The Shadow Of Wisteria At Twilight - Part Three - The Debris of History

1. Decline To Fall
2. Third Act Climax
3. The Debris Of History

Drawing of Prince Kitsune, artist unknown.

Reconstruction of a smashed bronze of Saburo Agat. The smashing was deliberate.

Above: Sojobo the Harbinger of War. Below: Horsham shortly before his fall.

Chapter 1: Decline To Fall.

The last year of Horsham's life in Arcadia was bitter dregs. He fought thirteen duels to the death against callow Scions of Society, so angry to still be fighting that he killed with ruthlessness and callousness the callow children of the Elite. The Elite 1000 did not like seeing their youngest studs being butchered by a butcher of a Mere Mortal and cut Horsham socially (and tried without fail to rein in their hot studs). Horsham was practically a Nitthing Man, a legal person non grata. "I feel like I am vanishing inch by inch" he told Bela who was cutting him too, refusing him espionage and scouting jobs and ignoring him.

Bela was still icy that Ben was alive, accepted back by one and all, and married to Luna, all forgiven, when all should not be forgiven. Celebeau, as usual, covered Ben's ass by calling the Black Plague a minor case of anthrax and downplaying the rumors of horribly sick men crawling south from the Land of Shadows, and also horribly monstrous monsters (probably dying soldiers rendered monestrous by disease), helped to escape to crawl south and infect the living by Ben and Luna, acting unbeknownst as co-conspirators of the Dark Lord to assault Arcadia with germ warfare. A lot of beautiful Elves died that year of the hideous plague, rendered unrecognizable and monestrous by disease. But their mothers and wives and daughters and fathers and husbands and sons did not know that Ben was the architect of their loved ones' terrible deaths. So Ben was forgiven and Luna was allowed back into the Elite 1000. But Horsham who helped stop the Black Death from reaching Arcadia Prime was damned for butchering thirteen callow punks.

Bela stared at Ben and Luna at the few social events they attended (when Ben's shattered health permitted), his beautiful face a rigid mask of icy self control but fiery internal hate, loathing, and fury. Every day Ben continued to live was another day of outrage for Bela. But the targets of his loathing were unaware of his malevolence. His public mask was as pristine as his internal soul was rotting from the cankers of outraged hatred. But as long as Ben continued to be so sickly that he could barely walk, and Luna's womb continued to be hollow of half breed life, Bela endured their continued existence. He told himself to endure. He told himself that Destiny was punishing them because they thought they could elude the punishment of Justice and the reproach of History.

Celebeau endured too. He endured Ben, his one time best friend, and he endued Luna, once his dearest relation, just as he endured Gloriana's icy soul and sterile womb, and he endured Prince Grafton's ambitious attempts to upstage him, and he endured Bela's icy contempt to his hypocrisy for turning a blind eye to the enemies he slept with and entertained while Arcadia died slowly, inch by inch, corpse by corpse, skirmish by skirmish, long distance battle by long distance battle, a long, slow, ghastly hemorrhage of life, of money, of supplies, of time. Arcadia was running out of time and Celebeau knew it. Arcadia knew it.

Deep down in their collective guts the Elite 100 and the Elite 1000 knew it. By now even the common people knew it. The countryside mayors and gentry knew it. The common soldiers knew it as they marched off to die far away. The shop keepers knew it. Everyone knew it ---- except for Rhingol The Deluded and his mirror image daughter Luna The Besotted. Arcadia was a hollowed out tomb still pristine white outside but filled with the rotten dregs of all the dead inside. Dead Soldiers. Dead Peasants. Dead Hopes. Dead Dreams. Dead Illusions.

Lady Kiyohime gave birth to a snake. Prince Grafton was so shattered he screamed out in horror "Get out of my sight you changeling monster!" He blanched even as he said it. Prince Grafton was a genuinely tender hearted man. But all his hopes rode on the birth of a normal child. The loathsome thing squirming about bloody birthing sheets was so horrific even the mid wife and court wizard screamed out in horror, running out of the room. Only Kitsune had the foresight to not panic in fear, gathering up the snake in a basket.

Lady Kiyohime screamed out in pain too, the pain of a thirty two hour delivery for nought, the pain of the sight of what her womb created, and the pain of Prince Grafton's chastisement. "You promised me you would never be cruel to me. Now how cruelly you berate me! I asked you not to attend the birthing! I never denied being the grandchild of White Orachi! I had his gift of prophecy. You made good use of it just as you made good use of me when you could profit from me. Now you damn me! May you be damned too Prince Grafton! May a snake bite you from behind and may a snake wrap itself around your neck and kill you!"

Prince Grafton wept and held her and apologized, turning her face away from the sight of Kitsune carrying away a coiling snake, stroking her, holding her, trying to hide the bloody debris of birth, trying to act as if all was normal. That night when Prince Grafton dropped off to sleep exhausted by her side, Lady Kiyohime slipped away and threw herself from the Moonlight Bridge into the Arcadia River. Her corpse resurfaced downstream a month later, the decay wreathing and writhing with snakes. Kitsune went and identified it. He came back to Wisteria Pavilion ashen faced. "All my glamour has failed to quiet the violence of her end. I fear for all. I have freed the snake. It is not a changeling. It has no glamour. No magic. It is but a base snake. But I fear for the dark glamour that I see shadowing you Prince Grafton. I suggest you allow me to slay your child by Kiyohime for I fear he will kill you. He is nearly two years old and his personality has revealed itself. Ryuth was born evil." Prince Grafton nearly toppled in horror but while he wept all that night, he could not be persuaded to kill his child.

"Can't you tell Kiyohime I am sorry! I am sorry! I was in shock. I was afraid. I regret my outburst. I would never have divorced her! Why can't she forgive me?"

"Kiyohime was a snake changeling and eaten up by jealousy and passion. It was beyond her capability to forgive. She will hound you to the grave! You broke a geasa. A taboo. There is a reason people fear changelings. Lord Ryu should not have sired such children and you should not have married her because she was Ryu's child, and distantly royal, to increase your chance to become King of Arcadia. The goal was not worth the price that you will pay now. Even if you do become King of Arcadia, you will always have a slithering shadow on your tail, chasing you."

That night a banshee appeared outside Wisteria Pavilion, wailing and weeping, dark eyes in a pale face, long hair like serpents, hands like claws, spitting poison with a forked tongue, scratching at the shutters to invade the sanctuary of Wisteria Pavilion. Kitsune had encircled the airy and defenseless pavilion with glamour spells. The Banshee could only howl futilely. But she howled night after night and Prince Grafton found himself a prisoner of the nights, fearing and dreading the dusk for the bringing of nightfall and the howling of the Banshee of Kiyohime, still predicting the future, but now predicting Prince Grafton's violent death. Only home briefly between long seasons at the front fighting for his life, the last thing Grafton wanted to see was a banshee screaming of approaching death.

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu sat pale and wane as her beautiful pavilion was besieged by evil. Kitsune sat stonily beside her. Then Lady Wisteria Fujitsu nodded and quietly took a knife and executed the snake child Prince Grafton and Kiyohime conceived. The fey little totter, beautiful where he was not scaly as a snake, was caught red handed trying to kill Prince Grafton in his sleep with an oversized (for him) gardening knife. She said nothing afterwards as Prince Grafton wailed in horror.

"I am riding a snake of destiny! Though it may take me to the crown or to the fiery fissure I dare not tumble off! Then it will eat me! And destiny will eat me! Wildly unfolding events beyond my ability to control or predict or ignore. I can only hold on desperately! Yet did not both Kiyohime and you predict that either I or Celebeau hold the crown of Arcadia in one of our hands? You both saw it! Didn't you? The crown held out to our outreaching hands? A golden crown hovering but inches from my head. Shining like bright metal? Kiyohime called me the Darling of Destiny. She said I rode Destiny toward a awesome destiny. My fate she said would decide the fate of Arcadia. My Fate, you said, was entangled in the fate of Arcadia."

"Five pairs of hands" Kitsune said. "Reaching out for the crown. That was Kiyohime's vision. I saw a crown hovering just above your head and the sparkle of bright metal. But I also saw doom and disaster for the wearer of the crown. But not the face of the wearer. I knew instinctively you and Celebeau were two of the pair of hands reaching out for the crown and entangled in life and death of Arcadia and each other. I assume Ben and Gloriana are two other pairs. I know not the fifth person holding out his hands for the crown. White Orachi predicted a scaffold and doom, his two grandchildren murderers like their mater Lady Aodaisho. A son. A daughter. Like their mother. Murderers. Both murderers."

Prince Grafton flinched. "Tell no one. I have no choice but to play the game out for power. I am nearly bankrupt. I am nearing Forty and a witch predicted I would meet doom and disaster on my fortieth birthday, a 'wastage of life, wreckage and ruin, amidst a field of dead leaves, ragged as basho willow leaves, all my hopes ragged illusions, all my achievements non-achievements, alone, unloved, aging, and ridiculed. And yesterday Ben threatened my life. He saw me and drew a finger like a knife across his neck when he saw me. That is how he threatened others he has murdered. If Ben wins the crown he will surely kill me. You too Kit. You know Luna loathes you. That pair will kill us both. I have no choice but to try for the prize. Win or die. The dice is cast."

Kitsune flinched. "I see only a dark shadow swallowing up Arcadia. I see only death, a field of death, dead bodies everywhere, a war for a crown like sparkling metal."

"I feel" Floradale wrote in his diary, "That Arcadia's doom is become transparent. We have entered our Decline To Fall. Externally we are still so very beautiful. The town. The Elite 1000. But we are slipping, slipping, slipping down the slippery slope of history to our doom. Like glass ready to shatter. Everyday I hear of this person or that who has died far away. Every day I hear that the far away battles are inching ever closer. Poor Arcadia Minor is tattered cloth, full of moth eaten holes, Orc eaten, being slowly eaten up by Orcs, bit by bit, village by village, a slow motion death. Without Rufus Royal Arcadia Minor is doomed. And the plague has cut the population in half and there are now too few to fight. All too soon the frontier will be at our own border of Arcadia Prime. Then the battles will be on our own soil that now are waged far away. The corpses will come home to roost in gentle flets in the Sacred Grove that now litter far away flets like unseemly fruit of death.

Arcadia is being hollowed out by deficits. Deficits of Finance. Deficits of Life. Deficits of Soul. Deficits of Heart. Deficits of Hope. I see it in everyone's eyes. The young are brittle and greedy to live for they know they are doomed. They wallow in wine and fashion and fight duels with the infamous Horsham and impale themselves on their own self destruction for they know they have no future. Everyone knows they have no future. Everyone. Everyone. Yesterday an officer friend of mine, Val Chestnutdale committed suicide. He said he just could not bare marching north to wage hopeless war yet one more time. And Chestnutdale was as valiant a soldier as any I have ever known. It would have been his eighteenth deployment. But he was worn out. And in the end too broken spirited to continue to fight while fools back home party. Citizen soldiers can take just so much horror before they break. Yet Rhingol parties on oblivious and Celebeau does what? Rearranges the sails as the ship of state is sinking.

I will sign up again to nurse as I have these last five years. I nursed plague victims last year. How quaint of Celebeau to call it anthrax, I wonder if poor Captain Lalac thought it so quaint before he died. I did not die. I appear to be immune to the Black Death. How quaint of me. Who is the more lucky? My patients who die horribly? Or me, destined apparently to survive to see Arcadia's Decline to Fall?

I despise Celebeau. I know the truth about Ben and Luna and their share of the responsibility for the Plague. I have nursed too many witnesses who saw the hideous human monsters crawling south into Arcadia Minor from the Shadowlands, freed in that prison escape by Ben and Luna. Escape? It was no escape! It was premeditated and cold blooded by the Dark Lord! Ben and Luna should be ashamed of themselves for aiding and abetting the Dark Lord in his evil. The Black Death came to Arcadia with Ben and Luna. They came with evil like their shadow! With contagion as their bed fellow! Death came like perfume in their wedding sheets! And Celebeau white washes all their evil away! I always despised Rhingol the Fool but at least he is but a fool. Ben and Luna were collaborators with the Dark Lord every bit as much as Lady Sanguinary! And they enjoy their accursed fruits of their evil while their many victims lay rotting black and putrid in their many graves and flets! And Celebeau sleeps with Gloriana. A sort of hell I suppose. But not nearly hell enough for me! Would that they all died of the Black Plague that they so cynically let loose! Only that would be suffering enough for me!

I cut them socially the other day. Ben and Luna. Celebeau too and Gloriana. But beside the short and sweet taste of revenge, what did that achieve? So I will go and nurse again this season of war. What will that achieve? Neither very much! I will throw a party and then go off and nurse horribly sick men and horribly wounded men again. Wipe the floor of vomit and blood and hacked off limbs. Carefully bandage gangrenous wounds and lie and say 'your wound is healing so very well my lucky laddie!'. I will hold the hands of the dying as they scream out for their mothers and say 'She is here! She is holding you now!'. I will play the good soldier of the camp. But I know as much as any general that all is lost. Utterly lost. Then I will come back, if I survive, and play the glittering social butterfly one more winter. But I know what I know. We all know what we know. And we shamelessly pretend we do not know. And shamelessly Luna parades her husband, bought by a dowery of black death, as we are most shamefully bow and smile and pretend we do not know, and do not care, and do not judge. I know and I care and I judge! And she gets away with it. And Ben gets away with it. And all the poor boys dying on battlefields and in disgusting camp hospitals do not get away with it! And where are the gods? And where is the justice?

I sound so cliche. I should be properly jaded. I should smirk and laugh and toast a glass of wine to the winners of life. What is that Beorach saying: 'Do whatever you can get away with.' But I think of all the poor boys dying far away and I can not smirk and laugh and toast a glass of wine to the winners. If Luna gets big with child I swear I will kill her. If Ben struts and dances like the bully boy I swear I will kill him. Or die trying. And I pray Celebeau sleeps each night in icy hell for his punishment for turning a blind eye to such rank and obscene evil! May I sound like the prude or the moralistic ass! Someone must pay for Arcadia's Decline to Fall! Someone must pay for all those poor dying boys I nurse so fruitlessly each season of death. Someone must pay. Someone. Someone."

Alcohol ran like water that bitter year and many a Mere Mortal and Elve drank to excess. Including Horsham who drank as recklessly as everyone else. After all, he was not on duty except for his infamous duels and had no cause to not drink. Why should he not cross the line? That last bitter year he stopped washing and dressing well and looked increasingly shabby, seedy, and beer bloated. People later recalled how bad he looked. Slovenly, even for him. Dissolute. Desolate. With desperate blue eyes that mirrored the despair of everyone. 'A fitting symbol of Arcadia in it's Fall' as Lady Confabulate said. Lady Confabulate one day found him siting in a gutter bawling, his head in his hands, just crying his heart out, in the middle of the day. In front of everyone. To her amazement, she latter recalled, she sat down in the gutter too, by Horsham's side, and burst into tears too, hugging him and weeping. "I suddenly realized" she later recalled, "that there was no more hope".

"When does a civilization cross the line in history into Decline To Fall?" Floradale wrote in his memoirs. "Is each civilization and nation allotted a time by Destiny to strut on the Stage of History before being yanked off? Or did we bring our doom upon our own heads? Where was the fatal mistake? Where the deadly miscalculation? I can't see it. Perhaps I am yet too close to events to see the exact point in time when we blundered fatally into Decline To Fall. Perhaps only historians far in the future will see it. The fatal line we crossed. The fatal mistake we committed. The inexcusable, unforgivable, hindsight blunder. I just see history flowing past me like a river, relentless, unstoppable, without line or border, flowing to the West, to the Watery Unknown, to the shadowy, watery grave of the dead. Dead bodies floating on the water. Face down. Far Fishing Elves. Celestial Elves. Desolation Island. Paradise of the Damned. Our watery grave in history. I dream of us, all of us, floating face down on the salty waves of History. Utterly dead. Rotting. Crashing onto the shores of the next age to litter the beach while they swear foul oaths at our fouled state of decay that spoils their future age. We are becoming but the Debris of History. Litter. Rotted and decayed. And the Future will curse us."

Bela curst Horsham right now and refused to employ him as a Crow. Celebeau also curst Horsham and refused to employ him as a 'Superior Man' at the Front. Most of the Scions of Society curst Horsham too, as a butcher of bright young boys who chose to die up close and personal rather than far away at the front. And with Rhingol's many debts overdue, the Dwarves were too busy going bankrupt to remember a business associate in need. Magnus, in his penthouse in the Jail, hung himself when he blackguarded. The blackguard who collected from blackguarded Elves with zeal, could not bare being seen as a blackguard (bankrupt) himself. It says something when a criminal folds his cards and gives up.

Dr. Kakoff and his grave robbing assistant Higgie uprooted and moved to Goldenthrond where the streets were still awash with gold. The Cabal spent as if there was no tomorrow -- as long as it was not armaments and so kept well within the legendary Ringold Cache. A war is always expensive. A losing war is doubly expensive. Goldenthrond always ignored the war and let others wage it for them. So far that had worked splendidly. The golden Celestial Elves of Goldenthrond, who had left, gone West across the seas, gotten rich who knew how, then returned to dominate and bully and humiliate fuddy duddy old Arcadia, continued to glitter golden as fuddy duddy old Arcadia bled it's heart and future out on the far away battle fields, indirectly defending Goldenthrond with it's bloody body public. Dr. Kakoff opened a new House of Beauty based on knowledge he had learned from corpses, to offer his skills to the aging Celestial Elves who feared old age. He soon had a golden practice. Higgie went from robbing graves and flets to robbing cattle yards for female cow urine and bull testicles which Kakoff sold as elixirs of female and male virility. Today it will be called hormone replacement. Either way it was ultimately deadly but Kakoff loathed Celestial Elves and did not care. Our World was dying by inches so who cared?

No one cared anymore. Chas in Goldenthrond called it the 'Gilded Age' for the silver and gold was bright and shiny but only a fraction of an inch thick, and easy to rub off to reveal but base metal. The First Age had become the 'Gilded Age', the cheap gilt but poorly concealing base metal. Nothing was real anymore. Nothing was substantial. Nothing was built to last. Because everyone knew that there was no more future. So everyone lived for today for they knew there was no tomorrow.

Horsham staggered home to his dismal digs in the growing slums of Arcadia night after night after binging on whisky and beer. But one moonlit night he staggered down the wrong street and ended up by the river. There by the Moonlight Bridge, as the river threw up vapors of fog Horsham collided into a man in the fog. The burly, hairy man growled and stood his ground, blocking Horsham from proceeding. "I hear you are Horsham of Arcadia and the most infamous duelist of the age! I challenge you do a duel!" the short, bowlegged man assumed a swaggering poise.

"Go away! I am trying to quit the Killing Business! Damn it!"

"A duelist never quits. A duelist only kills until he is finally killed. You are destined to die a violent death. A duel to the death is the better violent death!" the burly, bowlegged man replied, giggling. The giggling laugh came out rather like a pig's snorting squeals.

"I am half drunk. This is not a night for dueling. And the fog is so thick we would probably lose each other!"

The burly man grinned, scratching his pot belly. He had a pig-like face and a balding head from which furry hair stood up like a demented hairy crown. His front teeth were bucked as an otter. In short, for he was also short, the stranger was not an impressive looking man. He wore some stolen armor and blandished a used sword. Despite his lack of heroic appearance, or because of it, he was quite determined to fight Horsham.

"It is too damn foggy...."

The waves of fog suddenly receded, revealing a deserted street under a moon writhed with wisps of fog like a ghost's tattered rags. The belligerent man brandished his sword with a flourish, blocking the street. Horsham swore. He was drunk and he knew it. Not falling down drunk. He never allowed himself to get too drunk. He was too paranoid to make that mistake. But his reflexes were blurry. "Why do you have to fight me? What is your name anyway?"

"Kappa. Superior Man Kappa."

"I don't see a Superior Man feather." Horsham was maneuvering around the blistering man to no avail. He resolutely blocked the road.

"You wear a Superior Man feather rather or not you deserve it. I never bother to wear one even if I deserve it."

"Why not go off and fight at the front? Do something for your countryside. Duels are a waste of time! And I am drunk. This would not be an heroic fight but a dirty back street brawl." Kappa grinned his buck toothed grin as Horsham circled, not yet drawing his sword, but one hand secretly fingering his throwing knife in his sleeve.

"You fight dirty back street brawls as often as you duel. Either is fine with me! But to even the score ....." Superior Man Kappa suddenly produced a bottle of whisky and bottomed it. Then he grinned, his piggy face drenched in whisky. At that moment Horsham threw his knife. Kappa ducked just in time and threw the empty whisky bottle. The bottle just missed Horsham's head and smashed on the stone railing of the bridge behind him. Shards of glass shattering on the stone, flew in all directions, some hitting Horsham in the back of his head. He swore as blood matted his hair, the pain sobering him up really fast. Kappa grinned his pig grin and laughed, snorting.

"Come on boyo! The fight will happen one way or the other. Might as well fight all the way with your sword. I mean to take you. If you lose I will kill you and display your head on the bridge at dawn."

"If I win what do you offer me? I don't want your pig's head as a memento!"

Kappa laughed. "Don't be fooled by my inelegant looks. I am a fearsome fighter! If I lose I will tell you how to defeat the monster that tomorrow you will be ordered to defeat! Mighty big hearted of me! Be impressed!"

Horsham growled and pulled out his sword and assumed a duelist's position. The two men circled each other, the moonlight shining off their steel. Horsham waited for Kappa to attack. He was still sobering up and he was unfamiliar with the man and wary. Kappa giggled, his giggles coming out like snorts. Then he lurched and the two swords pounded each other in a flurry of blows coming hard and fast. Ten seconds. And then Horsham pirouetted about and brought his sword down hard on Kappa's sword hand. The man howled and dropped his sword along with three fingers. Horsham grunted and started to re-sheath his sword. "I did not ask for...."

To Horsham's horror Kappa held up his bloody hand and grinned, snorting, and displayed the mangled flesh. Then one by one he picked up each finger and reattached it. Then he wiggled his newly restored hand at Horsham, thumb on his nose, in the time honored gesture of utter contempt. Then the man laughed at Horsham's horror struck face, his giggles sounding ever more like pig-like snorts. Then the stranger blandly resumed his swaggering poise of blistering hostility.

Horsham pulled his sword back out and maneuvered warily. He made a lurch with his sword, impaling Kappa, then turned and ran in a burst of speed up the street a few paces before turning back to fend off a blow by the bloody but unfazed Kappa, his back to the unblocked street now. Again they fought, Horsham repealing an onslaught of blows by Kappa while continually retreating up the street, away from the river, even as the echos of steel off steel echoed off the walls of the townhouses that faced the street.

Kappa fought hard and fierce, squealing in excitement, his face red, his eyes small and piggy, his buck teeth protruding so inelegantly. Horsham was deadly quiet, his face pale, hair dripping with blood now, his baby blue eyes bulging, his mouth a fierce grimace. Again Kappa lurched, over extending and Horsham pounced, hacking off Kappa's sword arm. Kappa only snorted and picked up the severed arm and reattached it blandly to his shoulder. Then he picked up the sword and raced after Horsham who was running up the street, away from Kappa.. Kappa's bowlegged legs scampered after Horsham, ringing on the cobble stones. Horsham turned around suddenly when he knew Kappa was nearly at his back and leaped and ducked, flashing his sword, then rolling across the cobble stones. Kappa was again hit. This time it was his neck. His head now hung half severed. Again he squealed in fury and dropped his sword to reattach his head firmly to his body as Horsham raced up the street. By now he was a half a mile away from the river.

Kappa squealed and raced after Horsham, grunting and snorting like an enraged boar, his hair in end, his buck teeth extending so far from his mouth as to appear almost like a boar's tusks. Horsham wheeled about abruptly as Kappa's sword flashed in the moonlight. The two blades pounded each other, the scream of steel grating off steel echoing off the houses on both sides of the street. One Elve threw open his shutters and swore. "By the gods! Fight someplace else you damn fools!"

"You fight this River Ogre then damn it!" Horsham shouted back. Kappa nearly empaled Horsham, the sword cutting along the side of the ribs, opening a ghastly wound, shallow but long and bloody. Horsham staggered, tossed his sword to his left hand as his right hand clutched at his ribs, and slashed Kappa across the face, cutting off his nose. Horsham staggered further down the street, away from the river, as Kappa swore, on his knees searching for his nose. Once he found it he reattached it and picked up and sword and again gave chase. Furious, Kappa pursued him, snorting and squealing, his legs even more bowlegged, his potbelly hanging scarcely two feet from the cobblestones, his face even more piggish, his eyes small, his ears flapping, his hair standing straight up like fur, his nose almost a snout.

Horsham staggered around and barely fended off five more blows from Kappa's sword before he staggered about, fell, and rolled just ahead of Kappa's sword pounding off the cobblestones. Horsham's sword skimmed above the cobblestones and hacked off Kappa's foot. Kappa howled like a wounded boar, hopping about, then wobbled and fell down. He howled as he grabbed for his foot. Horsham grabbed it instead and ran up the street, hard and fast, his sword in his left hand, and Kappa's foot in his right hand. Finally Horsham staggered himself and fell to the cobblestones, hitting the ground hard. He groaned in pain. His right hand was clutching a boar's severed hoof. Behind him he heard a boar's roar. Kappa was racing after Horsham, on three legs, sword abandoned, but tusks shining in the moonlight like twin impaling weapons. The boar squealed in fury, head down, charging.

Horsham groaned in pain and climbed to his feet, still clutching both his sword and the pig's foot, and staggered further down the street. He was now nearly a mile from the river. He staggered to a fountain and climbed up it and stood bloody and panting on the pedestal, sharing the seat with a marble river goddess with overflowing breasts. Kappa roared and raced around and around the fountain while snorting furiously.

"Give up Kappa! You are a mile from the source of your power: the Sweetwater River. It is nearly dawn. The cooks are waking up and blandishing their cooking knives. All you need is for one to look out and see you and come running. Fresh pork on the master's table!"

Kappa howled but then looked around. In his fury to catch and kill Horsham he had failed to realize that Horsham was pulling him away from the river. Chasing a retreating man was so intoxicating that he had not realized his danger. Now Kappa squealed in horror, his bristly fur standing straight up along with his pig's tail. Then Kappa turned back into a bloody and limping human and yelled up at Horsham. "Give me back my foot so I can make good my escape!"

"Not until you officially surrender to me!"

"Ssssqqqeeeaaallll! I surrender you swine!"

"No! You are the swine Kappa!" Horsham jumped down from the fountain and gave Kappa back his severed hoof and then gingerly held his bloody side as Kappa reattached his foot.

"Damn you Horsham! I so wanted to defeat you!"

"Kappa! You are a lousy duelist! Why do you persist in dueling if you have no ability?"

"I have killed over twenty bully boys in my time!" Kappa blistered , his piggish face red, his bald head shining, his bristly hair standing on end around his bald head.

"Yea! Because you can't be killed! That an't exactly fair!" Kappa suddenly grinned, his buck teeth gleaming. He giggled, the giggles coming out like snorts and oinks. "So tell me how to kill the monster I will be ordered to kill!"

"Oh yes! Damn it! Now I have to tell you!" Kappa finished attaching his foot and hopped up and down a few times to test it.

"You have the foot attached backwards" Horsham pointed out. Kappa swore and sat down in the street and reattached the foot again. Then he stood up and grinned at Horsham. "The dragon loves beer. At least this dragon loves beer. Leave eight barrels of beer out and let it get drunk. Then kill it by cutting off it's head. Be beware that it can sprout new heads like a cat with nine lives. Except the dragon can only spout eight new heads. Not like me! You must be prepared to wack off each head as it sprouts! Eight times! Then remember to cut off it's tail!"

"Why?"

"The tail is magic. The tail is golden."

"Don't need gold. I need a way to get off this merry-go-round of dueling. I want to retire from the Killing Game. Dueling. Tell me how to do that."

"There is no way Horsham. You are like me. We are both compelled by damnation to duel until we are destroyed. Cut off the tail and save it. You will be surprised."

"Then tell me where to find the Dragon Kings."

"You murdered one. White Orochi, the Dragon King of the Subterranean Waters. Isn't that enough?"

"No. I have my reasons and I won so you must tell me"

"Squuueelllll! OK! The Second Dragon King is Red Bishamon. He is the dragon that Magnus Maggotous prayed to just before he killed himself. Never pray to Red Bishamon. You might get what you wish for. Anything Red Bishamon gives is only evil. Unlimited Wealth. Unlimited Power. Unlimited Success. The touch of Red Bishamon is golden damnation. And his creatures are the Habetrot who worship their master by weaving damnation that they give away freely to victims under the guise of dreams coming true and wishes being granted. Where he dwells I do not know and would not tell you if I knew. He is that evil.

The Third Dragon King is Blue Palele, the Dragon of the Rivers of Our World. He lives in the Pale of the Central Mountains were is born the rivers of life. He is my master. I am his creature. He is the child of Mother god of the Waters, the twin son with White Orochi. Mother god of the Waters conceived them when dreaming. They came to birth when she woke. From them come all the lessor guardian dragons: The Thunder Dragon Raiden, the Rain Dragon Raituro, the Sea Dragon Inari, and Toyo Tama the Dragon Goddess of the Dew. Slay them and you slay the controlling guardians of Nature and mankind will pray to no avail, to no one, for no one will be listening. Mankind will be cutoff from Nature. Nature will be cutoff from Mankind. The next time the White Dragon of Famine cries out you will be to blame for slaying White Orochi who listened to the prayers of farmers during drought."

"There are other dragons."

"You humans call all monsters dragons. But the monsters that live in the Valley of the Fiery Fissure are not dragons but merely ancient creatures that do not know they have outlived their time on Our World and linger unwanted. They are not wanted and they are not dragons. True dragons are guardians of the forces of Nature, not monsters.

"Except for Red Bishamon."

"Except for Red Bishamon."

"And Black Saruta Hiko who is the Fourth Dragon King who guards the stony Gate of the Gods that leads deep underground to the subterranean Sacred Maw where in live The Sidh, the Gods of the Seelie Court in their deep and hidden brughs or palaces. Where does he dwell?"

"I know not. I am of Blue Palele. I do not worship the Sidh gods. The Sidh gods are other gods. The Tuatha de Danann are other gods. Lessor gods. They came with the Twilight Elves and Celestial Elves when they migrated west into Our World from the Dusty East. Where they went and where they dwell is none of my concern. Our World was before they came. Our World will be after they depart. Nature and the Sidh gods do not have treaties, nor do they converse."

"But Angus Mac Org made a treaty with White Orochi to allow the Elves to migrate through the Pale of the Central Mountains into Our World."

"That was all. I smell kitchen fires being lighted..... and..... bacon being cooked!" Kappa stood up and grinned at Horsham and then turned around and swaggered bowlegged down the street toward the river, waving one hand over his head at Horsham, and giggling his snorting, squealing laugh. Horsham limped to the military hospital and had an orderly sew up his side. He was still in the hospital barracks the next day when Duer came -- but not to see how his son was.

"Celebeau has orders." Duer stiffly held out a letter. Horsham snorted in deliberation imitation of Kappa. Then he rolled over in the hay filled box that was a hospital bed and pretended to be asleep. Duer dropped the letter and stiffly marched out of the ward. Then Horsham groaned and rolled back and opened the letter.

