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That night, after Brin and Rendar had gone, and the party below subsided from a roar to a hum to silence, Tara paced the floor, her senses extending past the walls and into all the places an eavesdropper might lie waiting to spy on our honest reaction for Brin. Since Tara could pick up soft breathing at twenty paces and a human heartbeat at ten, when she lispered that we were clear I believed her. Nonetheless, we huddled together on the bed and spoke so softly that the crickets in the room all but drowned out our voices even to each other.

``He ish a bad man, that one. When he came in, Rendar shtank of wh'ear. What could make a bra'we man a'whraid like that, Sam?'' she asked quietly.

``I don't know, Tara. I would guess that it is some sort of extortion or blackmail.''

``Wha'sh ekshtortion or blackmail?''

``Extortion is where, for example, I threaten to hurt you, or your friends, if you don't do what I want. Blackmail is where I threaten to tell another, the Prince for example, about some bad thing you once did if you don't do what I want. Either way, if you don't obey me, you are badly hurt.''

``What i'wh I jusht ...''

There was a flicker and a breeze and I felt razor sharp claws stroke -- backwards and smooth side out -- gently across my throat.

``That is a good question. I'm sure Rendar doesn't hold back out of love. But suppose that I had arranged it so that if you did rip my throat out then the Prince would immediately learn what bad thing you once did or that someone you love would die badly in the night. With an organization of bad men at his disposal, Brin's reach might very well extend past the grave.''

``Wh'ind out?''

``You betcha. If we can get Rendar off the hook, we might live through the next few weeks. If not, well, Brin certainly expects to kill us when this is over.'' This elicited a rather painful reflex claw extension on Tara's part. Her breath hissed out softly past her oversized (and growing) canines.

``I think Brin die,'' she said.

``Me too. But I don't want to have to run for it afterward. So we'll play this one very cautiously. I need to get into court anyway, and if I can get in with money or the appearance thereof, so much the better. Be sure to keep up your `dumb cat' imitation.''

``Awwwrrrgh. Why? No wh'un to be dumb.''

``Because dumb animals can't talk. Which means that you can overhear a lot of things that people would never say around a smart animal. Or one that could talk. I'm especially interested in getting an ear into court, and in getting a line on Brin's plans and intentions.''

``Mmmmmmrrrrrrrggggh. Tara ishn't dumb. She's shmart. It'sh shmart to be dumb, ishn't it thish time, Sam?'' - with her best grin, a sight nannies could use to cow rambunctious children.

``You bet, puss. And don't get upset when I make you sound even dumber. And watch that you don't ham it up too much - just think cat thoughts and -- rarely -- misobey a command. And don't be surprised or take my throat out if I cuff you up a bit for show.''

``Rrrrrooooooowrrrrrrr. Better not kick, though. Might loosh your wh'oot.''

My wise-ass pet. On that note, we snuggled up against the chill and crashed. I'd managed to get lice more or less eradicated from Graber's hut, and thus from me, while I slept there. I think I found whole new species of the damn things in the hotel bed, which kept me from sleeping all of three minutes.

Dawn the next day was cool, bright and early. Too bad we missed it. Around noon we dragged our aching asses out of bed and washed off with the pitcher of tepid water set on a table near the door. Tara signaled a hidden listener, so I talked to her like she was a pet while she made faces. I changed clothes, wishing for a real shower and a thorough delousing, and carefully moved my derringer into its specially concealed holster in my boot. Knives and a few other implements of general destruction went here and there. My cash metal, heavy and uncomfortable as it was, went into leather pouches sewed at various strategic places inside my tunic and mail. The room might be ``safe'' for some possessions (such as clothes and common material items), but coinage would vanish in no time. My swords obviously went wherever I did.

We ambled down to breakfast. The tavern was still deserted, but there was a cook/bartender/waiter on duty who served a heavy meal of about eight eggs (scrambled), two ham steaks an inch thick and broiled over the ever-present fire, a thick cooked wheatmeal gruel, and, at my request, a large mug of hot water and some coarse brown sugar, into which I infused a collection of minty aromatic herbs I called ``tea''. Tara ate two thirds of all this and I one third. Afterwards I felt much better and set out, Tara walking beast-fashion by my side, for a certain silversmith's shop.

The silversmith was recommended as a friend by Brand (who was his uncle, as it happens). I intended to find a home, both for me and for some of my heavy metal money. I also needed to make certain other purchases if I was to enter court life and hope to stay.

The silversmith, a man about my age (but looking much older) named Willek, turned out to be a great help and grew to be a good friend in his own right - somewhat later. When I first entered his modestly prosperous shop, he shooed his two customers (they were ``regulars'') right out and closed it down. We then sat down on his bargaining rugs: a soft, comfortable mound of rugs and silks thrown over bales of soft cotton filler to make something like a suite of bean bag chairs. This `divan' surrounded a small table holding a flagon of surprisingly good wine, some fruit and other little delicacies. It felt very Arabic and, as it turned out, it was Arabic in origin8.1. Apparently Willek's clients were well-to-do and liked a comfortable shop that catered to rich tastes.

I began to feel quite mellow when he poured me wine in a silver goblet chased with gold and set with emeralds and rubies. I was also pleased that he made no objection when Tara settled in at our feet and began sampling fruit, squirrel style.

``Brand has told me much of you, friend Sam, and of Tara, too. He has also told me that you have enriched him by a factor of two in the last year, while growing in wealth yourself,'' began Willek.

``I hope what he has said was, ummm, discrete. And yes, I've been privileged to share a few little ventures with Brand that turned out profitably. But nothing like what I hope to accomplish in the city of Sind-a-Lay. With you, perhaps?'' I said this last while eying him quizzically across the table.

``Brand says you have a new concept, you call it banking, that makes a man wealthy where he was poor, and wealthier still if he was rich to begin with,'' continued Willek.

``This is so. I also brought with me substantial capital, that is, gold, with which to open such a bank. Although it would be useful to have a partner, especially one who knows the city and its enterprises well,'' I said.

``How does banking work?'' asked Willek.

``It is really quite simple. How did you get this nice place of business?''

``My father died, leaving me a very small fortune in silver and gold, some connections at court, and five years' apprenticeship in the guild of the silversmiths. Brand, my uncle, helped me more than once with money when I was building the shop itself and stocking it. Now I send him money when I can and do him favors as well,'' said Willek.

``Suppose you were left no fortune, and had no wealthy uncle. How could you have started this fine business and become wealthy yourself?" I asked.

This was a real poser. The ``answer'', of course, was that you couldn't. If you were born in poverty you lived in poverty, unless you were a successful thief, or mercenary (which amounted to the same thing). The concept of an upwardly mobile society or a bourgeoisie was alien to the feudal structure of the times. No matter.

``How can the night become the day,'' Willek asked, with a wry grimace of a grin. ``Or a peasant become a king? If it is your destiny to be wealthy, then wealthy you shall be. It is the destiny of the poor to be poor, and only T'sala can change it.''

