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More Ring of Lightning

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A Meeting of Hard Heads

He stationed himself gingerly on the only other marginally sturdy piece of furniture in the room: an exceedingly uncomfortable foot stool. Mikhyel, more daring (and thirty pounds lighter), settled into one of the spidery chairs, and crossed one elegantly tailored leg over the other.

Flaunting his comfort, damn his grey eyes.

Or damn Nikki's blue ones.

As Nikki had pointed out, the Tower and City politics were their middle brother's life. He couldn't blame Mikhyel for feeling at ease in this place. If the Tower and the rings disturbed him, it was a direct result of his willful, lifelong avoidance of the place, and that was his own choice, no one else's doing.

Thanks for the insight, little brother, he thought rather sourly.

In the perfect, geometric center of the room, where memory and knowledge placed the rings themselves, a shimmer filled the space between floor and ceiling. That shimmer was definitely not a part of his memory of this place, and he found that difference uncomfortable in its implications.

For two generations, Anheliaa had been free to experiment with the Rhomatum rings without a check rein, so long as the power-flow continued uninterrupted, and experiment she had, without, following Mheric's death, benefit of backup, lacking even an apprentice to attend the rings as she slept. A confidence---or arrogance---only the Rhomatum ringmaster could afford.

As he'd told Nikki, he believed Anheliaa to have had one end only in mind, but this shimmering barrier, a side benefit Anheliaa would undoubtedly consider a parlor trick was, like the mental locks on this room, . . . disturbing . . . to any sane man.

And Khyel spent all day, every day, in Anheliaa's disturbing company.

Of a sudden, the shimmer evaporated, and Deymorin felt a slightly off-target deja vu. The rings he recalled filled his mind's eye, to the periphery and beyond, but while this gently swaying silver structure unquestionably dominated the room, the Cardinal ring was only slightly taller than he.

Most city-born children asked their parents how the lights worked and got Tamshi stories of magic and strange creatures, and underground rivers of light---and the Rhomatum rings. Few ever saw the real thing, only the enormous duplicates in outdoor stadiums erected for festival dances. Or the miniature versions: the clocks that ran the city and every citizen's life, whose cardinal ring, (properly aligned, of course,) synchronized with the Rhomatum Cardinal, keeping everyone in absolute synchronicity.

Rhomandi children, on the other hand, learned about The Rings. For Rhomandi children, there could be no romance. no mystery. He'd been taught the ley stream was a source of power, tappable as the power of an Outside water stream was tappable to turn a grinding wheel. At six, he'd been taken on a tour of the original mines, where the natural ley still struggled, the crystals regrowing with painful deliberation that which had been stripped away.

And he'd seen the growth chambers, where humanity provided ideal conditions for leythium seed crystals to mature into the tiny webs used in the bulbs and heaters. Web-filled lights that glowed when aligned with that stream, heaters that likewise tapped that powerstream created the lift for the floaters, the boilers piped steam to kitchens for cooking and heating or to the pipe organ in the ring-stadium.

But those were recognizable, understandable phenomena. These solid rings of silver and leythium alloy, each several times the weight of a man, floating freely in that powerstream defied logic, and made a practical man . . . ill at ease.

Even less logical was their slow change of momentum until the chaotic swings became orbits, taking on a peculiar rhythm, a rhythm you sensed, but could not define . . .

Until only the radical streamer, warping and stretching its mysteriously unpredictable course in and around the other rings, made, in its very irrationality, any sense whatsoever.

"Ah, that's better," Anheliaa said, sounding---abruptly---stronger, clear-headed.

Spooky, that's what he called it, this symbiotic relationship between the rings and their master. A relationship he wanted nothing to do with, thank you anyway, brother Mikhyel.

On the other hand, as frail as Anheliaa had appeared at dinner, this disturbing symbiosis might be all that kept her going these days. Despite the disbelief of the Pwerenettis of the City, Khoratum had cost her dearly, the capping itself leaving her in a comatose state for three months. According to Diorak, only the rings had kept her alive during that crisis.

Personally, he would wager it was Anheliaa's own perverse nature.

"Well, hello there," Anheliaa said softly, and leaned over, stretching a hand to the floor.

