the Title Despite the fact that Griswald was weary unto the very marrow of his old bones, he rose with the dawn to await the arrival of Lek Pyle, the merchant from Magnus, and two thugs--assassins--he promised to produce. It did not sit well with Griswald that he would be instrumental in the death of his lord, and of the lord's young cousin Luthias Connall, whom Griswald had healed twice yesterday. Of course, Griswald was more uncomfortable with the thought of his own death, which Pyle had been threatening for sometime now, than with the death of Luthias. That strange, rhythmic knock, which by now sickened Griswald, sounded at the door. Reluctantly, but quickly--it would not do to keep Lek Pyle waiting, murderer or no--Griswald opened the door. Pyle gave the physician the grin of a serpent and pushed past him into the physician's laboratory. Two lithe young men followed. They both carried crossbows. As they crossed to the center of the room, Griswald silently shut the door. "Well," Lek Pyle demanded immediately, but not loudly, "have you finished it, Griswald?" Griswald nodded. "It's done, and ready for you." He went to a cabinet with three complex locks on them. The physician took out a large ring of keys, and, one by one, he released the locks. He then opened the cabinet. In it were various dark bottles, all marked with skulls. The physician chose one, withdrew it, and locked the cupboard. Griswald handed the bottle to Pyle. "Immediate, as you asked," reported Griswald laconically, staring stonily at the merchant's beady eyes. "On contact?" asked the merchant. "Not quite," Griswald explained. "Put into a wound or an opening, it means instant death. On healthy skin, it is ineffective. You said you would be using crossbows...." Pyle smiled again. "Yes. These two gentlemen--" he indicated the young men, "will attend the ball with me tonight. At the precise moment, they will fire upon Lord Dargon and his cousin Luthias of Connall, and then we will finally have an end to this matter. Did you get the seating plans for the banquet tonight, Griswald?" Gravely, Griswald nodded. Out of a pocket, he took a grimy paper. Opening, he pointed to the diagram. "Lord Dargon is to sit at the head of the table, between his two cousins. Roisart will be on his left--your right, gentlemen. He will be the one seated next to me, and he is to be left alone. The one seated between Dargon and the Bichurian noble is your target. You, gentlemen, will be hidden outside of these windows." Griswald moved his finger to the symbols of the said structures. "I will open them if they remain closed." "Very good," Pyle slithered in appreciation. "You have done well, Griswald, after all." Griswald did not trust the merchant's smile. "I will see to it, when I convince the King of Baranur to war with Bichu, that you are well rewarded. Now," he continued, "these gentlemen need only put some of this poison on their crossbow bolts?" "Exactly," Griswald confirmed. "The shot need not be exact. All it need do is break the skin, and the..." Griswald struggled to find a proper word. "The Lord of Dargon and Luthias Connall will die." At sunset that night, in the great ivory ballroom of Dargon Keep, the musicians tuned their instruments and began to play a ditty for the nobles of the duchy of Dargon. The night was warm, and Dargon instructed the guards (and there were many on hand that night) to open the windows. The Lord of Dargon himself stood near the door of the ballroom, with Roisart, Luthias, and Michiya by his side. Few guests had arrived as yet, and those few, after greeting the Lord and his cousins, were mingling. Roisart enjoyed the momentarily lull. It wasn't often he got to stand in the great ivory ballroom, built by his and Dargon's grandfather. It was a colossal enclosure, actually coated with rare ivory, and decorated with whimsical stained glass windows. There were twelve windows in the room, all exquisitely beautiful. Now, Roisart stared at his favorite. It was a gorgeous piece of art, and nothing, not even the two guards standing to either side of it, could detract from its beauty. In it, a exquisite red-haired woman, clad in a sea-blue gown, stood before a mirror, in which was reflected a handsome, dark-haired man. It was from a legend, an ancient and romantic one, that had been a favorite fairy tale with Roisart ever since he was a boy. He had often longed for a woman like her... And tonight, there were plenty of beautiful young ladies to adorn the ballroom. And Roisart and his brother were heirs to Connall and Dargon, making them two of the three most eligible men in the township (their cousin, the Lord of Dargon himself, was the third). Roisart smiled to himself as he looked forward to a night of dancing and conversing. Luthias was not as pleased. He was not as comfortable as his brother in the ballroom. Often, his brother, his father, and his cousin were the only people around whom he was not tongue-knotted. And he felt out of place tonight; although he and Roisart had put on white blouses for the evening's ball, they still wore the mourning