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The Dark Brotherhood

My `date' in court (so to speak) was flexible; Rendar had told the prince that I was setting up a household and that he would bring me in as soon as it was finished -- lest I be unpresentable in my travel clothes, I guess. We discussed it the next day when Rendar came to call on me, and decided that I should do it within a small moon. Rendar then returned to his job, and I to my muttons.

My muttons that day consisted in overseeing the installation of a pottery mini-factory in a corner of my walled garden. I'm afraid I wounded the feelings of the gardener rather badly when we cut all the trees and flowers out of a twenty-meter square and built a small shed. I had arranged for a cart-load of baked brick to be delivered that I myself had made in the kiln at Ned's smithy some weeks before. Using them, the potter and one of his cousins was building a slightly oversized furnace/kiln.

I had wounded Dojo (for real) earlier in the morning as he started to nag me about the invasion of `his' household by unwanted slaves, menials, and craftsmen. I had briefed Tara earlier (when it became clear that a lesson would be necessary). At a moment when Dojo was conveniently alone and near a wood-panelled wall, I whipped out both swords and scissored his neck between the blades, pushing them slowly forward so that he was forced to stagger backward against the wall or loose his head.

Once there, I gently poked the tips into the wood so his head was neatly trapped by razor sharp steel. A thin trickle of blood ran from a tiny slash where I had pressed him a little too closely. Then, while I stood there with a sort of a half smile, saying not a word, Tara sauntered over.

With one claw she neatly snicked the rope belt that held up Dojo's butler pantaloons, with her other hand she shredded his shirt over his belly with a single pass. Her control was better than mine; she didn't even nick him. She then caressed his lower abdomen once, twice, three times with her claws -- backwards.

Dojo was so green I thought he'd faint. His eyes bulged. I said to him, in a nice, calm, quiet voice, ``If you ever cross me or open your mouth to criticize one of my personal choices, or actions, other than to warn me of real danger or a crooked deal, then Tara will see how far your intestines will reach. Is that clear?''

He managed to nod a bit without cutting his own throat.

``And in the future, please address me with respect. And address the other servants with respect. And address the `slaves' with respect. You are to fire no one, or hire no one, without first consulting with me. You are to take no actions that do not directly involve smoothly running this household without first consulting me. You will not beat the other servants. You will be quiet and unobtrusive. Or you will quit and walk out of here, now. Or you will die a hard death. The choice is yours.''

At that I released him, turned, and walked away, with Tara trailing me (in case Dojo felt suicidal enough to attack me from behind).

I know, that seems a bit out of character. I really wasn't raised to spend a lot of time abusing the help (of course we had no help, so it was pretty easy) and had no particular desire to start. But when in Rome, you know...

It really was the only language Dojo would understand. Rendar had tried to convey the message to him the first day, but Rendar was not the master of the house; I had to establish primacy myself.

And it worked wonders. For several days afterward, Dojo had a tendency to disappear whenever I entered a room. But meals were on time and - after I spoke equally forcefully with the cook to ensure that they were safely prepared in terms of the use of boiled water, washed hands, and the absence of trash foods - delicious, the house was kept clean, and several of the servants actually smiled at me when I went by. When Dojo did wait on me personally, I'll swear that the look in his eyes was one of approval.

Having a butler is sort of like being married, but without the equality or any possibility of a negotiated truce. Or the sex. Although I probably could have arranged that, if had any desire to.

By lunch the furnace was well under construction. I had to supervise pretty closely, for while I trusted my potter's design of kilns (he came with Brand's recommendation), this one had to have several fixtures with a rather special purpose that was just starting to take form in my mind. In the meantime, the potter's brother and a friend were setting laths across roofing joists in the pottery cottage proper. The potter himself, Rutro, was a jovial sort who rapidly had realized that I had the key to his enrichment (in the form of the ten gold piece retainer I had paid him and the promise of more). He had put together a work area on the side (pending completion of the building) and was making molds for curved tiles.

This was actually a new concept for him, and he had to refer frequently to the parchment drawing I made with a charcoal twig, paper not being invented and pens a rarity. Curved masonry tiles are used for lots of useful things, including a waterproof (but somewhat heavy) roof, and (more important to me) for gutter liners and water troughs and various other things that hadn't been invented yet, like high voltage insulators. I needed a few of those for a special project I had in mind. Once Rutro had mastered their construction (roofing the shed in the process) I planned to set him to making ceramic pipes.

Ceramic pipes are not the best pipes in the world. They will not hold water under pressure, for example, unless they are set by an expert and even then they are prone to leaks. But they are fine for drainage systems, and I needed a lot of them to modernize the household plumbing and install a working sewer. In a couple of months I intended to have hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and a shower-tub. I intended to modernize the kitchen too (I like to cook), and clay would do until I could ``invest'' in an appropriately open-minded blacksmith.

The potter (and his brothers and cousins and the as yet undetermined blacksmith) were then going to form the nucleus of Foster's Home Improvements, Inc., and we were going to take the city by storm. Possibly literally. In the process, we were going to get fabulously rich, and stop some of the plagues in the bargain. If I survived the month, of course, which was the same as saying if Brin didn't.

I left the gardener sobbing and digging our future cesspool with Jona the gofer, and had lunch for four brought out to the terrace right behind the house. I asked Dojo to send Russet and the -- unchained -- slaves out for a bite to eat. He complied without a word or even a change in expression.

Russet (who had come in the previous night to sleep with me, although I insisted that she wear a nightshirt and keep her hands to herself) bounced in, wearing her new trinkets and looking lovely. She was trailed by the slaves, who were being herded (gently) by Dojo in my direction. He presented them to my table, gave a little bow, and left without a word.

For a moment we just held that position. The blond woman was pure ice. If looks could kill, I'd have been in deep trouble. But the man was worse. He was already looking me over, measuring distances, checking out the swords and trying to decide if I could use them. His eyes kept flicking to the door and possible freedom. He walked toward me decisively, hands at his side.

His reflexes were excellent. He stopped his lunge just short of Julie's tip, which somehow appeared, centered on his sternum, just as he made up his mind. Tara's claws gripping his loincloth, and possibly some of that which lay beneath it, from under the table may have helped.

``Would you care for some lunch?'' I asked in my most sincere airline hostess voice.

As he realized that he was not being killed just yet, the man smiled ruefully, and shrugged his acquiescence. When I bowed the invitation to the woman as well she cracked the icewoman exterior just enough to slide -- resentfully -- into a chair at the table. The man turned his back on me and sat next to her. Russet, who had watched the whole transaction with sword-groupie eyes, slid in next to the woman, forcing me to sit next to Russet and the man and as far from the woman as possible.

I sheathed Julie and joined them. Tara, under the table, was enough to keep the peace long enough for me to permanently defuse the situation. The cook (whose name I still did not know) and a nameless waiter appeared with a hot lunch and cool ale. The building had a deep, cool, ale/wine cellar and food storage cellar and they were obviously already in use.

For a moment, we just ate and drank together. It is difficult to maintain your hostility while eating with someone under civilized conditions, but these two managed it. They had a lot to be hostile about, of course.

Finally, I couldn't stand it any more.

``Dojo,'' I yelled.

He appeared, magically, in an instant.

``What is the procedure for freeing slaves?'' I asked.

``You must show a magistrate that you own them, and then state that you free them, putting your mark on a parchment record of their freeing,'' he replied.

``Fetch a magistrate, and the purchase records. Now. Work through Rendar, if you need to.''

Lunch then proceeded in a little more lively fashion. My two charges still would not speak to me, but their eyes no longer radiated hate. Hate had been replaced by hope. Incredulous hope, but hope nevertheless.