A small green and gold streak flitted up her sleeve to perch expectantly on the chairarm, its tiny reptilian tongue flickering in and out, tasting the air.

"And where are your friends?" she asked conversationally, and reached again, this time for a container sitting conveniently on a side table. She dipped a finger, stiff and crooked with arthritis, lifted it covered with a red paste that flickering tongue seemed to find delicious.

As if in response to a silent alert, several more tiny heads appeared from the fountain's stony recesses.

He resented her deliberate enticement of the lizards, as he resented this venue. He'd learned the year his voice changed the City's lizards were not for him. His tones were evidently too deep, too resonant for their . . . delicate sensibilities.

Anheliaa wanted to keep him quiet and off-balance.

Two other creatures had joined the first, possibly a dozen more roamed the room at will. Leypower attracted bugs, one of its less romantic aspects, in particular, a rather nasty little spider these creatures favored. As a consequence, and since static-generating fur---alive or otherwise---was legally banned from all but the outermost sections of the City, these tiny reptiles had become more common than flies in a barn.

In areas of the City where rats were a problem, they cultivated snakes.

Ten foot long snakes.

Tiny feet skittered over his hand and up his arm, and launched a tiny body from his head over to Anheliaa's chair.

He preferred the snakes.

"Nikki's birthday has forced me to face my own mortality," Anheliaa said, in that same gentle voice she used to the lizards. "I can no longer put off the question of my successor."

"Planning on leaving us soon?" Mikhyel asked, his voice carrying a teasing lightness he had heard Mikhyel use only to Anheliaa. He'd never questioned that difference, had always assumed Mikhyel simply liked Anheliaa's acerbic company. Now (Thanks ever so, Nikki-lad.) one had to wonder if that lightness hid a very real concern for the future of the City, or even, considering Anheliaa's actions at dinner, a gut-deep fear of upsetting Anheliaa.

"Well, no." Three tongues gathered about Anheliaa's finger, flicking the paste away a granule at a time. She chuckled softly. "But I tire quickly these days. I'd hoped Nikaenor would prove proficient, but . . ." She shrugged. And winced. "Even with Talent, a real master requires time to mature, and I've decided I can wait no longer to locate a meaningful apprentice."

Mikhyel's grey-eyes turned to him expectantly. Waiting, undoubtedly, for him to leap up and declare himself and his mythical Talent. Well, Mikhyel had a long wait coming; personally, he did not give a damn who replaced the woman, as Anheliaa well knew, and Mikhyel, by now, should.

Anheliaa's announcement did, however, make a man wonder if Mikhyel hadn't known about this meeting all along---wonder if he had staged that business before the party precisely because this meeting was scheduled.

He returned a senior-brotherly 'dare you to say anything' raised-brow challenge. A challenge the disappointment he sensed in his brother's eyes in one blink made him regret in the next.

But the moment had passed, the look was gone, and Mikhyel was asking Anheliaa soberly, "None of the monitors have shown promise, then?"

"The web won't disintegrate because Anheliaa Rhomandi dunMoren passes from it, if that's what you're worried about," she said dryly.

Mikhyel made a sound of protest, swallowed it at her lifted finger.

"If not, you should be. You take too much for granted, Mikhyel. I've six aides who cover for me at need, and there are eighteen monitors running shifts below us, and three times that number on inter-tower communications below them. Any half-competent controller can keep Rhomatum attuned to the leys now; with Khoratum capped---" She threw an archly triumphant look past Mikhyel to him. "---it practically monitors itself, and storms slide right past the Zone. But I intend to leave a worthier legacy than that. I built Rhomatum tower into more than a simple ley station, and I won't allow it to wither into mediocrity."

Another flickering glance from Mikhyel. "Does this sudden urgency have anything to do with those messages we've been getting out of Mauritum?"

Anheliaa said, showing none of Mikhyel's reticence, "Garetti is an irritant, nothing more. He resents my capping of Khoratum. Likes to claim it undermines his available power---claims that's why he can't give his people all we have. Says we've used it to force them into the trade agreement."

"Why doesn't he simply disconnect the Rhomatum connection, then?" Deymorin asked, keeping his voice low for the damned lizard's sake.

