Somewhere Else Entirely -124-

A crisis of conscience forces a revelation about the Grand Reception planned for Garia one evening. Urgent preparations are made but nobody knows how or when the attack might come... Garia has to go totally unprepared for what might follow.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

124 - Nightclaw

Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2015 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



Brif had a problem. He sat in the dining room of Blackstone House, nursing his mug of pel and wondered what to do. There were too many pressures on him and it had left him in an agony of indecision.

Since business at the hotel had been almost nonexistent, and because by contrast Blackstone House had been very busy, he had been 'seconded' to help out in the stables for the past three days. Those three days had shaken many of his assumptions about everything he had been told, about many things, Palarand, King Robanar and most especially the young girl who had apparently come out of nowhere to cause such alarm in the country he once owed allegiance to.

Once. How much of what they told me was lies?

Or... perhaps they actually believe all that crap? How can men be so stupid?

I know how, since I can be stupid myself. I believed them when they said that Yod was superior to Palarand. How lives were better there, how everyone worked together for the good of the country, how they were going to bring their methods and efficiencies to all the other countries, if only they could be persuaded to listen.

I know better now. I have seen wonders that certainly do not exist in Yod or any other Valley country, wonders that small girl has given freely to Palarand, wonders which I have been told will be withheld from no-one who has the coin to buy them. Why, I myself now own a fork! Such a simple thing and such a difference it makes to eating a meal!

If Yod were so special why don't they have forks?

Problem is, I'm a traitor in a nest of enemies. If I admit my guilt I'll be killed. If I carry on they'll find me out... and I'll be killed. If I run away Serdel and the others will search for me and when they find me... I'll be killed.

Tough choice, huh?

Brif took another swig from his mug and stared moodily at the grain on the tabletop.

"What's the matter, Brif? You owe somebody a lot of coin?"

Brif looked up at the speaker, one of the women who was probably an armsman's wife. Most seemed to be around here. He shook his head.

"Not recently, Mistress Sulinet." He wondered how much he could say without incriminating himself. "I've recently learned some things which mean I have a decision to make and it's proving difficult."

She smiled at him in sympathy. "Oh, a family thing, then? They are sometimes the hardest problems to solve." She pursed her lips in thought. "I could not say who you might ask to help, not in Blackstone House. Perhaps My Lady when she next visits us." She saw the look that inadvertantly came to Brif's face. "No? Oh, it is a woman, then? I have no answer for you but do not speak of it to the others in the stables, I find them too crude for sensible conversation."

"I thank you for your advice, Mistress Sulinet." Brif tossed down the remaining pel and rose. "And for your sympathy. I must needs think some more... and in peace, I deem."

"Of course." She smiled. "Shall you sup with us this evening, do you know, or will you be returning to the hotel as before?"

"They want me to stay, Mistress, since the party will be returning late from the reception tonight."

If everything goes as planned, much, much later.

"Aye, I will sup here tonight, I deem."

"As you will. "

The two parted, Brif returning to the stables to continue with the necessary chores of caring for around thirty frayen and their equipment. As he forked, shoveled, washed, brushed and polished his indecision grew.

Family, she said. Well, family is the problem, isn't it? This whole mansion behaves like one huge family. Everybody is happy here, even when they are doing chores. Maker, even the frayen are happy and I have never seen that before! I wonder how they do that? I have to find out, it is better than being kicked in the thigh whenever I have to muck out a box, or bitten when I try and put on a bridle.

Against that, Serdel is miserable most of the time. His plans don't work and he can't find much out. I think I've found out more since I came over to Blackstone House than he has ever done since he fled the palace! That's no family, that's just a gang of people who would rather be somewhere else entirely.

Question is, do I tell him any of it? I am in two minds not to, to just remain here quietly and let everybody forget about me. The pay is good, the rooms clean, warm and dry, the food filling and the work interesting and not too taxing.

Unfortunately, there's Keliann. He might object if I just try and back out of the gang. How can I shut him up if I want to stay here?

And what do I get in return for telling things to Serdel and his master? I'd be a criminal on the run in fear of my life. Whereas now I'm just a just a criminal who's kept out of sight of the Watch for some months.

Brif's mood grew more despondent as he carried buckets of droppings over to the collection pile in the rear yard. On the other side, beside the workshop and under a rudimentary lean-to, a gleaming brass thing clattered and chuffed to itself, sending smoke and steam into the sky. Even someone as untutored as Brif could see the potential of such a thing and he knew that it would utterly change the world he lived in.

Just think of the things a larger version of that could do! On my father's farm, just pumping out the water would double the land we could plant and I have no doubt a way could be contrived to pull a plow with it. There are many places a machine like that would help on a farm.

Returning to the stables he found that several of the armsmen were beginning to get their mounts ready to ride.

"I deem you attend this reception with your Baroness tonight," he said.

One of the men turned and smiled at him. "Aye, Brif. The largest she has yet attended, given by the entire City Assembly of the capital. There will be so many present we are all needed."

"So many?"

"Aye! Most of the nobles who reside in the city will attend, as will many of the Residents of nearby countries. I am told there was great demand for places at My Lady's table." He explained, "Of course the City Guard will be there but they are depleted since so many have gone west with the levies to make war on Yod. We are offered to provide crowd control, among our usual tasks."

Something inside Brif twisted, since he hadn't realized that the occasion would be so big. He had no idea of Serdel's plan but it seemed to involve... servants. That meant whatever was planned would happen inside the Assembly Hall, in the middle of a huge crowd of the great and good of the city. And their wives.