I chatted with them and Russet impersonally, ignoring their ignoring me. The slave dealer had assured me that they understood Ushtian, and occasionally there was a twinkle of amusement in the woman's eye as she watched me charming Russet and watched Russet so obviously being charmed. I winked at her across the table, whereupon the ice returned tenfold.

I still didn't know their names. They had slave-names, of course, but I wouldn't use them (I hadn't even bothered to learn them) and they wouldn't tell me their real ones. At least, not while they were slaves.

Just after a too-sweet cooked rice dessert and a piece of fruit, the magistrate arrived. As a minor court official, he clearly resented being dragged out of his office but feared the guard captain's name too much to refuse. He was clearly ready to make trouble, though, once he saw that Rendar was not here.

I simply smiled and placed ten gold pieces on the table. No point in being miserly, I thought. Suddenly, the magistrate was all formality and politeness. Was there anything I needed?

``I wish to free these slaves. There are the documents that prove my ownership. Please prepare the documents I must mark.''

For the first time, there was an actual response from the two. The woman sobbed and buried her face in her hands. Russet, who wasn't really jealous (or only a little) went to her to comfort her. The man's eyes grew wide and a grin appeared on his face. We ate in silence while the magistrate worked at a small table with parchment and brushes provided silently by Dojo. The ten gold pieces had disappeared into his pouch almost instantly.

He paused only once, to ask for their names. I raised my eyebrows at the two.

``Mikal,'' said the man.

``Sharra,'' said the woman.

And we were finally introduced.

The magistrate left instructions for a special tattoo to be applied to the shoulders of the freed slaves. This would permanently establish their status, and would prevent them from ever being enslaved again under a sort of "double jeopardy" clause in the slave law. He also tried to shake me down for five more gold pieces as a `document fee' before leaving. The invocation of Brin's name caused him to vanish, though, like mist before the sun or a bad smell. Shaking me down was one thing; shaking down Brin, even by proxy, was clearly suicide.

I sat back, contented in the chair. ``So, Mikal, Sharra. Welcome to my house. First of all, you are free and the door is over there. At any time you may each have ten gold pieces and a suit of clothes as fast as my pet seamstress can make them and go through it, with or without the tattoo. Or,'' I smiled, ``you can stay and I can offer you special employment as free citizens. It's up to you.''

The man did not hesitate. ``Only an ingrate would refuse to at least hear the offer. What are your terms?''

``Three gold pieces every big moon, each, for acting as personal assistants in my various enterprises. Note that I do not say as servants. I want your full, creative help in what I wish to accomplish, with no questions asked. In addition to your wages, I offer you room, board, and such protection as I can. Finally, at the beginning there will be high personal risks for us all, but to compensate you I will pay you bonuses -- if we survive.''

These were handsome wages, high apprentice wages. Only Dojo was making three gold pieces a big moon in my household (giving him a mental raise as of that moment from the two at which he was hired on the basis of the carrot/stick/jealousy theory).

Nonetheless, both of them were slow to accept. Mikal thought for a long time, and finally asked, ``How long will our period of labor be?''

``Indefinite,'' I replied. ``But you can quit at any time by letting me know a big moon ahead of time, provided that you promise to keep all my plans and projects forever secret in your hearts. Note that in a year you can accumulate a considerable fortune, which can only help you achieve any plans you might have on your own.''

Slowly, Mikal nodded. ``I accept,'' he said.

Sharra was quiet for a long time. At last she started crying. Russet (whose momentary display of jealousy lost out to her really good heart) held and rocked her until she settled down enough to talk.

``I accept, also,'' she said, ``although I have obligations elsewhere. I see no way for a woman alone to make her way along the path I must follow to meet them. Perhaps in a year or two...''

That being a done deal, I sent Russet for a fresh keg, which we broached to drink on it. I paid them then and there their first month's wages, in advance, advised Dojo of their new status and instructed him to arrange for a room and respectable clothing to be made available to each of them, as well as to engage the best court tattoo-ist in the city and give him certain special instructions on sterilizing his needles.

Russet and I then heard their stories.

Let me play Scheherazade, just this once, and tell the stories as they told them.

First Mikal:

``I don't know why I trust you, friend Sam, but I do. This is the first telling of my story to anyone since my capture. I come from a small kingdom from the other side of the Endless Plain. There I was the fifth son of the king; too far from the crown to have any real hope and too far from the street to be free. I was an embarrassment to my father and a danger (or so they thought) to my brothers.''

``Finally, in my eighteenth year, I could stand it no longer. I was well trained in fighting and had some money of my own. I put together a trading mission to this side of the Plain; all men know that the rewards for doing so are mighty ones - if you succeed.''

``After many adventures, we managed to cross the plague-ridden Plain. We were hounded by crenali most of the way. My foreman was eaten alive before my very eyes by two of them. We lost men and animals to creni, crenali, slithorni9.1 and to new diseases that struck us in the swamps. About a third of us made it to the hills of this coast.''

``When we got there, we discovered that there were no cities close by. We were in an oasis, a set of hills disconnected from the main range by a short plain. There we found a roadway that led through a dark tunnel to a strange town with a fortress of some sort at its center, rising above the surrounding warehouses and dwellings. There we went, seeking shelter, real food, and trade goods.''

``There we were made welcome by dark, grey men in strange robes that seemed to be some sort of religious brotherhood worshipping an unknown God. They inspected our trade goods, offering us fabulous prices for everyday items. We allowed ourselves to be won over by greed, and when they invited us to sit with them and break bread together, we fell to with enthusiasm, eating their meat and drinking their wine.''

``The more fools we. And I the biggest fool of them all.''

``I awoke, days later, chained to a cart with some of the rest of my men. Two of our company (only two, alas) had remained behind to guard our merchandise, for we did not entirely lose our wits listening to their extravagant offers, and hence did not eat the meal served the rest of us. From one of them I learned that we had all been drugged and he and his companion had been overpowered. He showed me his wounds as proof of his struggle. The goods had all been stolen away, the men - unconscious - had been chained, loaded onto carts, and sent out on the road.''

``One day I was a prince (lesser to be sure) and hence the peer of nearly any man. The next day I was a slave.''

``I resolved to escape and recross the Plain alone. I bided my time, and late one night dug up the small tree I was chained to with a sharp stone. By daybreak I was far away and well hidden.''

``That evening I knocked off the chains and wandered the roads for some nights (for I dared not travel by day), stealing bits of food to stay alive and looking for a town where I could earn a living and enough money to outfit myself for the journey I planned. Finally I found one.''

``I was seized as I entered, though I had committed no crime. Two days later a slave trader who was clearly an agent of the same dark brothers who first captured me showed up and claimed me. I was branded on the back of both hands as a mark and a lesson, and then sent in caravan to Sind-a-Lay.''

``Here my story is already known to you. I was not a very good slave,'' he grinned, ``and was bought several times but always returned quickly. The trader (and once or twice my `owners') beat me, but I am a king's son and I ignored the pain. I had decided that I would kill my next owner regardless of who it was, and either escape to freedom or die. I am glad I did not succeed.''

We all sat in silence for a moment, appreciating the story. It was suspiciously like what I had told Brin. It sounded quite plausible, so plausible that I immediately doubted it. I wondered if my own story sounded so unbelievably thin.

I let nothing of this show in my face. Out loud I observed, ``Yes, you shouldn't have tried to kill me. You see, I was never your `owner'; I fully intended to free you the instant I bought you and so, by my wish, you have been free all that time. You might try killing yourself; you own yourself, after all. I do hope you didn't swear an oath or something silly like that?''

``No, it was just a plan born out of despair, Sam. I swore to no gods that I would carry it out.''

``Good,'' I replied. They take things so seriously, on Mirath. Or at least, some folks do.

