Somewhere Else Entirely -134-

Torulf gets a shock when the bodies are inspected the following morning. Later, an extraordinary meeting of all the attending rulers is convened to discuss the future of the states who make up the Great Valley. Garia offers Torulf a way out of his predicament before visiting the range with some of those from Blackstone. On their way back to the hotel Bleskin has an unpleasant encounter.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

134 - Congress

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.



She hugged his body, her arms wrapped tightly around his waist, her head resting on his firm chest muscles. She could feel him breathing, she could hear the strong beat of his heart. One of his arms was around her shoulders, the other around her waist, holding her close, just as it should be. This was it! She had never known what it was that she had been aiming for, all the months and years of both her lives, but she knew that she had it now. The feeling inside her was so strong, she felt as if she would burst if it became any stronger. He was her man and she was definitely his woman.

They had proven themselves to each other over months of intrigue, ambush, danger and battle, against foes that were two-legged, four-legged and six-legged, some winged, some fanged, all dangerous. They had overcome the disapproval of a Kingdom to affirm their everlasting commitment to each other, and this was the first day of the rest of their lives.

Very soon now the palace would awake and they would have to put on their public personas, but for now they could just enjoy each other in a way that they had never done before. And tonight, if Jenet agreed, they would enjoy each other as man and woman have done since time began.

"Hm?"

Keren stirred, his eyes opening slowly. His gaze lowered until he found Garia's form resting on his chest. He smiled.

She murmured, "I just want us to stay like this for ever and ever and ever."

His grip tightened slightly, holding her close. "Aye, my love, I cannot disagree." He bent down to kiss her forehead. "I thought I would know how this would feel but I discover that I had no idea at all. Just watching you sleeping thus does amazing things inside of me."

She snuggled against his chest. There was a little chest hair, but it did not bother her. She did not mind if a man was hairy or not.

Although.. some of those Einnlanders... it would be like wrestling a grizzly!

She snorted and that changed the atmosphere of the moment.

"What?"

"Just comparing you - theoretically, of course - with what you might have been like." She moved and his arms released her, allowing her to prop herself up on one elbow and look at him. "You might have been really hairy, although you're still young yet, of course." She idly traced a finger across his chest. "This is fine for me."

"Well, Your Highness, I'm particularly pleased to hear that, seeing as that is what you must needs put up with. I'm relieved my body meets with your approval."

"I already knew that, Keren." She blushed. "Well, there is one part I haven't examined closely yet."

He raised an eyebrow. "Shall you do so tonight, my love?"

"Hmm. We'll see. I should be able to judge this by myself now but I think I'll get Jenet's opinion just to be safe." She sat up. "Speaking of which, I have to go over there, if you aren't desperate." She pointed to the toilet door.

"Of course, my love." He looked concerned. "Can you manage? Uh, I mean, do you need a maid?"

"I'm not completely helpless, I'll have you know. In this thing," she plucked at the nightgown, "it won't be a problem. It's only with a complicated gown that we ladies need some assistance."

"Jenet was right. Female attire is a complete mystery to me."

Garia climbed out of the bed. "Almost. Remember those cleaning dresses?"

"Hah! Don't remind me. Go on, I may not be desperate but I can't hold it in for ever."

"Slave-driver."

Garia disappeared into the toilet and emerged a little later with a smile on her face.

"It all looks fine, Keren. We should be good to go tonight."

"Huh? Was that supposed to be how English sentences are formed? I understood the words but they made little sense."

Garia walked over to the bed and kissed Keren. "It's fine, my love. Tonight you can begin practicing."

"Practicing? Practicing what?"

"Making little Princes and Princesses, silly. Now, if you don't mind, I have to summon assistance."

She walked round the bed and pulled one of the ropes beside the fireplace. Keren took the hint and disappeared into the toilet. When he emerged there were watery sounds coming from the bathing chamber. He grinned and headed for his own dressing room.

* * *

When Garia and Keren entered the Receiving Room for breakfast, everybody who was already there, guests and servants alike, applauded them. They responded with an incline of the head from Keren and a quick bob from Garia. The Queen approached Garia, heading off several other interested parties.

"Dear, it seems married life agrees with you."

Garia pulled a face. "It's only been a single night, Your Majesty. We haven't discovered each other's bad habits yet."

Terys looked at Garia fondly.

"I am sure you will accommodate each other, dear. It is what one learns to do when one becomes husband and wife. Part of the fun is exploring what each other does when you are alone together. Of course, you both must needs make compromises, is it not so? Marriage is very much like diplomacy in that respect."

"As you say, Ma'am. You know I'll do my best."

"You are dressed for the training rooms, I see."

"That's right, Ma'am. I know we're just married but the other rulers won't want to stay around for too much longer, will they? The palace is very crowded and some of them have a long way to go to get home again. Because of that His Majesty suggested that Keren and I give demonstrations in the Large Training Room this morning."

Terys nodded. "You are partly right, dear. Most who have traveled here will join us when we go to Dekarran so there may be opportunity there. But, tell me, what of the incident the night before last? I understand Captain Merek had the body brought to the palace."

"As you say, Ma'am. I'll talk to Captain Merek but what happened is easy enough to figure out and I don't think it will take a long time." Garia lowered her voice. "I want to be there when Torulf identifies the body, though."

Terys regarded Garia with suspicion. "It seems you have an unhealthy interest in dead bodies, dear."

Garia grinned. "Not if I can help it, Ma'am!" She became serious. "In this case it is duty, not pleasure. This happened in my house and I need to know the truth."

