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We set out on the night road, with Tara loping off into the bush and then suddenly appearing at my heels without a sound. Tara had changed - metamorphosed is a better world - and it was a very different beast that prowled the night than the one that had first clung to my chest that first night on Mirath.

I had piled most of my non-essential belongings on a pack horse thoughtfully provided by Rendar. Two of Rendar's men had fallen in with us, one ahead and one behind with the horse, but they and the horse were continually being spooked by Tara's cavorting so I suggested to Rendar that we leave them and go ahead or let them go ahead faster and follow at our leisure. I could see him start to protest and utter the inevitable warning concerning bandits, but then Tara brushed like a shadow against his legs and he seemed to see the swords sticking out above my shoulder for the first time. He himself was armed with a `gift' sword fresh from our smithy; part of the deal was that he forget where he got it. He grunted.

``Lakshar! Milla! Go ahead with the horse quickly and tell Brin that we follow. We need no guard on a fine night like tonight.''

The swollen body of Malo and it's rings lit up what seemed like a quarter of the sky. It was the spring tide; we were at the point in orbit around Malo where Mirath was between it and Streya and Malo was ``full'' and resplendent. It was so bright that it was difficult to make out any stars around its sides, bright enough to see dim colors in the landscape and give the clear night air a hint of deep blue.

If you looked carefully at Malo you could see a faint, blurred umbral shadow of Mirath and the sharper penumbral shadows of the other, nearer moons crawling across its face. The cloud bands of Malo were far more roiled and stormy than those of Jupiter as the temperature was a lot higher and Malo has a perceptible axial tilt that gave it a significant temperature gradient as its seasons advanced. It's rings, seen edge on, were a thin dark knife cut across the face and flickers of light against the dark sky to its sides. I never tired of the sight.

We paused for a few minutes to give them a chance to get well ahead, watching the sky for the occasional glow of a falling meteor. This system, with all its orbiting bodies and debris, had spectacular meteor showers quite regularly. A decent sized meteor would make it to the ground about once every three Mirath years, and stories were actually told about people hit by (small) meteors who live to tell of it. As well as a few about towns wiped out by slightly larger ones ...oh, well. At least a moon hadn't fallen onto Mirath. Yet.

When we felt that they had a ten minute lead on us we resumed our walk. We were about an hour and a half from town at a fast pace on foot, and because horses here were about twice the size of Shetland ponies (and had vestigial toe-hooves and hence were generally ridden unshod) most people either walked or rode in donkey pulled wagons. Horses were used as pack animals and were ridden by young boys or particularly small men as a courier service, but they weren't much use as plow animals or as the basis for cavalry. Camels were more commonly used as mounts, especially on the caravans that went from town to town, but camels made lousy cavalry as well. Elephants seemed to be unknown - they required too much fodder and grazing land to support in the relatively few human enclaves, I suppose and would have been driven to extinction by the creni in no time in the wild.

While we walk (in your mind) through the night to the confrontation ahead (we didn't have two guards with us for no reason - the roads were lousy with bandits anywhere the bandits were safe from creni) let me update you on Tara. It was Lissa who first noticed the changes, but they soon became obvious to all of us.

Tara had (fortunately) more or less stopped gaining weight at a mass of around fifty kilos (about 110 pounds Earth weight) which she reached almost as fast as a big breed of dog would have when she reached an age of ten Earth months. She was then about five feet long (all stretched out), stood around two and a half feet high when she stretched out her legs with all four feet on the ground, and about a foot high when she slunk along the ground. She had a short, flattish tail that she used, it seemed, to help her swim. She swam like an otter and seemed totally at home in the sea. Her fur was the match for any mink or sable, with one white spot like a star in the center of her high forehead. Her ears were pointed and directable, her nose was animal sensitive. Her teeth were typical carnivore teeth. She was extremely bright at that point and understood dozens of spoken commands and sometimes seemed to be following actual conversation.

As soon as she reached a stable weight she suddenly began to change in different ways. First her hind legs started to grow and her tail began to shrink, as if she was converting one into the other. She stretched out in length and lost her ``puppy'' fat. Her front fingers lengthened, and the butt of her palms thickened to take her weight off of them when running on all fours, which she did less and less often. Her head began to grow yet bigger, and her eyes began to sparkle with intelligence. Finally, her jaw lengthened and grinders started to come in behind her perfectly good carnivore teeth and an upper and lower pair of flat rabbit style front teeth replaced the short, round, needles she had there before (although her canines remained sharp and daunting as before).