"The Arcadian Jail has reported a monster habituating the old cells of the late, notorious Magnus Maggotous, the Dwarve who committed suicide. Deal with it forthwith!

Celebeau."

Horsham grunted and hauled himself painfully out of the bed, stuffed the letter in his tunic, and limped off to a pub. He was still eating supper, a vile plate of pub grub, when Duer appeared again, indignant. "My master...."

"Go shove your head in a barrel of beer. I consider you an enemy as much as you consider me an embarrassment. It was better when we were not on speaking terms. Go back and kiss Ben's arse and then crawl to your master and kiss his arse too." Duer blanched. Then he stood at attention.

"I no longer consider you my son."

"You have never been a father to me so how can I be your son?" Duer stared in contempt and horror at Horsham, then wheeled about and marched stiffly out of the pub. Horsham finished his supper and grunted, wiped his hands on the dirty table linen like the previous twenty dinners before him, grunted at the pub keeper, and walked through the pub to the alley where eight barrels of beer were being rolled up a wagon for delivery to the jail. Horsham inspected them carefully. "I don't want no diluted beer! And I also want eight kegs of whisky too just in case. Deliver the lot to the jail. I am going ahead! And don't try to switch any! Or I will come back and kill you! Believe me!" Horsham glared at the pub keeper and then jumped off the wagon, groaned, clutched his wounded side, and limped off toward the city jail.

"I know he is a drunk but this is too much even for that bastard to drink!" the pub keeper said as he stared at the barrels and kegs of alcohol.

Horsham arrived at the jail and waived to the guards. Horsham was well known. He had spent many a day in the jail over nearly twenty years in Arcadia. But this time he was not coming as a guest of the establishment, escorted by ravens (MP's), but as a exterminator.

"What is the monster" Horsham said gruffly to the guard. "An over sized bed bug? A mean, life threatening maggot?" the guards blanched, nearly fainting.

"Well! Yes! Exactly!"

"What?"

In the old digs of Magnus Maggotous, we were planning to clean them out, his old jail penthouse, and when we tried, the storage rooms, we found...... and five guards died.

"What exactly did you find?"

"Magnus Maggotous....."

"His ghost?" Dwarves don't haunt, not ever. They don't ever come back as ghosts, even if they hang themselves like Magnus did."

"That an't exactly how he died....we just said that ..... but..." The guards looked down embarrassed and scuffed their dirty boots like little school boys.

Horsham stared. "How did Magnus Maggotous really die then?"

"Well..... he was drinking and raving to some god or dragon or other....we could hear him down the hallway....and then...well.... the smell was so bad that we went into this cell to investigate and then we saw..."

"What?"

"Well...." The guards quaked just remembering the horror. "We saw....."

"A foot was left" one guard volunteered.

"And a second lower leg and foot too...." another added.

"Yeah! And a part of one hand...."

"And a lot of melted grease too...."

"And ash and cinder. Lots of ash and cinder...." another guard added.

"Pools of melted fat...."

"The smell was ghastly....just ghastly...." The guards shook.

"And there was still some blue flames flickering about the extremities that remained...."

"You mean Magnus was drunk and fell into the fire brazier?"

"Well not exactly.... it was a warm night and no fires were lit like ..."

"Except for Magnus himself...."

"Looked like he sorta....kinda..... spontaneously erupted as it were..."

"Into alcoholic flames as it were...."

The guards quivered in fear and even Horsham growled. "I guess Magnus must have switched from his normal keg of beer a day to stronger alcohol when his finances collapsed....?"

"Well. He still had his keg a day but yeah....it was a kinda a keg of whisky a day....."

"Anyways you got to go see the cell for yourself..."

"Yes. Because....because..."

"I don't need to see where some criminal died horribly!"

"No! You have to! 'Cause....well... it is haunted now!"

"No! Your memories are haunted boyos!"

"No! No! A ghost.... sorta.... something came back! Something is there....really!"

"A ghost?"

"Not exactly as a ghost but Magnus did come back!" they gasped fearfully. "Go see for yourself!" the guards hauled Horsham up to the wing of the jail where the infamous old Dwarve usurer once kept his sumptuous digs including dinning room, spa, accounting room, and storage rooms full of treasure until he went bankrupt after his clients, the Elite 1000 Elves, went bankrupt first. Horsham was an old friend of the infamous Dwarve criminal mastermind and knew his way around. He carefully crept into the dark digs and peered around. There was a decided smell about the place....a smell of something familiar -- besides the smell of stale beer of course and the smell of something roasted to ash and cinder..... A smell like --dragons. At that moment he heard an hiss and the soft, slow oozing of scaley flesh moving across the stone floor. Horsham ran like hell.

But he came back with eight barrels of the stoutest stout beer and eight kegs of whisky, the merchandise rolling into the dark abandoned digs and then stood upright. Horsham took an ax and cracked open each alcoholic barrel and keg. He sprinkled whisky and beer over his body, and then backed away near the door. He kept the door closed and let his failing eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Moonlight poured through the barred windows and fell in pools of light on the stone floor. Then a giant dragon snake oozed slowly across the pools of moonlight. The moon gilded the cold scales with mithril. Horsham did not move a whisker even as the massive head appeared. The monster must be nearly as large as a full grown dragon indeed, over twenty feet in length, for the head was massive, the eyes glittering, the forked tongue flicking, the whiskers quivering.

The worm oozed across the floor toward the barrels. The forked tongue tasted the air around the cracked wood tops, smelling the whisky and beer. Only whisky and beer. Horsham smelled only of whisky and beer too and he did not move one muscle, pressed against the stone wall by the closed door. So the snake hissed and oozed up the first barrel and then buried it's massive head in beer and drank and drank and drank until it bottomed the barrel. Then the head emerged, burped, it's whiskers quivering with sods of beer, the sod flicking. Then the worm moved up to the whisky keg. Then the barrel. And the next. And the next. Until the snake was bloated with whisky and beer, it's head woozy,. It actually knocked down the last barrel of beer and wallowed drunkenly in pools of beer as the alcoholic liquid flooded the room. Then the huge snake belched and rolled over drunkenly and started to snore, each snore ending with a hiss.

Horsham crept up to the drunken snake, quietly pulling out his sword. He stood over the huge monster. "You always did love your beer Magnus Maggotous. But I did not think you so greedy as much as just a drunken glutton. Still I must kill you anew even if the Dragon King Red Bishamon transformed you from a Dwarve into a dragon in either punishment or in reward for your drunken gluttony, gross laziness, and greed. I do not judge. You helped people as much as you hurt people. You fed off the Elite 1000 but they allowed you to financially leech them dry too. No one made anyone become your victim. You just sat back and let people come to you and then you fed off them. But I can't allow you to continue to live in your digs and eat people literally while once you merely drained them dry financially." Horsham wacked off the head and kicked it aside. But he waited patiently. And waited. And waited. Until he became exasperated. He was about to swear in disgust at Kappa's absurd warning of eight heads when suddenly the giant worm squirmed and grew a brand new head. The new head hissed woozy, still trying to gather it's regenerated wits when Horsham wacked off it's new head and kicked it aside.

This time Horsham pulled up a chair and sat down by the worm to wait. Slowly the next head grew back. Then the next. Then the next. Horsham sat between bouts of regeneration and stretched out his long shanks and yawned. Finally eight heads were piled in a corner of the room. Dawn was breaking. The worm this time stayed quite dead. Finally satisfied he had killed it, Horsham dragged the carcass out and untangled the dead mass of cold scaly flesh until he found the tail. Then he wacked off the tail and re-sheathed his sword. He was almost back to the door when suddenly the carcass hissed and shuddered. Horsham found himself staring at a ninth regenerated head!

Horsham swore in fury at Kappa as the regenerated head opened wide it's giant mouth and hissed at him. Horsham bumped against the furniture, the tail still in his hand, fumbling for his sword. The snapping worm lurched for him. Horsham gripped the spiny five foot long tail with both hands and wacked at the hissing mouth. Suddenly the tail morphed into a five foot long golden sword. Horsham impaled the worm, driving the sword through the mouth into the brain. Then he pulled out the golden sword and wacked off the head. He pulled up a chair and sat down and waited all day until he was finally sure this time the worm was really truly dead. Then he chopped up the huge body into fire pit sized portions and yelled for the guards.

"Cook it and let the prisoners feast! It is bound to be better than the rotten salt beef you normally serve! The heads are over there. I put each one in a barrel. Be careful. Might be poisonous. Burn them carefully. The residue of alcohol will make them burn very well. By now Magnus must be used to it."

The guards stared in awe and horror at the sight of the giant worm. Then everyone did feast that night. Horsham let everyone from the jail warden to the lowest of pickpockets discover the truth. Magnus Maggotous had come back as a giant dragon and swallowed his hidden golden treasure in his storerooms. Men ate cooked dragon flesh and found gold and silver coins as if eating oysters and bitting down on pearls. For the one and only time in Arcadian history, the jail was a happy place to be.

Celebeau however was furious. "Why didn't you retrieve the gold!"

"It was the property of Magnus. I figured it was appropriate for it to stay in jail, in the unexpected hands and mouths of guards and prisoners alike, including his one time prisoner servants and prisoner mistress and his one time guards."

"How much did you keep?" Celebeau said scornfully.

"I kept the tail as a memento. But if you want it....." Duer showed his disgraced son the door. Father and Son acted as if they were perfect strangers.

Horsham rode Blackie out into the countryside and washed very carefully in a secluded stream, using sand and grit to rub his skin raw, throwing away his dirty old clothes, before dressing in a new outfit: new leggings, boots, and tunic, wrapping the old scarlet sash around his waist, ignoring his beer belly. Then he neatly tucked in his old bronze short sword and long knife through the sash. Finally he slipped on his shoulder harness and steel long sword. Then he resolutely marched to a barber and had his short beard neatly trimmed and his tangle of newly washed hair oiled and preened. He even ordered lavender perfume and Horsham hated perfume. Then he stood at attention outside the Dagda Gate of the Court until he felt as assembled as possible, as if preparing for dress parade, a long bundle under his arm. Then he marched across the Royal Maw to the Heike Pavilion. Life would be simple if he found Kitsune there. Kitsune kept his digs at the empty Heike Pavilion. But alas Kitsune was nowadays usually holding down the fort at the Wisteria Pavilion. And nowadays the Wisteria Pavilion practically was a besieged fort. So Horsham growled and marched resolutely to the place he most definitely did not want to visit and which necessitated all the time consuming attention to his decaying person to begin with. All because of Wisteria.

It was early spring and the wisteria covered Wisteria Pavilion, the ancient brambles massive and entangling the roof line almost to breaking. The tiny wisteria petals tumbled down in the air and showered the ground as if with purple blue snow. The garden was almost clear of snow, the grass newly blooming along with bulbs of daffodil and iris and crocus. It was still early for cherry. The trees were bony, the buds of green tiny. Mostly the garden was wisteria. Grand, glorious, all consuming wisteria. The air was fragrant with it. The eyes over flowed with it. Horsham's heart ached when he saw it. And her. Wisteria Fujitsu.

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu sat quietly on the veranda of the Garden Room and waited for Horsham to see her. She was dressed in layers of silk in colors of wisteria, her seven foot long fair hair simple and straight, her hands in her lap. Quietly waiting. Horsham marched up to her and stood at attention. I have a talisman I need Kitsune's help with. I apologize for disturbing your island of peace and tranquility. No wait! I should have said the second half first. I can never get the polite crap right! Damn it!" His carefully rehearsed spiel collapsed into blustering and profanity.

Wisteria Fujitsu smiled her haunting smile. "It does not matter. The priority is the first. But I am compelled to frustrate your priority quite deliberately. I sent Kitsune off to fetch some useless thing so I could steal some few hours alone with you. Perhaps for the last time. The gods have not been kind of late to any of us. I think this may well be the last time we may met. Indulge me Horsham by disturbing my island of false tranquility with all of your energy and bluster and passion and vitality. Lay aside the talisman. Sit by me. Let us watch the wisteria snow down on the newly budded grass as it makes a mockery of the retreating snow. Frail Spring is defeating Winter with nothing but her fan of blossoms. See how the old tyrant runs! Such a defeat as Arcadia would dream of inflicting on the Dark Lord. But I fear we will not defeat that dark shadow so easily as Spring does Winter with a wave of her blossom fan!"

Horsham sat down stiffly on the veranda beside the beautiful Elve, removing his weapons of war and laying them beside the bundle that was the dragon's tail golden sword.

"How did you know I was coming?"

Wisteria Fujitsu smiled bemused. "Oh.....I just knew."

"Elvish instinct?"

"Oh yes. We Elves are famous for our second sight ....based on rumors of you slaying a dragon in the jail yesterday and also rumors of you dueling that infamous river ogre Kappa. Kitsune was hopping up and down in excitement and was maddingly exasperated by my request to decamp when he expected you any moment. All just so I could see you alone." The beautiful Elve smiled sadly, her voice soft and aching. Horsham tugged at his tunic nervously. The bandage across the wound of his ribs was tight and painful. But more painful still was the knowledge he looked so seedy now. All the bandaging and patching could not hide it.

"I am thirty five this week."

"May the gods celebrate your name day with gifts of good luck for the coming year."

"I doubt it." Horsham stared hard at the wisteria showering down. "I did not want to come. I look like shit. I did not want you to see me this way."

"You look like Horsham."

"I look like shit. I an't aging well. No patina of bronze I always boasted I was a steel man. Because I welded steel weapons of war. But like steel I will rust. Only your Elvish Bronze ages into beauty. Steel rusts away no less than iron. Us Mere Mortals do not age into beauty but into grim defeat and ignorable death."

"You age like Horsham. Maeve Valor in the face of overwhelming adversity. Beauty bittersweet for it's fragility. Like wisteria defeating Winter with but a fan of blossoms only to be routed by Summer so quickly. But a month to rule. But a month to live. Then gone. Vanquished by Time. Like me, you are wisteria incarnate." Wisteria Fujitsu smiled and looked at Horsham as he stared grimly at the springtime showering down before him.

"You will be here next year. Next spring. I think I am destined for Nitthing Exile. The Tengu Road of Exile. I started out my life by walking the Tengu Road of exile from my childhood home to Arcadia. I will end up walking the Tengu Road of Exile to where?"

"Back home?"

"Cold day in the Fiery Fissure. I might as well die as expect a warm welcome back home. No. I an't got nowhere to go. But I think I will be going nowhere mightily fast. Bela won't employ me. Celebeau won't employ me. Lord Confabulous ordered his butler to tell me Lady Confabulate an't at home to me no longer. I heard her shout from inside and she ran after me. Down the street. Stood in the street and shouted that as far as she was concerned she and I would always be 'Pale Pals' but I won't make her prove it. The cost would be more than our friendship is worth. So that is it. I am about played out. And the pubs an't giving me no more credit. About the only people still eager to see me are asinine duelists. Young punks so damn eager to kill me! Why? What did I ever do to them? Kill or be killed. That is about it for me. I am fighting more than if I was up at the front. Fighting for my life. The damn Killing Game! The punks won't let me quit."

The man and woman sat side by side and watched Spring vanquish Winter. "I think I will not be here next Spring" Lady Wisteria Fujitsu said softly. Horsham turned and looked at her. "But as long as your ......" He stopped. He could not tell her that he knew that she had long ago made a ghastly mistake of accepting the gift of a habetrot witch and locked away her soul, her separate soul, in the depths of the wisteria that now covered to breaking her lovely pavilion. Wisteria damned herself to live forever -- as long as the wisteria grew.

The misguided glamour had long ago become a curse. People she might have loved long ago lived and died. Time and History passed her by. Her island of beauty had become a prison. She did it for all the right reasons: to create a sanctuary where the Arts and Humanities could bloom despite the ravages of strife and war. But the magic had become a geasa. Then a taboo. Finally a curse. Father god of Fire created Time and Change and Death for a reason. He even created Competition and Strife and War for a reason. By defying Father god of Fire, Wisteria had defied the gods. The gods damned her by giving her what she asked for. She had unlimited time and unlimited funds to teach her arts to students destined to die, for a nation destined to die, and an Age destined to die. The First Age. Now everyone knew it was destined to die, The First Age, to perish in Time, to be but the Debris of History. It was happening even as the man and woman sat on the veranda and watched Spring vanquish Winter. Arcadia was being vanquished. The First Age was being vanquished. So the man and the woman sat quietly on the veranda and watched Spring vanquish Winter with nothing but her fan of blossoms, saying nothing, only holding hands.

Kitsune displayed Elvish instincts too. He stayed away until twilight and even kept Prince Grafton away which was exasperating. He was about to decamp for the front to wage war and wanted to enjoy the last few days before the roads became passable, the springtime mud dry enough to allow travel -- and war to be waged.

"I have a premonition this will be the last spring I will spend here and you frustrate me Kit with all your....." Prince Grafton came into the room and saw Horsham and Wisteria Fujitsu sitting side by side, watching the twilight turn the sky into the color of wisteria. "I apologize my lady. I did not know you had company...." Prince Grafton stood at attention and bowed elegantly. He was already dressed for war. His bronze was gilded and elegant, the kilt guard gilded too, the tunic red, the kilt red, the thigh high boots soft suede buttoned up the outside with gilded buttons. Prince Prince Grafton always had a flair for dressing for success. Even now for war, he wore beautiful armor -- and Dwarvish steel mail underneath. The mail clinked as he moved. Prince Grafton was smart man. He learned all his lessons well. He bowed now to Horsham before Horsham had to officially salute him as his ranking officer. Prince Grafton was now a colonel, the promotion not bought but earned at the front. Horsham was officially only a 'Superior Man' ie sergeant and should have saluted Prince Grafton immediately on hearing him come into the room. Horsham stood up now and saluted his superior officer as Lady Wisteria Fujitsu languidly rang the bell for tea and pale ale and wine so she would not have to see Horsham salute Prince Grafton. Then everyone sat on benches and watched the twilight darken into night. A wail pierced the darkness. Blood curdling.

"Ah. My late wife has come to berate me as usual" Prince Grafton said blandly. "The novelty of a resident banshee has become tiresome. Lady Kiyohime has become almost as much a bore as poor pathetic Lady Aoi. I do seem to marry tiresome people." Prince Grafton brushed a speck of dust off his gilded armor. Kitsune flinched and looked at Horsham. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu poured out tea that no one wanted. Horsham bottomed his cup of ale.

"I met a banshee once. Washing the clothes of a dead man. My clothes. One gets used to anything with time. Intensity pales with repetition. Routine drains passion. Crisis becomes habit, even boredom. I still remember my first battle so intensely. But the countless battles since are nothing but a blur. Only one thing has stayed intense: fear and you my lady."

"I would not couple fear and Lady Wisteria's name" Prince Grafton replied.

"I would" Lady Wisteria Fujitsu replied. "I find it apropos." She rang for candles and then pointed to the bundle. "Horsham came with a talisman Kit. He..." Kitsune pounced on the bundle and eagerly tore the dirty cloth off it to reveal the over large golden sword. He ears wiggled excited.

"When I killed the dragon that was Magnus Maggotous I cut off his tail and it became this."

"Yes! Yes! Excellent!" the wizard said, jumping up and down excited. "Hard to find! These swords!"

"It looks too long to be practical" Prince Grafton said, displaying his new military practicality. "What sort of metal is it? Only steel is practical now. I have been taking lessons. I have become almost as expert a soldier as you Horsham. That looks like gold."

"It is not gold. Nor any metal that I can see" Horsham answered. "Bone. Spiny bone."

"Dragon scales are as hard as mithril. This is the stinger. I heard you got the dragon drunk and then killed it. Nine heads! Splendid! Splendid. I assume Kappa told you how. The Dragon's stinger! Oh my!" Kitsune carefully examined the sword under the flickering light. The sword was indeed beautiful. The handle was bone and needed a fitting to make welding the sword comfortable. The blade was bone but the bone shone with golden light. The bone was sharp on both sides of the 'blade' and also along the rigid spine. Razor sharp. Kitsune pricked his finger just running it along the spine.

"Who are you taking lessons from Grafton?" Horsham asked. Kitsune's ears pricked.

"You would not know him. He is a new warrior since you left the front. To bad Celebeau won't let you fight. We need every man we can get. The plague is gutting the army. We are being beaten back step by step in Arcadia Minor."

"I thought you said he was a veteran of war?" Kitsune asked.

"Saburo Agat's old man is a grizzled old pro. Saburo Agat is a brilliant young warrior. I am taking lessons from both. I will take lessons from everyone ---- except Celebeau in how to wage war. If Celebeau won't promote me to general this year and tries to promote anyone lower on the lists above me I will challenge him before a Court Marshal. Right now I am doing more fighting than he is. Who want's Celebeau up north? Let him push paper around down here at Headquarters. That is all he is skilled to do. Push paper."

"What is Saburo Agat's old man's name? I should know him then, if not the son" Horsham said. He had been cut off from the front for almost two years now and was frustrated as Prince Grafton became the hero of the hour while he was forgotten. It grated on him that Prince Grafton was already hot to seize a general's laurel while Horsham, a long time veteran, was only stuck with a wilted Superior Man's feather.

"You wouldn't know him."

"I know every soldier up to two years ago when I was banned from the front by Celebeau!"

"Let's talk about the talisman!" Kitsune said hastily. "I think it is a sword that drips with glamour!"

"Better than steel?" Both Prince Grafton and Horsham asked at the same time.

"Well I don't know about that" Kitsune replied. "But this sword can do what your steel may or may not be able to do: wound or kill supernatural beings. Oni demons. Yurei ghosts. Yokai monsters. Maybe even gods."

"No weapon can kill a god" Lady Wisteria Fujitsu corrected. "The gods are redundant, a nuisance, a burden, but immune from attack." She languidly poured out more wine for Prince Grafton and pale ale for Horsham. Kitsune sucked his blooded thumb cut by the sword. The blood would not stop flowing thought it appeared but a slight cut. Horsham took out a dirty handkerchief from his tunic and tied it around the bloodied finger.

"Your first battle wound."

"Why did Celebeau send you to fight the dragon instead of Kit?" Prince Grafton asked. "Kit is a wizard and he should have properly done it."

"Kill a dragon? Me?" Kitsune snorted. "That is why I have my Shoki! My Demon Queller!" he punched Horsham in the chest and then laughed. "I would not have known the first thing about killing a dragon. I would have been able to classify it and tell you what type and breed it was or even why Magnus Maggotous was turned into a dragon by what god. But fight it! Please! It was lucky Kappa got it into his piggy little brain to challenge you to a duel Horsham."

Horsham snorted, mimicking Kappa's piggish giggle. "He was wrong about the number of heads but right about the tail. I might have figured out the part about the beer and whisky once I knew that it was Magnus Maggotous come back as a worm. Magnus was always a drunken glutton. Lazy too. Still, I am sorry I had to kill him."

"Me kill a dragon! What a laugh!" Kitsune fingered the razor sharp spine until Prince Grafton, exasperated, took the sword away from him.

"You will prick your other thumb if you are not careful Kit! Damn it!" Kitsune looked crestfallen. Of late Prince Grafton had become increasingly cold toward him, everyone really. Curt.

"War is callousing your soul Grafton" Kitsune said softly.

"Kitsune is good at what he is good at. Just not violent stuff. A soldier does that stuff. Kitsune is a wizard and does the cunning part. He is not a thug. I am a thug. If you want to become a thug then great Grafton. By all means. But Kitsune is good at what he is good at and don't bully him to try to become what he is not."

"Are you implying I am trying to become good at what I am not good at?"

"No. Everyone is proud that you are becoming such a good soldier. But don't bully Kitsune."

'Kit is my brother.... don't lecture me about my brother. I am surprised to find you here at Wisteria Pavilion. You never come here anymore."

"You visit the Orangery too much for a man who has Wisteria Pavilion to call home. Why sleep with mutts and pick up fleas when you have Wisteria here to come home to."

"Who are you calling a mutt dog?"

"A whore we both know."

"A woman we both shared? Or a woman I have and you now regret giving away before you bedded her?"

"A whore who even whored her way on stage when she had the talent to become a nearly great singer of opera. I don't sleep with whores. I thought you had better taste once Grafton."

Wisteria stood up and looked out over her darkened garden. The heady scent of wisteria wafted over them. Kitsune kicked Prince Grafton in the shins. Then he grabbed the sword, cut himself anew, and howled. Everyone forgot the fight and ministered to him.

Later Wisteria Fujitsu sighed when Prince Grafton and Kitsune left the room. "Kit is right. Prince Grafton has seemed to coarsened. I try to understand. His love affairs have bittered. He is approaching forty which he fears pathologically. He believes he is a failure thus far. He believes Ben and Luna are plotting behind his back and Celebeau is denying him all promotion. And he fears for the future. Some of the above is even correct. But not all."

"No. Not all. But most. Ben and Luna are plotting behind Grafton's back. Everyone is plotting for the crown. The damn crown. The crown of a nation tumbling down the Maw of History. Grafton could be the next King of Arcadia. So Ben who also wants to be the next King of Arcadia is plotting too. And Luna loathes Kitsune with a pathological fear and would have him killed if she become Queen. Please understand that. I know that for a fact. She thinks Kitsune is a fox changeling. People fear fox changelings in a way they do not fear other changelings. Fox changelings have a reputation for ....well.... Luna would have Kitsune killed and people would let her. So Grafton is right to be afraid of plots swirling around Kitsune and himself. If Ben and Luna become King and Queen of Arcadia, or else Prince Regent and Queen of Arcadia, then Grafton and Kitsune are dead. Literally. Dead. That is a future fact. If Celebeau and Gloriana become the next King and Queen of Arcadia then Grafton and Kitsune will be declared Nitthing. Exile. Grafton is riding a wild horse. The odds are not in his favor. History is not in his favor. And he has no choice but to ride that wild horse. And plot. And scheme. And be ruthless. The future will not be pretty any way it plays out."

"Civil War?"

"Oh yes. Civil War. I see almost no way to avoid it."

"But Civil War while waging war against the Dark Lord ......"

"Is National Suicide."

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu sighed and looked out into her dark garden. In the darkness the banshee that was Kiyohime screeched out her doom.

"I pretend she is but a peacock screeching in the night. They sound much the same."

Horsham took her hand gently. "I suggest my lady that you hedge your bets. Dwarve term. Your extensive collections of arts and music, your books, your costumes, at least send some, most, West to The Havens for safe keeping. Or else East to the Old Citadel for Duraham the Deathless to keep. That is closer. Durham loves beauty as much as you do. Yes. That is the best course to follow. East. Let him keep your collections safe for the time being....."

"How delicate of you to put it that way Horsham. Defeat disguised as discretion." She smiled her haunting smile. "I will do as you suggest. My Shoki Demon Queller! May you quell the demons of history and hold the vindictive gods themselves at bay!"

"You know that there is a weapon that can kill a god?"

"No. There is not. More the pity. Father god of Fire and I have a feud going. He must win but I must exasperate him as long as possible, if only out of principle." Lady Wisteria Fujitsu smiled radiantly.

"The Devices that Ben and Luna tried to steal are weapons that can kill even gods."

"No...wait....perhaps.....how fearful! How dare they try then? Ben and Luna. No wonder the Dark Lord renewed war against Arcadia then! That would explain it."

"Ben and Luna lost the Device however. No one knows where it is."

"Good."

"It is good. The Devices were curst by the gods of the West and damned by Celestial Calamity. But if the Device is lost in Arcadia then Arcadia is doomed prematurely."

"Arcadia is already doomed much too maturely. Our doom is here and now. But yes, a lost Device will only escalate calamity. That explains all my foreboding and anxiety this last year. Since in fact Ben and Luna returned. Since in fact they stole the Device. Lost it. Lost it in Arcadia. It is in Arcadia. Yes. Yes. I am quite sure of that. It is somewhere in Arcadia even as we speak. And it has our name inscribed on it. It is our tombstone. It is our death. Arcadia's death. Death on death on death. Until the salty waters shallow it. And beyond. Death on death. Not your name. Your name is not on it. Only Arcadia's name is on it. All of Arcadia. Now. The Future. Forever." Lady Wisteria Fujitsu took Horsham's calloused hand and held it. "My death too." she kissed the calloused hand. "But not your death. I am glad for that at least."

"Tell me if my gut instincts and spying reconnaissance are correct my lady. The Devices are too dangerous to be welded and must be destroyed."

Wisteria smiled. "Yes. Your guts and your spying reconnaissance are correct. Death follows any Device freed from the Fiery Fissure. All my gut instincts and historical knowledge confirm it."

"Did the Devices create the Dark Lord?"

"Intriguing idea. You have become such a clever spy! The Dark Lord was the shadow of the Dark God, Father god of Fire. The shadow detached itself from Father and has become a separate identity. Linked still but linked only by a gossamer thread only. Why? Why?"

"The Dark Lord stole the Devices from Maestus the Damned in paradise in the Watery West. He gave them to his shadow to keep and guard in the Fiery Fissure. Ringold told me through a written letter by Chas that it was the Dark Lord and not the Dark God who killed Finn and triggered the Celestial Wars. Ringold told me Father god of Fire gave the Devices to his shadow to carry while he stole away the new invention of Iron."

"That is not what the Celestial Elves say happened."

"The Celestial Elves write a lot of history but history is not the truth but merely lies mutually agreed on and repeated until everyone forgets the truth and believes the lies. I think the Devices caused the Celestial Wars and I think the Devices caused the Dark Lord to be created. All we see played out these two thousand years are but the byproduct of the Presence of the Devices in Our World." Horsham held up Wisteria's hand and traced a line in the palm as if reading the future. "If a Device is lost in Arcadia then Arcadia is doomed. If we can find that Device however and destroy it in time then Arcadia might still delay it's death some few years. Perhaps even a century or more. Buying time as it were."

"Only buying time. Arcadia is doomed within our lifetimes."

"Your lifetime perhaps. I look immediately ahead. I would buy even one century more of life for Arcadia with my own life, even to my own ruin and destruction. If I can then will you continue to guard Arcadia's soul?"

"Yes. If you wish Horsham. But that is not how I wish to end my life. I would rather end it when you pass out of history. Do not ask me to live on without you."

"You have lived on when so many people have died around you. Why pin your existence to me?"

"Because I weary of outliving people. I do not wish to outlive you."

"What about Prince Grafton. Your 'Pearl of a Prince of Our Twilight'? He has always loved you. You choose him to be the doomed Prince of your novel."

"I misplaced my novel. It languishes unfinished for I have not the heart to write the tragic ending. I misplaced love. I misplaced my soul. But I can not bare the idea of not seeing you dance on the grass in my garden. When I first saw you dance that summer I decided that your life and death would cleave my life and usher in my death. I pray Horsham that you do not ask me to survive you."

"Will you seek Duraham's advice then?"

"Yes. I will do that."

Horsham kissed the palm of her hand and released it. "I am content. Let us watch in the night and greet the dawn together."

"Let it be so. It will please me right well. Will you dance for me in the morning before you leave?"

"I am too old to dance my lady. Forgive me."

Nevertheless Prince Grafton and Kitsune woke to find Horsham dancing in the garden of the Wisteria Pavilion one last time. They sat down beside Lady Wisteria Fujitsu and watched without speaking. It was the last time Horsham ever danced for any living person until he stood before the thrones of the gods in Plains of High Heaven.

Horsham waited until after breakfast when he suggested that he slay the Banshee that was the ghost of Kiyohime with the magical golden sword. "I do not want to harm Kiyohime any further but rather free her soul to pass out of history. Will welding this sword do good or more harm?"

