VOLUME ELEVEN NUMBER THREE FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT

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+-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME ELEVEN NUMBER THREE | | ========================================== +___________+ 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 Ex-X-Editorial 'Orny' Liscomb History of FSFnet 'Orny' Liscomb *A Visit to Connall M. Wendy Hennequin *A Bride for Dargon Wendy and Orny Date: 082888 Dist: 685 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<> Ex-X-Editorial Well, we all knew it was coming, and here it is: the last issue of FSFnet. But before I get sentimental, I do want to remind everyone that John White will begin putting out the new Dargon Project magazine real soon. I know that he already has some submissions, and everyone who is currently subscribed to FSFnet will automatically be subscribed to the new magazine. I hope that everyone offers John the same support I've received in putting out FSFnet. I promise that I won't say "this is not an ending, but a beginning", because it is really neither. It is a continuation, and hopefully a change for the better. And since there is no further mundane business, the reminder of this editorial will be the business of ending the magazine. I've included in this issue a history of FSFnet, which (at least in *my* mind) doesn't qualify as 'a work of fantasy', but I felt there might be some interest in it (and there were no other submissions forthcoming). Still, I think it fitting that this issue contains the first true co-written Dargon work, and I must say that I've enjoyed working with Wendy on it. I hope you enjoy it. And now for the thank-yous. After four years of publication, I really cannot thank everyone involved enough for everything that has been done to keep FSFnet afloat. However, rather than fill an entire issue with my personal thanks, I will keep this brief, but heartfelt. Firstly, of course, I must thank you, the readership, because without your interest and support we would never have gotten off the ground in the first place. As I wrote at the conclusion of the initial 'issue': This is your fanzine, more than it is mine. It is up to you to keep it going. I have merely brought you together. Now it is your turn. Well, with a direct readership of nearly 700, I'd say you've kept it going. Special thanks and kudos go to everyone who has contributed to the magazine, whether their contribution was a story or merely letting other people know about FSFnet. Similarly, all those people who have set up local distribution points or cross-posted FSFnet also deserve recognition. Thanks to Chris Condon for keeping FSFnet in his BITLIST and NetMonth magazines, and to Rich Zellich for keeping it in the internet LIST-OF-LISTS. Also special thanks to Chuq von Rospach, who has handled all the internet distribution of FSFnet since the WISCVM gateway was shut down. But of all the people with whom I've come in contact in my capacity as editor, two people deserve very special recognition, not only by myself, but by everyone. Firstly, Joseph Curwen. Curwen is a very intelligent and resourceful friend who was one voice among the handful of people who were in on FSFnet from the start. Although his submissions to FSFnet have been infrequent, they have been among the best works we've seen, and he has been a steady companion to me over the years. He was a very important element of the Dargon Project, and continues to be a close personal friend to myself and the authors who valued his skill. Curwen graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia recently, and plans to find employment as a teacher. I have no doubt whatsoever that he will also be able to call writing one of his professions in the future. FSFnet owes a great deal to this budding author. And, secondly, John White. John learned of FSFnet and joined the Dargon Project in the summer of 1986 and very quickly began producing huge quantities of stories which helped see FSFnet through times of want and times of plenty. John's interrelated stories formed a huge work which culminated in issue 10-2 this past spring. But beyond his writing, John has also taken a leadership role in the Dargon Project, and is now undertaking even more responsability. With the end of FSFnet, John has become the manager of the Dargon Project, and also the editor of its magazine, which you will see shortly. This is a very serious duty, and John is both capable and willing to execute it. Like Curwen, John has been indispensable to FSFnet, and he deserves particular thanks and support as he gets the new zine off the ground. With that, my business has concluded. I must say that I have enjoyed putting out FSFnet greatly, and I hope that you have enjoyed it, as well. It's been an interesting road we've shared, and it has been a pleasure meeting you all, and working with you. So until we meet again, fare thee well, and blessed be. -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> History of FSFnet The University of Maine has historically had an atmosphere conducive to student computing. MAINE was among the first sites to connect to BITNET (this in 1982), and many students began to immediately make use of the new facilities BITNET provided. The network was very different then than it is now. There were only a handful of sites, all located on the east coast of the US. Most of the people who knew how to use were computer science students, programmers, and operators. These people were innovators, and their attempts to improve BITNET services produced such facilities as conference machines, RELAY, CSNEWS, and LISTSERV, which were unknown until fairly recently. As early as 1982, several individuals within the handful of MAINE network users began to print electronic magazines to unite BITNET users who had common interests. For example, Andy Robinson began the Vm-Com computing newsletter, which eventually blossomed into what is currently one of the most widely used service machines on the network, CSNEWS@MAINE. In 1984, two humor magazines were being produced at MAINE: Barry Gates' "Gliding Byte" and Ric Messier's "Environment Account". Also, later would come Brent Britton's "Nutworks" humor magazine and Michael Murphy's "Network Audio-Bits". While there is no obvious rasoning as to why all these magazines developed at UMaine, this environment was responsible for the germination of FSFnet. In December of 1984, with several of these magazines based at MAINE thriving and enjoying a healthy popularity, I began to entertain thoughts of beginning my own science fiction and fantasy magazine. Through my own use of BITNET I knew that there was a huge number of fans on the network, and I felt that a magazine along these lines would not only be very popular, but would also help get these fans together, because at that time there were no facilities on the network for meeting people with similar interests. With these ideas kicking around my head, I bounced them off a couple friends (both local and network), who gave me ample encouragement, and I was on my way. I had had some experience in editing a fanzine previously, when I put out the New England Tolkien Society's 'Mazar Balinu', a yearly magazine containing Tolkien-related fiction, art, and poetry. I had been involved with Tolkien and fantasy fandom for several years, and had been writing articles and fantasy stories for some time, as well. I wanted the new magazine to be like 'Mazar Balinu', in that it would concentrate not on news and reviews (the usual fare for most 'fanzines'), but on printing amateur fiction. The support of budding authors (myself included, of course) has always been a particular interest of mine, and I felt that a fiction-based magazine would be more interesting to read and would enjoy more popularity than if FSFnet followed the formula for a 'traditional' fanzine. Just after Christmas (1984) I sent out a preliminary mailing (volume 0, number 0) to an initial distribution of 100 users whose interests (as listed in the newly-begun BITNAUTS LIST) included science fiction- or fantasy-related topics. The intent of this mailing was to make the public aware of FSFnet's existence and to solicit submissions. Response was generally favorable, and FSFNET VOL01N1 was sent out in January of 1985 with several articles I had received, as well as a very attractive new logo designed by a friend in West Virginia. This issue contained a little of everything, including a book review, a movie review, a science fiction story, and a featured author column. After the first issue was sent out, users who had not responded to the initial mailing or who were not interested were removed from the distribution list. The mailing list hovered around 70 for the first few months of the magazine's existence, which was a healthy start. I had decided to print volumes in trimesters, so each year would contain a Spring volume, a Summer volume, and a Winter volume, to parallel the school year. By the end of the first volume (Spring 1985) which contained eight issues, I had written a program to automate the sending of issues from my account (at that time NMCS025@MAINE) in three different file formats, so as to accommodate all readers. Several network servers had also agreed to post issues for public access. The content of the first volume was varied, and included the beginnings of a science fiction series called "the Narret Chronicles", a two part story by Michael Murphy called "the Dream", and a special issue dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft. FSFnet had met with initial success, and we were off and running. The second volume (Summer 1985), however, saw a dramatic change. In contrast to the eight-issue first volume, it contained only two issues, and alerted me to the problem of finding adequate submissions during the summer, when many students are on vacation and not on the network. Similarly, readership fell to an all-time low of approximately 35 before it started picking up again in the fall, with the return of students to school. With a distribution of less than fifty and serious difficulty securing an adequate number of submissions, I began to have serious doubts about the continued existence of the magazine. During the fall of 1985 (volume three), my original account, NMCS025, was renamed to CSDAVE@MAINE due to my increasing role in the administration of the CSNEWS server. This account was used to send out all subsequent issues. Subscriptions began to edge their way up, and by the final issue of volume three (3-5), membership was up again to 91 readers. This issue marked the climax of the Narret tales, and also the conclusion of Roman Olynyk's "Acquisition" story. However, in November of 1985, being concerned with the future of FSFnet, I sent out a mailing to the authors I knew, introducing the possibility of a collective writing project based on an idea similar to that of Robert Lynn Asprin's "Thieves' World" series. We would get together to outline a basic setting, and the authors would introduce and share characters within that communal setting. The response was very enthusiastic, and early on Alan Clegg set up a discussion group for the project on LISTSERV at NCSUVM. After kicking around several ideas for the shared setting, by the end of November we had settled down with a core group of writers and the basic premise of a medieval duchy known as Dargon. Soon the authors began talking about characters and plot lines, and I made it known publicly that issue 4-1 would see the printing of the first Dargon Project stories. At the conclusion of its first year of publication, FSFnet had put out fifteen issues and subscriptions were once again steadily increasing, and though there were some early problems, with the beginning of the Dargon Project at hand, the future was clearly going to be considerably better. With the publication of the first Dargon stories, FSFnet underwent its first large-scale membership expansion. Between the end of volume 3 and the printing of VOL04N4 (the last issue of volume four), membership had risen from approximately 90 to just shy of 150. FSFnet was now being listed in Chris Condon's new BITLIST magazine of network services (which would later develop into NetMonth magazine), giving FSFnet visibility on the network beyond word of mouth. But the importance of volume four was in its content. FSFnet's best writers were turning out new, interrelated stories within the context of the Duchy of Dargon, and the size, distribution, and quality of issues were increasing rapidly. The Dargon Project lent stability to the magazine and helped improve its content and give it some identity beyond that of 'just another fanzine'. During the summer of 1986 (volume five), despite the low activity during the summer months, three