"He's already got one radical line he can't possibly cap---not unless he learns to breathe salt-water," Mikhyel explained, his voice lacking the contempt it usually conveyed on such occasions. "If he releases Rhomatum, it means releasing Persitum node. He won't affect us to speak of, Persitum node would still be capped and allied only with us, but creating a second uncapped node would cut Mauritum's power in half, since Persitum is the complement of the radical node."

"Don't bother, Mikhyel, dear," Anheliaa sneered. "Your brother is incapable of understanding."

Mikhyel's cool glance drifted from Anheliaa to him, expecting some sort of rebuttal, but Anheliaa could insult him all she wanted. She was, after all, the one who had invoked the lizards, thus setting the parameters. He might even surprise her and abide by those rules, say nothing and get out of here without argument.

"Is it our doing?" Mikhyel asked her, finally. "Has he any legal stance whatsoever?"

Anheliaa sniffed. "Mostly, the man lacks Talent. But the fact is, even if he could successfully manipulate that much ley, it would require more power than Mauritum node can supply---power he'd have to get from Rhomatum, and he doesn't want to pay for it."

"And if he decides to come and take what he doesn't want to pay for?" Deymorin asked, regretting anew missing his earlier opportunity to discuss Nikki's attack with Mikhyel in private.

A faint smirk played over Anheliaa's lips.

"That is a concern, of course. It would be difficult, but not impossible, once I'm gone. Too many unsuccessful, but marginally competent and thus purchasable, trainees who could be placed in control here however disastrously for our web. As I said, Rhomatum is virtually monitor free for normal use. I'd like to see stronger ties between Rhomatum and our satellite nodes---something more permanent than economic ones. We've grown far too insular in the past century. . . . But I get ahead of myself. I've been searching for an apprentice."

"Searching?"

A regal tilt of her bewigged head toward the rings. "I've located possibilities. Several of them female and quite personable."

Mikhyel blinked and shook his head confusedly. "Female? ---Why is that significant?"

"I also want to assure the line before I die," Anheliaa explained, delicately, for her.

"Assure it how?" Deymorin, unlike his naive brother, had no doubt as to her meaning and meant to force her to say it outright.

The lizards flitted over Anheliaa's arm and out of sight. She swore softly, then raised a disapproving brow at him, making him feel like a recalcitrant child.

He started mumbling an apology, caught himself and repeated the question instead. But she'd won a round, making him feel that way, and her faint smirk reflected that victory. "After all your practice? Mheric's son, I'm ashamed of you." And in a sudden, all-business turning: "Now, I've been searching, and the rings have conjured any number of likely prospects . . . "

"Pros---pects?" Mikhyel repeated softly.

Deymorin glanced toward his brother, seeking outrage to match his own, but Mikhyel's face displayed only studious interest and puzzled curiosity.

"What she's saying is," he said, ruthlessly clarifying for his biologically backward brother, "we're to set up a stud service."

"Deymorin!"

His backward brother picked the damnedest times to take offense.

"Wake up, Khyel. No verbal dressing will change what she's proposing."

"I'm suggesting---" Anheliaa remained the picture of serenity, not even going through the motions of considering their feelings, or of granting them a choice in the matter. "---you get married and see to your civic responsibility."

"Civic---?" He choked on surprised laughter. "Is that what they're calling it these days?"

"Deymio," Mikhyel broke in softly, his reaction masked behind lowered eyes, "Let her finish."

But his voice was unsteady, a point he was damned Anheliaa would make off him.

"Hell, brother, I've done my---responsibility. Long since."

"She means legitimately."

"I've acknowledged them."

"Them?" Anheliaa asked, with some interest---the first she'd expressed in his affairs in years. He responded with bitter lightness:

"A boy and a girl. Their mothers are quite happy, thank you. Married, now, and doing fine."

"Where?"

"I'm taking care of them, thanks all the same," he said coldly, wanting none of her interference in his children's upbringing.

"I don't mean now. I mean where were they conceived?"

"Anheliaa, really---" His brother's face had gone bright red and Deymorin, having no real desire to embarrass Mikhyel, prepared to drop the subject.

"Hush, Mikhyel." Anheliaa had no such reservations. "It's important. ---Deymorin?"

He laughed harshly. "I really couldn't tell you."