Sharra's story was a little harder to get from her, but (after a couple more mugs of cool ale) we got her loose enough to come clean - or so we thought at the time.

She disentangled herself from Russet, who had been whispering furiously to her off to the side during Mikal's tale, and began with (the by now obligatory),

``...I too, trust you, Sam Foster, and not just because you freed me and freed Mikal there. After all, you might have counted on my gratitude as part of a subtler plot. But Russet, here, has told me some things that, if true, suggest that you are both trustworthy and, for a man, more than a little mad...''

She paused, and looked over Russet's not unpleasing figure with a critical eye, cocked and eyebrow at me, and continued.

``I am from a land so distant that even I have no idea how I can ever return. In my land, which is more advanced than this primitive country,'' (this with a visible sniff) ``I was the wife of a not-particularly wealthy, but warm and loving merchant. To him I had borne two strong sons, and we were very happy together.''

A brief pause for a cry and another mug of ale. The women I met on Mirath could put away ale with the best of 'em. Finally:

``Unfortunately, in the court of our king, there was a certain evil magician who became enamoured of me. He was powerful, and he threatened to harm my husband and my children if I did not love him. He had the direct protection of the king, who was (it seemed) well within his grip - it was indeed not safe to oppose him.

``I told my husband secretly of his plans and demands, and my husband made arrangements for us to leave the kingdom altogether in the dead of night. He liquidated some of his resources and turned them into gold, and arranged on the side (or so he thought) for the remainder to be sold for him by friends after our departure.

``On the very night we were to leave in a newly purchased and loaded wagon, there was a knock on the door. When we opened it, my husband was seized by guards of the king without a word. With him, wrapped in a belt around his waist, went most of the gold we planned to take with us.

``I was left behind. Leaving my children with my mother, I went as fast as I dared to the palace, to seek my husband's freedom, or, failing that, to beg that they preserve his life, for I feared the vengeance of the dark magician. The magician, clearly expecting me, greeted me at the door. He handed me a parcel and bid me be gone with only the words, `Be at my door in one hour. Put aside all resistance to my will, or your children who are now all that remain to you will suffer.' ''

``I was filled with a terrible foreboding by his words, and hurried home to open the parcel. Inside was a human heart and other ... parts ...that belonged to my husband. At least, the finger and the signet ring were his, although the rest of them were scarcely recognizable. Needless to say, the gold was not among the things that were returned.

``I went mad with fear for my children. The monster who would do such a thing to possess, to own, a woman would not hesitate to do as much or worse to the wholly innocent. I buried what was left to me of my husband in the garden - not without tears - and bundled the children into the wagon which still awaited us with my mother and several trusted members of our household, and all the money which remained to me and such valuable things as were still lying around the house. They were instructed to make for a cousin's home in a not-too-distant kingdom and place themselves under his protection in exchange for the money that I sent. It was my hope that as we enriched him, he would care for and love my children as the source of his enrichment. He was known to be a good and kindly man, and on the hope of his goodness and love rests what remains of my sanity.

``I then prepared myself in certain ways, and with certain things, and went directly to the meeting as instructed, for I feared that the monster would strike that very night if I failed to do his bidding. On the other hand, if I could distract him (and his spies) while my children slipped beyond his reach, then I could extract what vengeance I could for the sake of my husband or, failing that, kill myself. For I planned to do what no well-bred lady of our time and country would then dream of doing. I planned to do exactly as he asked, for a time, to buy the lives of my children.

``Allow me to draw a veil across the next few days - and nights! Suffice it to say that he was a man of strange appetites - for a man - and driven by a will to hurt and dominate I have yet to meet the match of, even among the callous and cruel masters I have had on this world. And I, I was his dream harlot. I did everything he asked, and more. I thought of more and more inventive ways to be used, to give him pleasure, to distract him from all things. For day and night blending into day, perhaps for a week, I kept him mesmerized with my body and the strange uses I was able to contrive for it.

``In the end, I felt that our roles had been somewhat reversed, that it was I who was controlling him by means of his pleasure, and I was certain that my children had had time to escape - if he had let them go at all. During that time he literally had seen no one, talked to no one, but me. Our meals were delivered by unseen hands, our clothes, when we wore them, disappeared for cleaning and reappeared the same way. I was able to believe that he was ignorant of their departure, for if any informed him, I was unable to tell it and never left him alone, even in his sleep. I did not sleep.

``Finally, the time came. He lay on his back, covered with sweat, while I rode him like a horse until I cried out and called for wine. He reached out for the flagon and poured us each a glass. Always before he had waited for me to sip first, but now his eyes were glued to my body as I writhed up and down, crying out like a tormented creature (which I was, as his manhood was great and its lodging not where I was accustomed to it). I let my eyes roll back in my head and poured the glass of wine over my head, my breasts, my belly, his balls.

``I was careful not to get a drop into my mouth, for I had drugged it with a powerful paralyzing poison. In a trance, he forgot caution and lifted the glass to his lips even as I appeared to reach a frenzied climax, and took a sip without thinking.

``So powerful and fast-acting was the toxin that he stiffened in the middle of his spasm, and proceeded to twitch uncontrollably and befoul himself as the poison robbed his nerves of control. His glass fell to the floor, but I dismounted and carefully poured still more wine into his mouth, forcing him to swallow or drown while his throat muscles still worked, I didn't care which.

``He was naked, and without his tools of power. He was nearly voiceless, for though the poison left him with the power to breath and move his lips and tongue - for a time - it robbed his vocal cords of their strength and all he could manage was a dull whisper.

``He began to whisper lavish promises and threats, full of fear and rightly so, as I picked up the knife. I paid no attention except to look him in the eye and smile.

``A short time later - well, not so short but it seemed so at the time - my husband was properly revenged and, if he had managed to harm my children, so were they. The details of his passing need not concern you - suffice it to say that I learned a great deal about myself in the process, and was not without mercy at the end.

``I then dressed in what little of my clothing remained intact, looked about the magician's room and took stock of my situation. Outside his door there were bound to be guards. Discovery of the blood-soaked bed and that which remained of my tormenter meant a slow death unless I was quickly able to arrange a faster one for myself. I kept a vial of a fast-acting and fatal poison in my hand as I searched for the magician's secret exit, for I was certain that he had to have one.

``My searches led me to a carefully concealed closet - really more of a small room. In this closet were wires and strange boxes of metal; wizard's things. In the center of the room there was a circle of gold surrounded by a cage of gold. Inside the cage there was a bag. Hoping that the bag contained something I could put to good use in my plans to escape, I entered the cage - carefully, holding the door open behind me - and reached to pick up the bag.

``No sooner was I entirely within the cage when a disembodied voice asked out of nowhere, `Destination?''

``I cried out in fear and almost swallowed the poison, certain I had been discovered. But no one appeared to take me, and in my distraction I let the cage door shut. Finally, timidly, I said, `Oh, please, spirit, I wish to leave this place.' ''

`` `Coordinates insufficient! Please specify a destination by name or by interuniversal coordinates.' ''

``This time I thought for a moment, as I was beginning to realize that no harm was meant to me by the spirit, and that it was willing enough to help me escape. I said, `I wish to go out, beyond the walls of this castle. I wish to be with my children, for freedom. Please, send me from this place! The last place you sent anybody will do.' ''

``The voice responded, `Destination name accessed, defined as top name on destination stack, retrieved from primary list, coordinates known and entered. Prepare for departure in seven-point-three minutes.' ''

``I was puzzled - how was I to leave from inside a golden cage? However, seven-point-three minutes did not seem a long time to wait so I settled myself as best I could, with all the possessions I had on my back and in a small purse that contained the few poisons and potions that I had smuggled into the palace with me and concealed in the magician's room that first tempestuous night. And the magician's bag, of course, which I proceeded to explore. From it I extracted this bracelet which even now fits my wrist so tightly, and would that I had taken still more.''

