“You might as well go out and see the festival, now that you’re here,” Lord Clifton Dargon had suggested as his twin cousins finished breakfast. “Melrin only comes once a year.”
“Yes,” Luthias had agreed practically, but his voice was heavy. “We might as well.”
“What’s going on today in the Melrin, Bartol?” Roisart asked his cousin Dargon’s bard.
“Oh, final competition for the Bardic Crown,” the bard cum bodyguard announced enthusiastically. “Today at noontime.”
“What else?” Luthias wondered. While bardic tales could interest Luthias, hours upon hours of sung tales drove him to distraction.
Bartol gave him a strange, appalled look. “What else?” demanded Bartol, gazing at the young noble as if he were insane. “What else is there?”
Roisart looked at his twin and smiled. Luthias rolled his eyes. Then he turned to his cousin, the lord. “Clifton, do you think you’ll be all right here after what happened to our father yesterday?”
Clifton had laughed then; Roisart smiled. “Come on, Luthias,” his brother urged. “Think about it. What would Clifton, with all his guards, need us for? Considering the men who attacked us this morning,” Roisart continued, turning his eyes towards his cousins, “we may need guarding ourselves.”
But Clifton had smiled and shaken his head. “You’ll be safe enough in the festival,” the Lord of Dargon ventured. “And the city guard is out in full should you need assistance.” The smiled widened and the skin around Dargon’s brown eyes crinkled slightly. “Besides, you two didn’t do all that badly this morning.”
So it was with this assurance the Roisart and Luthias left Dargon Keep and strolled into the Middle City, where most of the Melrin was taking place. There were as yet three hours until the Bardic Crown competition was to take place, so Luthias suggested to his brother, “Let’s go down to the docks. There’s bound to be something happening there.”
“Yes, Father used to take us there when we got to the Melrin early,” Roisart sighed. Luthias frowned; he too missed their father. Then Roisart brightened a bit. “Maybe the races are today.”
The noble twins walked a little more quickly toward the docks, past the side shows and food stands that were just setting up for the fourth day of Melrin. Roisart noted curiosities along the way: a bearded lady, a steer the size of a small house, a fortune teller or two, a seller of rare books…many things that he and Luthias would have to see. It would have been easier if their father had been with them; the late Baron was much like Roisart in his zest for oddities and stories. Luthias was not as interested such things, for which he could find no real use. Then Roisart spotted the booth of an armoire come all the way from Magnus for Melrin, and decided it would be easier than he had anticipated to drag Luthias back.
They arrived at the docks very early, so the docks were deserted, except for old Simon, the Stew Man, and his monkey, who chattered at the twins in a primate greeting. Luthias played with the jovial creature, and Roisart began eagerly to ask the old man about a sea legend he had recently read and whether or not it could have any truth to it. Finally, as the crowds began to press onto the docks, Luthias slipped the monkey a sovereign and pulled Roisart away to find a good view for the race.
It was a spectacular race, with Captain Kent’s “Victory Chimes” taking the honors at the end. When it was over and the crowd was thinning, Roisart told his brother, “I saw some interesting booths over by the market. Let’s go look them over.”
Luthias shrugged his shoulders and together they left the dock areas for the Middle City, near the market. As Roisart had expected, Luthias was not particularly interested in the side shows, but he became very enthusiastic when he saw the display of the best sword maker of Dargon. While Luthias inspected the blades, Roisart paid two coppers to see the steer as big as a house and played a game of toss, though he won no prizes. Still, Roisart made sure at all times that he knew exactly where his brother was.
Luthias watched Roisart as well, saw him duck into the tent with the exaggerated steer. “I’ll take this one,” he said to the sword maker, choosing the best blade of the lot, but keeping his eyes on the tent. “And a scabbard, too.” Roisart emerged from the attraction and moved over to his brother. “Look, Roisart,” Luthias bragged as he paid for his new toy, “see this!”
The pride was well-founded; the sword was very well made and decorated. “You going to fight with that?” Roisart laughed.
“That’s what swords are for,” Luthias said, a gleam in his eye.
“But that’s too nice to fight with,” Roisart argued. “Besides, in a pinch, you’re used to your old blade.”
Luthias grimaced. “We had better stick together, twin. I thought I saw someone following us on the docks.”