"Frequent meetings, then?"

"Very," he answered drily, and in stage whisper to Mikhyel: "Patience, brother, I'm beginning to perceive a warped humor here."

"I had no idea. . . ." Anheliaa was paying little attention to them, staring instead at her gods-be-damned rings. "Any possibility they were conceived here?"

"In the City?"

"In the Tower."

"Oh, well. Sorry, Auntie Liaa, dear. None whatsoever."

The intensity vanished. She waved a hand in dismissal and sat back in her chair. "They are of no consequence, then."

"Charming, Aunt. I thought you wanted grandchildren---or whatever our offspring will be to you."

"Not at all. I want an heir. Quite a different thing. And it must be conceived within this Tower, on women of Shatum or Giephaetum nodes."

"What?" This time, he laughed in genuine amusement. "I've a friend you simply must meet, Anheliaa. Crazy old loon, and he breeds terrible horses, but you'd love comparing breeding theor---"

"Don't mock me, boy. I believe---no, more than that, I'm quite certain conception is the key."

Her face took on a passionate glow; behind her, the central ring's spin-rate increased.

"I was, you see. Your father, both of you, were conceived elsewhere. Nikki, at least, started within the City, but Mheric had that wife of his off in the mountains, totally away from ley influence, when you happened, and look how you turned out. We were all born within the Tower---excepting Nikki, of course, which could account for his inability. According to tradition that's the critical factor---yet none of you are even remotely facile with the rings. Not that I would neglect that; it could well be significant, and I do think the proximity of and similarities between Shatum and Giephaetum nodes can't be ignored, thus the ladies must come from there . . . or, of course, Rhomatum, but that would defeat our other purpose."

"In other words," he interrupted abruptly, "we are to take part in a biological experiment in order---possibly---to provide you with a proper ringmaster and a comfy political alliance, at once legitimate and functional. How romantic, Aunt. And efficient, too."

The passion dimmed to cold practicality; the silver blur of the central ring gained shape and a regular beat. "Romance is hardly a necessary aspect of marriage, certainly not of offspring production, and when it does enter in, it usually interferes with rather than promotes a healthy Family. Just look at what happened to your own parents. They'd have been far better off to be more friends and less lovers."

"Mother died in childbirth, father in a fit of temper."

"Grief."

"I was there, woman. I know. I took the back of his hand, one last time. I heard him berate my dead mother for leaving him with three ungrateful brats, one last time. And then I saw him push a fine horse too hard one time too many---that's what killed him, not this mythical pining for Mother."

"Deymorin, please," Mikhyel interrupted, and the unexpected pain in that quiet plea proved more effective at cooling his temper than any blow.

Deymorin bit his lip, shutting off the flow of bitterness.

With a slight nod, Mikhyel asked, "Liaa, are you certain this is the only way?"

"For the love of Darius, Khyel, you're not seriously considering---"

"Please, brother, for once listen first. ---Anheliaa, there's more to this than you're saying. You've run three apprentices out already. Why?"

"You weren't interested."

"I wasn't what?"

"Actually, neither of you were. While they were possibly Talented enough, someone with the talent and the desire to replace me isn't enough. I need someone to act as a repository for everything I've learned until the child I've foreseen comes to power."

"Foreseen?" Deymorin repeated slowly, an ominous suspicion growing in his mind.

"Yes, Deymorin," she said, all triumph and eagerness now, "I've conquered time with the rings. I can predict the future."

He laughed harshly. Here it was at last. Proof positive. The rings had warped all their minds. "And you sat there while Mikhyel chastised Nikki."

"I'm no charlatan, boy. I know what I'm doing. There will be a child, the ninth generation of Darius on a nine-ley node, and that child will be a ringmaster such as the world has never known."

"Really?" he sneered. "Boy? or girl?"

"I---don't know."

"Perhaps Tamshirin?"

"It was human."

"Well, that's a relief. I'd hate to be crossed with something else. ---Give over, Aunt. It was a dream. A nightmare, if you want my opinion, which likely you don't, but I'll give it to you anyway. You want grandchildren, tell him---" With a jerk of his head toward Mikhyel. "---to get to work on figures that have nothing to do with numbers and leave Nikki alone---he's getting along just fine. You have to lay your bets and take your chances like everyone else, Anheliaa. As every good breeder knows you can breed two champions and get a slug, and two mediocre parents can create singular perfection. You can better your odds with controlled breeding, but nothing---nothing---is a sure thing---and certainly not in humans who have the spiritual capacity to expand beyond innate talent."