``I had no means of measuring the time, so my first warning was the whisper of a breeze in the totally closed closet. Then all of my hair started to stand up of its own accord, drawn by some invisible force to the bars of the cage around me and overhead. The voice returned, counting slowly down, `Ten, nine, eight, ...' ''

``I was half ready to open the door of the cage to flee, so strange was it, but when I reached for it a spark jumped out and bit my hand. I sprang back just as the count reached its end, and there was a flash and I was spinning and the world turned inside out and a devil's wind was blowing with a demonic howl...

``...suddenly I was outdoors, in a ring of rocks in a clearing, beneath a moon that has never circled my world. A group of dark men in robes surrounded the circle. In form they greatly resembled the magician whose scattered parts I had left behind, with greyish skin and short, compact bodies. No sooner had I arrived than I collapsed and they seized me and bore me away to a place that sounds not unlike the fortress spoken of by Mikal. There I was examined, my poor artifices stripped away along with my bloodstained clothing and my vials of poison, and I was placed naked in a cell that contained nothing but a soft bed, a privy stool, and a basin.

``For four days, the brothers of that dark order visited my cell, at odd hours throughout the day and night, and had their way with me. I was too tired and dispirited to resist, and lacked any means to kill myself or one of them even if I wished to resist. I felt my will to live disappearing as it became clear that it was now my destiny to be an object of pleasure for faceless, bestial men for as long as they wished me to be. As I am somewhat pleasing in face and form, I could not hope that they would quickly tire of me, and I fell into a dark depression. I stopped eating, for that was the only way I saw to end my torment.''

``On the fifth day I was taken from the cell, bathed, fed by force (but not ungently) and bathed again, dressed in relatively sumptuous if somewhat transparent robes, and taken to a certain room. There I was met by the very magician I had killed, or at least his twin. He seemed to have no memory of his becoming enamored with me or his death, but nevertheless knew that I was somehow involved. He whipped me until I bled from head to foot, used my bleeding form foully, and questioned me again and again about who it was that slew him and sent me through to this place.''

``Finally he tired of this sport and decided I knew nothing. I was returned to my room for a time and treated with some gentleness and creams that seemed to help heal my wounds with little scarring, and then was sold as a slave to a dealer in slaves who took me down a dark road under a mountain and out into the world, a world that was not my own as a strange pair of moons lit up the sky instead of the one moon of my own home.''

``As slavery is unknown in my land, I could not believe or understand what exactly had happened, and immediately implored the dealer for my release. When he laughed at me and told me what he had paid for me and what he hoped to make from me, I tried to escape without realizing the penalties. I was easily recaptured, but he forebore branding me for fear of spoiling my beauty and beat me instead.''

``The beating was the best thing - for me - that he could have done. This was only the second time I had ever been beaten, and he was an expert who could hurt you and hurt you without leaving a mark, but he was a rank amateur compared to what I experienced the first time. This second time, instead of feeling despair I felt anger; I became filled with a desire to hurt all those who had hurt me that my will to live returned, my appetite returned, and I vowed to not be a good slave if they killed me for it.''

``I was brought to town after town, sold to owner after owner, and always they brought me back within three days. A few succeeded in raping me, but little pleasure they got for it, and many a scratch or bruise. Some of them beat me. Some tried to cage me, or threatened me with branding. I simply laughed at them through my tears, smeared myself with filth, and threatened to damage myself so much that they would be unable to get their money back, and at the thought of losing the (not inconsiderable) sum they had each paid for me they took me back and selected a more tractable, if not more beautiful, bedmate from the long line of bedmates available at the dealers.

``Sind-a-Lay was to be my last stop. The dealer was down to selling me at cost, and he swore that before he would sell me at a loss he would blind me, hamstring me, and throw me out into the gutter so I could mourn the easy life I was throwing away. I had stolen a small blade - never mind where I keep it concealed - and planned to kill my next owner and anyone else that stood between me and freedom, and to try to make my way back to that grove of trees in the hidden valley in the hills and, if the Goddess wills, to my children.''

We cheered wildly, and pounded the table with our mugs until they shattered and new ones had to be brought. All of us were dripping tears (all right, we were drunk and a bit maudlin, but still...) and deeply moved by the realization that this blonde Valkyrie was one tough old lady and not to be lightly crossed or toyed with. Mikal met my eye and shrugged slightly. She was quite naked when I had bought her. Where had she concealed ``a small blade''? Not to mention the poisons she smuggled into the magician's lair?

I concealed as best I could my inner delight at one feature common to both stories. The ``fortress'' and its dark monks or magicians was not wholly unknown to the storytellers of Brand's tavern, and hence, not to me. It had a strange reputation, but no story I'd heard there was as strange as these two, and they were all second or third hand - people did not, as a general rule, leave the place except as a slave or one of a select group of slavers and traders.

I now knew a few more things about the dark brotherhood. First, if Sharra was to be believed, then they controlled at least one of the primary gates to this world. They might be the cops, or they might be the crooks, or even neither, in the multiverse whose political complexity I was just beginning to glimpse, but they knew something about the gate and its function, and appeared to wait for and capture (unauthorized? all?) entries.

Second, they were slavers, thieves, and rapists and all around nasty in their interaction with passing innocents, including the natural residents of the planet. It was interesting to note that the last destination of the gate in the ``wizard's'' private chambers was to their gate, from which the mother-raper presumably was allowed to return. This made it a wee bit more likely (in my mind, at least) that they were baddies and not cops, although even cops (call them soldiers if it makes you feel better) are perfectly capable of a little rapine and pillagery when confined to a backwater world for an interminable stint of duty. I didn't know what to make of the magician's apparent resurrection, given the thoroughness of his demise at Sharra's hands the first time, but advanced technology can work wonders, so I just accepted it at face value for the time being.

Either way, they were high on my list of folks to visit for a little chat. Right after I figured out how to build a nuke or two, just in case they backed up their actions with some high tech weaponry. I wanted access to that mathematician I spoke of earlier. I'd accept access to a plain old technician (say, a master sergeant in charge of gates) and possibly the gate itself, although I had a hopefully undiscovered gate all to myself in the hills outside of town. I'd also be rather pleased to steal a computerized little mini-gate (like the wizard's) if any were lying around loose in the place.

The last thing that occurred to me was that the description of the men of the dark brotherhood could very easily match that of one of my current boon companions - Brin. Short, check. ``Grey'', absolutely, Brin's skin color had almost an ashy look to it. Compact, check. And if that wasn't enough, there was a distinct match in ethical behavior as well, or rather the total lack of it. Brin would slit your belly and gut-fuck you if you crossed him, and there were rumors that he did exactly this and worse to those unfortunate enough to be purchased or kidnapped to fill his odd appetites.

Mikal's story I decided that I tentatively, mostly, believed, as he seemed pretty bluff and frank and looked like a king's son (fifth or not) ought to look. People aren't born to look that way - they have to be brought up knowing that servants are for serving, nobles are for knowing, and the King is for crowning and obedience. I never did succeed in playing the court game well - I am too much of a democrat at heart - and more than once over the many years I've lived in feudal societies of one sort or another this has nearly cost me my balls or my life.

As for Sharra - great story, but -- she remained to me an enigma. She claimed to be from a technically advanced world, but from her description it was still in a semi-civilized (at best) feudal era, politically little better off than Mirath. There was something about her that didn't quite click and her story was chock full of (well told) miracles. She was clearly a woman of intelligence, education, and no small personal resources, but how did she acquire those resources as a poor merchant's wife on a low-tech world? Where did she learn about the biology of poisons (artfully rendered into a language two sizes too small)?