"As you must, dear. Here is the King, perhaps we may now sit to breakfast. Today, you two will be seated facing us, I deem."

It felt slightly strange to Garia to be eating breakfast in the Receiving Room again. Almost all of her staff had returned to Blackstone House after the wedding feast which contributed to the oddness but the other young nobles were still in the palace, so there were friends to talk to. On this occasion Terys permitted them to join the center table to speak with Keren and Garia.

"You are almost the oldest of our generation to get married," Willan observed. "It was useful to see what happened yesterday, although I know our own weddings may not be so large a ceremony."

"Not so, Willan," Terissa objected. "Elizet and Malann have been married some years already."

Dalenna added, "Though they were the oldest of us, I deem. Keren and Garia are more our age, aren't they?"

"As you say," Willan was forced to agree. "Still, I enjoyed myself yesterday. I did not realize so many lived in the capital."

Robanar grunted. "Many of those who were at the field yesterday traveled far to be there, young Willan. Why, many came a further distance than you yourself traveled, I deem. We have even a party from Blackstone, as Her Highness's guests."

Willan ducked his head. "That's true, Sire. I was not thinking."

As Robanar turned back to his dish of preserved fruit Korizet said to Willan, "Will, maybe you and Steb must needs look forward to smaller weddings, but it is possible one of us girls could marry into the family of another ruler. I see many seated at the other tables."

Willan blushed. "Again I did not think, Korizet. Forgive me, I have forgotten my wits this morning."

Stebanar said, "Maybe it was all that wine you drank last night, Will."

"Aye, Steb. Mayhap you are right."

Terys asked Garia, "Are you hungry, dear? You are eating a larger portion this morning, I see."

Garia had just taken a third slice of toast and was reaching for the preserves.

"Ma'am, the confusion yesterday afternoon meant that we missed a meal. Jenet brought us a light lunch but it was nearly the eighth bell before we were able to eat it."

"As you say, dear. I agree, it was an unusual day, even for the palace. My! I cannot remember having seen crowds so great before. What do you think, dear?"

Robanar put down his mug of pel. "I believe you are right, my dear. Yesterday's wedding will doubtless be the largest number that have ever attended such a ceremony." He cast a dark glance at Garia. "I trust that by the time the next royal marriage occurs, we shall have new arrangements in place. The city will be twice the size by then."

"Only twice, Sire?" Garia asked, a twisted smile at the corner of her mouth. Robanar paled. She added, "In sixteen years or so much will have happened in Palarand. I would not care to forecast that far ahead, not now."

"I must needs agree, my dear."

After breakfast almost everyone headed for the Large Training Room. Despite the fact that it had been used to accommodate the carriages and some of the animals of their visitors, it was still the most suitable place for demonstrations to be carried out. The audience was mostly the rulers, their retainers and families and the escorts they had brought with them. There was little room for any of the Palace Guard except those who were taking part.

The first bouts were of unarmed combat, and for this Garia stood to one side and let Keren show his prowess alongside other trained members of the guard. Several of the visiting escort members were invited to take part with the inevitable results.

Then Garia had an idea and pitted some of Eriana's Einnlanders against some of Torulf's... again with predictable results. Predictable to all, of course, except Torulf's men, who had never been subjected to anything like the structured combat techniques now employed in Palarand. There were many disgruntled looks as fearsome-looking warriors were thrown easily by those they had once called friends.

"This is ridiculous!" Torulf muttered. "Sorcery, even! What those men do is not possible, I tell you!"

A smug Eriana replied, "It is no sorcery, brother. Come, let us try ourselves one against the other, mayhap you will learn something."

Torulf looked at Eriana, then at the men sprawled over the mats, and shook his head.

"I do not care to be made to look a fool, Eriana. If what you say is true, then I must needs learn how to do such impossible things before I may try myself against you." He added, "I do not care to fight a woman. How can any man do that?"

Eriana shrugged. "If you do not, then she will injure you or possibly kill you. Did you not know that Garia has killed men with a single kick? Do not assume we are all weak and feeble, brother."

Garia, overhearing this, asked for some guardswomen to be added to the demonstration, which made Torulf's expression even more sour. There were thoughtful expressions on the faces of many of the visiting rulers, however.

"Robanar," Chorvath said, "These are a new addition to your troops?"

"Aye, since Garia showed us the worth of it," came the reply. "Of course they are not as strong as a man may be but as you see most are large enough to throw a man and wield a true sword. Most are more agile than many of the men, though I did not at first believe it. They can, of course, follow the Queen where a man may not go, so they have unexpected uses to us."

Saram of Ferenis added, "Your Eminence, we have seen at first hand what Eriana and the two women who accompanied her were capable of. Both Ferenis and Forguland have begun recruiting women for the households of our Dukes. They have also proved useful in the field, as runners and scouts. They are smaller and lighter and can go places a man could not."

"Indeed? Then I must consider the same for Smordan. If Robanar is right, we will have need of as many of our people as we can when the inventions of Palarand trickle along the Valley."

Saram nodded. "Aye, Your Eminence. We are of the same mind. Having seen what has happened here, we know the future will be very different for all our lands."

"As you say, Lord Saram." Chorvath turned back to the action.

Saram commented, "I see Guardswoman Danisa among those practising but I do not see Guardswoman Heldra. Mayhap she is unwell?"

Merek overheard and replied, "She is not unwell, My Lord, as you may understand the term, but she carries Armsman Gylfi's child and is thus excused from today's demonstration. Did you wish to meet her?"