“You worry too much,” Roisart chided his brother lightly. “Come over here, Luthias. Let’s take a look at this scribe’s cart. Did you see the books?”
Luthias took his sword from its maker and nodded. “I saw them,” Luthias confirmed as they crossed the street. “Very old.”
Roisart arrived at the cart and immediately began rummaging through the titles. “These aren’t so old, Luthias.”
“I meant the scribe,” joked his brother, picking up a red-bound volume inscribed with blue. He opened it, looked at the title page, then called over the scribe. “How much is this?”
“Do you have ‘History of the Ancient World’?” Roisart wondered.
The scribe shook his head. “I’m sorry, young sir. And you, young sir….” He looked from Roisart to Luthias, then back again. Then, to Luthias, he gave the price of the book, which Luthias paid laconically and turned away to flip through it as Roisart browsed.
After a minute, Roisart peered over his brother’s shoulder. “What’s that you’ve bought?”
“Meresan’s ‘Lives of Lords and Princes’,” Luthias told him. “We’re going to need the examples if one of us is going to be baron.”
Roisart sighed. “If we can ever decide who is to be baron.”
Luthias looked into his brother’s brown eyes. “I think you should be baron.”
“What?” laughed Roisart. “But I’m not much of a leader, or a fighter. Men would follow you, Luthias. In an emergency, you think fast and act.”
“But that would be deadly to me if I were judging a legal case,” Luthias replied, closing the book with a decided thump. “I would think too quickly. You’d delve into the matter until the truth was found. I might take the truth at the surface. And what about law, Roisart? I know nothing of laws.”
“If only we could both be baron,” sighed Roisart dismally.
“I know that that is against the law,” Luthias chuckled. “We can’t both be baron.”
“I know, but we both have qualities that are so necessary to be one,” Roisart replied. “And it’s hard to tell which one of us would better serve Clifton.”
“Clifton,” muttered Luthias, beginning to move away from the scribe’s cart. “Now, about him I am very worried.”
“You worry too much,” Roisart laughed. Then he sobered. “But something’s got to be done. Clifton can’t let this continue.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it, though,” Luthias pointed out. “We’ll just have to decide which of us should be baron.”
There was a moment of silence, then Roisart announced suddenly, “Luthias, I’m hungry.”
Luthias smiled. “So am I. I think there’s a tavern on the next street over. It’s been a long time since breakfast.”
“I hope it’s a good tavern,” Roisart said. “I don’t want to get sick before the ball tomorrow.”
Slowly, the twins made their way through the crowds to the nearby street. The tavern which Luthias had earlier spotted, the Rogue and Quiver, was full, and seemed rather dirty. So they kept walking and searching, until Roisart spotted a large sign which advertised, “Belisandra’s.”
Luthias gave the place a cursory inspection. “It looks clean, and the food smells good. Let’s eat.”
Together, the twins ducked into the darkened tavern, scanned the room and its patrons (neither seemed too bad), and found a table in the corner nearest the door. Luthias pointed it out, and motioned to his brother. Roisart nodded, knowing the location’s advantages as well as Luthias did; it allowed no attack from behind, and the proximity to the door made the twins difficult to spot as a potential killer’s eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness.
A sharp-eyed serving wench had spotted the brothers almost immediately and hustled over to their table as they seated themselves. She was a small girl, only reaching the twins’ shoulders, but she dressed neatly and wore a pleasant smile. “Good Melrin to you, sirs,” she greeted the twins politely. “What may I serve you?”
Roisart began to smile in a lazy way which triggered alarms in Luthias’ brain. Roisart was having an infatuation again. Luthias sighed mentally. Well, at least the girl wasn’t a peasant; her speech was clear and free of the peasant accent, and she wore her clothes like a decent woman, unlike another serving wench on the other side of the room. Still….Luthias nudged his brother beneath the table and spoke. “Two ales, to begin with. What’s the special for luncheon?”
The girl’s smile spread. “Belisandra’s Secret Stew. The recipe’s older than the Keep. It’s the best stew in Dargon. And it’s fresh; Belisandra made it just this morning.” The girl nodded enthusiastically to a buxom woman nearing middle age, who stood behind the bar, tending it and a large cauldron of stew behind it. “It comes with fresh bread and butter and greens, and I can bring it to you right away.”