very good issues were produced. The first issue was a special wargaming issue, and contained some excellent articles on related subjects. The second and third issues introduced several new project authors, including John White, who would be a major contributor to the magazine. VOL05N3 was a special double-sized issue (nearly 1200 lines long), but with the increase in quality and output generated by the Dargon Project, such lengths would soon become standard issue size. Volume six, which contained five issues, saw two very important changes within the distribution of FSFnet. The first change was that FSFnet began being distributed to internet sites on ARPAnet and Usenet/UUCP, and was listed in the "List of Lists" master index of inter-network digests. The second change was that issues were now being distributed via LISTSERV's DISTRIBUTE facility, rather than each being sent individually directly from CSDAVE@MAINE. These two changes vastly increased FSFnet's potential audience, and at the same time dramatically reduced its network load, permitting larger issues to be sent more efficiently to more people. Readership containued to grow constantly, passing the 225-reader mark before the end of 1986. The spring of 1987 was similarly successful. The seventh volume contained five more issues, as subscriptions increased to over 350. The idea of hardcopy subscriptions was toyed with, but due to a personal lack of funds for a decent printer, was never implemented. The summer of 1987 volume contained four issues. During this time I got married and honeymooned at the Society for Creative Anachronism's Pennsic War, in the process meeting several FSFnet readers and contributors. Volumes 7 and 8 both contained many of the best stories FSFnet has ever printed, and at the beginning of autumn, subscriptions totalled about 410. In the fall of 1987, only three issues were produced, but membership broke the 500 mark. One interesting event during this period happened when I accidentally discovered a separate FSFnet mailing list which had been managed by a server. Unfortunately, since the server had become defunct, the nearly 100 people who thought that they were subscribed were not receiving issues at all! After I corrected the problem with the server and contacted these people, about one third of them signed up for subscriptions. The first issue of volume 10 represented the third anniversary issue of FSFnet, and was the fourtieth issue printed, and featured two stories by Joseph Curwen, an author who had been with FSFnet since its beginning. Although not a frequent contributor, his wisdom and influence has been a major force in the magazine's development. Unfortunately, his graduation at this time severely limited his network access, and FSFnet lost one of its best writers. The second issue of volume 10 contained the culmination of John White's epic Dargon saga, and there was more than enough material to produce six issues in this volume. At the end of spring, readership supassed 630 and continued to rise. The summer of 1988 has seen the final volume of FSFnet. With some recent additions to the staff, the content of volume 11 has been superb. At this time, FSFnet is sent (directly) to 603 BITNET users at 318 sites, and 82 internet users. There are 159 foreign readers in 21 countries, and 444 domestic readers in 42 states, exclusive of internet readers. FSFnet has put out 48 issues in just under four years, with 166 stories and articles totalling approximately 2.5 million characters of information. With the distribution of this issue, FSFnet has officially ended publication. The Dargon Project will continue to function under the leadership of John White (WHITE@DUVM), and Dargon stories will be printed in a new magazine edited by him, also. All readers who are currently subscribed to FSFnet will automatically be subscribed to this new magazine, so there will be no loss of continuity. If you have any questions or needs, please address them to John, as he's in charge now, and the CSDAVE@MAINE account will be deleted in the near future. Again, my thanks to everyone who has been involved with FSFnet, from those who simply read it to those involved in production and everyone else. And, of course, I hope that everyone continues their efforts to help John make the new magazine even better. -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> A Visit to Connall It was hours before dawn when Myrande Shipbrook woke. Quietly, she slipped from her bed and quickly made it. She went to the small table to the left of her bed, poured the water from the china pitcher into the bowl, washed her face and hands with rose-scented soap, and finally scrubbed her face and hands dry with the folded towel that had been resting on the little table. She silently slipped out of her plain nightgown and pulled on her muslin chemise. Over this, Myrande put on a plain white overdress of muslin, a cool dress, and one easy to clean. She belted the dress with a plain leather belt which wrapped once around her waist, slipped through a round iron buckle, and left a long strip of leather hanging by her left leg. At the end of the dangling strip was another iron ring, to which Myrande attached a heavy ring of keys. She slipped into her shoes and left her room. Myrande was, by nature, an early riser, but not even she enjoyed leaving her bed this early. Still, there was much to be done today; the Baron of Coranabo, his Baroness, and their daughter Danza were coming tonight to visit the Baron of Connall. She was the Seneschale for the Baron of Connall, and it was her duty to see that all things in his household went smoothly. First things first. Breakfast. Clutching the keys in her hands so that they would not wake the household, Myrande went from her room in the family wing of the keep toward the kitchen. Suddenly she stopped, surprised by lamplight spilling from the Baron's study. She knocked on the open door and entered. "My lord, when are you going to bed?" she asked as she crossed the room. Baron Luthias Connall sat behind a desk with an open book in front of him. "In a little while, Sable, I promise. I just want to finish this chapter." Myrande slipped behind the Baron, placed her hands on his shoulders and began kneading them gently. Luthias groaned as she began loosening the tense muscles, and his head dropped back to rest on Myrande's chest. She brushed her hand over his eyes so that he would close them. "Relax, my lord," she invited. "What are you reading?" "'History of the Blortnikson Emperors,'" Luthias told her. "I am reading it to clear my head. I was reading Fernusius Cai all night. I needed a break from laws." He opened his eyes, looked at her. "And don't 'my lord' me, Sable. I do not want to hear it from you. You have known me all my life, and it's no time to start 'my lord'ing me now." Myrande smiled. "All right, Luthias." She continued her massage, as Luthias closed his eyes. "When were you planning to retire?" "Midnight. That way, I figured I could get up at dawn and still have several hours of sleep and be reasonably awake for Coranabo's visit. And you," he continued, his tone playful, his lips smiling, "you, Mistress Mother, when are you going to sleep?" "I just got up." The young Baron's eyes snapped open. "You're joking." Myrande shook her head. "No. This is the third time you have done such this week, Luthias. You have got to stop this." "There's just so much I don't know," Luthias sighed, closing his eyes again and relaxing a little beneath Myrande's touch. "I wish Roisart were here to help me. I have been Baron a month, and I still feel so inadequate." "You're doing well," Myrande reassured him. "The people respect you, and your cousin, the Duke, asks your advice, and your lands are run smoothly." "That's your doing, Lady Seneschale," Luthias growled. "You take care of this castle, you administer the castle lands, and that alone is the work of two people. Then, on top of that, you help me run the barony, you act as my hostess, and help me take care of my social responsibilities. Besides, you do a job you shouldn't have to." "What one is that?" "Take care of the Baron." Luthias took a deep breath. "Maybe I should marry and let some woman be my Baroness, and she could take some of the work from you--help me with the barony--" "And take care of the Baron?" Myrande suggested playfully. Luthias began to smile, but then groaned as Myrande hit a sore knot in his muscles. He opened his eyes, looked Myrande in the face, and smiled. "No one could do that as well as you. Perhaps I should just marry you, Sable, and find myself another seneschal. You'd make a superb Baroness, and not only are you the most beautiful woman in Dargon, you give the best massages in the kingdom." Myrande smiled and continued rubbing Luthias' tired flesh. Looking down into his open eyes, she said, "You never found me so before." Luthias gazed up at his seneschale. She possessed long, thick, raven hair wound into a single braid behind her head. Her eyes were almost as dark as her hair, eyes near the color of polished ebony. The simple white dress flattered her slim figure and made her dark skin seem duskier. Luthias took her hand--a small, strong hand--pressed to his cheek in the courtly manner. "You've always been beautiful to me, Sable, ever since we were children." He kissed her callused palm. "You're working too hard." "So are you, Luthias," Myrande reminded him, touching his cheek. Gently, Luthias reached up, brushed her chin with his fingertips. "You look exhausted. You're doing too much. You should appoint yourself an assistant." Then Luthias smiled again. "You're still beautiful." He stared at the ceiling. "I always thought you'd be the next Baroness, that Roisart would marry you." "He did ask me, not long ago," Myrande revealed. "I know," Luthias said, smiling wryly. "He told me about it. I've never seen a man so happy to be refused. He said you were in love with someone else. He must have been very impressed with him--he said he couldn't have chosen a better man." He sighed, closed his eyes. "But he would never tell me who it was--he said it was in confidence." "It was. I swore him to secrecy." "I was hurt that you didn't trust me, too, Sable." At this very candid revelation, still laced with bitter pain, Myrande's hands froze. "I didn't think you cared much for love or lovers, Luthias." "I don't, but I care about you." Myrande slowly started to massage again. "I was afraid you would laugh at me." "You had no trouble telling Roisart," Luthias accused, and there was an edge of anger in his voice. For a moment, Myrande, too, was angry, but she forced calmness on herself. Thinking of that moment, when Roisart had asked her to be his wife and she'd had to wound him, brought tears to her eyes. "I would not have told him, but I wanted him to understand why I couldn't marry him." For a moment, she fell silent. "I was afraid that you would laugh at me. Or that he would be scared away." Quickly, Luthias rose and faced her. He took her small hands in his. "I would never, never laugh at that, Sable. Have I ever laughed at that sort of thing? Gods know that Roisart provided enough opportunity for me to laugh at love, but I never did." He stopped and dropped her hands. "And I would never laugh at you, Sable." Then, he looked confused. "What do you mean, scared away?" "You and Roisart were very protective of me." "True enough," Luthias admitted. A thought flashed in his brain, and he smiled. "You weren't afraid I'd be jealous, were you, Sable?" "Not once." "He better treat you well, or I'll bash his head in." "That would be interesting," Myrande said, a grin lighting her eyes. "I told you that you were very protective of me..." Myrande gazed at the young Baron, whom she thought handsome, but she could see the strain in his face and the fatigue in the circles beneath his eyes. "Looks like you are ready to bash your own against a wall." "There's so much to do," Luthias told her. "There's a near panic, what with all these rumors about a Bichanese attack--" "I've heard them," Myrande commented. "I've been watching food and getting ready to store and preserve the harvest, just in case. But would Bichu really attack us?" "Of course not," Luthias said confidently. "Considering their distance from us, it would be idiotic. According to Michiya, the Bichanese already have posts on another continent, one closer to their own nation, and it would be simpler and more profitable for them to wage war there." "Still, as you said, there's a panic." "Yes, and it bothers me." Luthias was grim. "People so frantic become paranoid. Mob paranoia, Sable, has to be one of the most dangerous and destructive forces. Its victims are more likely to be innocent than guilty. It is the panic, more than the rumors, which truly worries