``Ahh, my friend. Then a `bank' is a divine instrument. Suppose you were born in poverty, and found work in a blacksmith's shop. After working for the smith for ten years, you knew all there was to know about smithing. Yet only the sons whose fathers purchased them apprenticeships and had the funds to set up a smithy could become a smith, and you had neither.''

``Let us suppose further that the smith for whom you worked was getting old, and his apprentices were lazy. People openly grumbled about the work they received, except when you did it. And finally, suppose that there was an old barn for sale in the town that could easily be made into a second smithy, if one had two hundred gold pieces to buy it, install a furnace, and purchase tools.''

``The way things are now, the old smith would die, and one of his lazy apprentices would inherit the trade, perhaps buying the rights from his widow. If one of the other apprentices was ambitious and greedy and had a wealthy relative, he might buy the barn and try to start his own smithy. You, however, would be lucky to just keep your position. And the quality of the smithwork would still be poor, unless the new owner become less lazy.''

``Suppose, however, that there was in town a `bank'. You could go to the banker and say, `If you lend me two hundred gold pieces I will set up a smithy and run it. People like my work and dislike the work of the apprentices of the old smith, and now that he no longer works in the smithy himself, people are dissatisfied enough to buy work from a new, better smith if one were in town.' ''

``The banker would ask where the smithy was to be set up. He would verify that the work done at the old smithy was poor, except for that done by you. He would check to make sure that two hundred gold pieces was enough to set up a new smithy and tide the new smith over until he had a steady flow of regular customers. If he thought the risk was good, he would say to you: I will loan you two hundred gold pieces to start your smithy. You will not have to repay any money in the first year, while you establish your business. Thereafter, you will pay me two percent of two hundred gold pieces, or four gold pieces, every big moon. One percent of your current debt is `interest' and is paid to me; the remainder of the four gold pieces will go to pay off the `principle' (or remaining debt). In a few years you will have paid off the entire debt and will own the smithy free and clear. In the meantime, you will make money for both of us while you work.''

High School economics, I know. Still, you would have thought that I was spouting the holy revelations, to watch Willek's expression while I went through this. I had to introduce a bunch of new words into the language in order to even discuss it, which shows just how alien the concepts were. I could hardly wait to explain in more detail the idea of compound interest.

``This sort of money-lending is not wholly unknown here, Sam. Brin, however, requires that you repay twice the amount borrowed at the end of the first year, and only the desperate or the foolhardy seek the service, as the penalty for failing to repay on time is -- severe. Your `banker', however, charges so little for the money; what if `I' (the would-be-smith) go broke? Then I cannot repay, and the money is lost. And the banker must also have the stomach and resources to pay bravos to keep his borrowers afraid of the, ummm, penalties, as well. This sounds like a foolish thing for the banker to do,'' he said, ``he would soon go broke. Or worse things would happen to him.''

``Good point. There are two additional rules the banker must make before he makes the loan. The first is, that if you fail to make a payment without first explaining the reason and making a new arrangement with the banker, then you `default' on the loan and the banker can then seize your smithy and return you, penniless, to the street. The banker will lose money if this happens, so he must be careful not to make loans to start unneeded businesses or to lazy or dishonest businessmen. The banker must have good judgement. The second is that the prince, the bankers and all the people must agree that the agreement between the lender and the borrower have the force of law, so that the soldiers of the prince will come and evict you forcibly if you default, and punish you if you try to steal the money instead of using it to start the agreed-on business. Otherwise you could borrow the money and simply refuse to repay it.''

``And why would the prince agree to make these agreements a part of the law?'' Another good question from Willek.

``Because we ask him to, first, and agree to pay the prince one percent of each transaction, as a tax. This makes it worth his while to provide the troops for enforcement. In fact, since it will make his whole kingdom more prosperous, he will make more from all his other taxes as well and become even wealthier.'' Until he gets greedy and is deposed by a democratic revolution, I thought. One I was already thinking ahead toward.

``It sounds wonderful,'' said Willek. ``And you have answers for every little thing, except for one. You have, as I said, described very accurately a `banker' that we already have in Sind-a-Lay, who lends money at a somewhat higher rate of `interest' and who has the protection of the prince's soldiers, if not the prince, to whom he pays a good deal more than one percent. I believe that he would view any competitors in a most unhealthy light -- for the competitors.''

``That is,'' he said, ``what about Brin?''

I simply smiled. ``What, indeed? Speak to me of Brin. I have heard so much -- and so little -- of him and his interests. What do they extend to?''

It is well that I asked this question relatively early in the day. After checking the latch on the door to his shop, and locking the back way as well, Willek proceeded to give me a three hour lecture on Brin. It turned out that Brin's activities (for the most part) were well-known to the merchants in town, since they all had to utilize one or more of his -- expensive -- `services' to remain in business. The merchants were also very much aware of the cash flow of the entire city, and knew who made what and who spent what.

Failure to spend an adequate sum on these `services' every big moon or so resulted in a visit from some loafing guardsmen who would break up a few gold pieces worth of merchandise and possibly knock out a tooth or two from customer or merchant, whoever happened to be handy. If this failed to convince the recalcitrant one, the shop would burn down and the merchant would unfortunately burn with it, along with any of his family that happened to be handy. If one attempted to defend self or shop, the prince would hang you (or worse) for `attacking' his guardsmen.

Brin would have loved Chicago in the twenties. He'd of been right at home.

Of course, Brin's interests did not stop with loan sharking and protection. He also got a cut from all the prostitutes and pimps and smugglers (especially the smugglers) and, in fact, from nearly everyone except the prince himself who had any money. The smugglers had a choice between paying the prince half, or Brin a quarter. If they made the former choice, they still had to pay Brin his quarter, if they wanted to live. If Brin wanted a cut of anything, he simply took it. Since he `owned' the prince's guard and nominally paid off the prince, there was very little the prince or anyone else could do about it.

I had seen an example of how the ownership of the guard proceeded, in his control of Rendar, its captain. What I still did not understand was how Brin was still breathing. This was a world where life was cheap and where death for anyone could be bought for a price. Brin regularly raped merchants (like Willek) who could buy a hit from a complete outsider out of petty cash. And Brin had no obvious bodyguards and did not seem reclusive.

When asked this obvious question, Willek displayed true nervousness for the first time.

``Ahh, mmm. Yes. This has been tried before, of course. I was fortunate enough to be present when a hired assassin shot Brin in broad daylight with a crossbow reputed to be loaded with bolts that were poisoned for the extra insurance. One scratch meant a messy death.''

``What happened?'' I asked.

``Nothing. To Brin, that is. The bolts (I recall five of them were fired while he stood there calmly waiting for them) seemed to strike him in the face, in the chest, in the thigh, in the neck -- and simply bounced off. There was no mark on his skin, no bruise. He did not even seem to fall back when the bolts struck. The assassin,'' Willek grimaced, ``was not so lucky.''

I didn't want to ask, but I raised a eyebrow just the same. ``Mmm?''