"Slay her" Prince Grafton said flatly.

"Does it matter?" Lady Wisteria Fujitsu asked.

"Let us do it together" Kitsune suggested.

So that night the man and the wizard waited for the Banshee to appear in the moonlight and shadows of the garden. It was a sad vision indeed. Kiyohime's ghost appeared dressed in torn rags that were once rich court silks, her hair tangled, her face pale, her eyes huge as black holes. She clutched to her bosom a tunic and kilt of Prince Prince Grafton, in fact the white peacock feather tunic and kilt he first wore to rescue her from the cold hearted Ryu Clan who tore her from her mother's embraces only to lock her away as a bastard in the depths fo the Ryu Pavilion. Perhaps Kiyohime's damnation started right there when Ryu's death bed wishes for the Ryu Clan to acknowledge Lady Kiyohime and support Lady Aodaisho were betrayed. Violated taboos wreak havoc with deadly repercussions like a stone thrown into a pool to radiate out in spiraling circles. Kitsune held out his mountain ash whip and gestured for Horsham to pause. They he spoke to the ghost.

"My lady Kiyohime. I know you died violently. I grieve for your death and I grieve for your torment. I ask you now to allow me to exorcize the unforgiving passions of jealousy that chain you here to our torment and your torment as well. We wished you no harm then and even now. But rather we wish to free your soul to fly away to the Plains of High Heaven like a swan. Let Aine sing her mournful swan's song of death and let your soul fly away like a ghostly swan, sailing down the river to the sea and West to paradise."

Horsham crept behind the ghost, his sword held over his head. Kiyohime whimpered mournfully. "I only tried to be what Prince Grafton wished me to be. I remade myself to be what he wanted. The perfect lover. I prophesied what he wanted to hear, just as I dressed how he wanted me to dress, and talked how he wanted me to talk. I gave birth to children only because he wanted them so desperately. I told him I was the daughter of Aodaisho and Lord Ryu and know not myself. I put myself in his hands to mold and make into whatever he felt compelled to create. But he only wanted to mold me into the shadow of Wisteria Fujitsu and make love to me while pretending I was the one woman he could not make love to. I became a shadow of a woman. A mirror image of another. I lost myself. And all for nought for Prince Grafton never loved me. Oh that I had stayed with my mother in that lost and desolate summer pavilion and never discovered this place!"

"Let me free you Kiyohime" Kitsune whispered.

Suddenly the banshee cried out and spun around, staring in wide eyed horror at Horsham. "Do not slay me from behind Horsham! You always felt sorry for me! At least let me die a second time better than I died the first time!"

"My lady Kiyohime! I always pitied you as a kindred unhappy soul! Knell down my lady."

Kiyohime knelt down.

"Part your long hair so it does not cover your neck."

Kiyohime parted her long tangled hair to expose her neck to the sword.

"Now bend your head over and knell very still. I am a professional killer my lady. You will feel nothing I swear but a second of coldness! Trust me!"

"I trust you Horsham. I always have." Kiyohime bent her head over and held her arms out straight. She was perfectly still.

Horsham chopped off her head. The ghost vanished.

"Kiyohime died this time as bravely as any soldier on any battlefield!" Horsham shouted to the moonlight. "Kiyohime died clean and brave and true. I swear it. My the gods hear it on the Plains of High Heaven and open the Gate to Paradise and let her in! Let Lord Ryu stand there and embrace his daughter with pride. Kiyohime did not die a suicide but a valiant soldier on a battlefield as cruel as any battlefield a man sees. She died not a coward but merely a soldier waging war in a no win position. There is no dishonor in dying thus. She died bravely even when she knew she could not win."

Kitsune sang songs of death for the rest of the night to lead Kiyohime's soul to the Gate of Paradise. That day Horsham took her bones laid by law outside the Sacred Grove and laid them instead in the bones of Lord Ryu so that father and daughter could dwell in the Sacred Grove side by side. Ryu's family greatly objected. "Kiyohime would not have haunted us if we had buried her properly to begin" Horsham said, " and if we had treated her properly to begin with. Touch this flet and I will kill you here and now Ryuson. You are a cold hearted swine! Ryu died of a broken heart and you violated his will and his death bed wish by word and deed and sheer cold hearted callousness."

Ryuson did not believe Horsham and drew his bronze sword in the Sacred Grove. Horsham slew him with the golden sword for iron and steel was forbidden in the Sacred Grove and he was not carrying his steel long sword. Horsham swore only because of that. He did not swear when he also slew Ryuson's own son Supbia. So perished the entire clan of Ryu except for Ryu's proud and arrogant widow Supbella Lady Ryu. She wailed over the bodies of her son and grandson hacked to bloody pieces below the flet of Ryu who himself died heartbroken.

Celebeau was furious at the sacrilege and immediately ordered a Star Chamber Tribulation of the entire assembly of Court Wizards. It had been centuries since a Star Chamber had been called and the pomp and circumstances was grand though not in a way anyone wanted to see. The Royal Maw was used. All the Court Clans were present, the courtiers dressed in their most antiquated apparel of bulky over tunics, long kilts with longer trails, and oldest court jewels and magic charms and talismans. Aging men and women, without heirs, with young Mere Mortals bearing the flags and standards of their clan's pride that young heirs ought to have been carrying, sat mournfully on folding chairs in all their pomp. The sorrow on their faces showed that they were reliving the last Star Chamber: when Lord Taira sat indicted for the Defeat at Dannoura where the pride of Arcadia perished in a disastrous military defeat before the Fiery Fissure Fortress as early season snow flurries showered down like cherry petals. Lord Taira pulled every behind-the-scenes IOU he could to bully and beg his acquittal. Taira was found 'Neither Proved nor Disproved' and his honor was tattered forever. The Heike Clan perished in a midnight vendetta attack. And the Pride of the Court Clans withered away with the empty chairs of lost sons and daughters who never came back from Dannoura.

The Pride of the Court Clans fluttered now in the cool spring air, dying clans lead by dying old men and women, seated around the inner Courtyard of the Royal Court, surrounding a raised dais on which the Court Wizards now marched in sad pomp, climbing the steps and sitting in turn of seniority with the most junior wizard last: Kitsune. The Court Wizards wore their best over tunics and long kilts of black silk with their most powerful talismans around their necks, and their most ancient rings of power in their blood fingers, and their most potent staffs grasped tightly in their hands. The Royal School of Wizards looked all powerful indeed. But few believed them to be anything but quacks and charlatans. As much as the Pride of the Clans, the Pride of the Court Wizards was bankrupt and withered in the cool light of a spring day.

Then Rhingol the Great marched out with his consort Malian and his daughter Luna (with the unwanted Ben as usual) and they too sat down most grandly. They looked most impressive too in their pomp and circumstances. Rhingol had his tailor created a dazzling new outfit covered with stars -- mistaking the Star Chamber for a ritual performance instead of a State Trial. No one bothered to explain his mistake. No one took Rhingol seriously anymore. He had long ago become his own Court Fool. But the outlandish outfit looked especially glaring in the light of the seriousness of the Star Chamber Tribulation and people whispered in shock.

People whispered and then people secretly eyed the only real figure of power: Ben the Beorach. Ben glared as he sat by Luna, dressed in his usual shabby Beorach clothes, fully armed in defiance of protocol that only allowed jeweled and ornamental short swords. That said something very clearly. Everyone shuddered. No one challenged Ben. No one dared. No one said anything. No one dared.

Celebeau sat next to Rhingol as the official nephew (and therefore possible heir) and stared stonily, his blank eyes still more blank, his face unrevealing, wooden. Beside him Gloriana fluttered and preened, already bored, clearing thinking the whole thing silly, a pointless waste of time, and perfectly eager to just 'chop off his head'. That was the usual Celestial protocol. Celestial Elves did not believe in law or tradition but authority and absolute power. She played with her jewels. When Ben saw Horsham being lead out and made a gesture of a boot knife cutting the jugular, Gloriana laughed.

Horsham was marched up to dias and made to stand at the foot of authority ie the bottom of the stairs. He stood on a square of red silk laid ritually down on the gravel of the Royal Maw. To everyone's surprise Horsham actually dressed for the occasion. The tall, hulking man wore a beautiful black silk court over tunic and long kilt complete with trail over an equally beautiful brilliant scarlet under tunic. Poor dead Lady Aoi's needlework finally was rewarded with an open display. Horsham marched out into the Royal Maw with all the majesty of an aging court trained dancer, expertly maneuvering around the bulky silk, his bronze short sword and long knife slipped neatly through the fading red sash Poor Aoi created to protect him during duels and which he swore to wear ever after in memory of her kindness. The rest of the silk, having never been worn, was pristine. Over the black silk Horsham wore his military crest and Grey Owl Metal awarded to him by the late Rufus Royal. He also wore a sprig of newly blooming bluebell wild flowers in memory of his generalship in the War of the Bluebells.

To the fury of many he held a whip neatly and expertly under one arm in a gesture smoothly mimicking Elve officers. He did not wear a Mere Mortal bonnet with his proper, if wilted, Superior Man feather. He was clean and polished and neat and tidy. The bulky over tunic hid his beer belly. His broad chest and broader shoulders were beautifully displayed by the silk that tended to hang limply on the bonier bodies of Elves. Instead of cowering as expected for a Mere Mortal, Horsham stood crisply at attention, drawn up to his full six foot four inches and three quarters in a pose opera enthusiasts recognized as the 'Dagda Position'. Right now despite all the abuse and decay, Horsham looked pretty close to a demigod, howbeit a demigod in need of refurbishment.

The Court Wizards slowly chanted out the accusations and then one by one, called the witnesses. Lady Supbella Ryu testified first and she was murderous in her accusations. Kitsune provided comic relief when he had to scamper from his seat on the dias down to the Black Silk Square to testify as witness. Prince Grafton waited to be called from the Wisteria Clan Seat and then marched elegantly to the Witness Black Silk Square and blandly testified, brushing away a speck of dust from his beautiful military Full Dress outfit that he designed for his promotion to general. Horsham did not know what to expect. His relationship nowadays to Prince Grafton was testy at best.

Prince Grafton was brutally accurate about the surrounding details leading up to the death of Kiyohime, brutal about the conduct of the Ryu Clan, and brutal about his own conduct. "Why are we even here gentlemen? If an Elve had killed Ryuson and Supbia then this Star Chamber would not have been called. This is a waste of time. I should be riding off to the Front. We are losing the War or isn't anyone interested in that little fact? We are losing the War!" Prince Grafton almost shouted the last line but then calmed down and brushed a speck of dust off his gilded armor as the under mail clinked in the deadly quiet of the Royal Maw.

A family burying their plague stricken only son on the next clan flet down from the Ryu Flet also testified. It was the first and only time the Hollyhock Clan of the Elite 1000 had ever been invited across the Pally Mall into the Royal Maw. The Hollyhocks shook with awe and terror as they testified from pater to mater to sister to widow to aunt to uncle to brother-in-law. The brother-in-law, Anton Cypresson pointed to Ben the Beorach and said "We were burying one of our own because of that man! He brought the black plague into Arcadia when he returned from the Shadowlands! Everyone knows it! Damn you to the fiery fissure Ben! And damn Luna too! Damn you both to the fiery fissure! May both of you die horribly for Hollyhockson died horribly!" At that guards dragged Anton Cypresson away as the Royal Family squirmed and Rhingol looked confused and frightened.

"What is he talking about?"

"Hush my love. Never mind. Ignore him" Malian whispered back holding his hand and stroking his grey hair. But Rhingol was so frightened that he flustered about, shaking, confused, and incoherent. In front of everyone.

The Hollyhocks stumbled through the rest of their testimony but then Lady Hollyhock broke down into tears, collapsing on the gravel. As everyone clustered around her, the widow of Captain Hollyhock suddenly seized a small boot knife out of her black kilt and ran toward Ben the Beorach. She was easily caught. The guards started to drag her away screaming bloody fury. The Royal Family (except for Celebeau) was shaken except for Ben who spat at her. Rhingol thought she wanted to kill him and fled into the Palace, screaming. The rest of the Royal Family followed, Ben carrying Luna who fainted. Only Celebeau did not panic and run. Instead Celebeau pushed the frightened and aggressive guards away and helped the Hollyhocks carry the hysterical widow out of the Royal Maw to Anton Cypresson who was standing at the Royal Gate, still swearing and cursing. Anton Cypresson spat in Celebeau's face. Celebeau did nothing until guards politely dragged them home and then he woodenly marched back to his seat where he sat absolutely alone.

Finally the wizards called out the name of Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. She was an eye witness and the call was formula for Lady Wisteria Fujitsu never left her pavilion on the command of anyone: god or man or king. The Senior Wizard then gestured for his fellow wizards to prepare for the closing arguments. At that moment someone entered the black square to testify: Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. Everyone gasped in shock and amazement. It had literally been over a century since the reclusive Elve had made an appearance at any event. No one thought she would come to this Star Chamber at all.

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu blandly stood on the witness silk and graciously nodded to be questioned. She was beautifully dressed as always in silk artfully layered in shades of green to white to pink, her long fair hair trailing down passed her ankles to the silk trail of her long kilt on the gravel. The proud but aging wizards stumbled over themselves to thank her for coming and then hopelessly stumbled through all the questions they had not rehearsed asking, assuming of course that she would not attend to be questioned. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu was all patience. She even answered all the questions put to her, smiling her sad smile.

But after the wizards finished, bowing profusely to her, she stood imperial and pointed at the Court Facade wherein the Royal Family had retreated except for Celebeau. Celebeau stood up but stood mute, preparing for the real reason for his stepmother's surprise appearance. Standing on the red silk, Horsham trembled. Then he looked at Lord Naratun who quietly pulled out a coiled scroll in preparation for The Event. The real reason for the calling of the Star Camber. Not the bogus reason the Royal Family called it. The real reason that Lord Naratun and encouraged it and the real reason the aging Elite 100 attended it. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu smiled and then she spoke:

"My fellow Courtiers! I stand before you and acknowledge you all as the Custodians of the Court and the Guardians of Arcadia. The High Street may ignore you and Ben may ridicule you but I know you to be the true and honorable bulwark guarding Arcadia against calamity! Today I appeal to you as the shield wall of our nation to join me in repelling the enemy assailing Arcadia to it's mortal peril! I speak of Ben the Beorach in particular and the Royal Family in general for it's protection and shielding of an enemy of Arcadia at the cost of the Royal Family's own honor and glory and respectability.

I accuse Ben the Beorach of treason. Treason against Arcadia! The valiant Hollyhocks, good Land Gentry, did bravely tell the truth when they pointed the finger at Ben the Beorach for reckless adventuring and intrigues and machinations that has directly imperiled this nation. Ben the Beorach imperiled the Royal Princess by bringing her name into disrepute, kidnaping her into a reckless and shameful adventure that has besmirched Luna's honor and reputation and brought into question her sanity and loyalty to her nation that she chose to endanger because of her infatuation for this dangerous schemer!

Ben the Beorach has imperiled the Royal Family by muddying the Royal Succession which brings Arcadia to the brink of civil war which must occur, and will occur, because of Ben's seduction of a Royal Princess. The most important job any king has is to insure a peaceful succession! Rhingol has insured a succession firmly embedded, embedded, in civil war when he dies! Beyond a shadow of a doubt! Civil War!

Ben the Beorach imperiled the safety of Arcadia Minor with black and diverse plagues and contagions that has cost that valiant land fully half it's population in vile and horrible death. Ben the Beorach imperiled Arcadia Prime by violating the quarantine line, bring contagion into Arcadia Prime itself and filling our Sacred Grove with flets of horribly dying men and women and mass graves and burning biers of Mere Mortals and Dwarves until the sky itself is black and Arcadia stinks to the Plains of High Heaven with the stench of death!

Ben the Beorach imperiled The War by campaigning against Rufus Royal to force him to resign his commission resulting in colossal defeat of our nation in war, and in the forced signing of a despicable treaty with the Dark Lord that led to our voluntarily disbanding our army and gutting our military defenses, leaving us venerable to attack whenever the Dark Lord chose. Ben the Beorach imperiled the conduct of The War further by murdering innocent Dark Elve and Maleth Scouts badly needed by the army that resulted in the loss of the only allies we had in our lonely fight against the Dark Lord. Ben the Beorach imperiled the War by undermining our Field Commander Celebeau by diverse and base intrigues to cause the Imperial Army to incur defeats when we desperately needed victories, shaming my step-son most despicably and most deliberately! Ben the Beorach imperial The War by violating the Peace Treaty and triggering the War of the Bluebells by reckless misadventure that resulted in death and destruction for all but himself. All to reap the gaudy praise of pub bards ---- and force Rhingol to marry his only daughter to a bounder who squandered her dowery and endangered her life -- and endangered the life of all of Arcadia!

Ben the Beorach imperiled the very honor of Arcadia by defaming our wizards and our rites and our customs, defaming our history, defaming Genteel Society, defaming the Elite 100, defaming the entire Court in general and in particular. But most of all Ben the Beorach has defamed the Royal Family! Defamed and violated Honor. Custom. Taboo and Oath.

Ben the Beorach has defamed Arcadia. Ben the Beorach. Note the name! Beorach! And note who we are fighting as we speak! The Beorach who have chosen to ally themselves to the Dark Lord to wage war against Arcadia! Mercenaries! Mercenaries will fight for anyone, and no one, for in the end they only fight for their own profit and advancement! 'What do I get out of it?' Isn't that the sole motto of the Beorach? I suggest you ask yourselves what is Ben the Beorach getting out of his betrayal of Arcadia? What is his profit? His motive? His plot and his promotion? For a Beorach never does anything for free!

Therefore I accuse Ben the Beorach of being a traitor to Arcadia, and an enemy to Arcadia, and a threat to Arcadia! I accuse Ben the Beorach of being dangerous and reckless schemer and intriguer as well as a bounder and a sordid seducer of the basest kind. I accuse Ben the Beorach of plotting his advancement at the cost of Arcadia's well being and survival, thrusting his own short term goals of lust and advancement ahead of the survival of Arcadia itself! I accuse Ben the Beorach and I demand this Star Chamber indict him as a Enemy of the State! I demand his execution. Not just his exile for he was exiled before and like a bad copper only reappeared unwanted and in violation of all oaths and promises. Therefore I demand his execution for High Treason.

This is the Last Chance Arcadia has to shake off this black and infectious leech sucking our blood and spreading disease to our mortal death! Today you can save Arcadia! If you do not rise to the challenge, despite all of Ben's threats and blustering violence, then tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Arcadia will bleed and Arcadia will die! Until Arcadia is rendered Nitthing to History! You did not listen to my warnings before. I warn you to listen to my dire predictions now and act! Now! For tomorrow will be too late!"

With that signal Lord Naratun marched to the dias and presented the Court Wizards and Indictment of Treason of Ben the Beorach, reading it aloud for all to hear, his deep voice echoing throughout the Royal Maw. Ben the Beorach stormed out of the Palace and marched straight for Lady Wisteria who smiled gently at his furious approach. Horsham left the Red Silk Square and rushed over to protect his patron along with Prince Grafton. Celebeau ran toward Ben and hauled him back just in time before he could strike Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. Lord Naratun pointed at Ben as Celebeau dragged him away, screaming out his fury in blood shaking oaths of profanity that echoed off the walls of the Court. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu merely stroked a wisp of silk in response, smiling blandly at his fierce face contorted by hate and violence.

"Ben the Beorach threatens to kill us all!" Lord Naratun shouted. "Do you hear that! 'Kill us all!'. He will! Unless we act today in this Star Chamber! I demand we indict and this Enemy of the State now!" Lord Naratun held up the Indictment.

The Court Wizards squirmed. Then the Senior Wizard stood up. "I think we should first conclude the First Star Chamber before we hold a second Star Chamber" the old man replied nervously. He held up a ritual willow wand and declared the ruling:

"Because Ryuson first drew his sword in the Sacred Grove, Horsham cannot be prosecuted. The violence was started by the dead man and perpetrated by the Clan of Ryu in defiance of the Sacred Laws of the Sacred Grove. Horsham therefore was merely defending himself as is lawful, with a sword not made with iron or steel, which alone would have been a violation of the Laws of the Sacred Grove.

Ryuson drew his sword at the reburial of Lady Kiyohime on the Flet of the Clan of Ryu. But Ryu's recently probated will made Lady Kiyohime lawful and therefore legally able to be interred on the Flet of the Clan of Ryu.

Lady Kiyohime did commit suicide. That would make her burial in the Sacred Grove illegal -- unless she was insane at the time of suicide. What was the state of that poor lady's soul? Kiyohime's soul was violated first by the Clan of Ryu with their harsh conduct toward her. Then Kiyohime's soul was violated by her consort Prince Grafton with his desire for children and then his shock when Lady Kiyohime begot creatures betraying her snake changeling birth. Being a snake changeling she had no power to control the siring of children, destined to pay the price for her parent's dark and indiscreet passion. The creation of her womb were tragic but predictable, horrible, but tragic. Women even after the best of childbirths often are afflicted by the foggy dew of melancholia and Lady Kiyohime was known for her melancholia which did afflict her grievously. So her violent suicide and subsequent incorrect burial caused her ghost to haunt the world not out of malevolence but out of melancholia, a despair of the soul most terrible.

Horsham's exorcism and correct reburial was therefore proper Glamour intended to free the world of a violated geasa or taboo and to save a troubled soul from eternal pain. The motives were true and a soul in torment was saved.

Ryuson's actions were therefore doubly wrong. The Death of the Clan of Ryu therefore could only be laid at the feet of Supbella Lady Ryu for encouraging her son and grandson to betray Lord Ryu's dying wishes, deny his last will, and delay probate, all to hurt and disinherit Lady Kiyohime and therefore hurt Lord Ryu from his death flet. Lady Kiyohime was exonerated from being a banshee because of mental illness and emotional abuse."

The Senior Wizard broke the willow wand. Horsham was free. The black widow was furious. She screamed out vengeance and court wizards had to drag her away from the Star Chamber as other wizards held their hands over their ears in horror of her unseemly profanity that nearly rivaled Ben the Beorach. Then the wizards flustered, some angry, some fearful, some eager to seize the day, some dreading the burden. Lord Naratun again presented the Indictment of Ben the Beorach.

"I demand a Star Chamber to be held NOW! The Elite 100 may be dying in inches by Arcadia is dying by battlefield after battlefield all around us! Let us at least go to our deaths with honor by doing our duty as the Elite 100 and form a shield wall against the common enemy. Our failure to act today will by our shame tomorrow! Today we free one tortured soul but around us thousand of tortured souls cry out for justice!"

The Senior Wizard acted the Indictment. He was a silly old man, never good at Glamour, or even charlatan magic, but he understood the danger and the crisis. He took the Indictment and nodded even as many of his fellow wizards cringed. "I will do my duty as Senior Wizard or die in shame, as well I will if I do not do my duty today."

At that moment Celebeau marched out and read an announcement: "I officially order this Star Chamber to disband. Signed by King Rhingol the Great. Cosigned by Luna the Princess Royal and Ben the Beorach, the Son-in-law to Rhingol the Great. Written out by Lady Gloriana."

"Did you co-sign this obscene creation?" Lord Naratun asked.

Celebeau stared woodenly. "Did I say I signed? No. I did not say and I did not sign. The Elite 100 gave Rhingol the Great and Rhinga absolute power. Today Rhingol the Great has evoked his absolute power and ordered this Star Chamber to disburse and the Elite 100 to disband. Rhingol will consider any unauthorized gathering of the Elite 100 to be an act of rebellion against the Royal Family. The Royal Household Guards are at the Royal Gate, massing as we speak. If you do not disburse then the gates will open and the Royal Household Guards will charge into the Royal Maw and kill anyone who chooses to linger. I suggest you all disburse now." Celebeau woodenly marched out of the Royal Maw. The Elite 100 and the Court Wizards stood up fearfully and indecisively.

Horsham cried out "I pray you stand firm, a shield wall. Scatter now and you will only be attacked piecemeal and killed off one by one. Only united can you hope to win. And if you do not stand today with Lord Naratun and Lady Wisteria Fujitsu then Arcadia is doomed!"

But the gates opened and the Elite 100 was fearful. Many did not see how a massacre could help the situation. Martyrdom is hard at best and martyrdom that buys only victims of a massacre and no more is doubly expensive. If the Elite 100 died today in a royal massacre, would the Elite 1000 be inspired or merely shrug their collective shoulders. Did anyone really care anymore if the Elite 100 died slowly or quickly? The Elite 1000 had made it very clear they despised the Court. For too long the Court had been fatally isolated and cutoff from the High Street. Did they stand alone? If alone then why die for nought? Yet if they did not die today then why would the Elite 1000 rise up to join any Indictment of Ben the Beorach?. Lord Naratun implored his fellow courtiers. But one by one the aged clans slowly disbursed until the Royal Maw was empty of all but a few wizards, Lord Naratun, Lady Wisteria Fujitsu, Prince Grafton, and Horsham.

"Thank you for not speaking Grafton" Lady Wisteria said. "It would not have helped. Only hindered. But thank you for standing by me in the crisis. Ben will remember your loyalty to me with all the murderous zeal of a Dwarve accountant." Grafton nodded and kissed his step-mother's hand.

"I am still willing to die this day" Lord Naratun said. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu looked at Horsham who eyed the massed soldiers milling at the Royal Gate.

"It will be for nought. Go home. You tried and history will bless you. But today Arcadia's illness officially turned terminal. It is mortal. Fatal. The dying may be slow. But Arcadia is doomed to die now. And I fear the death will be ugly. Your deaths this day will not buy one more century. I don't know if anything now can buy one more century of life for Arcadia. Retreat and regroup and maybe fight another battle tomorrow."

"There will be no more tomorrows!" It was Kitsune left forlorn on the raised dias. He looked pale and gaunt suddenly. Then he suddenly twitched as if possessed. "The white foxes are dancing around the smoking bier! The Sacred Grove is full of white foxes dancing around the flets of the great brought low! Dancing on moldering bones! Dancing in the moonlight! Fox Fire in the moonlight! And beyond the Sacred Groves Arcadia lies as if a giant bier, all ash and cinder! Led by a blind corpse with black holes for eyes. Eyes as black as Malian's black and empty corpse-like eyes! And rats scurry over the corpses. And this Royal Maw will be royal no more, nor a maw, but instead a giant fortress grim and massive, and the flag that waves will be that of the Dark Lord. And only white foxes will dance in the ruins of Arcadia's greatness. White Foxes! White Foxes!" The few remaining wizards desperately tried to pin the demented wizard down to no avail.

Kitsune only became more hysterical. "White foxes! White foxes! And Arcadia will burn down twice! Twice! And then no more! Rings and schemes and evil men! Rings! Rings! And then the White Foxes will dance with the Dark Lord as he welds his Ring of Power. Dance and laugh. For only the White Foxes know the joke! The Joke! It is on the Dark Lord! For the Ring of Power is not a Ring of Power at all but a trap to trap a fox! Ha! Ha! Ha! Laugh! Laugh! It is the most terrible trick to play on the most terrible of beings! Ha! Ha! Ha! From gold to dross. From beauty to utter corruption. Such a ghastly transmutation from the abstract to the divine to the demigod to the living corpse! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

Everyone shuddered in horror. White Foxes were considered demons of ill luck, cunning malice, and transmutation and transformation. Actors and opera singers and transsexuals might offer sacrifice to foxes as household gods but no one else had the effrontery to worship the notorious fox gods. Kitsune's ravings were horrible sacrilege. Prince Grafton blanched and ran up the dias, a clear violation of protocol, and grabbed his hysterical brother in his arms and rocked him back and forth as Kitsune raved and foamed at the mouth, howling and jabbering incoherently to everyone's shock. Horsham ran up the stairs to the dias too and he and Prince Grafton and Lady Wisteria Fujitsu carried Kitsune down the stairs of the dias and out of the Royal Maw as everyone stared in utter horror and embarrassment. It was the final coup de grace to the Coup De Grace.

Lord Naratun wept and tore his clan standard in half. His Mere Mortal adopted son helped his weeping father out of the Royal Maw. "It is over. Forgive me. History will not. Oh my adopted son! What am I giving you? Nought but ash and cinder!"

"I will embrace it then Father for I love you as my Father" Cyrus Naratun replied, kissing the clan flag. "I embrace the destiny of Naratun even if it is death. It was. He did.

Later back at Wisteria Pavilion Kitsune fainted. He woke after hearing Lady Wisteria Fujitsu playing her harp, calm, rational, bemused at everyone staring at him. "Kit, you were possessed by a white fox demon during the Star Chamber" Prince Grafton said softly, stroking his twin brother's tangled hair. Kitsune blanched.

"I don't remember anything after Lady Ryu started to testify. Was it bad? Did I embarrass myself? Was Luna there?"

"She was gone by the time you really went crazy. Possessed. But everyone else saw it. Celebeau. Everyone. The Court Wizards have revoked your licence to practice wizardry. Instead of Horsham being declared in sacrilege, you have. Behind closed doors at least. Not during the Star Chamber Tribulation. That is in our favor at least. Possessed. That is just like temporary insanity right? Kiyohime was absolved because she was mentally ill when she killed herself and that caused her to become a banshee so you have to be absolved too right? Because you were possessed?"

Kitsune blanched and wept, curling up into a ball and hiding his face from everyone.

"What happened Kitsune? What is happening?" Horsham whispered. "Is it because of that mask incident way back when? The Unknown Goddess who possessed you when you put on the Mask of the Unknown Goddess? What is happening? We won't tell anyone. I know about the tail...."

Kitsune wept as he hide his face. Prince Grafton stared perplexed. "Tail?"

"I am.....slowly....since the I was possessed by the Unknown Goddess, I am....slowly....losing my humanity. I am reverting to a ...." Kitsune burst into tears.

Prince Grafton hugged his brother. "A fox changeling? That isn't that bad? We all sort of suspected you were a fox changeling."

"No Grafton. A fox changeling stays coherent regardless of physical form: fox, human, male or female. That is not what is happening to me. I am losing my humanity and I am becoming a brute animal. A brute fox. A wild and savage and inhuman fox. I am becoming an animal. Just a brute animal...."

Prince Grafton cried out and held his brother in his arms. "I will always love you Kit! I will kill Luna and Ben if they try to make a move against you! I swear!"

"Don't swear to any such reckless oath Grafton! You can't save me! No one can save me! I have already tried every spell I know. I consulted Mother god of the Waters when I was West in The Havens. It is hopeless. No one can stop it. Not god or man. The worse thing is I ...as I ....further along....I might even hurt someone. Attack.....bite..... claw...... as I ......I must know the point of no return and walk a self imposed Road of Tengu Exile, declare myself Nitthing before I really become a real nothing man. Not a man. A wild animal."

The inhabitants of Wisteria Pavilion sat for the rest of the remains of the day watching the light drain away and darkness encircle the beautiful pavilion with horror that no longer could be kept out.