Brif nodded. "Thank you, sir. I hope you have a quiet night."

Well, what else was I going to say? That some men are going to assassinate Baroness Blackstone tonight? I'd never get out of this stable alive.

Wives? Perhaps he means to poison them all. It would be a massacre! Killing one awkward girl is one thing, but murdering half a city is something different. And if he doesn't plan poison, there will still be many deaths. They won't just line up to be stabbed.

I didn't swear an oath for any of this. In fact, I only swore one oath, and that was long ago. Perhaps it is time I looked at this whole matter a different way.

"If you would excuse me."

Brif went out into the courtyard, found a place to lean and began breathing deeply. The fact that some of the smaller children were playing with a ball in front of him didn't help his state of mind.

I'm about to get their fathers killed. Shit.

He looked up at the windows of the mansion and reached the inevitable decision. He headed for the front entrance.

Gullbrand looked up at the knock on the open door.

"Hmm? Brif, isn't it? Is there something you need? More fodder, perhaps?"

Brif entered the room and stood in front of Gullbrand's desk. He shook visibly.

"My Lord, I must speak with you privately. The matter is urgent."

Gullbrand raised an eyebrow. "Can it not wait until later? With all the preparations for tonight's event I have much to do."

"My Lord, it cannot wait. It concerns My Lady's... safety. Her life."

Gullbrand looked up sharply and took in Brif's state.

"Close the door, if you would." Brif did so, and then came down on one knee on the floor. He bent his head. "My Lord. I am a traitor. There are some who plan to murder the Baroness tonight. I am one of that band, though I no longer approve of what they do."

"What? Are you sure... You must be, else you would not come to me like this. Rise! Tell me all, and quickly!"

"My Lord, we were eight, and we were led by Serdel. He plans to get -"

Gullbrand interrupted. "Serdel? I do not know the name."

Brif was momentarily thrown. Didn't everybody know who Serdel was? "He has already made two attempts to capture the Baroness, My Lord. The whole city searches for him but he yet roams free."

Gullbrand gestured. "Go on."

"If I had not been taken on as a stable hand at the hotel, I would have joined the others in their enterprise, My Lord. The Assembly Hall, so I was told, has insufficient servants to provide for tonight's crowd and so temporary staff are hired for the reception. I do not know if they plan poison or cold steel, My Lord."

Gullbrand let out a string of oaths in a foreign language. Brif remembered that he was one of those strange people the Baroness had given homes to.

"Wait! You say this man has made two attempts to capture the Baroness? Do you mean he was to kidnap her? Who for?"

"For those of Yod, My Lord. I believe -"

There was a knock on the door and it swung open to reveal a young man, dressed for riding.

"Oh, my pardon, Gullbrand! I did not know you were busy. I just came to inform you that I am off to the palace. I must get changed for tonight's reception."

"Lord Terinar! Come in! This is of the gravest importance, you must hear it before you depart."

Terinar entered the room and closed the door. He looked at Brif.

Gullbrand said, "Tell us both, boy. If Lady Garia is in mortal peril, we must know everything, and quickly!"

Terinar's eyes widened and he turned his full attention on Brif.

"My Lord, murder is planned, tonight at the reception. Several will be present as temporary serving staff. I do not know if they plan poison or some other means. I was part of that band but I do not like what they are doing... or what I have become."

Gullbrand said, "You gave a name."

"Aye, My Lord. Serdel leads our band, though he also has a master who I have met once."

"Serdel? I seem to have heard the name, but not recently."

"You and I are not from the city or palace, My Lord," Gullbrand said. "We would not recognize such a name if those attempts were made before we came."

Terinar asked Brif, "Are there more of you here? I mean, in Blackstone House or at the hotel?"

"There is one at the hotel, My Lord. He calls himself Keliann though we do not all use the names we were born with."

Terinar's eyes blazed. "You can identify these people? Can we stop this before the reception begins?"

"My Lord, I regret we cannot. Aye, I can point out those I know, but Mondo, that's Serdel's master, has another band who will also be there tonight."

"Mondo? What kind of name is that?"

"An alias, My Lord. I am sure he is a Yodan."

"A Yodan? Why didn't you say so before? Maker! What have you done?"

Brif bowed his head. "Treason, My Lord. There is no other name for it."

"Yet you stand here and offer to tell us all."

"My Lord, they are wrong. I have been misled by those I thought reliable. They have told me lies and to my shame I believed them."

Terinar simmered. The full urgency of the situation beat at his thoughts but it would take time and patience to find out enough to take action... and everybody was already making themselves ready at the palace to leave for the reception!

"You offer this information in exchange for, what?"

"Peace, My Lord. Too many good men will lose their lives this night, too many women, too many... fathers and mothers." Brif bent his head. "My conscience, My Lord. If I may go to the scaffold with a clear conscience, it will be enough."

Terinar had never been faced with any situation like this before. After Garia's attack in the castle he had organized search parties and checkpoints but there was never this sense of urgency or of the peril that threatened so many... he came to two quick decisions.

"Your name?"

"I am called Brif, My Lord, though my father named me Faran."

"Then, Brif, if your news be accurate, I will offer you your life, even if we are not in time. You have owned to your part in this enterprise without duress by any except your own thoughts. You have my oath on it, even if the King should object."

"Heard and witnessed," Gullbrand responded.

Brif fell to one knee again. "My Lord, I will do whatever you desire of me."