“Perfect,” Luthias’ stomach answered. “Bring two of those please.”
The girl nodded and turned away with a natural, unflirtateous bounce. “Too young for you, Roisart,” muttered Luthias. “She can’t be more than fourteen.”
“She’s very sweet,” Roisart argued.
“Yes, but she’s not for you.” Roisart sighed with resignation; his brother smiled affectionately. “You give your heart too easily.”
“Whoever is baron could choose his own woman,” Roisart realized.
“If only we could choose a baron,” Luthias laughed as the girl returned with two bowls of stew, a plate of fresh bread and a pat of butter, and a bowl of greens. Wondering how she could carry all that, Luthias continued, “There’s absolutely no way to choose between us.”
The girl was setting the dishes down. “Belisandra will be over with the ales in a minute,” she promised. She leaned back a moment and surveyed the young brothers with an appraising look. “Choose between you? How could any girl choose between you?” She blushed then, perhaps feeling immodest. Both twins, blushing as well, smiled at her as she continued. “Maybe your lucky lady should see Corambis.”
The tavern mistress Belisandra, bearing two ales, came from behind the girl as Luthias asked, “Who is Corambis?”
“You don’t know Corambis?” the girl asked, her eyes now wide. “I thought everyone knew Corambis. He’s the Sage in the market-place. Your lady should see him today to see which of you she should choose.”
Belisandra set the ales down with two distinctive thumps. “Go to him today? Mika, he may never come back!” She gave the twins a motherly gaze. “He’s been gone all winter, without a trace, and–”
“He got back yesterday,” Mika protested. “He read my horoscope for me this morning, Belisandra.”
She turned again to the twins, and began to continue, but Belisandra interrupted. “Where was he this time?”
Mika took a moment to recall the information. “He went off with a young man for a few days, then stayed with relatives for the winter, he said. But he is back,” she assured Roisart and Luthias, “and you can go and make an appointment for your lady friend. He’s right in the market.”
Luthias faced his brother. “Do you think we should?”
Roisart shrugged. “Why not, Luthias? We’ve tried everything else.” He then asked Mika and her lady, “Where can we find Corambis?”
“Oh, he’s easy to find, my lords,” Belisandra explained helpfully. “It’s the only closed booth in the main market place. You can’t miss it, young sirs.”
“I’ll think we’ll try it,” Luthias decided. “Thank you.”
Mika smiled engagingly; Belisandra nodded, pleased. “You’re welcome, my lords,” Belisandra answered. “Good Melrin.”
“Good Melrin,” Roisart returned politely.
Belisandra went back to her bar and her stew and left Mika with the twins. “Enjoy your meal,” the girl said pleasantly. “Call me if you’d like anything else, milords.”
Luthias nodded and smiled at her, and then Mika also left. Luthias turned to his stew and greens and began to eat hungrily. Then he laughed, his mouth full. Aware of his manners, he stopped, swallowed, then said, “I can’t believe I’m actually going to see a fortune-teller!”
“Why not?” Roisart answered, stirring his hot stew to cool it. “Didn’t she say he was a Sage? Sages are very wise men, Luthias.”
Still Luthias shook his head. “Leaving a barony to a horoscope…”
Roisart laughed. “Be practical, twin, just as you always tell me to be. We’re going for advice, not for a decision. That will have to be made by you and me.”
For a moment, Luthias was quiet. Then he said in a low voice, “We should be more careful what we say in public, Roisart. The girl, Mika, didn’t guess what we really meant, but if someone were searching for us…”
“It wouldn’t be that hard,” Roisart countered. “I’d bet that we were the only twins in mourning blue in a festival city.”
Luthias attacked the greens. “Still, we don’t need the whole of Dargon knowing about us and about…our cousin’s troubles.”
Roisart swallowed and nodded. “Agreed. But we should go see this Corambis. We need all the help we can get.”
“It certainly couldn’t hurt,” Luthias concurred.