``Brin slipped his hand in his bag at the first bolt and did something, and suddenly there were guardsmen running down the street towards us, although no cry had been uttered or word spoken. The whole thing took no more than a minute or two, including the time the hired killer re-cocked his massive crossbow with Brin waiting patiently below.''

``By the time the killer realized that Brin was toying with him, it was too late for him to make good his escape, if he had one planned. Had he succeeded, he would have been mobbed as a hero by half of those present.''

``One of those summoned was a witch, and she bound him from afar in such a way that he could not kill himself (though he strove mightily to do so) while the guardsmen took him down to the street before Brin. We then watched while,'' he gulped and grew paler still, ``Brin took his dagger and proceeded to ...dismember him right then and there. But first he did something to the back of the man's neck with a shiny glass tube that he pulled from his pouch, and tied off each limb before removing it. The man stayed awake through the whole thing, screaming, until he couldn't scream any more because of what Brin did to his face, with the sick-faced guardsmen holding up the shredded, bloody torso. And these are guardsmen who would cheerfully rape and murder an old woman for fun.

``No normal man could have borne the pain alone of what Brin did to him; Brin must have used some magic to keep him alive and conscious. Finally he was finished and the guardsmen let the torso drop on its back, guts hanging out, into the bloody muck. I think that he actually choked to death, in the end, on his severed cock or the blood from his severed nose and tongue.''

``Somehow, Brin discovered which merchant had hired the assassin (it was actually a good friend of mine). My friend had a little warning (from me) and managed to kill his wife and his two young children before Brin took him with the same spell, and he then died much the same way. His old father who lived with him merely had his legs and arms broken with mallets but he was weak enough that he died in the street the same day. His sister is actually still alive. After being raped by the ten guardsmen who accompanied Brin, she was blinded, her face was flayed in strips and her nipples were cut off. Then her arms and legs were broken with the mallets, but she was young and survived it. Today she begs in the street. Brin himself always gives her a coin when he goes past her corner.''

``No one since then has so much as dreamed of harming Brin. And if you tell me that you plan to do so, I'll put you in the street and tell Brin all about it myself, to protect myself and my family. Does this satisfy your curiosity, friend Sam?''

Tara's fur hackles were erect from the story, and her muscles were actually trembling with the internal strain. An occasional angry cat-moan was escaping from her in spite of my (hopefully) warning and calming hand stroking her spine. Dumb animals can't understand stories like that, after all.

``I would say that it does, thanks. Of course, I have no intention of doing any such thing. In fact, I'm going to do a job for Brin myself, one that requires me to be at court regularly for the next few weeks. I need suitable jewelry and courtly accouterments, which you can select for me immediately. And I need a house of my own, fairly large and suitable to one with social aspirations, with a courtyard and garden, near the river, and far from you or any association with you. I can rent it or buy it.''

These transactions were speedily concluded. I think that I made Willek a little nervous and, Brand's recommendation or not, I think that he was eager to see the last of me, at least for the time being. I also doubt that he wanted to get involved in a court intrigue, since the prince's vengeance was only slightly less bloody than Brin's.

As I was leaving, on my way to my (hopefully) new address (Willek knew of a sort of villa left vacant by, curiously enough, the last court intrigue involving the princess and her pirate lover that sounded just perfect, if somewhat ominous) I snuck one more piece of important information out of him.

``So when did Brin arrive in Sind-a-Lay?'' I knew by then, you see, that he was not a native -- to Mirath.

``Ten years ago, or perhaps earlier,'' said Willek. ``At least, ten years ago I first heard of a merchant who was beaten up for refusing to hire street sweepers at some ridiculous rate - from Brin.''

``Well, T'sala look after you and your shop, Willek. And fear not. Until this `court intrigue' is over, I'll stay far from you and yours.''

And on that note, we parted.

I had paid for my court costumes and jewelry out of my own gold as it was a perfectly reasonable way to convert heavy gold coinage into lighter worked pieces and jewels; I stopped by Brin's digs and collected my eleven hundred gold pieces. It weighed about twelve pounds and was packed into a wire-wrapped leather sack (to foil cutpurses) with a wide leather shoulder strap. I accepted the offer of a couple of household guards as an escort.

I then proceeded to the villa Willek had directed me to. It currently belonged to the aunt of the previous owner (who lived nearby in a smaller place of her own); she was about fifty (and already nearly toothless) and needed cash badly. The villa, which she showed me through during the bargaining phase, was pretty well stripped of anything valuable on the inside. On that basis I talked her down from seven-fifty to three-fifty, and let her have that although I could have driven her further down, I'm pretty sure, from what Willek told me it was really worth.

I then sent some loitering guardsmen (the word had been passed that I was someone to obey) to fetch the rest of my belongings from the tavern and to pass word on to Rendar that I was receiving. A short while later, Rendar himself showed up. This was indeed fortunate, since a small crowd of souls seeking employment was gathering outside and I didn't know what to do with them. I also needed to buy a complete set of home furnishings, or sleep again in the tavern. I still had way too much gold left to leave it unattended, and it was too bulky and too heavy to comfortably haul around with me, not to mention the risk of open assault that went with it. Brin's servants were still waiting with me, hands on their swords, but I could tell that they were eager to get back. Setting up house is actually pretty difficult to manage in a strange town with an alien culture and nothing like paper money or a bank.

Rendar took command immediately. He selected one of the best-dressed of the lot at the gate, one who had been asserting loudly (and apparently truthfully) that he was the major domo of the last person that actually had lived there, who was unfortunately deceased. Rendar then pulled him aside and had a little talk with him about something I could not overhear but judged, from the pallor that developed in my new butler when the dagger blade was pressed against his groin, to be personal threats should he attempt theft or prove to be less than discrete in my service. This seemed to be agreeable, as he grovelled quite nicely. It is so useful to have someone who speaks the local language do your negotiating for you.

We then gave him a gold piece for himself and charge of a small hoard of silver and gold to manage, and set him to work hiring me a household. Rendar also appointed two of his own guardsmen to watch the stash of gold inside, reminding them that we knew precisely how much of Brin's gold was left in the bag and that it, and they, had better be there when we returned or...else. They swallowed and looked uncomfortable.

The word was passed to the street, some more silver changed hands, and in a remarkably short time two carts pulled up loaded with vegetables, meats, jugs, kegs, and kitchen hardware of various sorts. A newly hired cook (assured to be one of the best in the city by Dojo, my new butler) selected what he wanted out of this floating supermarket and I settled the bill with a single gold piece (keep the change) 8.2 He retired to the kitchen while my sweepers (two of them) began to sweep, my gardener (obviously returning to his old sinecure) began to garden, and Dojo continued butlering. My new doorman (a grizzled old ex-guardsman sergeant run to fat) took charge of the door; his two sons (vouched for by Rendar) replaced the guardsmen in charge of the money and were suitably threatened in turn. Rendar and I took charge of a keg, and looked around for a place to sit.