"Then we must leave for the palace immediately. Do you ride?"

"My Lord, I have not ridden for many years. I have not the coin to own a beast of my own. I will do what I can."

Terinar turned to Gullbrand. "I'll go and fetch frayen and escort, we would be leaving shortly in any event. Find a cloak and scarf for this man, that he may not be recognized as we ride."

Gullbrand bowed. "Aye, My Lord. A scarf?"

Terinar shrugged. "The evenings are yet cold. A man may ride with a scarf round his face to keep the chill air from it."

"As you say, My Lord. Brif, if you would come with me."

Very shortly six frayen assembled under the carriage archway with four cloaked riders. Two more came out from the mansion and mounted, one with difficulty. Gullbrand raised his hand from the walkway in farewell and the six rode out into the street.

* * *

The hammering on Garia's door was not gentle. Jenet opened it to admit a breathless footman who bowed hurriedly.

"My Lady! You must come to the King's parlor urgently!"

Garia was alarmed. "What has happened?"

"I know not, Milady, only that the King is furious. He is attended by Lord Terinar, who recently comes from Blackstone House."

Garia looked at Jenet. "I'm not quite finished here, am I? Will we have time to come back and sort out the jewelry afterwards?"

Jenet shrugged. "Milady, until we find out what disturbs the King I could not say if there will be time. We must go, I deem."

"You're right, Jenet." To the footman, "Lead the way."

Nothing seemed to be amiss as Garia and her escort followed the footman through the corridors. Everyone went about their business as usual. Puzzled, she tried to work out what had upset the King, and just before they were all due to depart for the City Assembly Hall, without success.

In the parlor were Robanar, Terys, Keren, Merek, Terinar and a man Garia had never seen before. The last two were still wearing riding cloaks. Robanar came directly to the point.

"Garia, this man tells us there is a plan to kill you tonight at the reception. He does not know their whole plan, only that many are involved posing as temporary table servants."

Thump. It felt as if she had been punched in the gut.

Terinar explained, "Garia, Brif is one of those who gathered around Serdel after he fled from the palace. Under instruction, he obtained a place in the stables at the hotel, but for three days he has been helping out at Blackstone House. He did not like what his master planned for tonight so he went to Gullbrand, who informed me."

The name struck Garia like a slap round the face. "Serdel? You are sure it is the same man?"

Brif bowed low. "Aye, My Lady, it is he," he said nervously. "He has told us of the attack at the Harvest Festival gathering and lamented that he very nearly achieved what he had intended. Though he knows his cause is lost, still he pursues you with only revenge in his mind. I fear that many will die tonight, though I do not know what he intends. It could be a blade or it could be poison or some other way."

Garia's mind swam with speculation. "You know a lot about Serdel."

"Aye, My Lady. I have suffered his sour face and bitter words these many months."

"How many?"

Brif shrugged. "We were eight, My Lady, mastered by Serdel. Two found places at the inn, myself and Keliann - your pardon, the hotel. But there is another band I do not know, led by Serdel's own master. Some are said to roam the palace in disguise. I do not know their numbers."

"Serdel has a master? Do you know him?"

"I have seen him but once, My Lady, some weeks since. He named himself Mondo but that cannot be his real name. ...He speaks with an accent, My Lady, perhaps of Yod."

Merek looked at Robanar. "Perhaps he is one of those who fled when the Residency was burned, Sire. If Serdel is of that foul brood then it would make sense he had a master there."

"Aye." Robanar nodded agreement. "But what are we to do? The whole city awaits Keren and Garia, we cannot deny them."

Keren said, "Forewarned is half the battle, father. Let us go but be alert for mischief."

Robanar raised an eyebrow. "Against so many?"

"Father, we have done this before and prevailed. With our swords and our unarmed combat skills we have at least an even chance."

Garia asked, "Against poison? How do we protect against that?"

Merek replied, "Milady, there are customary ways to provide against poison. I will ensure that they are strictly followed by the kitchen staff tonight."

"Thank you, captain."

Robanar stared thoughtfully at Garia. "My dear, you understand the risks but I am still reluctant to let you go. You wear a beautiful gown this night, if there is open fighting, how shall you defend yourself?"

Garia grimaced. It was the one weak point in her preparations. Although she had had several talks with both Dyenna and Rosilda there had been little opportunity to alter any of her gowns before tonight's event. By Spring Dawning things would be different, but Spring Dawning was still some five weeks away.

It has to be an evening gown tonight, she thought. I can't get away with anything more suitable without causing great offense - or alerting the enemy that we know what's about to happen.

She sighed. "I'm not completely defenseless, Sire, even dressed like this, but I'll have to let my men do the work they are trained for, I guess. Jenet and I can make some preparations before we go - if we have time."

Robanar gave her a calculating look. "Very well, Garia. I trusted your judgement when you baited Jarwin and I shall trust it again. Make whatever changes you deem necessary and you shall depart whenever you are ready." He turned to Merek. "Captain, find some more men to send to the Assembly Hall. I want the building surrounded, such that any who survive may not escape into the city. I want this menace ended."

Merek banged his fist against his chest. "As you command, Sire."

The door opened and Feteran entered. He bowed. "Sire, I was awaiting My Lady at her carriage. What has happened?"

There followed a barrage of explanation as he was brought up to date. At the end he turned to Robanar.

"Sire -"

"Not this time, Feteran. The reception is too important. She will go, as will my son, but they will both be prepared."