me." "Well, get some sleep," Myrande advised, brushing some hair from his eyes. "I'll wake you mid-morning, and then you'll have some sleep and most of the day to do some work." "I'm not that tired, Sable," Luthias asserted. "Don't lie to me," Myrande cut him off with a smile. "You can't lie to me, Luthias; I know you too well. Go to bed. There is no work that cannot wait a few hours, and you look like you're about to drop." "The words were becoming a little fuzzy," Luthias admitted. "But after I eat breakfast and drink some tea--" "Go to bed, or I'll wake the men-at-arms and have them carry you," Myrande threatened. Luthias chuckled. "By God, Myrande, you would make an excellent Baroness." Suddenly, he sobered. "Sable--Myrande. The man you love...it isn't Clifton, is it?" He paused a moment then rushed, "Because he...I never thought he was particularly interested in you. They say he's making eyes at some girl from Magnus. Sable, I don't want you to be hurt, and Clifton--" "It isn't Clifton," Myrande assured him, putting a hand on the Baron's arm. "Get some sleep, and sweet dreams, Luthias." Luthias covered her hand with his own and squeezed her fingers. "Thanks, Sable. Good night." "Good night." With a sigh, the young Baron of Connall left the room. Myrande turned out the lamp, and closed the door on her way out. She watched him trek slowly down the hall. Myrande knew how hard being a Baron was for Luthias. He, by nature, was a warrior, not a governor, but he was smart and was learning rapidly. It was a heavy burden to be borne, especially by a young man who had just lost, not a month before, his beloved father and twin brother, Roisart. She sighed, understanding what it was to take on responsibility so soon after-- why, she herself had become the seneschale to Luthias' father soon after her mother, who had been seneschale before her, and father, who had been castellan, died of the Red Plague. Fionn Connall, the late Baron, had been father to her, and she had lost him; and although Roisart had not been twin to her, he had been her brother, and she missed him sorely. Alone, she walked to the kitchen and began to pull supplies out of the pantries. In an hour, the servants would be coming to prepare the breakfast, but she had to prepare the preparations, it seemed. Myrande ate some bread and cheese, drank some tea, which warmed her, and wished she could go back to bed. After checking supplies, she started a quick inspection of the kitchen. She sat for another moment, reviewing what needed to be done for the day. After making a list of work, she inspected the castle (clutching her keys to keep her presence silent), and checked which rooms needed to be cleaned and aired, seeing what little repairs needed to be done. The grounds, gardens, and stables she would check after dawn. Then she silently returned to the kitchen. Myrande greeted the servants, who entered the kitchen in pairs or small groups. As they ate, she gave her orders for the day: this needed to be repaired, and this needed to be cleaned, and this must be done for the visit of the Baron of Coranabo, and this must be done because the castellan and the inspecting guards were returning today. A man-at-arms interrupted them by entering the kitchen. "My lady," he called, "the castellan and the inspecting troops have returned." "Kindly tell the castellan that I will attend him later in my office," She sent the message formally. The soldier bowed and left. After giving a few final orders, Myrande took her keys in hand and toured the gardens, grounds, and stables. All was in good order, except a tree felled by the particularly horrendous thunderstorm of the previous night. Myrande ordered it cleared and cut for firewood. When she returned to the keep, it was nearly mid-morning. She retired to her office to work on the household accounts, which must be presented and explained to the Baron at the end of each month. Myrande kept her accounts in order, and was only adding this day's purchases. There was a knock on the door. Myrande looked up and saw Ittosai Michiya, Castellan of Connall, in the doorway. She rose and bowed in the Bichanese manner. He returned the bow and motioned for a young servant behind him to bring in the tea tray. "Welcome home, Castellan," Myrande greeted as the servant left. Ittosai Michiya smiled and sat. He took the teapot in his hands and poured the aromatic, steaming liquid into two small Bichanese teacups. "Tea, my lady?" Myrande accepted the drink with a Bichurian bow. "Thank you. And, Castellan--" "Yes, my lady?" asked Michiya, sipping. "You don't need to address me so formally. We are of the same rank--persons of noble blood, in high service to the Baron. My name is Myrande, and," she added, in the tone of a good-spirited command, "I intend that you shall use it." "As you like, Myrande." Her name sounded foreign on his tongue. "And I am Michiya." He paused a moment, appeared confused. "But..." "What?" "If your name is Myrande, why does Luthias-san call you Sable?" Myrande grinned, then laughed. "That's a long story, and an old one." She sipped her tea, then continued, "It was a name the Baron, his father, and his brother Roisart called me." "Why?" "It is because of my hair and eyes, I suppose," Myrande explained. "And because of something that happened when we were little." Michiya looked very interested, so Myrande went on. "When we were babies just learning to walk and run, Roisart, Luthias, and I were playing in the late Baron's study." "Late Baron? As if he were delayed and you were still expecting him," commented Michiya. He shook his head. There were some expressions in this confounded language that were plainly idiotic. Myrande laughed. "It is a strange expression." She continued, "Apparently, I was trying to keep up with the twins, who were older and could run, and I could only walk. I fell, but didn't cry. Still, I must have looked pretty pathetic. Roisart saw I had fallen, and he started bringing me every thing he could get his little hands on--toys, the flowers in a vase, then the vase, a book his father was holding, everything. Luthias, being a little bit more forward, just put his arms around me and kissed me." Ittosai Michiya watched the seneschale intently. She had a happy, nostalgic look on her face as she pictured the twins. Michiya pictured her, a tiny child of elfin looks, night-dark hair, and black eyes. "Then the twins' father said to my father, 'Your Myrande is going to grow to be quite a sable beauty. See, she's enchanted my boys already.'" Myrande brought her focus out of the past and looked Michiya in the eye. "Ever since, the Connalls have called me Sable. You can call me that too, if you like." "Luthias-san's brother, he called you Sable?" Myrande nodded. "Then I may do so. I thought it was a name only he had for you." She shook her head. "It is sad, what happened to Roisart. And Luthias-san, he needs a brother." "Oh, I think you and Duke Clifton are filling that need rather nicely," Myrande commented. "He relies on your advice, Michiya, and he must respect you a great deal to have made you castellan." Michiya grinned. "In Bichu, I am a second son, and I would have been what you call castellan to my own brother if I had stayed. But I am here, and will be brother and castellan to Luthias-san instead." Myrande asked, "Did you know that the Baron of Coranabo is coming to visit the Baron today?" Michiya shook his head. "Why visit? Will he not see him in the city in a week's time, when the Duke holds his ball again?" Myrande considered this. "I'm not sure why he's coming. He said in his letter that he had a private matter to discuss with the Baron. But he's bringing his wife and his elder daughter..." Myrande shrugged casually. "Well, Coranabo is an odd man, Michiya. Anything is possible." She took a sip of her tea. "In any case, Baron Coranabo may bring some soldiers with him. Have you room for them in the barracks?" "Yes, plenty." She nodded, satisfied. "I trust you can take care of them then?" Michiya nodded. "Of course." He paused. "I must make a report to you about the inspection. Do you wish the report now, Myrande, or do you wish me to wait until Luthias-san awakes?" Myrande considered. "Best wait until he's up; you'd only have to give it twice otherwise. Besides, Michiya, he should be up shortly. I'll have him join us after his breakfast. In the meantime, you can tell me what supplies you need for the soldiers and the barracks." Ittosai dutifully began naming his needs. Myrande jotted them down on a scrap of parchment. "These shouldn't be a problem. Is there anything you need personally, Michiya?" Ittosai screwed up his visage in thought. "Yes, Myrande. I need clothes for attending formalities, such as the Duke's ball next week." Myrande wrote this. "That reminds me, I need new gowns, and several nice chemises. I only have one gown, and since Luthias is doing so much entertaining now and I'm acting as his hostess, I'm going to need to dress up more often. I'll order your suit and my gowns tomorrow, Ittosai. Would you like it in the Bichanese style? What colors?" "Yes, I like most the style of my home. For colors, I prefer blue and white." Myrande noted this on her paper. Just then, there was a knock on the office doorframe. "Come," Myrande answered. Jahn, Luthias' manservant, entered the room. "My lady, I hate to trouble you, but I..." The servant looked abashed. "I can't seem to wake the Baron." "It's going to be one of those days," Myrande sighed. She rose. "Lord Michiya, I'll be back as soon as I can, but this may take a little while." She clutched her keys, and followed Jahn out. As they approached the Baron's chambers, Myrande asked, "What did he do when you woke him, Jahn?" "He just said something and turned over." He remember late to add, "My lady. I tried again, but he will not budge." "All right," Myrande acknowledged. "You can go about whatever else you had to do. I will see to the Baron." Jahn's face lit with a knowing look. "As you wish, lady." He left her, and Myrande didn't give him a second glance. Still, the look on the manservant's face stayed with her. Yes, now it'll be all over the castle that Luthias and I...Myrande smiled and shrugged. Oh, well. There were many worse things. Still clutching her keys, she opened the door to the Baron's bedroom and walked in. Silently, she shut the door behind her. In the darkened room, Luthias still lay, barely clad, on his bed, with the covers doing everything but the function for which they were intended. She crept over to the bed and sat on the edge. Gently, she touched his forehead. He didn't move. Myrande put her hand on Luthias' strong shoulder and gently shook it. No response. Again, she shook his shoulder, but harder this time. No response. Myrande shook him again, called him: "Luthias." "A few more moments," muttered the Baron, turning away from her. Myrande smiled. Some things never changed. Both Luthias and Roisart had been like this since the gods knew when. "Come on, Luthias. No more time. You've got to get up." "A few more moments, Sable," mumbled the Lord of Connall. "Just a few more moments. And then I'll get up. I promise." "Knowing you, you said that to Jahn five minutes ago," Myrande returned. "It's past half-noon. Get up." Luthias' eyes opened. "Past half-noon? Sable, why didn't you get me up sooner? You know that I want to be up by--" "I don't doubt that Jahn tried," Myrande rued. "Damn it, Sable," Luthias swore, sitting up. "Here you are, taking care of the Baron again." He was grim. "I wanted to be up earlier. Everything's going to be late now." "Don't worry. Everything's under control," Myrande assured him. Luthias, half-growling, left his bed and went past his seneschale to his wardrobe. He flung it open. "If it is, it's your doing, Sable. You're doing the work of eight people." "Nonsense," said Myrande, smiling. Luthias removed a light-colored tunic and some darker breeches, which he proceeded to pull on in front of his seneschale. "When is Coranabo coming?" "This afternoon." She went to the wardrobe and leaned against it. Luthias struggled into his lighter tunic and belted it. "Do me a favor and meet me and Lord Ittosai in my office." "Why don't I just eat breakfast with you?" Myrande just nodded and she left the room. Now that it was nearly over, Myrande knew that she had been right: it was one of those days. The Coranabos had come two hours earlier than Myrande or Luthias had expected. Luthias looked fine, if informal, but Myrande's white cotton overdress was stained and streaked with sweat. She had hardly looked the hostess, but Luthias told her she looked fine, and together, they had greeted their visitors. There was a fire in the kitchen, right after that, and Myrande had her hands full keeping the servants calm and the fire small. With the help