Her means of arrival were definitely high tech, and how did she know to ask for the last destination? Anybody from a low tech world (except for an honest-to-God bloody genius, perhaps) would have started describing ``coordinates'', that is, ``instructions-on-location-of-place'' for her cousin's house, or for her house, or for the street outside, or directions to a favorite hideaway. You see, of course, that there is no such word as ``coordinates'' in Ushtian and unless her world had had its Descartes already seven will get you ten its language didn't either.

In a word, her story could just have been a disingenuous ploy on her part to cover up and explain any anachronistic knowledge (like mine) that she chanced to drop over the next few weeks. After all, maybe her world did have geometry, maybe she was a geometry teacher or something, maybe - I would have to find out a bit more about her, patiently. Worldwalkers probably all have stories like this carefully worked out (a whole set of them, one for each appropriate audience) and she could just as easily be a novelist or anthropologist from a real high-tech world doing a little field work who got, shall we say, all tied up in her research. She could even be a cop. If so, I couldn't wait to try my own disingenuous ploys on her; the only catch was that I couldn't be as careful at home as I was around Brin and I needed their help.

Resolving to open my heart (the bit about the kids sounded too real to be entirely invention) but not to drop my guard (where did she keep that knife?) I staggered off to a well-deserved nap, leaving Dojo to work out the details of putting the rest of them to bed. Russet did not join me that night, and while she did return from time to time in the future, she kept her hands to herself and seemed content just to have ``sleepovers'' as it were. It seemed that Sharra was doing a bit of feminist consciousness raising - in which she had my blessing (I was doing my best too, although I prefer to call it humanist). However, a liberated medieval housewife was just another crooked piece in the puzzle I was slowly assembling of her.

The next few days passed quickly, and my plans came to a forced, somewhat frenetic fruition. Rutro got the kiln built, and prepared a load of curved tiles to bake. I snitched some of his whitest clay and glaze, borrowed his wheel late at night and made a passable set of clay insulators, which I slipped into the first load into the kiln. Some of the insulators were sort of like the ones on old telephone poles; a few were insulating sleeves that were designed to fit tightly into some of the ports that I had built into the kiln walls. I anticipated a possible need for them. In the same firing, I baked in certain fixtures that Rutro just shook his head over, as they clearly had nothing to do with the making of pottery.

Elsewhere (in what used to be a dungeon) I had set up a very private workshop, using tools and materials delivered inside kegs inside kegs of wine shipped in by Brand. I didn't dare to buy too much ironwork on the open market just yet for reworking, although I did get several incredibly ugly wrought iron ``sculptures'' from a burgeoning artist popular just then in the court. I know Brin had a spy or three in the house, I just didn't know who they were. Yet.

It only took me a day or so to find all (I hoped) of his electronic surveillance, which was simple enough to fool by cultivating (audibly, at least) a serious drinking problem. In fact, at any moment, day or night, Mikal, Sharra, Russet and I might be dead drunk and locked in a my bedroom with the word that any who disturbed our rest might reasonably hope for a quick death rather than a slow one - if they had a good reason for waking us.

Russet, in fact, was often drunk and slightly opiated, once I knew that she had a tendency to get that way given the opportunity. It was a bit cruel, but I planned to (and did) make it up to her later. She was too handy to be ignored, as things were. She snored like a sawmill. She talked a bit in her sleep, especially if she had smoked a bit of opium or hashish. Between her, Tara (who had instructions to make breathing and rustling noises as appropriate and to inform me if Russet woke up or anyone tried to disturb us), and the small fountain I had installed in the room ``so I could sleep to the sound of tinkling waters'' I doubted that Brin's bug would find anything (including us) amiss.

We, however, ducked out through one of the several little escape hatch tunnels that ran behind the walls of the master bedroom, down to the dungeon and (if desired) out into the river canyon where a narrow path now led to a concealed boat that I had purchased in case I needed to make a quick getaway. In the dungeon, a suitably modified detour took us to my workshop. Unwanted access to the dungeon and elsewhere (I didn't want Brin spying on my bedroom via one of the many other concealed passages that riddled the place) was blocked off semi-permanently with brickwork or opened to the light of day with doorways. With Tara's help, I didn't miss a one, including several that would have provided easy and probably fatal access to observers and ultimately (once Brin realized what I was doing) to assassins.

There I started to work on a little project of my own involving magnets, copper wire (I had actually brought quite a bit from earth, including some spools of magnet wire ``borrowed'' from the department store-room and regular household cabling purchased at a hardware store), some homemade soft iron cores, and a small underground stream that ran through a sort of cistern built into the dungeon itself. Dojo told me that when it rained, they occasionally drowned a prisoner as the lowest cells could flood. Using bricks I carefully dammed up the stream so that it flowed under some pressure through a set of brand-new ceramic pipes (I didn't care about minor leakage) and onto a small set of coupled waterwheels that I had built, and then dismantled, back when living at Graber's. They didn't generate more than a few horsepower when the water was flowing normally, but that was plenty for what I planned to do.

This I used to drive a small iron core generator that I had also made by hand while living at Graber's, following pictures in an encyclopedia. Being a physicist didn't hurt, either, as I was pretty familiar with the laws of Dr. Faraday in any event. The output of the generator was less than a hundred and fifty volts at ten amps when fully loaded. I could strike a carbon rod arc, but not quite weld (the coils tended to smoke when I tried to pull that much current) but I could have read by electric light if I had brought any bulbs, or run a small oven or space heater, but the main point, as far as I was concerned, was that it was more than enough juice to be dangerous. I planned to make it even more dangerous, especially to nice, delicate electronics.

I did this by hand-winding a high voltage coil. I lacked the wire to build a really high-voltage, high current transformer, but a simple coupled coil could generate a much higher voltage at much lower current. The coil operated at around 30 Hz (the geared up rotational frequency of the generator) but bumped the voltage from order 100 to order 5000, in a sustained current. Not content with this, I built a simple, hand-or-motor cranked Vandegraph (lots of fur, silk, paraffin around, cloth belts, beaten copper foil and glass capacitors) that could crank up a megavolt or more, and stored its output in a large array of Leyden jars. Tara stopped watching me work the first time I generated a lightning bolt that went across around twenty-five centimeters of dry air. Explosively. My kiddie-physics classes used to love that one too, when I did it back in the old days, although I used a Wimshurst generator and not the Vandergraph as it had the bigger jars.

Finally, this little electrical show was carefully piped through my thoughtfully brought 12-gauge three wire household cable, available in any hardware store in America, up to the dining room, under the tile, and connected in a very special way to a very special chair imported for a very special purpose from the most garish chair store in town. Dojo loved it, but thought it a bit strange when I bolted its already tremendously heavy frame to the floor and covered its already baroque arms and legs with still more gold and silver foil, at great personal expense. Gold and silver are both great conductors of electricity. Finally, picking a time when Dojo was away on an errand, I installed a few more very special features.

Mikal proved to be a great help with all of this - he was naturally bright and had the idle time and inclination to pick up the best education his father's not inconsiderable court could provide. Once he began to realize that what we were doing was not wizardry but something that anybody, including him, could do I had to threaten to kick him out if he didn't stop asking me anachronistic questions where Brin's bugs could overhear. He was also husky and strong, and I needed some bright muscle to haul around the generator and other heavy equipment and ironworks.