"Gylfi? He who died during the final assault? Aye, if she is available to accept my greetings. She already knows that any of Eriana's band are welcome in Forguland and Ferenis, the wife and child of Gylfi will be doubly so."

Merek nodded. "I will so inform her, My Lord."

Next up was Garia, using her two swords against Lars. He was familiar with her methods but did not press the small advantage that would give him over a different opponent. All were suitably impressed.

Simbran asked Robanar, "Brother, did she bring those swords from her own lands?"

"Indeed not, Simbran. They originate in the Six Cities, where as you know they are often beset by sea raiders and pirates. In such times the whole population must needs defend itself, so they invented these blades for those too small to wield a normal sword. They are designed for defense only and the making, so I am told, is something of an art."

"I should think so! I wonder they do not snap as her opponent checks her with his own sword."

"As I say, the making is an art. If you would learn more, I suggest you ask my Master-at-Arms, Haflin." Robanar pointed. "You cannot mistake him."

"That mountain of a man?" Simbran considered. "Aye, I may ask one of my men to speak to your smith, if I may. I doubt I could find the time to ask him myself."

"There is truth in that, Simbran. We have much more serious matters to consider."

The assembled rulers were shown the guns which Palarand had produced, but most were already familiar with them. They could not be demonstrated because the field was full of men, tents and animals and the noise of discharge would cause mayhem, even if a range could have been set up.

The demonstration finished and those taking part dispersed. Garia, Merizel and Eriana paid a brief visit to the stables to assure their mounts that they had not been forgotten before Jenet led them through unfamiliar corridors to the morgue. Waiting there were Robanar, Keren, Feteran, Torulf and Margra.

"Sire, I am still unsure what business I have in this place." Torulf eyed the two sheeted forms as he made his complaint. "Surely this is Lady Garia's - I mean Her Highness's business, not mine. It was in her mansion these deaths occurred, not your palace."

Robanar grunted. "Consider it part of your education in the ways of Palarand, Torulf," he replied. "Besides, the incident involved Einnlanders, perhaps you may find one of your men beneath those sheets."

"Mine? Why mine? They are more likely to be Eriana's, not mine. She was there, wasn't she?"

"As you say. Margra, if you would lift the first sheet."

The senior palace Healer pulled back the sheet to reveal a young man in his twenties. The body had been washed and made presentable, so there was no sign how he had met his end.

Feteran leaned forward. "Aye, he is Berin, Sire. An armsmen of House Blackstone, recently of the Palace Guard, I deem." He shook his head. "He was one of Mistress Milsy's escort, Sire, so did not have the experience that those of us who followed the Baroness obtained, but he was still well trained. He will be missed by his comrades."

"Aye," Robanar said heavily, signing to Margra to cover the body again. "I grieve for every man who gives his life in the duty of others. He is worthy of a palace pyre, I deem."

Feteran bowed. "Thank you, Sire. The men will appreciate it."

Torulf turned to Garia. "He was one of your armsmen? He is no Einnlander. How did this happen? Was there some brawl?"

Garia resisted the urge to slap Torulf. "He was on watch at the mansion, Torulf, that night. He was killed by the man under that other sheet. The knife that was used is on that tray over there, still covered with Berin's blood."

Torulf turned to look at the knife but saw nothing unusual. He had seen bloody knives before.

"Margra, if you would lift the other sheet."

"Aye, Sire."

As the sheet was pulled down Torulf leaned forward, started, then fainted and slumped to the floor, cracking his head against the tiles. Margra immediately dropped the sheet and ran to the Prince, moving him so that he was in a comfortable position. She examined him and then looked up at the King.

"He is safe enough, Sire. I doubt not he will have a sore head this afternoon, I will attend him."

"Thank you, Margra." Robanar turned to Eriana. "Did you know who you killed that night?"

Eriana licked her lips. "Aye, Sire. I knew it not when it happened, but the following morning I reasoned it could be no other." She looked up at Robanar. "I know this will cause trouble, Sire, but I am glad he is dead. Einnland will be rid of an evil man."

Robanar nodded. "As you say, my dear. Now, I must needs ask you formally if you can identify this body."

Eriana stepped to the table and stared dispassionately down at the body. "Aye, Sire, this is Vilken, there can be no doubt."

Robanar made a sign and Margra covered the body again before returning her attentions to Torulf. The King turned his gaze on Eriana.

"Think you he knew anything of Vilken's deeds?"

"Almost certainly not, Sire." She considered. "If I know my father, it was Vilken who led this expedition with my brother a mere bearer of rank to admit his companion into your presence. The death of Vilken will cause my brother some difficulty now, Sire. I do not like him -" she cast a glance at where Margra was testing Torulf's pulse, "- but in some respects he is an innocent among us and I would ask leniency in your dealings with him."

Robanar rubbed his chin. "Aye, I understand, Eriana. He may not take you back to Einnland, that I have pledged you - and your own actions have guaranteed it. Now he has lost the man who provided his backbone and he is adrift in a foreign land. It seems we must take care of him, he will become Einnland's next King, after all. You give me another problem to solve, my dear."

"There may be a way, Sire," Garia said.

Robanar raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Just a thought at present, Sire. If you will let me think about it for a while."

"Of course, my dear. Now, we have performed our duties by identifying these men, let us remove to a warmer place. Perhaps we must needs think of lunch. Is there no clock nearby?"

"I have no idea, Sire, nor if any is intended. I'll ask Milsy the next time I see her."

