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Departure

The train was headed straight at me. The faint rumble in the tracks rose to a roar in my ears. I was trying to get off of the tracks, but my legs were so heavy that I could only move them an inch at a time. My whole body felt paralyzed and I watched helplessly as the spotlight of the train grew brighter and brighter until it filled my vision. At the last second the fierce hot breath of the hellwind swirled around me and the bell clanged and somebody was saying something, something, something ...

I opened my eyes, squinting against the sun that streamed into them. Somehow I was back at Graber's and up in my loft, lying on the roped frame bed that had long since replaced my original pile of straw. The roaring in my ears didn't go away, though, and I still felt like I couldn't move my limbs. A cool cloth pressed against my proverbially fevered brow, and only then did I realize that I had a headache to end all headaches. And I felt like a mass of bruises and my butt felt like I had been in a rodeo on the losing end of a bronco busting exhibition.

I groaned and closed my eyes, hoping that the spinning of the room would go away. It made it worse so I opened them again. ``Are you awake now?'', I heard a soft voice at my side say. Lissa.

``Don't shout,'' I managed to croak. ``I think so. Oh my God, I, I ...''

I managed to get my head over the slop bucket so thoughtfully held up by my side before I lost a fair amount of yet undigested beer, scotch, and a little of this and that from the night before. The smell and taste were so appetizing that I went ahead and yielded up the rest. I only quit when I could no longer heave because my stomach was empty.

I fell back on the bed, exhausted, my mouth tasting vile. Arto was heading down the ladder from the loft. I heard the door to the cottage close downstairs as he left. A mug of cool water was held to my lips. I rinsed my mouth out and drank. It made me feel a little better, so I drank another.

``I'm sorry,'' I rasped out. ``I mean, thank you. But I can take care of myself now. I guess I had a little too much to drink.'' I winced in recollection. The movement set off alarm bells in my head, so I closed my eyes. That made the room start to spin so I opened them.

As long as I held perfectly still, I was fine. At least, I was fine relative to how I felt when I moved.

A cup, this time full of something hot that smelled funny, appeared before my face. I wanted to say it's all right, don't bother, but I couldn't move my vocal cords and express myself. It was easier to open my lips and sip when it seemed appropriate. ``Willow-bark tea,'' a soft voice whispered just past my ears. ``And a few other, ummm, medicines.''

Willow-bark tea is just a down-home form of aspirin, so that didn't bother me. I worried, in a sort of abstract way, about the `other medicines' all the way through the cup. It gave me something to do besides sip and swallow.

Afterwards, remarkably, I felt better. Lissa fed me some lightly toasted bread and a soft egg, and I felt downright Cro Magnon. This was a distinct improvement upon Neanderthal or worse. I was evolving before my very eyes into something human. But I still would have killed for a cup of coffee.

I threw off the blankets and discovered that I was quite naked. I threw the blankets on again. ``I need to get up,'' I said. This was sheer poetry on my part.

``Fine,'' said Lissa. ``Get up.'' She sat on a stool next to the bed, looking on with interest.

I looked at her in something slightly above a stupor. Then bladder pressure drove me to try again. ``I mean, I have to get out of bed. Now.''

``Do you need help?'' she asked.

``No, I mean.'' I paused, trying to find words. They used to be in there somewhere. ``I don't have any clothes on.''

``I know,'' she said. ``I took them off of you. They were a mess. You were a mess.'' The last delivered with a hint of primness.

``I need to go.'' I said plaintively, trying to ignore the red I felt burning into my face.

Without a word, Lissa handed me the slop bucket, which had somehow been emptied and washed. She then sat down and waited.

Under ordinary circumstances my sphincter never would have allowed it, but I was desperate. I turned away from her and swung my legs over the side of the bed. The relief was unbearable. I didn't even notice when she walked around the bed and sat down beside me. Or at least I didn't stop.

Finally I was empty. I sighed, and designated myself an honorary member of homo sapiens. I looked sideways at Lissa and decided what the hell. I got up and washed my face and brushed my teeth at the washbasin in the corner. Then I looked around for my clothes, but they were gone.