Celebeau was a man who still respected taboos even if he believe the gods were all 'mad dogs'. He hoped the Star Chamber Tribulation would exorcize violated taboos and calm the wild and desperate soul of the time. The public drunkenness. The public recklessness. The public despair. But no obsolete ritual could calm the soul of the times. People knew what they knew. National Calamity was just over the horizon and people felt only panic, anger, fear, and desperation. Humanity rarely displays it's best qualities during such times of crisis. The indictment of Horsham did nothing. The exoneration of Horsham did nothing. The appalling display of both Rhingol and Kitsune inspired only more fear. Especially Rhingol. Kitsune was always a fey and eccentric creature, a minor wizard, a powerless Elve. But Rhingol's irrational behavior, his outlandish costume, his bumbling and muttering, and then his irrational fear and raving, his paranoia and threats of shocking violence, both during the Star Chamber and later behind closed doors afterwards, all sent shock waves through the Court and across the Pally Mall to the High Street and the Elite 1000 and the Landed Gentry who saw their king behaving like a fool and then a madman and then a tyrant. Kitsune was not a creature in power. Rhingol was the absolute monarch of Arcadia -- and an absolute monarch going mad and without official heirs and too many disputed heirs. An absolute monarch suddenly displaying both his madness and his absolute power for all to see. And nothing could possibly be worse than a madman with absolute power. Fear spread across the Pally Mall and down the length of the High Street. Royal Guards were stared at in horror and fear. Would they have attacked the Elite 100 really? At the command of a madman and a Beorach thug? Attacked ancient nobles? Was Rhingol beyond all reason then? Was Ben beyond all reproach?

More frightening still to Celebeau was the rage of the Hollyhocks. The Elite 100. Celebeau was more than aware of their discontent but he also respected Lord Naratun and his stepmother Lady Wisteria Fujitsu and knew they sincerely believed Arcadia was in danger. Arcadia was in danger. Celebeau could not deny it. Nor honestly could Celebeau deny the truth of the Indictment. That was why he could not sign off on the hasty and dangerous Royal Order. Threatening Courtiers! It should have been beyond the pale. It turned a Star Chamber into a public crisis. But even worse to Celebeau was the Hollyhocks. They had been such respectable gentry, of an old country family, discrete, genteel, apolitical. They should had quivered in awe toward the Royal Family and the sight of the Star Chamber. Instead they displayed anger, fear, outrage, and despair in the face of the pomp of circumstances, toward the Royal Family, and especially toward Ben. More than anyone else the Hollyhocks terrified Celebeau for they pulled the nursing plaster off the open and festering wound of the body politick and they should have been the very last people willing to do so. No. Celebeau was not happy.

Celebeau tried to calm everyone down. He made the rounds of the Royal Pavilions pleading and reassuring. He pleaded for over two hours with Lord Naratun who sat pale and gaunt, his hands so tightly clinched his knuckles were white. To no avail. "Your Royal Family has declared me an enemy of the State! Me! All for the hideous crime of challenging Ben the Beorach! Absolute power! We did not give Rhingol card blanche when we elected him king! I was there! I am not senile yet and I remember! Rhingol and Rhinga were suppose to be joint regents and both had to sign off on any degree, and then only after seeking out the Full Advice and Consent of the Elite 100! Now Rhingol threatens the Elite 100 with death if we question or defy his arbitrary and demented whims? And when did Ben the Beorach become our master? When did Ben the Beorach become your master Celebeau?"

What could Celebeau say? "I am trying to stop civil war."

"This is not the way to stop civil war! This is the way to insure civil war! If you damn lawful dissent then you will only have violent rebellion left as your only option! Now Ben the Beorach will pick us off one by one. The shield wall down that is how battle ends! Until you are last. The last! And then do you think Ben the Beorach will hesitate before attacking you? He will defy and threaten you without hesitation. But by that time Arcadia will be in ruins and only your conscience will be left to point the finger at your soul and say 'See! See! Lord Naratun was right!' I don't envy your end Celebeau! The end game is you. I know Ben will have my head before the year is out! At least I won't have to live long enough to see the end game: the Fall of Arcadia!"

"No. Rhingol has fits of madness when he is afraid but then he re-discovers his wits and regrets the madness. He will never really hurt anyone. Rhingol knows you and Lady Wisteria Fujitsu are the oldest and truest Courtiers of the Elite 100. He was just frightened. He really would not have ordered the Royal Guards to kill you. Really."

"I am sorry Celebeau but you are wrong. Rhingol would have ordered his Royal Guards to kill me, Lady Wisteria, everyone. And I will be ordered to commit suicide, or murdered, or else my pavilion will be set afire by that thug Ben. Before the year is out! But I will not go quietly! You have made a loyal Courtier into a Royal Enemy! And believe me too when I say Ben the Beorach will burn down Wisteria Pavilion! Beyond the shadow of a doubt!"

Celebeau blanched but Celebeau also knew Lord Naratun was right. He had seen Rhingol raving, absolutely out of his mind, a fearful and horrifying sight. And Celebeau had seen Malian murderous too, the black holes that were here eyes blazing murder because Rhingol had been 'threatened' by a 'mob'. And Celebeau had seen Luna, dear sweet Luna, furious because Ben was threatened by an Indictment of Treason, her love debased, her motives questioned, her lover questioned, the reason for her life questioned. And Celebeau had seen Gloriana laughing, the laughter like glass breaking, as she wrote the hasty and ill-conceived order to attack the Elite 100. And most of all Celebeau had seen Ben raving and roaring bloody murder. His face livid. Unrecognizable. And Celebeau honestly had to confess, if only to his soul, that he stared in horror at the people he once thought he knew and he saw not kind family but a bunch of would-be murderers. Tyrants. Bullies. Thugs. And Celebeau was horrified.

That night Celebeau haunted Wisteria Pavilion like a ghost, fearing, dreading, anticipating. And it happened. Fire erupted along the dark side of the pavilion where it connected to the vacant and long abandoned Rose Pavilion. Celebeau could not say he saw Ben personally pouring out the whale oil but he smelled the whale oil in the Rose Pavilion as he rushed forward, yelling 'Fire!', rushing to pour buckets of water onto the fiery inferno, joined almost immediately by Horsham who was also apparently standing guard in anticipation of fire. Lady Wisteria never allowed whale oil out of fear and why would the fire start in an empty pavilion of the long dead Rose Clan? Fortunately Lady Wisteria Fujitsu had extra water buckets set up, ready, as if anticipating fire. And Horsham, a Dwarve lover, had set up a new Dwarve 'water pump' that sucked water out of the river that abutted Wisteria Pavilion and spewed water out through a hose. The fire was quickly put out. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu acted bland. She invited everyone to an early morning breakfast and quietly laughed the whole experience off as merely 'tiresome'. But it was anything but 'tiresome'. It was an murder attempt and everyone knew it. Horsham spend the whole breakfast staring red faced at Celebeau, the famous blue eyes blazing bloody murder.

After that Celebeau had private soldiers guard his stepmother's pavilion and personally stayed there on rotating nights, erratic but constant, so that future threats of arson had to factor in possibly murdering Celebeau as well as Lady Wisteria Fujitsu and Prince Kitsune and her loyal staff. And Celebeau took to wearing purple ribbons on his sleeve to publically reaffirm his clan loyalty to the woman he was raised to call 'stepmother'. And Celebeau made sure everyone knew he still considered Lady Wisteria Fujitsu both 'stepmother' and in all but biology 'mother'. There were no more fires. But Celebeau knew it was not really because he was beloved, but rather because of the public outcry on the High Street. Attacking Lady Wisteria Fujitsu so nakedly proven to be too outrageous -- at the present moment in time only. After that Celebeau retreated even further into his soul, his eyes still more steely, his soul still more hidden, his conduct still more like a wary spy surrounded by enemies that once were his own family and friends. And Celebeau lost whatever innocence he had left about humanity's humanity.

"A violated taboo created that man and that man is wreaking havoc on all of Arcadia since! Horsham will bring Arcadia down!" Celebeau would say aloud but what he told his soul in the dead of night was a secret he revealed to no one. But across the Pally Mall and all along the High Street the general consensus was that it was Ben the Beorach who was bringing Arcadia down. Ben the Beorach -- and Rhingol the Great and Malian and Luna and Gloriana. Yes. And even Celebeau.

Horsham had his wounded side stitched up again. He had stood through the whole Star Chamber Tribulation stiff with bandages from the wound Kappa the River Ogre had given him. It was not healing well and though shallow, it was nearly a foot long. He refused opium of course and relied on maggots but the wound festered. While putting out the fire at Wisteria Pavilion the wound had ripped open, expanding the wound even more. Nevertheless, over the military doctor's objections Horsham rode east through the Old Citadel to the Pale of the Central Mountains and the secret fissure that once the dragon king White Orochi guarded so fiercely. The deep subterranean waters still roared fiercely. Horsham stood on the precipice and watched as the mass of water roared before him, as if seeing all the springs of waters of Our World parade pass him. But their lord was dead and his bones and scaly white skin had withered, then petrified into stone. Horsham spent the next week spelunking to no avail. He could not find any fissure that led deeper downward, nor any stony Gate of the Gods into any Sacred Maw. Disgusted he sat on Orochi's petrified head and curst the gods as he held his wounded side. Then the head moved. Horsham fell to the ground as the head opened it's eyes and hissed. The red whiskers quivered over Horsham's face.

"Ask me for what you desire and I will grant it. Do you wish to walk through the Gate of the Gods and talk face to face with the Sidh gods of the Seelie Court? Or the Slaugh gods of the Unforgiving Dead? I will grant you your wish!"

"Greetings Red Bishamon! Forgive me is I do not ask for a gift from you. After meeting Magnus Maggotous returned to life I fear your gifts."

"You murdered a worshiper of mine. A habetrot witch many a year ago."

"She should not have tempted me. You tempt me now to my damnation. I am not yet quite so desperate as to receive gifts from you. Your gifts come too true and recoil on the wisher. 'Beware' people say of you, 'of gifts of Red Bishamnon er they come true!'"

"Did you not say you would damn yourself to buy one century more of life for Arcadia? I would give you your wish. One more century of life for Arcadia. But ask me and it will come true."

"Nay. I fear you too much. No matter how sincere the motive for the wish, the wish, once granted by you, turns to dross as much as an oath violated transmute into a transmutation curse. With cunning spite and devious guile you twist the best motives into poison. I do not ask of you. I make no wishes of you. I decline your offers. Let us be clear. I refuse your help."

"Even to save Arcadia that totters precariously on the precipice?" the huge red worm hissed.

"Yes."

"Let it be so then. May you see Arcadia plunge into national calamity before your eyes."

The Dragon King Red Bishamon turned to slither slowly away, his cold scaly red flesh oozing across the petrified bones of White Orochi who had predicted death and doom for Horsham and for Arcadia. White Orochi only told the truth. Red Bishamon turned truth into lies and rendered hopes and desires into nightmares. Horsham quietly pulled out a golden sword and slew the evil worm by cutting off it's head. He threw the head in the thundering waters and waited beside the carcass. But apparently Red Bishamon possessed no eight additional heads. He laid quite dead. "May all your habetrots die too!" But alas Red Bishamon had many worshipers to keep alive his evil in the world.

Horsham exited the darkness with all speed and whistled for Blackie who had frolicking in the spring covered fields newly green with budding grass and springtime flowers. Man and horse crossed the newly opened Ice Pass back into Our World. Then they rode down the familiar roads toward Arcadia. "I hoped to meet some god face to face and ask their help. Are they not afraid of the Devices too and should they not want to see them safely destroyed or locked away forever? Why are not the gods out searching for the lost Device? Lost in Arcadia? Lost but waiting to be found by some dangerously eager hand willing to use it? Lost but not lost for the dire and malefic influence that the Device has on Arcadia even from a distance. A near distance. . The Device seeps evil like a festering wound, poisoned, poisonous, oozing evil. Arcadia is being poisoned from within, by the evil Device lost in the heart of Arcadia, waiting to be found, and infecting all with it's evil. Witness the Star Chamber! The sickly condition of the body public made all to public for all to see! Why are the gods allowing this to happen? Where are the gods? What use are gods if this is happening. It makes one want to use the Device on the gods....."

"Use on which god? Or used on all the Gods?"

Horsham started. Before him stood a pale woman in tattered silk, like the molting skin of a snake. It was Aodaisho, the snake changeling daughter of White Orochi and the mother of poor doomed Lady Kiyohime.

"You did evil my lady to me when I did only good to you. You played on my pity with your sad tale of abandonment and through me, with evil Glamour, you laid with your dead lover Lord Ryu to conceive an evil child of revenge. I did you no evil. You did me much evil. That child will slay me or Prince Grafton or both and betray Arcadia."

"My son has abandoned me. Everyone has abandoned me. I am outcast. From my father Orochi whose ghost berates me. From my dead lover Ryu whose ghost berates me. From my poor dead daughter whose ghost berates me. From all. I am a pariah. All damn me. I wander the roads and none give me aid, nor offer a kind word."

"You earned your Nitthing Exile my lady with your unforgiving evil. Lord Ryu fell in love with a beautiful woman and found himself in the arms of a changeling. He was compelled by loyalty to stand by you and painted over your evil nature with sentimental delusions. But you have conceived the seeds of damnation for the nation he loved. Why are you surprised his ghost damns you now? And did you well by Kiyohime? Your daughter by Ryu? You gave her your gift of prophecy, but false prophecy, prophecy inverted, and also grandchildren hideously conceived and hideously born, born evil, born only to do evil. What hope did that poor woman have for happiness then? She threw herself off Moonlight Bridge and snakes writhed in her corpse and her soul wailed, a banshee, wailing damnation and disaster night after night until Kitsune and I finally freed her soul to fly out of history. She lays in the arms of Ryu. But you put her there as much as anyone. Could not you have left her alone to snatch what love and happiness she could? We all tried. I tried. Even Prince Grafton tried. But you tainted the marriage bed with your evil. And I thought you but a poor forlorn woman and pitied you!"

Aodaisho whimpered. "It is not my fault I am what I am. A changeling. I am what I am. We are all compelled to be what we are born to be."

"No one compelled you to kill your own father, or betray your dead lover, or your daughter, or me. No one did you evil before you did evil. You were, as White Orochi said, born evil. Your children were born evil. Only evil comes from you. I pitied Lady Kiyohime for she was your victim more than she was evil herself. I pitied Lord Ryu for he mistook you for a loving woman and loved you truly."

"So sentimental for a man who denies love and denies friendship!" she hissed. "You scorn it for yourself but you lavish it on others." The spectral woman laughed, her clothes molting rags, her hair becoming snakes, he eyes reptilian. Horsham gasped in horror to see the soul of Aodaisho revealed at last.

"And Lord Ryu loved you!" Horsham exclaimed with horror.

Aodaisho wilted then, bowing her head. The snakes disappeared. The reptilian eyes disappeared. She again appeared to be a vulnerable and abandoned concubine of an aging and sentimental Elve weary of Court, trapped in a loveless marriage, looking for love in the arms of a sympathetic soul. "I loved Lord Ryu! He was the only creature in all this world who loved me!" Aodaisho wept bitter tears. "I loved him! I loved him! And his ghost denies me now! And I wish to die but cannot die for I cannot face his angry ghost now! Kiyohime's ghost haunted the Wisteria Pavilion and Lord Ryu heard her shrieking wails from his flet in the Sacred Grove and berates my soul for his daughter's torment. Even now. Even now. Though he holds his daughter with gentle love that once he held me.

And he denies our son conceived by me through you. He denies Saburo Agat. My beautiful snake son I sacrificed to Queen Badbh, the goddess of War and Death to raise and teach to be a warrior. And Saburo Agat denies me. He acknowledges only Badbh and wages war and denies me, his real mother. And he denies Ryu his real father and instead embraces his adopted father Sojobo, the Tengu Harbinger of War in whose hands I gave him when a wee babe. And I am alone. And I weary. And I cannot die er I face my dead love's wrath. And my dead father's wrath. And my dead daughter's wraith." Aodaisho wilted, hiding her face in her tattered silk sleeves, grey as snake skin, tattered and torn.

"When I die I will damn you too!" Horsham turned Blackie about to ride around her. Then Aodaisho turned into a white snake and slithered across the road toward a hill that loomed in the near horizon. Horsham paused and then followed behind. The snake slithered across the wild grass of the desolate field toward the mound and then slithered around it toward a desolate monolith of massive stones fallen precariously onto each other. Once the monolith stood upright, marking the ancient spot where once some ancient battle once waged and where once ancient warriors fell and were buried. Now the massive stones laid tumbled amidst weeds and briers forlorn and forgotten. The white snake paused and then slithered through the fallen stone monolith revealing a dark hole hidden by the brambles and thorns and centuries of dead leaves.

Horsham dismounted and patted Blackie. "I will explore this ancient burial mount for I know it not. This is not a mound erected to remember any recent battle nor known war. From the decay it must surely predate even the Celestial Wars. Yet thought I know every battle and every war waged by the Twilight Elves in Our World I know not this ancient place. Yet it may be a trap laid by a vindictive changeling plotting yet more evil. Yet perhaps it may be a gesture of regret toward me. I will carry a lantern and also the Golden Sword of the Dragon's Tail that can wound or kill supernatural creatures. Guard my back Blackie! The world has gone bad and it was never good to begin with! Poor Blackie! My last and only friend!" He patted the aging black horse and then unwrapped the sword and squirmed his way through the fallen jumble of stones into the ancient burial mound, swearing profanely for he had gain weight and the jumble of stones was rude enough to remind him of that vulgar fact.

Inside the shaft Horsham struck a light with flint off the steel bottom of the lantern and then lit it. The flickering flame illuminated a shaft cut straight and deep, down into the earth. Horsham followed it quietly, the lantern in one hand, his golden sword in the other hand. The air grew fetid, dusty with age. Niches in the shaft were carved out but bore no bones nor relics to hint of past worship or reward at the end of the tunnel besides dust and asphyxiation. Horsham was about to turn back when he smelled damp but fresher air ahead. So he continued forward until he reached the shadowy end to the shaft.

Horsham held up his lantern. The shaft ended in an elaborate wooden door beautifully carved and gilded. But when he touched it the wood crumpled into dust. He walked through unimpeded into a dim, cool cavern immense in height and circular, carved out of solid onyx. Niches along the circular wall held stone beds on which rested dust and ashes, bits of moldering splendor, broken bits of gold, crumbling bronze, specks of mithril. In the darkness, Horsham passed his lantern across each stone flet. Carved in ancient Twilight were sadly familiar names: Angus Mac Org, Queen Oohagh, Battle Maiden Maeve, the infamous Badbh, Prince Arawn, Prince Fianna and his twin sister Princess Finnalana, and finally Dagda, the Father of the Sidh. Only ash and dust remained.

Horsham sighed. "So the Twilight worship what? Ghosts? The Fallen Dead? Echos in Time? Relics of History? More alas like the debris of history. Is this all that remains of the Seelie Court that was supposed to have vanished the monestrous Firbolgs and waged war with the UnSeelie Court of the Slaugh Host of the Unforgiving Dead? Is this all there is? Was this all there ever was? Who won? Does it even matter now?"

Horsham knelt down by the dust and ash of Dagda and bowed his head. "I will always sing laments in honor of you Dagda. But now I know there are no more ancient gods in our world. Only lessor gods. The gods of the West that no one trusts but the Celestial Elves. Mother god of the Waters whom I cannot worship for her love is too naive and her peace treaties all lie in tatters. Father god of Fire has no worshipers but the Dark Lord. The Savage Elves worship Nature in trees and stones and rivers. I cannot worship such things. So I am left with what? An empty tomb. I cannot worship an empty tomb. I will sings songs of your tragedy Dagda. But you died a very long time ago.

The Sluagh won. The Slaugh of the Unforgiving Dead. Father god of Fire won. Death won. Nothing is immoral anymore. Not God or Elve or Dwarve or Mere Mortal. We are all merely mortal. Some are short-lived, some are long-lived, but all are doomed to die. Like Nature where even the mountains are born and then die in a million years and a moth in 24 hours. It is the same destiny. Death. Father god of Fire's gift: Death reigns supreme. The Gods and the Elves should have surrendered their fight against Father god of Fire. Surrendered and gone to deathless paradise in the Watery West and stayed there. The Gods of the West are wise to hide in paradise and cowered there for they will die if they come back to Our World. The Real World. Father's World. Whether or not he was right or wrong to create Death, the Dark God of Death has won the Celestial Wars.

Death rules now. Death. Time. Change. And History rules now. And History is but the roll call of those defeated by Death and Time and Change. And now, right now, The Death of Arcadia is happening right before my eyes. I should surrender too. Give up. Give in. Surrender to Father's gifts of Time, Change, and Death. Yet I find it as hard to surrender to defeat as you gods did against the Slaugh and the Elves did against the Shadow of Father god of Fire: the Dark Lord of the Dark God. So should I preach surrender to you now of my defeat my fellow comrades? When I wage futile war against Death too?"

Horsham stood up and held his lantern high. The roof was so high as to disappear in the darkness. Over the portal into the tomb was carved one word: Oanamochi. In graffiti was scratched the words: 'Avalon Where the Dead Wait To Raise Anew'. Horsham was not impressed. "So much for the Sacred Maw of the Sidh! Defeat gilded over by self delusion of life after death! Father has won! You have lost! When Arcadia dies there will be no resurrection! There is no resurrection for God or Elve or Man. The Dwarves are at least honest about the Triumph of Death. They at least just pin their consolation on the immorality of Art and Clan Memory. They lie about that even. I have read history. History is all lies too. Family Clans perish into extinction. And Art is fragile and breakable, mere debris of history. When I die I will not be resurrected into any paradise, nor can I hope to see any future rebirth, nor can I hope for even the crumbs of memory. No bard sings my praises and no one remembers me at all. When I die I will vanish out of history and off the face of Our World."

Horsham turned away to leave when he heard an slithering sound across the stone floor. He looked toward the sound and beheld a giant black dragon oozing across the floor toward him. The dragon was black as the onyx it slithered across, with black quivering whiskers and black gleaming eyes.

"Black Saruta Hiko? The Dragon King who guards the Gods? Are you still alive? And guiding this dust? For that is all there is."

The worm hissed, his whiskers quivering, his bushy eyebrows quivering, his forked tongue quivering.

"Why does the murderer of my kin White Orochi come here?"

"I was but the hand of Aodaisho who did slay her father by giving to me the curse of death. White Orochi gave me no choice when he curst Arcadia with a self fulfilling prophecy of doom. A prophecy coming true by the way. White Orochi knew me to be his murderer and yet asked for me to come. I did not seek out his death. But I will kill even the gods to save Arcadia if need be. I am as profane a man as you suspect I am. For the record I also killed Red Bishamon too."

"Profane indeed Horsham of Arcadia. Why then did you come here to this sacred place?"

"Aodaisho led me here. I have news. One of the Devices is lost in Arcadia. The Devices can kill even the very gods themselves. But alas the gods are already dead so I come too late."

"The Devices will kill the remaining gods. That is their intent when Maestus created them. And they will so be used. Two. Just two. The others will be lost to Time and History until the end of the World whey they will usher in the End of the World. I will bear witness to the End of the World."

"When?"

"Beyond your reckoning Mere Mortal. Beyond the reckoning of all Mere Mortals!"

"Then I will not fear them. I will fear only two. One to be precise. The Device lost in Arcadia."

"You look too intently Horsham of Arcadia on the one and not see the horror of the other. But then that is to be expected. The Devices mirror the Five Senses. The perfumed Pearl is before you. But your bad eyes will lose you're the more deadly Device of Sight."

"Tell me how to retrieve them and destroy them Black Saruta Hiko."

"They cannot be destroyed. They can only be lost."

"Tell me how to lose them then!"

"Ask Father god of Fire."

"The Dark God and I are not on speaking terms. I am after all battling his Shadow the Dark Lord."

"You will be."

"I would rather not. I dislike gods. They treat humanity as cavalierly as we treat sparrows."

"Don't treat sparrows so cavalierly then Horsham of Arcadia."

"Why do you guard this useless place?"

"Why do you think this place is useless?"

"Look around you! It is!"

Black Saruta Hiko laughed. "Then do you plan to slay me too with your golden sword?" And my kin Blue Palele and rid Our World of all gods?"

"No. I only want to save Arcadia."

"Red Bishamon would have granted you your wish. Red Bishamon always was eager to grant people their deepest wishes and desires. White Orochi always was eager to grant people their yearning to know the future in prophecy. Blue Palele yearns only to bestow on the world life giving water. You see the evil or the good. We are what we are."

"What do you feel compelled to do Black Saruta Hiko?"

"Guard the Sacred Maw eternally. Unlike you Horsham of Arcadia, I worship the Sacred and Divine."

"I am profane. I worship nothing. But I do not wage senseless war. Red Bishamon was evil and deserved to die. But I regret killing White Orochi. I was wrong. He but prophesied doom. He did not wish it into being or conspired for or against it. His death has not delayed the doom. I was wrong to slay him. I will certainly not slay Blue Palele. Nor do I wish to slay you Black Saruta Hiko. Guard your dust. Protect your empty Maw. Worship the Dead. We are not enemies. Let me go and I will let you live."

"The golden sword has but nine lives to take, nine heads for nine heads. You have already slain five. You can but slay four more. Beware who you slay with it." The worm slowly slithered away leaving Horsham alone in an empty tomb. He crossed over the threshold. Then he looked behind. The dust of the door suddenly reassembled back into a beautiful door. Shut. Locked. Baring the way. Horsham shrugged and traced his way back to the living world oblivious to niches filled with the bodies of sleeping heros and kings while Black Saruta Hiko slithered around the stone flets on which beautiful gods and goddesses slept in all their glory, waiting to arise anew. Kitsune would have seen the wonder of it all. The Glamour. The Sacred Magic. But Horsham was not Kitsune. Each is born to be what they were born to be. Kitsune was born with the Second Sight to see the magic ordinary people are blind to. Horsham was born with the laser focused sight of the ruthless soldier. He used any weapon at his disposal. But he did not believe in Glamour and therefore could not see it even when it was right before his eyes.

Horsham crawled out from under the tumble of stones and dusted himself off. But he suddenly felt woozy. Sleepy. And indeed he had not slept for three days. Horsham was born to be what he was: an obsessive compulsive risk taker, a self destructive addict, a paranoid and insecure man eaten through by fear and anger and passion twisted by circumstances and rape into deep and churning channels. He no longer even looked the demigod. No one ever mistook him for an epic hero even in his prime. And now Horsham was riding a downward spiral and he knew it.

"Damn it but my legs feel like buckling!" He dropped down by the tumble stones of the fallen monolith and felt his still wounded side. His hand came away covered with blood. "I have ripped the stitches of my wound when I crawled underground. Damn the gods! And Damn Aodaisho! She probably thought Black Saruta Hiko would kill me. Damn snake changeling! Conspiring more evil and I fell for it yet again!" Horsham pulled a wilted tunic out of his saddle bags and shoved it up under the military issued bandage to staunch the blood. Then he wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and rolled into a ball in the grass as Blackie grazed blandly. "Graze on Blackie! I must sleep a little. I feel like the dead." he slept like the dead too.

"Rest not under the Stone!" a voice whispered. But Horsham was so deeply weary that he did not wake. Again the voice cried out "Rest not under the Stone!" but Horsham slept like the dead. Finally the voice shouted out so that Blackie snorted and reared, kicking and pawing the ground with his massive feathery hoofs. At that Horsham woke. To he horror he found himself surrounded by hundred of snakes coiling and writhing all around him. He cried out and leaped up upon the tumbled stones of the monolith. The snakes continued unabated twisting and writhing under and over and around each other. Blackie nayed and backed away in instinctive fear.

At that moment a giant snake rose up from the mass of writhing snakes and arched it's back as if forming a bridge from the ruins of the monolith across the field to where Blackie was rearing by the water of a small stream. "Walk across my back" the snake hissed "and do not fear for this is but the Spring Mating of the Snake People. The giant snake arched it's back. Horsham nervously stepped off from the lichen covered stones onto the smooth back of the giant serpent. Blandly the cold blooded creature arched it's scaly back until Horsham was all the way across and safely on the wet sand of the stream. Then the giant snake plunged back into the writhing mass of snakes, just out of hibernation and lusting to mate. Horsham shuddered and mounted Blackie and rode off. The snakes continued to mate with hot fury for creatures so cold blooded and gave him not a passing look but for one, a white snake that seemed for a moment to shed a tear before reverting to it's nature as one of the Snake People.

While Horsham was gone spelunking for gods living or dead, another Dwarve associate of Horsham nicknamed Vocantis because of his obsession with fire and explosions, eager to defect from Arcadia to the farther away, and presumed safer Havens, and badly in need of money to bankroll his defection west, sold something he should not have and left Horsham holding the bill. Vocantis had been dabbling with Horsham in some of his tinkering: this time in explosive materials and fiery forms of fire. Horsham had been experimenting, searching for a wonder weapon that could win the war for Arcadia. Instead he only succeeded in blowing up a few shacks and nearly blowing himself up in a few explosive fires that resulted in his part time alchemy in diverse powders, sulfur, saltpeter, phosphate, and ammonia. The mischief only resulted in Horsham be busted down in rank from 'Superior Man' back down to private by Celebeau who considered Horsham's dabbling in alchemy as 'irresponsible mischief'.

Volcantis' own experiments into liquid fire, based on white phosphorus that ignites into a fiery and nearly unstoppable blaze once the seal of the airtight jar was shattered, he kept to himself. He thought he would have a ready buyer in Cleardan of The Havens who ran the Navy and needed fiery new weapons of mass destruction. Volcantis doubted that Horsham's dabbing in alchemy would ever prove commercial. Volcantis' liquid fire was unstable and dangerous when exposed to the air but unbelievably fiery. Once he could learn to control it he was sure his was the weapon of the future. Horsham's black powders were more stable but also much harder to ignite into a conflagration, and tended to 'explode' rather than burn uncontrollably, a sudden big bang rather than a unstoppable fire. So to Volcantis' mind Horsham's black powders were mere coppers to his potential golden weapon (once he could figure out how to control the volatile cocktail). So Volcantis sold a keg of the latest batch of the black powder to a mysterious and shadowy buyer during one dark of the moon night, and moved out of his digs the very next day, quitting town, and quitting Horsham with an IOU for a shared future 'Copy Preference' at a future date, down the road, literally, in The Havens if Horsham should ever go west himself.

Horsham, back in town from his failed foray into divine intervention, was suffering from a bout of binge drinking and did not bother to go near the shack where he kept his alchemy experiments for another month. Then he realized he was missing some of the stuff. He assumed Vocantis nicked some when he packed up and headed west, along with his own liquid fire glass jars to show to Cleardan. Down the Road. A Dwarve would never dare cheat a partner so Horsham assumed Vocantis was plotting a business deal and would cut him in, down the road, if either of their experiments proved fruitful. Instead of worrying about the missing keg of black powder, Horsham went on another drunken binge, mourning the loss of another business associate for Horsham had no friends and was lonely enough to mourn even the loss of business associates like Vocantis or Magus or Dr. Kakoff and his nefarious grave snatching thug Higgie. Prince Grafton was up at the front and winning both battles and accolades. Prince Grafton now wore the laurel diadem of a general. Horsham wore a wilted feather. His letter to Prince Grafton went unanswered. The new hero of the hour had no time for a has-been. That alone justified a bout of gutter drinking.

Meanwhile Rhingol the Great was planning his annual spectacular birthday party for himself. Every year he tried to outdo the year before. Every member of the Elite 1000 was invited of course but the birthday party would start with a Court Function for the Elite 100 first, then a night later a spectacular grand bash of all of the elite of the Elves, the whole Elite 1000, then climax the third night with a huge bash of Elves, worthy Mere Mortals, village mayors, country gentry, and military men. Of course Rhingol did not bother to invite any Dwarves. Mere Mortals were only invited to the last night's festivities. A token for the tokens.