* * *

The Receiving Room had been set up for an unusual meeting. The lunch tables had been left assembled but, after everyone had risen, had been formed into a large square. The chairs had all been placed around the outside edges of the tables and the center left empty. The rulers each sat at the middle of a group of advisors for the state they represented. Some were there as observers only, these included the lands of Einnland and Shald. For this inaugural meeting Vardenale and Plif had decided that they just about qualified as Valley states so attended as such. There was also a separate table for advisors. Seated here were Garia and Maralin with Merizel as scribe.

Robanar rose to open the proceedings. "Fellow rulers and representatives, welcome. We meet today for the first time in centuries to consider deep matters that will in time affect every state through which our great river the Sirrel flows. You will notice the unusual arrangement of tables. This is a suggestion by our advisors to show that all have equal weight at this meeting, even myself as your host. The fact that we meet here in Palarand is mere chance, the wedding of a Crown Prince that would customarily bring rulers together. We are all equal here today.

"Our advisors have even provided a name for this meeting, which I desire to be the first of many such meetings. I declare this to be the first meeting of the Sirrel Congress. Let us begin, and I would call upon Wallesan of Joth to voice what many of us may have privately thought at one time or another."

Wallesan rose and began. "Brothers, you have all noticed certain things about the countries you rule and those around you. All speak the same language, mostly, all trade with each other, many of us share our customs, our coin flows freely from land to land. Why should this be so? Of course, at one time we were all part of the Empire of the Habarans which collapsed centuries ago. This is a large part of the reason why. It is the reason so many of us are Dukes, Grand Dukes, Princes and Kings, though I know that presently only Palarand and Vardenale are considered Kingdoms." Wallesan turned to Chorvath. "Your Eminence, I trust I do not cause offense by omitting you."

Chorvath didn't even rise, but waved a dismissive hand. "Your point is taken, Wallesan."

The Duke of Joth resumed. "There is another reason we presently share a bond, brothers. That is our common resolve against a rogue state who has invaded several of our lands in search of booty and of knowledge it can use against us. I speak, of course, of Yod."

His hands came down on the table and he stared around at the others. "My friends, we have each come to the conclusion that whatever Yod has done, a similar situation shall not happen again in the future. We seek a means to bind Yod more closely to our own ways to ensure it can never arise as before." He grimaced before continuing, "However, if that is our course then it follows that the same bonds must needs restrain all our lands, else we become no better than Yod."

There were nods and a muttered "Aye," from around the Receiving Room as each ruler understood the problem.

"But we do not desire to do that to ourselves, do we, brothers? What we desire is the opposite, indeed, a means to make our trade flow more freely, all our lands to receive the benefits of that which Palarand has begun. Indeed, the present Palarand itself is an amalgam of three lands, joined together for mutual support when the Sirrel cut the original Palarand in two. Palarand is so successful that several have wondered if they could become part of this rich land. Already Brugan has petitioned Palarand to join in the manner of Kendeven and Brikant." Wallesan paused for effect. "Robanar has refused them."

These statements were news to a number of those at the tables and a buzz arose as the delegations talked through the significance of the Duke of Joth's words. Wallesan gestured at Robanar and the King stood.

"Aye, I refused it," Robanar confirmed. "While such an agreement would doubtless benefit Palarand and Brugan, I doubt not the rest of you would be wondering about your own futures. With Yod one end and Palarand the other, you might consider yourselves squeezed between two evils. Some already consider Palarand to be too big, and I agree. We must come to some other way, such that each country might feel the equal of every other, yet drawn closer together by ties of friendship and history.

"Fortunately," Robanar smiled, "recently come to Palarand is a young woman who has knowledge of other ways. The lands of her own birth use one such way, such that there are fifty states gathered together in a union that calls itself the United States of America. The reasons why those lands came together are unusual and we do not propose such an arrangement as she may describe to you. I do think, however, that we may benefit by some kind of Union or Federation. She may provide us examples from her own world and then we may use our own imaginations to discover some way which satisfies all of us - and all our peoples, too."

There were some open mouths around the floor as the delegates took in Robanar's words. However, there was further shock as Bardanar added, "Friends, I must needs warn you. Robanar thinks not just of the Sirrel states but of Alaesia. In time the example we set may encourage others to join, thus we must bend our thoughts to ensuring that whatever decision we make, whatever arrangements we decide, may satisfy not just the states of the Great Valley but mayhap all those beyond, right to the western shore."

Robanar, still standing, saw the effect these words had on everybody and said, "Friends! Brothers, cousins. Princess Garia has constantly instructed me to think big and I doubt I could think much bigger, do you not agree? Our immediate concerns must needs be ourselves and our neighbors, but we can and must consider the future. Let us take pel and consider what we propose. If we are to travel this path we must needs be refreshed and in possession of every fact we may yet learn."

The meeting broke up into small groups, each discussing with Wallesan, Bardanar or Robanar this revolutionary idea. Garia, Maralin and Merizel remained seated and different groups approached from time to time with requests for information. Neither Garia nor Maralin knew that much about other systems of government and in some cases were hazy about details of the US variation. Once more Garia found her throat becoming raw from the amount of talking she was forced to do. When everyone had settled down again it was Chorvath who spoke for most of those attending.

"Robanar, when I arrived seeking to attend young Keren's wedding, I never imagined I would find myself writing history! Your suggestion is a bold one and one that we must all take seriously. I fear, however, that it will take some time for my own advisors to give me their thoughts on what you propose. For myself, I agree, it is an excellent suggestion and one which should have been made years ago. However, many of us guard our lands and our people jealously and I can foresee many arguments concerning matters which may appear trivial to others. We must all think carefully on what we have discovered here today."