blue in their trousers, and on bands on their arms. It made Luthias feel out of place, like a ugly, dying weed in a rose garden. Dargon was greeting a group of merchants from Magnus. "Lord Ittosai," Dargon said to his guest, "this is Lek Pyle, a merchant who often travels to your country. Merchant Pyle, this is Lord Ittosai Michiya." Pyle, master of facial disguises, smiled pleasantly. "An honor, my lord," he said, although it was unclear at which lord he was speaking. "These are my sons," he introduced two graceful swains behind him. "Welcome to Dargon," Clifton said formally. "Pray enjoy yourselves in my house." "I thank you," said Pyle, and he and his "sons" moved away. Dargon began greeting the next people, introducing those who were unacquainted to his cousins, who nodded, and to Michiya, who bowed in the manner of his country. Luthias and Roisart did, however, bow to the matrons, and bring the hands of the young ladies to their cheeks politely. Many of the young girls fussed over the twins and their cousin, which Roisart viewed as a great compliment. Luthias' attitude was more realistic. He knew that the women only wished to be attached to the name of Dargon and Connall, not to Luthias, or Roisart, or Clifton. "Ah, Roisart, Luthias," Dargon was saying, "this is Lord Shipbrook, his lady Amada, and their son, Master Tylane." The twins nodded to the lord, bowed to his wife, and shook hands with their son, a contemporary. "Enjoy my hospitality," Dargon invited, and the people moved on. "Good evening, Lord Coranabo, my lady Coranabo. Lord Ittosai, I present the Lord Edward Coranabo, his lady Melrinna, and their daughters, Misses Danza and Kellina. My lord, my lady, young ladies, I believe you already are acquainted with my noble cousins, Roisart and Luthias Connall." "My lord, my lord!" came a call behind them. Dargon and his companions turned. Before them stood a breathless man, dressed in slightly outdated formal wear, and bearing dust in his hair. Dargon smiled congenially, and actually, Roisart thought, he looked rather pleased. The new arrival leaned toward his lord. "I am glad that you have finally decided to join us, Chronicler," the Lord of Dargon admitted. "Do you know--" The Chronicler leaned backwards, as if he were about to recite something stiffly. "My lord, I must speak with you privately." Dargon raised his eye brows. The Chronicler leaned forward. "I am afraid that is impossible, Chronicler. You know the demands of society as well as I." The Chronicler scowled at the very thought. "Leave your studies and enjoy yourself." The Chronicler scowled again. "Have you met my special guests tonight? These are my cousins, Roisart and Luthias, the sons of the late Baron of Connall. And this is Lord Ittosai Michiya, a noble of Bichu." Taken aback, the Chronicler gasped, and then bowed to the Bichurian noble. "Konban wa," the Chronicler pronounced. More surprised than the Chronicler, Ittosai bowed in return and repeated the greeting. "Ogenki desu ka?" asked the Chronicler. Roisart recognized the language, and some of the words from his readings. He cursed himself for not trying to speak the language with Ittosai beforehand. "Hai, anata wa?" answered the Bichurian. "Hai, okagesama de," replied the Chronicler. The Bichanese noble was smiling brightly. In the local tongue, Michiya breathed in appreciative surprise, "I did not know that anyone here spoke my language." "I have studied your poets, my lord," the Chronicler answered proudly. The Chronicler then announced to the noble twins and Ittosai Michiya alike, "My lords, I am Rish Vogel, Chronicler to the Lord of Dargon." "A Chronicler?" Roisart asked with interest. "What do you do for my cousin, Chronicler?" "Research, m' young lord." answered Rish Vogel good naturedly. "What do you research?" Luthias wanted to know seriously. "The truth," the Chronicler answered with light jesting. He reached forward and actually pinched Luthias' cheek. "Is that not what we all seek in our own way?" The musicians abruptly changed tempo. "Ah, a dance I know!" Vogel exclaimed. "Excuse me, my lords, but if I must suffer through this, I might as well show off what little knowledge I have of these arts." Luthias wore a tight, angry expression, but he waited until the Chronicler was far out of range before he growled wrathfully, "If he ever pinches my cheek again, I'll kill him!" Ittosai chuckled; Clifton and Roisart nearly split with laughter. Roisart quieted and stared at the slightly dusty Chronicler, who was capering with a lively lady on the dance floor. "Don't you think you should find out what he wanted, Clifton? He seemed quite excited about something. It might be important." The Lord of Dargon shook his head. "No, Roisart. Knowing what he is investigating, he's only probably found the middle name of our great-great-great aunt." Luthias and his brother exchanged confused looks. "He's doing genealogical research," Dargon explained. Clifton looked out the door at the setting sun. "It's near time for me to begin the celebration officially," he mused. He turned to Ittosai and his