The First Night was purely a Court Invite Only. The aging and withering Elite of the Court plus any of the Elite 1000 married to the aging and withering Elite 100. A who's who of the who's in of the ancient bastion of antiquated power. One hundred exactly of the Elite of Court Royalty. Every member of the extended family of Rhingol would be invited and every moldy old carbuncle and barnacle attached to royalty like leeches. Even Belladonna's toad of a parasite of a carbuncle of a husband. Toads with even a drop of courtly blood would be welcome. And of course any family the toads were married to. So Belladonna was invited while her brother Bela was not. Celebeau as the Royal Nephew was invited and also Gloriana as his wife. Of course Luna was invited as the Princess Royal and therefore Ben was invited. But Floradale was not invited for he was but a sharp tongued and increasingly angry critic of the Court. But Lady Confabulate was invited for she was married to Lord Confabulous who was also a minor member of the Court Elite 100. Needless to say, Horsham was not invited. Nor was of course any Dwarve, not even Durham the Deathless of the Old Citadel or Wells the private financier of the Royal Family, or Chas who was the private financier to Gloriana and the Goldenthrond Cabal. Historians later made minute note of each person NOT invited to the most spectacular party Rhingol the Great ever threw for himself.

The Royal Maw, the day of the First Event, was scrubbed white as tomb marble. The stony courtyard was transformed with portable greenery, trimmed and manicured to perfection, each bush nipped and pruned into every sort of fantastic dancing green yew or boxwood animal. The yew portrait of Rhingol as the Sun King was perfect. Toy fountains splashed water in every sort of cunning pattern, some set of by secret trip wires or rigged garden seats to set off the waters when the unexpected passed by or sat down. Fantastic tents and pavilions were set up like canvas flowers to shelter white linen covered tables groaning under silver and gold feasts of fruits or meats or sweets. One fountain flowed with white wine. Another fountain flowed with pale ale.

The Grand Canal reflected the first blush of twilight in the curve of still water as the guests appeared at the Royal Gate of Oohagh to parade through into the Royal Maw as bystanders stood along the High Street that ended at the Pally Mall and the massive gates of the Court. Crowds gawked -- but the crowds were small compared to past years and Ravens (MP's) had to stand guard for some of the crowd actually threw eggs and turnips and the ever plentiful dung. And the crowd did not just include surprisingly hostile Mere Mortal peasants displaced by war and homeless and unemployed and hungry. Now some of the oddly hostile, curiously still, yet disturbingly vocal crowd included improvised members of the Landed Gentry, many as near to losing their estate farms as the poorer Mere Mortal peasants. The genteel members of the Elven Gentry did not of course do anything so vulgar as throw dung ---- but they held up placards mourning their dead sons to war and plague.

And the glittering guests entering through the Royal Gate over the hostile eyes of the hostile crowd was notable too for who was missing. Lord Naratun. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. Fully fifty two of the Elite 100 Ancient Clans of the Royal Court in fact were missing. Consciously missing. Celebeau begged and begged, calling the birthday party a peace token. But Lord Naratun called it surrender and refused to attend 'a command performance of slaves bowing before their master'. The absence of the most honorable courtiers left only the most dishonorable of courtiers, toads, lackeys, parasites, and craven cowards attending. The omission was very noticed by the hostile crowd who booed or glared, and brazenly yelled out the names of the missing while noting the names of the craven.

Celebeau was so worried about the state of the crowd that he actually tried to persuade Rhingol to call off his annual birthday party to himself, coming so soon on the heels of the now infamous Star Chamber in the same Royal Maw. Rhingol stared at Celebeau in horror at his even thinking such a terrible thought. He had already forgotten the Star Chamber. It meant nothing to him. He was a child man, his brain addled by senility and the atmosphere of evil. Ben merely scoffed, daring people he hated to hate him back. Gloriana merely laughed. Luna asked Celebeau why he was so uneasy about the event. What could he say? "Everyone hates your husband and everyone hates you and well they should!" Of course not. So Celebeau merely blinked his steely blank eyes and sat alone in his office in the palace and dreaded the event. Shuddering. Knowing the hate. Understanding the hate. Remembering what Lord Naratun had warned. If lawful dissent is beaten down by the brute hand of power, then unlawful rebellion would burst out unexpected but all too predicted. So the Ball went on -- but not as planned.

It was a Masked Chameleon Ball, a fancy dress affair where everyone came dressed in disguise, and the disguises were all as fantastical as the decor. Floradale, who was not invited, had been commissioned the month prior to design some of the fantastic costumes for the lucky guests. He excelled even his usual brilliance with over the top costumes of iridescent human dragonflies, male phoenixes, or female butterflies. Human bears cavorted with human deer and human eagles and human peacocks. The fantastic lionbird danced with the fantastic sea serpent. Cloth of Gold and Cloth of Silver sparkled. Glass and even diamonds sparkled. Towering feathers danced and bobbed. Flowers swaged from tables and from bodies in excess. Everything was in excess. Over The Top Excess. People quivered in anticipation of excitement and amazing events. There were rumors of a Finale designed by Floradale that was not to be missed. They were destined not to be disappointed.

At the exact moment the sun dropped below the water of the Grand Canal, the Royal Family appeared to feverous applause. Rhingol was dressed all in silver. He wanted to be dressed all in mithril but he could not afford it and hoped the new silver would appear to be mithril. Unintendedly Rhingol, the Sun King, reflected the Debasement of his regime tonight by appearing as the Moon in tawdry silver gilt. His costume of a silver unicorn featured a silver gilded narwal horn that appeared to be a real unicorn horn. His clothe of silver kilt with it's grand sweep of fabric over one shoulder and arm glittered like the moon. His crest was formed of over a hundred diamonds (really glass). His mask was silver. But worried he might not be recognized, he had the foresight to add a silver crown around his unicorn horn so people would still know him.

Malian wore plain black as usual, drab so she would not show up her peacock of a husband. Rhingol smiled in utter joy as everyone gasped and applauded. She smiled in utter joy to see him so happy. The mask that was her apparent human face fluttered, behind which the black holes that were her eyes stared like the twin maws of graves.

Celebeau wore matching Cloth of Gold, designed by Gloriana, to match her golden outfit. She wore a magnificent necklace of topaz too. Almost a fine as the 'Pride of the Dwarves' Necklace she still could not beg, borrow, or steal from the Cabal that now ran Goldenthrond behind the demented back of King Rindeth the Mad. Gloriana glittered like a golden idol. Celebeau stood stone faced, grim, his eyes steel shuttered as if he dare not reveal his true feelings to anyone anymore. He cringed slightly when the glittery crowd bowed and cheered politely. As the Royal Family received the applause he suddenly separated and marched down the side steps to another pavilion and poured out a glass of wine and gulped it down hastily, his mouth a hard line, his eyes wet as if with tears of shame or grief.

Luna also wore white, dressed like a white peacock with a full tail of white feathers and a tiny crown of feathers. Her father designed the costume himself for Luna tended to dress plainly unless policed. Her rather plain face fluttered too, out of nerves. She knew since her return from the Land of Shadows that many people whispered about her, and muttered veiled accusations and implications, snide innuendos, and not so hidden incriminations. Her happy-ever-after was fading like the twilight. Ben was still sickly. Gloriana was relentlessly sarcastic. People cut her. And since that outbreak of anthrax a year back, Celebeau had been cool to her, as if blaming her for anthrax. How could anyone blame her for some farming outbreak? Ben only had typhoid and rabies and neither was contagious. Well at least the rabies was not contagious and Luna had taken care not to expose Ben to anyone when she nursed him last year in the tiny, pretty farming village during the anthrax outbreak. So why were people whispering such nasty things now? Why? Why? Why did people always whisper nasty things about her? And Ben. Why were people so very cruel? And Lord Naratun....why? It was so terrible what he said, accusing Ben and her of such evil things. Luna only loved. All she saw was love. All she lived for was love. It was her motivation and sole reason for existence. How could Love turn evil? How could Love bring down a nation?

Ben stood by his wife's side dressed in old clothes as always but sporting a new right hand of mithril created by Durham the Deathless to mimic a real human hand capable of anything a real human hand could do -- and more. It was actually much stronger than a human hand. The machine workings were so very clever. But Ben, who hated events like this, scowled and grimaced, his harsh visage even more harsh, his pain-filled eyes even more dark and turbulent. "One hour and no more!" he growled under his breath at Luna. "Then I going back to bed." His new mithril hand unconsciously clinched into a tight fist.

"I want to show you off my beloved! You are so beautiful! People don't know you as I do. Maybe if they know you better they will understand our love and not believe the terrible things Lord Naratun accused us of."

"No I an't. I am ugly, and I am sick, and everyone is blaming me for what happened last year up in Arcadia Minor. I escaped from a fetid and diseased hell hole. Funk them all! They would have done the same! I broke the quarantine line too! So what! Fuck them all! Anyone would have if their lives were in danger! So we broke the quarantine line! If we had stayed in Arcadia Minor we might have caught the Black Death too!"

"What?.... Was there plague in Arcadia Minor? I did not know. Celebeau said it was anthrax. I don't...."

"Shosss!" Malian whispered loudly. Then she smiled at her husband, her sole reason for existance. Rhingol grinned in utter joy at the beautiful party and started to deliver a wonderful speech ..... until he was rudely interrupted.....

....by a horrible explosion as a black cloud engulfed the party. The building right behind the Royal Family exploited into a black cloud of shattered glass and marble. The Royal Family was thrown forward by the blast, down the steps, thrown into the crowd by the force of the blast as if they were but rag dolls. The front lines of the crowd were also thrown backward, some actually flying in the air, into the packed crowd behind them. Bloody shards of lethal glass and jagged bits of marble flew in the air, falling like hail, impaling glittering members of the Extended Royal Family. Fire filled the air like an volcanic eruption, setting the elaborate costumes, and the people wearing them, on fire. Pale silver and gold turned blood red or smoky black. Fantastic feathers flew in the air. Fur and fashion blew away in a second, replaced by blood and marled flesh and torn skin and burning meat that once were beautiful human beings.

Luna was on fire, her back from her hair to her toes on fire. Ben threw himself on top of her, rolling her over and over in the grass, screaming as he pounded out the fire. Then he held the broken body of his beloved wife in his arms and wailed with unearthly screaming grief. Luna opened her eyes and shuddered in pain, then smiled wanly. "I live Husband. I live! Do not be afeared! I live until the day you die!" Ben crushed her burned body to his chest, his tears pouring down, drenching her face. That was the only day, people later said, that Ben was ever afraid.

A split second of instinct told Malian to cover Rhingol's back. She took the force of the explosion directly. Her clothes incinerated in a second. Then Malian burned brilliant white like lighting, like electric fire. Then Malian vanished. A white electric blast. Then nothing. Nothing at all. Rhingol was thrown forward, unconscious onto the grass. But the next moment to everyone's awe Malian reappeared, fluttering like a blast of lighting, like static electricity dancing in one of Durham's curious static electric toys, spitting and hissing and sparking as she covered the unconscious body of her husband with her own strange force of superhuman energy. And there was not a drop of blood on Rhingol at all. He gasped and his eyes fluttered open. Malian wept and held his face in her hands and wept in joy. And Rhingol the Great was not in the least injured whatsoever.

Gloriana was also thrown forward into a pile of people. They pulled three corpses off her including Lord Confabulous. Fortunately Lady Confabulate had but a few moments before drifted toward the pavilion of the wine fountain and so totally eluded the deadly horror other than dropping her glass of wine onto Celebeau's Cloth of Gold kilt. Lady Confabulate gasped. The glass dropped ..... when they hauled the dead body of her husband off Gloriana to reveal Gloriana to still be alive and barely injured just as Rhingol gasped and woke unharmed and untouched by the cataclysm that engulfed so many other quite innocent victims. Celebeau flinched when the glass dropped on his kilt, the frail glass breaking, as his wife stood up shaky but mostly unharmed.

Behind the spectacle of death and bleeding and burning and horror the last of the twilight vanished into the dark of night.

The next day the party for the full Elite 1000 was canceled. The wounded were nursed desperately. Ben wept and hovered over the burned body of his Luna while doctors gently applied balms to the second and third degree burns to her back and legs. Luna suffered mute, weeping only when Ben wept, smiling valiantly. But two days later the good news she had announced to the Royal Family was buried with the first casualties of the unearthly explosion: a miscarriage of a three month baby. Malian bore the news with her usual stoic nature to human suffering, something she, not being human, could not understand. Rhingol wept. But Rhingol would weep to see a dog die so he wept for all that week and the next as flets were filled in the Sacred Grove and burn victims were hustled away er they offend his sensitive nature with their hideous appearance, to be hidden away in country estates ever afterwards. Shameful survivors who had nothing to be ashamed of except ugliness.

Lady Confabulate stood stoic too as her husband was laid on his flet. Alas Belladonna's cad of a husband survived, hopelessly in debt, the last part of his marriage dowery squandered in extravagant costumes for the three day birthday party that ended so abruptly. Belladonna had to crawl back to Bela to ask for another loan. Bela, livid by the turn of events, ordered her out of his house.

Because no Dwarve was at the party, Durham had no witness to describe the mysterious 'explosion' with scientific detail. He found the event perplexing therefore. But while the Elves described it as a divine cataclysm he recognized it was a new invention or concoction or creation of alchemy. The after smell for instance, ignoring the burnt flesh of course, intrigued him. How the flesh burned too also intrigued him. White Phosphorus perhaps? Sulphur? But more? Flammable tar? But more. How much more? How did some natural elements get turned into something so flammable and 'explosive'? He wrote to Celebeau of course to warn him that it was not some sort of celestial calamity but some quite logical manmade event. Celebeau never wrote back but then he loathed Dwarves and did not ever listen to their opinions. After all Celebeau was famously considered 'as stupid as celewood'.

The one person who did put two and two together was Horsham. He did understand the 'explosion' and he did recognize the after smell, ignoring the smell of burnt flesh of course. Now he knew what had happened to the vanished keg of black powder. Vocantis had not taken it west but rather sold it to finance his trip west. Horsham was directly linked to an attempt on the lives of the entire Royal Family of Arcadia. Not a happy position to be in. Worse he would not have cared if any of the Royal Family had perished except for the fact it might implicate him. He had even spoken out against the Royal Family. He loathed Ben and often said so. He loathed Luna and often said so. He loathed Rhingol and called him a 'Royal Ass' often. So the near murder of people he loathed put Horsham in a particularly dicy position indeed. And naturally Horsham could not confide the news to anyone. But Horsham had to find out who bought the black powder from Vocantis before anyone else put two and two together and arrested him for Royal Near Murder.

"I am about to be made the fall guy" he told Blackie.. "I don't like that. It is just too bad the plan did not work. If only it had. Arcadia is being led over the cliff into ruin and doom because of the Royal Family. The best thing that could happen is the death of the entire Royal Family. Too bad Celebeau was not near the blast too! No. The only thing wrong is the fact that the plot did not work and it can be blamed directly on me! And I won't be the fall guy for a plot that failed!"

The term 'fall guy was from the opera: when an actor dueled with the heroic tenor and fell down dead in the Third Act Climax. And it was to the opera that Horsham went that very day to see a favorite of his: Nellie Cyprian. Nellie was the 'ingenue' or youthful soprano who played the second to the lead alto, usually the flirtatious maid or sly and cunning schemer either helping the alto win her beloved tenor, or else competing for the alto's beloved tenor. Nellie was a pert Mere Mortal Merrach: flaxen blond, blue eyed, pink and white complexion, trim figure, dainty feet, and amble charms in both her well endowed bosom, her curvaceous thighs, and in her morals.

She started out life as a ten year old beggar, the only survivor when her parent's farm was burned out by Orcs in Arcadia Minor. By thirteen she was a child prostitute on the streets of Arcadia. By the time she was sixteen her voice broke and she learned to sing sexually explicit sings while peddling apples and oranges during intermission of the opera, the contrast of the lyrics and her apparently innocent face too appealing for any patron to refuse. By the time she was seventeen she was on the stage in ingenue roles where she charmed the patrons, if not the alto, with her spontaneous wit and ribald humor. The alto needless to say did not like being upstaged by the ad-libbing of a sexual tart trading on her raw youthful good looks and plunging neckline. Like all Merrach, Nellie had rich 'fruit' indeed (while Elves tended to be rather flat chested). The Altos would slap Nellie after the performance. So Nellie got herself an opera loving bodyguard: Horsham who got free seats in the wings of the theater performance in exchange for beating up the thugs of the alto. The resulting 'Nellie Wars' were infamous: brawls in the alleys around the opera theater that many a patron joined in, depending on which singer he or she favored. The title 'Nellie Wars' to the contrary, Horsham actually loved them because they were mere brawls and he loved brawling. Duels were bloody. Increasingly he dare not spare the challenger, so dueling had long ago lost it's brawling charm. But the 'Nellie Wars' were brawling good fun.

The object of the 'Nellie Wars', Nellie herself, was now twenty six which was anything but ingenue now. But Nellie Cyprian still had her good looks, well endowed 'fruit', and fast wit that counterbalanced her middle age. The altos still accused her of being a tart but she still stole the opera with her clever wit, nimble dancing, skillful acting, and genuine abilities in other areas than sex. Officially she could not 'star' in the operas, nor play the lead, nor sing any songs other than the 'comic peasant interludes', nor claim any artistic fame. Only notoriety. But unofficially, Nellie Cyprian was a 'star' in every sense of the word. The audience came to see how she would steal the show. The audience, not just men, also enjoyed her schemes on stage, and off stage, and her maneuvering around the sanctions and prohibitions of the class system. Nellie also was the lover of a who's who of Court. So she was in and out of Court all the time. The back door of course. But still. Nellie was witty observer of Court Life, an friend of Floradale and Horsham, and of course, Nellie was a Crow. A Spy in Bela's organization.

Horsham went to see Nellie to find out why she had no clue that the spectacular First Night was also very nearly the Last Night for the Royal Family. And Horsham went to see how someone got into the Court with a keg of mysterious black powder, sprinkled it all over the place, ignited it, and ran like hell, and apparently was not noticed by anyone at all. Quite an achievement -- unless of course the would-be murderer was an insider at the party and therefore logically present, moving about, and aware of the party being prepared, being timed, and being conducted. Nellie of course, being a mere Mere Mortal, was not at the party. Except that of course Nellie was at the party. She came in costume, masked, on the arm of her favorite lover Prince Adulterine Grafton, temporarily back from the Front on unexpected leave to attend a party to a man he loathed.

Why did Prince Grafton come then? That was the big question Horsham was asking himself. Why did a Royal Bastard turned War Hero bring a disguised fellow bastard to the most elite party of the year? To irritate Celebeau, his legitimate half brother? To irritate Rhingol? To irritate Luna and Ben by reminding them that any child they might sire would have to end up the same way as him: a half breed bastard the Elite 100 and Elite 1000 would never accept as their future ruler?

The Royal Succession would end with Rhingol unless Gloriana could stud a son which she seemed incapable of doing, or unless Celebeau could divorce her and remarry an acceptable Twilight Elve female from the Elite 1000. So the Royal Family of Arcadia would die out. End of Royal Succession. Period. Unless of course Arcadia was desperate enough to accept a bastard on the throne. But then that bastard surely ought to be Prince Adulterine Grafton and not any sickly little thing that the enfeeble Ben might sire with Luna. Too little. Too late. Too sickly. Too half breed. Too Beorach. Too weak compared to the mature and virile and ambitious Prince Grafton whose Mere Mortal genes were well hidden behind an apparently pure Elve facade and whose mother Rhinga, until she vanished, was once joint ruler with Rhingol. No. Prince Grafton was sending a message that night when he sported Nellie Cyprian on his arm. Masked adventurers both. But what Horsham wondered was if Prince Grafton was sending more than one message.

Luna had just announced to the Royal Family that she was pregnant. Now of course she had conveniently miscarried. Damned near died in fact. But for luck Ben, the Darling of Destiny would have died. Not to mention Gloriana though every Twilight of the Elite 1000 loathed her, and even Celebeau now only grimly endured her naked ambitions and icy cold loins. The explosive night nearly put Prince Adulterine Grafton on the throne of Arcadia. Prince Grafton who was safely in the rear when the explosion too place that but for luck and Malian very nearly blow up the entire Royal Family of Arcadia except for Celebeau, Prince Grafton's other rival to the throne, also by luck standing far away from the explosion. No. Horsham had a lot of questions to ask Nellie. The question was if she was willing to answer them.

Horsham slipped through the back stage door of the Orangery Theater, named after the block long produce market in front of the theater, and winked at the guard who waved him through. Horsham was a familiar sight at the Orangery. He could not sing on stage but he was a fixture around the theater. He had his share of seats in the wings, in the 'heavens' (top of the theater where the elaborate stage flats flew up and down), in the single unsold seats given to him to attract the mob, and behind the stage in the dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms. One year he had even illegally performed at the Orangery in 'private performances' open to the general public where he pulled in more crowds and generated more profit than any Elve baritone before or since. No one gave him a second thought. Horsham sauntered down the dark halls and climbed the rickety staircases, winked at the pretty dancers, swore with the tenors, gossiped with the baritones (who always played the villains and therefore liked real life villains like Horsham whom they often based their opera roles on), stuck out his tongue at the altos and sopranos who still resented his patronage of Nellie, and then sauntered into Nellie's cramp dressing room.

It was early evening and Nellie was preparing for an evening performance. She sat at her table before a huge Dwarve Mirror, the biggest mirror in all the Orangery, stark naked, her flaxen hair still tied up in wool to keep the ringlets tightly curled. She was applying the thick makeup so she could be seen from the 'sewers' (cheapest bottom back seats) to the 'rafters' (cheapest top back seats) to 'paradise' (front seats). Seeing Horsham's reflection she grinned wickedly in the mirror. Horsham quietly shut the door and stood with his huge body blocking it, shabbily dressed in old buckskins and worn boots, his tunic and armored jerkin stained with sweat, his hair matted to his forehead. He had dark circles under his famously blue eyes. He tucked his big hands into his faded red sash that held his bronze short sword and long knife. The latter were the only fashion items Horsham still bothered to wear. He of course killed people with his steel long sword which he always wore in a shoulder harness. Nowadays he never even bothered to offer his duelists any other option.

"Your getting a beer belly Horsham. You should lay off the whisky and beer. Alcoholism does not become you. Look at me. I am twenty something and still look nineteen something because I do not drink. Looks can get you almost anything. You could have become some Elve's fancy man if only you had taken better care of your looks. Now see! No money. Live in a slum. No retirement. When I retire from the Flesh Game I will have lots of money, a country house, closets of clothes, jewelry (real jewelry and not any of that paste) and two pretty bastards to keep me company in my decline. But no. You would not play the whore. So where are you now?"

"A Crow on business -- and who says I don't have any money socked away for my retirement? I an't called a 'fucking miser' for nothing as you bloody well know Nellie. Being the chief libelist of me. I have a perfectly good Dwarve Annuity just like you do."

"Well I am retired from the Crow Game and almost ready to retire from the Flesh Game too. I can almost afford to retire to my complete and utter self satisfaction. Thank you very much! What are you going to do for the rest of your life? Beside grow old alone in a world that does not forgive growing old?"

"Spy. Once a spy. Always a spy. You know perfectly well a spy never retires. Bela still considers you on his payroll. His Crow in Court. So do I. Now I want you to spill your guts Nellie. The Party....."

Nellie shrugged carelessly and turned and called for her maid to assist her in dressing. As Horsham watched, the maid slipped the pretty servant maid's costume onto Nellies' still beautiful body: the almost transparent silk tunic gathered so low her breasts almost spilled out, the long linen skirt over bare legs and dainty silk shoes, and the tiny apron festooned with needle lace that linen is naturally inclined to and which poor peasants used as a substitute for more expensive Dwarve beading or semi precious stones Elves used to decorate their appeal. Then Nellie waved her out of the room and tucked up the linen skirt in an elaborate drapery to show hints of her shapely legs and dainty little feet. Then she sat down and started plucking the bits of wool out of her curls.

"You know you could still perform on stage just like me. But for your pride you could be making lots of money on stage too. Just like me. Peasant Parts. Don't glower! I am getting rich playing peasant parts. You can steal the show from the Elve Tenors! What about that part of the peasant who changes into an ass under magic of a Sigh god? It is very funny! You could steal the show! But you are too proud and refuse to perform unless you can star as the demigod or god roles...."

"A whore like you will never understand about Art. Personal Honor. And you're not spilling her guts Nellie...."

"What is there to spill? The wrong people died. Either way I had a hell of an exciting evening to entertain me that night. Too bad the wrong people died..." Horsham snorted, his long sword bumping against the door. Nellie turned from the mirror and looked at him. "What else is there to tell?"

"Oh nothing much except how the Royal Family was nearly killed, why, and for the sake of whom?" Horsham walked up to the chair and loomed over the petite Nellie. He bend down and caressed her slim neck with one huge hand, half affection, half menace. "Don't play the pert maid with me Nellie. That was an assassination attempt and it took a lot of planning. Insider job. Access to a secured site. Timing and therefore knowledge of the events, the ability to move about to prepare the assassination attempt and not be noticed as out of place, and most of all who was nearly killed, and who was conveniently not nearly killed, and who might profit from the killing. Who might profit? Prince Grafton? Celebeau?"

"Or who might be patriotic enough to want the Royal Family dead who have been leading this nation over the cliff" Nellie corrected. "And other people died too. Lady Confabulate's husband conveniently died. They were not lovers in any sense of the word. Gloriana almost died. Court tittle tattle says Celebeau's love wanes like the twilight. He knows now that he had been played by Gloriana. And for that matter Floradale was in and out of the Court for all the prior week for he was designing many of the costumes and special effects for the party. Floradale's bitchy wit has been rather focused in the 'Decline to Fall of Arcadia' recently. His own term for our nation's twilight of the Twilight. And most intriguing of all my dear Horsham: Bela has been quietly implacable. And three days prior to the Near Murder Luna announced she was pregnant and that announcement, howbeit only to the Royal Family, was widely circulated. Such news would not be greeted by many as good news. Rather the reverse. No. I would say many might have wanted to see Luna dead that night. Ben too. Mostly Luna. Maybe Gloriana. Possibly Rhingol. But mostly Luna. And I would put our Boss of the Cockpit right at the top of the list of candidates." Nellie smiled her most mischievous smile at Horsham. Then she turned back to the mirror and fluffed out her flaxen curls and then put a silver star hair pin in the mass of luscious ringlets. "A gift from an new admirer."

"Not up to your usual diamond taste."

Nellie giggled. "Pathetic. Mere silver. But adolescent love is always pathetic. Young Gildagad is wildly in love with me. He keeps spending all his pathetic pouch monies, not very much, on pathetic little gifts for me. He follows me in the street and waits at the alley door with wilted market flowers. Not even hot house flowers. I call him my little puppy dog." Nellie giggled.

"Why do you indulge in adolescent puppy love?"

"Well, he is a bastard isn't he? A Royal Bastard. A Celestial Royal Bastard. And we bastards ought to stick together! I let him kiss me the other night. Poor thing. He drooled all over my cleavage but did not know how to more than fumble at my skirts to get under to fondle my thighs. Poor thing. Maybe I should teach my about sex?"

"Elven Virginity is a serious taboo. Why don't you leave the kid alone Nellie?"

"I would be a very good teacher!" Nellie grinned and rubbed some perfume down her ample cleavage while Horsham watched. Horsham only snorted. He had never been Nellie's lover despite all the gossip to the contrary. Nellie slept her way to the top and Horsham made it a policy to never pay for sex, nor have sex with scheming vixens. But Nellie was a Crow, a fellow spy, a Mere Mortal survivor of the Elven Class System of Arcadia, and a mutual lover of music, though Nellie did not have the passion for it that Horsham did. Music, like sex, was but a means to an end for Nellie, the end being survival in the very best possible way. To Horsham's mind and heart that make her a whore, but until now a funny whore. Until now.

"I have reasons to think a small keg, a small ale keg, was used, filled with black powder, that had to be sprinkled about the North Palace Garden Exit that the Royal Family used for their appearance, and then ignited by a spark."

"Really? Mighty fine details for a mysterious event no one else seems to be familiar with...."

"Did you see anything or anyone that resembled that?" Horsham continued, ignoring her curiosity.

"No. But there were kegs of ale stacked up all over the place. Everyone is drinking like an ocean of fishes nowadays. Funny ......Celebeau and Lady Confabulate were at the Wine Pavilion, the one place where ale kegs would most definitely NOT BE. As for the timing. It was widely known. Rhingol wanted an audience and announced when everyone had to be ready for the 'Surprise'. Quiet a surprise it proved to be! And as for security. Servants and venders were in and out and everywhere. In short there was no security! None at all. Genteel Chaos. The usual Rhingol fiasco. I saw no masked men slithering in and out but I saw a lot of masked party goers. I myself was able to saunter right in without a question or challenge. No darling Horsham. It is no good trying to investigate how the Near Murder was done. Too much information and too many clues. You have to concentrate on who wanted whom dead. Two questions really. Who was the intended target? And who wanted whom dead? Profit? Patriotism? Passion?"

A rap on the door signaled that Nellie's time was close. She stood up and inspected herself in her expensive mirror, then pirouetted daintily, eluding Horsham's hulking bulk, and danced out of the room. Then she blow a kiss to the killer, and danced down the rickety stairs to the stage. In the distance the muffled sounds of divine music and soaring singing could be heard. For once Horsham did not linger to listen.

Horsham slipped down the twisting hallways and then through a private door to the private seats of Lady Confabulate. The Orangery was build like a honeycomb around the stage with semi private viewing suites on the Second and Third Floors. The top Fourth Floor was filled with the Rafter Seats that the mob filled for coppers. But below the hard wood Rafters were opulent private suites: padded seats, pink shaded candlelight, dainty chairs in front to watch the stage, and a second room behind to feast on appetizers and drink wine and ale, complete with tables and divans and screens behind which one could do whatever one wanted to do when one was bored with the stage.

Horsham was very familiar with this particular suite of rooms. He had often been invited by Lady Confabulate and her confidant Floradale to attend the opera in comfort, his big body barely balanced on a dainty chair, in front of everyone else, enthralled by the divine music, while Lady Confabulate smiled and her hostile husband grimaced, his view blocked by Horsham's broad shoulders and shoulder harness that raddled whenever he beat out the time with one massive fist, his deep voice softly singing along. Lady Confabulate liked anything that exasperated her husband. He owned Confabulous House but Lady Confabulate owned her expensive Orangery Seats. And Lady Confabulate loved music and knew Horsham shared a mutual passion. The only price Horsham had to pay was to escort Lady Confabulate home after the opera, singing the highlights from memory for her, in the moonlight, as she shivered in excitement. Then the next day she would invite a whos' who and have Horsham sing the best of the highlights before practically any other hostess could pay one of the official opera singers to perform. It was the ultimate in social upmanship.