``So where are my clothes?'' I asked.

``Out being washed. Arto will bring them back when they are dry. Sometime this afternoon.''

I sat down on the bed and flipped the blanket over me. My body still felt like it was wrapped in cotton, so I slid down onto the blanket covered straw. I closed my eyes. It felt wonderful.

``Are you planning to leave?'' Lissa asked from beside me.

``Yes,'' I said, knowing that she meant `leave' and not just go out for a while and somewhat surprised. I thought I'd been pretty subtle. Until Rendar had showed up last night, even I hadn't known that I would be leaving today, for sure.

``Where are you going?''

``To live in Sind-a-Lay for a while. I have some things I need to do there.''

There was silence for a minute, and then in a small voice she said, ``Take me with you?''

``No,'' I said, as gently as I could.

There was silence for a long while after that. I cracked open an eye and looked over at her. She sat with bowed head and I couldn't see her eyes.

Then she asked, ``Are you going to look for your wife?''

I nearly jumped out of the bed. Figuratively, of course. I really didn't feel like moving. ``My wife?'' I said.

She turned towards me. Her face was very serious. ``Your wife. Julie. In the house by the lake.''

``What do you know.'' I was direct.

``Oh, everything. Nothing. You raved about her in your fever dreams last year. And your home. And her being dead, and not dead. And wanting to go home.''

``What else did I say.'' My intensity may have frightened her. She drew back a little.

``You kept talking about a gate. A gate between worlds. You are a magician as well as a warrior, Sam Foster. I know this. Arto has told me. Brand and Graber know it too, but I don't think they talk about it.''

I sagged back against the wall. So much for secrecy. Graber and Arto, I knew, had seen me shoot something. Guns were clearly `magic' here. Brand had seen my stash of equipment, some of which was clearly not of this world. And by now, Lissa probably had too, with Arto. The goat path they followed led right past the cliff.

So I should have known. And anyway, I could trust these people. Or at least, I had no choice so why fight it.

``Truthfully, Lissa, at this point I don't know. I don't know how I could go back, in any sense of the world - to my old world, to my life, to her. I don't know how to get there, and I don't know what I'd do if I could,'' I replied. ``But understand. I'm not a magician, Lissa. I'm an ordinary human, like you. I'm just from another world.''

``A magician is an ordinary human, Sam Foster. They just know magic. And anyone who can deliberately move between worlds is obviously a magician. Especially,'' and here she narrowed her eyes and began to count on her fingers. For a moment I saw the woman she would grow to be. ``Especially those who kill creni with lightening bolts. Who can trap a light-spirit in a small tube. Who can strike a warrior down with fire spit twenty paces from the palm of his hand. Who heals with needle and thread and strange potions. Who has an even stranger liquor that burns and then warms and makes men drunker than any ale. And, who don't have a skin on their manhood!''

They don't circumcise men on Mirath. I hadn't really thought of it before, but sure, it might make me, er, stand out in a crowd. I resolved to be my usual bashful self with even greater diligence.

I knew better than to try to answer her. After all, I was married once. But I was stupid then, too, so I did anyway.

``First, those aren't lightening bolts, they're bullets. Little chunks of metal that shoot through you, propelled by hot gases. Second, the flashlight is just a tool. As common as fishing poles on my home world.'' Bad choice, I thought. They didn't use fishing poles here either, and Graber made it clear that he thought the idea stupid.

``Third, good scotch isn't strange, it's just distilled. In a few maloons you'll be able to buy it, made locally, in Brand's tavern, I promise. Finally, well, circumcision is very common back where I come from. It certainly doesn't mean that I'm a magician.''

A look of triumph spread across her face. ``You throw metal bits through creni with a noise and don't call it magic?'' she crowed. ``And I suppose everybody on `Earth' traps demons and makes them pets and walks through gates between worlds. And I didn't mean to insult this.'' Her hand slid over to lie on top of my thigh. Well, not exactly my thigh. The hand was hot even through the blanket. ``I think its nice.''