Robanar stood and spread his hands. "As you say, Chorvath. I have but made a suggestion, that is all. I do not desire to influence any here or indeed among our neighbor countries but the logic is plain to see. Let us rise now and go our separate ways. If any of you desire to talk to each other or myself, we are available to all." He smiled. "I beg of you only to let me have time to run my Kingdom. We seem to be somewhat busy of late."

* * *

"Ma'am?"

"Come in, Torulf, and be seated. How is your head, dear?"

The Einnland Prince settled into a chair and viewed the others in the Queen's sitting room with unease. Two chairs were taken by Terys and Eriana, the settee by Keren and Garia. Merek and Kendar stood against one wall, the various maids against the other.

"My head? Ma'am, it still hurts. I have fallen over before but never onto so hard a surface. Mistress... Margra?" Terys nodded. "...She gave me something which dulls the pain, Ma'am, and she does not think my injury to be serious."

"We are pleased to hear that, dear. I would not want to send you back to your father damaged, as it were. One day you must needs rule a Kingdom, I deem."

Torulf blanched. "Return home? Ma'am, I do not know if I am man enough to return, especially if Eriana does not come with me."

"Nonsense, dear. Of course you will return. We understand your problem, however, and we seek to help you do what you must."

Torulf licked his lips nervously. "If there is a way, Ma'am, then I would do it, but my father is a difficult man." His gaze switched to Eriana. "Will you not reconsider, sister?"

"You know my answer already, Torulf," Eriana replied. "I may not depart, Palarand's King has need of me and I am sworn to him."

Torulf bowed his head in defeat. "Then I must accept your decision, sister, though I do not agree with it." He spread his hands. "What can I do? I know I am not of the metal my father is made from, which is why Vilken came with me. How am I to explain the loss of Vilken, let alone the absence of the one we were sent here to collect?"

"There are ways," Keren spoke for the first time. Torulf's head turned at the intervention. "Vilken was killed during a fight, I deem. There are armsmen from many lands presently billeted in the palace, doubtless some tale can be arranged. It may even be close to the truth, if that matters to you."

Torulf sighed. With Vilken gone he was without a proper advisor, though doubtless several of the warriors who had come with him would tell him exactly what to do, in explicit anatomical detail. He was being forced to think for himself for the very first time and he found the experience unsettling.

"Aye, Highness," he replied. "Einnland is so far away that almost any tale could be told with none to dispute it... except, of course, all those men who came with me who will return to Einnland eventually."

"Well, that might be the point, mightn't it?" Garia joined in. "Are you so sure that all those men who came with you are going to return? You already know that Eriana's men dare not go back for fear of their lives and most are happy to be serving King Robanar." She gave him a calculating look. "How many of the men who came with you might think the same way?"

Torulf was confused. The new Princess was suggesting... what, exactly? His eyes narrowed as he realized she was not just asking out of curiosity.

"I don't know what you mean, Highness." He gritted his teeth and then asked, "I beg you, have you advice for me?"

Garia smiled. "Perhaps, Highness. Just a few thoughts. Did I hear you say you had two ships with you?"

Torulf was mystified by the question. "Aye, Highness, we came to Simbek where both remain, together with about half the men. The rest of my men came to Palarand with me as escort, accompanying the Duke of Plif."

"Okay. So, what I'm thinking is, you can send one ship back, with most of the men still in Simbek as crew, right? None of them really knows what has happened here. With them we'll send a letter from King Robanar to your father explaining the circumstances. We can say, oh, I dunno, that Einnland is better off with Eriana somewhere else entirely, right? She's made an oath to our King and that rules her out of Einnland's succession, right? If she's out of the way your father needn't bother about her any more."

"As you say... but, one ship? What about the other one?" He had a thought and turned to Eriana. "What about the ship you came on, sister? Does it still float?"

"Aye, of course, brother, though I grant it sorely needed repairs after we landed. I have a commission from Duke Wallesan of Joth to take him home when he departs Palarand. We will use the Visund, of course, and probably travel further up the Sirrel to explore. This is a new land for me and I am interested to learn more of it and the people who live here."

Garia added, "Your other ship will be the one you return home on, Highness. But not immediately. Once your father knows you are safe and what the situation is, I think you could spend some time here learning what we do and how we do things. What do you think?"

Torulf grappled with the idea. "You desire me to remain in Palarand and return home later? Is that what you suggest?"

"That's about it," Garia confirmed. "There should be enough men left behind to make you a crew and of course you'd be sailing after the rains, I'm guessing. That's about six months away now. The weather should be good enough to get you home, though I guess we'd better check with our local mariners to confirm that."

"But if I remain, what would I do? This land is strange to me, I know nothing of it or its peoples."

"But you have already mentioned the mysteries you have seen as you have traveled around the city. I think," she said judiciously, "that if you are to become King of somewhere then you need to know about what's happening here, don't you? Einnland isn't exactly close but what we make here will end up there eventually. Your people will manage better if the King on their throne knows what is happening."

"As you say, Highness." Torulf looked thoughtful. "Aye, I am to become King, that is true."

"Well, that's another point," Garia said, casting a glance at Eriana. "Just suppose that you don't return for some reason. Suppose even that you eventually climb on your ship and sail away and it... sinks in a storm, say. Who would be next in line for the throne of Einnland?"