cousins. "Accompany me, my lords," he invited formally. "The guests will be announced by herald from now on, and there's no need for us to be standing by the door when we should be dancing." "I do not know any of your dances," Michiya protested. "We'll teach you," Luthias promised mischievously. "He better be in one piece afterwards!" warned Dargon. "Don't worry, Clifton. I'll keep Luthias on a leash," Roisart volunteered with a smile. "You can try," Luthias challenged his brother with easy humor. "Behave, you two," the exasperated Lord of Dargon ordered. He and his cousins and Ittosai Michiya waded through the guests to the dais. There, Dargon nodded to the herald. "My lords and my ladies," the herald cried importantly. "His noble grace, the Lord Duke of Dargon. Lord Roisart Connall and Lord Luthias Connall. Lord Ittosai Michiya of Bichu." The four lords stepped onto the dais as the company present bowed formally. Dargon acknowledged their tribute with a sincere, lordly nod. "My lords and ladies," said Clifton Dargon, "let the celebration begin." Quickly, he got off the dais, and just as quickly, his cousins and Ittosai followed. "I do not like being looked at by so many eyes," complained the Bichurian, almost sheepishly. "It is like being a..." "Target," Luthias supplied crisply. "That wasn't wise, getting up there," Roisart added. "We were perfect shots, Clifton." "I've got guards on top of guards here," Clifton repeated for the forty-eighth time. "I've got guards on the floor. I've got guards at the windows. I have guards outside the windows, and by all the doors. You know all this, Roisart. You're beginning to worry as much as Luthias." Roisart smiled. "Never, Clifton." Roisart turned to Ittosai. "We'll have to find a dancing partner for you, Michiya-san. You need to dance. Now Luthias, of course, will not dance." "I may," Luthias conceded in the tone of a threat. Roisart laughed. "We'll see." He took Michiya off to the side. Clifton nodded at Luthias, a signal to be sociable and mingle about, and the Lord of Dargon glided around the room to some of the older people, who sat in chairs under the stained glass windows. Luthias was just about to find one of those chairs for himself. No sense in standing around looking foolish. Then he heard the herald announce the Winthrop family. Baron Winthrop was an old friend of Luthias and Roisart's father, and the twins had been playmates of the Winthrops' daughter, Pecora. Luthias decided to go greet the Winthrops and ask Pecora for a dance, even though dancing was not his favorite activity. To his surprise, Luthias found his brother with the Winthrops. Old man Winthrop smiled at Luthias' arrival. "Never could keep you two far apart, eh?" said the old Baron, and he chuckled loudly at his own joke. "Sorry about your father, Roisart--or are you Luthias? Never could keep you two boys straight..." Roisart exchanged a conspiratorial, mildly annoyed, mildly amused look with his brother, then they returned to the conversation. "Thank you, Baron," Roisart replied formally. "Well, it isn't the time or place for sorrowing," Winthrop asserted. "Come along, Marcellon, let these young ones to themselves. I'll introduce you to the young Lord of Dargon." A stately man dressed in red nodded to the twins gravely and followed Baron Winthrop away. The Baroness followed, after the twins bowed politely to her, leaving Pecora and another young lady, of blue-green eyes and sable hair, alone with the twins. Roisart then lifted Pecora's hand and placed it gently next to his cheek. As Luthias touched Pecora's hand to his cheek, Roisart lifted the hand of the other young lady, who stood behind Pecora. "Forgive me, my lady," Roisart apologized. "I am Roisart Connall." "Forgive my rudeness," Pecora apologized, blushing profoundly. Luthias, who still held her hand, squeezed it lightly. Poor Pecora, he thought. She's still having a hard time of it. Pecora's face lightened, and she indicated the beautiful young woman next to her. Roisart's eyes were shining as she introduced, "This is my cousin, Lady Lauren Equiville. Lauren, these are the twin sons of the late Baron of Connall, Lord Roisart," Pecora indicated the correct twin, "and Lord Luthias." "Good evening," Lady Lauren greeted the twins pleasantly. "I am happy to meet you, my lords." Realizing that Lauren was perhaps a little older than his accepted age group, Luthias bowed. He felt a little wary; there was that light in Roisart's eyes again. Roisart simply smiled at the ravishing lady and asked, "My lady Lauren, would you like to dance?" "Certainly," Lauren accepted, with an enchanting smile. And the two gracefully stepped away. "She's beautiful, isn't she?" Pecora asked Luthias as they watched Lauren and Roisart dance. Luthias agreed wholeheartedly, but gravely. He had certainly seen the beauty, and felt it. "She won't hurt Roisart, I know," Pecora assured him, seeing the concern in his face. "She...isn't like that. Besides, she's five and twenty, Luthias. Roisart is too young for her." Luthias whirled toward Pecora. "Dance with me, Pecora." Smiling