None was forthcoming except for stone benches in the garden, so the household `boy', was sent with gold to a certain warehouse. Just as Rendar and I were sitting down to a very passable meal (under the circumstances) there was a rattle of carts out front and my whole newly hired household, including the women, bustled away to unload furnishings apparently ``borrowed'' (a nice euphemism for stolen, of course) from the prince's own seized-goods storage. Some clearly belonged to the house, and we were just stealing them back. The cart was accompanied by the warehouse scribe, whom we bribed, by arrangement, at ten percent of street value. This turned out to be ten gold pieces or eleven for the lot including the bribe. The invocation of Brin's name, by Rendar, seemed sufficient to guarantee the integrity of the scribe and the privacy of the deal.

By the time the sun was well-set, Maloon hung overhead like a striped, pregnant beach-ball and I was well and truly ensconced as befitting a minor dignitary or nobleman. Total cost to me (or rather, as I viewed it, to Brin): the cost of the house plus twenty five gold pieces and sundry bits of silver for all goods and chattels, including the first big moon's salary for the hired help. They didn't have a bathtub or hot water heater, though. Damn.


I now directed a household with a butler (male), cook (male), two sweeper-launderers (female), a gofer (the young boy), a gardener (old male), three doormen (day and night shift plus a spare, male and related as noted), a chambermaid (female) and a server (female). I was informed in straightforward terminology by Dojo that all the females and the male gofer were available to satisfy any carnal desires that might develop in myself or my guests, and that indeed the chambermaid in particular (who was the prettiest but borderline retarded) had little other function in the household. The latter was said with a sniff. Clearly Dojo's tastes ran more to males, but he was too smart to include himself in the list with a new boss.

Several of the servants came with their own families and chattels, and once my household was assembled to Dojo's satisfaction they retired to complete their own movement from the streets (or wherever) into the extensive servants' quarters discretely located behind the rear garden wall and connected to the household proper by a gated tunnel. The house had no exterior windows except for arrow slits. It had real battlements that clearly worked. It was placed remarkably well defensively for a place that already stood on the edge of a small walled city on a small hill. It was guarded by the ravine containing the river on one side, a cliff on one side, a wide alley down to the river on one side (clear line of fire for forty meters, and an even wider street and plaza (easily a hundred meters) on the other. It had its own small dock on the river, but any boat that might have come with the house was long gone. Several other, similarly defensible ``villas'' were built nearby and opened out on the plaza; we had the corner house in a ``good'' neighborhood.

The butler obviously had no household; he (and the chambermaid, as desired) slept in small rooms in the house proper to be `on call' should I wake up and want a drink, or something to eat, or a screw. The place had a ``bathroom'', if you want to call it that, complete with a toilet built over a hole that led down to a sewer and thence to the river. The help, of course, had to use chamber pots and empty them at the direction of Dojo into the river or the midden-cart that made the daily rounds.

The same river, of course, supplied our drinking water. Every few years a plague would wipe out a tenth of the city; this was a form of local population control that seemed quite effective. The villas had the advantage of being upstream of the main city by a distance directly related to status. The royal castle was upstream from me about six hundred meters, making me very much in the upper class - I would apparently drink only the most royal of shit.

Not. I planned to drink only ale and wine until I could build a filtration system and teach the cook about boiling water and washing hands. I was also happy that my typhoid, typhus, smallpox, tetanus, cholera and yellow fever shots were still up to date. Doc Ahrens was remarkably helpful about obtaining and administering vaccines, in that last week or so before I left.

In the U.S. I had felt somewhat guilty hiring a local woman to come clean for us once a week, a necessity since Julie and I both worked. I now had a house and staff fit for an English Earl. I could see that I was going to have to adjust somewhat.

Rendar and I concluded the day by collecting a few jugs of wine, to be drunk from glazed clay goblets as anything finer (like silver) would require my personal attention (and gold) to purchase. The staff, including (much to his dismay) the butler, had been shooed away and the door to the courtyard garden closed off. We were finally private. I had no way of checking for electronic bugs, but (since Brin had no way of knowing beforehand that I was taking a house today, let alone which one) I had a reasonable hope that the garden, at least, was unmonitored. Given the history of the house, I wouldn't have bet on the interior. That left one more obstacle to Rendar and I having a heart-to-heart chat.

Brin had clearly summoned guardsmen electronically. The summoning device probably resided in the helmets and worked both ways, but someone as important to Brin as Rendar was probably bugged in his belt buckle, or shoes, or armor as well. I had prepared myself for this with a pad of paper (yes, paper) and a pen. It was a shame Rendar was illiterate, a state that I planned to correct if given the chance, about the same time I introduced phonetic spelling and an alphabet as I myself could hardly write in Ushtian ideographs.

Signing that he should express no interest and continue idle talk, I sketched out an elaborate cartoon of Rendar's clothing and helmet containing `ears' that stretched back to a caricature of Brin. I emphasized my point by pretending to talk to his helmet and miming Brin listening in. Finally I conveyed that Rendar and I should pretend to get drunk and fall asleep, and then silently Rendar should strip.

I was a little concerned about the last, but Rendar was pretty practical and nothing if not bright. I already had a reputation as a wizard, and if I ``said'' that Brin could listen in via Rendar's clothes, then that was that. From the hard look in his eyes, he was thinking about a few incidents that corroborated the possibility. We made a big deal of loudly drinking a couple of jugs of wine each (while we slowly finished our first glasses) and then fell `asleep'. Rendar stripped to his loincloth. He kept his (new) dagger and sword, and we overturned an empty half-barrel on his clothes and armor and went off to another corner of my acre or three of garden.

There we sat down again at a pretty stone table by a fountain, Tara walking a beat through the surrounding trees, and began to seriously work on the jugs of wine, which, of course, we had not left behind.

``Rendar, my man. What do you really know of Brin? What `magic' have you seen him work?'' I began rather bluntly.

He paled a little, or perhaps that was just the light from the greenish Maloon. ``He is more than a wizard! He is a Devil!'' That was honest enough.

``How so?'' I asked. Rendar proceeded to regale me with a number of examples, including the one so colorfully pictured by Willek. He also told me stories of Brin's peculiar sexual appetites and the young girls, and boys, who satisfied them and were consumed in the process. Quite literally, I'm afraid. I had to admit it, Brin was exceptionally qualified as a devil.

Imagine a real sex-pervert-power-criminal from a very high-tech world and consequently virtually invulnerable on a medieval world, living out all his sick and brutal fantasies of control and power in a low-profile position in a one-horse kingdom with a lot of native violence anyway and an essentially unlimited supply of raw material for his excesses. Even if more advanced worlds in connected universes had some sort of ``multiverse police'' (which I doubted), Brin was invisible against all but a direct and personal investigation.

It was high time for Brin's hyper-world line to be abruptly terminated. For the purely practical reason that he was a direct risk and obstacle to me personally, if not because he was a very, very bad man and thoroughly deserved it.