Suddenly she was starting to walk on her hind legs, swayingly at first but with more and more confidence, and my quadrupedal carnivorous ``pet'' had turned into a bipedal, omnivorous -- what?

And then, a few maloons ago, when she was around a year of age, she started to talk.

At that point it became really clear, to me at least, that I was really an adopted parent for real and not just the owner (and lover) of a pet. Tara's species was obviously either outright sentient or on the edge of it on the planet of her origin. Given how rapidly she had grown up (which speaks of manifold threats and little life security in her evolutionary niche) I suspected the latter, but that may have been to assuage the increasing guilt I felt over the death of her mother. Assuming that she did die, which of course I could not know.

The lips and cheeks should have clued me in from the beginning; there are damn few animals and no carnivores on earth with lips, which are evolutionarily useful mostly for speech and for holding vegetables in while they are chewed. Carnivores tend to razor off chunks and swallow them whole or nearly so.

Lissa and I began language lessons that were mostly unnecessary as Tara learned language the same way all kids do, by listening to adults speak, only much faster.

Far more important (to me) than her language acquisition were her lessons in manners, socially acceptable behavior, and her formal ``schooling''. There is nothing that I could think of that would be more frightening than a teen-age hell-cat armed with inch long razor blades on all fingers and toes and with no self-control. Although, not being a primate she might skip the adolescent rebellion stage (which is probably an evolutionary appendix from the hunter-gatherer stage of human development) -- why take chances.

So Tara began eating at the table with us. It was pretty easy for her to use a chair (although she didn't really ``sit'' in it), but it was difficult to get the idea of using a knife and fork across. It was actually pretty difficult to get them across to Brand, Graber, and Lissa, too, when I introduced the concept, so I wasn't disheartened.

Yet tableware is an important part of civilization. It prevents the spread of a variety of diseases and hence prolongs the average lifespan; its introduction was instrumental in the explosion of culture in both the Orient and Europe. My little tableware factory was going great guns now, with a full time employee/partner working with and under Ned. I had them working on making pewter (mostly tin, but with antimony and copper mixed in), making brass (copper and zinc), making aluminum, making solder (lead and tin).

The problems here were huge, and mostly revolved around finding a supply of any sort for the raw materials required. Gold and silver were found as native metal and mined but were money and costly to come up with in any quantity. Copper was found also found native and in ore and was a kind of money, but I was working on getting my own source of copper going. Tin was plentiful and of course (with copper) was the basis for the bronze tools and armor that still dominated local armories but was too soft by itself to use for most other purposes and the allows they could make with it tended to be poisonous. Aluminum was unknown - it generally requires a lot of electricity to smelt. Lead was known but was soft and poisonous and not commonly used. Antimony ore was known and in limited use in folk medicine as an emetic but its use in making alloys was not yet common so it was hard to obtain more than a hundred kilos, barely enough to play with.

I had to bootstrap here - even the gold I had brought along only bought so much raw material, and that had to be transformed into even more gold or my enterprise would run out of steam. Fortunately, gold was worth a lot on Mirath.

Anyway, my factory was making cast iron cookware, wrought iron or pewter silverware, pewter plates and bowls, and I pushed the use of silverware and metal or ceramic plates whenever possible. Brand was now proud to own the only tavern on Mirath that served its meals with metalware. The customer had to put down a deposit of twice the value of the pieces in order to use it, of course, and it still kept disappearing as little bits of culture took off through the door and went out to fertilize a world, but ...I digress. I did make a big profit on it, though - the enterprise was starting to roll on its own with a crew going out to look for new sources of the most important ores and cut deals with existing miners and prospectors.

Eventually I succeeded in convincing Tara (and everybody else in the small community around the Shark) to eat her meat and vegetables off a plate with a knife, fork and spoon. She loved soup, which helped. It also really is easier to eat beans and rice and cooked carrots and things like that with silverware instead of claws and fingers. Every now and then, though, I'd catch her eating a fresh kill the old fashioned way - by ripping it to shreds and chowing down. I permitted that, as long as she didn't eat that way at table. Watching it tended to disturb the digestion.