a smile that seemed veiled, Pecora took Luthias' hand, and he guided her, in time to the music, onto the dance floor. Luthias gazed into her eyes, and she looked at their shoes. "You still haven't heard anything," Luthias surmised. Pecora gave a little, shamed nod. "I'm sorry, Pecora." He gripped her waist a little more tightly. "I can't image what Kite--" "Please," choked Pecora. "You should have loved Roisart instead," Luthias chided in gentle tones. "Roisart loves once a week," Pecora announced bluntly. More often than that, Luthias thought. But he said, "But no one has ever returned his love." Pecora swallowed a bulk of tears. Luthias held her tighter. "I'm so sorry, Pecora." "Do you know, the last time I danced, Luthias, the last time I danced, I danced with Kite, here on this floor--" Her voice broke, and a little sob escaped. A tear trickled onto her dark lips. "Let's take a walk in the garden, Pecora," Luthias whispered gently. "Let's go away from all these eyes, and you can cry all you wish." Without waiting for her consent, Luthias led her from the room. Across the floor, Lauren watched the departure of her cousin. "Have you known Pecora long?" she asked the admiring Roisart. Roisart grinned like an open sunflower. "Why yes, my lady," he answered cheerfully, gracefully leading his partner. "Since Luthias and Pecora and I were small children." He glanced again at the departing couple. "I never knew that Luthias had any particular--" "It isn't that," Lauren interrupted with the voice of the spring breezes. "Do you know what would make my cousin cry at a ball?" "She's still not over Kite," mused Roisart, confused and almost hurt. "I tell you, my lady, Pecora is like a sister to Luthias and me. When Kite Talador disappeared and left Pecora, we knew how much she was hurt. If Kite isn't dead and ever returns, Luthias would kill him on sight. As for myself, I only wish I could understand why he didn't come back." "She wouldn't confide in me," Lauren confessed. "I would have told her that he won't be returning. And she loves him." A wistful look crossed Lauren's blue-green eyes. "It is a beautiful thing to be loved." "You are a beautiful woman worthy of love, my lady," Roisart returned in a courtly manner. Lauren restrained her laughter and smiled sweetly. Then they danced past a window. Roisart began to explain the legend to Lauren, but she knew it better than he did, to his surprise. Clifton, Lord Duke of Dargon, surveyed the ballroom with satisfaction. It was a beautiful night. The breezes were caressing the keep with the perfume of the sea, and the dancers pranced with the grace of gods. The music was lulling and festive at once. The talk was cheerful, animated. The odd ballroom that his grandfather had fashioned seemed beautiful and contented, like a satisfied lioness. And everyone was enjoying himself; even Rish Vogel and Ittosai Michiya were dancing. Only the guards detracted from the festivity. And they were necessary, Dargon reminded himself. "Clifton!" he heard one of the twins cry. The Lord of Dargon turned, and Roisart and a lady, the most beautiful and completely captivating woman he had ever seen, stood before him. "Clifton," said Roisart again, "let me present you to the Lady Lauren, lately of Magnus. She's a cousin of the Winthrops'. My lady, my noble cousin, Clifton, Lord Duke of Dargon." Clifton's brown eyes met the lady's. Dargon took her hand and bowed low. He pressed her hand to his cheek. "My lady," greeted the Lord of Dargon amicably. "How do you do?" He rose, and smiled at the lady with quiet pleasantness. "My lord," she greeted. She returned the smile and dropped a curtsy. "I have to go find Luthias, Clifton," Roisart explained, "and I didn't want to abandon the lady..." Lauren smiled, laughter in her eyes at the fact that Roisart apparently considered her too fragile to leave alone. Clifton shared the mirth, but, like the lady, kept his silence. "It's all right, Roisart," the Lord of Dargon announced, nodding to his cousin. "Go find your brother." Leaning closer to his cousin, Dargon hissed, "And get him in here, before he's killed!" Roisart nodded gravely and, trying not to appear as if he were in a hurry, made his way out of the room. Lord Dargon turned to the Lady Lauren. "You are from Magnus, my lady?" the Lord inquired politely. Dargon politely offered the lady a chair, and she sat. Gracefully, Dargon seated himself beside her. Lauren nodded. "Yes, my lord," she answered politely. "Do you know the city?" Dargon nodded. "A little, my lady. I went to the university there for a year." The lady gave Dargon a look of admiration. "Why, my lord," she noted, appreciative, "you must be near a genius. It took me four years to complete the program--" She stopped, as if an inspiration overtook her. "Oh, no. I beg your pardon, my lord," she apologized. She looked mortified and quite contrite, but she did not, Clifton noted, blush at her error. "I should have realized why you were only in Magnus a year." Dargon smiled crookedly and laughed a moment to put her at ease. "My lady Lauren, how are