Sharra, once I described the project, and the reason for it (a short history and description of Brin, including a few of my suspicions, was all that was required) smiled - if you could call it a smile - and started to work on a mysterious project of her own. It involved a trip by her and Russet to a local wise woman or (if you prefer) witch, and a further trip to the hills outside of town, accompanied by me, Mikal, Tara, and a squad of useless soldiers we brought along as camouflage. Mikal and I and eventually Russet got loudly drunk and killed a couple of deer by bow while first both women and then Sharra alone collected flowers - carefully selected flowers, from the look of things - and plaited them and equally carefully selected herbs into silly looking baskets and bonnets.

Once back and ``in bed'' (in the basement, that is) Sharra promptly threw the baskets, bonnets, and flowers (some of them, anyway) into a cauldron along with some wine and boiled it down. I didn't track exactly what she did, though - I was busy with Mikal - but I do recall seeing her with Rutro. It turned out that she was ordering a very interesting wine flask of her own design, to be completed in the first firing.

Finally, we were ready for Brin. Or so I thought.

By this time the date of my first visit to the palace was nearly upon me, and there was no safe way to put it off. So it was that one fine evening I duded up to the teeth, swords and all, tied a ribbon around Tara's somewhat unwilling neck and rode off to the palace with metaphorical bells on. Rendar escorted me, dressed somewhat like a peacock in flashy colors and gold threads. He, too, wore his ``best'' sword, that is, the one I had given him.

The royal palace was a desperately boring affair. The prince was much older than he ought to be (still being only a prince), the princess was much younger, and after a few minutes of conversation with the prince one could immediately appreciate why the princess would prefer the company of a pirate.

After being royally introduced and putting on a bit of a show with Tara (who was tame and kept her claws carefully sheathed, much to the delight of the ladies including the princess) we all retired for wine, followed by finger food, followed by wine, followed by ale, followed by dinner, followed by more wine...

And those were the high parts. Interspersed with this was the most insipid conversation. There were a few bright spots - Rendar producing a - highly abridged and sanitized - version of my two fights at his side (he actually exaggerated my role, bless his heart, instead of stealing all the thunder), the creni, and the shark. When Rendar came to the point where he demonstrated the size of the sharks great jaws, all were entertained by a matronly young lady screaming and fainting most convincingly. When he got to the parts concerning Tara, though, the ladies (who were, it must be admitted, stroking the now purring beastie on her stomach while feeding her tidbits of spiced meats) only tittered, refusing to believe that any overgrown pussycat who would let total strangers rub her stomach could be, well, dangerous.

At this Rendar grew dismayed, then annoyed. He called for a demonstration. I grew a bit concerned at this; part of my long term plans involved Tara being accepted and trusted, not feared, at the palace. I need not have worried. Rendar whispered to an attending servant, who disappeared and reappeared in a moment with a long link of sausage.

``And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will demonstrate this fearsome beast's prowess by allowing you to see her eat this sausage,'' he began. ``I think you will all agree, after that, that she is quite capable of taking on an entire troop of bandits single handed.''

Reluctantly, Tara allowed herself to be disentangled from the limbs of all the ladies of the court who were petting her, removing her head from the lap of the princess herself. When she looked up at me, I gave her some over-obvious hand signals while telling her, actually, exactly what I wanted her to do out loud.

``Tara, these fine ladies and gentlemen think that, just because you are a gentle little pussycat,'' (pause for laughter) ``you aren't dangerous. Are you dangerous?'' (Pause for Tara to nod her head in time with my little finger, more laughter.) ``Are you fast?'' I asked.

Suddenly, Tara was standing next to the sausage. She had not visibly gathered herself - she had simply leaped the fifteen feet intervening. I could see the claw gouges in the hardwood floor where she had pushed off.

The crowd was suddenly silent. ``Are you hungry?'' Again the nod and more laughter, but a touch more subdued.

``Well then,'' I said, ``why don't you help yourself to some sausage?''

At this points Tara began a little comic routine that we had worked out and practiced for this very occasion. She picked up one end of the link and rolled it around in a ring, and suddenly the limp line of sausages was a living, breathing loop of sausages being rotated in front of her face.

Each time around, she snipped a bite from the end sausage with her claws and flicked it unerringly into her mouth. It was impossible to see exactly how and when she did this, though, as her hands were a blur pulling the end sausages, both in one hand, through a half circle and simultaneously handing them off to the other hand for the next half circle and filling her mouth with another chunk. Twenty turns she gave it, with the ring visibly shrinking and a rain of sausage making its way to her mouth, before it was too short to make a ring with. So she threw it up in the air so that it came down in front of her mouth, and somehow chopped it like a food processor as it fell, with every piece but the last one flying, or so it seemed, right down her gullet.

The last one she held, delicately, between two claws, and placed neatly in her mouth after the others, chewing long and thoughtfully. Then, as if pleased, she gave a little bow in my direction, in the direction of the prince, and in the direction of the princess and her court. Then she slumped, as if tired, back over to the girls and collapsed at their feet, giving a low moan as she did so.

Well she might, that catrat! Her belly was now distended and she looked a bit unhappy at the quantity of sausage she had consumed. We had never used more than a dozen links in practice, and Rendar had brought in nearly twenty.

The applause was thunderous, and the prince looked thoughtful for the first time that evening. I hadn't even realized that the expression was in his repertoire. After that there was more wine, some sporadic dancing to a rather good (and to me, exotic) band, more wine, and the party started to break up as the prince went off to bed. But first he came over and congratulated me on my fine heroic acts and my fine amusing performance, and got to the point. ``Fine beast, that. Wouldn't mind owning her myself.'' He looked at me meaningfully as he spoke.

I trotted out my prepaid answer, ``Alas, your majesty, she is not really as tame as she appears. She was bonded to me as a cub, and so she obeys me implicitly. However, one time she was removed from me more or less forcibly by an ignorant magistrate - not in this country, of course - who wished to put me unjustly in jail while making off with my `pet' and selling her.'' I paused, and shook my head sorrowfully.

``Yes, go on.'' His majesty had no appreciation of the finer points of storytelling.

``Well, once she realized that she was about to be separated from `mama', there was a brief flurry of activity - she was strung on two leashes between two burly guardsmen - and suddenly all the guardsmen present had something furry flash in front of their faces, literally running in a ring around them using their faces as a track. When the ball of fur had passed, each one was missing an eye. She ended up back by me, on the Magistrate, who was still holding forth on his plans for her - and me.''

I looked the Prince in the eye. ``She didn't stop with the eyes of the magistrate. I had to pull her off of his corpse about ten seconds later. I'm afraid we left that town in a bit of a hurry, but now I'm careful to let magistrates and the like know that she is a one-man-creature, lest they get ideas. Of course,'' I threw out a tidbit, ``she is female, so if your majesty can procure a wild male perhaps you could have the first cub. I believe that once they bond with you, they are quite safe.''

As if to demonstrate this, Tara slunk over and heaved herself up on my shoulders and started to nuzzle my ears, purring. I petted her, quite genuinely as I truly love my adopted daughter, and looked apologetically at his majesty.

His majesty seemed to take the truth with good grace, bowed slightly and left for bed. I trusted him no farther than I could throw him, but I planned to leave him no room and little time for intrigue. Once Brin was taken care of, the palace would be a piece of cake.

The party had clearly ended now that royalty had left, and we gathered up our chattels and servants and prepared to depart ourselves. Before we left, however, the princess herself came over to introduce herself for real, and to press my hand. Somehow a piece of parchment found its way into it, which I tactfully concealed. Feeling quite satisfied with the groundwork thus laid, we took ourselves home.

Naturally, Brin was waiting for me. Naturally, he was waiting in the nice, comfortable chair by the fire in the dining room, not the cold, hard chairs in the living room. Naturally, Rendar, who had accompanied me in, excused himself and fled precipitously when Brin indicated that he should with a flick of a finger.