"Or ignore it," Mikhyel murmured.

"Deymorin, sit down and lower your voice; you're scaring Ohtee."

"Forget the damn lizard! I'm talking about my life, woman. And Nikki's. If Mikhyel wants to go along with your crazy notions---Rings! let him, I don't give a damn. Give him the whole fucking Estate for a wedding pres---"

Pressure inside his head. Pressure that sent him to his knees with the pain, hands clasped to his ears. A buzz that might be in his head, and might be the rings, whose gentle rotations had accelerated to a silver blur against the night sky.

It was Anheliaa causing that pressure; he knew that as surely as if she'd said it---could almost hear her voice ordering capitulation. Anger filled him, and he fought that pressure blindly, saw a break in the silver blur and laughed, hard and bitterly, as if that sound alone could further disrupt the blur.

He felt the pressure waver, saw lightning flash in the distance, or perhaps it was a ring or two as separate edges within the blur, and forced himself to his feet. There were hands on him, pulling---Mikhyel. He tried to thrust his brother away, but Mikhyel held firm: support, that was all, and he clung to it blindly, heard Mikhyel shout: Dammit, Anheliaa, stop!

Alliance from Mikhyel. That confused him. His anger wavered. The rings blurred; the pressure increased . . .

"Anheliaa," Mikhyel again, softly this time and at a distance. And Mikhyel's support had vanished. "Release him, Aunt, or I will." And a moment later: "So help me, I'll do it---and to hell with the consequences."

The pain stopped---so abruptly, he staggered, and would have fallen again had not Mikhyel's arm caught and steadied him.

"You're a fool, Mikhyel," Anheliaa's voice said.

He felt Mikhyel shrug, felt pressure behind his knees and sat, his eyes clearing on Mikhyel, settling again in his spindle-legged chair.

"You'd have lost the arm," Anheliaa said, cold and uncaring.

"I'd have stopped you." Without a tremor.

And then he realized---which realization sent sickness rising in his throat---Mikhyel had threatened the rings. A touch of a hand would have sufficed, but at the speed they'd been spinning . . .

"Rings, Khyel," he said, his voice coming out a thin croak, "I didn't know you cared."

Mikhyel glanced at him, lips tightened into an unreadable line. Then, he looked away. "She was angry---as you were. I knew she wouldn't risk the rings. Not for simple pique." Another undecipherable glance. "Neither would you. ---Now will you hear her out?"

"Brother," he said carefully, "Much as I appreciate your thoughtfulness, nothing---I repeat, nothing---will induce me to accept a wife of that female's choosing."

"Nothing?" Palpable anger again filled the room, the rings began to swing.

Mikhyel cursed softly, and dropped his head into his hand.

Ignoring him, he shouted, over the rings' shrieking hum: "Nothing. I'd rather a common shepherd's daughter."

"Then you shall have your wish!"

And the silver blur expanded, consuming the room, the stars overhead, and somewhere---a lonely, human sound within the hum of the rings---he heard his brother call his name.

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Some scenes just write themselves. You know the instant you finish them that the blue pencil will never touch the page in any significant fashion. The following is one of those scenes and is my all-time favorite scene to read aloud at conventions. It's one of those odd little bits that gives enormous amounts of information regarding the characters when read in context, but gives very little away out of context, while still being a guanteed good time for all.

Love, sweet love ... with a twist

Death by slow division was possibly too good an end for the bastard.

Kiyrstine romGaretti---she was able to think of herself that way for the first time in months---laughed until her sides ached; dropped crosslegged to the ground and laughed some more; paused to tell Zandy, who stuck his head between two bushes demanding to be let in on the joke, that it was none of his business and to inform Van that they'd be late on the road today, if they broke camp at all; then laughed again.

The Rhomatum was scum of the first order, filled with secrets and falsifications, yet she found herself spilling out details of the failed assassination and not giving a ring-sent damn. Seen through his rather warped sense of humor, the terror-filled, life-threatening night took on a whole new aspect.