you to know what brought me home?" "I..." Lauren lowered her eyes, then looked Dargon in the face again. "I sometimes just know things, my lord. Not always, and not always important things. But sometimes I just know. And," she continued, "if that were not enough, the young age at which you are Duke and my common sense should have been enough to make me realize what must have happened, that it was your father's death and not your wits which brought you early home. Pray forgive me, your grace." "It's quite all right, my lady," Dargon assured her earnestly, then he laughed. "Roisart will love you. He rejoices in the unusual." "He's a good lad," Lauren praised him. "He will like my father." The musicians started a new tune. Without realizing it, Dargon began to tap his foot to the beat. The night was getting better and better; it was refreshing to speak to someone, besides his own family, who, undaunted by his title, was completely capable of holding a coherent conversation with him, instead of pleasantries. Lord Dargon stood. Lady Lauren gazed up at the majestic, young lord inquiringly. "Will you dance, my lady?" the Lord of Dargon invited congenially, offering Lauren his arm. She took it with another smile, and allowed herself to be led away. Lauren was a gay partner, and a lively and graceful one. Clifton was no great dancer, but his movements were strong and sure. For once in his life, Clifton found himself truly enjoying dancing. "To what do I owe your visit to our city, Madam?" Dargon asked the lady as they danced. Lauren's smile froze momentarily. She hesitated a fraction of a moment before she spoke. "My father wished to visit his brother, Lord Winthrop," she answered. Abruptly, she stated, "I'm afraid your young cousin has fallen in love with me." Dargon grinned. "Oh, that's all right, my lady. Roisart falls in loves every few days. He'll treat you normally by early next week." Lauren stared at the lord, unsure whether to laugh or be appalled. "He's only a boy, my lady. And if he doesn't leave off the infatuation, Luthias will straighten him out, surely." Dargon opened his mouth again to inquire why she and her father were in the city, but remembering her earlier reaction, shut it. Observing the lord's behavior, Lauren asked, "My lord, am I making you uncomfortable?" "Not at all," Dargon answered enthusiastically. "What did you study in the university?" Lauren asked. "Government." "What did you think of Fernusius Cai's philosophy of laws?" Lauren asked, quite seriously. Dargon stared a moment, but gave her a thoughtful and well considered answer. Lauren listened attentively, then gave her own opinion. Dargon had never expected Fernusias Cai's philosophy to reach him in the ivory ballroom, but he discussed it with Lauren, whose intelligence and wisdom regarding the work (and philosophy in general) impressed him, as they danced past the open windows. Roisart had gone out into the garden to find Luthias and Pecora. He understood why Luthias had taken her out of the ballroom, but it wasn't safe outside, even with all the guards. After an unsuccessful tour of the shrubbery, Roisart met his brother as he came in from the garden, alone. "Where's Pecora?" Roisart asked. Luthias seemed large and ominous. "I sent her home. I would go with her, but Clifton..." Roisart's mouth was tight, and he was as concerned as his brother was angry. "She's still--" Luthias nodded with the sharp grimness of death. "The lady--her cousin Lauren--says Kite isn't coming back." "I tell you what, Roisart," Luthias began fiercely. "You can have the barony, and I'll go hunt him down." Roisart smiled at the suggestion. "I'm serious, twin," Luthias revealed, gravely looking at his brother. "One of us must be baron, and it should be you." "But, Luthias, you're a better leader!" Luthias shrugged. "Yes, but you're better at running things. You don't overlook details. And when you need a man of action, Roisart, I'll be there. You know I would never leave you." "I know," Roisart replied, "but..." "One of us must be baron," Luthias repeated. "We can't leave the barony like this, Roisart. And we can't both be baron." "I know," Roisart sighed. "But I don't feel that I would be the best baron..." "How can we tell beforehand who would be?" "Corambis said it would be settled by a matter of valor." "Even decision takes courage, my brother," Luthias reminded him with a smile. "It's valor to take the responsibility of the barony, as well." Roisart sighed deeply. "You really feel I should be baron?" he asked finally. "Despite all the lessons Father gave us, I still don't know how to be a lord, Luthias." "So, we'll learn on our own," Luthias assured him with strength. Roisart looked doubtful. "I mean it, Roi," Luthias persisted, employing the nickname he hadn't used since boyhood. "Really. I can't be baron, and you know it. I would always want to go and do something, not stay here and plan budgets and run the estate. Right now I want to go off and kill Kite Talador. What if there were a war, Roi? Your first thought would be to fortify Connall and Dargon. Me? I