We also taught her not to talk in front of strangers. This was easier than I would have expected, but its possible that her species is instinctively defensive and quiet outside of the ``family group''. Instead we invented a sign language that would cover a variety of ``crisis'' situations. In a situation beyond our ability to foresee, she was to come up and pretend to lick my ear (which she enjoyed doing anyway) and simultaneously whisper into it, since a few words are worth a lot of signs.

Clothes seemed to be redundant for her, but Arto made her a black fishnet belt that was nearly invisible underneath her fur but held in its pockets lots of her own special little things. Once her fingers got long enough, they were impossible to keep out of tool chests and jewelry boxes; she loved anything that was small and intricate. Tara was most definitely a Tool User with packrat tendencies.

I tried to spend some of every day on ``school'' for her. By now, halfway through our second (local) year on Mirath, she was actually learning to read and write. She seemed in most respects to be at the intellectual age of a six year old human, although she was only a couple of Earth years old, or maybe a bit more (I was unsure how old she was when I picked her up in the gate). I tried to jam as much education in as fast as I could, because I was afraid that her ability to learn could turn off as easily as it turned on.

Her bonding to me was absolute. I once chanced to step on her foot when she was curled up asleep next to me and she woke up with her claws whirling towards my legs like propellers. I must have really hurt her, as she limped for a couple of days after that. She actually nicked my ankle before her nose, ears and eyes told her who I was and then she fell apart. She wailed, covered her eyes with her paws (hands?), licked my ankle and hand again and again and groveled repeatedly until I was able to reassure her that I was all right and that she of all creatures hadn't hurt me. Then she frisked around me like a colt. ``Mama'' was okay.

There is more to tell about her (such as her peculiar sense of humor); you'll learn about it as we go on, but this is enough to show you that it was a very different Tara who loped beside the road, now on all fours, now on her hind legs. She was no longer my pet (if she ever was). She was my ``eight year old'' (mentally) daughter.

Now I'll be frank. There are worse things than having a loving nightmare of an oversized were-wolverine for a daughter. She was wonderful to snuggle next to on the sometimes chilly darkside nights, especially when she would wrap her mink-like fur around my head like a bizarre living cap or lie next to my legs and feet. She was supremely loyal and protective. It took a while to convince her, for example, not to try to gut somebody unless they actually were actively trying to injure me and I really needed (i.e.--asked for) the help.

We were therefore safer walking down the road then we would have been protected by a company of seasoned troops. Rendar was no mean hand with a sword (and his current sword was not likely to break like his first sword had in Brand's tavern, as it had a beautiful watery pattern running up and down its polished surface) and I was, modestly speaking, the best swordsman on the planet by virtue of being the only modern swordsman and armed with the two best swords.

Tara (who was also learning to fence with her very own sword once her fingers developed to where she could grasp it) would probably take that honor away from me before the year was out (ever try to attack a swarm of angry bees?) but for the moment, at least, I could still touch her three times out of four. Unless she cheated and used her claws instead of the sword, in which case I would touch her zero out of a hundred times and get sliced into ribbons in the meantime.

So let us return to our moonlight stroll. We had been walking for perhaps an hour (the glow of Sind-a-Lay was visible from the tops of hills) when suddenly Tara materialized in front of us and tugged me off to the side of the road. I signaled to Rendar and we drew steel, edging our backs closer together, and started forward. Tara had vanished again without a sound.

As we rounded a bend in the road, our horse was suddenly visible standing peacefully over a mound in the roadside. We had just time to realize that the mound was a corpse with an arrow sticking our of it's breast when a bowstring twanged, Rendar dropped with amazing speed at the sound, and I stupidly stood still while an arrow whacked through my cloak and into my chest amidships, stopped cold by my ring mail. Ouch, I say. The bruise stayed with me for two weeks.

Not that I'm complaining. Sure beats the hell out of being skewered.

I finally got the idea and dropped to the ground myself just as a second bowstring twanged and the night was pierced by a ghastly shriek. I recognized that particular combination of tone and terror. Tara had found one of the ambushing bowmen.

I sort of hoped that she wouldn't dawdle on the corpse. I hadn't really educated her about arrows (I hadn't educated me, either, it appeared) and I was concerned that she might get hit from far away without realizing the danger - although shooting wasn't exactly easy in the twilight reflected by Malo, it was certainly possible.

I needn't have worried. A second shriek emerged from a tree ahead, and a large heavy body fell noisily to the ground below. I made a private bet with myself that it was trailing out its intestines as it fell.