of a few courageous grooms, the small grease fire was quickly extinguished, and the visitors and Luthias never knew it happened. Myrande had hardly time enough to take a quick bath and dress herself in her only nice gown before dinner, which, luckily, went well. The meat was juicy and tender, and the greens fresh and tasty, the bread newly baked. The talk was pleasant, general. As they all talked, Myrande watched the visitors, but inconspicuously. She was trying to discern why Coranabo had come. It was hard to figure out anything about the Baron of Coranabo. Coranabo was a tall, hard- eyed man, his gray hair balding, his age, perhaps five and fifty. He smiled, but the smile was superficial. Myrande wondered if something were wrong in Dargon and he was just waiting to discuss after the meal. His wife was pleasant: a petite lady with graying hair who spoke gaily of society. The daughter, though, was enigmatic and why she had come, Myrande could not guess. Danza, the girl--for so she was; she could not be older than fifteen, Myrande guessed- -was silent throughout the dinner, and did not lift her eyes from her plate. Myrande couldn't attribute the silence or shyness to lack of confidence; pretty, petite, golden-haired Danza held herself proudly and confidently. It made no sense that a gorgeous girl of marriageable age would stare at her plate instead of flirting with the Baron of Connall, the second most eligible man in the duchy. After dinner, Luthias led his guests into the study for an after dinner drink. "Brandy, Baron?" Luthias asked politely. "Yes, thank you, Luthias," Coranabo answered congenially. "My lady?" Luthias asked the Baroness as Myrande went to the spirits cabinet. "Some wine would be fine, thank you, Luthias." The Baroness smiled at the younger Baron as she would have smiled on her own son, if she had one. "Lady Myrande, would there be some of that famous golden wine of Magnus in the cupboard?" "I believe so, Baroness," Myrande replied cheerfully, moving a few bottles around. "Would you care for some sherry, Lady Danza?" Luthias asked his youngest guest gently. Myrande had noted the gentle manner in which Luthias had treated Danza during dinner, and she didn't like it. Angry at herself, Myrande shook it off. It was just like Luthias to be protective toward slight, delicate girls. He was the same way with Pecora. That never bothered her. There was no need that this should. Danza shook her head and mumbled something. "Some sherry for lady Danza, Myrande." "Yes, my lord," she replied docilely enough. She smiled at the Baron, who smiled back: the casual intimate grin of long-time friends. Myrande wrenched her eyes away from Luthias', took out the brandy, the gold wine, the sherry, and five glasses from the cupboard. "What would you like, my lord?" "Brandy, thank you, Sable," Luthias replied, losing his formality, slipping into the normal affection he showed towards her. He still was aware of his obligations of host, however, and he motioned for his guests to sit. Coranabo and his wife took a seat near the west wall, directly in front of the small table where Myrande was pouring. Danza took a seat opposite her, and Luthias moved to stand behind her, so that he might face his guests. Myrande passed Coranabo and his wife his drink. The Baron thanked her, then said, "Luthias, my boy, it's time that I got to the reason for this visit." "I wish you would," Luthias said congenially. "I've been wondering about it." "I wished to surprise you," Coranabo said with a smile. "Not that I thought you'd suspect, but--" "Why don't you tell us what it is, Baron?" Myrande suggested with the lilt of laughter in her voice. Just like Coranabo to keep them guessing. She could remember her father and Luthias' laughing about the shrewdness of Baron Coranabo, how he used ploys to feed his flair for the dramatic. She unstopped the sherry bottle. Now, Coranabo laughed. "I never knew a Shipbrook to be so direct, Lady Myrande." "You forget, Baron," Luthias defended her lightly and teased her simultaneously, "she grew up here in Connall." "And you were always a blunt lot," the Baroness chuckled. "True enough," Luthias admitted politely. "Now, tell me, Baron, why have you come here?" "Your brother Roisart would have figured it out, but he was a romantic, as I recall," Coranabo laughed, still evasive, still working to a climax. "I have come to offer you, Baron Connall, the hand of my daughter, Danza." Without warning, Myrande's face went white and she nearly dropped the sherry bottle. Her legs went weak, and she stumbled, grabbing the corner of the table to steady herself. Immediately, Luthias noticed a problem. "My God, Sable!" he cried, crossing the room to her. He put one hand on her arm, and with the other, he took the sherry from her clenched hand. "I'm all right," she whispered, but Luthias scowled at the lie. "Better sit her down, Luthias," the concerned Baroness advised. "She looks like she's about to faint." "Yes, come here," Luthias ordered, guiding her to a seat next to Danza. Myrande collapsed into the seat. Luthias went to the table, poured some brandy into a glass, and brought it to his seneschale. "Drink this. Damn it, Sable, I've told you you're working to hard." Myrande dumbly held the brandy in her hands. "Here, drink," Danza encouraged. Myrande looked at her, saw Danza's eyes for the first time. They were--very, very slightly--rimmed with red, but they were kind. Myrande swallowed the lump in her throat. "Come on, Sable," Luthias encouraged, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Drink." Myrande lifted the glass and gulped the brandy. After a moment, she coughed and said, "Forgive me. I didn't mean to interrupt." "Think nothing of it, Lady Myrande," Coranabo reassured her. He looked at her with hard, glittering eyes, but he seemed kind. "No harm done. I hope you're all right." Myrande nodded. Then Coranabo shifted his attention to the Baron behind her. "Do you need me to repeat what I said, Luthias?" Luthias crossed in front of Myrande and went back to the table, where he poured Danza's drink and his own. "No, Baron, I heard it. I admit," Luthias continued with a hard smile wreathed in confusion, "that I'm stunned." Luthias looked at Danza. "Lady Danza, I had no idea that you favored me." "Oh, she does," Coranabo quickly answered for his daughter. He leaned back in his chair, smiling with satisfaction. "And I admit there's no man in Dargon whom I'd rather have for a son-in-law." Luthias seemed slightly confused, and his face told Myrande that something didn't seem right to the young Baron. Myrande couldn't blame him. Loud alarms were ringing in her mind, too. But Luthias only said, "Thank you, Baron. But I don't know what to say." "Well, think about it, Luthias," Coranabo offered. "Sleep on it. Let me know." "I will," Luthias promised. He went back to the table, poured Danza's sherry and his own brandy. He and Coranabo began discussing the rumors of Bichanese attack, but Myrande didn't hear a word. Myrande remained up and about long after the Baron of Coranabo, his wife, and his daughter went to bed. There were preparations to be made for tomorrow, and it was her job to see to them. Around midnight, a courier arrived at the keep with a message for Baron Luthias Connall. Myrande took the message and ordered food and bed for the tired man. She then went to the study--if she knew Luthias, he was still awake and reading--to give him the message. She was right; the light still burned. Myrande knocked on the doorframe. "Luthias," she called softly. "Come in, Sable," he invited. She did. The Baron sat behind his desk, very serious. Luthias tiredly smiled. "What is it?" Myrande offered the sealed parchment. "Message for you. The messenger just arrived." Luthias took the paper, began to open it. "Have the man fed and provided with--" The young Baron looked from the paper to Myrande's half-smiling face. "But you've already taken care of that, haven't you." Luthias chuckled softly. "I'm sorry, Sable. I should know better." He looked at the parchment and read the message once, twice. "I wonder what this is all about." "What is it?" "Clifton wants me to come and see him, as soon as possible," Luthias told her, showing her the parchment. Myrande read it. "I wonder what the Duke wants." Luthias shook his head, re-read the message. "No telling. I'll have to go to Dargon tomorrow." Luthias set the paper on his desk. "I want you to come with me. The castle can survive a few days on its own, and if nothing else, I've seen tonight that you need a break." He took a deep breath. "And some help. I've thought about it, and tomorrow, I'm going to tell Coranabo that I'll marry Danza." Myrande hurriedly sat down in the nearest chair. "Why?" Luthias looked her in the eye. "This barony needs a baroness, Myrande. You're doing too much, I'm doing to much. We're going to kill ourselves if we go on like this." Yes, that was Luthias, always practical. "Do you think a girl that young can handle being a baroness?" Myrande asked. "Of course. She's been trained to it since birth," Luthias argued confidently. "She'll make a good baroness." "Are you sure about this, Luthias?" Myrande asked gently. "I told you, we need help, Sable." "We could hire help, Luthias. Do you actually want to marry her?" Luthias leaned back and appeared to think about it. "It might as well be Danza as anyone else," the Baron sighed with resignation. "I'll have to marry sometime, Sable. There has to be a Baroness, and, eventually, when Danza is less delicate, I do want to have a son." He smiled. "And name him Roisart." "Wouldn't you rather marry a woman you loved?" Luthias shrugged. "There have only been four people in my life that I've ever loved, Sable. My father, my cousin, my brother--" "And some lady who jilted you?" Myrande prompted, incredulous. Luthias smiled, reached across the desk and took her hand. "No, Sable, you. You're my best friend, other than Clifton, and always have been." He sighed again. "But there has to be a baroness eventually, whether I love her or not, and we both need help, Sable, face it. I don't want to see you work yourself to death." "Luthias," Myrande ordered sternly, "don't do this for me. I don't want you to marry and be miserable for my sake." "Hey," Connall said gently, squeezing Myrande's hand. "I won't be miserable, I promise." She bitterly smiled at the vow. "It's just what I need, Sable, what this place needs." He peered at her intently. "You're not jealous, are you?" "Of course not," she said. "No, I forgot, you're in love with the mysterious stranger," Luthias recalled, his tone a cross between amusement and sarcasm. "Look, Sable," he began, serious this time, "I'll go to him, try to arrange the marriage for you--" "No--no, Luthias. You'd feel too awkward--he's--" Myrande paused. "You're too close, and you wouldn't want to try to convince him--" Luthias released her hand. "It is Clifton, then." Myrande shook her head. "No, Luthias. I give you my word, I'm not in love with Clifton Dargon." She leaned her head on her hand. "Not even your father, when I told him about this, wanted to arrange a marriage. He wanted to wait until the man was older, to see if something developed..." Luthias laughed. "I loved my father dearly, but he was a romantic, just like Roisart. Very few people love like my father and mother. And as for me--I'll never fall in love. I'm not built for it, I think." Myrande smiled. "I'll just marry Danza and be reasonably content." "Do what you think best," Myrande rose. "Good night, Luthias." "Going to bed?" he wondered, taking out Fernusius Cai's treatise. "Not yet. There's work to be done." Abruptly, she left the room. Myrande couldn't believe it. He was going to marry that child and make her Baroness of Connall. Would Danza want him, Myrande wondered, if Roisart were alive and Baron and Luthias were merely Roisart's castellan or the Duke's? Myrande thought not. In fact, Myrande had heard rumors six weeks ago about Lady Danza and Tylane Shipbrook. And now that Luthias was Baron, this Danza was wiling to abandon Tylane like a plague carrier! And as for her being a 'good' Baroness--Myrande thought it was unlikely and scowled. Danza was only fifteen, a child! How would she handle some of the crises around here? She hadn't handled Roisart's death well--Myrande remembered her sobbing hysterically when she arrived in Dargon in the middle of the night-- And suddenly, Myrande was back in that nightmare night, that night of horrors, when soldiers came to Connall keep. We're here to arrest Manus the Healer, they told Myrande. Why? Oh, well, there's a conspiracy against the Duke and the Lords of Connall. There was an assassination attempt tonight. No, no, lady, the Duke's fine. The twin lords? No, lady, sorry, they're dead. Luthias dead? Roisart, his