About mid-afternoon, Luthias and Roisart finished their leisurely meal, and after paying Belisandra and generously tipping the girl Mika, they made their way to the main market square in search of Corambis the Sage. As Mika predicted, his stall in the market place, the only one that was closed in completely, was easy to find. Luckily for the twins, the people of Dargon, accustomed to Corambis, were exploiting other fortune tellers today. A bit self-consciously, Luthias knocked on the door, and the nervous twins were admitted into the booth by a young woman whom Roisart recognized as being one of the serving wenches at Belisandra’s. She smiled at the twins provocatively, and in a sugary voice informed them that Corambis was with another querent, but would be free very soon. Both twins nodded soberly at this information and seated themselves gingerly on a wooden bench.
After a minute, a middle-aged man dressed in a gay shade of red came through the door directly opposite the twins. A young woman followed him, apparently in tears. She slipped the man a gold piece and then slipped out the door. The man then turned his attention to the twins. “Who are these men, Thuna?” he asked the girl, giving her a stern, suspicious look.
The wench Thuna shrugged coyly. “They’ve come for you, Corambis.”
The Sage looked visibly relieved. “Come in, gentlemen,” he invited, motioning toward the plain, still-open door. In unison, Roisart and Luthias rose and walked toward the room.
The cubicle was dark, despite the afternoon daylight outside, and from what the twins could tell, somewhat bare. Candles illuminated a small, circular table. Roisart recognized it as the Wheel of Life, a divination device. After a moment, Luthias also recalled the Wheel. Roisart noticed two chairs in opposing points around the table. He indicated it to Luthias, who shook his head, so Roisart sat down.
After a few quick words of instruction to Thuna, Corambis the Sage joined them. “I apologize about Thuna,” the Sage began. “I thought that perhaps she had fallen into old habits again.” The Sage looked at Luthias, who was still standing. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have another chair.”
“It’s all right,” Luthias assured him. “Don’t trouble yourself. I don’t mind standing.”
“All right,” the Sage agreed. He looked at Roisart then, and again at Luthias. “How may I help you, gentlemen?”
“We would have you tell our horoscope,” Roisart answered quickly.
Corambis at once appeared surprised and flattered. “It’s not often men of nobility come to me,” he chuckled, beginning to smile. “They don’t often trust their problems to strangers.”
“This is an exceptional problem,” Luthias revealed.
“You may confide in me, my lords,” Corambis declared with dignity. “I will not reveal your secrets. Why have you come to me?”
Roisart smiled. “I suppose we had no where left to go.”
Corambis’ eyebrows raised. “Sir?”
“My brother and I,” began Luthias, “have come to you with an unusual problem, sir. When we were born, our mother died, and so no one noted which was the elder.”
“And your father has just perished?” Corambis asked sympathetically, gazing at the blue-grey mourning dress. “I see. You have no idea which of you is heir.” Roisart and Luthias both nodded. “My lords, have you brought your case before Lord Dargon?”
Roisart and Luthias looked each other in the eye a moment, and Luthias had his doubts. But Roisart trusted the Sage, and Luthias gave his consent, so Roisart revealed the entire story to Corambis. To the twins’ astonishment, the Sage was not surprised by the information. “I have been seeing that in the stars lately,” mused Corambis. He sighed, then looked at Roisart, sitting across from him, and then at Luthias. “Well, my lords, I shall do what I can to help you.”
The Sage rose and turned to a little cubby-hole in the corner. From it, he withdrew a small, velvet bag. He opened it, rummaged a moment, then turned back to the cubby-hole. He reached into it again, and tossed something across the room to Luthias.
Luthias caught the thing deftly, then opened his hand to examine the object. It was a small red chip.
Corambis seated himself once more. With one hand, he offered the velvet bag, and another red chip to Roisart. With the other, he beckoned Luthias closer. “It isn’t often I do readings for twins,” he mused, “but I often read for couples. Lord Roisart, take half the chips, and do not look at them. Give the rest to your brother.”
“What’s the red chip for?” Luthias asked.
“Put that on your birth sign, the Oak,” Corambis instructed. “You too, Lord Roisart.” The twins obeyed. Roisart took a handful of chips, and gave the rest to Luthias. Corambis spun the wheel. “Drop them when you are ready.”
Without any outward signal, the twins simultaneously dropped the blue chips onto the whirling Wheel of Life. It spun and spun; Luthias knelt next to the table to see better. The Wheel spun and spun and spun. Roisart put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Corambis stared at the whirling Wheel. The Wheel stopped.