Rendar concluded with the story of how Rendar's predecessor became his predecessor. It seemed that after several years of forced association with Brin (brought about by an indiscretion of the former guard captain with one of the the favorite mistresses of the prince) the only witness (the mistress) chanced to die of the plague. The captain decided that enough was enough and, the evidence of Brin's invulnerability notwithstanding, prepared to once again assume the traditional privileges of the guard captain, all of which (and then some) had been usurped or taxed by Brin.

Not being the foolish sort, he had first hired the best witches and wizards money could buy, and had come away with a handful of charms and poisons. He had also employed one of his trusted lieutenants (Rendar) to help set the trap. Brin had walked right into it.

In those days Brin still ate and drank in public, at least with those he believed he owned. Poison was administered in his food and drink one time when Brin was eating alone with the captain, charms were invoked (including a minor demon), and the captain (and Rendar, who had been hiding in a nearby closet) had moved in to finish him.

Things had gone both right and wrong. Brin had indeed been rendered unconscious by the poisons, although why he had not instantly died was something of a mystery. Unfortunately the demon (according to Rendar) was somehow destroyed in a blast of light when it attempted to rip Brin's heart from his body (which was its geas). Demons, he informed me solemnly, are impossible to destroy by anything less than another demon. They can be banished, but not destroyed. They concluded that Brin must own a more powerful demon of his own.

When the captain and Rendar had tried to finish Brin off directly by cutting his throat, they discovered that they could not touch him. In fact, they could not move a hand within six inches of him. An invisible barrier stopped them at that point. Even in Rendar's apparently considerable experience, this was an unusual way for a guardian demon to behave; he and the guard captain had expected to simply be torn to bits after their demon was blasted. After a few minutes they decided that it wasn't going to happen and got down to work.

They tried a variety of things. No blade could reach him. Fire curved around the barrier. Even smoke was excluded. They had huffed and puffed and `carried' him (holding the rather slippery barrier, as it were) to a pool. The barrier excluded water and they had been unable to force Brin and his shield completely under because of (I interpret) its buoyancy. They had even dropped Brin, barrier and all, from a high window two stories down onto courtyard flagstones, but he fell at a slow, constant speed and gently slowed as he neared the ground. Curiously enough, the `demon' let him touch the ground, or chairs, or beds. Only humans or harmful agents were excluded.

Finally, they had to give up. Brin was showing signs of actual recovery. Rendar had taken an emotional leave of his captain, who had then waited, stoically, for Brin to awake. When his eyes finally opened, and fastened in their snake-like way on the guard captain, the captain said simply, ``I acted alone. But someday, somehow, you will fall, you devil.'' and bit into one of their fast acting poisons that had been held in reserve. It worked well and quickly.

``I still don't know if he knows of my involvement in that night. I was promoted to captain, and no hint of reprisals ever reached my ears. Indeed, Brin himself let it be known that the captain's death was nothing more than apoplexy, and professed his sorrow. But I have seen his vengeance and his invulnerability, and I confess it: I'm afraid of him.''

He said this last with a proud look in his eye, one that dared me to give him grief about it. I had no intention of giving him grief.

``Tell me, Rendar. If you could kill Brin, would you? Still?'' I asked.

``In a minute. Or actually, by preference, over a week or two,'' he grinned, wolfishly.

``Would you take a chance or two to do it?''

``Yes,'' he replied simply.

``Then your story deserves another,'' I began.

I proceeded to tell Rendar virtually all of my story. I needed allies in the city, and my impression of Rendar was that he was dishonest by necessity and cultural training, but fundamentally honest underneath it and a good soul. Besides, I could always kill or incapacitate Rendar if all else failed; Brin, on the other hand, would require all my resources and a fair amount of luck. I knew that Rendar had asked Brand for my tale many times, and had guessed at certain parts of it. I also knew that Brand had told him effectively nothing. I went all the way back to my first times fishing on the rock, back to Julie, back to America. When I was done, Maloon was sinking down and Rendar was nodding, but not with fatigue.

``That explains much. Your kind of wizard is not unknown here. There is even a word, vorwick (wind walker) for those who appear or disappear out of their time and place. And you say Brin is such. That, too, is not unexpected but it explains much.''

``He's from a world more advanced than mine. His matching bracelets and his bag, and possibly his body and clothes, must contain personal defense hardware, some sort of super-smart personal shield. It must also monitor blood chemistry; it neutralized and protected him from your poisons and maintained the integrity of his personal space. I'll bet it even filters the air and would act as a gill, separating air from the water even if you managed to submerge him,'' I warned.

``How then, can he be killed? He never removes the bracelets, and I have never seen him without the bag. Even demons are impotent against it.''

I proceeded to try to explain the second law of thermodynamics, fruitlessly of course. Teaching is really a compulsion with me, even when it is a waste of time. And it did let me clarify my own thoughts, so perhaps it wasn't a waste of time.

The only part Rendar really seemed to appreciate, though, was when I described Maxwell's Demon. Perhaps he thought that was the name of the peculiar demon enslaved by Brin. I concluded: ``...and so somewhere there is a power supply, a battery or generator. The one he must recharge; the other has to reject lots of waste heat to play the tricks that you describe. I personally don't believe that the power supply would fit into his bracelets. It must be in the bag. Unless,'' I shuddered, ``he is a Cyborg of some sort and has a power supply of his own internally. Does he eat regularly?''

``Daily, and even now, although he no longer eats in public. We inquired after this when we decided to try poison, and I've checked it since. His staff are not above talking for a bit of gold, although they won't lift a hand against him. He has some way of truthsaying that he works on them once every few months. The others get to watch the transgressors, and sometimes the children he buys for his pleasures, die. His staff is very honest.''

``I'll bet. Why don't we leave Brin to me. I know enough electronics, uhh, demonology, that I ought to be able to cobble together some way of neutralizing his little toys. And it's encouraging that we might be able to use poison to at least knock him out. I have recipes for some pretty sophisticated ones. In the meantime, lets just maintain the appearance of total slaveys, shall we? And don't forget the `bugs', or hearing demons. Speak nothing of this except when I tell you it is safe.''

``Sam,'' Rendar began in a soft voice. ``If you kill Brin I will devote my life and my fortune to your service. Nothing you ask of me will be too much. But if you can find some way -- any way -- of letting me kill him, I will give you the lives of my sons and daughters as well. You see,'' he continued in a voice that was now like silk, ''the guard captain before me was my father. How else could a captain trust his lieutenant in a plan against Brin?''

``Rendar,'' I replied, grasping his leathery hands in my own. ``If I can arrange it, you can have him, even without becoming my personal slave or indenturing your kids. I only ask two things.''

``Name them!'' he hissed. He was actually trembling. I began to see a little of the price his enslavement by Brin exacted from his proud spirit.

``First, that we use the opportunity, should it present itself, to extract a little useful information from Brin before he meets with his unfortunate accident. There is no point in being too hasty. This could, after all, be mutually profitable information.''

``And second?''

``Well, you might agree to end most of Brin's rackets after he is gone, instead of trying to take them all over for yourself. I think everybody sort of needs a rest from racketeering. And oh, if you would help me a bit with some minor projects I'm thinking about after his death, I believe that I can ensure that your personal wealth and power will increase at a satisfactory rate even without them.''