Feteran looked as if he was about to argue with Robanar but finally came to his senses. He bowed. "As you command, Sire."

Keren said, "In that case, I think I'll change my dress sword for a real one, father."

Terinar added, "As will I, Uncle."

Robanar nodded. "Go, do what you must. Merek, Feteran, prepare your men as for battle, but in ceremonial garb. I doubt many will know or remark the difference and by the end of the night, if our information is correct, they will understand the reasons why."

"As you command, Sire." He hesitated. "Crossbows, Sire?"

Robanar looked pained. "In so crowded a hall? In other times I would agree but in such a gathering some would doubtless take offense at such weapons. Besides, there is too great a chance of hitting an innocent."

Merek looked unhappy but said, "As you say, Sire."

Keren asked, "What about the new pistols, father? They are small and would not be noticed until needed for use."

Merek shook his head. "A good suggestion, Highness, but there is a production problem with the powder. We cannot employ them tonight."

Keren grimaced. "Then let us hope our enemies do not bear such weapons this night."

The four men bowed and left the room. Robanar turned to Brif.

"Is there ought else you may tell us of this band of yours?"

"I can name them, Sire, but I do not know if the names I know are those they were born with. My own name, Sire, is Faran, and I come from Charnet near the West Bridge over Crescent Lake."

"Aye, I know of it."

"There is something about Serdel, Sire. Though he speaks like one Palarand born I think he might also be a Yodan."

"Oh?"

"Sire, there was a meeting, last year during the rains. A man came to assess those who Serdel had gathered round him." His voice dropped. "Two were found wanting, Sire, and were murdered in the city to stop their mouths. They were made to look victims of a tavern brawl."

"So. This Serdel sought to keep you close by fear, then."

"Aye, Sire, and lies, and we knew little better. It was only when I went to Blackstone House that -" Brif stopped. "Sire, I digress. This man who came to that meeting, I overheard him name Serdel in the fashion that Yod uses, though he kept his voice low. He named him Serdel Nightclaw, Sire."

"Nightclaw? Why do they use such dramatic names? Do they think a name will give them power?"

"Nightclaw," mused Garia. "Sire, that more or less conclusively proves that Serdel was one of those in my room that night. From his name I would guess he fancies himself some kind of sneak assassin."

Terys gasped. "That man was running round the palace all that time?"

Robanar's shoulders slumped. "Aye, Terys. We lived in gentler times then. Faran?"

"Sire?"

"Terinar promised you your life and you shall have it. We will wait until the rest of your band have been captured before we pass judgement on whatever else you may have done."

Brif went down on one knee. "Sire, I thank you for your clemency. I did not expect even this."

Robanar grunted. "Unlike your master we do not wantonly murder as we may, but seek to obtain knowledge where we can. You have provided timely knowledge and your future may depend on your providing more such for us."

"I understand, Sire."

"Then rise. I will have you taken to the cells where you should be safe, should any of those you once consorted with still be roaming our palace."

At a gesture from Robanar, Kenila pulled a rope and servants and guardsmen were called. Brif was taken away and Garia returned to her suite.

"Well! That changes things somewhat, Jenet. What are we going to do? This gown is hopeless for combat."

"Not so, Milady. I deem you may still manage to throw over your shoulder, even if you may not use your legs. The gown is just soft enough to permit you to bend at the waist."

Garia did some experimental exercises and found that Jenet was right.

"Well spotted, Jenet! It will be awkward but I can do a certain amount, then." She considered. "Can we weaken the skirt so I can rip it off, do you think?"

"Alas, Milady, your gown has no waist seam we may weaken, even if there were time for such activities. And there is no time to choose another gown."

"That was going to be my next question."

"It would not help in any event, Milady. You wear two winter petticoats which would also require some alteration."

"Damn, you're right, of course. What about weapons? I can't wear a belt knife with this gown, that's for sure."

"What about your riding boots, Milady? No-one would see them beneath your skirt."

"Brilliant, Jenet! Go fetch them."

Garia sat down and immediately began undoing the dress shoes she was wearing. Jenet went and fetched Garia's best pair of riding boots and began lacing then onto Garia's legs.

"Anything else you can think of?"

"No, Milady. I deem you may not wear your swords nor any other long blade." Jenet gave a small smile. "I will make sure my bag is weighty enough, Milady. It served us well at the Harvest Festival."

"Aye." Garia scowled, preoccupied. What she would have liked to have had were the special metal plates that were sewn into one of her tabards but there was no time to do anything about that now. As on previous occasions, she would be forced to rely on her wits.

"It will have to do, Jenet. Are we ready? Our carriage has been waiting for half a bell."

"Let me just set your tiara, Milady... there. I deem you are now ready. Here are our cloaks, let us go."

* * *

Although there were a large number of onlookers around the entrance to the Assembly Hall there were only two carriages still there disgorging guests. Garia wondered if she was about to gain an undeserved reputation for being a late arrival at such functions. Well, this time there were good reasons for it. The carriages moved off and hers pulled up under the broad canopy, a flunkey coming to open the door the moment it halted.

"Thank you."

Keren, Garia and Jenet alighted and turned to wait for the next carriage, from which Terinar, Merizel and Tandra alighted. Then the third one, from which -

OhmyGod! MILSY!

Milsy looked stunning in an off-white evening gown and borrowed tiara. The problem was that, although their evening gowns were different in detail, they were too similar in color and cut for Garia's comfort. Of all nights, this was one occasion when the two of them dare not get mixed up! Garia hurried over to her double, hoping she wouldn't get into any danger tonight. Milsy saw Garia approach and smiled, a smile which vanished once she saw the expression on Garia's face.