About now the main body of bandits, some eight of them, emerged from the rocks and began to run towards our presumed corpses, but they were a little shaky in their approach and the last couple kept looking over their shoulders for the source of the unearthly screams.

I prodded Rendar, and we jumped to our feet together and assumed a back to back position, I with my two swords and Rendar with his new one and an equally new watered steel dagger. I took the right hand side (attacking with my left) since I could fight with either hand, but I planned to straighten out and use both hands as soon as the reserves took them in the rear.

Things suddenly happened very fast. Rendar had the first kill as he beat aside the blade of his bravo and and decapitated him with a neat, if unsubtle, move. Aware that I would have to avoid deflecting blades into him, I used the saber to bind the wildly swinging blade of my first attacker, sending both swords to the sky. I extended my right hand as he stepped in, his dagger in his off hand. Julie is a bit longer than a dagger, and he ate steel long before he could reach me.

I stepped back into guard to let the body fall, and in passing slashed horizontally to the right with both blades. This caught my second attacker across the throat and belly simultaneously with no need to parry as his blade was pulled back for a badly telegraphed swing. I heard rather than saw Rendar take out his second opponent also, and felt a void at my shoulder where he had been pulled out of position to do so.

I curled the saber in my left hand through a circular clockwise sweep through the space behind my left shoulder where I sensed an incoming blade and wheeled gently around to counter, Julie's point dancing like a serpent's head through the intervening active space. As my left blade engaged a still-unseen opponent and parried the swing over my head, Julie darted out and poked the face of yet another tough caught in the backswing. These were farmers and alley toughs, really, and handled a blade like a scythe or a hammer. A point and thrust were invisible to them. He fell back with his mouth and and tongue and lower jaw split open, gushing blood.

Rendar's blade thumped home into the unseen body behind me, and a spot of darker night streaked into the back of one of the hesitant ones, who had foolishly hung back to watch the demise of his fellows. He dropped silently, missing a throat to scream with. The second one was dispatched the same way, without a sound other than a muffled gurgle and a thump. The last bravo was just out of reach and obviously terrified by the instant death of (he thought) the leading five. He let out a cry and threw down his sword, raising his hands to the sky and turning to run.

It didn't help him much, as I'm afraid that ``honorable surrender'' was something I hadn't quite taught to Tara. Even as I was opening my mouth to call her off, she killed him messily, and a bit more painfully than the last two. I finally had to step up to him and cut off his screams with a heart thrust. He didn't have much of a face left by then, and Tara looked like she was trying to flay him alive. She drew back at a word from the only survivor, the man with the gore-drenched mouth. I hadn't quite reached the back of the throat with my quick thrust, and it looked like he might even survive to be hanged, or impaled, or whatever if he didn't drown on his own blood first.

I looked around at Rendar, who walked up to the last bravo as he rocked back and forth on his knees and dripped blood and said, ``Do you know who I am?''

The bravo just nodded, dumbly, holding his shattered jaw clamped tight with one hand, shock glazing his eyes.

``If you tell me who sent you, I'll grant you a boon,'' Rendar went on, in a reasonable voice. ``If not ...'' He gestured expansively toward Tara, who sat beside me humming a little song while she licked the blood from her extended claws and fingers, her eyes glowing green in the multicolored light. ``I'll give you to her!''

The bravo sat for a second, staring wildly at the demon who had fought by our side. He shuddered visibly, his eyes rolling back insanely. I swirled my cape out and crossed my swords in the sky above, trying to look Bad myself. As I did so the arrow pulled free of my cloak and tumbled to the ground, its head blunted and broken.

The bandit looked frantically from the Prince of Darkness (me?) and his Demon Consort back to Rendar and nodded his head vigorously, each bob eliciting a moan of pain. He knelt in the moonlight and traced out a sign in the dust of the road with his own blood. I strained to make it out, but Rendar suddenly uttered an oath and swung, and blood pumping from the severed neck obliterated the mark before I could properly see it.

There was nothing to do then but clean up the mess. This consisted of decapitating all the bodies of the bad guys and piling the heads into a bundle that we attached to the poor horse. We looted the corpses, but there was little of value in their purses. It was obviously a cash-on-delivery deal on Rendar's (or my?) head, or else they had drunk their advance. Finally, we pushed the bad guy bodies off the road and into the ditch, stacked the bodies of the two guards up on the side of the road proper where they could be retrieved, and ambled on. A little later we came to a small stream and were able to wash the worst of the gore off of ourselves.