``The first is easy, friend Sam. A `hasty' death is not what I had planned. One of my nieces and a cousin on my mother's side have gone to feed Brin's appetites. It was this that finally inspired my father to act.'' A truly savage look crossed his face.

``Well, I can help you there. We can make sure that his death is worthy of all the ones who won't be able to participate in it. You see, in his pouch I suspect he keeps a medical kit that contains, among other things, a spinal block and probably some, uhh, `truth serum'.''

I quickly explained about the tube applied to the back of the neck of the assassin and its effect. Sodium Pentathol I streamlined a bit.

``So, you see, the assassin probably couldn't actually feel the dismemberment, until Brin started on his face. He could only watch, in third person as it were, while his body was sawed apart. It is,'' I mused, ``a pretty awful way to die. Especially for one who entertains hopes of living `forever'. And I'll bet the horror could be enhanced a bit, with a little creativity.''

``I'll think about it.'' replied Rendar.

He cleverly avoided promising to give up his familial prerogatives. Sigh. It didn't matter. As I said, Rendar would be a piece of cake to control, after Brin, especially when he was infinitely in my debt. I gave him a few instructions concerning the acquisition of a new set of armor and clothes in the greyest of markets (from Hassan himself, with all communications done in the trader's sign language) and we wrapped the evening up.

We crept back over to Rendar's clothes, Tara in tow, and made a noisy thing of waking up and calling for more wine. We drank a bit of what a grumpy Dojo served us, and went in to crash, Rendar heading for one of my several guest bedrooms.

I'd told Tara what to expect from the help (and not to maim them), which was fortunate, since I was joined almost immediately by Russet, the chambermaid, eager to prove that she was good at her real job. She shrieked and cowered up against a wall when Tara appeared out of the darkness behind her, claws extended, just as she was trying to climb, naked, into the bed next to me.

This, in turn, roused Rendar and Dojo. Rendar laughed; Dojo looked daggers at Russet. I sent them off to bed again and soon managed to calm Russet down by asking Tara to do some tricks. Finally, she was laughing (Tara can be pretty comical when she tries to be cute), and even hesitantly petted `the cat'.

I then tried to kick her out, but at this she started crying on my shoulder, and made it clear that it was her job and that Dojo was already angry and would fire her or make life otherwise miserable if she wasn't doing her job.

While she was doing this (she wasn't too smart, but she was plenty duplicitous) her hands were testing the honesty of my assertion that I was too tired for sex. My hands, meantime, where trying to keep her hands out of my personal space. After a minute or two of wrestling and hissed whispers, I convinced her that I just wanted to sleep, but that she could sleep in the room with me if it would help her remain in good graces with Dojo. She looked at me suspiciously, and finally nodded. She immediately curled up and started snoring a few minutes later.

I listened to her sawing logs for a little while in the dark, unfamiliar room. Tara curled up at our feet and seemed to go to sleep. I lay awake for a few minutes, thinking over Brin, Rendar, the new house, and the fact that Russet needed a bath - in fact, needed to learn to bathe every day, if she planned to do much sleeping in my bedroom.

Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof. Tomorrow was soon enough to tackle the plumbing. Finally I drifted off myself.

All in all, a rather busy day.

When I awoke, Russet was still there, still trying to do her job in a way that was really hard for a sleepy, horny man to resist. The girl had natural talent and a lot of youthful enthusiasm. It was harder to keep her hands (and lips) off the piss hard-on I had quite naturally developed, but after a minute or two of sleepy struggle I succeeded.

Why should it be so difficult when I was doubtless stronger by far than she? C'mon, my friend. It wasn't with her that I was wrestling. It was with me. Russet was young, pretty, and willing (I believe, although it is hard to know for sure) even beyond the call of duty.

It's hard for a red-blooded American boy to become Lord of the Manor, with all the rights and privileges that entails, and remain uncorrupted and ethical and all of that. But I intended to try. I had no moral objections to sex, of course, but I would be damned before I hired it from servants, slaves, or the street, and for purely practical reasons planned to restrict my activity to individuals with some measure of personal hygiene. And pretty or not, Russet stank - bathing was a once-a-month kind of thing, if that, for the good people of Sind-a-Lay.

Finally I convinced her that I would guarantee her position with Dojo provided that she laid off the seduction scenes. I got her (and myself) into clothes and proceeded to lead her down to breakfast on my arm, Lady of the Manor style.

There I carried on over her as if she were the houri of my dreams; insisting that she breakfast with me, seating her and bowing and kissing her hands. Dojo took careful note of my attitude and behavior and looked smug. I took him aside and told him not, under any circumstances, to fire Russet without my personal approval. Russet fairly glowed all the while -- the poor girl was doubtless used to being used as living kleenex and was pathetically grateful to be treated like a human being by someone that counted.

Rendar had awoken earlier and departed on his rounds, so I was `alone', although the entire staff, it seemed, made a point of showing their faces and proving how hard they were working, until Dojo was satisfied and shooed them off.

There was a bunch of shopping I needed to do for items to greatly improve my lifestyle (I was several centuries short of where I wanted to be), and I was also sure that the household was not yet complete. So I told Dojo to arrange an expedition to the quarter of merchants and smiths. Dojo asked if I wanted to buy some of the newly fashionable ``silverware''? I said yes. How about uniforms for the help? Yeah, sure. Chariot and horses, driver? Why not? How about slaves, male and/or female?

I had to think about that one. If I bought them, I could free them, and it would be better to be bought by me than by someone else. On the other hand, it would profit the slave traders. On the third hand, I planned to put slave traders out of business. On the fourth hand, you can't bail out the ocean with a spoon.

I compromised. ``Two. But I want to pick them.''

So we went off to market. I took Russet with us, both as camouflage and to cement my (hopefully) avuncular relationship to her. Tara (who had watched the wrestling with interest and breakfasted with us once the cook had been informed of her daily nutritional requirements) stayed at home, because of her tendency to make horses, and merchants, nervous. As an added bonus, she could keep an eye on things (like the stash of money, although I took a few hundred gold with me) while pretending that she was a dumb pet.

Dojo had arranged a ``taxi'' for this trip, and seemed to be entirely in charge of the itinerary. We stopped at the street where Willek's shop is and bought a set of chased silver goblets and mugs from him (I had admired one the previous day but had no way to carry it). He also provided our silverware, as he, through Brand, had a virtual monopoly on the design - although his competitors were already trying to knock off an imitation with ``interesting'' results. I politely stared right through him, directing Dojo to do the bargaining, and he returned the favor. I then bought the rest of our silver service and a couple of trinkets for Russet from the noisiest of his competitors, eliciting squeals of pleasure and a kiss.

We then tooled off to buy a ``chariot'' and a team of pretty, though diminutive, horses and a set of matched donkeys as well. Dojo hired a driver as well at the same place, although it wasn't clear that he would be permanent. I suspected that would depend on the salary kick-back he offered Dojo. I lunched in a tavern while Dojo collected his idea of uniforms for the crew. This added an old crone (the seamstress) to our growing retinue; she was to complete the alterations in situ.