"Why, that would be Germund!" Torulf grimaced. "I do not want him as King of Einnland, he is a bully! He is big and crude and makes fun of me," he added sulkily. He reddened, shaking his head. "I cannot be King while he is in the court. I admit I could not control him, nor many others of the like. My father's court is not a pleasant place."

Eriana said, "Now do you understand why I left, brother? Aye, I could easily stick a knife in Germund... thinking about it, I nearly did once. I deem you must stay in Palarand where these fine people will teach you what you need to know. You can see already that I am not the person who ran away from my father."

"Aye, I wondered about that. How did you do it?"

"Garia taught me how to control my temper and then myself, brother. I doubt not she can do the like for you. Then you may learn to wield the weapons of Palarand so that when you return those men will not frighten you, nor our father."

Torulf was surprised. "You would do that for me?"

Terys answered. "Aye, Highness, we would. It would be in Palarand's interest to have a strong King in Einnland who was not our enemy, do you not agree?"

Torulf thought. It had been so long since anybody had actually offered to help him do anything that he found the suggestion strange. Mostly he had just been treated with contempt... and with good reason, he realized. Of course, Palarand was only doing this for their own benefit but he could see the sense of it. Perhaps there was a hidden trap? He had heard about Palarand's Queen and the webs she wove, was this one of them? Oh, he needed Vilken's advice... and then remembered Vilken had turned out to be his enemy.

He stood and faced Terys. "Your Majesty, I will do as you suggest. I would reserve only the right to depart early if circumstances require it."

Terys inclined her head. "Done, Torulf. Kendar? If you would note the change in Prince Torulf's status. It seems he will be residing with us for some time."

"Ah," Garia interrupted, "about that, Ma'am?"

"Go on, dear."

"I wondered... if it would be possible for His Highness to join the party traveling to Blackstone shortly." She caught Terys's eye since both knew what would really happen on that journey. "We'll only be gone eight weeks or so and there will be plenty of time to improve his weapons skills once he returns. Keren and I think he'll learn a great deal on that journey and when we get to Blackstone and we can begin teaching him some of the other things we do, like the Tai Chi."

Terys considered. Having Torulf out of the capital for a while could be useful, particularly if someone else should turn up from Einnland looking for him or for Eriana. She nodded.

"If His Highness agrees, then I do not have any objection. Merek? What say you?"

The Captain shuffled and then spoke. "Ma'am, I have no objection. I deem he must needs take some small number of his own men as escort, that is all. As an escort to the heir of a foreign crown, of course they may be armed. As Her Highness has said, there will be plenty of time when His Highness returns to drill with weapons... and without."

"Torulf?"

"Ma'am? I know little of the lands which Prince Keren will travel to but I have heard talk of Blackstone." He nodded thoughtfully. "If they will have me, then I would travel with them. It will be a different kind of journey for me, I cannot fail to learn something as I travel."

Keren spoke. "Done, Torulf. We bid you welcome on our journey."

* * *

It was late evening, but there was still plenty of light for the group of people to see by. The field had once been mud but now most of it had sturdy grass taking hold.

We're going to have to get some frayen or pakh in to keep it down, Garia thought. Haven't told them about lawnmowers yet!

Bleskin gestured at the rifle. "This seems an evil kind of weapon to me," he muttered. "There is little honor in killing someone whose face you cannot see and who cannot reply in like kind."

"Maybe," Keren said. "But, think, Captain. One day both sides in some minor conflict will have the same weapons and neither will see the other. We will make adjustments, just as the men of Earth did."

"That's right," Garia confirmed. "There was a terrible war on Earth where both sides dug deep trenches and stayed like that for years shooting at each other. Of course they had other, much worse weapons than sniper rifles."

"For myself," Merek noted, "I am glad that we could use these to force an entry onto Yodan lands. It sounds strange to me to say it but we saved many lives by using these rifles."

Bleskin's expression was sour. "As you say, Merek. But what of these? I deem them just as evil."

He gestured to the box of grenades, two of which had been thrown as demonstrations for the party.

Merek shrugged. "Again, their use possibly saved lives. In the galley incident, for example, seven were killed of the enemy and none of our own. Imagine if they had been able to board our galley and a fight ensued. There may have been thirty or forty dead, of both parties, and the outcome not in our favor."

Bleskin sighed heavily. "I cannot disagree, Merek, but I like not the changes which must needs come."

Keren raised an eyebrow. "Do you tell me, Steward of Blackstone?"

The old Captain flushed. "Aye, well, there are some improvements I deem are beneficial to our people. It is just that, as with Milady riding a frayen - excuse me, Her Highness, I find some of these changes unsettling -" he cast another glance at the rifle, "- and some to be distasteful."

Merek nodded. "Captain, I agree. We would not be men if we accepted all without murmur, but yet we have found even these deadly things to be of utility. Why, we may now even have a weapon which can bring down a grakh."

Bleskin looked startled. "Aye," he mused, "I had not considered that possibility. It will make a difference to hunting, I deem."

Brydas picked up a Personal Pistol. "I find these to be interesting. So small, and yet so deadly."

Garia's smile was twisted. "So loud, so smelly, and lots of choking smoke as well. Still, it did the job it was intended to do. It blew a hole right through Vilken, he was dead from the moment he walked through Eriana's door."

"A pity one of your armsmen was not so lucky," Merek commented.

Keren pointed out, "This weapon cannot be used for stealth, Captain. Whether you know of guns or not, you would use a knife in such an adventure, I deem, for fear of rousing the household."