Corambis stared at the Wheel, with its scattered chips of red and blue, for a moment. “Unusual,” he said. “Look here, my lords. The two birth chips have separated. One has stayed on the Oak, a sign of strength and long life. The other has strayed to the Ship, as if he were going to make a journey away from the other.”
“What’s that blue one on the Ship?” Roisart asked, fascinated.
Corambis scrutinized the symbol. “A new ally, come from afar, it seems.” He gazed at the other chips. “You will need him, along with this ally–” Corambis pointed to a chip straddling the elements of Fire and Sword. “–to combat these two. Two very dangerous enemies, one caught between deceit and caring…probably a woman,” he mused to himself. “And another, on the sign of the Fox–” Again, Corambis pointed. “He is a dangerous, cunning man, and I would be wary of him.
“The outcome…” Corambis looked at the chips. “It will be decided soon, my lords. There are chips in the present and in the near future.”
“But which one of us?” demanded Luthias.
The Sage shrugged his shoulders slightly. “I know not, my lords. But I can tell you this,” he promised, pointing to the sign of the Knight, which held two chips, “the decision will be made by an act of extreme valor.”
Luthias looked up at his twin. “I should have known that there would be no easy answer, my brother,” sighed Luthias.
“So should I,” smiled Roisart.
Corambis shrugged pleasantly. “I can assure you of this, my young lords. The sign of the outcome is on the Mistweaver. Whatever happens in your case will be a fufillment of destiny.”
“Do you mean that the elder will gain the barony?” Roisart asked.
“The Wheel is not specific,” sighed Corambis. “It is never as specific as I would like. As you said, my lord, there are no easy answers in the affairs of destiny.” The Sage smiled.
Both twins returned the smile with crooked, somewhat sad grins. Luthias rose, and Roisart rose with him. “Thank you, Corambis,” Roisart said respectfully. “We appreciate your time.”
“How much do we owe you, sir?” Luthias inquired.
“Nothing,” said Corambis amiably. “It isn’t often I get to tell the future of the Baron of Connall and the Lord of Dargon.”
“Please,” Roisart insisted, “let us give you something for your trouble. You lost other Festival customers by telling our fortune.”
“Doubtless there are other fortune tellers in Dargon for the festival,” Corambis smirked. “No, my lords, you need not pay me.”
“But we want to,” Luthias said, with the tone of a demand.
Corambis rolled his eyes. “Oh, all right,” he conceded. Luthias gave him two sovereigns. Corambis looked at the coins, then back at the twins. “I suppose you won’t let me put up a fuss about the amount, my lords?” Luthias gave him a wild, wicked, challenging grin. “I didn’t think so.” Corambis sighed. “Well, good Melrin to you, lords, and be careful.”
“Good Melrin,” echoed Roisart, and Luthias nodded a silent farewell as they stepped out the door. A little old lady rushed past them to see Corambis. They heard a hysterical weeping as he door shut.
“Poor woman,” said Roisart sympathetically. Luthias took a deep breath. The twins crossed the room and left Corambis’ booth. Roisart looked at his brother. “Well, twin, what do you think?”
Luthias shrugged his large shoulders elaborately. “What should I think, Roisart?”
“I think you’ll be the next baron,” Roisart announced flatly.
“Me? Why me?” wondered Luthias. “Haven’t we already spoken of this, Roisart?”
“The Sage said it would be decided by an act of valor,” Roisart reminded his brother. “You excel in matters of bravery, twin,” Roisart praised with a confident, affectionate smile.
Luthias’ faced echoed the smile falsely; Luthias’ smile was introverted, private, but it retained the happiness shared by his brother. “Roisart,” Luthias told him, “there are many sorts of valor.”
The two wandered in silence for a few moments, then Roisart wondered, “What shall we do now, Luthias?”
Luthias gazed up at the sky. The sun was just above the horizon. Funny, but it didn’t seem as if it should be that late. Lunch and finding Corambis must have taken longer than he thought. The reading was certainly quick.
Due to the setting sun, people were clearing the streets. The merchants were closing and barring their shops and booths; the side show people were packing their equipment. Tomorrow was the last day of Melrin and the best day for business. One could not take a chance on one’s equipment being stolen in the twilight. Luthias grimaced. If humble merchants took that much care….