I insisted that we stop off at the ironsmith's and there I purchased directly a bunch of ironware (mostly to collect re-workable metal) and commissioned several items, including a cast-iron woodstove (I had to draw out a design on parchment, sans bolts) and several cast-iron boxes destined to become ``safes''. The ironsmiths were also willing to work copper, if I paid for it, and I set them to building a few large copper-lined tanks. We then went to the street of potters and I hired a potter and his operation full-time for an indefinite period, and subcontracted a carpenter/woodworker (his cousin) at the same time.

I was planning to give new meaning to the phrase `home improvement'. I wanted to achieve at least frontier-America level comfort before I threw my first party for city noblemen. I was charging all of this to Brin (expenses, remember) and so I was lavish in my ordering. I shot all of thirty gold pieces in a few hours.

Finally, we went down to the slave market.

Now understand, this was slavery in the spirit of the Romans or perhaps the Norse, not slavery like black slavery in America. First of all, Mirath wasn't particularly racially homogeneous - most people had skin that was some shade or another of brown and black hair, but there were folks with white skin, yellow skin, red skin, and hair shades that ran the usual spectrum, enough that I wasn't really an oddity, although white skin and blond hair respectively was was one of the rarest combinations. Second, there wasn't much racial tension, probably because the culture was homogeneous - so much so that slaves came in all colors, as did the other classes and castes including the richest and most powerful.

The real tension was political, between neighboring city-states. Most slaves were war prisoners or war booty; a few were debtors or tax evaders sold as slaves by the crown to pay off their debts. A very few were the sons and daughters of the very poorest of the city, who sold their children to offer them something more than the gutter, if they couldn't manage to place them into indentured servitude as bondservants, which was pretty close to ``slavery lite'' - no more freedom than a slave, but having a prospect of eventual freedom, if only the freedom to starve. Slavery was somewhat cruel, but it was a living.

True starvation was pretty rare in Sind-a-Lay, but not by any means unknown. In fact, it was rare in part because habitual vagrants, alcoholics, and mendicants (the ones who sooner or later couldn't afford to pay off the guard from their daily take) were seized and sold into slavery, where they were guaranteed food and at least reasonable care, depending (alas) on the whim and means of their owner. Food itself was cheap and plentiful relative to the population, making it pretty easy for someone to keep slaves. There were actually various laws protecting slaves, and the fear that they might be enforced (one of the penalties was to be sold into slavery) kept the slave dealers in line although anyone with enough money effectively had a free hand.

So it was ugly, but not as ugly as the racist slavery that thrived in America for a hundred years or so. Slaves could easily be freed, but they were quite expensive and not likely to be freed for less than a really good reason, and were generally reasonably content to have a guaranteed job for life. They were sort of like tenured servants, and hence life for them was actually more secure than the life of my real servants (who did the same kind of work, had to fend for themselves on what I paid them, and could easily be fired).

We went into the dealer's ``office'' where I declined all offers of food and drink while he paraded his wares. I indicated that I wanted a male and a female, young, strong, etc. He brought them out one at a time, naked, and told their histories (if they had one) and extolled their virtues. Dojo would shake his head over this one (hands too soft equals lazy, too fat, smells) or nod toward that (proper humble attitude, strong, beautiful and obviously talented in bed). Some of the slaves would try to advertise themselves to get purchased by what might be a lenient owner; most were simply apathetic. I didn't blame them.

The rules for purchase were very simple and quite modern. Cash on the barrelhead, with a big moon trial period and satisfaction guaranteed, full refund (less a reasonable service charge that was higher on the females) on undamaged return. This was one of the prince's rules, set up to protect his friends (the nobles) who constituted the bulk of the customers. Amazing what consumer awareness can do for the buyer-seller relationship - when the buyer is the crown.

Two of the candidates caught my eye in the first pass. There were certain things, like the absence of any known personal history or connection with Sind-a-Lay and the tendency to look me back in the eye rather than at my feet that I was searching for. One was a young woman with fairer skin than most and - a rarity on Mirath - blond hair. Her asking price was high, but it should have been (and apparently once was) astronomical. She'd been purchased by nobility (including the prince himself) and returned several times, each time several stripes the richer. Her back and bottom was covered with fine scars where she had been whipped, and her nose had clearly been broken and badly reset. She was still untamed, as was clear from the way she tried to stare me down, and `damaged goods' as slaves go. Dojo frowned when he saw her.

The second was a young man (about my age or a bit younger) who looked like an advertisement for body building equipment. He was supposedly a prisoner of some faraway war who had been imported by the dealer, but the details of his origin and capture were murky. He carried himself like one more used to command than to obedience. His back, too, carried some extra scars and he had been branded on the backs of both hands as the punishment for attempting to run away the first time. The punishment for trying to run away a second time (unsuccessfully) is not worth discussing. Dojo's eyes gleamed when he saw the obvious strength, but he shook his head when the dealer apologetically explained the scars and the brands.

I bought them both for a hundred gold pieces total (easily half price). A real bargain. Dojo was furious, claiming that I was simply buying trouble and insisted that they be chained to the cart on the way home. I was just about ready to give Dojo a little lesson on who was going to be boss, but decided to wait for the evening when I could do it without causing him to lose face in front of his staff.

We returned exhausted, late in the afternoon, to the house. I was informed by the doorman that Brin awaited me inside.

I shooed Russet off to her room (or wherever, hopefully not off to my room but I didn't really know where she was ``supposed'' to stay) and remanded the two new slaves to Dojo with a warning to put them in a comfortable room in the house proper and treat them well (or else) and braced myself for a round with Brin.

Brin was waiting in the ``living room''. The hospitality of the house had obviously been made available to him, uneaten dainties surrounded him and undrunk wine (in clay goblets) sat before him. Tara sat cat-style a few feet away, watching him with un-cat-like eyes. The merest tips of her claws were extended.

He wasted no time. ``Rendar has procured an invitation for you at court. Word of your exploits had already reached the prince, and it was easy to convince him that you would enliven a dull evening by being allowed to tell of them. I see that you,'' he gestured around himself, ``have been busy.''

``Sure. It will do me no good just to get into court once, I assume. I must come as a courtly member of the idle rich, so that I am a social equal and not just a gussied up mercenary.''

``Is this house necessary?'' he asked in a neutral tone of voice.

``Of course. And besides, I'm paying for most of it out of my fee and plan to keep it when this job is done, circumstances permitting; I'm only charging certain minor items that will enhance my prestige at court to you as `expenses'. Once things are set up here a bit more, I will invite several of the members of the court here for dinner. I'll simply include the address in the invitation. Surely they know who used to live here. The address, my dress, the household furnishings, and my attitude will convey my economic and social status to the court and the prince in particular more thoroughly than an introduction from the king.''

``That, of course, is the mystery, and why you are likely to succeed,'' said Brin.