twin, her friend, dead too? Was there no comfort? Pale, she rode with the squadron to Dargon keep. If nothing else, she would see that Luthias, and Roisart, would be well buried. She clutched the leather reins all the way to the town. The stars glittered coldly, and she wondered if Luthias' soul and Roisart's were among them. Oh, gods, Luthias dead, and Roisart dead beside him! Myrande was unsure that she could bear it. When she arrived at the keep, she demanded immediately to see the Duke. She was ushered to the blue ballroom on the ground floor. The door was opened for her, and she saw Roisart's body laid out in state. The Duke was there, talking with Lord Coranabo, she recalled, and little lady Danza, who had hardly known Roisart at all, was sobbing like a babe on her father's arm. Myrande stood tall and straight, though pale, and walked toward the Duke. And then Luthias stood up. Myrande gasped his name, ran to him, and flung her arms around him. Slightly bewildered, but needing comfort, the young Baron put his arms around her as well. Myrande felt Luthias' heart beating against her shoulder--he was somewhat taller than she--and for a moment, it didn't matter that Roisart, her best friend, had been foully murdered. She couldn't grieve for Roisart Connall, her brother, the wonderful boy who had wanted to marry her. All she could do was clutch Luthias close and thank every god she could name that he still lived. "They've told you then," Luthias said softly, putting a hand on her head and holding her close. "They told you that Roisart is dead." For a moment, Myrande lost control completely and sobbed, "They told me you both were dead!" "Sable, my God, Sable, Roisart's dead, and I'm Baron," Luthias rasped. Myrande held him more tightly, knowing that only with her or Clifton could Luthias show this much grief--and fear. "I'm Baron, and my brother is dead." "I'll help you, Luthias, I swear it," Myrande had whispered. And she had helped him, she stayed by his side when Roisart was buried, and later when he was invested as Baron of Connall. And ever since, she had been helping him. Would this baby Danza be able to help him? Did she deserve to become a Baroness? Myrande didn't think so. She blindly went through the motions of the little work left to be done, and then, exhausted, Myrande decided it was time she collapsed in bed. As if in a daze, she wandered back to the family wing of the keep, past Luthias' study--the lamp was still on, he was still reading--to her room. Luthias was going to marry a baby he didn't love, a puppy in love with him. Bitterly, she laughed softly at herself. As if she had the right to condemn Danza for that! Suddenly, a blond ghost brushed past her--a blond ghost in a lacy, silken nightgown. Myrande stared. Danza. What was she doing up? Myrande took a step toward her, but some instinct halted her voice as Danza stepped into the study. Myrande shrugged at the girl's quick departure and dodged into her room. Suddenly, she found herself sobbing. Luthias was going to marry Danza, and then-- Luthias was very bright, and he would figure it out eventually. And how she would hate to live with his pity! Myrande brushed her hands across her eyes quickly and severely silenced her own sobs. She would not be able to live with Luthias' pity, she knew that. And when Luthias married little Danza, Myrande would leave the castle. Perhaps her uncle, the Baron of Shipbrook, or Luthias' cousin the Duke would have a position here. Myrande could not live in Connall Keep, seeing the pity in Luthias' eyes, seeing the pride in Danza's. She went to her night table, picked up a hairbrush, undid the long braid that hung behind her head, and began to brush her black hair. Her hands shook; the nervous fingers made the brush a weapon against her, and she accidentally struck her own temple. Myrande dropped the brush. This was no good. She'd never be able to sleep like this. Myrande rose and left the room. A large goblet of milk would comfort her a little, calm her a little, and allow her to sleep. There would be much to do tomorrow before she and Luthias left for Dargon. She went silently to the kitchen, downed the milk, and began to wander back to her room. She smiled sadly as she passed the study; the light was still burning. She knocked again. "Luthias?" "Sable? Come in. I thought you had gone to bed." Luthias was still behind the desk, reading the words of Fernusius Cai. He closed the book when Myrande entered the room. "Why haven't you gone to bed yet?" Myrande shrugged. "What about you, Lord Luthias?" Luthias smiled. "Just reading some. I'll go to bed when you do; how's that?" "I was on my way," Myrande confessed. Luthias kept grinning. He leaned back in his chair. "I'm going to refuse the Baron of Coranabo," he announced casually. "Why?" Myrande asked, stunned. "Danza came to me, told me she was in love with Tylane," Luthias revealed. "She marched in here and said very firmly that she had no objections to me personally, but she couldn't marry me, that she wasn't a virgin, and she did not want to disappoint me." "Danza, not a virgin?" Myrande echoed, incredulous. Luthias grinned. "That's what she said. It took me a little while to get the real reason out of her--that she loved Tylane and wanted to marry him. And what could I say, Sable? If we married, she'd resent me all her days and we'd both be miserable. And you'd hurt, Sable, to see me hurting." Luthias leaned toward Myrande again, looked at her lazily. "So, it's off, and I'll marry someone else someday, Sable, but until then, we will have a lot of work, the two of us." "I don't mind," Myrande told him. She smiled and leaned forward. "I'd rather exhaust myself than see you miserable, Luthias." Myrande shook her head. "She must have been pretty desperate to tell that she wasn't a virgin. Not many girls her age would admit that. But would you refuse a girl on those grounds?" Luthias shrugged. "No. I'm not a virgin; why should she be? I actually don't want to marry a virgin. I don't want my bride to be terrified on our wedding night." Myrande laughed. "I know it is all very practical, Luthias, but somehow you sound more romantic than Roisart." Luthias laughed too. He rose and crossed to her. "We should be getting to bed, lady Seneschale. We have a long journey tomorrow." He put her hands on her shoulders and began to rub them gently. "Mmm," said the seneschale, closing her eyes tiredly. "You shouldn't do that, Luthias." "Why not? You take care of me," Luthias argued. He fell silent then, kept rubbing. Then he asked, "Sable, don't answer, if you don't want to." Myrande relaxed beneath his touch. "Are *you* still a virgin?" Myrande answered, not opening her eyes, "Yes. That surprises you?" "Yes," Luthias admitted frankly. "You're almost twenty-one- -" "And you and Roisart had a habit of scaring my suitors away. They all thought either that I've been promised to one of you or that you were going to destroy them if they touched me." Luthias shook his head. "I hope you've been kissed, at least." "Yes, I've been kissed. You and Roisart didn't start scaring men away until I was seventeen or so, and by then I was in love with--and I don't think you could scare--him--away." "Sorry, it was a silly question," Luthias mused. "Roisart must have kissed you when he proposed." "Only my cheek." "No wonder he never got anywhere with girls!" Luthias laughed, squeezed Myrande's shoulders one last time. "Come on, Sable, I'll walk you to your room. We both could use some sleep." Myrande rose, and Luthias turned down the lamp. Exiting the room, he put his arm around Myrande's shoulders in a casual way, and she leaned on him a little. Silently, they walked down the hall. They soon arrived at her door, and Myrande opened it. She then turned to her Baron and touched his cheek. "Good night, Luthias." "Good night," answered the young Baron. "And, Sable?" She looked up at him. Suddenly, Luthias leaned forward and kissed her lips quickly. "That is from Roisart, because he was too stupid to do it when he had the chance." Luthias kissed her again, longer and more firmly this time. "That is from me. Good night, Sable." Myrande smiled at him and said, "Good night." -M. Wendy Hennequin <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> A Bride for Dargon The young Lord of Dargon sat unquietly behind his large oaken desk and stared through the arms of his family which adorned the walls of his receiving room. His forebears had been men of decision and action, reknowned for timely justice and intelligence, yet Duke Clifton Dargon had reached an impasse and wished that his ancestors had left some indication in their writings of how his current predicament could be resolved. Yet again, he stood and strode to the tall, open window which overlooked the courtyard, the city, and the surrounding fields. Though his mind wandered, his eyes followed a young man in a grey tunic as he left the market. The nobleman wondered what business this man might have in Dargon, what concerns he might have, and what he might do if he faced Clifton's problems and responsibilities. The man turned off Merchant's Way and strode unhurriedly through the part of town that contained several of the inns that catered to people from away. As he continued, a woman in a bright blue shirt and gauzy white pants came up to him. She fawned on him for several moments before she turned him back the way he had come and disappeared from sight in a cross-alley. Clifton smiled secretly and sighed a heavy sigh. Clifton was surprised by the clearing of a throat behind him, and turned suddenly to look angrily at his cousin, the young Baron of Connall, as he strode into the office. Realizing that it was Luthias and not one of his annoying advisors, Dargon calmed a little, but his irritation remained unquenched like a vicious undertow beneath the deep brown eyes. Luthias, attractive, strong, and manly for his twenty-one years, stood out of respect for his lord, yet his stance emanated the ease of standing before a man loved and understood as well as respected. Clifton gazed upon his cousin's face, so similar to his own, with equal respect. Since the assassinations of Luthias' father and twin brother, Luthias had grown considerably. At one time, the Baron of Connall was known for quick action and thought which could occasionally border on rashness. But since his brother's death in the attempt to save the lives of Luthias and Dargon, Luthias had become more thoughtful, as if the twins' soul, divided at birth, was reunited at last through death. Luthias' ability for quick, practical decisions, like his grief for father and brother, had not left him; the quickness and pragmatism now mingled occasionally with the grave caution of his brother, just as the blue bands of mourning still lingered on the everyday clothing. There were a few days when Clifton, Lord Dargon, had worried that the grief and the responsibility of the barony would turn the streaks of auburn in Luthias' brown hair to a premature gray, but the young baron had quickly and manfully accepted grief and responsibility both. A smile fluttered across Dargon's lips. Luthias was making his cousin and liege very proud. "You wanted to see me, Clifton?" Luthias prompted finally. Clifton returned from the quick current of his thoughts and looked his cousin in the eyes again. There was pain in them still. It must be difficult, Clifton thought, for him to look at me, or even at himself, and yet see only his brother. And still I see Roisart in him. After a moment, Clifton replied, "Yes, Luthias. Please sit down." Perplexed at the anger on the face of his lord and kinsman, Luthias obeyed. Once seated, he wondered aloud, unafraid of the answer, "Have I done something, Clifton?" "No, Luthias, no," Dargon assured him, brushing the idea away with a flick of the hand. "I need to talk to you. You and Roisart were always good at calming me down." "I'm only half as good as we used to be," Luthias quipped, jesting lightly at his own grief. "But I'll listen. What's wrong?" Lord Clifton Dargon scowled with immeasurable wrath. "They're after me again!" Luthias went white, missing the subtle twinkle of irony in Clifton's brown eyes. "God, no. Not another plot against us!" "What? Oh, no," Clifton told him quickly. "No, they aren't trying to murder us." He scowled again. "But that would top my day nicely!" "What's wrong, then?" "My counselors," Clifton explained. "They are plaguing me yet again... They want me to marry!" Luthias almost laughed. The concept didn't seem so terrible. "Is that all?" he asked lightly. "Is that all?" thundered the Lord of Dargon, rising from his chair, then pacing behind the desk. "Is that ALL?" "Marriage hardly seems a vile fate, Clifton," Luthias vainly tried to calm him. "I know many who have