``Nice?'' I was nonplussed. ``It's not, uh, magic.'' I finished rather lamely. Somehow that didn't come out right.

``No, it's not,'' she agreed. Her hand began to move around a little and she sidled a bit closer. Some reflexes began to stir as blood was diverted from my brain into something else. ``But, if you're not sick now, it might be.''

``Huh?'' I said. It's at times like this that the brilliant conversationalist in me comes out.

``How do you feel?''

I thought about it. The headache was gone. In fact, I felt great. I didn't feel like getting out of bed, partially because of a rather embarrassing circumstance that I was keeping tucked between my legs and covered with the blanket at the moment, but otherwise I felt perfectly all right.

``I feel great. Whatever was in that tea was good stuff. First rate hangover cure.''

``Remember the last time you were sick? With the fever?''

I nodded.

``Remember when I got into bed with you to keep you warm? You were so cold, and shook so hard, I thought you'd die.''

``I remember. I probably would have. I think you saved my life, there,'' I said. ``I never really thanked you for that. I'm sorry.''

``Remember when you woke up that time and the fever had broken and we had sex?'' (She really used a much coarser vernacular term, but I'm taking some liberties with my translation.)

I felt my face grow hot. I nodded. I had a feeling that I was in deep trouble. I was right.

``It's not fair,'' she said.

``Look,'' I said. ``I'm sorry. I didn't mean to take advantage of the situation. You just caught me at a vulnerable time ...''

``Not that. You didn't `take advantage of me'. I grabbed you, remember?''

``Then what? I'm confused.''

``I didn't have any fun. You fell asleep as soon as you came, and then my father came back. It's just not fair.''

If anything, my blush darkened. Not only was I guilty of molesting the relatively young daughter of my landlord (she started it) but I was a lousy lover at the time. How humiliating. Of course, I was light-headed and sick at the time...

``Of course, you were sick at the time ...'' she said, clearly in total control of my mind.

I was too ashamed, too dazed and confused, to do anything but nod.

``But you're not sick now.''

``Now wait a minute...'' I began, seeing at last where all this was going.

``You're leaving!''

``Yeah, but...''

``You're not taking me with you!''

``I just can't. It will be dangerous, really dangerous. I'll probably end up living in a tavern somewhere and working during the day - or night, as needed. You're younger, and should marry somebody your own age. I might end up leaving not just town, but the entire world at any time. I mean...''

``It's just not fair. You owe me!'' she interrupted. And then she started to cry. Big, wet tears. Little chokes and sobs. I hate it when a woman cries (for truth be told she was a woman, and wasn't that much younger than I was). Especially when it's my `fault'.

``I wasted a silver piece on that potion you just drank. It was supposed to make you want me uncontrollably. I tended you when you were sick. I saved your life. You said so. And I want one little thing. . .''

I growled and said a silent prayer to the God of all women. Then I reached for her and touched her shoulder. ``You didn't exactly waste that silver piece if they are responsible for this thing.'' I released it from between my thighs and the blanket suddenly bulged underneath her questing hand. ``You want it, lady, you got it. Let it never be said that a Foster doesn't pay his debts.''

Suddenly she was soft and warm against me, and we were kissing, and her clothes came off a little at a time, and I really tried hard to please her this time around.

I needn't have worried. That damn potion would be worth a fortune on Earth. Screw Levitra, Cialis, and all the rest. This could have been marketed as Instant Priapism, and not just for those suffering from erectile dysfunction.

Four hours (and three orgasms for me and about ten for her) I was beginning to be a little concerned about walking around for the rest of my life with an incredibly erotic and sensitive hard-on. The love-making had been fantastic. Lissa had a young, firm, clean body (side effect of installing a bath in the house) and was delightfully uninhibited in the ways of making love. She was also no virgin, not even the first time back when I was sick. I wondered who she had been practicing with.

Arto?

Finally, she rolled off of me, exhausted, with a little smile of contentment on her face. I might have been contented myself, if not for my rising anxiety. ``Thank you,'' she whispered in my ear, giving it a little bite. She looked down at my tireless erection and pointed a finger at it. ``Se' larapid. Ho!'' she intoned in a firm voice. She bent her finger slowly. My erection relaxed as she bent her finger.