Our entry into the town was therefore unexpectedly exciting. Tara had returned to my feet at the town gates on my whistle; I had no desire to let her confront a bowman with an itchy trigger until we could talk a bit about ballistics. Rendar chewed out the gatekeeper for slackness (not true, he had challenged us quite convincingly while we were still a ways from the gate) and sent him to gather a crew to collect the bodies. He then unceremoniously dumped the grisly contents of the bag onto the street to the accompanying oohs and ahhs of the rapidly growing crowd.

``Look at this, you idiot,'' (this to the gatekeeper). ``Ten bandits setting up shop almost within bowshot of the city gates. It's hardly safe for two young fellows take a moonlight stroll around here.'' (Laughter from the crowd.) ``Pike these heads, and see that the bounty is credited to my account. You asses on the gate don't deserve a cut this time.'' (More laughter. He turns to me.) ``Come on, Sam. I told you that we just can't get good help around here. You too, kitty-cat.'' The last to Tara, with a roll of his eyes.

We strode off, stage right, with the crowd howling along behind. I looked down at Tara, to see how she was taking being called ``kitty-cat'', but damn if she wasn't stalking down the street with her remaining stub of a tail in the air, acting just like Zaphod, the mouser Graber kept in his hut, who had become quite good friends with both Tara and myself before we left. Not to be outdone, I stage-whispered over to Rendar in a voice that could be clearly heard by the whole crowd, ``Really, Rendar, I had no idea that it was true. You really do pay out a bounty on country mice.'' Pause. ``Well, Puss here loves nothing more than a tasty mouse. But she was born to hunt city rats! Got more meat on 'em.''

The crowd was almost in tears behind us as we strode into the biggest tavern in town (or so I was told), the Rigid Rooster. The sign above the door was a carved statue of the biggest, hardest rooster I'd ever seen, that was for sure. Bad puns, especially bad obscene puns, appear to be culturally universal. As we passed inside Rendar, who had been giving me a keen-eyed sidelong glance after my reference to rats said to me sotto voce, ``Don't worry, friend Sam. Rats she shall have. Including the biggest City Rat of all. Soon.''

We stamped up to the bar, where Rendar called out ``Ale!'' in a ringing voice. The mugs hit the counter almost before the echos left the room. The rest of the crowd (or as much as the place would hold, filtered in and started some serious drinking, carefully leaving an arm's length and a half bubble about the two of us and the ``cat'' at our feet. The noise was suddenly deafening.

Rendar signaled to the bartender and asked him something over the top of the bar that I couldn't make out. Following that he turned to me and indicated that I should follow him with my ale. My bundle of clothes magically appeared being carried by a couple of short linebacker types and another who shouldered the crowd out of the way as we made for the stairs. He needn't have bothered. Tara let out a sort of half yowl and it was suddenly very quiet and the crowd melted out of our way.

Once there we paused and looked back. Tara sat back on her haunches, cat-like, and let out a very passable ``Meeeowwrrll?'' And the crowd exploded into noisy cheers again, while we mounted the stairs.

Clearly Rendar was charismatic and had quite a following here. This was good for me, since after saving his life a time or three, I really thought I could trust him. Not that I was planning to bet on it anytime soon.

We reached a room and went in. It was a total dump compared to Holiday Inn, but it was sumptuous for the period, with a real bed, a trunk for clothes, a closet/privy, and some other furniture. It was also a veritable palace compared to Graber's loft, and hence quite acceptable, so I made pleased noises. My clothes vanished into the trunk (a stray mouse inside being caught - alive - by Tara's lightening fast claws and deposited - still alive - out in the hall) while Rendar called for a table, chairs and keg, all of which appeared so fast I was convinced it was a set up. In little more than five minutes after we entered the town gate I was leaning back on the bed with my feet inevitably dangling six inches over the end. Tara came over and nuzzled my ear affectionately, stretched out beside me, and give me a look that said, ``I'm hungry.'' Rendar had occupied one of the chairs and had his feet up on the table. One guard was going for food and two waited outside the door. And we were alone, or so it seemed.

For a few minutes we quaffed warm (damn it!) ale contentedly. Killing really does work up a thirst. But I knew that we couldn't drink all night. Brin was (presumably) waiting, and besides, I had done that the last night. I was beginning to feel very, very tired.