For the pleasure of that one-upmanship Lady Confabulate always made sure Horsham did not have to endure chitchat that he hated, or painful social encounters that left him pressed against the wall, a hulking, psychopathic wallflower. She always scheduled the performance first so Horsham could leave promptly afterwards with a basket of fine food and a pail of ale and clean laundry. She always had a new suit of clothes pressed and ready when he appeared for Horsham was becoming an increasingly miserly and shabby dresser, and a private bath ready too -- with a door that locked from the inside and plenty of very hot water. So as far as Horsham was concerned he got a lot out of the relationship: free access to music, free food, a safe private bath, and clean new clothes. All just for singing. And Horsham liked to sing anyway.

Routinely when he was alive, Lord Confabulous would try to throw his bony weight around and ban Horsham from Confabulous House. But though he owned the grand house, he was land rich and money poor like most Courtiers, and he also knew that Confabulous House and Confabulous Pavilion alike needed Lady Canfabulate's High Street Money. So like a dance, the lord and lady would maneuver around the vulgar economic reality of their loveless marriage with Horsham right in the middle, Lady Confabulate's cat's paw and Lord Confabulous' irritant. Now of course Lady Confabulate owned both free and clear though as a member of the Elite 1000 she could not exploit Confabulous Pavilion. But then Lady Confabulate despised her husband's Court Life. After all her family pressured her to marry a man she could never love just so they could cross the High Street at the Pally Mall and enter the Royal Court -- only to be denied entry by the arrogant Lord Confablous who looked down on their money and High Street connections though he prostituted himself to get them. Just like Lady Confabulate.

Gossip said Lady Confabulate hated Horsham's sweaty presence and crude vulgarity and so arranged to minimize it. One hour and no more at any party, at the beginning, then gone. But gossip could not explain her thoughtfulness to his many phobias and increasingly uncontrollable compulsions that left him in real want, or her many social invitations to a man she was suppose to loath, or her many opera tickets to him to sit by her side, or her back stage passes to rehearsals, or her long walks home in the moonlight after the operas, arm in arm with an hulking killer, listening to him sing in the moonlight. In fact gossip to the contrary, and gossip to the point, Lady Confabulate actually spend far more time with Horsham and Floradale than she ever did with Lord Confabulous.

When he was alive Lord Confabulous loathed Horsham, but as he never lusted after his wife himself, he assumed the relationship was mere sordid sex. It justified his own affairs with upper stairs maids and opera dancing girls. But Lady Confabulate had heretofore always conducted her private life discreetly even if her husband displayed his contempt of her with affairs with upper stairs maids and opera dancing girls. So the assumption of sordid sex was simplistic at best and snobbish at worst. But then Lord Confabulous always underestimated Lady Confabulate. And now Lord Confabulous was conveniently dead. The mutual prostitution was over. Lady Confabulate was now a free agent. That last year Arcadia saw many people suddenly acting as free agents, like predictable planets suddenly spiraling off onto tangent courses in defiance of the gravity of the Sun. Rhingol, the Sun King had lost all his power to influence and command, and his citizens were either quietly and openly defying him, or wanting to defy him, or plotting to defy him. All the bonds of loyalty were raveled into tatters. Nothing was held in place anymore. Historians later described it as the 'Year the Universe became unglued'.

Floradale often made the duet a trio. He sat on one side of Horsham while Lady Confabulate sat on the other side of the hulking killer, as Confabulate purred and Horsham hummed softly the divine music. An enigmatic smile would play on Floradale's face as he watched them. Often at the salon gatherings, just after the music, just before Horsham would normally leave, Floradale would lure Horsham into staying, luring him into talking about the military situation at the Front, the financial situation back home, the mysteries of Dwarve Finance, the rumors of the progress (or lack thereof) of the war, the possibility of rowdy and easy going Havens out-surviving prime and genteel Arcadia, the cunning behind the genteel mask of Cleardan, the Master of The Havens, the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Rhingol, The Sun King of Arcadia, and the general state of Our World.

Horsham never accidentally revealed secret information. Even drunk he was tight lipped. But he knew far more than most Elves at this point and he was now willing to talk if persuaded. Like Floradale and Lady Confabulate, Horsham was a vocal critic of the state of Our World. And increasingly Horsham was a free agent, not reined in by either Bela or Celebeau, and willing to precisely place the finger on the pulse of the body public and say out loud what others were thinking and fearing -- armed with very precise facts in support of his accusations.

Floradale was a critic but he was intelligent enough to want to criticize with facts and figures and precise information that he could only get from an insider: Horsham. So that last year Horsham slipped from the Cockpit to the Henhouse: the House of Lady Confabulate and her ally Floradale. And the Henhouse was becoming the magnet for government criticism: the Shadow Opposition. People came increasingly to not only hear Horsham sing and then gossip after he departed, but to question and debate in order to understand why Arcadia was in trouble. Patriots came. Malcontents came. Part of the angry Elite 1000 came. Part of the angry Elite 100 even came, crossing the Pally Mall for the first time. Shockingly, even Dwarves came ( at least Wells came and he was about the only rich Dwarve left in Arcadia), Sullen country mayors and angry members of the landed gentry came. Soldiers on leave came. Parents worried about their just at age children came. Widows came. A lot of people started coming to the Henhouse. Dangerously malcontent people. Dangerously intelligent people asking questions for the first time. And getting dangerous answers for the first time. And the Shadow Opposition was jelling into a powerful Shadow Opposition indeed. And Horsham was the magnet. The eye of the storm. But it was Lady Confabulate and Floradale who put him there. The down and out spy had come in from the cold, into the cosy Henhouse, and was becoming a dangerous advocate for revolution of the status quo.

Horsham not only caused the Shadow Opposition to jell into an cohesive force for change, he also piloted the direction for change. Surprisingly, it was Horsham rather than disgruntled members of the Elite 1000 who first started talking about bawdy Haven ideas practiced in embryonic form by Cleardan, the Master of The Havens: the Steering Committee, a nascent form of democracy, and also Common Law, a nascent concept that no one should be above the law, beyond the law, outside the law, able to ignore the law because of birth or race or class just because they might be born on the right side of the blanket, or denied or abused or deprived of due process of law just because they might be born on the wrong side of the blanket. Horsham also obsessively came back time and again, 'like a magnet' Floradale once said, to the idea that if the citizens of Arcadia were expected to pay taxes, they should also expect something in return for their taxes ---- a share of political power, a say in how their taxes were being spent, and an 'accountability' or transparency of Government.

"Why does Government have the power to act in secret? Behave however it fancies? Do anything it wants? What makes Arcadian Government any different than Beorach Government. Beorach Government is 'Do whatever you can get away with! Well isn't Arcadian Government frankly the same? It can do anything it wants to. Beorach Government is the Biggest Thug. Arcadian Government is the Royal Family. What is the difference? Both can get away with anything. Does Rhingol have to listen to anyone? Or account to anyone? Ben can get away with anything because he married into the Royal Family. The Royal Family does whatever it can get away with.

And look at Arcadian Law? Taxes. That is all. All the laws on the books are about taxes. Taxes and Real Estate. That is all. The rest is 'Custom' and 'Tradition' and 'Genteel Behavior'. That isn't law. Law should not be about how one spits in public or which sleeve one wipes one snotty nose on. Law should be about how every single person, rich, poor, upper class, lower class, gentry, Elve, Mere Mortal, Dwarve, Elite 1000, Royal Family, Everyone, how everyone should be obligated to behave for the Common Good in order that no one group can exploit or extort or brutalize or ridicule or abuse or use other groups to their determent. Doesn't Law ought to be the same for everyone? Common Law. A level playing field. Not a rigged card game or an ambush or a mugging.

You Elite never worried about Law before because 'Tradition' and 'Custom' and 'Genteel Behavior' favored you. But now the Government isn't favoring you and you are feeling as exploited and brutalized as us Mere Mortals and the Dwarves feel all the time. But the only way to rein in the run away horse that is Arcadian Government under Rhingol the Great and Ben the Beorach is Universal Law. Common Law. That means one Law that binds everyone. No exception. So you have to get up off your Elvish butts and actually write some real laws now, Common Laws, instead of relying on 'Custom' and 'Tradition' and 'Genteel Behavior' to rein in excesses and maleficence. And you should start by looking at Taxes.

If people pay Taxes and march off and fight and risk their lives at the Front then why don't they have any say in how the Government is run? Why can Rhingol do any damn thing he fancies in his pin-sized brain? And why can Ben the Beorach do anything he wants and get away with it just because he married Royalty? They are not paying taxes, and they are not fighting, and they are not suffering, and they are not dying are they!"

Horsham also pushed the Shadow Opposition into doing something more than just gossiping about governmental abuse and tyranny. Horsham started writing letters and circulating them among the Country Gentry and the Merrach Mayors and the Mercantile Classes and the Guildhall Tradesmen and even officers and Superior Men both back home and at the Front. Lots of letters. Horsham, Floradale, Lady Confabulate, and through Horsham, Lord Naratun and even Lady Wisteria Fujitsu wrote letters to everyone, transforming gossip into action. They got people all over Arcadia, not just in fashionable withdrawing rooms, but pubs and front line trenches, to talk about ideas like Democracy and Common Law and the Expansion of Taxation to include Voting Rights and the Reining in of Government ie the Royal Family and Ben the Beorach. The Shadow Opposition got Elves and Dwarves and Mere Mortals talking about where all their taxes went, why Arcadia had a hemorrhaging deficit when taxes had never been higher, the general poverty of ordinary Arcadians, and the near bankruptcy of the Elite 1000 Elves, the disastrous course of the war, the lack of allies to stand beside Arcadia in it's fight, Court extravagance in the face of general suffering, bad weather and bad harvests (always a sure fire topic), and the abuse of power by Ben the Beorach who was practically Rhingol's Heir Apparent and trying to sire a Beorach Bastard to assume the Genteel Throne of Rhingol the Great of the Twilight Elves.

The latter was straight bigotry but the Shadow Opposition knew that it also had sure fire popular appeal to everyone who ever lost someone in a battle with some Beorach thug or outlaw or mercenary. Ben the Beorach was not popular except with the Shadow Opposition who used him to consolidate opposition with everyone else in Arcadia. That grim year the Shadow Opposition dragged Ben through the literary gutter and made him the most loathed man in Arcadia. The idea of Luna and Ben siring a heir became a fountainhead on which they pinned all their arguments for Governmental Reform. Rhingol the Great was not hated, or seen as evil, only foolish and incompetent, lethal in war but not inspiring of loathing. But Ben. Oh Ben! Ben was a perfect target for loathing! And the now infamous Star Chamber was presented as prime evidence as to the motives and outcome of Ben assuming the throne either side by side Luna the Besotted or sitting behind the throne of Luna the Puppet.

Horsham found himself the opera star of the Shadow Opposition. He found himself staying at the social events, not just singing, but staying and talking and plotting and motivating action. He worked alongside genteel members of the Elite 100 and the Elite 1000 writing letters to be circulated throughout Arcadia, side by side smart people who discovered he was actually quite smart too for all his vulgarity. He especially worked extensively beside, often side by side, Lady Confabulate who always topped each Horsham crafted literary missile with her own personal salutations to insure that people who would never read anything that the infamous Horsham wrote, would nevertheless read this missile. The two casual associates and opera lovers became intimate collaborators in revolution. But intimate only in intellect, a love affair limited to paper and brush and ink, feverous not in passion but in ideas.

Tonight Lady Confabulate turned as Horsham slipped into the suite, smiled her cool Elven smile, and then patted an empty chair beside her. Then she turning back to listen to the music, turning her pronounced aquiline profile to the stage as Horsham planted his girth on the dainty gilded chair. The frail gilded chair squealed in wooden pain. Their bodies almost touched because his girth overflowed the chair but she made no move to move her chair away. Then both the man and woman concentrated on the music. He hummed it softy, his voice deep as Lady Confabulate purred. Around them her other guests milled in and out, eating sweets, drinking pale ale or wine, whispering gossip, sometimes actually listening to the opera. Only two persons came to really listen to music.

After the opera, after all the cabals cheered their particular favorites and booed their particular targets, Lady Confabulate rose, still purring, and nodded to her guests, signaled to her servants to clean up the suite, and held out her arm for Horsham to escort her home. He dutifully escorted her into the moonlet street and they strolled toward her townhouse. Horsham noted that Lady Confabulate was not dressed for mourning.

"I note you do not chose to play the role of hypocrite my lady."

"No. I loathed my husband and he loathed me. Why pretend?"

"His death was convenient."

"Not convenient. Or inconvenient. We lived as strangers in the same townhouse. The marriage was political. His death was immaterial to my well being, either alive or dead."

"You dropped your wine glass when his corpse was turned over."

"Your spies are, as usual, excellent in their reporting. Ever the spy Horsham. For a brief moment of hot violence I allowed my emotions to run free. The possibilities created by a random act of violence. What if? Then I saw his bloody body and I realized that his death, like his life, was totally immaterial and unconnected to either my emotional or financial well being. His death, like his life, changed nothing for me."

"You will no longer be invited to the Royal Only Events at the Court."

"I doubt that there will be any more such events. I doubt that I could stomach any more such events. I only went to the last one because my late husband whined about how my absence might be construed."

"As a political act of cutting the Royal Family?"

"Yes. I am now firmly opposed to the leadership of the Royal Family, their conduct in the war, and their incompetence that has directly led to our city state's Decline To Fall. I do not deny my own failures, nor the failures of the Elite 100 or even my own Elite 1000. But Arcadia balances on the edge of catastrophe and the Royal Family is fundamentally responsible. We are losing Arcadia Minor as we speak. In a few years the war will be at our very flet and we still do nothing! Defeat after defeat. Fiasco after fiasco. Debacle after debacle. And Celebeau comes back from his incompetent generalship to attend a birthday party for a fool."

"Luna has miscarried. It was perhaps convenient."

"Yes. I do not hesitate to say so. It was very convenient. I will not bow my head to any bastard sired by Luna and Ben. Not now. Not ever. Certainly not after they broke the Quarantine Line last year up Arcadia Minor. Anthrax! Such a transparent lie! It was the Black Plague and the Plague came with dying prisoners of war crawling south from the Land of Shadows, freed by that infamous prison escape of Ben and Luna. Accident? Chance event? Nonsuch! The Dark Lord was experimenting in new diseases and after he developed a nasty new cocktail of death he deliberately let Luna engineer that ludicrous prison escape. Luna the barmaid? Please! The Dark Lord knew he had Ben and he knew who Luna was the whole time! He used them both! They allowed themselves to be used no less than Lady Sanguinary! And Ben and Luna are traitors and collaborators no less than Lady Sanguinary! So yes! I cheer Luna's miscarriage! I cheer anything evil that may befall either of them. Each night I pray to my household gods that evil will befall them. And I will not bow my head to either of them -- or to Rhingol the Fool ever again. That party was rank evil to be staged during such military defeat and suffering! And in the very Royal Maw where the entire Elite 100 were threatened with violent death for demanding Ben be indicted for treason! Rank Evil! The Royal Family ought to be taken out and hanged. Does this put me on your list of suspects?"

"You are too frank in your open contempt for the Royal Family but nevertheless I must put you on my list of suspects. It is a thin line between Defiance and Rebellion. Between Shadow Opposition and Open Revolution.

"Is Bela investigating or are you investigating?"

"Why?"

"Because I think Bela's name should be the top of the list. Don't you?"

"I am investigating. The list includes Bela. And also Celebeau and Prince Grafton."

"What about you?"

"Do you think I am a suspect?"

"As much as I am Horsham. Let's be frank. You are as vocal a critic of the Royal Family as I am. You are an old Rufus Royal co-hort. An anti Sanguinary carper. You suspect me but you are a member of my circle. You are as much as me, a member of the Shadow Opposition."

"And the Shadow Opposition of course includes Floradale. Another candidate on my list. And to be honest too, I should add Lord Naratun. I agree. I appear to freely associate with the fashionable criminal class."

The man and woman laughed as they strolled nonchalantly in the moonlight through the old streets of Old Arcadia. Since shiny new Goldenthrond had been constructed, Arcadia had become 'Old Arcadia':the aging dowager down on her luck, and down on her funds, and fast exhausting everyone's patience and pouch funds.

"Nellie Cyprian suggested the crime was one of Profit, Patriotism, or Passion."

"A charming trio of motives! Let us observe the fellow suspects, beside you and me of course! There is my dear friend Floradale who could be listed in the Patriotism Column along with Bela, and you and me and Lord Naratun. And you could put Celebeau's name there too. Two columns actually. Patriotism and Passion."

"And Profit. All three columns. He might be our next king -- provided his present wife died or agreed to a divorce -- the latter option is not likely of course. Gloriana wants to be Queen. She married a man she openly loathes just to be Queen of Arcadia."

"The question to be asked of course is why? Goldenthrond is now much richer and much stronger a city state than fuddy duddy old Arcadia." Lady Confabulate fussed with her opera jewels. Unlike so many Elves now, they were still real. But they were old too, gifts from her long dead father and therefore now very old fashioned: the gemstones smoothly polished and not facet cut, the metal bronze and not mithril, the style antiquated when Twilights ruled Our World and now passe as other races raced past them. Her voice was brittle as glass, like a silver bell ringing out, but richly elegant in that old fashioned, upper class Twilight way, lilting, musical. Beautiful. Upper class beauty at it's cliche best. But the lower classes were increasingly pushing out the upper classes and making fun of accents like Lady Confabulate's. And she knew it. It made her speak even more upper class even as she knew it branded her as upper class and despised by the increasingly surly lower class and dwindling and embattled middle class. Horsham used to mimic her voice and accent but of late he sometimes confessed half embarrassed that he liked the ring of it. 'A silver bell, of a Bella of the Ball, after the Ball is over, after the Dance is done'. Her fussing had dropped the edge of the silk shawl and he picked it up with one huge hand and draped it once again over her thin shoulders.

"Gloriana either miscalculated Arcadia's demise or knows something bad about Goldenthrond that would cause her to still see Arcadia as safer. And of course the Cabal would never have allowed her to rule as Queen of Goldenthrond. The Celestial males despise females as brainless bric brac to adorn the arm or adorn the salon but not to rule. The Princess Royal of Goldenthrond is willing to seduce and maneuver around the backs of the Cabal. Gloriana wanted naked power and a visible crown on her predatory head."

"Sounds logical. So Celebeau has found himself bedded to the enemy. Played for the fool. Used. His passion is ebbing with the tide. But Gloriana won't let go. She is an octopus clinging with all ten arms -- quite unlike my shawl." The thin silk slithered off her thin shoulders and she fussed with it, impotently. The gossamer silk continued to flutter off with every breath of wind. Tonight was a cold night. Much like the times.

"Eight arms. Or is it six arms. How many arms does an octopus have anyway? Anyway your metaphor is choice. Celebeau cannot be King of Arcadia unless something happens to Gloriana. By himself he might slither up the greasy pole of power. But not while Gloriana is ridding his back. If he stays married to Goriana he can not assume power. She is just too loathed."

"And he might not want power either" Lady Confabulate corrected Horsham. " I know you loath him and he is stupid. But he is also a patriot as well as a pompous bore. He knows the war is being lost and he knows everyone blames him for it. He accepted supreme command instead of Rufus Royal who was the only good general Arcadia had. That by itself may have damned Arcadia. History may very well damn Celebeau for that hasty decision made so many years ago. And Celebeau knows his uncle Rhingol is a dangerous ass. He knows Ben is a dangerous schemer. He knows Luna has chosen her love for Ben over the well being of Arcadia. For Passion Celebeau might have wanted Gloriana dead. For Patriotism too he might have wanted once beloved people dead. Or for Profit he might have wanted the Royal Family dead. Including Ben. Their friendship pales too. Ben exploits Celebeau and plays him like a fool, just like Gloriana, but by now Celebeau sees that. All the people he loved have played him. He would be a stupid man indeed now to trust anyone he once loved."

"He did act very guilty did he not?"You were there with him in the Wine Pavilion."

"He was acting guilty even before the explosion. I cannot say for sure if he was expecting it however. I would bet that Celebeau will refuse the crown if it was ever offered to him however. He knows he has failed Arcadia. I also think he is not capable of such a ruthless course of action."

"But he lied well enough to cover up the Plague last year."

"True." The gossamer shawl blew off and Lady Confabulate laughed and held the flimsy thing up like a flag in the cold wind. Then she let go and the silk blew away like a ghost in the moonlight. Both people laughed at the sight.

"And of course there is Adulterine Grafton" Horsham said softly.

"A very pretty suspect indeed" Lady Confabulate replied in her musical voice.

"Yes. Well. Nellie thinks so at least. He has been fighting in Arcadia Minor in order to show he is a better soldier than Celebeau. That is not saying very much. But he is a better soldier than Celebeau and at least winning some battles. With disturbing ease I find disquieting, side by side that new war hero Saburo Agat and the mysterious military advisor Agat Senior. A fellow with a humpback who sits on his arse and commands battles behind Prince Grafton's back with a feathered fan. But he is winning so he is more popular than Celebeau right now. The discouraged masses are looking for a tin god or pub hero to save the day. Needless to say I am no longer on the short list for pub heros or tin gods" Horsham said dryly.

"A very pretty tin god too. If you are into tin gods."

"Everyone keeps saying that. Is beauty everything? Are people only judged on their worth according to appearances only? Externals? Not what is inside? The heart? The mind?" Horsham stared quizzically at the Elve who laughed in reply.

"... Or the soul? You forgot the soul on your list of ignored virtues overshadowed by beauty."

"My soul was always ugly." Horsham shuddered. "But people used to be perfectly willing to put up with my festering soul as long as my face was beautiful and my body virile. And now no one gives me a wooden rhingol's damn because I an't beautiful anymore. Bela once said I would regret my beauty when I lost it. I guess he was right. But just the same the willingness of people to judge just by appearances is so asinine. Appearances. Looks. He looks the hero so he is, or he looks the leader so he is."

"No. But Appearances are almost everything. Prince Grafton does looks like a hero. Tall. Elvish features. Distinguished looking. Noble looking. Heroic looking. And smarter than Celebeau."

"That is not saying much."

"But in Prince Grafton's case that is saying just enough to make him a candidate to be king. If Gloriana drags Celebeau down then Prince Grafton is the logical choice to be the next king. Ben is loathed in Arcadia. Luna is despised. If they sire some sickly and peevish pup of a bastard between them then the Elite 1000 will mutiny."

"Prince Grafton is half Beorach too. Howbeit he looks Elvish. The odds are however that Ben's brat would look Beorach and be sickly indeed. And way too young to compete for the crown with the ambitious and mature Prince Grafton. And a sickly boy king is the last nail in the coffin of Arcadia to use a Merrach expression."

Lady Confabulate slipped her arm into Horsham's, her tiny hand in his huge hand and they resumed their stroll in the moonlight. "So maybe Prince Grafton decided to speed up his accession? Or maybe someone else decided to help spend up Prince Grafton's accession. It need not be Prince Grafton you know. Only an ally of Prince Grafton. A lot of people think Prince Grafton's accession might be a very good thing indeed. The sooner the better. Rhingol is becoming more and more erratic all the time. Senile....."

"Senile?"

"Of course. Do smell the jasmine in the park over there! It is divine! And so late in the year for night blooming jasmine!" Lady Confabulate broke off a sprig and inhaled deeply.

"Or something else perhaps? The effect of the Devices?"

"The Dark Lord still has all the Devices locked up far away in the Fiery Fissure Fortress." Lady Confabulate fussed with the thin silk gown which had dropped low on her bony shoulders. In the process the hand holding the jasmine accidentally brushed against Horsham's expanding girth, just beginning to spill over his old leather belt. "What do the Merrach say of their fat? 'Love Handles'? They say it proudly. We Elves cannot get fat. Or have such voluminous contours. Therefore Nellie will always be more beautiful than the Elven Altos. Bones can't compete with sexual flesh. We Elves can't even hold our own on the opera stage anymore. Much less off the stage." Lady Confabulate gestured with the jasmine, touching the roll of fat spilling over the straining leather belt, tracing the evidence of Horsham's self destructive excesses. Was the comment one of praise or contempt? Understanding and sympathy of the fragility of Mere Mortal Age? Or Elven repulsion at the cruelty of Mere Mortal Age. Since her husband had died Lady Confabulate had made similar but enigmatic comments.

But she knew Horsham was sexually skiddiest and had never slept with any Elve, no matter how willing. And some Elves had been very willing when Horsham was younger and the virile stud.

Now he was not young or virile anymore and no bored Elves pursued him -- except perhaps Lady Confabulate for her own private and enigmatic of reasons. Horsham either ignored her comment, or did not realize it was an open door he could either choose to enter or not as he would. He did not cross over the threshold. He had developed a fragile sort of almost friendship with Lady Confabulate over almost ten years and did not wish to risk the fragility of the almost friendship with the dangerous undertows of sex or emotion. He stayed on the safe territory of intellectual companionship. Lady Confabulate was a smart woman and Horsham respected her as such. Just as she respected him as a smart man.

She was also compassionate of the frailties of the human mind. Since she found out that Horsham had been raped when he was sixteen she had been surprisingly understanding of his erratic and self destructive tendencies. This last year she had even put him on an secret allowance: picking up his pub bills provided he ate only at the Dandelion Delight Pub which served healthy food and had a pub master who did not encourage his patrons to get drunk. She had also moved Horsham into a cleaner mew at her own stable, picking up that bill too. Otherwise Horsham was willing to sleep in a slum or even in a public park like a bum. Increasingly Horsham was only willing to spend money on Blackie and not on himself. The miserly tendencies was increasingly escalating out of control, much like the cutting. Horsham had resumed cutting his flesh with his boot knife. She gilded the charity by saying that Blackie needed a good stable such as only she could provide, and that Horsham should stay in the mew above the stable to keep better tabs on Blackie. The aging horse had been sick last year and was now showing it's age. Horsham would still spend money on Blackie even if he would not spend money on himself. He too had been sick last year and was now showing his age. His latest battle wound was troublesome in healing, unlike past wounds. He showed his age now as his face was gilded by moonlight. For a moment he stared pensively at the moon, his decaying beauty frail and vulnerable. Then he sighed.

"No. Ben the Bungler stole a Device and then lost it to a rabid wolf who tore off part of his hand in a tug of war over the damn thing. So a Device is now loose in Our World, playing havoc with all of us, spreading it's malevolent evil and curse of Celestial Calamity to all and sundry, and generally speeding up the Decline To Fall of Arcadia. And the wolf that ate the hand that was clinching the Device is running loose somewhere in Arcadia. The beast followed Ben and Luna, trailing them, following their scent all the way here to Arcadia from the Land of Shadows. I have over twenty sightings and have mapped the general area the rabid wolf is haunting. Five children have died of rabies because of it.

I have investigated the Devices and they are profoundly evil ---- and profoundly contagious. And now a rabid wolf is running loose with a malevolent and malignant thing bouncing about in it's belly. Arcadia is being smeared with contagious evil. Stained and contaminated. Infected. I believe Rhingol is especially susceptible. Any emotion can set him off. Any vibration of emotion. Even the smell of emotion. Any ugliness. Any anger. Any malevolency. He is so high strung. I believe he is feeling the effects of the rogue Device even from a distance. This erratic behavior started in earnest when the Device was uncaged from the Fiery Fissure and came south into Arcadia. For that matter I have traced Kitsune's erratic behavior to the surfacing of the Device in Arcadia. The Mirage Line of Malian has the rabid wolf running in circles around and around and around Arcadia. But alas it also has the wolf trapped too, running in circles around and around and around Arcadia."

"So Ben the Vainglorious is responsible for unleashing two plagues: the Black Plague and a Device into Arcadia! Charming man. I would kick Luna in her belly if she was still with child and gladly pay the blood money!"

"So Rhingol may be going senile but is more likely slipping under the influence of a contagious Device into Dementia. His personal Decline to Fall occurred when the Device was unleashed from the safety of the Fiery Fissure. Before, he was but a gentile fool. Now he is dangerously erratic. Delusional. Demanding. Suspicious. Paranoid. An out and out danger to Arcadia. I hear Celebeau is having a harder and harder time controlling him. Covering up his Dementia. Salvaging the situation. If the situation can even be salvaged. The Court Wizards are doing no end of useless magic rituals to no avail. Celebeau can't cover it up for much longer. The Star Chamber showed Rhingol's decay and madness to everyone, the danger made dangerously public."

"A lot of people might want to see Prince Grafton on the throne very soon. Prince Grafton is smart enough to play a clever game. Let others do the dirty work so he can keep his hands clean to seize the crown. And to play the role of advocate for the villain my dear Horsham------ should we try to stop such a game? Perhaps the best thing that could happen is have Prince Grafton put on the throne of Arcadia. And as soon as possible." Lady Confabulate waved the sprig of jasmine thoughtfully.

"Celebeau may not cooperate with that. He has never like his half brother and I don't think he would be willing to bow to Prince Grafton on the throne. And Ben would never allow anyone else to force him to pay the role of second to the star tenor. He does not care for the crown but he won't be second to anyone. Certainly not Prince Grafton. Ben is too competitive. Too egoistical. Too self absorbed. It always has to be all for Ben or nothing for anyone else. Ben has to win the game and win the prize, or else the prize has to be stomped into the gutter er anyone else best Ben. The Darling of Destiny. The wilful little boy who will smash anyone else's toy castle if he can't have it.

To get the throne Prince Grafton would have to kill Ben and therefore kill Luna too. Possibly also Celebeau. His bid for the throne would be bloody indeed. The near blood bath at the party will just be the beginning. By the end of the game blood will be flowing in the gutters of Arcadia. And not just by friends of Prince Grafton maneuvering to get him crowned either! And I know now that Prince Grafton is desperate enough to spill blood to get the throne. He has lied to me about Saburo Agat and his military advisor Agat Senior. Lied. I wrote him a letter and he point blank ignored me. Why? Because he needs them to make him a war hero and a winning general. He has no lawful royal heir so he sees war as his way to the throne now. So he needs help in waging war. He got it the worst possible way. And now he is lying to me."

Lady Confabulate paused. "Grafton is charming, a courtly lover, an artistic man. He is not capable of ruthlessness in anything. Lord Naratun now, that is something else again."

"Past tense my lady." Horsham corrected. "Saburo Agat is a snake changeling, a child of Aodaisho, sired by evil magic by the dead Lord Ryu through me. White Orochi predicted that Prince Grafton or I would perish, betrayed by his grandson: Saburo Agat. Kiyohime gave Prince Grafton false predictions of the crown. I don't think she meant to but her mother meant her to. Revenge against the Court that snubbed her and abandoned her. But Kitsune predicted correctly that the war for the crown would bring down Arcadia. And Aodaisho confessed to me she sacrificed Saburo Agat as a wee babe to the alter of Queen Badhb the goddess of war and then surrendered the child to the infamous Harbinger of War, the tengu demon Sojobo. Is it just chance that Prince Grafton's amazing new military advisor Agat Senior is a hunchback who commands Prince Grafton's army not by war baton but by a feathered fan?

Do you remember the Tale of Heike? Heike's magical Father-in-law? It was Sojobo. Sojobo masquerades as a hunchback. He trained Heike and his entire Clan of Heike to be great warriors -- but betrayed them all on the battlefield. He fans the flames of war with his feathered fan out of delight of violence and war and not out of patriotism or loyalty. All who take Sojobo's aid are doomed to violent deaths. All. All. And now Prince Grafton is employing Sojobo and lying about it, training under him, working alongside him, obeying him -- and lying about it! Why?