``Whew!'' I sighed. ``At last, a rest. Well, madam? Are you happy now?''

``Yes,'' she purred, snuggling up into the crook of my arm, her long hair swirled across my chest. ``You know, Sam, that you are a lucky man.''

``I know it, yes. This has been a most pleasant morning. And that potion of yours has some kick, I must admit.''

``That's what I mean. You're lucky. If you hadn't made love to me this morning, you would have stayed hard until you did. I put the spell on you this morning, so only I could release you.''

``Aw, c'mon. I would have stayed hard until the potion wore off, that's all.''

She looked at me archly, rolling over onto my stomach again. ``For a magician you can be so stupid. It was both the potion and the spell. Once the spell was cast, the potion was no longer necessary. I have some magic too, Sam Foster.'' Her hair fell into my face as she kissed me again, her breasts little pillows on my chest. My hands strayed north and south simultaneously.

``Don't I know it, little witch.'' She looked at me in surprise, sudden comprehension in her eyes. Then she reached down to help.

``Maybe it is magic, after all,'' she said.

I didn't say anything as we started to move together again.


My clothes were downstairs when we got up. I hadn't heard Arto return and leave again, and felt a little guilty. We hadn't exactly been quiet up in the loft, and I suspected that he and Lissa were lovers. Social customs seemed to be fairly loose on Mirath, and centered much more on the choices of the women than on Earth, but jealousy and possessiveness were by no means unknown.

We dressed together and had a bite to eat. It was ``one'' in the afternoon, and for the first time, I thought about Graber.

``Where's your father?'' I asked.

``Probably still asleep on the table in the Shark, where most of the men in the area are, and where you would be if Arto and I hadn't fetched you here. Don't worry, the way they drank they won't wake for hours yet, and when they do awake it'll be hours before they can move.'' She shrugged. ``I told him not to come home today anyway.''

``Lissa!'' I scolded. ``He's your father. He's just trying to protect you from the attentions of evil men. Like me.''

``Never!'' A shadow, perhaps of memory, passed before her eyes. ``Never you, Sam. Surely you know that.'' She reached out and touched my face.

``Now I have to let you go,'' she said. ``I know that. But I wanted to touch you, to love you, one time properly before you go look for Julie or whatever it is that you want to do. You are a good man, my wizard warrior, whether you would be or not. Father knows that. He'd have you as a son-in-law if there were any way it would work, but it won't. So I have decided to marry Arto instead.''

``Congratulations. Does Arto know this yet?''

``I've told him. I've told Father, too. I make up my own mind on this.''

``So why, if you're marrying Arto, did you insist on this morning?''

``You idiot! Because I love you too, of course!'' She grinned and rumpled my hair. She was sixteen going on eighteen going on thirty five. ``Arto and I agreed that I must make love to you and try to get a child before you go. Fortunately, this is a good time for that.''

My head spun. A child? ``You and Arto? The two of you? Why would he want that?''

``Because he loves you too, stupid, as a big brother. But you are too far above him for him to ever be your equal in any other way but this. Now you both have loved the same woman. Me.'' She suddenly dimpled and danced around the room, laughing. She alit like a butterfly to kiss my nose. "And with luck we'll raise your child, so that if you get killed by your enemy magician there will be someone to avenge you. And so you will come back to us, too. After you find Julie, or do whatever else you must do. Or else.''

``Or else what?'' I asked, swinging her into my arms. She didn't answer, but slowly curled her index finger into a straight line, looking at it intently and chanting under her breath. And damned if I didn't follow it.


We managed to rearrange her clothes and the blankets just before Arto returned again. He came in and clapped me on the back and gave me a hug. Then he went and kissed Lissa, a good, slow kiss. I could see that now he could be closer and touch me where before he could not. People are such funny things, and culture is such a funny place. Different cultures, different customs. Anybody who fails to leave their mores, if not their morals, at the gate will not survive long.