Rendar knew this (he'd partied the night before too, although he had probably gotten less ``exercise'' and more sleep than I had gotten during the day, unless he had had a serious spell worked on him by one of the tavern wenches. That meant (I deduced) that he wanted to tell me something before the meeting with Brin. Furthermore, (I continued to deduce) it was probably something like the name of the man who ordered the ``hit'' on the way in. Finally (Sherlock Holmes himself I am, at least when Anybody Home's) the only person who seemed to fit that role, who would provoke just that reaction from Rendar, and who knew that we would be on the road at that time was ...

``So, does Brin always try to knock off prospective employees and trusted retainers when he has a job for them to do?'' I asked.

Rendar picked himself up off the floor and surveyed the wreckage of his chair. Some people just have a nervous temperament. One of the guards poked his head in, saw that all was well, and withdrew. Tara didn't so much as blink an eyelid. Neither did I.

``You really are a damned Wizard, aren't you?'' He said with a note of genuine respect. ``Or did you read the sign that man traced on the road?''

``No, I didn't read it. Really, it was quite elementary. You know my methods, Watson.'' The last was in English, but to Rendar it must have sounded like a spell, because he drew back a bit and his hand made a furtive sign.

``Relax,'' I said, slipping back into Ushtian. ``Really, it was pretty obvious. So why did he want us dead?''

`` `Obvious,' '' muttered Rendar sarcastically. ``I don't know why. Why don't you tell me why? Because if he wants us dead, we are dead men inside a day, at most.''

At this point we were interrupted by a messenger who brought a heavy purse. Rendar counted it out, swept half of it into his purse and tossed the other half to me. ``Half the bounty on the men we killed. Ten gold pieces a head, or fifty apiece, split right down the middle. Courtesy of the prince.''

This was extraordinarily generous of him, especially when Tara and I had accounted for seven of the ten. Yes, I think I about had the parameters of friend Rendar. Still, fifty gold pieces was nothing to sneeze at, and, by his standards, a marvel indeed. I think he would rather have parted with his mother than a single coin of it.

We were clearly best friends.

I decided to level with him. ``Rendar, we've been had.''

That startled him. ``What? How?''

In my most respectful, lecturing-to-idiot-undergraduates sort of voice I continued, ``By Brin, of course. He was making a gift to us of a hundred gold pieces of the prince's money and testing our loyalty at the same time.'' I put the slightest hint of stress on the word ``loyalty'', and succeeded in penetrating Rendar's actually not-so-thick skull. He picked it up without a beat.

``But why?'' he asked, sorrowfully. ``Am I not one of his best servants and providers? And what does he have against you? I don't,'' he paused, gathering his resources, ``understand. But I'm sure that he had good reasons, and, as you say, the gold is gold is gold.''

I had been surreptitiously signaling for him to quench the histrionics a bit, and he managed the last bit almost true to form.

``Ahh,'' I said, slipping back into professorial form. ``That is it. Gold is gold. And you don't think that he expected us to lose, do you?''

``Of course not,'' Rendar went on, in a miffed tone of voice. It was all clear now. ``The two of us could easily handle any ten mere country bumpk-, ahhm, mercenaries! In fact, either of us alone could. Or even pussy, over there.''

`Pussy' I believed, at least. But it was time to wind this up, before the cheese got so thick you could walk on it. ``So obviously Brin set it up so that we could earn a little of the Prince's money, clean up the city a bit and be popular heroes, maybe even have an entry into court, while doing away with some servants of his who had undoubtedly outlived their usefulness. In the bargain, he gets to test our `honesty', our loyalty, and even our intelligence. So how did we do?''

I barely raised my voice on the last, addressing it to the air, as it were, and was gratified to hear the dead-fish voice of Brin come from the shadowy corner of the room, ``Quite well, actually.'' To Rendar it must of seemed like he literally appeared in the room by magic. I, or rather Tara and shortly thereafter I, had known about the secret cabinet since her first tour around the room.

Ashen faced, Rendar faced him. ``Is there some way I have offended you?'' he asked. He was actually terrified. I wouldn't have thought much could terrify Rendar. I decided that Brin was definitely surplus population and marked him in my mind for early extinction. But not tonight.