They'd had an argument, she and Garetti. All she'd wanted was that he give poor Zandy's machine a second look, consider the encapsulator's potential; a battle (she later learned) he'd been waging all afternoon with Vandoshin romMaurii.

Garetti had thrown her on the bed (his normal method of ending one of their 'discussions') and she'd simply decided: ". . . that this time, he was not going to get the final word---so to speak."

"Meaning the advantages of being romGaretti finally ceased to balance the disadvantages?" Deymio asked, from his seat on the far-side of her tree-trunk backrest.

"Something like," she answered dryly.

"And what did you do? Wave the cannon in his face?"

"I . . ." She picked up a twig and began breaking snippets off, throwing them into the underbrush. ". . . caught him with his guard down."

"Is that what they call it in Mauritum? My, my, shepherdess, your antique customs---"

The twig followed the snippets; she twisted around the trunk and shut him up with a punch in the arm, however his conversational sidestep helped her skip lightly over details she'd rather forget. Biding her time until Garetti was thoroughly aroused and struggling with his complex state robes, calculating her strike to the instant of greatest entanglement, she . . .

"Gave him a piece of you he'd never wanted to contact a piece of him?" Deymorin suggested blithely.

She choked.

"Thought so. This is getting good. Then what?"

"He collapsed---"

"With a most satisfying thud and howl, I trust."

"Quite. ---into a heap on the floor."

"Groaning and unable to free his arms from the labyrinthine folds---come, girl, do it properly."

"Girl?" Again, she almost choked. "You are blind, Rag'n'bones."

"How dare you continue to call me that? When you provided the wardrobe. Besides, a woman would realize that in order to arouse a proper sense of identification and sympathy, you must provide more than the bare bones of---"

"All right. Rings. ---'Groaning and unable to free his arms from' ---What? Oh, yes. ---'labyrinthine folds.' Realizing he was quite at my mercy, I sought a weapon---"

"Are we in your chambers or his?"

"Mine. Why?"

"Well, your choices become somewhat limited, then, don't they?"

"If you only knew. First thing I thought of was a book---"

"How heavy?"

She shrugged.

"What was the title. Perhaps I'm---"

"I don't damnwell know!"

He turned an offended shoulder.

"Not heavy enough."

A testing, over-the-shoulder, one-eyed glance. "So?"

"So, I grabbed a manicure knife."

"Manicure knife? What did you do? Cut off his . . ." He waved his hand vaguely. "You know."

She laughed. "No, though I considered it. Seriously. While highly satisfactory, by that time, I want---needed---him dead, and that wouldn't do it."

"Dead," he repeated flatly. "And why, dare I ask, was that?"

"Come, come, audience. Think. By then, he was screeching his fool head off, the guards were shouting outside the door---"

"Why outside?"

"He'd locked the door, and I knew by that time he wasn't about to let me get that far and live. Anyway, I settled on that lovely, thick artery that lies in the same---general vicinity, so to speak."

He looked slightly ill. "Remind me never to make you angry."

"You already have."

"I appreciate your forbearance."

"Certainly. Let's see, where was I? Oh, yes. Garetti was screeching, the guards were shouting; I mean---" She fluttered her lashes like a bubble-headed adolescent. "---what could I do?"

It was his turn (at last) to choke. "What indeed?"

"I began screeching, too."

"Whatever for?"

"To mask his screeching, naturally."

"Oh. Naturally. And then?"

"I hit him on the head."

"With what?"

"The book."

"The same one? I thought it wasn't heavy enough."

"I made do."

"How'd you find his head? I thought it was covered with robes."

"I approximated. I just kept hitting him and screeching until he shut up---and no, I don't know which got him, the blood or the book. Then I ran to the window and threw it open, making sure to smear the blood everywhere I touched---although by then, blood covered nearly everything anyway---dropped the knife out the window then stood there as the guards finally smashed the door down, waving my arms toward the window, screaming about assassins in the garden."

His stare was a look of mixed fascination and horror. "I'm---speechless."

Which had to be a first in his life. She dipped her head in humble acknowledgement. "In retrospect, I put on a most impressive hysterical wife act. The guard untying my hands---"

"What?"