"What's the matter? You look upset."

"We had a warning, there's going to be some kind of attack during the evening. They're after me."

"Oh. OH!"

"Oh," Garia agreed. "I just hope you can make sure everyone knows you're not me, if you know what I mean. I wish we'd had a chance to speak before now, we could have chosen different colors."

Tarvan joined them. "What's the matter?"

Milsy said, "Garia's in danger tonight and I look too much like her, which means I am too."

Garia studied Milsy's attire and came to a decision.

"Bursila, take off Milsy's top sash, if you would. You'll have to pin her guild brooch directly on her gown. It's not regulation but it will have to do. If there was a choice I'd take mine off but I don't have that choice. Heck, if it were my choice I'd have come in combat gear and hang the comments but I'd insult too many people if I did that."

"As you desire, Milady."

While Bursila attended to her task Garia asked Milsy, "Got any weapons?"

Milsy grinned briefly before replying, "You have a most peculiar mind, Garia." She grinned again. "Much like mine, in fact. No, I have no weapons. I thought I was coming to a free meal, not a battle!" Her expression changed as she considered their position. "You're really expecting trouble? I'll see what Tarvan, Bursila and I can come up with during the evening."

Keren, Terinar, Merizel and Tandra joined them. The two women looked pale.

"I've just been telling Milsy all about it," Garia explained. "We forgot about her, and I forgot how much we looked alike, especially if you didn't know us. That's why I've asked her to take her top sash off, so that we won't get confused inside. I'd hate for Milsy to be assassinated by accident."

Milsy chuckled. "Not nearly as much as I would! There, I'm ready," she added as Bursila stuffed the sash into her bag. "Let us go and join the fun."

With Keren in the lead as the senior member of the party, they walked into the entrance to be greeted by the Moderator of the City Assembly and several of the more important officers. There was much bowing and curtseying and Garia let the words flow over her. Without being obvious about it, she observed those servants standing around and noted nothing out of the ordinary at all. There were, however, large numbers of armsmen in city colors as well as those of the palace and Blackstone. Garia relaxed - slightly.

Along the corridor was a long line of city folk and local nobility, all waiting to greet the Crown Prince and his betrothed and to make their own assessment of the match. At this stage of the evening it was not possible to do more than curtsey where needed or to shake hands. Garia knew that the serious business would come after the meal, once the tables and chairs had been cleared away.

As they slowly approached the Hall the level of noise grew as those within carried on their conversations while waiting the final arrivals. Keren reached the doorway and a herald blew on an instrument like a straightened-out bugle, causing silence to descend. As they walked in the man called out, "All rise for His Highness Prince Keren, Crown Prince of Palarand, and his betrothed, Lady Garia, Baroness Blackstone. With him are Count Terinar, son of Duke Gilbanar of North Palarand and his betrothed, Lady Merizel of South Reach, and their attendants Guildsman Tarvan and Guildswoman Milsy."

There was a collective subvocal "Huh?" at the last pair of names and then the applause began. The Moderator joined them and the party began to make their way through the crowded hall to their table on the far side.

Garia was able to get her first look at the hall as she walked. It was the largest enclosed space in the city and possibly in the whole country. She knew that the Assembly didn't deliberate here, they used more comfortable chambers elsewhere. This space was for parties and receptions like the present occasion. It was divided into three by two rows of huge pillars that supported a flat, painted ceiling. It seemed to Garia that there was less decoration here than she had seen at the Hall of the Guilds, perhaps the Assemblymen spent their surpluses elsewhere. Every part of the hall was occupied and she understood why they had found it necessary to hire extra staff.

The 'top table' was raised on a single step and stretched the width of the center portion of the hall. To either side, beyond the pillars, smaller tables went out to the walls. In front of them, as at the Hall of the Guilds, tables set lengthways filled the hall and both side aisles. More than half of those sitting along the sides would not be able to see much of the top table but they would get their chance later. Behind their chairs Garia was pleased to see Tord and Brazan, both standing ready and looking extremely alert. Armsmen stood behind the other top table chairs and around the side walls, some bearing spears and some armed only with swords.

Keren, naturally, had the seat of honor in the center of the table with Garia to his left side. On her left sat the Moderator. On Keren's right sat Merizel, with Terinar to her right. Milsy and Tarvan were seated at the far left end of the table. Garia was surprised that they had been allowed on the top table at all on an occasion such as this.

It's probably Eriana's doing. I wonder if this had all been planned out before she disappeared with the other Einnlanders and Milsy was brought in to make up the numbers.

"Your pardon, My Lord."

"I said, are you looking forward to your wedding, My Lady."

"Of course, My Lord. Marrying the Prince is what every girl dreams of, isn't it?"

"Aye, but you are not the daughter of a ruler, as custom demands." The Moderator smiled to show he was not censuring Garia. "In this case I deem the proper decision has been made, My Lady. I have heard nothing but good news of you since you arrived in Palarand."

"Thank you, My Lord. In fact, this has all been somewhat overwhelming, I didn't expect anything like this at all."

"If you are to be our Queen one day I deem you will have to learn to endure such dreadful gatherings." Garia could see the humor in his eyes. "I have learned to bear the like myself. Tell me, what do you know of the war? Your lands are remote, they may not have raised levies as the city has been required to do."

"Well, that's true, but..."