Saburo Agat, his gesith (bodyguard), is a child prodigy, abnormally grown to manhood, abnormally strong, reputed to be invincible to all attack through magic, and he never appears unless covered from neck to ankle in battlefield garb and always wears his long hair tightly bound. I suspect he has snake changeling traits that he is concealing. Kiyohime's poor evil child was part snake, had patches of scaly skin, and luxurious hair that hide a deformed skull. Saburo has gold eyes. So did Kiyohime's evil snake changeling of a child. That child was also a child prodigy, growing to adulthood abnormally quickly. He tried to murder Prince Grafton with a garden knife quite deliberately. Wisteria Fujitsu had to kill it. She told me he put up a fight. It took all her strength to kill him. Snake changelings are fearsome creatures. Yet Prince Grafton is still employing Saburo Agat to be his gesith and his battlefield champion because everyone thinks Saburo Agat is invincible in battles. And yes, indeed, Saburo Agat is winning battles for Grafton but at what a cost?

Saburo Agat is a vicious man. Vicious. Murderous. On the battlefield and off. He glories in killing and drags the bodies of his defeated enemies over the battlefield, tied to his war chariot. He violates corpses. He denies the dead Excarnation. He refuses any Rites of Death to be performed on the battlefields he lords over. He glories in death and boasts and gloats. He struts through the carnage like a demigod. He claims to be a demigod. Such pure savagery and cruelty has never been seen before. And don't say 'remember when I was the hero of the day!'

I never defiled the dead -- except once as a callow punk. I always followed proper Rites of Death and Danced the Dance of the Butterflies over every battlefield I survived. I never gloried in death. I never made my adversaries grovel at my feet and beg for death and then spitefully kill them. The Beorach are swine and I was ruthless but I did not behave like that! Like Saburo Agat. The Amberlings are just professional soldiers fighting on the wrong side. But for luck any professional soldier may find himself fighting on the wrong side. That does not justify abuse and torture and atrocities. Saburo Agat does all of that and more. He tortures prisoners of war and then kills them violently. He encourages others to behave like him. He turns a blind eye to rape and rampage. He is a bad apple spoiling the Army with his malevolent sadism.

When a peasant farmer came and protested the rape of his daughter by a soldier in Saburo's guard do you know what he did? Saburo found the girl and raped her in front of the father, and then encouraged the entire Body Guard he commanded to gang rape her too. Then he paid the father the price of a whore. She hanged herself. Grafton turned a blind eye. He accepted Saburo's statement she was only a professional whore. She was not a professional whore. And even if it was it true, that still does not justify gang rape with whisky bottles, then beating her bloody and stripping her naked, then hanging her up in the village green in front of everyone like a piece of meat. And Grafton turned a blind eye to it. Because Saburo Agat is winning battles for him.

So Prince Grafton's collusion and lying is evidence that he is playing a ruthless game of life and death. The old Prince Grafton would not have been so desperate. The new Prince Grafton is alas quite capable of plotting Royal Murder. Lie in the gutter and you will pick up fleas. Prince Grafton is picking up evil magic and ruthless ambition because he is associating with evil creatures. Again, why?"

Lady Confabulate quietly closed her eyes. "Why?"

"Ben knifed Rufus Royal in the back as you know. Intrigued against him. Got him humiliated and demoted until he was forced into exile. Encouraged duels against Rufus Royals' friends. Against me too. Ben got people killed. All because he could not endue being second to Rufus Royal. To hell with Arcadia! Just because Ben would not be second to Rufus Royal. Be second to the real hero. The real savor. The real Man of Destiny. Rufus Royal was the real savor of Arcadia. Rufus could have saved Arcadia. Damn Ben. And now I know through my spies that Ben is playing the same sneaky game with Prince Grafton now. Spreading gossip. Spreading rumors. Spreading accusations. Accusing Prince Grafton of plots. Ben has used Kitsune's nervous breakdown too as evidence of evil magic. He has played on Luna's pathological fear of Kitsune too. Luna is now calling for Kitsune to be arrested and locked away as evil. That taints Prince Grafton as Kitsune's elder brother. Deliberately of course. And yesterday Ben as much as accused Prince Grafton to his face of planting the --'whatever'---- to kill everyone and put himself on the throne, in front of Rhingol who is paranoid enough to believe anything. Deliberately of course. I am sure Ben has a Nitthing Warrant for arrest and exile with Prince Grafton's name on it and as death warrant with Kitsune's name on it. The 'whatever' was so damn timely one might even think Ben planted it himself except for the fact it nearly killed Luna. Grafton knows if Ben wins the game for the crown he dies and Kitsune dies. He is desperate to survive. And to be fair he is desperate for Arcadia too. But he is too desperate. He is as good as sleeping the Red Bishamon for he is sleeping with the enemy by employing Sojobo the Harbinger of War and that depraved creature Saburo Agat. The ends never justifies any means. If we buy Arcadia's survival by such means as Bishamon would have offered, or Sojobo does offer, then we save the body but kill the soul. The soul dead, does it matter that the body lives?"

"A dilemma indeed my dear Horsham!" Lady Confabulate replied. "......Cracker."

"What?"

"Let's call it a giant cracker after the children's toy that makes a popping sound when pulled apart. "

"The 'whatever'-- was hardly just a cracker."

"Well we can not continue to call it a 'whatever' or a a 'god's bletch' or 'celestial calamity' either."

"God's betch?"

"Yes." Lady Confabulate laughed. "Celebeau's name for the 'whatever.'"

"No. History will not like to describe the 'whatever' as a 'god's betch'. Or a 'whatever'. You are right as always Lady Confabulate. 'Bomb'. How about 'bomb'?"

"Bomb. Charming. Bomb. Who knew about your prototype 'bomb' Horsham?"

Horsham jumped. "I was doing some -- vague ----alchemy experiments"

"Fall guy! Who knew about your alchemy experiments?"

"Celebeau for one. He busted me down to private. Vocantis for another. But he would not betray a business associate. I have written to him but he is removed to The Havens. Bela. He always made fun of my tinkering as he put it. But we have not been speaking for the last year when I failed to stop Ben and Luna from reentering Arcadia. And Nellie of course. I gave her some of my powder to make ----- crackers to pop on stage for special effects to upstage the alto----"

"So Floradale knew about it too for he is a lover of opera too and he had some of Nellie's crackers for his own special effects he was planning for the infamous party..." Horsham groaned as Lady Confabulate's words sunk home. "Oh.....we are home....."

Horsham looked up. Lady Confabulate's stately townhouse shown in the moonlight.

"I have been played as sweetly as Celebeau" Horsham whispered softly.

"Oh yes. You have been played very sweetly indeed my dear Horsham" Lady Confabulate whispered softly. "But for the historical record I have not played you. Nor would I ever play you. If I planned to murder anyone I would never exploit the foolishness of a friend to his downfall. I would find another way. I tell you for the historical record that I advocate Prince Grafton's succession. At the very least he cannot be as bad, and he might actually be quite good as the ruler we have now. Or at least I so hoped before you told me this new information. But I also know that Nellie, for all her protestations of quitting the Flesh Game and the Crow Game, is still a very active player in both games. Maybe she is working for Prince Grafton, or for Bela, or both. But she is still quite the busy schemer off stage as on stage." Lady Confabulate adjusted her thin silk gown and then delivered an elegant salutation to Horsham, waving the sprig of jasmine. Then she sauntered up the steps to her elegant townhouse. For a brief moment Horsham caught his breath as she opened the door and smiled at him. Then she close the door, the gesture an echo of another long ago and far away. Horsham gasped and muffled a cry of regret, biting it down, stillborn. Then he shook his head and march resolutely away. It was now dawn.

An hour later Horsham visited Bela at the Cockpit. Bela ignored him but this time Horsham pushed his way into the Library and positioned himself in front of Bela's elegant table. Taking the hint, Bela sat back in his chair, fingered his massive signet ring casually, and smiled his cool smile. "I am investigating the Near Murder and you are top of my list!" Horsham announced. "Why should I not turn you over to Celebeau right now?"

"Frontal assault. As always. I was not even invited to Rhingol's little birthday ----'bash'." Bela smiled his wintery smile and played with his massive signet ring as if fobbing Horsham off. But Horsham was not going to be fobbed off.

"It was a masked Ball. Everyone came in disguise. Nellie Cyprian breezed right in. Security was laughable."

"Rhingol is laughable."

"Rhingol was almost killed. Luna was almost killed. But for his good timing Celebeau was almost killed. Ben alas was not killed. I once asked you if you were capable of killing off the entire Royal Family and you fobbed me off. Tell me now. Did you and Nellie Cyprian plot an assassination using me as you fall guy?"

"If I had would I tell you?" Bela's elegant face assumed a hard line. "But for your bungling last year Ben and Luna would have been stopped. No Plague. No rogue Device floating around Arcadia, the gods only know where, that any damnable fool could find and seize to work unspeakable evil. I am finding it damnably hard to find any sympathy for your blight at all Horsham. Not any more. Now I am busy conducting state business...."

"Like putting Prince Grafton on the throne? The only thing that limited you before was a candidate to the throne other than the present occupants. Now the Elite 1000 has compromised enough to shallow the unpalatable lump that is Prince Grafton. You have your replacement candidate. The Royal Family is expendable. Too bad Celebeau avoided dying. And Rhingol too. For that matter Luna and Ben. In fact the Near Murder is as much an act of blundering as any you accuse me of. You have two candidates to the throne and the throne is still occupied by a warm body. Potential civil war. And Rhingol is increasingly paranoid - for good reason now. He is stupid but he knows he is no longer popular and largely to blame for Arcadia's demise. He knows someone very nearly tried to kill him. Write him out of History and write either Celebeau or Prince Grafton into History. And he has never liked Prince Grafton just as he never liked Rufus Royal. He does not like to share the spotlight with minor minions of royalty. He did not like it when Rufus Royal defied him. He has already made it perfectly clear he does not like Prince Grafton parading about as a tryout for the role of king. He accepted Prince Grafton only as long as he was a dangling carbuncle to the royal body public. Not a candidate for replacement.

And Ben lived too. He won't play second fiddle to Prince Grafton either. Ben does not play the role of second to anyone. And he is already playing very nasty games to Prince Grafton. For such a 'straight fighter' Ben can play a very mean and dirty game indeed! Then there is Celebeau. The Wild Card. Only the gods know for Celebeau even does not know. So I think your exercise of 'statesmanship' was very badly bungled indeed Bela. You should have shallowed your pride and pulled me into the gambit. I might have done the deed cleanly. Going around my back was stupid. I am still your best agent. Not Nellie."

Bela's beautiful face blanched. It was only a split second. But it was enough. Bela was playing king maker. But was he up to his neck in Near Murder or just providing eager support and encouragement? "Would you have helped -- if I was -- as you accuse me of ---- playing a gambit that night? Maybe I just suspected and did not know enough to stop it. Maybe I just suspected and chose to let the cards fall-- and bodies fall -- as Destiny might determine. Would you have helped? Or hindered? What is your game now?"

"Having bungled the first attempt, any second attempt would be hard to execute...."

"No evidence links back to the Cockpit anyway. None at all. My fingers at least were not caught in any pie. The Cockpit lurks in the shadows and History will not record yea or nay about me. The Spy Game always is played out behind the curtain of official events. Invisible. Unreportable. Speculation only. The stuff of paranoia. The sort of thing only a brain like yours would want to wallow in. You've bluffing Horsham. You have nothing on the Cockpit. You never will. And of this very moment you are no longer a member of the Cockpit. Ex-Spy. Ex soldier. Ex hero. Go away. I will have my servants refuse you if you try to come again. The meeting, and our friendship, is officially over." Bela rose and abruptly exited the Library. Three servants were pushed into the Library. One was forty five and tottering and his face pleaded with Horsham not to brawl in the Library, but exit quietly. For once Horsham did. After all he already had grabbed the document on the desk Bela had been working on and shoved it down the neck of his tunic. So he exited discreetly before Bela could realize what a stupid mistake he had committed by firing his best agent and thereby making him a Free Agent.

Next Horsham visited all his network of spies, harvesting information that he sifted with all the care of a pastry cook. Then he marched into Celebeau's office at the Palace. Celebeau glared when he saw him. "Going to fat I see Horsham. Going to seed. Go away. I don't have time to bother with has-beens like you."

"My! My! So patronizing for a man top of the list for Near Royal Murder."

"You mean on the list to be nearly murdered."

"Please! So conveniently safe at the Wine Pavilion! The Wine Pavilion. And acting so guilty too for such an innocent victim of intrigue. And so near the prize. The Crown. But for chance and Malian's uncanny instincts. Too bad no one died. If only. Gloriana for once. Ben for another. Rhingol...... and poor Luna miscarrying.....so you are still top of the list to be the next king if only you can figure out how to get that octopus of a sucking leech that is Gloriana off your back. But Prince Grafton! Oh dear! What are you going to do to get rid of Prince Grafton? So popular! So adored! And so very winning! The most winning battle general now! That alone would make him admired! All of which you are not!"

Celebeau glared at Horsham with his dead fish eyes. "The 'god's betch' smelled a lot like your alchemy experiments Horsham."

"Which you knew all about. And Vocantis wrote me that he sold a ale keg of my black powder to a tall stranger during the dark of the moon. Sounds rather like you..."

"Vocantis has not had time to respond yet. Way across Our World. You are bluffing Horsham. And when Vocantis does write back I bet he won't be able to id anyone at all."

"How many people knew about my experiments in alchemy? Besides you. My Prime Suspect. And the Suspect with the biggest motive."

"Nellie Cyprian knew. I saw some of the stuff used in crackers during a recent opera performance. Nellie threw them about to upstage the alto as usual. Same rancid smell. And Nellie Cyprian is thick as thieves with Adulterine Grafton and she is still working for Bela. Two top suspects on anyone's list of suspects! I have no profit motive. I swear an oath right now that I will never seek out the crown of Arcadia. Let a transmutation curse ravish me er I renege on my oath. And I would never hurt Luna whom I love as my nearest and dearest kin."

"Ben played you for the fool. As much as Gloriana. Exploited you. Used you. He was never your friend. Or your ally. He only despised you and used you. And you know it. Just as you know that Luna and Ben unleashed the Black Plague and a Black Device onto Arcadia."

"Luna did not know. She has Rhingol's sweet innocence of soul."

"Ben knew. And Luna should have known. She has chosen her love for Ben over her patriotism for Arcadia. And the Device is driving Rhingol into Dementia."

"Maybe. Perhaps. Remote possibility. The gods are all mad dogs. Who knows what a Device is? What it does? If it is evil or why or how or in what way. Why don't you go converse to Bela? He is as obsessed by those damn Device things as you are. Always ranting on and on to me about them. Wants to launch an all out witch hunt for that rabid wolf he claims is carrying one in it's belly. Ranting on and on about it being the end of the world if anyone ever finds that wolf and kills it and gets the Device before he can seize it. 'Celestial Pollution'. 'Divine Disease'. Bela is capable of killing anyone he feels is endangering Arcadia. Would garrotte his own mother if she was still alive. There is nothing more dangerous than a patriot who believes patriotism justifies any crime. Set up a torture cell in his own basement of his townhouse you know......"

"You play stupid Celebeau but the act is getting mighty thin. You know perfectly well that Arcadia is slipping sliding and skidding, and stumbling and blundering down the steep slope to historical oblivion. You know perfectly well that a rabid wolf is carrying a Device in it's belly and running around and around in circles throughout a known area of Arcadia, spreading rabies, hunting down and killing children, and that if some rogue person does get that Device before we can then that rogue will become the arch enemy of Arcadia. I know for a fact you have already proposed a Rabies Hunt to eradicate carriers of the disease of rabies -- as a cover to hunt down that wolf and seize the Device before anyone else can find it. So stop playing the stupid fool with me. The only way you can stop Arcadia's Decline to Fall (after hunting down that beast and seizing the Device) is by either 1) killing or locking up Rhingol and becoming king yourself or 2) killing or locking up Rhingol and letting Prince Grafton become king. And both choices hinge on which candidate has the guts to destroy that damnable Device before it can destroy Arcadia, and which candidate would be seduced by that damnable Device and want to keep it which will result in the destruction of Arcadia. Alas both choices mean tangling with Malian which might prove fatal too. Fatal for Arcadia that is. Malian loves Rhingol but she does not give a damn about Arcadia. Like Luna, Malian lives for her love and her obsession only."

Celebeau jumped to his feet glaring with icy rage that he could barely control. "I will never see Adulterine Grafton on the Throne of Arcadia! Nor will I ever betray my Uncle and my King! Get out! Or by the gods I will throw you out of this window myself!"

"I guess than that you are not inclined to the second option then...." Horsham turned and ambled out of the door. "Maybe you are inclining to the third option: King Ben The First and Queen Luna the Besotted -- both of whom are responsible for stealing that damnable Device and bringing it south into Arcadia unleashing unspeakable evil." He ducked as a vase was hurled out of the door, aimed directly for his head. He shouted out "And Malian won't quietly accept that option either!" and ambled away before the guards could throw him out.

Next Horsham marched into the Naratun Pavilion to confront Lord Naratun. The pavilion had become a fortress under siege. Cyrus Naratun had guards day and night guarding against attack. And Ben had attacked. Under cover of night of course. Never caught in the act himself. Robbers more interested in killing than robbing.....unexpected fires..... servants offered bribes to betray.... Everyone knew it had to be Ben. Had to be. Cyrus Naratun was being kept very busy. And Lord Naratun was also very busy writing missiles and placards and submitting petitions. But faced with constant threats of violence, how long could Lord Naratun be expected to choose lawful protest and not finally resort to violence that Ben the Beorach practiced so blatantly?

Lord Naratun was in his study writing away when Horsham was ushered in by Cyrus who had poured out his frustration and fear to the spy for ten minutes beforehand. The lack of biological blood did not minimize the Mere Mortal's love for his adopted father. Rather it accelerated his love and his loyalty. And Cyrus Naratun knew his father's life was in danger as long as Ben was alive and the present Royal Family sat on the Throne of Arcadia.

Lord Naratun smiled warmly when Horsham appeared. Horsham was an old friend invited for many a social event, intimate dinner, and ritual seasonal event when he was younger and a famous protegee of Lady Wisteria's Dance School. Horsham had accidentally premiered as a Court Dancer while dancing for the Funeral of Lady Naratun, Lord Naratun's last surviving biological child. Since then Horsham had danced for Lord Naratun whenever he was home from the front. A few years ago Horsham sent his apologies and since then Lord Naratun had graciously understood and ceased asking him to dance. But Lord Naratun had continued to invite him as a guest and military confidant. In effect Horsham was Lord Naratun's military adviser and now Lord Naratun's liaison with Lady Confabulate's Shadow Opposition.

Through Horsham the aging Lord Naratun had met more people in the last five years than he had met in the prior century. The cocooned and aging moth had burst out of his chrysalis as a vigorous butterfly, blazing with fierce new life. But like any butterfly, Lord Naratun knew his life span was destined to be short and violent. This was his end game. Everyone knew it. Cyrus knew his short Mere Mortal life would end with his Elven father dead by his side. Both men, seeing their fragile mortality, lived all the more determinedly in order to end their brief lives with heroic resolution. Living for history makes men do odd things however.

Horsham smiled when Lord Naratun smiled, both men understanding the reason for the meeting. The aging but still elegant Courtier gestured and Horsham sat down. Naratun stretched and then gestured to the garden outside. His study was framed on two sides by beautiful gardens. The roses were heady, the light full and bright as it showered into the room, highlighting Lord Naratun's halo of silver white hair but hitting Horsham full in his failing eyes. Lord Naratun loved the bright light dancing off the bright colors of his prized flowers but Horsham moved slightly, his fading eyes hurt by the voluptuous beauty. Lord Naratun appeared not to notice and continued to admire the heady beauty though he casually pulled a low reed and silk screen to block the brilliance of the late morning light flowing into the study.

"See the roses! How they bloom! I smell them and remember my beloved last daughter. I was just remembering her funeral not one hour past! So long ago yet the smell of roses still brings the memories back as clear as if they had happened but yesterday! And how you danced Horsham. You were so young and beautiful. You and my son Cyrus. I have watched both you and Cyrus grow up into men I admire. .....

I know you must question me Horsham. Ever the spy. And rightfully so! I would in your place. Rightly! For the record I did not try to kill the Royal Family though I regret privately their survival. I toyed with the idea of revolution but jettison the idea as inappropriate. My ideals still cannot allow violence to rule the day. I must continue to believe in Law and Order. Despising the Royal Family for their violence and wanton lack of protocol, can I behave likewise? I know I condemn myself to death because of my perhaps too scrupulous idealism. That does not pain me. The thought of Cyrus dying alongside me because of my ideals is more painful. But most painful of all is the idea that Arcadia might die because of my ideals. Nevertheless I have resolved to live and die by my ideals."

"Yes. Of course. I understand. I appreciate your understanding that I had to nevertheless question you in connection with the Near Royal Murder." Both men smiled and bowed to each other. Being men of honor they knew each could take the word of the other. Lying was not done between men of honor. Lord Naratun was not warm and open and sentimental but he admired honor above all and honorable men above all.

"I hope Horsham you will cling to my course of action despite the temptations this event might inspire. I predicted this after the Star Chamber. Lawful opposition denied, only unlawful opposition will continue. But I sincerely believe violent revolution will only hasten Arcadia's demise. Violent rebellion will not bring about anything the Shadow Opposition hopes for: lawful reform, democracy, common law. Violence will only usher in tyrants and warlords."

"Probably. But when people get desperate they will do desperate things. As Arcadia topples into catastrophe, ugly things will happen."

"Will you cling to my ideals Horsham?" Lord Naratun asked wishfully.

"I will try. For the record I also did not plot Near Royal Murder though privately I regret the failure of it as well."

Lord Naratun sighed. "Thank you. I want to die with dignity. Nobility. Honor."

"I would like to die so but I suspect I will die without dignity, nobility, or honor."

"But you will try? In memory of me? We must continue to try to lead the Shadow Opposition."

"Fight the good fight?"

"Fight the Good Fight. Yes. The Good Fight."

"I will try. I must leave now. I pray to careless gods that you live each night. You and Lady Wisteria are the only beacon of lights left in the Court. The world is darkening around me. I treasure the little light I can still see."

Mere Mortal and Elve bowed and then Horsham left the study. But he waited for Cyrus to come to escort him to the gate. "Cyrus. I know you are dreadfully worried about your father. Too bad the plot failed......."

"I did not do it but I wish I could have. Can you get me some of that stuff? I could try again?"

"The plot failed and the chance to do it failed too. Second Chances never happen in history. I advise you to hold off any plots of your own until the dust settles. Everyone is under suspicion now and Ben will try to pin the blame on Lord Naratun. You would be playing into his hands if you do anything rash. Play for time. Hold off. Play for time."

"I don't know how much time we have left Horsham. Ben wants my father dead. I can never catch him in the act but I know he must be the man behind all of the violent break-ins, the mysterious fires, the 'accidents', everything!"

"Yes. But the spotlight is on everyone right now. I think everyone will pause and wait and see who moves first. Don't move first. I learned that in dueling. Let the rash move first. Ok?"

"Ok." Cyrus nodded. "Oh by the gods! Why couldn't it have succeeded?"

"The gods are asleep. The Plains of High Heaven are too high and we are too far away, tiny dots, and no one cares anymore. The gods sleep and dream of deathless paradise and they have forgotten about us."

Horsham ambled for a public park. It was now midday. He stretched out on the warm grass under the shade of a tree that filtered the bright light. But he already had a headache from eyestrain. He was used to them now. Like the eyestrain and the blurry distortions that failing eyes brought. He compensated for the escalating failures of his failing body. 'Surrender' was not in his repertoire. Neither was 'Retirement'. Then he pulled out the paper he stole from Bela's desk and resumed studying it.

It was in cipher. But Bela, while a literate man, was not a master of cipher while Horsham, being a naturally paranoid man, was. The paper was a list of names in two columns. One column was a list of names of people who might oppose Prince Grafton's succession. Celebeau topped the list, followed by Ben and Malian. Malian was underlined and accented by a question mark. Cleardan, the Master of The Havens was also on the list. So was Durham the Deathless of the Old Citadel though a question mark was also by his name. So, ironically was Belladonna, Bela's sister. There were some ten other names of important Elite 1000 Elves on the list as well, plus some forty of the aged and antiquated Courtiers and the twelve out of the seventeen Court Wizards. The other column appeared to be people who would support the succession of Prince Grafton to the throne of Arcadia. That list featured the occupants of the Henhouse, including Horsham though his name also had a question mark beside it and also a black star. Two thirds of the Elite 1000 names were on this list, plus Lord Naratun and his circle of dissentients, plus members of the guildhalls, landed gentry, politicians, mayors, ex-mayors, and the richest people still in Arcadia.

Nellie's name was in the middle, between both columns. So was Lady Wisteria Fujitsu's name. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu was the oldest Elve in Arcadia, never leaving her beautiful pavilion, but also pristine in her honor, her integrity, her authority, and in her guardianship of Arcadia's past. A who's who had been taught by her over the many centuries. And because she had never used any of her centuries of accrued IOU's she had the largest bank account of moral authority and political capital. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu would never put anyone on the throne. But Lady Wisteria Fujitsu could vetoed anyone being put on the throne too.

"The question is," Horsham asked himself, "should I stop the coup or aid the coup?"

"You are early for the duel. It is not for another three hours..." An arrogant member of the Elite stood before Horsham. Horsham grunted, then remembered that a duel was indeed set for tonight.

"I have forgotten. So you have a chance to live boyo. Go home and fuck some maid or other. I am too busy to fight you right now."

"How dare you sir!"

"Please! No cliches! Not tonight! Why do you want to die?"

"I expect to see you at our appointed meeting site Sir!" The Elve stood at attention. Horsham realized that the boy's father was on the list of Pro Prince Grafton candidates. And the boy's brother was a crow in the Cockpit. Horsham smelled an ambush.

"Why so eager? Surely the duel is not an trap? Ambush? Naw! So I tell you what! Let's fight right now!" Horsham jumped to his feet and pulled his steel long sword out of his shoulder harness. The boy blanched. "Having second thoughts? Or an't your allies hiding behind the trees yet? Bela sent you? I suggest that you trot back to the Cockpit and tell Bela he is slipping. Oh yes! And return this!" Horsham threw the stolen paper at the boy who picked it up, recognized it and blanched, and then ran off, back to his puppet master. Horsham also trotted off too. To see another suspect: Floradale.

Floradale was at his elegant townhouse packing. He was ready to head up to the Front to nurse. But Floradale smiled as always as Horsham appeared, his smile sincere if enigmatic as always. "You are packing I see." The Elve smiled. "And before the Coup too. Premature an't you? Not curious to see if your plot works? Prince Grafton the First. Has he elected you to design his coronation?"

"Coronation? A challenge to be sure. But as we are losing a dirty war I rather think an expensive coronation would be nearly as obscene as one of Rhingol's birthday parties to himself."

"You designed much of that obscene party. Nice use of crackers too...."

"And used the money to buy nursing supplies as the government neglects to provide any for the ghastly charnel houses they call hospitals up north at the Front. The 'Cracker Finale' was novel too. But not one of my ideas I regret. If I had planned the Royal Murder I assure you the plan would have worked."

"Nearly did."

"Nearly does not count! And now Rhingol is paranoid and Malian is breathing fire and Ben is all over the place. As for Celebeau.....well what can one expect from a lump of wood."

"He an't that stupid. Just plays stupid. Those vacant eyes of his. Makes you think his brain is dead but it an't. Celebeau wanted the Royal Family dead and regretted the failure of the Coup. But he an't behind the Coup. Don't mind other people doing the dirty work but he won't do the dirty deed himself. And he won't see Prince Grafton on the throne of Arcadia. It may gag him but he would rather see a half breed bastard of Ben and Luna on the throne. And he has given me an oath that he will refuse the throne if offered it himself. May a transmutation curse ravish his soul if he touches the crown. So who else is there? He will gag but he will swallow a half breed bastard of Ben and Luna. So the coup was not his creature. He did not stand to Profit. He did not have the Passion. And his conscience is still too squeamish for such extreme Patriotism. So who is left on the list of Prime Suspect? Maybe you perhaps?"

"Perhaps. But I would stage manage it better. My own Midnight Folly was indeed going to feature crackers fueled by your black powder you gave Nellie Cyprian. So would I use the stuff to kill a king? Draw attention to myself? Implicate myself?"

"Yes if you were smart. And don't deny being there. I have now confirmed you were there."

"All right. I was. To launch my Midnight Folly. But the Midnight Folly was going to be my weapon of choice to attach the Royal Family. An satirical expose set to music and accented by ridicule and derision, all to humiliate Rhingol the Ridiculous, warn of Malian the Monomaniac, heckle Celebeau the Cuckold, insult Ben the Braggart, and expose Luna the Besotted Lover. My Midnight Folly was going to lampoon Ben and Luna's surprise gift to Arcadia. Their obscene bastard. Luna big with bastard. Then that bastard sitting on the throne of Arcadia. A Beorach bastard belching and gnawing bones and raping the maid servants while wallowing in beer and filth. I was going to announce Luna's 'happy news' all over Arcadia. Too bad the Midnight Show did not come off! Maybe I will recycle the material for later if Luna ever dares try to get pregnant again. I tell you frankly I will never bow to a belching Beorach bastard on the throne. I will go into exile first."

"You are going into exile first Floradale. Ben had the show performed before the Royal Family today to expose you. Then he produced a warrant of exile. Rhingol has signed it. Tomorrow you will be declared a Nitthing Man and exiled on pain of death from Arcadia. Your Midnight Folly was very effective indeed. But alas seen only by the victims -- and the servants peeking around the doors. So the gossip will seep slowly like the damp of rot and mold through the bones and sewers of Arcadia. A slow motion revenge instead of the brilliant and incandescent slap in the face you intended. Ben's bastard, provided Ben can raise to the performance again, will be haunted by your Midnight Folly of lethal ridicule and malice delight. But you will pay for it dearly now."

Floradale blanched. He looked around his beautiful townhouse that he designed from top to bottom with such loving care and affection. A queen's only delight. The blanch of pain was genuine.

"Nitthing Man! Ben is the Nitthing Man! Damn him! And damn Rhingol! Damn Luna! And damn Malian for taking the blunt of the blast and saving Rhingol's life! And I am declared a Nitthing Man! Well damn them all to the Fiery Fissure! I will emigrate to The Havens then. I will live longer there anyways! If any city state can survive it will be The Havens anyway! I but stayed in Arcadia out of stubborn loyalty to the old girl! Poor doomed thing! And I am declared a Nitthing Man!

I will still pass on the nursing supplies up north at the Front. I earned them with as foul a show of extravagance as those court leeches are capable of! May they all die! All the Court leeches! All the Court parasites! May the mad gods rip all their gaudy finery and obscene frippery away and rip out their throats and shove their paste jewels down their precious necks! And may Rhingol be choked by one of his obscene necklaces or gaudy babbles! Shove a babble down his throat and tear out his eyes! May he die someday -- badly and slowly and terribly. I curst them all! They who declare me a Nitthing Man when I am a patriot and they are the real Nitthing People! Criminals! Culprits! Parasites! Leeches! Vampires sucking out the life's blood of Arcadia! Damned by History! May they be damned by History. And may I live long enough to write their epitaph!"