``What mystery? It is very simple. I'm the best swordsman on Mirath. And quite an amateur, ummm, wizard, to boot.'' It's easy to sneer at a braggart and expect to control them. I wanted to be a known, controllable quantity to Brin. A little bit of an arrogant wise-ass, but useful, yes, useful. For at least a while ...

Too bad his next words shattered my fond hopes.

``The mystery is rather why you are obviously not just a mercenary with limited knowledge of magic. You are far too aware of the etiquette of the court, and there are things about you that make little sense in the context of this world. I have doubts concerning your origins and your motivation.''

``Ahh, I see,'' I grinned and leaned back, visibly relaxed although my mind was racing. `This world' indeed - Brin clearly was dangling bait of some sort to get me to betray something that he clearly expected, but what? To gain a moment of time I poured myself a cup of wine and nibbled on a fried something. Hopefully an edible something and not something like a goat testicle or fish eyeball, but I hadn't had time yet to make my eating preferences known to the cook.

``Pardon me if I eat, but I'm famished. And help yourself. You suspect that I'm not just another mercenary made good, but am part of some sort of plot against you. Is this correct?''

``Not exactly. I am more concerned about your knowledge of technology8.3.''

``What?'' It was clearly time to play ignorant.

``Technology. For example, how do you come to know about steel?''

Of course Brin would know, by now, about my steel-making venture. I stalled while he explained what steel was. After all, he used a different word, and no word existed in the local language except maybe in the secret language of the ironsmith's guild. Mustn't display anachronistic knowledge in public, and all that.

When he had succeeded in making plain that he meant the `hard iron' the two swords slung prominently across my back were obviously made of, I tried to look like someone whose dearest secret was out. This was easy, because I was, at least part way, and more than a bit worried about the rest. I began to (really) sweat and look nervous.

It was time to trot out my canned `history'. Either it worked, or I died messily far far from home, and Tara too. Oh Lordy. I invoked the gods of Oz and the yellow brick road.

``Well, if you must know - many years ago there was a caravan across the Endless Plain. At the time I was a young bravo, brighter than some but poorer than most, and I hired on as a guard. This was close to suicide, but I was reckless. As surely you know, about not many caravans attempt the Plain, because only one out of three that do ever return. Yet the ones that do return come back with enough wealth split among a vastly reduced company to spur the next attempts on in spite of the risks.''

``We were one of the ones that succeeded, at least halfway. We lost only half our goods and men on the way over, mostly to creni and to an attack by a pack of crenali8.4 When we reached the Far Hills, we quickly found a small town to trade in, but it was in the process of being attacked. So we waited to see who would win. In the meantime we amused ourselves by, well, lets just say we amused ourselves.''

``While in the course of these amusements, it came to light that one of the prisoners we had taken ourselves was a metalsmith. I had an iron sword that had broken during an engagement. The man spat on it, but mended it for me. We came to be good friends, as it were, since I was able to save his daughter from the rest of the boys (keeping her for myself, of course). When the battle was over (and somehow, picking on the stragglers from both sides and launching the judicious attack from time to time it turned out that we were the victors) we took over the town and I, at least, settled down. I even married the smith's daughter when I found that she was with child, and stayed behind when what was left of the caravan packed up their plunder with new recruits from the village and left. When they were safely gone, and I had cracked the heads of the one or two old men who thought that I was now fair game for vengeance, the smith showed me some of his real stock. This included a collection of old swords, including some wizard swords, as he put it. He also took me on as an apprentice, and showed me how to make the `steel' swords in this way, chuckling over my first efforts at the forge. ''

``Two years later another tribe fell upon the village and wiped it out to the last man, woman, and child, including my own. I escaped by hiding in the secret room where the swords were kept. At night I slipped out, carrying the best of the swords on my back, the secret of swordsteel in my head, and the testicles of the drunken leader of the invaders in my hand.''

``I made my way to the nearest city and sold all but the two best swords and enlisted in the city guard. My swords and a certain natural aptitude won me the affection of the guard captain, and I was selected for special training and service in the palace, where I had endless opportunity to watch the court, learning how to be rich and well-born, while pretending to be a statue. I got a bit more training, especially in courtly language, in the beds of the women of the court, who liked to ``shop'' for lovers among the big strong guards as they stood silently by.''

``As for the rest, I also learned by observation on my travels a number of other useful skills known in many places that make the caravan trade so profitable. It seemed smarter to collect knowledge than goods, as things like glazed clay tiles are easier to make here than to try to drag through across the dinner-table of half the creni in the world. I'm good with my hands and quick with my head, and spent my silver bribing apprentices along the way to reveal the secrets of many trades, knowing that they would be worth far more than a handful of items they produce bought for the same silver.''

This to cover me against the burgeoning knitting, furniture and ceramic plumbing industries, in case Brin should know of them.

``Finally, as fate would have it, I was caught in the bed of a noble's noble daughter and it turned out I had gotten her with child. After a narrow escape from the hole where they pitched me (helped by the girl herself) I was driven by a relentless pursuit, wounded, out into the Plain where they refused to follow. I decided to keep going rather than attempt to return, as by now I knew the tricks of avoiding the predators. Halfway across, while sheltering in a patch of hills surrounding a small, crena-free valley, I adopted Tara when I discovered her next to her dead mother. I stayed there a while (the creatures can actually survive among creni, although I didn't see a lot of either one while I remained there) to regain my strength, and then came the rest of the way. Since then I have indeed been a mercenary, but have been biding my time, looking for a quiet place to stop and become rich.''

``I know nothing of `tool work', unless you mean the ways of making things better than they make them here. If that's what you mean, then yes, I'm an expert. With the secrets that I know I can become the richest man in this city, if left to myself, and the prince himself will welcome me in his court.'' The last with a suitably boastful swagger.

This was the story I had worked out long ago with Graber and Lissa, once it became clear that I would need one. I had checked it with Brand, and tried bits of it on passing travelers (some of whom might have reported to Brin, in fact). I could only hope that Brin was nearly as ignorant as everyone else around of the way things were on the other side of the Plains.

``I see,'' said Brin, and there was silence. I could almost hear the gears clicking in his brain, as he tested the story for flaws and, of course, the opportunities for - his - profit. Naturally, there were a number of them. I rather hoped to appeal to his greed more than his caution. Finally, the computation was done, and his face clicked into a smile. ``That explains much. But it also changes the job. You must not compromise your position in court by, ahhh, applying the final sanction in the event that the princess proves obstinate. By conveying the message to her suitably, you can actually enhance your position there, as she will be anxious not to offend you or (by extension) me. But the final resolution, if necessary, I will arrange elsewhere.''

A short while later, after negotiating the limit of my `expenses' and attending to the details of my upcoming invitation to court, I managed to get rid of Brin. He had not eaten a bite, or drunk a sip, the whole time he was with me. Once bitten, twice shy.

My jaw ached.

It's damn hard to talk with your mouth nearly closed. I had two shiny metal-filled teeth, fortunately near the rear, that I really, really, didn't want Brin to see....

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29