“Roisart, perhaps we’d best go back to our cousin’s,” Luthias suggested, carefully omitting their cousin’s noble name. “After what happened this morning…”
Roisart appeared disappointed (he had heard that there would be firework s that evening), but then thought about the situation. “I agree, my brother. Let’s go home.”
The twins were a little over a mile and a half from the keep, a nice leisurely walk in the twilight. Roisart did a little mental calculation and figured that he and his twin brother would arrive at Dargon Keep about the time of the sunset. Perfect, just perfect. Roisart again thought about that morning’s escapade and began to feel apprehensive. These murderers after Clifton, he thought, don’t even wait until after the dark. Just a deserted place. They don’t mind the twilight.
Another thing occurred to Roisart. He was unarmed. Luthias had bought the fine, new sword at the bazaar, but he, Roisart, had brought no weapon. Only the city guard was allowed to wear arms during the festival, a mandate Clifton had issued for public safety. Luthias, therefore, carried his new sword, snug in its fabulous scabbard, in his hand, and by the blade.
That morning, the two of them had ridden prepared. But now…
Apparently, Luthias had shared his brother’s thoughts. Luthias gazed at the covered sword, and at his brother’s hands, which carried only the book Luthias had purchased. “Let’s hurry, twin.”
“You worry too much,” Roisart said automatically.
“I don’t want to lose you, Roisart,” Luthias answered, sotto voce.
Yes, Luthias worried too much. After all, what assassin would be stupid enough to try the same trick twice in the same day?
Still, Roisart gave his twin a watery smile, then gripped the book tighter as the pair quickened their pace slightly. The streets were becoming deserted. Luthias took a step closer to his twin. Roisart noticed that the knuckles of the hand clutching the sword has paled. Grim, Roisart quickened the pace again.
It was getting dark quickly.
Roisart looked at the setting sun, red and round, like a ripe, round apple, then at his brother’s face, bathed in red light.
Something moved behind Luthias.
“Roisart, fall!” cried Luthias suddenly.
Instinctively reverting to the fighting lessons they had received under their father’s auspices, Roisart trusted his brother and collapsed carefully onto the ground. He rolled to the side, looked up. Luthias swung at a thief, bearing a knife in one hand a rope in the other, and bloodied the man’s nose with a sweep of the sword. The one behind Luthias, whom Roisart had seen move, moved to strike, but Roisart pulled his brother’s leg, tripping him. Luthias stumbled, but was unhurt.
Roisart rose, put his back against Luthias’, and observed the numbers. Six. And thieves again. Roisart wondered at one of them; he seemed familiar, but the light, as well as the observer, was uncertain. He heard something clatter to the ground behind him; Luthias had unsheathed his sword. Roisart cringed. Six to two, and I am unarmed. He took a good hold on the book. Not a peasant weapon, the unexpected thought came, but certainly an odd one.
Suddenly, there was a cry from the shadows, and four more men joined the scene.
Luthias lunged forward and impaled a thief in one sure thrust. Roisart leapt toward one of the attackers, and clubbed him clumsily with Luthias’ new book. The thief stumbled, more surprised than hurt, but he shook his head and kept coming. Roisart kicked him soundly in the groin, and when he fell, he clubbed him again with “Lives of Lords and Princes.”
Roisart lunged from the knife of his attacker, but the thief dodged despite the pain. Roisart fell to the ground, losing his breath. Some strong arms roughly grabbed him and hauled him to his feet. “Master Roisart, are you all right?” Bartol’s voice hissed.
“Bartol!” cried Roisart. “Thank God!” Then, in the darkening twilight, Roisart saw movement again. “Bartol, look out!”
Deftly, the bard turned to defend himself. Roisart crouched, to try to ward off any attackers with hand-to-hand combat. He left the book in the dust; it was of no use to him in this situation.
Six of them, six of us, Roisart thought. Fair odds.
One of the thieves lay on the road, bleeding from wounds from Luthias’ sword. Another’s head was crushed on one side from a blow from one of Bartol’s three guards. But one of Bartol’s men was still, the slit in his neck allowing all life to gush from him. Roisart checked around. One, two, three–where is the fourth—?