The two of them then left together, but I felt like they were both taking a little piece of me with them. I was grateful for the privacy, for I had to get my act together, dress, and leave. Lissa had said goodbye for the two of them and I didn't want to have to say it again.

While I was packing my things, Graber came in. He looked like hell. I offered him a couple of aspirin from my copious supply (I brought a couple of thousand each of aspirin and acetaminophen and ibuprofen and a smaller supply of more serious prescription pain killers, courtesy of Dr. Ahrens); it seemed to help. By the time I was packed he had cleaned up and looked and smelled halfway decent. He deliberately avoided my eye at first, but I finally caught his and held it. After a second, a slight smile creased his weathered face.

He said, ``So that's how it is, then. You're leaving us today.''

``It's time to leave or stay and I can't stay.''

``No, I see that. You've business to attend to. Rendar asked after you.''

``Rendar is here?''

``At the Shark. He said he'd wait for you until after Malo-rise. He seems to have a job of some sort for you with Brin. Watch that one. You know who he is?''

``I think I met him last night. He reminded me of a shark himself.''

Graber cackled at that one. ``A shark, yes. But a damn sight toothier and more dangerous. I'd rather fuck a crena that put my hand in front of Brin. Or cross him when he's angry. He runs all the evil in town, lad. All the ladies, all the mercenaries. Most especially, all the gambling, smuggling, and drugs. He sells protection to the prince; protection from himself. He gets a cut of every dirty deal and most of the clean ones that happen in that town.''

He leaned to me, serious now. ``Don't mess with him. Or not more than you can help it. I know you're death on two feet yourself, but you cut the other man an even break. Brin doesn't. He'd as soon have your throat cut by ten hired men as laugh if he took a joke the wrong way. Or worse.''

``Thanks for the advice.'' I meant it. I was moving into a dangerous, primitive township, and that meant feudal. In any society there are men (and women) who hold real power; it rarely pays to cross them. In Sind-a-Lay it would pay to stay on Brin's good side. Which I suspected was behind him and far out of sight. Unfortunately, I had an appointment to meet him and that meant that it would be worse to stand him up.

I handed Graber a full bottle of scotch, one of my last. I had been on Mirath a bit more than a local year, by the stars and local calendar, although I wasn't really counting days. I couldn't see where the time had gone.

``For you. Don't drink it all at once. I'm leaving Oned to keep working the forge; keep an eye on him, will you, although I'll try to come out myself from time to time. Help yourself to the steel, to market or keep - work out the arrangement with Ned and Brand. But remember, none of the good swords, except for people you or Brand know personally and charge a lot of gold for them. Brand will keep the money for me until I come visit.''

I pulled out a bulging leather pouch. ``I sort of wrecked your boat on the last trip. So I'm putting up the money for a new one.'' I held up my hand to forestall the angry shout I could see building. ``Mind you, this is not a gift.'' There's no way it could be since he wouldn't accept it.

``I am going to be half-owner of the new boat. Buy a really big one, and outfit it with the best. Get yourself a crew-boy or two. Pay them off after each catch, and pay yourself a tenth for doing all the damn work. We'll split the rest of the profit 50-50. Deal?'' I offered him the pouch and my hand. He took both with an oath, and insisted on breaking open the new bottle of scotch to seal the deal.

We both drank very small swallows from the bottle and watched each other with very red, slightly misty eyes while we swallowed.

Thus began my next enterprise - banker and venture capitalist.

Being a capitalist is easy on a world where banking is unheard of (except by Brin, who probably ran a loan shark business too). One begins by becoming an industrialist with your own capital and forms a bank with the profits. I had quietly amassed a small fortune (very small) from profits from the forge, from bricks and ceramics, from the odd job for Rendar, and from the introduction of a very little bit of high technology into some of the other local cottage industries. The area around Brand's tavern was well on its way toward a localized industrial revolution. Graber had long since stopped charging me rent or board - I was a member of the family after rescuing Lissa and he got a little crazy on me when I tried to pay him anything after that. Which actually was fortunate, as all my capital was getting sucked into my new enterprises for a while. Now my net income, even after rolling most of my total income right back into materials and expansion and paying all the workers, was measured in gold pieces every month, making me a fairly wealthy (by local standards) man.