"Aye, Highness. Still, the Einnlander received swift justice, did he not? For my part, I would say it saved Palarand an awkward confrontation with a poor guest."

Michet balanced the pistol in her hand, sighting it along the range. She nodded.

"I can think of an occasion or two where I could have used one of these, Captain. Even if the range is short it will be a useful addition to any man's equipment. Uh," she smiled, "I suppose I must now say, any person's equipment."

"That's right," Garia agreed. "We all carry them now, especially in view of previous incidents. They are light enough not to drag down clothes and can be concealed even under a gown."

Michet's eyes widened. "Do you tell me? Then how -" She blushed and looked at Sukhana. "It seems we must meet Her Highness privately to discover matters of interest to another woman."

"Can I have a feel?" Sukhana reached out for the pistol and Michet handed it over. "It is light, isn't it? There is no doubt that Master Tanon will be interested in these. The safety of his men is always in his mind."

Merek coughed. "Ah, well, perhaps these are matters to be considered by the King, though doubtless he has more important matters to discuss right now. The Personal Pistols are presently only issued to a select few with the King's express permission."

"Ah." Sukhana was disappointed. She turned to Garia. "One day, perhaps?"

Garia shrugged. "Perhaps. The alternative would be to make the country safe enough we shouldn't need to carry such deadly weapons, don't you agree?"

"Aye, you are right, Highness, but remember, Tanon's caravans travel far and wide, and our King's writ stops at his borders."

"Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen," Merek said, ending the conversation. "The night advances and we must needs return to the palace. If you would make your way to the carriages, the foreman will attend to the tidying up of the range while he can still see."

As their carriages rattled through the darkening streets, Garia said to Sukhana, "I see your point, Sookie."

"Highness?"

"About travel outside the borders... or, practically, travel outside the Great Valley. The problem there is, if you have advanced weapons to defend a caravan and they should fall into the hands of bandits or enemies. The Personal Pistols are easy enough to make if you have one as an example, even Brydas could do it."

"Oh! I see what you mean, Highness." Sukhana considered. "This is difficult, isn't it? Life was easy when I was just riding wagons."

"Yes, well, the King has a special council just to consider problems like these. Some of them have us scratching our heads, I can tell you."

When the convoy arrived in the front yard, Maralin was waiting to greet them.

"Well met, my friends," he said. "I am sorry I couldn't join you at the range, my Duke needed me to tell him about some Earth matters." He made an aside to Garia, "Not that I knew very much, but he was interested in how my state worked, so I told him as much as I could remember about Illinois." He smiled. "Some of the rulers are finding the idea of elections to be novel. I told them that if the current system worked, why change it? That made them even more confused."

"I can believe that," Garia said. "Some of the states here do have elections, in fact I think the Queen's father is kind of elected but I'm not sure. You'll have to bring me up to date tomorrow morning."

"As you say, Highness. So, what are you all doing now?"

"These fine people are going to the stables to pick up their frayen and return to the hotel for their evening meal," Garia told him. "The rest of us, well," she rolled her eyes, "I guess it will be another banquet, don't you think?"

Maralin grinned. "I think I can live with that. Say! I was going to tell these ladies how to make pizza before they left. Would you be interested? It won't take long."

Garia looked at Keren who replied, "Regrettably not, Maralin. We have to change and then we must needs speak with our Einnlander friends before the evening meal."

"Oh. As you say. Another time, then." Maralin turned to the four from Blackstone. "If you would follow me. I'm sorry, I won't be able to demonstrate to you in the kitchens, they are too busy..."

* * *

"Can you find your own way?" Maralin asked, before answering his own question. "I'm being stupid, aren't I? Of course, Captain, you'll know your way round the palace already, won't you?"

"Aye, Tenant," Bleskin replied. "Of course, since I no longer reside here things have begun to change... there are wires strung everywhere, for one. Still, the building cannot have changed so much since we arrived this afternoon, can it? Thank you, Tenant, your explanation was most interesting and I look forward to peet-zers being produced in Blackstone when we return."

Maralin came to attention and saluted. "Thank you, sir. I bid you all good night."

As the Jothan officer turned and departed, Bleskin looked at Brydas.

"An interesting afternoon, I deem."

"Aye, Captain. Perhaps we had better go, I notice it is becoming somewhat dark outside and the streets of the city are not so well lit as those of Blackstone."

Bleskin chuckled. "Aye! We are ahead of the capital, it seems. This way, if you would."

"This building is huge," Sukhana remarked as they threaded their way through the corridors. "When Milady - I mean Her Highness... tsk! I will remember in time, I deem... when Her Highness told me about the palace I could never imagine such a place. So many rooms! Captain, is it easy for someone to become lost in here?"

"It has been known, of course," Bleskin replied. "Very often it is the children... sometimes we must needs send out search parties to discover some lost youngster who went down the wrong corridor... parts of the building are very old and so everyone learns their way around but rooms are always being used for different -"

Four large hairy men came at them from an intersection, two at least unsteady on their feet. They grunted something in an unfamiliar language. Bleskin and Brydas immediately placed themselves in front of Sukhana and Michet, but the two women pushed to either side. Neither was intimidated by the men, despite their relative sizes.

One spoke in an execrable accent. "They your woman? We fight you for them."

Einnlanders.

As they approached the smell of beer became strong and the four realized the foreigners were somewhat drunk. One reached out a paw for Michet and she slapped it away. Another one grabbed for Brydas who planted a fist on the man's nose. He went down in a sprawl, tripping the third who fell on top of him. The last went for Sukhana who shot out an arm and grabbed an ear, twisting painfully.