survived..." "I don't see you running out and marrying," Dargon accused, whirling on his bewildered cousin. Luthias' mouth went tight and his eyes narrowed with seriousness. "Yesterday the Baron of Coranabo offered his daughter to me, Clifton," he snapped. "I need a baroness, and I would have married her if she wasn't in love with Tylane Shipbrook." "Well, how would you feel being pushed into it?" the Lord of Dargon demanded. Luthias stared at his cousin a moment. It wasn't like him to be this angry, he thought suddenly. "It isn't just your advisors," Luthias concluded aloud. "What is it, Clifton? What's bothering you?" Dargon gazed suddenly at his cousin, and just as suddenly, his anger defused. He sighed, trying to calm his confused emotions. "Sit, Luthias," invited the Lord of Dargon wearily. "I need to talk to you." Luthias obeyed slowly, not taking his eyes off his cousin. "Talk, then, Clifton. What is it?" Again, the Lord of Dargon sighed. He sat silent for a few moments, then spoke. "I was telling the truth," he ventured, as if he were half talking to himself. "It is my advisors. They want me to marry. They want me to have an heir." The lord scowled. "It doesn't befit women to be treated as mere heir machines, and I will not marry a woman merely to provide one." "I agree," Luthias replied gravely. "But there's more," he knew. Almost sadly, Dargon nodded. "I don't want to get married," he told his cousin. "I don't want to marry just anyone. I want to marry a woman that I could love." "Don't you think you will find a woman to love, Clifton?" Luthias questioned carefully. "That's the problem, cousin," sighed Clifton Dargon. "I already have. And I already love her." This took Luthias quite by surprise; for a moment he simply stared uncomprehendingly at his noble cousin. In the next moment, Luthias, Baron of Connall, almost lost his temper. "Problem? What IS the problem? You have found her. You love her. You're the Duke around here, Clifton. You can marry anyone you like. Clifton, there is no problem." Another thought slapped Luthias smartly. "Gods, Clifton, you haven't fallen in love with a married woman, have you?" Dargon looked at his young cousin once again and laughed softly. "Married? No, she isn't married. Quite the contrary. By most standards, she is what the people would judge an old maid." His eyes clouded as he let the memory of her wash over him. "Though she's by no means old, and the man who would not choose her is blind." At this romantic turn in his cousin's nature (which Luthias had never before witnessed) the Baron of Connall asked meekly, but with amusement, "Do I know this lucky woman, Clifton?" The mist in the eyes of the Lord of Dargon cleared. He looked directly into Luthias' eyes. "I believe you do," Dargon told him. "You met her at the Melrin ball. Lady Lauren, the Winthrops' cousin. The one from Magnus." The Baron of Connall pondered a moment, and then the recollection shone on his face like a beam of sunshine. "Oh, yes, the dark-haired one with the greenish eyes--" "Her eyes are blue," Clifton corrected. "Perhaps a little green," he reconsidered. "Blue and green, like the sea," he mused. "The one in the white gown," continued young Luthias. "The one my brother liked." Again, Luthias considered the matter. "That woman isn't married? But she's--beautiful. And charming. And educated. Clifton, what's wrong with her?" The Lord of Dargon leapt to his feet. "Wrong with her?" echoed the Lord of Dargon in a most undignified manner. "Nothing's wrong with her." He smiled affectionately--like a man in love, thought Luthias. Clearly, his emotions were confused enough for it to be love. "She's perfect." Dargon began to pace yet again. "It's her father. He will not give her up." "Why not?" "Did you meet her father, Luthias?" Luthias thought a moment, then shook his head. "His name's Marcellon, and he's a very powerful mage. He was trained in Magnus by the great Styles himself." Having heard his late brother prattle on about Styles, wizard to Beinison Emperors, Luthias was suitably impressed. "Marcellon was wizard to the King of Baranur, until he left a few months ago, before the thaw." "Before the thaw?" Luthias repeated, incredulous. "Why would anyone travel that distance in winter? The conditions--" "Were life and death," explained Dargon. He kept on pacing, moving back and forth like a pendulum on a clock. "It's a long story, and Lauren only told me recently, when I asked her for her hand." "Fine thing, to go asking for a woman in marriage and not even telling your cousin you're in love until your advisors bother you," Luthias teased. "Quiet, manling," Clifton growled good-naturedly, using a term he hadn't employed since the twins were in their youth. "I..." The ruler of Dargon seated himself. "Our love is so special that I wanted to keep it a secret as long as I could. But then, when I asked her..." "Why would he deny you, Clifton?" Luthias wondered. "What could he object to? You are noble, wealthy, and you are good-natured..." "Marcellon trusts no man to treat his daughter well enough," Dargon explained. He made a grim, frustrated face, then continued. "Some years ago, Marcellon gave Lauren's sister in marriage to a young noble 'of good character'. A few months later, she was beaten to death by her husband." Dargon stared at his cousin. "He doesn't want the same thing to happen to Lauren." "Maybe he just doesn't want the insanity that grips him to run in the family," grumbled Luthias. "Clifton, what's the problem? When we were growing up, you had a crush on--oh, what was her name? And you threatened to carry her off if her father objected to the marriage. You make the laws around here. Just throw her over a stallion and run off and you're married." "And separate her from her father? Lauren loves him dearly, and it would break her heart," Dargon objected. "Besides, the marriage would be short-lived, cousin. Remember, Marcellon is a powerful wizard, with knowledge of the spells of the great Styles himself. He could attack me from a distance of hundreds of leagues." "Yes, 'Styles' Death', Roisart told me about it." "It's not a pretty or an easy death." Luthias shook his head. "And while I fear neither death nor Marcellon, I have no wish to die and leave the duchy with, if you will forgive me, inexperienced leadership." Luthias smiled a little, humbly. "Still, I want no other woman but Lauren, and Luthias, I intend to have her," the Lord of Dargon finished firmly. Again, he looked his cousin, the Baron of Connall, in the eyes. "There is a way, Luthias. I asked for her hand, and she told me that her father would be willing, on one condition." Luthias shook his head in a disapproving way. "A mage's condition. I don't like the sound of this, Clifton." When Dargon didn't continue, Connall prompted, "All right, Clifton. What is this condition?" "He requires that I pass a test of his choosing." "What kind of test?" "Lauren didn't say." "She didn't tell you anything?" Dargon shook his head. "Nothing, cousin. But Lauren told me that it can be very dangerous." His suspicion leapt from dormancy to dominance. "Dangerous? How?" Dargon leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. "I don't know exactly. Lauren would not tell me much, either. She said that two men from Magnus who took the test died--" Luthias nearly leapt from his seat. "Died?! Clifton!" Dargon shook his head at Connall. "No, Luthias, it's not what you think. One had a crossbow that exploded; one died of a sudden seizure, not caused by Marcellon. His purpose is to eliminate those not of exemplary character, not to hurt anyone." "I still don't like it," Luthias snapped. "I don't trust it. Two men have died, Clifton. And how do you know Marcellon did not cause it? It certainly sounds odd to me that a mage with that power-- And he left Magnus in a hurry, you said, in a matter of life and death. Whose? And why? It all seems very suspicious to me, Clifton, and I don't want to lose you too!" "Luthias, I don't use crossbows," the Lord of Dargon said with some amusement. "And I am not subject to seizures." He sighed, shifted. "It was a matter of life and death that Lauren and her father left Magnus. A matter of their lives or deaths." "What, is this Marcellon some sort of criminal?" Dargon shook his head. "Marcellon has broken no laws by testing his daughter's suitors. But the test got him into trouble. The families of the two who died made no protests; they knew that one had overestimated his warrior skills and that the other was sickly. But healthy young men have taken the test. Six came out alive and unharmed, but they couldn't remember a thing about the test." Clifton grimaced. "Four went mad." "Mad?" Luthias echoed, startled. "But what could make them mad?" "No one knows," admitted the Lord of Dargon, "and Marcellon won't tell. Families are not pleased when their sons return a raving lunatic from courting. And the last suitor was from a very rich and influential family--" "They were run out of Magnus because some rich, foppish fool took the test and went mad?" Luthias interrupted. Dargon nodded. "I'm not sure if I like this, Clifton." Luthias paused a moment. "Have you presented your suit to her father?" "Not yet," Dargon admitted. "I've been invited to dinner tonight. I want to ask him then." Dargon made a wrathful face. "Lauren does not want me to ask." "She doesn't want you?" Dargon gave his cousin a quick, sharp look, then calmed. "No, I don't think that's it. At least I hope not, Luthias. I wouldn't pursue her in that case." A sad, almost grieving look covered Dargon's face. "I want to marry her, Luthias. Only her." Luthias stared at his cousin's face and saw the truth of it. Luthias recognized the expression; it was almost the same expression his father had worn when he talked to Luthias and his twin about their mother, the only woman their father had ever loved. And who, through the birth of Luthias and Roisart, was lost to him forever. Luthias stood and walked over to his cousin's desk. He put his hand on Dargon's shoulder. Clifton looked up. "Try for her, Clifton," young Luthias advised. "That's not like you, Luthias," Dargon returned with gentle surprise. "I thought you were the practical one. I could lose my life, as you pointed out before, and putting myself in jeopardy for personal reasons is not something a ruler should do..." Clifton clearly was reluctant to make such a decision. "Well, yes," Luthias admitted, almost sheepish --he had told Myrande he wasn't built for loving--"but what's life without love?" Cheered, Lord Clifton Dargon smiled at his cousin, and left the study to dress for dinner. How Luthias had been convinced that he should attend the dinner at the Winthrops' he was never certain. For one thing, he didn't feel that Clifton really needed a second, or that Marcellon would appreciate the fact that Clifton had brought one. And if anything happened to Clifton, it might be unseemly for his heir to have been the one responsible for his safety. And there was Pecora, little Pecora, still mourning over Kite. And only the gods knew how Luthias was supposed to act around a great, educated lady and a man trained in magic by the great Styles. The only thing that was keeping the evening from being completely uncomfortable was Sable--Myrande Shipbrook, Luthias' seneschale. Born six months after the twins, Myrande had known Luthias, his brother Roisart, and Clifton all her life. Her father, who had been castellan to Luthias' father until he died five years ago, had been quite a valorous man who had been awarded knighthood and arms by Clifton's father. Myrande's mother had died days after her father, and at fifteen, she became Seneschale of Connall. When Luthias became Baron a month or so ago, he had asked her to stay with him, to manage his household and to help him run the barony; Myrande was wise for her age, and Luthias had always respected her counsel, even when, as a boy, he had never heeded it. And now, Myrande was helping him again--taking care of the Baron again, Luthias thought ruefully--just by being her honest, easy-going self. Luthias sighed, wondering again whom Sable loved. The man was a blind fool, not seeing the beauty in her black hair and dark eyes nor the beauty of her soul. Luthias watched Myrande walk through the garden as Marcellon approached him and introduced himself. Luthias found himself surprised that he actually had met Marcellon. He had been dressed in red robes at the Melrin ball, but now he was dressed in a courtly suit of grey and dark blue. As they waited in the Winthrop garden, Marcellon shook his hand kindly. "I remember you, Lord Baron," said the mage with grave kindness, which surprised Luthias even more. "You danced with Pecora, and your brother danced with my Lauren." Marcellon smiled. "It was a brave thing your