``No, actually,'' purred Brin. ``You do withhold a tad more than your share of the smuggling duties, but I have overlooked it thus far and may even continue to overlook it.'' A pause. ``Or I may not. But you are valuable to me and would be hard to replace. I wouldn't consider it without a good reason. And just now I can't think of a good reason.''

Rendar visibly relaxed, and then stiffly held out his purse. ``If you want reparations ...'' What was it, I wondered, that would reduce a man capable of killing ten men and then cracking jokes and laughing about it to this kind of fear?

Brin waved it away with a gesture. Then he dismissed Rendar by simply turning his back on him. ``You may indeed be the one I need.''

I decided to play this one as respectful equals, maybe professor with tenure to department chair. ``Possibly,'' I said, inclining my head but no more in his direction. ``Let's talk about it.''

Brin's smile became a positive grimace when he saw the line I meant to take. Tara didn't visibly move or utter a sound, but I could feel her muscles tense as she picked up his vibrations. I laid a calming hand on her flank.

``I need a person of discretion, one capable of violence, and one who is sufficiently sophisticated to be invited repeatedly to court. There is an individual in the Prince's court who owes me a debt. I wish to collect. Yet they refuse, claim royal protection and threaten me with exposure if I persist. You see that I am being honest with you.''

And if I turn down the job, what price your `honest'? My life? ``You wish me to collect the debt?''

``One way or another.'' No amateur actor this one. He dropped the line without so much as a hint of dire implication. Professional all the way.

``And who is this person?''

``Do you accept the job?''

``What is the commission?''

``One third of the debt you collect.''

``And what is that?''

Brin paused, licked his lips, and glanced a touch nervously at Rendar. ``Ten thousand gold pieces. Twice the five I loaned her.''

Her. He actually was nervous, to drop that. Or was he acting? ``I keep three thousand three hundred three of gold?'' I asked, to make it official, ``if she pays. What if she refuses, or cannot afford it, or ...'' Subtle pause. ``Must be dealt with?''

``The same, out of my own pocket,'' said Brin, sweating mightily. His eyes were bulging slightly. I wondered about the cholesterol in his diet. He looked like a candidate for a coronary if ever I saw one. I'd have to make sure he had one, quite soon. Steel can clog arteries too.

``Done and done.'' I concluded. ``Provided you advance me a thousand now, pay expenses in addition to my third, and,'' I paused and glanced at Rendar, ``procure me an invitation to the court. Now I ask again, what is her name?''

Now I must confess, that this was all really dumb. Everybody in the room knew who it was and had known from almost the beginning. Court gossip reached readily into the Grinning Shark, and everybody (except possibly the Prince himself) knew about the illicit love affair of the Princess with a certain pirate captain, and how he threw her over (in fairness, she was asking for it) and left her pregnant and about to be publicly disgraced, and how suddenly and mysteriously she was unpregnant, and how her ex-lover was captured and she still pleaded passionately for his life, and how she was turned down and retired to her room in tears threatening to all and sundry to kill herself, and how her ex-lover was rescued in the dead of night and spirited away to his ship and all gradually forgotten as the court returned to ``normal.'' Now I knew how such an expensive proposition as an abortion and a jailbreak could be arranged by a Princess who had to beg papa for every cent she spent.

Borrow from Brin. Collateral: your life.

So it was an anticlimactic climax when his sputum-flecked lips actually choked out the fateful words: ``Princess Renore.''

Rendar looked appropriately shocked, I looked (I hoped) pale and dismayed, and Brin suddenly was back in his real character, all shark and no mercy. He reached into a leather pouch he carried by his side and pulled out a parchment and a pen. It was a primitive fountain pen, but a pen nonetheless. I wondered if it was an anachronism, or if there was a young inventor out there struggling to improve on the humble quill and brush. On the parchment he wrote some words in the incomprehensible scrawl of Ushti. It's not quite as bad as Chinese, but it's ideogrammatic. At this point I could mostly make out simple written documents. He signed it with a peculiar stamped seal, attached by a chain to a heavily worked, thick bracelet of some white metal on his left wrist. I did not see him ink the seal.

``Take this to my doorman first thing tomorrow morning,'' he said in a businesslike voice. ``He'll give you eleven hundred. Rendar, using the nights events, will get you into tomorrow's court. They are bored and will be eager to hear your story and see your `pet'.'' His eyes flicked over Tara and she stiffened again.

``It may take a few days for me to reach the Princess,'' I said.

He just grinned and didn't say a word. He didn't have to.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29