I sat in the other chair and smiled. Tara sniffed for a moment at Brin's feet under the table (playing dumb, of course) and then gave a sudden mrrrowl as Brin gestured at her under the table where I couldn't see. A couple of seconds later she staggered out from under the table and collapsed beside my chair, her belly still distended from her demonstration at the party. She began to snore gently. Lazy girl. But I knew that she was probably shamming and was listening in to the conversation.

Only there wasn't any conversation. Brin just sat there, his grey face shuttered and locked, waiting. After a short time, during which Brin neither smiled nor moved, I pretended to get a bit nervous. It didn't take a lot of pretending. I shuffled my feet and allowed my smile to get a bit strained. Finally, to cover my growing unease, I offered up a, ``Good evening, Brin, can I offer you some refreshment? I've managed to locate a keg or two of fairly drinkable wine.''

He nodded, I called Dojo in and gave him instructions. I was somewhat surprised to note, a moment later, Sharra entering with a beautiful wine flask I had never seen and two ceramic wineglasses with a dark, glossy glaze. The silence continued while Sharra offered Brin his choice of wineglasses, poured wine into the one he selected, and then carefully poured the other in from the same flask in his plain sight and handed it to me. She offered him sweetmeats on the side, but he refused, and without as much as a look dismissed her.

While he was distracted by this little show I carefully felt for the switch I had installed on the bottom of the arm of my chair. I actually had a switch and rig in each chair - I couldn't be certain where Brin would choose to sit - but the conductivity of the other chair was, on the whole, much higher and I felt that Brin would eventually get a real charge out of it.

We both drank (Brin carefully waiting for me to drink first) for a moment in what might have been companionable silence, but it wasn't. Then Brin dropped his first little bombshell. It was a tiny little bombshell, actually. It was a 500 mg acetaminophen tablet.

He dropped it in my lap, flipping it across the intervening space without a word. I didn't flinch - much - and tried to look at it with the puzzled expression it so obviously deserved.

``Yes?'' I said, with a measured amount of confusion tinged with fear. ``What is this small chip you throw at me?'' I picked it up and peered at it. ``Is it a charm? There appears to be some sort of writing on it...''

``There is no point in your continuing a bluff.'' Brin's dead voice cut across mine. ``This came from your rooms in the fisherman's cottage. Did you think that I wouldn't have them searched?''

``Who knows where a thing like this could come from. I was not the first to stop in Graber's cottage for lodging. A thing like this could have been there for years. And what is it, anyway, that you set such a great store by it?''

Brin smiled. It was not a nice smile. It sort of split his face like a crocodile's, or like an allosaurus's, leaving only an impression of dagger-like teeth before it engulfed you.

A second missile, shiny and red and rolled into a ball, landed beside the first. I could hear the nukes detonating in my mind. Carefully I picked it up and smoothed it. I resisted the giveaway of smelling it. I knew that the aroma of chocolate probably still clung to the wrapper. That will teach me not to litter, I thought bitterly.

``From the cabin on the goat-moor. I suppose that the boy entertains lots of visitors, too.''

I looked up, and although I was sweating and, let's face it, scared shitless, I tried to carry the ball another yard. ``How would I know? The cabin is old. What is this red metal, for I never saw the like?'' I took a long hit of the wine, partly to give me time to think. I had a fine appreciation for the feelings of the bird when it is trapped by the eye of the snake. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see where Brin was leading. Not once one understood Brin's fundamental nature.

He drank too, and then shrugged. ``No matter. I had hoped you might tell me, and spare the boy, the girl, and the old man further pain and - perhaps - even mutilation. So far they only look grim and say nothing when questioned gently, oh, so gently. Soon they will be questioned more harshly. I will question them. Do you want this?''

``No,'' I replied huskily. ``They were kind to me.''

``Then be kind to them. Tell me, where are you from. And let me warn you, I know still more - if you lie to me once then I shall use up the old man completely before I give you a second chance to tell the truth. Or perhaps,'' he mused, with a faraway look, ``perhaps I will use up the boy. That might be the best way, after all.''

I paused, as if for reflection. Perhaps it was a form of fear-induced paralysis, but I couldn't move my hand the three inches back to where I could depress the switch. First I had to have some sign that I still held my - now pitifully small - advantage. Once I pressed that button, I had to be prepared for him to look at me like I was a total fool and pass out death-by-torture sentences on all and sundry - if he knew all about the trap and had deactivated it.

Brin took another sip of his wine while waiting, and then shook his head as if to clear it. Still stalling, I took the only course available to procrastinate. ``Earth'', I said, in English.

Brin looked puzzled. ``Repeat,'' he said, ``continue talking.''

``Earth,'' I continued in English. ``I'm from Earth. Tellus. Third planet from Solaris, the Sun. On a forgotten arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Probably, in your terms, the ass-end of nowhere. Trying to register the language, eh? I would have thought the word `Tylenol', or at least the printing, would have done that already. Your computers must suck, Brin. Like your brain. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain when you have slimed your way across two or three Universes, murdering babies in the process.''

Halfway through this, Brin's smile had returned as he was undoubtedly starting to get his feed from the built-in translator program from his personal computer/guardian. I wanted that computer, wanted it almost as bad as I wanted to live through the next few minutes. Unfortunately, I was planning to blast it to kingdom come for the good of the cause.

He let me babble on for a minute or so while refilling his glass from the flagon, probably to see if I would let anything useful drop. He seemed a little clumsy, or at any rate the wine seemed to pour out in two separate streams and splashed all over his lap. Suddenly I put it all together. So did he. My finger mashed the button before he could even begin to pick his rancid body up from where the puddle of wine had improved his electrical contact with the chair.

I picked myself up off the ground in front of my chair, my clothing smoking in a couple of places. There was a smell of burning hair - mine. Oh, well, so he found out about the chairs and switched the leads...

I staggered to my still tingling feet, confused and disoriented. Something was wrong - Tara should have been awake and trying to carve her way through Brin's protective field but she was actually snoring. At least she wasn't dead, where for all practical purposes I was. You bet the family farm and lose you have to pay the piper in blood, my mixed up metaphor generator managed to churn out as Brin's impassive expression turned into his very best shark imitation.

I drew Julie, expecting to give cutting his throat one good try and then fall on her. I didn't care to be surgically dismembered before my very eyes. It was just too damn bad.

Having prepared myself to die ingloriously, I was rather surprised when Brin's grin faded to a puzzled expression. He swayed a bit in his chair, then staggered to his feet and collapsed at mine.

There was shouting and the clanging of metal on metal outside the door, ending with some thumps. Rendar stuck his head in and grinned. ``Surprise,'' was all he said. Behind him, I surmised, were Brin's reinforcements, recently deceased.

Sharra and Mikal burst into the room. ``Sam,'' shouted Mikal. ``The generator gave one burst of smoke and died. I cannot make it work again.''

``I know,'' I replied calmly enough, my brain racing to catch up with events, ``that's why I'm only scorched on the outside.'' He took in my still-smoldering clothes and frizzled hair. Plan A had clearly failed. Now if only I could figure out what plan B was, given the materials at hand...

The first thing to try, of course, was the obvious. I lunged at Brin's unprotected gut. Julie slowed to a halt, glowing slightly at the tip, inches away. Without the charge of circuit-busting juice, I hadn't expected that to work anyway. I did, however, have a long shot plan set up would have gladdened the heart of Hansel and Gretel.

I turned to Rendar. ``Rendar, old buddy, I promised that you could actually do the killing of Brin. So, pick him up with Sharra here and stuff him into the empty kiln in the garden. There are some metal hoops in there that should support him in an upright position, even if you can't quite touch him. Start stacking wood and charcoal around him, but don't light it before I get back.''