A crushing blow to the neck gave Roisart his answer. Behind him. Dazed, Roisart fell. Far away, he heard Luthias’ voice, “Roisart! ROISART!” Far away, he felt rough, rough hands tying his arms and feet with coarse, chafing ropes. Not far away, he saw through blurred eyes another of Bartol’s men fall. He saw Luthias, trying to fight off three thieves. The other, probably the one who had tied him, was being defeated by Bartol and the last of his men. Bartol’s last guard fell, leaving the bard alone. And Luthias, defending himself against three thieves.
Bartol fell, clutching his sword-arm. The thief kicked him soundly, and ran to join his comrades, fighting Luthias.
Luthias, Roisart tried to cry out. His mouth wouldn’t move. Luthias! Bartol, help him.
Bartol was bleeding. Roisart couldn’t even see Luthias any more.
There was a strange battle cry.
Suddenly, a blue and white clad stranger leapt into the midst of the four fighting Luthias. One, he stabbed in the back. Luthias made a lucky thrust into one of the others. The other two backed off, but did not run. The strange, a short, young man, Roisart judged him, swung an odd curved sword above his head and charged one of the thieves. Encouraged, Luthias sprang at the other, who was ready. The thief stabbed at Luthias, and Roisart heard his brother cry out. The stranger’s opponent fell.
The stranger saw Luthias clutch his side and quickly went after the thief. One slash rid the thief of his arm. Another robbed him of his life.
Roisart regained his breath and began to fidget. The ropes irritated his wrists, which had been bound tightly. He heard Bartol moan. It was becoming difficult to see.
“Are you all right?” asked the stranger in accented words.
“It’s not deep,” Luthias said. “But my brother…Bartol…”
Luthias took a few steps toward his brother and knelt beside him. “Roisart?” he asked, tentatively touching his brother’s forehead.
“Untie me,” Roisart demanded irritably.
Luthias slit the bonds. “Are you all right?”
Roisart pushed on the ground and managed to get on his feet. “Yes, I’m all right. Bartol?”
“A cut,” the stranger answered. He was binding it. “A physician should be able to repair it.”
Luthias put his hand on his brother’s arm and together they joined the bard and the stranger. “We are indebted to you, sir,” Luthias said politely. “We–my brother, Bartol, and I–would have died here without your help. Thank you.”
“Prease,” said the stranger, “do not make fuss over it. I saw that the thieves attacked you, and like any honorable man, I wished to help.”
“How can we ever repay you?” Roisart asked.
“Prease,” the stranger begged, “I do it out of honor and decency. I need no reward.”
“At least come to sup with the masters and their cousin, the Lord of Dargon,” the bard urged. “We at least owe you that much, sir?”
The stranger took a step back and bowed. “I am Ittosai Michiya of Bichu.”
“I am honored, Michiya-san,” Roisart answered, bowing and using the suffix he had learned in books. To his surprise, Mocha bowed again and smiled. “I am Roisart Connall. My brother, whose life you saved, is Luthias Connall. The other man is,” here Roisart smirked, “apparently our new body guard.”
Bartol frowned. “Yes, Lord Dargon sent me and the others to look after you two.”
“We should be leaving this place,” Ittosai recommended.
“I agree,” Luthias replied gravely. “Do come to dinner with us, sir,” he urged. “You did us a great favor this night, and the least you deserve is our thanks and our hospitality.”
“You do me honor to invite me to the house of Dargon,” said Ittosai. “I will go.”
“Quickly,” said Bartol, clutching his arm.
Quickly, they returned to the keep.
Roisart, rubbing his rope-burned wrists, and Luthias, clutching his thinly-sliced side, rushed though the gates of Dargon Keep with Bartol the bard and Ittosai Michiya, the noble from Bichu, in close attendance. The city of Dargon had stealthily and swiftly snuck into the dark, night hours. From their experience at the morning’s dawn and this evening’s twilight, the twins knew they were no longer safe.
Roisart’s head was throbbing miserably. Stubborn blood seeped slowly through Luthias’ clenched fingers. Both twins hurt, but Roisart knew by instinct that he did not have a concussion, and Luthias’ wound was only skin deep, as much as it was bleeding. Bartol also nursed a minor flesh wound in his sword arm; the bard sincerely hoped that all tendons were intact. Ittosai was slightly winded, nothing more.