"One of Garetti's favorite pastimes."

"That doesn't surprise me, but how did you still---"

She grinned tightly. "Talent. Anyway, the guard was wonderfully solicitous---"

"Not to mention distracted by your artfully displayed charms."

"What?"

"Surely your garments were ripped. Bodice drooping, perhaps a bared ankle rubbing his . . . you know."

"No, I don't!" she said primly, retaining what little dignity remained, and honestly uncertain what all she'd done to distract the man. "But he was fully occupied, trust me."

"Oh, I do, dear lady, I do. Remember, I've seen the charms quite . . . unmasked."

When she'd caught her breath: "The other guards scattered like bugs out the window and down the stairs . . . looking for the assassin, you know, and they never suspected a thing. Meanwhile, my husband was bleeding all over the floor, another guard had finally located the wound through the robes---"

She tipped her head toward him. "Does it occur to you that men are frequently blinded by their own prudishness?"

He leaned back, as if to get out of range. "Dare I ask what you mean by that?"

"Only that it was the last place the guard checked. Very silly. I'd have thought, with your male obsessions, it would be a primary--- I'm terribly sorry. Have you swallowed wrong?"

He just waved at her to continue.

"Yes, well, as soon as my hands were free I rushed to his side---"

"To get---" He paused for breath. "---in the way as much as possible."

Her grin loosened. "Precisely."

"You are evil."

"Why thank you."

"Unfortunately, dear hubby still survived."

She nodded. "Suffice to say, by the time he regained coherency, I was long gone with a fair bit of capital to my name, a sackful of rather expensive, locally unmarketable jewelry, and nowhere to go."

"No friends or family who would take you in?"

"None willing to risk Garetti's wrath---I knew that without asking. So I left Mauritum."

His deep frown left no doubt of his disapproval. Charmingly chivalrous, but it only emphasized his naivete'. Let this man do the treaty negotiations and Rhomatum would lose its collective shirt.

"I knew where Zandy---Alizant---had camped. I knew he was as much at loose ends as I. I thought together we might find a solution. He was willing to hide me in the cart, regardless."

"Generous lad."

"Yes, he is," she said seriously. "And then . . . well, you've heard Van's side of the tale: here we are."

"Amazing."

"You don't sound half-sincere."

"Oh, but I am, dear lady. Assure you."

But beneath that polished reassurance, doubt lingered. Or humor. Perhaps that of superior knowledge.

"Rings." She threw a stone into the stream and surged to her feet, calling a tacit end to the coze. "I don't care one way or the other what you think. All I want is your decision. I really don't care to hold you hostage---"

"Oh, was that my choice? You'd have been terribly disappointed, you know. Not much anyone would pay to get me back. Pay you to dispose of me, possibly, but ransom . . ." He shook his head.

"I suspect differently, Rhomatum."

"You don't believe me? I'm crushed."

She bit back an unladylike curse, conscious of her language for the first time in months, and despising herself for that returned prissiness. "You're not like these men. You're not like---" She broke off. She'd been about to say, not like any man she'd ever met, but damned if she'd admit to that. The difference she perceived could be---likely was---nothing more than a cultural facade, a difference in accent and body language. Beneath, he was no better or worse than Van or Garetti, and she'd been far too free with her mouth already. "Well? Are you with us?"

He rose to his feet and brushed twigs off his backside. "Of course."

Simple and straight, that answer. As though she should already know. As though she was a fool to believe otherwise. Suddenly, all the prodding and pushing, the baiting and veiled insults---Because it's fun, for Maurii's sake---all her efforts to contain her gut-level responses, all the sleepless nights wondering whether to trust him . . .

. . . Suddenly all those factors exploded, taking her control with them. "What do you mean?" she hissed. "There is no 'of course' about it."

He shrugged---yet another rejection of the possibility of threat from her quarter. "I assumed you'd realize, when you woke up and I was still here, that I was---"

#

Deymorin's tailbone hit a rock, his vision blurred and faded. When it cleared, Kiyrstin had gone, leaving in her wake only her dulcet tones ordering the men to pack up.

Evidently, they were leaving.

Evidently, his recruitment was completed.

Copyright 1995, Jane S. Fancher
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