would go off and try to destroy the bastards. No, Roi. Roisart, my brother, you belong in the barony, more than I do, more than I ever did." Roisart looked his brother in the eyes, the mirrors of his own. "Are you sure about this, Luthias?" Luthias nodded. "You could be giving up your birthright." Luthias shrugged. "I never wanted to be baron," Luthias said. He smiled. "And if I am giving up my birthright--which isn't certain in any case--who better to give it to than you, twin?" Roisart smiled. "All right, Luthias," he conceded, "but only if you're absolutely certain--" "Believe me, twin, I am," Luthias told his brother. Then Luthias wondered suddenly, "How does Lady Lauren know that Kite won't return?" Roisart shrugged. "I gather that her father--Marcellon, the man in the red robes, whom we saw with Lord Winthrop--is a mage of some sort." Roisart smiled. "I'll have to talk to him at dinner." "Oh, no," Luthias reminded him with a smile. "You have to sit at the head of the table, with Clifton and me." Roisart made a discontented face. "Don't worry, twin. Ittosai Michiya and Rish Vogel will be sitting near us." Roisart grinned. "Oh, and Griswald, too, I'm told." "Don't know what's gotten into him lately," Roisart said, shaking his head. "I don't think I'll like sitting with him." "I wonder if it's practical that we'll all be sitting together," Luthias replied. "We're all targets--" "Do you know that we'll be straight across from some of the windows?" Roisart added. "Perfect shots, for all the guards Clifton's assigned to them." "Well, there are guards by the window and outside them, Roisart. Still, I agree. They're setting up the table now," Luthias noted. "Let's see if we can get the position changed." After tussling with the servants, who were reluctant to allow the sons of the Baron of Connall to help them, the twins sat down to their meal. The table, and the seating arrangements, were unchanged, despite the twins' efforts. Clifton sat in the middle at the head of the table, Roisart on Dargon's left, and Luthias on his right. Griswald sat around the table corner at Roisart's left elbow; by the corner on Luthias' right were seated Michiya and Rish Vogel, the Chronicler, who were chatting gaily in Bichanese. Seated where they were, the twins found the conversation during the supper unexciting mostly, and at times, quite boring. Roisart wished that he could sit next to the Lord Marcellon and the Lady Lauren. Luthias wished he had gone home with Pecora. Clifton Dargon said little to the twins. However, at frequent intervals, guests would approach the Lord of Dargon and speak with him. Then the brothers did their best to be polite. Winthrop joked and punched Luthias on the back (which was fine, so long as no one ever pinched his cheek again). Two young men, the sons of some merchant, took their leave. Lord Coranabo came forth to praise the peacekeeping during the festival. Roisart found himself quite bored and began studying the window directly opposite his seat: a detail of a maiden knight defeating six other knights. He wished that the guards weren't on either side of it; they were distracting him, pulling his gaze toward the open stained-glass panel, instead of the stained-glass picture above it. Finally, the dishes were cleared away, and goblets of wine and trays of pastries delivered unto the tables. No one touched the food or drink, though. Dargon stood. Roisart let his shoulders droop. Time for the Spring Welcome Speech And Toast, Roisart groaned internally. Bored a priori, he continued to study the window. Clifton stood regally and began to speak in a loud, dignified voice. In Roisart's ears, the words were garbled sounds. He lost himself in the magic of the window, in the legend of the fierce, gentle maiden-knight, who defeats all in her search for love and for justice. Roisart gazed worshipfully at the window. The legend seemed to come alive; it seemed that one of the six cowardly knights moved. Roisart blinked. He *had* seen something move, down below, by the open panel. Clifton continued speaking. Was it the guards? Roisart squinted at the window. Yes, something was there. Two men. Must be the guards. Roisart found them hard to see. Then they can't be the guards, Roisart realized. He couldn't see their armor glittering. What were they doing behind the window? And where were the guards who were supposed to be there? Clifton was still speaking, and reaching for his goblet. It was almost time for the Toast to Spring, made yearly at this ball by the Lord of Dargon since time immemorial. Roisart edged forward on his seat. He could still see them--whoever they were--moving by the open part of the window, leaning on it seemingly. The Lord of Dargon began his introduction to the toast. Crossbows! They were leaning crossbows on the window sill! Clifton raised his glass. Don't those guards hear anything? They're putting crossbows-- Crossbows! What are they doing with-- No time! Luthias! Clifton! Roisart rose like a shot, tumbling his chair. With the strength of a boar, he charged his cousin's side. Dargon fell onto