Guards quickly ushered the wounded party to the presence of Lord Dargon, who was waiting for the return of his noble cousins of Connall. As soon as he saw them, he rose. “God, not again!” He looked at the twins, then at Bartol. “Bartol, I gave you orders–”
Bartol wore an obstinate mask. “My lord, the three you instructed to take with me are dead. If it were not for my lord of Bichu, Master Roisart and Master Luthias would have died too.”
Dargon grimaced and went to the door. “Bring Griswald,” he told the nearest servant, who nodded once and went immediately to fetch the old physician. He shut the door and returned to his guests. “Forgive me, cousins,” he said to Roisart and Luthias. “I thought you would be safe in the city.”
“They waited until sunset,” Luthias informed him. “The streets were almost deserted. This man, Ittosai Mich…Michiya? saved us.”
Dargon bowed to the Bichurian in the style of the foreigner’s homeland. “I am honored to meet with you again, Lord Ittosai. You honor my household.” Past the formalities, Dargon then said, “I thank you for saving the lives of my cousins, Lord Ittosai. I am indebted to you.”
Ittosai himself bowed to Dargon’s lord. “I do what any man would do, Lord of Dargon.”
“I have offered the hospitality of your household to the Lord of Bichu,” Bartol informed his lord.
“You did right, Bartol,” Dargon replied. He again turned to Ittosai Michiya. “You are welcome here, Lord Ittosai, not only as a hero, but as a noble of a great land.”
Griswald almost seemed to choose this moment to enter the lord’s study–without knocking. He looked from Bartol to the twins, and groaned, “Gods and gods, what have you two been doing this time?” Dargon unconsciously frowned at the disrespect of Griswald’s words, but said nothing, as he thought that the old man meant no harm. “Bartol, what happened to you?” Griswald quickly snatched an herb and some cloth out of his bag and bound the bard’s arm. “It should heal quickly. Don’t overuse it.” He turned then to Luthias and did the same. “And what happened to you?” he finally asked Roisart.
“I was clubbed from behind,” explained Roisart. Roisart turned to his cousin.
Griswald grunted by way of reply, and probed the boy’s skull with dexterous fingers. “No lump. Were you unconscious?”
Roisart gingerly shook his head. “It’s sore, though,” he admitted. Roisart turned to his cousin. “They were careful, Clifton. They didn’t want me harmed. They clubbed me hard, but it didn’t put me to sleep. And then…they tied my hands.” Clifton frowned, exchanged a glance with Luthias. Luthias gravely nodded the confirmation of the event and his understanding of its implications.
Griswald seemed unaffected. “Can you see all right? Feel nauseous? Tired?”
Again, Roisart carefully shook his head.
“Then don’t worry about it until you do,” the physician instructed in harsh, laconic tones. Griswald then turned to his lord. “If you’ll not be needing me, I’m going to bed. You got me up very early this morning.” Without waiting for Dargon’s dismissal, Griswald abruptly left.
“He hasn’t been himself for days,” Dargon revealed, having seen Ittosai’s perplexed expression following the physician.
“Can a man not be himself?” Ittosai wondered, no less confused.
“It’s an expression,” Roisart explained with a smile. “It means he is not acting as he usually does.”
“Let’s go to dinner,” Luthias suggested. “It’s been a long time since Roisart and I ate lunch.”
Dargon nodded, and Bartol went to hold the door open for the Lord of Dargon and his noble guests. As Dargon followed Ittosai out the door, he said, “You will be coming to the Melrin ball, won’t you, Lord Ittosai?” When the Bichurian didn’t answer, Clifton continued, “You are invited, as my guest, as the worthy noble of a distant land.”
“I fear I am not versed in your past-times,” Michiya admitted.
Roisart smiled. “But it’s simple, Michiya-san. You smile at the pretty women–”
“And try not to fall in love with them,” Luthias finished for his brother.
“A strange expression is falling in love, as if one were to fall into a pit,” Ittosai noted.
“Please do come, Lord Ittosai,” Dargon repeated his invitation. “The people of Dargon are very curious about your nation across the sea, and want to have better relations with you and your people.”
“I am not the best speaker of my people,” Ittosai protested, “but I will come.”
“Thank you,” said the Lord of Dargon. “Please accept my house’s hospitality for this night, and for tomorrow night, after the ball. You wouldn’t want to miss any part of it.”
“Yes,” Roisart said. “I imagine it will be a night to remember.”