brother did that night." Luthias smiled awkwardly. "Braver than I, milord." Marcellon lifted his eyebrows. "Would you not have done the same, if you had seen the opportunity?" Luthias considered a moment, then nodded. "Do not say he was braver, then." Marcellon looked at the bench where Lauren and Clifton sat talking. "I know that Lord Dargon has come to ask for her." Luthias looked at his shoes. Marcellon smiled. "Don't worry, Lord Baron. I do not ask you to betray your cousin. But," and the smile grew wider, "I am not a blind man. I have seen the way they look at one another, their eyes the secret messengers of the hearts. I've seen it before, though," Marcellon sighed, and his eyes narrowed. "Although I doubt I've ever seen a man so serious about her--or Lauren so serious about any man." Luthias did not know how to respond. Clearly, Marcellon was a wise and observant man, yet strong in his convictions. The old man smiled. "Come, milord Baron. We are expected for dinner," then, toward Clifton, "my lord?" "In a moment, father," responded Lauren, her blue-green eyes not leaving Clifton's. The two sat silently and watched as Marcellon and Luthias made their way from the garden, then Lauren turned to Clifton and clasped his hand strongly. Lauren cast a quick look over her shoulder--Lady Myrande was still walking forlornly alone. But Lauren knew--there were things she just knew--that she need not fear Myrande. It was well; Lauren needed to speak quickly. "Clifton, you know it's wrong to put yourself before the duchy..." He smiled at her warmly. "Yes, Lauren, I know, but I've spent the past days weighing this decision. The duchy needs a direct heir, and I want you to be my wife and the mother of our children. Your father's test is not meant to harm people, only to determine whether they will treat you as you deserve... and, well, I love you, and I think that I'd be able to treat you well..." His sentence trailed off; Clifton couldn't believe he felt embarrassed. "But, Clifton, it could be dangerous! I don't want any harm to come to you." Clifton shifted on the bench. "But I won't be hurt, Lauren. It will turn out for the best. Once this is done we shall be married." Lauren wasn't convinced by Clifton's insatiable optimism, and her eyes showed her deep concern, equally beyond reason. "Clifton... Listen to me. I've heard those very words nearly a dozen times. Each time, I watched as they confidently went to ask for my hand. Each time I secretly hoped they would succeed, for I truly cared for them. And each time I watched as they returned, having failed, and I felt their hurt, their shame. Somehow their failure was equally my failure, for I had not discouraged them. And, Clifton, I've got far too much at stake to let you fail. Can't you see? I couldn't stand to see you fail - not for the duchy, but for myself. If you failed, it would kill me! I love you, can't you see that? I can't let you fail." Lauren paused, anguish in her eyes. "If you were hurt-- gods, Clifton, if you lost your mind--" Impulsively, the Duke of Dargon put his arms around Lauren and held her close. "Shhh, love, I'll be fine," he assured her. He kissed her gently. They sat quietly as a gentle breeze moved the trees above them. Finally, Clifton said, "I Lauren, I must try. You know the saying as well as I, 'Nothing risked, nothing gained'. You cannot achieve anything if you aren't willing to put what you have at the outset at risk. And a man isn't a man if he stops achieving better things for himself and those he loves. So, you see, I have to do this... It's the right thing, believe me. I love you, and I don't want to live without you, and if I don't try, I'll fail you, and myself." Lauren reluctantly accepted Clifton's words. "I love you too, Clifton. And I don't think I'd love you as much if you weren't willing to do this. But remember, you're risking far more than yourself; you're putting the duchy and everyone in it at risk, and me. I pray you do not falter...if you did fail, I hate to think of your cousin." She gazed at Luthias, who was standing on a patio, watching Myrande and speaking with Marcellon. "He's lost his father and brother; could he lose you too, and be a Duke? Clifton, he's only twenty-one." "I know; believe me. But," and Clifton smiled, "my love, it was Luthias, practical, sensible Luthias, who convinced me to do this. It'll be all right," he assured her, kissing her again. There was a sudden crash behind them. "Clod!" Luthias called with teasing familiarity. "Luthias?" Myrande called, rising to her feet. "Just twisted an ankle," she answered Clifton's questioning glance. "Luthias, come here, please. I need you." Luthias moved toward her. Lauren smiled and said softly, so only Clifton would hear, "He hears the words, but misses the message." At the Duke's confusion, Lauren asked, "Didn't you know that Lady Myrande is in love with your cousin?" "Of course. My uncle Fionn, Luthias' father, told me some years ago when he asked Myrande whom she wished to wed. How did you know?" Lauren shrugged. "I just know." "You're changing the subject," Clifton accused with amused severity. "You still don't want me to do this?" Lauren looked pained. "Clifton, I want to marry you. I love you more than any other man in the world. I can't bear it if I lost you." "Then there's nothing more to do than try," Clifton said firmly. He helped to her feet. "Now, come, let's catch up with the others." Clifton and Luthias were set opposite Marcellon and Lauren. At one end of the table sat Lady and Lord Winthrop, an interesting couple who probably would have felt more comfortable with Clifton's father, but they managed to keep an incessant chatter alive at the table. At the other end sat the two women: Pecora and Sable. Pecora was the daughter of the Winthrop's, a dark-haired woman with whom both Clifton and Luthias had shared their childhood, and whom had been through so much recently. Sable, or Lady Myrande as she was called by everyone except Luthias and occasionally Clifton, was certainly the more beautiful of the two, a dark beauty, the Belle of Connall, as some had called her before she had become seneschale and stopped going to balls. Luthias smiled. It was long held a rumor that Myrande Shipbrook had been promised to one of the twin lords of Connall. Luthias noted that Clifton was in a serious mood, and understood why, but it made the conversation drag. Although everyone in the room were old friends, there was an air of awkwardness in the room. The group had gone through a lot in the past few months. Pecora had taken ill and then Kite had disappeared mysteriously. People also avoided talking about Luthias' brother and father, as well (he wished they wouldn't avoid them; part of Luthias needed to know that he wasn't the only person who remembered or missed Roisart and his father). And there was Clifton and Lauren, and surely everyone present knew about Clifton's intent. Only Sable seemed at ease, Luthias noted. He smiled. Sometimes he thought she was the only thing that kept him sane. The feast ended. Luthias was relieved when his cousin finally broached the subject of his suit to Marcellon. "Lord Marcellon, your daughter and I have spoken at length. We wish to be married. I ask for your blessing." Luthias was impressed; Clifton's tone was that of a request bordering on a demand. Marcellon's face betrayed nothing of what the man was thinking, but he replied, choosing his words carefully, "My daughter has told you of my whim?" "Yes, milord." "And you wish to prove yourself worthy of her in my eyes?" "Yes, sir," Clifton replied firmly. Lauren closed her eyes. Myrande saw the grief in Lauren's face, but could do nothing. Clifton saw it, and touched her hand beneath the table. "Very well," Marcellon agreed. "You will be provided with everything necessary to prove yourself. When do you wish to begin?" Clifton had committed himself now, and Luthias knew it. Clifton gazed across the table at his cousin. If he failed--if he died, or lost his mind--this man, this young man, would become the Duke of Dargon. Luthias knew this, saw the concern in his cousin's eyes. He's asking my consent for this, Luthias thought. As if he needed it. Luthias nodded to his cousin, and heard the words he had used this afternoon: Try for her. "If it is possible, this evening," Clifton requested. "Very well." Then, turning to Lord Winthrop, his brother-in-law, "With your permission, shall we adjourn to the sitting room?" The host nodded, and the group rose. Clifton, Marcellon and Lord Winthrop led silently, with Lauren hanging uncertainly near Clifton and the others behind, secretly exchanging concerned expressions. They reached the sitting room far too quickly for Luthias' comfort. Myrande squeezed his arm. "It's all right, Luthias." The old mystic motioned for Clifton to sit facing him. "You shall be facing great peril, though the purpose of this test is not to prove your prowess at arms or to harm you. You choose any weapon or armor you desire. What do you wish?" Luthias could see Clifton's mind racing, and could also see the unquiet expression he bore. "Are arms and armor necessary to succeed?" Marcellon's brow rose in curiosity. "They are not." "Then I shall bear neither." "As you wish. In a moment, I shall ask you to submit to my will, and to allow me to penetrate your self. This will not be painful, but you must concentrate upon opening yourself to me. I shall create the test within your mind as an illusion. You will find yourself in a corridor. You will find an object of beauty, and you need retrieve it, and I shall bring you back to this room. Are you prepared?" The Duke of Dargon took and released one large breath before replying. "I am." Clifton shared a final glance with Lauren, which dispelled any doubts left within him, although her face was filled with fear. He nodded to Marcellon, and closed his eyes. He had no formal training in wizardry, but there were books in the ducal library and in the college at Magnus which had discussed it. He envisioned a door in his chest and willed it open, feeling the vulnerability and insecurity beneath his outward strength and resolution. He kept his mind from wandering and concentrated upon it. He suddenly knew that Marcellon was within him; not within his body, but within his mind. Startled at the alien feeling, Clifton opened his eyes, but still saw nothing. Suddenly, as if he had been thrown into a pond, there was another person within him. His eyes could see, but what they saw was definitely strange. He was sitting with several other people in a small circle at the edge of a field, eating something that looked very much like worms in red mud. Around them stood several canvas shelters which stood of their own accord. One of the people near him, a dark-haired woman in a revealing white tunic, turned suddenly toward him and spoke. "Well, I think you look more like Luthias than Clifton..." As he went to speak, he felt his lips moving, yet the words that he spoke were not his own. "Well, of course, everyone will have different pictures of what's been written about, like the climate. I've always pictured Dargon as being like Maine, but other people will have different ideas..." Clifton thought he felt the third person leave his mind as his eyes drained; then he lost consciousness. Clifton awoke in a grey stone passageway, lit by an occasional sconce. To either side the corridor continued perhaps 30 paces before ending, a door at each end. Clifton waited several moments to be sure that his head was clear, then walked down the passageway to his left. He stopped before the large wooden door, his conversation with Marcellon going through his mind once more. The test was to bring back something of beauty. Clifton gathered himself and opened the door. Any semblance of secrecy he had desired was shattered by the protest of the seemingly ancient door. That decided, Clifton swung the door more forcibly open and strode into the huge room beyond. What he saw was enough to make him take several steps backward. The room was dominated by a large grayish mound surrounded by hundreds of huge, black insects. They were built like wasps, but each was the size of a small dog. The noise of the door had created a commotion, and the air about the nest was full of the insects. Clifton watched in horror as a single insect, larger than the others, emerged from the nest and rose to the air. The other insects flocked to follow it as it led the way toward the intruder. Clifton, of course, knew what he faced. There was a story which parents would tell their children about such insects. It would normally scare the children enough to keep them from playing with hornet and wasp nests and getting hurt. Clifton, as a child, had even told the story to his cousins, Luthias and Roisart, and Myrande, when