Luthias' lap. Luthias' chair collapsed, bringing Dargon and Luthias to the floor with it. Red wine splattered onto Roisart's white shirt, but he remained standing. Or was it the wine? Luthias, Michiya, and Rish Vogel, who still remained in a position to see, perceived two black bolts protruding from Roisart, one in the chest, the other in the side. Someone screamed. Slowly, it seemed, Roisart, son of Fionn Connall, fell. Luthias impatiently pushed Dargon off of him. "Roisart!" he cried. He somehow felt the wounding arrows had pierced him too. Dargon leapt to his feet. "Guards! The garden! Outside of the knights' window!" To a sergeant: "Get the guests to the blue ballroom, and hold them there. No one is to enter or leave without my command!" To Griswald, he imperiously said, "Attend my cousin!" Rish Vogel had retrieved a quill from who knows where and had begun writing in wine on his napkin. Michiya had joined Luthias, who was cradling Roisart on his lap. Griswald scuttled over. The old physician sadly shook his head. The guards were escorting the guests from the ivory ballroom. Dargon knelt beside his cousins. "Griswald?" asked the Lord of Dargon softly. He put a hand on Luthias' shoulder. The old physician looked into the eyes of his lord. Again, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, my lord. He's dead." "You haven't even checked him!" Luthias screamed. Griswald's weary eyes focused on Luthias' angry, desperate ones. "I'm sorry, my lord. The bolts were poisoned." "How do you know?" Luthias returned, his voice shrill and frantic. A sextet of guards arrived in the Lord of Dargon's presence. To the floor they threw two young men, dressed as merchants. Dargon rose, a tower of just fury. Luthias stared at his brother's murderers in white rage. Ittosai Michiya put a stern, staying hand on Luthias' shoulder. Luthias shook for a moment, then turned back to his breathless twin and closed his brother's startled, brown eyes. The sergeant of the guards threw a pair of black crossbows onto the ivory floor. They clattered insanely. The sergeant spoke. "They weren't far from the window, lordship. They still had the bows." "Where were the guards posted to the outside of that window?" Dargon demanded. "Dead, my lord," the sergeant reported. "Knifed in the neck. Very quiet, lordship. They're professionals, all right." "And you said that they still had these bows?" "Aye, lordship." Grim with judgment, Dargon leaned over the body of his cousin. "I'm sorry, Luthias," he whispered to the sorrowing twin. Clifton reached over his living cousin and wrenched a bolt out of Roisart's still body. Luthias cried out, as if Clifton had pulled a painful arrow from his own side. Then Dargon turned back to the guards and the wielders of the crossbows. Dargon held out a hand. A guard quickly supplied him with one of the weapons. Dargon fitted the bolt into the bow. "Lord Ittosai," he called. Michiya turned from Luthias and bowed. "Wou ld you say that this bolt fits?" Ittosai Michiya gazed at the displayed weapon. "Yes, my lord." "Luthias!" Luthias looked up, resentment in his eyes. Dargon held out the crossbow. "Tell me if this bolt fits this crossbow." Luthias stared for a moment with stubborn hardness, then his innate practicality returned. He inspected the weapon, his brother's head yet in his lap. "Yes, Clifton," he answered. "It fits perfectly." The Lord of Dargon handed the weapon to a guard. "Keep it well. It will be needed in the trial." Then Dargon turned to the assassins. "It is evident that you are guilty of the murder of Lord Roisart Connall. You will be tried before the tribunal tomorrow." The Lord of Dargon paused. "Tell me now who hired you." The assassins exchanged uncertain glances. "Tell me!" roared Dargon. A heavy, sad voice informed the Lord of Dargon, "I can tell you, my lord." Dargon twisted to see his physician, who looked suddenly old, very old. "I can tell you who hired these men, and who is responsible for Lord Fionn Connall's death, and your young cousin's." "How do you know he's dead?" Luthias demanded. "You have not--" "Quiet, Luthias," Dargon ordered gently, but with the swiftness and sternness of authority. "Come here, Griswald," the Lord of Dargon ordered. Timorously, the old doctor stepped forward. "Now, tell me." "There is a merchant," Griswald began slowly. "His name is Lek Pyle. He and some other merchants wished to start a war with Bichu--for their own profit--, and Pyle himself believed that he could convince the King, if only you were eliminated, my lord, because you also have the ear of the King." Dargon nodded. In matters of commerce and foreign relations, Clifton had often advised the King, and the advice, being sound, was often taken. "He hired these two men--" "To kill Lord Roisart?" prompted the Lord of Dargon. Griswald shook his gray head. "No, my lord. To kill you, and Lord Luthias. Pyle had chosen young Lord Roisart to become the next Baron of Connall and Duke of Dargon." Dargon appeared perplexed. "Why did he prefer Roisart to Luthias? Luthias, of the two, was more proficient in war--" "He