I picked up my pack and swords, arranged for Graber to bring a couple of bales of my things into town on his next trip after I was established and had a place at which he could drop them off, and stepped out into the late afternoon. The sun was setting as I stepped into the Shark.

Brand was behind the bar, shouting at his cook and wenches, trying to whip his place into shape for the coming night. Business would be even better than the night before, if they didn't wreck his place, since word of the new set of shark's teeth would have spread through the town. Gotha, the new bouncer (the last one had an accident with a palmed blade in the hand of a supposedly unconscious customer), gave a little grin and nod when I came in. He was eating his dinner, a greasy leg of mutton big enough to serve four, and drinking a huge ale. He'd get no rest later on.

After a minute or two Brand turned to me at the bar and said, ``What'll you have." I groaned and held my stomach and head. He grinned and said, "I've got just the thing.''

In a minute he had a mug in front of me. It was full of cool water, not ale. Smart man. I drank heavily and he said, ``I'm amazed that you could walk in here today, after all that you put down. In a minute, some dinner will come out, if you're up to it. Rendar was here, but he was called away for an hour or so. You might as well eat.''

"Fine. I'm famished," I said, pulling out my purse. Like I said, that potion would be worth a fortune just as a hangover cure back on Earth. I was amazed that I could be hungry after a day, a night, and a day like the one I'd just survived.

``On the house,'' said Brand. ``I want to make a deal with you.''

``Shoot,'' I said.

``What?'' he said. ``Oh, yes.'' He laughed. ``My arrow is this. I want to buy the shark's jaws. How much do you want for them?''

I would have given them to him, but that would offend him, so I said, casually, ``Well, for the risk involved in taking them, they are worth a hundred gold pieces.'' His eyes narrowed, but his expression didn't change. He started to shrug. Well out of his price range.

``But, on the other hand, who would buy them for that? I don't know. I'm leaving, I certainly have no use for them and can't carry them with me.'' His face grew businesslike again, as he saw the opening I left him.

``Hassan might buy them from you,'' he said. ``He could have a cart built to move them and he could ship them off to court in Ushti proper. They'd be worth a fortune there, so far from the shore. But he wouldn't pay a hundred gold pieces for them here, not when he has to carry them through the mountains to Ushti itself to make his money. Too much risk of bandits.''

``What do you think he might pay?'' I mused.

``Oh, maybe forty or fifty gold pieces. He'll be here later and you can ask him.''

``I can't wait. And besides, I'm no good at haggling. What'll you offer for them.''

``Well,'' he pretended to examine a mug for dirt and wiped up and invisible speck from the counter. ``I might be able to scrape up twenty gold pieces. After all, they'd take a lot of work to fix up right. They're going to stink tonight as it is, with all that meat still on them starting to turn. Oh, and I'd throw in the smaller set of teeth, if you want them.''

``What do I want with a shark's jaws? If I wanted a set I wouldn't sell the ones I own.'' I pretended exasperation. ``Only twenty lousy gold pieces? I risked my life to kill that damn fish. They're worth at least forty. Sell the smaller set to Hassan to defray your costs. They'd be easier for him to ship anyway.''

``They're only worth about ten gold pieces. That's the going price for a set that size - at least that's what I paid for them. At that size one can expect to turn up a set from time to time - nobody's ever seen a set like yours on the market. Still, thirty is the most I can afford, and I'll have to sell the smaller jaws to Hassan before I can pay that off. I don't have a lot of cash on hand in the tavern business, you know.''

``Thirty five and you can pay me tonight. Now, in fact.'' I looked at my mug of water. ``And while you're thinking, could I have a beer?''

``Done and done,'' he said, offering his hand, clearly satisfied with the deal. Two minutes later he put down the mug and a purse that clinked side by side, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

``Really, Brand. `I don't have a lot of cash on hand in the tavern business.'" I raised an eyebrow and the mug. He grinned and shrugged. I could tell that he had enjoyed the bargaining, and truthfully I knew I could use the windfall in gold since I'd just spent a big chunk of my previous accumulation on Graber's new boat. I had to do it, but it left me a bit cash-poor.