As they talked the serving staff began to bring the first course out to begin the meal. Garia noticed that, while Jenet and Tandra served herself and Merizel, the hall servants served the men seated at the top table. Feeling an itch in the small of her back she leaned forward to pick up the spoon for the soup.

"You hesitate, My Lady."

"It's nothing." How much does he know? How much has anyone told the Assembly people about what might happen? She smiled at the Moderator. "It will take me a few moments to settle down, that's all."

As they ate the Moderator, whose name she learned was Nebranar, gently plied her with seemingly insignificant questions. It took some time for her to realize what he was doing.

This is an interview. He's interviewing me for my future position as Queen. He wants to know what kind of person I am, if I am just a silly little girl or if I will be good enough to reign over his country.

Once she realized that, she carefully considered her replies and thought a little more about how she might make sure she gave the right impression. It didn't quite work out the way she intended.

"My Lady, you seem distracted. I am not boring you, am I?"

"Absolutely not, My Lord! If I am ever to become Queen, then I have to understand how everything works in Palarand. What you have to say is interesting and, if both of us can ever find the time," she rolled her eyes, "we ought to sit down together and have a long talk about everything."

"I would be delighted, My Lady. But -"

"- But I am distracted, My Lord." She lowered her voice and leaned towards him. "We have had word of likely trouble tonight."

"Ah, I see. Aye, we have had late word and we have increased precautions in the kitchens and around the hall itself." He gave her what was intended to be a smile of reassurance for a young woman. "You need not fear, My Lady, we shall provide strong protection for our esteemed guests."

Garia wasn't impressed, but she tried not to show her skepticism. Yeah, right. These people have no idea what Yod is capable of.

"As you say, My Lord."

The rest of the meal passed off reasonably quietly. Behind her, she could sense that her armsmen were becoming restless and she wondered just when or how the attack would come. Nebranar proved a good maker of conversation and they exchanged minor stories of each other's families, Garia carefully obscuring the most obvious fact about her own childhood.

Finally the toasts were made and drunk and the guests all rose to permit the tables and chairs to be dismantled and moved away. For a brief moment the hall was in complete chaos with diners and servants milling around while furniture was being manhandled through the mob. Then the chaos suddenly became real.

There were screams from some of the women guests as the chairs and tables from the center of the room were suddenly dumped into the crowd. Some of the servants who should have been clearing the tables coalesced together to form a large group which moved toward where the top table had once stood. Others began defending against armsmen who had tried to reach them through the crowd. Most of the attackers were carrying long knives though at least four held swords.

However did they get swords in here? No servant should be carrying any blade, let alone a long one!

The tables! They hung them under the tables when they set them up!

Garia and Keren moved back towards the rear wall and Brazan and Tord lowered their spears either side of them. To her left, Garia noticed Milsy and Tarvan trying to make their way towards them through the other diners. Over the far side of the room, she saw Feteran trying to rally men to come to their aid but the room was jammed with startled men and frightened women, their way impeded by discarded furniture. Effectively, all their armsmen were contained around the walls by the mob in the center who were frantically trying to back away from the armed servants.

Sweet. The one moment when they knew the whole hall would be in a mess and they figured out a way to neutralize all the armsmen too.

What do I do now?

Both Keren and Nebranar had their swords out now. Nebranar, like most of the men in the hall, carried only a short, straight ceremonial sword in a jeweled scabbard, never intended for any serious use. There was another scream from one of the rear entrances, the route the food had been brought from the kitchens.

Keren cursed. "I'd hoped we could get out that way," he muttered. "Garia, can we move over..?"

The men had gotten too close so he started nudging her left, away from the kitchen entrance and towards Tarvan and Milsy. Brazan and Tord moved with them, worrying about how they could protect their liege. Tarvan had his own sword out now, unfortunately he had not had time to change it for a service model but it was better than no sword at all. Garia's mouth was dry.

Shit. If one of those bozos thinks to throw a knife, I'm dead. Let's hope nobody has thought to smuggle a crossbow into the hall!

...or a gun...

There were clashes of steel close by now, from her right. Some of the armsmen closest to the kitchen entrance had begun to put up a defense. If they prevailed, there would be no route out for those in the hall. Somebody at the back of the main section of the hall had a bright idea and threw a discarded chair at the backs of those approaching Garia. Others realized that there were plenty of missiles awaiting use and went to pick up other chairs but several of the men turned around to guard their comrades' backs.

There was another scream from Garia's left, and she saw to her horror that one of the un-noticed servants who had been dismantling the top tables had stabbed Tarvan and now held Milsy by the neck, with a knife in his free hand. Time slowed for Garia as she realized that her friend was about to die.

I can't do anything from here and she doesn't know how to...

Milsy fumbled for a moment and then the servant howled and let her go, his bloody knife clattering to the floor. When her left hand came up, Garia could see her fist held a fork with which she had stabbed the man in his upper thigh.

Forks! Why didn't I think of that?

Milsy gave the man a vicious kick and then leaned over...

"Alive!" Feteran's hoarse voice rang out over the noise. "We need them alive!"

Her aim changed and the fork went into his right shoulder, making him fall to the floor. One of the Assembly members who had been seated at the top table held his ceremonial sword to the man's throat to keep him down. Milsy turned to help Tarvan.

Garia's attention was distracted by a clash to her front. Keren had disarmed the nearest attacker, leaving the man nursing a bloody hand. He switched to the next man while Nebranar advanced to cover her left. The reach of the spears held those at either side away from Garia's immediate area and she was forced to let the two men close in front of her.