he was the lordly age of twelve, and they were but six and five. The Wasp-King cruelly ruled all flying insects by terror. His temper was swift and his bite death. His greatest treasures was his colony, and the colony's greatest treasure was a flower which it kept preserved inside the hive. Clifton knew that the flower was to be the object of his test, and his heart sank. He had always held a secret fear of flying insects, and his fear now was maddening. The Wasp-King arrived and dropped to the ground less than an arm-length before him as his comrades circled above. The thing, for Clifton could not call it a beast, twitched and turned, its antennae brushing Clifton, who dared not move. Suddenly, he heard the thing speaking within his mind; the absolute alienness of the thing inside his head threw him violently to the ground. A thousand voices echoed, "WHY DOES IT INVADE US?" The assault ended, and Clifton rose to his hands and spoke. "I have been sent... I have need of your flower, your treasure." Clifton dared not raise his head to look at the abomination. He steeled himself for another assault. "WHY DOES IT NEED OUR TREASURE-FLOWER?" "I wish to marry a woman of my race. It will only be permitted if I bring back the flower." "IT MAY NOT HAVE THE TREASURE-FLOWER." Clifton felt enraged for a moment, and it blocked out his fear. For a wild moment, he wanted to attack the Wasp-King, splatter its brains on the floor. But better sense prevailed; he was unarmed, and even if he had a legendary sword, he could not succeed against the wasp horde. Besides, he bore them no ill. He thought of Lauren, and spoke again. "I again ask you for your treasure-flower. I will not be able to marry the woman without it." The sea of emotionless voices returned unmercifully. "IT IS NOT OF US; WE DO NOT CARE. MANY ITS HAVE INVADED US AND ATTACKED OUR HIVE; WHY? THIS IT DOES NOT ATTACK; IT SPEAKS. WHY?" Clifton knew no way to explain why other humans had come and why they had acted differently. "The others were renegades." Well, it wasn't quite accurate, but maybe they'd understand the basic gist. "I speak because I am wiser, and have no need to attack, for I mean you no harm. I only come for the treasure-flower." "IT MEANS US NO HARM? THE OTHER ITS HAVE INVADED US AND ATTACKED US WITH BLADES. THIS IT WILL DO THE SAME." "No, I mean no harm," Clifton repeated. A thought struck him. "If I can have the flower, I will leave, and I will insure that no other 'its' will come to attack you." The thing buzzed and twitched, and Clifton breathed deeply, still on his hands and knees. At least he wasn't in imminent danger. The legend had said nothing about the things being able to talk, and that was the most painful part of the ordeal. Then the voices returned. "IT MAY HAVE THE TREASURE-FLOWER, BUT IT MUST PROVE IT IS NOT RENEGADE. IT MUST GO AMONG US AND GET TREASURE-FLOWER." Clifton didn't quite understand the words, but his contact with the thing told him that the flower would be just within the hive. The Wasp-King rose into the air as Clifton stumbled to his feet. The distance was less than 30 paces, but it took Clifton several minutes. The insects were all around him, and he stumbled blindly toward the hive. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears, but he couldn't block out their feelers or their wings, which were constantly around him. He couldn't block out the droning of their wings, or the memory of their eyes. Nor their insane presense in his mind. It took all his will to keep from running, but he knew that if he did, they would flock to attack him, stinging him repeatedly. He struggled onward, until he reached the papery hive entry, which stood about half his height. He rolled onto his back and stuck his head and arms underneath the opening and felt above the entry. Finally coming upon what seemed to be a large flower, he carefully removed it from the wall and struggled out. He opened his eyes only long enough to be sure that he had the flower, and began walking slowly back toward the doorway. The insects slowly dispersed, and he finally stumbled the last few steps to the doorway. There had never been a sound so delightful to Clifton as the complaint of the iron-shod oak and the satisfying boom of it as it met the jam. Exhausted, Clifton sank to the floor, propped his back against the door, and slept. Luthias began to wonder why someone hadn't asked Marcellon how long this thing would last. It had been several minutes, but no one had dared to leave the room, least of all Luthias, with Sable at his side, and Lauren. Would this take minutes or hours, or days? No one had spoken; everyone was watching Clifton, yet his countenance had not changed since they had begun. His long face showed little of the youth it had when he and Luthias had spent more time together. Nor had Marcellon's, of course, as he been in some sort of trance as well. "How long?" Luthias finally asked Lady Lauren. She stopped pacing, stared a him a moment. "A few more minutes," she faltered. "Not long, Lord Luthias," she assured him, with a shaky attempt at a smile. "It is never long." Myrande looked at the seemingly sleeping Duke. "I don't like the way he breathes," she said, noting Clifton's labored pants. Lauren whirled upon Luthias. "Is anything wrong with his heart?" No one noticed the informality. Luthias shook his head. "He loves you. Don't worry," Luthias tried to convince Lauren, but he sounded too worried himself. He grimaced and walked away a few steps. Lauren watched as Myrande followed Luthias with her eyes. When Luthias was out of earshot, she asked, "How long have you loved him?" Myrande appeared startled. "Since I was sixteen, seventeen." She smiled. "Is it so obvious?" "I just know things, sometimes," Lauren reassured her. "Clifton said something about you asking Luthias' father for his hand..." "Not exactly, my lady," Myrande replied, watching Luthias. They were speaking softly, and Luthias looked like he had slipped into another world. "When I was sixteen, Luthias' father, Fionn, asked me if there was any man I preferred, so he could see about a marriage for me. I told him, and he said we should wait." She swallowed. "And so I have waited." "And you can't stop loving him?" Myrande shook her head. Lauren sighed. "I never knew what that was like...until Clifton..." She looked at her love, still breathing heavily. "It should be soon..." Soon, indeed they both showed signs of waking up, and everyone watched anxiously as Clifton took a deep breath. Both Luthias and Lauren caught their breath as they saw the haunted look in Clifton's eyes as he opened them, then slumped back into the chair. "He is fine, just let him rest a while." Marcellon said groggily. Luthias thought that Marcellon could probably use the rest as well. Still, Lauren went to the Duke's side. Clifton opened his eyes, smiled weakly. "Flower, my lady?" he asked, holding out to her a white rose, but his hand fell weakly to his chest, and he gave in to sleep. "Father!" came Lauren's cry. Luthias saw her pointing at Clifton, and noticed, for the first time, a delicate white papery rose lying across his chest, and knew what it meant. Luthias grinned, most of the tension leaving him. Sable was suddenly beside him, and they shared a smile. Lauren continued whooping--there was no other word for it--"He did it! We have your blessing?" Marcellon looked stern. "I will have to give it some thought." Luthias' grin crashed and was deformed into a frown. "What?" Lauren's expression was one which only a father could bear. "But, father, he's done it! He's fulfilled the test! He's proven himself." "Yes, he has. He is a good man, and I promise to let you know if I find him acceptable." "Find him acceptable?" Luthias was startled to hear Myrande's voice. He stared at her. She was angry, a black kitten with claws. "What do you mean? He loves her, Lord Marcellon. Don't you know how lucky she is to love a man who actually loves her back?" Luthias winced. Marcellon looked at Lady Myrande sorrowfully and shook his head. "There ss more to it, milady. You do not understand." "What is there to understand? You are denying me what I have waited years to have! Father, he's passed your damned test, and he's the Lord of Dargon! I refuse to allow you to be so unreasonable." "Unreasonable?" Marcellon thundered. "Would you end up as your sister did?" "Clifton would never so abuse me," Lauren said haughtily, pride in her eyes and her posture. "You cannot have him," Marcellon announced with finality. "No!" Lauren replied. "What?" Marcellon asked, his voice incredulous and furious. "I said no. I love him, and if you cannot find it in you to approve after he has gone through so much, then I shall marry him without your blessing!" "I am a wizard and--" "I know that you're a wizard. Do you think I am without power of my own--or that I fear you more than I love Clifton? Father, I've seen some of your books and I know some of your tricks. You may kill us, but it will take time and effort, and in the end, at least we'll die together!" Lauren turned to Luthias. "Help me take Clifton home." Luthias moved to lift his cousin, and Lauren turned to him, but her father grabbed her wrist. "You defy me, then?" Lauren's head was high. "I love him, Father. I will marry him, with or without your consent." Marcellon slumped into a chair and closed his eyes. "Thank God." Lauren was on the defensive. "What?" Marcellon smiled and waited before continuing. "Now listen, Lauren. Clifton has proved himself worthy of you. No other man has passed my test of him--gaining something delicate, such as your love, without using force. But what if you did not love him? I would not allow you to marry someone whom you did not love, even if he succeeded in passing my test." Lauren was wondering if she should faint. "Then why the test? Why didn't you just ask me whom I loved?" "I did not want you beaten and abused, dearest," Marcellon said affectionately. "If you remember, your sister loved her husband. I wanted that test, to keep you alive and happy. But if the right man passed, and you did not love him..." "But you knew I loved Clifton!" "Yes, and you loved the others, but would you have defied me for any of them?" Lauren shook her head. "I thought not. And so, there was a second test, my dear. Your test." "What?" Lauren seemed on the edge of fury. "You had to be worthy of him, as well. Until you defied me, you had not proved yourself or your love to me. I know you must be angry with me, but it was necessary." Lauren understood, though she clearly had not approved of her father toying with her. "I understand, Father." She returned to Clifton's side and he quietly smiled. With that, the last of her anger vanished. "Put him down, Lord Luthias," Marcellon commanded, smiling. "Lauren, wake him." Something gentle and soft touched Clifton's lips, and he woke. "I brought you a flower, Lauren," he mumbled. Then he saw Marcellon standing behind his daughter. Luthias felt distinctly out of place. Clifton stood proudly, although he felt exhausted. "I ask again for your blessing." Marcellon smiled and bowed. "You have it, your grace--or may I say, my son?" Clifton cheered, grabbed Lauren, kissed her lips, twirled her through the air. She laughed like a girl. Marcellon beamed his approval, until finally Clifton put down the man's daughter and shook his future father-in-law's hand. "Thank you...Father," Clifton said. Marcellon embraced him. Clifton turned to Luthias. "Come on, manling, we've got a lot of planning to do." "Where are we going and what are we planning?" "Home--the wedding, manling, the wedding!" "When will you be getting married?" Marcellon asked. Clifton blinked, then looked at Lauren. "Next week?" "Next week?!" Marcellon protested. "I don't want to wait," Clifton said dreamily, putting his arms around Lauren. "Nor I," Lauren agreed, laying her head on his shoulder. "So soon..." Marcellon said uncertainly. "What's to be gained by waiting?" Luthias argued practically. "Very well," Marcellon agreed, smiling. "Next week." Clifton kissed his bride as a celebration of the concession. Marcellon touched Luthias' shoulder. "Come, milord. I think they'd prefer to be alone." Unnoticed, Marcellon, Myrande, and Luthias left the room. Walking through the halls, Luthias offered his arm to Myrande. She smiled, took it. "Well," sighed the Baron of Connall, "it looks like we're having a wedding after all, Sable." Sable laughed softly. Luthias stopped, looked at her. "I'm sorry it can't be yours." Myrande elevated herself on her toes, and kissed his cheek. "Give it time, my lord," she said, smiling. She leaned on his shoulder contently. "Give it time." -M. Wendy Hennequin and David A. Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

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