``Now, I have some business to offer,'' I said. The beer was a lot cooler since I showed Brand how to make a simple evaporation refrigerator out of a wet terra-cotta tub with water dripped onto it and kept in a fan-driven breeze created by a very patient old man for whom the job meant not starving. He ``paid'' me a royalty in free food and drink when the whim struck him, as it did now. But soon I was going to build the real thing once I solved the umpty technical problems along the way, such as power, copper tubing, coolant, pumps. I wanted to taste something icy cold again before I died.

``Let me hear this arrow,'' he said.

I let that one pass, too. It was my own fault for mixing idioms from English into Ushti. I asked him to handle both the business and the money that would be coming in from the steel and the fish, the wool shop (using newly introduced knitting needles), the brickworks, and the furniture-style carpentry. Making a decent lathe or saw requires steel. With steel tools ready at hand and (relatively) easy to make, and there would soon be a booming sawmill/furniture business operating from the power drawn from one of two new waterwheels I had set up on a brook up in the hills. The owners were going to be paying me a percentage of the profits for twenty years.

I told him to take ten percent off the top of my cut as his fee for being manager, and put the rest of the money into expanding his tavern, since it was jammed full every night as it was, or building up the businesses themselves. He could pay me back, with interest, when I needed it.

I had to explain interest to him. Brin's loan-shark business didn't really charge ``interest'', it was more like `two for one, payable on demand'. I impressed upon him the importance of keeping the interest rates ``reasonable'' and not having defaulters tortured or killed. This was a new idea to him, and he had to think it over a bit. But he agreed, a little greedily I thought. His eyes were already selecting the wall to tear down.

``Do a good job,'' I warned. ``Build out of brick and stone and expand your kitchens and brewery, or you won't be able to handle the extra customers. And make it defensible,'' I added, watching him out of the corner of my eye.

He caught my meaning and said, ``Don't worry, I will. I never thought about expanding the place. I have some gold myself, but I keep it hidden away. Maybe I'll spend some of it on this.''

``Invest, not spend. You'll get it back and more.'' I drank off the rest of my beer. Again there was a pause while he absorbed a new idea. Suddenly it had dawned on him that he, too, could loan money out on new enterprises and get paid a percentage of the profits forever. Another banker was born.

``Brand?'' I interjected.

``Yes?''

``I never did thank you for sewing up my chest.''

He looked uncomfortable and shrugged. ``It was that young scamp, Arto. He wouldn't leave me alone and dragged me out to that place on the hill to get that, that thing with the magic pictures.''

``Book. That book, with photographic pictures. You did a good job of following those pictures.''

``He told me what to do, and I guess anyone around here can sew. We've all been on the sea before and sewed sails. We just never thought to sew up a person, that's all.''

``Be sure you boil the thread and the needle and wash the wound in strong salt water and the new fire-water I'm going to show you how to make if you do it again, will you? It makes the magic work better.''

He grunted assent. I don't think he was entirely comfortable with magic.

``Brand?''

``Yes?''

``Do me one last favor and forget that place in the rocks exists, will you? And make sure that I killed the creni with arrows, and not with lightening, when that story is told in here?''

``Don't worry. Arto told me you are up against an evil wizard who is looking for you. So far as I know you are just an ordinary mercenary. But those,'' he gestured at the jaws, still festooned with ribbons and a few scraps of dried and rather smelly meat. ``and her,'' he gestured at Tara, who was eating a haunch of raw goat, sitting up at a table almost like a human. As I said, Tara had undergone some interesting changes lately. ``They say otherwise.''

I finished off my own dinner, had part of another, and was working my way through a fruit cobbler (longing for ice cream) when Rendar came into the Shark and strolled on over. ``Ready?'' he said to me as he nodded to Brand. ``Brin is waiting in the city, or will be later tonight. And it is not a good idea to keep Brin waiting.''

So, with some misgivings, I pushed myself to my feet and we walked out into the night together.


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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29