Between their small group and the kitchen door, Terinar had picked up his own chair and thrown it at the flank of the advancing attackers. He followed this up by moving forward, sword in hand, to engage some of those facing him. Immediately, the attackers moved away, forced against Garia's left side, bringing Nebranar under pressure and making him stumble and fall. One of them took Brazan's spear in the stomach in reply and fell, fouling his confederates.

Garia was forced to slide between Keren and their chairs to find her way blocked by more tumbled chairs, a shocked Merizel jammed helpless on the far side. As Keren was pressed back she slid round his side, emerging like a spat pip into the free space in the center of the hall. Terinar tried and failed to grab her before he was forced to fall back before a sword thrust. There were many gasps as she was seen by those on the far side. Realizing her poor position, she moved rapidly across the floor, attempting to make as much room between herself and the group of attackers as possible before she was noticed.

Bad move, kid. Why didn't you stay safely behind Keren?

Because!

In the few seconds since the melee had begun the men in the crowd had gathered the remaining tables and upended them against the pillars to make a crude barricade. Most stood behind these with drawn swords and whatever else had come to hand while their wives cowered against the wall behind them. She stumbled over one of the disassembled tables and reached the far side of the open space, where most of those facing the crowd had by now been subdued.

Thank God for steel toe-capped boots! ...but you can easy trip in this long skirt. Beware!

She noticed a furious and anxious Feteran, struggling to free himself from behind two substantial city matrons. There was no time to consider her next action as a warning gasp made her turn to find two men with swords approaching her.

"My Lady, a sword."

The voice was familiar and she turned back, discovering Stott fumbling at his belt with his free left hand. Her response was almost without thought.

"No! Gimme that spear."

Stott grinned and hefted the spear to her. Garia caught it one-handed and turned to face her attackers, who had stopped on seeing Stott's expression. She trailed the spear and held it apparently awkwardly, her two hands between the midpoint and the head.

Sensei always told me to make use of whatever was to hand. I'm not really sure that now is the time to experiment, though...

The first man, one dressed as a hall servant, advanced with his sword outstretched. His expression looked determined. A realization came to Garia.

Most of these never intended to escape, did they? They knew they would either be killed or captured. No wonder Brif had other ideas!

Still, it means these two won't give up so easily.

She glanced out of the corner of her eyes at the barricades either side, where armsmen were beginning to bring order to the chaos.

If I can steer this bozo against the barricade, someone can grab him from behind...

...while the other one skewers me, I guess. I'm going to have to work a little at this.

Garia had now come about three-quarters of the way around the open space. On the far side, guardsmen were beginning to hop over the upturned tables and approach the two men from behind. Whatever they managed to do to her, those two weren't going anywhere. The nearest man came within sword reach and still Garia held the spear awkwardly, as if she didn't know how to use it. As a spear she did not, but as a staff...

Her right arm came down while she used the stiffened left as a fulcrum, lifting the heavy shaft up and swinging it around to smack the swordsman on the right forearm. The sword clattered on the floor and he backed away, shocked. Before he could do any more two armsmen grabbed him and dragged him back, out of the way.

The other man immediately came forward but stopped uncertainly. What had he just seen? Was that planned or accidental? This man didn't appear to be dressed as a servant and Garia wondered whether he had been one of the guests. That might explain why he held his sword differently, as though he might know how to use it.

"I can handle this one," she said, conversationally to the men behind. They backed off and stood waiting.

By now most of the action had been decided and Garia was left in the cluttered open space with her remaining single opponent. She thought that the entire battle had taken barely fifteen seconds so far. The hall began to buzz as the watchers realized what they were seeing, single combat between a small girl dressed in an evening gown with a spear longer than she was and a full-grown man wielding a sword like an expert!

The man's face twisted into a sneer as he kicked an upturned chair out of the way.

"You think you're so clever, do you? You survived this long by luck, by sheer chance! Will you meet me, as if in the ring of honor?"

Garia could barely stop herself from laughing. "Ring of honor? You? You have no idea what honor means, do you? Were you one of those who tried to kidnap me from my bedroom in the palace?"

There were gasps from the watchers as some heard this for the first time. The approaching armsmen spread apart, uncertain what she would want.

"Aye, I was there. What did you do, fall out the window? Stupid little girl, stumbling in the dark."

It was almost true but Garia wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. She stepped forward as far as her long skirt would let her and swung her spear clumsily again, making the man jump back. Behind and to Garia's right, Keren and Terinar looked on helplessly, swords in hand and white-faced.

"You call this a contest of honor?" she asked. "Me in a gown with a spear and you with a sword? There is no honor here."

The man's face blazed with fury and he leapt forward, his sword stretched out to impale Garia. She met it with the spear shaft, two-handed, and let the blade slide leftwards as she released that hand. She swung the shaft down and around and smacked the man on the side of his neck. He staggered back, raising his left hand to rub his neck.

"You have destroyed everything I have worked for these many years," he spat. "Now I will destroy you."

Again his sword came forward and again it met the spear shaft with a solid thunk, this time nicking a small chip of wood from it. This time, Garia spun it the other way and whacked his right shoulder, causing the man to loosen his grip on his sword. Before he had time to recover she spun the spear again, took another step forward and banged the iron ferrule against his left hip. The man limped backwards against her attack.