"Ow!"

Sukhana remarked to Brydas, "Dealt with enough drunks like him on the wagons. Find a tender spot and twist."

Bleskin was just considering whether to pull his sword when two guardsmen came panting from the intersection.

"Sir! We lost these, there are others coming."

The man who had gone for Michet backed away, dimly realizing that something wasn't going the way they had planned - assuming, that is, that one of them had actually planned something. In the dim evening light in the corridor things looked even more more uncertain. The guardsmen pulled the two who were still standing away from the four from Blackstone who in turn backed away from the two still thrashing around drunkenly on the floor. Blood was beginning to drip from the nose of the one Brydas had hit.

Four more guardsmen appeared, accompanied by Vern. Two of these were obviously Einnlanders, which caused Bleskin to frown even more. One of them bent down and shouted something at the two on the floor, who sobered abruptly. Vern saluted Bleskin.

"Captain! I'm really sorry, sir, we didn't expect to find anyone along here. These four must have taken a wrong turning and gotten lost. Are you and your party all right?"

"No damage, Vern," Bleskin replied. "Why are these men drunk?"

"Some kind of celebration, sir, out by their accommodation tents. It seems they wandered off looking for female companions, if you understand me."

"I do, Quadrant."

"We'll escort these back to their tents, if you would permit. You were heading for the stables, I deem?"

"As you say, Quadrant."

"Then I will send two men with you to prevent any further misunderstandings. If you would excuse me, sir."

"Of course, Vern. And," Bleskin added, "well handled. Thank you."

* * *

I'm walking with my HUSBAND to OUR chambers!

Garia could barely keep the smile from her face as she walked hand-in-hand with Keren along the corridors. Today had been hard work and she was relieved that she was finally going to be able to share some bells alone with him. The meetings had been long and complex and the trip out to the ranges had been an unexpected and unwanted addition.

Bleskin and Brydas had wanted to see the new weapons and Michet had expressed an interest, so Sookie had gone with her as companion, besides having her own curiosity about the items. Then there were discussions with Torulf and Eriana as the Einnland Crown Prince accepted that his immediate future was suddenly going to be very different than he had planned.

...Followed by yet another banquet! Many fine words were spoken but both Garia and Keren just wanted to have some time alone... and together. They had finally managed to extricate themselves from the dancing and retired pleading tiredness, to knowing looks from those remaining.

"Highness," Jenet asked, "Will you need my assistance tonight?"

Still feeling a slight disconnect at being addressed by Jenet as 'Highness', Garia replied, "No thank you, Jenet. Lanilla can help me with my gown and I'm sure you have somewhere more important to be tonight."

Both Jenet and Feteran smiled. Jenet bobbed a curtsey. "Thank you, Highness. If you have no further need of us we will wish you both a pleasant night."

Keren pushed open the door to their suite and ushered Garia and Lanilla through. The Prince went immediately to his own dressing room while Lanilla followed Garia into hers.

"Do you mind doing this, Lanilla?"

Her maid began unlacing the evening gown. "Why should I, Highness? It is what I am here for." She smiled. "I did not think, when I first desired to become part of your household, that I would find myself living in the palace! I thought you would reside mostly in Blackstone, with occasional visits to the city. I never imagined I might become maid to a Queen!"

"Well, I'm not Queen yet," Garia warned with a laugh. "I trust His Majesty has many years yet before his son takes over. But what I meant was..." she blushed. "We're just married and are going to bed to do... certain things that men and women do. Does that upset you? I know you're not far away from us and we still have to sort out Braskath and his friends."

Lanilla smiled again. "Of course not, Highness! It is a natural part of life, I would expect you to do the like. Indeed, as someone said some weeks ago, the palace will be a better place when there are little feet running around. If you would not object, I would like to help out in the nursery when the time comes."

The practical attitude of the people Garia had met in Palarand always amazed her, and she reflected on the differences between here and her old life in Kansas. There was no doubt which she preferred, even if she was about to take a sabbatical back home in the near future.

"Well, we'll see, Lanilla. I'm sure the Queen has some very firm ideas about how any royal children are going to be brought up."

"As you say, Highness. And as for Braskath, I am content to wait, just as he is. We know the circumstances and that our backgrounds may be very different. Once he is sworn to you -" she caught Garia's gaze, concerned, "- he will be sworn to you?"

"If the reports coming back from Ferenis are correct, then yes, he will, and probably in the next day or two."

"Thank you, Highness. As I was saying, we will take time to explore each other as a courting couple must. It may be the rains before he will ask you for my hand, or not at all."

"I approve of your caution, Lanilla. Too many have gotten married too soon and regretted it later."

"As you say, Highness. I know of some in Blackstone. There! If you would allow me to lower the gown, you can step out of it."

When they emerged Keren was sitting on one of the bedroom chairs wearing nothing but a fluffy robe. He smiled at Lanilla.

"Everything done? Good. We'll wish you a good-night, Lanilla."

The maid curtseyed and withdrew, closing the door behind her.

Keren smiled at his wife, who was also dressed in just a fluffy robe. "Everything is in order, Garia?"

"If you mean what I think you mean, then yes, it is. I'm told it might be a little messy but then I'm also told the whole experience can be messy." Garia smiled back. "Whatever. I won't know until I find out, will I?"

Keren stood and crossed to Garia, lifting her up in his arms.

"No indeed, my love, so let's find out."



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