I turned to Mikal, ``Feeling strong?'' I asked, and took off for the cellars without waiting for an answer.

Twenty minutes later, huffing and puffing, we made it. We set the Vandegraph over by the kiln and I promptly sent poor Mikal back for the rest of the stuff we couldn't carry in the first load. I popped into the kiln (which was getting crowded with wood - I think Rendar wanted it hot in there) and put the special insulators in place, their tubes providing access through the walls. We then waited for Mikal to return.

Sharra came to me. ``Sam, we have to light the fire. It will take time for it to catch and even more time to overpower his protective charms. And I cannot promise that he will remain unconscious for more than a few more minutes.''

I shook my head. ``Wait. The fire won't do it by itself, unless I miss my guess about his level of paranoia. Which is justified, by the way.''

An eternal five minutes passed before Mikal returned, carrying a small sledge, a metal stake, and a coil of heavy wire. I showed him a spot. ``Pound in the stake, but leave me a bit at the top. Then piss on it.'' While he pounded, I cut a ten foot length of wire, threaded it through the tube on once side of the kiln, and wrapped its bare end around the air surrounding Brin's wrist, as close to his bracelets as I could get it while still supporting the arm as he lay inert in the metal hoops fastened into the strange supports that had so bothered the potter. I went outside and fastened the other end to the stake.

``Piss on it. I mean it. Get it and the ground good and wet.'' I ran back to the coil of wire while Mikal and Rendar fumbled, embarrassed, at the front of their kilts. Sharra had anticipated me and handed me a piece of wire long enough to reach from Brin's other wrist, through the hole, and over to the Vandegraph.

She grinned, then looked strained. ``Hurry. We have to start the fire now.''

``So start it. Don't mind me. Here.'' I tossed her my Bic lighter (still working, carefully hoarded) and pointed to a jug that contained what amounted to cheap turpentine while I poked the end of the wire through the insulator and ran inside the kiln. Somehow it never occurred to me to doubt that she knew how to use it.

Brin's arm was soon trussed up like the other one, and bless my soul, it was getting a bit stuffy in there. I hopped over the liberally doused wood that was already starting to go, adding a second layer of singe in the process to my clothes and losing what was left of my hair as I went through the hot gasses of the flame. I dunked my head in a nearby mound of wet clay to put out the little blue flames. I stunk of smoke, melted rubber, and turpentine, and imagine that I looked awesome with the wet clay smearing my face.

``Quick! Start turning the handle, Mikal! We need a serious jolt.'' Mikal leaped to obey, beginning to understand that somehow we were going to pipe the lightning into where Brin was already lit up by the fire.

The rest of us gathered around in from of the kiln and looked in. We had not begun to stack up the blocks intended to partially seal up the front, wanting the fire to get a chance to start first. It looked like it had started pretty well. All three of us started forward at once and began to build the wall, carefully leaving air ports open at the bottom all around, to provide a rising draft that fanned the fire. We were building a fire in a chimney, and it was going to get hot. The heat felt like hell on the first degree burns that covered my face, even through the mud. Finally, I had to fall back.

In a minute, the other two had to step back too. Rendar, in his eagerness, had somewhat overfilled the kiln, and it was roaring like a blast furnace as the dead-dry wood caught and fed itself. Brin's face was clearly visible over the top of the somewhat shaky structure they had erected to trap some of the heat and (I hoped) exclude some of the oxygen.

Elementary thermodynamics. Man (and `alien' too, I hoped) was a heat engine. He had to have a way of throwing off heat or he died. Brin's bracelets were wonders - they could repel matter, they could filter air, they could translate, they could kill, but was curious as to whether they could be placed in 1000 degrees Celsius for twenty minutes or so and keep their host at or below 40.

You see, even if they could exclude the hot, poisonous gasses themselves (shades of Maxwell's demon!), they had to do something with all the radiant heat incident on the host. In a kiln (or, to physicists, a black-body cavity) simply reflecting it wouldn't do - that would simply raise the temperature of the kiln until enough heat got through to fry whoever was inside - assuming that the reflection wasn't perfect. The bracelets could store it - for a while - and reject it all at once. I worried about this, but what else could I try?

Finally, it might well be able to filter oxygen out of poison gas, but I planned to have a reducing atmosphere in the kiln that simply wouldn't have enough free oxygen to support a mouse on the inside of that mass of wood. Brin would suffocate on his own exhalations, with luck, in twenty minutes or so even if none of the above worked.

All this was very interesting and passed through my head in a sort of review as I prepared to wait for the theory to work - or not work. Brin's eyes, in one motion, popped open. He took one look at his surroundings, looked at me, and he smiled.

The front of the kiln exploded as Brin directed some force against it. The fire continued to rage at his feet and all around him. I caught a bit of whatever he directed outward on the wall and it got very fuzzy in there. I stumbled to my knees and was just in time to see Mikal, his breath coming in furious puffs as the collector started to crackle with incipient breakdown of the surrounding air, move the end of the wire trailing out of the kiln next to the great, shining globe. There was a crack like a gunshot, an actinic spark that left my eyes bedazzled in the night, and a single, paralyzing scream.

The bracelets had protected Brin marvelously against the huge thermal differential. They had reflected what they could and stored what they must. In the supercharged atmosphere, they had no chance (and no time) to generate a field capable of opposing a Megavolt of potential difference. The blast of homemade lighting thus went through the path of least resistance to the urine-soaked ground on the other side. This happened to be over the surface and through Brin's nice, briny body, with an assist from his nice, metallic bracelets.

Now, the spark generated by a Vandegraph is terrifying. It is also hot - it can blow a tiny bit of skin right off - enough to make you say ``damn'' (and occasionally stronger things) even in front of a classroom of students. But the current follows the surface of the skin and isn't that much anyway - it isn't really dangerous or they wouldn't let us do it in front of students, right? When was the last time you heard of a Physics professor being blown to kingdom come by a Wimshurst in from of his class? Lots of noise, bright lights, no particular danger. Ideal showmanship.

Unless, of course, you happen to beef up the generator by storing its charge in a big old capacitor, like a cloud or Leyden jar. Lightning is just a big spark, and it is rather dangerous. Especially if you happen to be a microelectronic device (humans sometimes survive even lightning). Transistors do not care for high voltage. Especially the tiny excuses for transistors packed by the teaming millions into old Earth-style chips. I was sort of hoping that the same would be true for their distant descendants packed by the gazillion into those two innocuous bracelets. In fact, I was sort of hoping that it would have been true a long time earlier, back when we were sitting in those damn chairs.

As it happened, I was right, and the lightning blew all the transistors in the bracelets that doubtless controlled all sorts of things and liberated all of the heat energy stored by the bracelets (however it was done) in one fearsome millisecond. Or maybe two. At any rate, it took long enough that we saw an arc-light flare that left spots dancing in front of our eyes instead of an explosion. Brin's hands to the shoulder were probably vaporized in that brief period, and it hurt enough that he had time to scream with the air already in his lungs, and then he took in a breath of the superheated air that was already blackening his face and that was it.

To be absolutely certain we left hims body to the naked fire itself. We all felt a little sickened when we heard the series of dull concussions from inside the kiln that indicated that head, his gut and other sealed areas were exploding from the heat, and a nauseating smell of burning protein and fat permeated the neighborhood. But hey, it still couldn't have happened to a nicer or more deserving guy...

I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I realized that I might live through the night after all. There was a certain smarminess mixed in with the relief in appreciation of my own cleverness. It's amazing that one can still be arrogant with one's face buried in the - well, in this case, clay, as I fell right over, unable to move, affected in some way by whatever that last blast from Brin had put out.

Fortunately they weren't all so bedazzled by the spectacle that they didn't notice. They pulled me out before I suffocated.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29