considered Lord Roisart easier to trick," Griswald explained. "He planned to manufacture small details--which Lord Luthias would ignore, but Lord Roisart would insist on knowing--details which would trick Lord Roisart into believing that Bichu was preparing to attack us." Ittosai Michiya spat a fierce Bichanese curse. "Lord Roisart was instrumental to his plans, my lord," Griswald continued. "He meant to kill you and Lord Luthias, but he wished Lord Roisart to remain alive." The physician turned then to Luthias. "My lord, your brother is dead. This I know. The poison on those bolts is instantaneous. I know, because Pyle forced me to mix it." With an almost animal cry, Luthias sprang to his feet and rushed toward the old physician. Ittosai Michiya deftly intercepted him and held him back with a seemingly effortless display of force. Dargon, too, wished to erupt but managed to hold his anger in check for the time being. "You did what?" the Lord of Dargon asked deliberately. "Kindly explain your actions, sir." "Lek Pyle has been threatening my life, my lord," Griswald began. "I have no other excuse than this. He has used me to spy on you, just as he used Manus to keep track of the Baron of Connall and his sons. He forced me to mix the poison which killed your cousin. He forced Manus to give your father's horse a drug to make it violent." "Manus?" cried Luthias, appalled. That was the man he had made Regent of Connall! Griswald nodded soberly. "Yes," he answered ruefully. "He seems to prey upon us healers." Dargon was thinking swiftly. "Lek Pyle...that man is here!" Again, Griswald nodded. Dargon nodded to a guard. "Go to the blue ballroom and fetch Lek Pyle. Bring him here." The Lord of Dargon returned to his physician. "I don't know what to do with you, Griswald. You shall have to be tried before the tribunal--and Manus, too. Until then, you shall be confined to your rooms." "Confined!" Luthias protested. "But Clifton, his poison killed Roisart!" "Yes, but I can't blame him for trying to save his own life," Clifton returned, sighing. "I'll send a squadron to your keep as soon as possible to bring Manus into custody. And when Pyle comes in here, Luthias," the Lord continued in an imperious tone, "you had best be calm." Luthias' face became tight a moment, but he said nothing. He turned back to his twin's corpse. Two heavy-set guards entered, dragging a protesting Lek Pyle with him. "I must protest this treatment, Lord Dargon," he cried upon sight of Clifton. "I am--" "A murderer," Griswald finished for him. "This is the man, then?" Dargon inquired. Griswald nodded. The two assassins exchanged glances, but said nothing. That lack of denial was enough for the Duke of Dargon. Dargon seemed suddenly pale. "Throw him," he said slowly, "into the dungeon's darkest cell. Now." The guards pulled him away. "But I have done nothing!" cried Pyle. "Liar," muttered Griswald. "What about these two, my lord?" asked the sergeant. "Dungeon," Dargon ordered laconically. "Escort the physician to his rooms, and set a guard upon him. Then send a squadron of men to Connall to arrest Manus the Healer." The sergeant saluted, barked orders to his subordinates, and soon, they left. Dargon bellowed for another guard. "Have a servant sent for the priests. My cousin's body must be prepared." "What about the guests, lordship?" asked the soldier. The Lord of Dargon considered. "I shall speak to them myself, presently." The soldier saluted and went off. Dargon turned back to the table. The room looked so empty now...only Luthias, lifting Roisart's dead body; Michiya, helping him; and Rish Vogel, writing in wine, chronicling the entire incident. Clifton approached his cousin gently and put his hand on his arm. Luthias looked at him, grief in his eyes. "Are you going to be all right, Luthias?" Dargon's cousin nodded. "Lord Michiya, please stay with him. I have to address our guests." Dargon frowned, shook his head. "There will be no more dancing on this night." Slowly, the Lord of Dargon turned away and left the ballroom. Rish Vogel rose from his seat, tucked the napkin into his pocket, and followed the Duke. Passing Luthias, he mumbled something about making the chronicle of the incident complete. Ittosai Michiya watched the Lord of Dargon leave, and then he turned compassionate eyes toward the young lord Luthias. "Do you need my help, my friend?" asked the Bichurian. Luthias shook his head. "No, I'm all right," he asserted softly. He looked down at the dead face of his brother cradled on the crook of his arm. "I'm sorry, Roi," he mumbled. "It seems our decision has been made for us." Michiya gave Luthias a look of confusion. "What do you mean, Luthias-san? I do not understand." Luthias gave him a bitter smile flavored with an almost humorous irony. "Don't you know, Michiya? I am now the Lord Baron of Connall." And it was little comfort, for Luthias knew now, for certain, that his brother had been more worthy of the title. -M. Wendy Hennequin <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

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