Garia took a step to the left, forcing the man to turn to face her. He tried a cut this time, making her sidestep but receiving a blow on his left arm in reply. A cross-cut and she wrapped the sword around the spear shaft, teasing it out of his hand to fall on the floor, after which she rammed the butt of the spear into the man's stomach, pushing him backwards into Keren and Terinar's arms.

She relaxed as the action ended, grounding the butt and using the shaft for support as she gasped for air. The evening gown had fitted snugly up top and she hadn't been able to breathe as freely as she might have wished. Around her, the barricades were being removed and those penned against the sides of the hall came forward to help. Stott reached her first.

"I wasn't sure, Milady, but I trusted your judgement."

She handed back the spear. "Thank you, Stott. I'll have to show you that one sometime."

"We'll be delighted, Milady."

"Careful! There might be be more still in the hall, waiting for a moment like this. Known guardsmen only, please."

"Oh, aye, Milady! Stand back there! Soomit, Frando, attend your Baroness!"

Surrounded by her armsmen and a thoroughly disapproving Feteran, she walked to confront the man, whose arms were being held firmly by Keren and Terinar. She looked up at them apologetically.

"Sorry, guys, it just happened that way. There was nowhere else for me to move."

She turned to the man. "Destroy me, would you? Once I had that spear it was never an equal contest."

He spat at her feet and Terinar slapped him across the face with an open hand.

Nebranar joined Garia in front of the man, his right hand favoring his left side. There seemed to be no blood so she thought he'd just hurt himself falling on tumbled chairs.

"I know this face," he said. "I do not think you were invited here tonight, but we will have the truth in any event. What is your name?"

"No business of yours, peasant!"

For that he received another slap, this time from Nebranar.

The Moderator addressed Keren. "Highness, it seems that Treason against the Crown has been committed here tonight. I deem this matter is in your domain, not mine."

"Aye, Moderator, and thank you." Keren then turned to Feteran, as the senior officer present in the room. "Seize all those here and secure them, Commander. Find someone from the City Guard, I doubt we have enough cells for so many. I believe Captain Merek waits outside."

The room relaxed and people began to surround Garia, congratulating her on her impressive combat skills. A woman, and yet so young! Jenet appeared by her side.

"Shall I find you a chair, Milady? I deem you must needs sit down."

"Absolutely, Jenet!" Garia breathed a huge sigh of relief. "I'm glad that's over. I could do with a drink."

~o~O~o~

It was late at night before Merek rejoined the others in the parlor. He rubbed his face, trying to ward off sleep. It had been a long day.

"He is named Vaskar Blackbeard, Sire, one of the Yodans subordinate to the Resident of Yod. He shaved off his beard when the Residency was destroyed and he went into hiding."

Robanar grunted. "You have proof?"

"Aye, Sire. Several in the palace recognize him. We permitted Faran of Charnet to view him without him in turn seeing Faran, and the man named him as the one known as Mondo. Two others of that band also confirm that name in an attempt at clemency."

"They shall not have it, Merek, not this time. Faran only, as Terinar promised. And the other? What of him?"

Merek sighed. "Serdel, Sire. He had been a palace servant some twelve years. I do not know if he had been planted here or went bad after some years in service."

Garia broke in. "This morning Brif said he was a Yodan, Sire. He was heard being called Serdel Nightclaw."

"Is that so? Aye, I recall now." Robanar said. "Then it shall be death. But, bearing in mind the uproar in the city, I deem we shall do as Garia did and ensure that public trials are held. She was the target, it is true, but it was the hospitality of the city that was violated."

"Aye, Sire. I will see that the proper people are instructed."

"Think you we have them all?"

"We have sixteen in the city cells and two dead, for seven wounded of our own, including Guildsman Tarvan. Most are flesh wounds, Sire, and present no concern. Of the guests we know a number were wounded but of course many desired to tend their hurts in the safety of their own homes. I cannot give you numbers, Sire."

"Sixteen? Deem you that is all of them?"

"I wish it were so but I doubt it, Sire. All we may do is keep our wits about us and follow such breadcrumbs as present themselves to us."

Robanar grunted again. "Aye. But this time it required a traitor to turn traitor again to alert us to a serious attack on my son and his betrothed. With those who will descend on Palarand for the festivities, we must make sure that our city is safe. Such evil must never happen again."

"Agreed, Sire."

Robanar turned. "Garia, what of your evening?"

"Somewhat more exciting than I first expected, Sire. Considering how many of them there were, I think we did reasonably well. After we cleaned up everybody wanted to talk to us and so we spent about two more bells there. It was just as well the food and drink hadn't been poisoned, that fighting made me hungry again."

"Hmm. Keren?"

The Prince gave a twisted grin. "It isn't something I would wish as a regular occurrence, father. They picked their moment well and we had to fight the furniture as well as the enemy. I deem we must needs debrief everyone in the morning, with your permission, while events are still fresh."

"As you wish, son. What of the Assembly? What of the other guests?"

Keren shrugged. "The Assembly are with us to a man, father, after that display. The nobles who came... some disapprove of such excitement, as we found after our birthday presentations."

The King grunted again. "Indeed. Let us hope for a smoother spring. Your general assessment?"

Keren shrugged again. "I thought the meal went well, father. The discussions were productive also. The fighting, not so much." He smothered a yawn.

Terys spoke for the first time in a bell. "You are tired, it is time for you to retire. Go, both of you to your rooms. If you so desire, sleep late tomorrow. I think you have both earned it."

"Aye, mother."

"As you command, Your Majesty." Garia rose. "Jenet?"



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