Floradale suddenly seized an beautiful table and hurled it into a lovely fresco. The painted plaster shattered, the wood exploiting into shards. Then the sharp tongued queen dropped to the floor and slumped down in defeat and shame. "A Nitthing Man!" he put his face in his hands and wept bitterly.

"You are declared a Nitthing Man by Ben. Your Midnight Folly Expose of Ben sliced too close to the bone for him to allow you to live. He has thugs waiting, hoping you will defy the warrant and refuse to go into exile. Five to be exact. Paid twenty five rhingols for them. . Cheap thugs. I would be insulted if I were you. Only twenty five rhingols to snuff out your life. He thinks you wont be capable of putting up a fight, and wont have the guts to abandon your beautiful home and go into exile as an homeless refugee. Ben always does his dirt on the cheap and by way of others. The thugs will be able to kill you tomorrow night if you refuse to flee into exile. They have already been given death warrants and told to come here. Don't play into Ben's hands. Flee to The Havens. Outlive Ben and expose the Darling of Destiny in your writings. Expose the thug for what he really is! A thug! A bully! A bounder! A menace! Never the tin god! Never the pub hero! That will be your revenge Floradale! Write the history that exposes Ben the Beorach for what he is."

Floradale used his sleeve and inelegantly wiped his nose. Then he stood up. "Yes. Yes. I will outlive him. I was packing. I must just pack for a longer journey than I thought! Do you think my ridicule really will make it impossible for Ben and Luna to fob off some sickly Beorach Brat off on Arcadia?"

"Perhaps" Horsham said. "If Arcadia is lucky. Any bastard that pair could ever sire would only bring ruin and destruction to Arcadia. That couple had earned the curses of too many victims to dance their way to a happy-ever-after. The poison of too many curses fester like blood poisoning and render their wedding flet rancid as a tomb. Lady Rufus Heike curst them too. May every victim of the Black Plague curse them too. For all of Celebeau's official lies, people are beginning to understand who really unleashed the Black Plague! And they are responsible for that Rabid Werewolf (it is a Werewolf now I hear through my spies) now hunting down and murdering little children by the Rocky River settlements. Every parent of every little child dying horribly of Rabies or Were Disease is cursing Ben and Luna now. How obscene of them to try to bred a child while being responsible for the death of so many children this past year. On top of all the other corpses. A mountain of corpses. A forest of death flets.

Floradale nodded and sighed and climbed to his feet and quietly resumed packing. "Watch your back Horsham!" he said. "Ben loves planting stiletto knives in people's backs. And he calls me a dirty pervert!"

"I will show him the back of my arse then!" Horsham laughed grimly.

"And watch after dear Lady Confabulate too! Ben will go after her! My dear darling! He has hated her since that infamous garden party back when. When she dared him to hit her."

"She took it like a soldier!"

"Yes. My dear darling girl. Brave! But dangerous in her valor! Please Horsham! Look after my dear darling girl!"

"Yes. I will. We are after all Pale Pals."

Flordale smiled a crooked smile. "Pale Pals. Well. Goodbye Horsham!" Floradale held out his hand and the Elve and Mere Mortal shook hands, common fashion. At that moment Ravens (MP's) from the Palace were knocking on the door, bringing the warrant for Floradale's arrest as a Nitthing Man if he did not flee that very day into exile forever. Floradale never set foot in Arcadia again until the walked in the shadow of her ruins early in the Second Age after the Deluge and the Destruction and the Dark Lord brought her utterly down. A genteel charnel house with only one building left standing: the Fortress of the Dark Lord built in the Royal Maw by the Dark Lord himself when he moved into dead Arcadia in triumph.

Horsham appeared at the Orangery at twilight, after again harvesting information, paying off spies to spy, slithering around, burling into the rotten hearts and festering souls of one and all like an enterprising termite. It now had been almost exactly 24 hours since he had first seen Nellie Cyprian. This time he found no less than Prince Adulterine Grafton in her dressing room. The tall man was sitting nonchalantly in the cramp dressing room, elegantly dressed in a military court kilt and gilded bronze armor over practical mail. His long silver gold hair was tied back in a braid except for two lovelocks adored with jewels that drew attention to his finely pointed ears. That was not military but it was political. It was too bad that Prince Grafton could not boast of Elven children but he still had to stress his Elven good looks. And seeing Prince Grafton you would think him as pure a Twilight Elve as any in Arcadia. And he was but one year shy of forty five, prime age and ambitious, and a long way from the naive idol worshiper and elegant courtly lover that Horsham first met at Wisteria Pavilion. He smiled suavely when Horsham loomed in the doorway.

"Greeting Horsham. How is the investigation going? Found the assassin yet?"

"Bland for a candidate on my list Prince Grafton. But for Malian and chance you would be rehearsing for the crown today."

"Ben has been playing the harp strings on that same harp this past weekend. But I am not stupid. Not like Celebeau. I need only play a harmony of chords known even to you as the 'Waiting Game'. When Rhingol dies I will inherit the crown naturally. It is not in my interest to act prematurely. I have the prize already."

"Except that Arcadia might not last much longer. You are fighting at the Front and you know Arcadia is on the ropes right now. And you know that Rhingol is galloping into Dementia and might willy-nilly declare you a Nitthing Man and exile you for every reason, or no reason as his butterfly wits incline. Floradale has just been exiled. That makes five people so far this year alone. Rhingol has arrested over twenty two critics too this year alone. Freed them later when his addled brains temporarily settle down but then that is rarer and rarer nowadays. Rhingol is going insane in the worst possible way and he an't looking on you kindly. And Kitsune's breakdown an't helping. Whether or not you are innocent, you might be the next person to be arrested or declared a Nitthing Man by a demented king going spectacularly insane. Prime target for his insane wrath I would say in fact. Rhingol's Dementia alone might be enough to force your hand. And then of course you are past forty...."

Prince Grafton blanched. Only the inhabitants of Wisteria Pavilion understood what that meant to him. "Rhingol is erratic but the Court and the Elite 100 and Elite 1000 will never allow any king to jettison his only viable heir in the middle of war."

"Celebeau is also a potential heir."

"Celebeau will never seek the crown. I happen to know that he will not."

"Yes. Well. But Ben sees himself and Luna as right dandy candidates for the job too."

"Only Ben would have such delusions of monomania. The Elite 1000 will never allow Ben the Hairy Beast or any future Bennie the Furry Pup Junior on the Throne of Arcadia. Nor the Royal Court. Nor the Court Wizards. I have been canvassing no less than you Horsham and have my network of spies too. Everyone loathes Ben and Luna was never beloved by anyone. Who does that leave? Celebeau will bow to reason as he has always bowed to Rhingol. The good nephew. The dutiful child. The responsible, if utterly mediocre, courtier-solder. The boring prig. The stupid patriot. Celebeau cannot allow Rhingol to exile me and leave Arcadia without an heir in the middle of war. I am after all the only winning general Arcadia has right now. I am in fact the shining general, turning defeat to victory like a philosopher's stone turning lead dross to gold. Celebeau would not dare. The people would mutiny Ben even tries. Rhingol. Well. He is insane but no one else is insane enough to topple me from my claims to the throne as long as I win battles and right now I am winning battles!"

"With a wave of your feathered fan eh? Funny how you have so quickly become such a paragon of war. I wonder how? But you are counting on Sojobo just as fatally as you relied on Kiyohime to ride you to victory. Both will turn out to be dross Grafton. As for your claims of generalship -- well look what happened to Rufus Royal and he was the most winning general Arcadia had too! Celebeau will back Ben and Luna and he will never allow you to succeed to the throne. He will be the one to play the waiting game while Ben maneuvers to get you exiled. Then there will be no one else but the future Bennie the Furry Pup Junior or Luna the First and her Consort Ben. Face saving solution. The Elite 1000 and the antiquated and dying Court steps back with each setback. Compromise by compromise. Browbeaten by adversity and disaster to accept the ever more unpalatable options as disaster mounts disaster to breed calamity. When push comes to shove, the aging and dying courtiers will waiver and cower in their pavilions while the Elite 1000 will hang their heads and abjectly accept the horror in their townhouses. You are counting on a broken reed already crushed by adversity. No one will rise up and fight for you. No revolution will sweep you into power. No mobs will cheer you onward and upward. Everyone is too poor, too bankrupt, too blooded, too beaten down to fight anymore. Maybe twenty years ago. Even ten years ago. Now? The Elite 1000 and the Court are a torn clothe of gold so moth eaten it can scarcely be recognized for what it once was. Hell, that describes Arcadia as a whole!"

Prince Grafton sniffed and played with his signet ring. "Perhaps. But I think you underestimate the Elite 1000 and the Court, aging and without heirs though they might be."

"You overestimate the Elite 1000 and the Court, aging and without heirs though they might be."

"Many other people want to see me on the throne too. I once thought you were one Horsham."

"I might have been if I had not been picked as the fall guy. Arcadia is losing a war. Adding a civil war to the mix will not help that situation. I want a lawful succession that is not contested and will not degenerate into violent anarchy."

"That will never happen Horsham and you know it. At this point the succession of Arcadia must involve blood. Either Ben's blood or my blood. All the fence sitters will have to jump off into one field of honor or the other. Even the fence sitting crows like you. Why don't you become my ally? We practically grew up together in Wisteria Pavilion. I used to consider you a dear friend. What happened Horsham? How did we grow apart? Help me Horsham! As once you helped me! It will be the only way to save Kit too you know! Luna is after his head and panting for his tail like a hunter at the hunt, eager to be blooded."

"Play king maker? That is Bela's job!"

"People who hate Ben see you as his antipode. Your backing, the backing of the Shadow Opposition, will ease the blood bath to only Ben. Luna does not have to die. Let's not be melodramatic."

"Luna will make that choice a requirement. Ben will make that choice a requirement too. So your blood bath will be three: Ben, Luna, and therefore Celebeau who will not stand to see Luna killed to grease your assent up the greasy pole of power. Celebeau's death will split the Elite 1000 and the Court down the middle. Civil War."

"What do you suggest then Horsham?" Prince Grafton smiled blandly but his eyes were hard. Nellie, sitting next to her lover, was finding it harder and harder to appear nonchalantly uninterested. She was not that good an actress. She had too much involved and invested. Her eyes betrayed her now. They were nervous. She licked her lips too nervously. He smile was forced. Her fingers gripped the chair too tightly until she realized it and forced herself to appear blase. Too blase.

"I was favoring the murder of Gloriana to force Celebeau to ascend the throne. But his too hasty oath has undone him and Arcadia. He could have handled Rhingol's descent into madness with a tidy Regency, and only Celebeau can handle Luna and do the dirty deed against Ben and live to tell. His too hasty oath has betrayed Arcadia. No one else can take on Ben and not see it spiral into a blood bath. And Celebeau won't see you on the throne. Not if it costs the life of Luna or prematurely kills Rhingol. So we have lost the only candidate who could have done the dirty work cleanly and discreetly. In the end Celebeau was not willing to do the dirty work himself. So other people must do the dirty work most uncleanly and indiscreetly."

"Well no less than Rhingol called you his 'garbage man'. I suggest you do your job now. Kill Ben. I promise to allow Rhingol to slip quietly into madness as long as he is locked away behind a door padlocked by a Regency Bill. Who wants to see that poor old man dead? Nor do I wish to see Luna harmed. But our nation is in danger and we need a sane king on the throne now. And we need Ben dead now."

"I have to perform gentlemen. If you please." Nellie bowed low and capered off to perform. Prince Grafton and Horsham strolled out and watched her from the wings as if old friends.

"Should I kill him?" Prince Grafton wondered as he stood beside Horsham.

"Should I kill him?" Horsham wondered as he stood beside Prince Grafton.

After the performance, witty as always, Horsham exited the Orangery by the ally and walked home to the mew behind Lady Confabulate's stables. The moon was waning but still bright and the streets away from the high street was deserted. It was nearly one o'clock in the morning. Horsham was melancholic. Prince Grafton was in some ways his protegee. His military protegee. Horsham had privately schooled him over several years as his Mere Mortal Military Advisor how to wage successful warfare. Prince Grafton was an apt pupil -- in war that is. But tonight showed that Prince Grafton was not an apt pupil in the field Horsham most desperately wanted to see: law and ethics. Prince Grafton's greed to win in battle had turned him from Horsham to Sojobo the infamous Harbinger of War. Horsham, for all his passion in battle, never solicited that notorious tengu demon. He never talked to Rufus Royal and Lady Heike about their notorious kin and if they were still on speaking terms, considering that nearly as rude as asking Rufus Royal if he really was an owl changeling. But Horsham considered Sojobo's shadow as indirectly causing both their violent deaths. That was a Sojobo trademark. And worse, Prince Grafton had not said one thing to Horsham about the Shadow Opposition's Wish List of political reform. Prince Grafton had not even lied about political reform. He had not even remembered enough to toy with Horsham about it or bribe him with it. Political Reform was that unimportant to Prince Grafton.

Horsham remembered the frail beauty of Wisteria Pavilion when he was young and Prince Grafton rescued him to go stay there among all the beautiful inhabitants of that enchanted place. So beautiful. So fading. So long ago. What happened? Horsham shuddered. "Prince Grafton even exploited his own twin brother Kitsune in order to exploit me. Exploit his own brother's misfortune. How could he do that?" Horsham visited Kitsune every week like a Dwarve clock now. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu hovered with quiet despair over the ailing ex-wizard. So Horsham knew that Prince Grafton had not even seen his brother. Prince Grafton held court literally at the empty Heike Pavilion to woo and canvass under the moldering military flags of Heike -- who married the swan changeling daughter of Sojobo, the Harbinger of War. "How could he use Kitsune? How could he use me? Next he will even try to use Wisteria herself.

I excuses his exploitation of Kiyohime but now I see that was when it all started. Prince Grafton's corruption. She told him what he wanted to hear, false prophecies of the crown of Arcadia. That was when Prince Grafton lost his soul and heart. Now he is just a survivor willing to use anybody and exploit any angle. He is a whore no different than Nellie. He is whoring himself. Packaging and selling himself to the highest buyer. All just to become King of Arcadia. By the gods! Even Celebeau, damn the prig, stopped short of that!"

When Horsham turned into the dark alley that led to the mew he was living in, the shadows moved. Horsham, who was losing his side vision as well as his night vision as his eyesight disintegrated, did not see the shadows in the shadows until they lunged at him. Five thugs leaped out of the alley, surrounding Horsham and attacking him. Horsham who always walked with a throwing knife tucked up one sleeve, impaled one in the throat while pulling out his short sword from his waist sash. One of the thugs was already on his back, immobilizing his long sword. Horsham drove his short sword into another man while trying to shake off the thug on his back. He got a knife in the back instead. Another man punched Horsham in the face while the last man drove his knife into Horsham's thigh.

Bellowing like a bull in a bad mood, Horsham throw off the thug on his back, sending him crashing into a stone wall. Then he pulled out the knife in his thigh and returned it to it's owner -- in his face. A bad rate of exchange. Then he went after the last man moving -- who decided to give up the fight when it was one on one. He ran down the alley. Horsham pulled out the knife planted in his back and threw it square into the back of the thug. He ceased being the last man moving.

Stumbling like a drunken man, Horsham picked up his short sword and staggered into the stable while bellowing for the stable hands. The Merrach farm boys took one look at the bloody man and ran straight into the kitchen of the townhouse while crying at the top of their lungs. Horsham slumped down into the straw by Blackie and passed out. He woke on the kitchen table, surrounded by kitchen staff, as the head chief was neatly sewing him up. That was fortunate for Lady Confabulate's kitchen was large and impeccably clean, the wooden kitchen tables huge and always scrubbed, the knives sharp and clean, the light bright for cooking. So Lady Confabulate's kitchen made a very hygienic operating theater. And the chief who could debone a bird in one minute flat was very good with his knife too. He was just finishing sewing Horsham up in fact, his apron spattered with blood but his face bland as if he was preparing turduckin instead of sewing up human flesh.

"I thank you Chief Junipii. As usual, you rise to the occasion" Horsham said as he groaned and raised his head to survey the damage.

"Not at all. As I chief I am naturally expected to command any situation. Three times Lady Confabulate send her entire staff to the Front to nurse. A chief learns from every situation and from every master he encounters. And I find that human anatomy is very similar to birds and animals I serve up for feasts. Pigs in particular are very similar to the human condition." Chief Junipii cut the last thread and then started to bandage the last wound with clean kitchen linen. "If you had woken twenty minutes ago you would have seen my mistress. Lady Confabulate herself came downstairs to see you as I was operating. And very concerned she was too. But I assured her that I would take good care of your wounds. I pride myself on my clean work and to not anticipate any blood poisoning or septic reaction. Such things only happen in dirty kitchens and filthy backrooms that pubs use for their food preparation. I see no reason you will not recover quickly and neatly. I had to recut your older wound in your side. It had festered. Military handiwork? Septic. But I have cauterized it properly and now that too will heal now."

Chief Junipii gestured and four strong footmen neatly slid Horsham onto a door pulled off it's hinges and carried him to his mew tucked above the stables where the stable hands were housed in small but tidy apartments overlooking the inner courtyard of the stable. They carried him quite neatly being footmen and by job trained to carry heavy platters neatly, having the muscles for the job by long hours holding and serving heavy platters up to fifty pounds in weight. But still Horsham was jostled and his face blanched when he was neatly slid into his bed. The clean kitchen and the clean apartment both saved his life. He would have died if he had tried to nurse himself in one of his old slum hovels and his old doctor, Kakoff, was gone to Goldenthrond killing off rich aging patients now with his dubious elixirs of youth.

For three days he breathed under the balmy influence of opium, unconscious, while his body regrouped, the most Chief Junipii dare give Horsham who was, Lady Confabulate told him, a recovering drug addict. Then they stopped and let him sleep off the last fading tinge of rosy delight and wake on his own. He woke clean eyed and pale but not feverous, the wounds healing well. Lady Confabulate sat with him for no little amount of the time when he was unconscious, quietly writing out letters on her portable writing desk, her brush neat as always, her runes discreet and tasteful, her manner calm and controlled. As always.

Horsham woke bemused. "I dreamed of paradise".

"You dreamed of a clean room. Cleanliness is always inspiring of sweet dreams" Lady Confabulate replied, dropping her brush and dusting the wet ink with find sand. "The household gods love people who live clean lives: moderate, discreet, disciplined." She folded up the thick paper and picked up a candle and dropped a blot of red wax on the flap. Then she pressed her signet ring into the wax, embossing it with her crest.

"I am never moderate, discreet, or disciplined" Horsham replied.

"No. Except in one thing. Your intellect. For all your passions you always think clearly and precisely. Even unconscious your muttered -- but did not reveal ---- your concerns about the rogue Device loose in Arcadia. I too have been pondering it since you informed me that Ben and Luna, in their besotted folly, uncaged an infamous Device and caused it to come into Arcadia. I have replayed my memories of Rhingol since. You are right. His dangerous plunge into Dementia started when the Device was uncaged. Before he was charmingly unstable, tediously infantile, dangerous naive, and criminally self absorbed. But now he is paranoid. Three more people have been arrested. Floradale has been declared a Nitthing Man and exiled. Also all the actors and actresses of his Midnight Folly he intended to use to expose the Royal Family to the world. Actors cannot be held as criminals for accepting roles in a performance. Prince Kitsune has been ordered to stay at Wisteria Pavilion under house arrest. Only Lady Wisteria Fujitsu's mysterious authority prevents Kitsune's arrest. And today an Elven officer, Blackberry Blackheart, is to be hanged on a gallows erected not by the beef slaughter guildhall per custom but on the Pally Mall in front of the Oohagh Gate. He is the first Elve to be publically executed -- for attempting to assassinate Ben."

"What? When?"

"The day after you were ambushed. A fine member of the Elite 1000. From a very old and respected family. Contrary to his name, he was a most patriotic man, a war veteran of some twelve campaigns."

"I know him well. A most valiant soldier. And as sensible a man as any I have ever fought with. We fought the Grey Owl Campaign together and again for the War of the Bluebells. Long ago he was the Aide de Camp to Celebeau."

"He hangs today. Hangs. Like a common thief. No Elve has ever been executed in such an unseemly way. Privately. Yes. Asked to commit suicide in the clan house. Yes. But never openly. Not like this. This is something only Ben would demand."

"And Celebeau is allowing it?"

"Apparently yes. He has yet to stop it."

"Blackheart was once his Military Advisor! His friend! A brave officer! A famous soldier! How can Celebeau allow this? It will be seen as a slap in the face of the entire Imperial Army!"

"Yes. Everyone is shocked. Lady Blackheart herself went to the Court and to plead for her son's life and was refused entry and left to stand at the front gate like some lackey or tradesman."

"Ben.... was he much hurt?"

"Alas no. Only a flesh wound. The Darling of Destiny lives. Alas for Arcadia." Lady Confabulate finished her correspondence and closed her portable desk. Then she set it aside and smiled calmly at Horsham. "You look much improved. I am confident now that you are out of all mortal danger ---- for the present. But the Shadow Opposition is now clearly openly targeted. What happened to you will happen to all of us. Either sordid murder, or Nitthing exile, or execution. It seems that opposition has become treason and questioning the powers to be has become criminal subversiveness. The Royal Family has chosen to cling to absolute power by violence and infamy. It will only make people hate them the more and plot the more to kill them. They had better reinforce their stone walls that encircle their embattled Court. Make them very high. And cement broken glass on top like Lady Sanguinary once did. And keep lots of guards."

"They already have. The court has become a fortress. I used to slither in and out at will and now find it mighty hard to infiltrate. I must take a diverse and obscure side gate just to visit Wisteria Pavilion! I was stopped yesterday when I tried to visit Lord Naratun even! He is but a hair's breathe away from being declared a Nitthing Exile too and Lord Naratun is the Leader of the Court Elite 100.

I once entertained in the Royal Maw with all the court wizards and dancers every year on the solstice, one of Wisteria's pupils. I was once asked to dance at many a pavilion. Once I was even asked to dance at a birthday party for Rhingol himself. Now I am treated like an invader in the Royal Court! The siege mentality will make it hard for Rhingol to throw any more birthday parties for himself."

"Who would wish to attend one?" Lady Confabulate replied dryly. She smiled gently. "I have a month. Then I must travel abroad. Let us spend it gently for who knows what danger may overshadow us?"

"We have precious little time I fear" Horsham replied.

"Which is why we should watch the twilight now while we can. Soon it will be dark and moonless and we will be surrounded by shadows. And you cannot rise and wage war with all of your usual violence and excess of passion until then. Your body cannot keep abreast of your passionate soul or your brave heart. Chance and Fate, those mischievous twin gods, have offered us one month during which time we may pause and ponder and admire the sunset. Then they will close the door forevermore. It is a gift left by careless gods. We should take advantage of it while we can. When you can race Blackie headlong into danger then we will resume our Shadow Opposition."

"Ben may not give us the time."

"Ben will take down the smaller prey animals first before he goes after the predators. Us. I have warned the others of the Shadow Opposition to prepare for attack. We are all in defensive positions on top of hills, behind hastily erected barricades, prepared for attack. Ben will have to attack each position with an frontal attack now. We know we are being hunted and will not be ambushed like you. And Ben will have to spend a little more money too. Cheap thugs won't do anymore."

"He hired them to kill Floradale. Having paid already, he decided to get his money's worth by using them to attack me. But yes. They were cheaply bought. Ten years ago I would have killed them all."

"You did kill them all."

"But not before they almost killed me first. My personal Decline to Fall is therefore make very clear to me and to Ben and to all my future assassins."

"It was dark. In daylight your eyes are still clear to the danger."

"How discreetly worded my lady. I nice paraphrase for 'going blind'. Do you know all my weaknesses?"

"A friend notes the weaknesses of a friend in order to guard his back."

"Are you a friend?"

"Yes Horsham. I am a friend."

"Why?"

"You have a brave heart and a sharp mind. And you pick the same battlefields to fight on and the same causes to fight for as I do. So we are battlefield allies and fellow veterans of war. I perhaps fight only on the Home Front but nowadays the Home Front is the Battle Front."

" You fight bravely lady, and the Home Front is a nasty a battlefield as the Battle Front nowadays. It is the twilight. I can see it from my bed."

Lady Confabulate turned and looked out of the window. The sky was gloriously iridescent like a mother of pearl shell. The two people watched it together yet apart. Their bodies did not touch. But the respect they both shared for each other did touch -- a frail bridge connecting two frail people in the midst of the Decline to Fall of their individual lives.

Cartoon of Horsham of Arcadia, artist unknown.

Above: damaged drawing of Lady Confabulate. Below: drawing of Celebeau.

Chapter 2: First Act Climax.

The interlude did not last one month. But two weeks later, after four other members of the Shadow Opposition were arrested, and another three were declared Nitthing Exiles, Horsham rose in pain, hunched over and pale from his bed and ordered Blackie prepared. That day the letter of Vocantis arrived. He confessed to selling a keg of black powder to a shadowy person. Masked. But not a man. A woman. A Mere Woman. "The size and the curves were that of a Mere Mortal. A Merrach. Not fat but curvy despite her wearing a man's clothes. Her accent was clever too but faked. And she wore expensive perfume. She paid in gold durhams. Who has durhams anymore? I was desperate to emigrate. I choose not to ask for details, preferring not to know. But I did not intend to betray a business associate. I am not a blackguard. I was just a scared Dwarve. Scared of blackguarding if I stayed. I left IOU's but I am paying them off Horsham! I swear! I will pay you back too. I am designing weapons of war for Cleardan. My Liquid Fire is still too unstable but I swear I am getting close. But Cleardan is interested in your black powder. So is Durham of the Old Citadel. Emigrate to The Havens Horsham! Join me! Let us get rich off war! Leave the fighting to the losers. We are too old to fight and Fate owes us some good cards of Chance for once in our embattled lives."

"Nellie sold me out" he told Lady Confabulate. She is the paid agent of both Bela and Prince Grafton, a double agent. Playing off both. Playing both off each other. I got a copy of her account book kept by her Dwarve accountant. She has bought five new Dwarve annuities and also bought her neighbor's land in a blackguard sale. Way too much money. And some of the money is in durhams. Who has durhams to spend nowadays? No alto. No tenor. No opera singer at the Orangery. Nellie got a little too greedy to feather her retirement flet. But I won't be played and I won't be betrayed. I am surprised Celebeau has not had me arrested already for the black powder. He knows I created it. Though of course he also knows it had to be either Nellie or Floradale who used the stuff for the bomb to put Prince Grafton on the throne. It was Nellie of course. I am surprised he is playing the mute role. I figured he would be inching to play the starring role and have me arrested."

"Celebeau has been trying to stop the arrests. He tried to persuade Malian to declare an Recency and have Rhingol quietly settled in the country, hidden from view, muffled, reined in and genteelly gagged and tied up. But the bow string broke and cut the archer. Malian won't hear of anything being wrong with Rhingol. She damn near got Celebeau arrested and gagged and tied up himself. He is playing the mute role now to live to tell. Lord Naratun has been ordered to commit suicide for co-signing a petition requesting a Regency. Prince Grafton is at the Front fighting. No one dare arrest him while he is the tin god. Not even Ben. But Ben is trying anyway. Everyone is walking on a street littered with dung, on tiptoe, slowly and carefully er they fall to their shame."

"Grafton is smart. If he stays at the Front he must might live to tell. But Ben is probably playing on Rhingol's paranoia to axe his rivals one by one. Who is safe? No one. Poor Naratun. I always admired him as a man and as a statesman. A patriot through and through. Ben is just picking us off one by one. Seizing power by liquidating the opposition. Typical of Ben. Short sighted ruthlessness! Kill the best off and leave the worse. But the best killed off who will save Arcadia?

Someone has to do something. But I have no blackmail to expose Ben with beside the truth about the Black Plague and the Device. And the Black Plague is an open secret now. The Device I do not want to publicize. But of course the Device is the very center of the unfolding catastrophe. Whoever seizes that rogue Device running loose in Arcadia will become the enemy of Arcadia. That Device is our death warrant. It will render Arcadia Nitthing in History. It will annihilate us.

Mankind was safe only so long as the Dark Lord kept all the Devices locked up in the Fiery Fissure Fortress. Loose, they will destroy us. Behind everything that is happening is the central catastrophe of the Devices. The creation of Death caused Maestus the Damned to create the accurst Devices in order to wage war against a god, Father god of Fire. That is why Father god of Fire went to paradise to seize them. The Devices caused the death of Finn who was guarding them for his son Maestus who was canvassing the Celestial Elves to leave paradise and invade Our World to wage war.

Then the Devices drove the Celestial Elves from Paradise, curst by the gods of the West.. The Devices drove the Celestial Elves into waging the disastrous Celestial Wars that have ruined them and damned them. They drove Arcadia into joining in the catastrophe, wars we could not win and could not afford to wage. They drove the Dark Lord, who killed for the Devices and hoarded the Devices, into declaring war on Our World to keep the Devices.

They drove the Dark Lord into attacking Arcadia in earnest to annihilate us when Ben and Luna went after a Device. The pursuit of the Devices unleashed the Black Plague and that monestrous, rabid beast eating our children as we speak. (I hear the number is up to fourteen children now when the rabies ravished wolf morphs into a Were Monster.) The unleashed Device is driving Rhingol insane, and also Kitsune. The Black Device is spreading contagion and contamination all over Arcadia. The obscene creation of Maestus the Damned is fueling all the festering evil and the malevolence of the gods. They are blackening our future and damning us in posterity. And unless we can get that Device and destroy it, that Device will destroy Arcadia before we can all die at the end of a hangman's noose."

"I find it very rude of Fate and Chance to reveal an hidden character in the Third Act."

"The Devices were always there in plain view of history."

"Yes but locked up, far away, out of view and therefore out of mind."

"Hidden evil, like hidden vice and hidden weakness, will always surface to wreak one's life."

" But after so many failed Celestial Wars to seize those evil things, I always assumed the Devices would stay locked up forever. The Fiery Fissure unassailable. Could we -- if you could find the wolf and kill it and retrieve the Device -- could we -- well -- just return it to the Dark Lord? I mean-- as you said -- as long as the Devices are locked up on Fiery Fissure we were -- could still be safe -- so could we just return it?"

Horsham laughed grimly, bemused by her novel solution. "A woman's clever solution my lady. And perhaps the right solution ---- unless the loss of the Device has so roused the fury of the Dark Lord that he will never forgive or forget."

"When he had them all he was tied to the Fiery Fissure Fortress. He behaved like a miser hoarding treasure rather than a free agent at loose in Our World wreaking havoc. Perhaps if he has them all again he will revert to his prior behavior: malevolent but dormant, like an addict in a stupor."

"Interesting thought. The Devices by their very names implies they are machines or weapons yet the Dark Lord did not exploit them in any way. Rather, as you say, he hoarded them covertly and secretly and obsessively like a mad Dwarve pawing some secret stolen treasure in a desolate cave. I know now that the Five Devices also happen to mirror the Five Physical Senses. The Device Ben and Luna stole for instance is the Pearl Device of Smell. There is a Device of Sight. So the others must be the Devices of Taste, Touch, and Hearing. It was only when he lost one that he appeared to wake from the spell and launched his all out war against Arcadia and the Pale. The Pearl apparently, according to Luna, smelled like divinity incarnate. Perhaps the Devices magnify the Five Physical Senses. The Dark Lord is an abstract creature, the Shadow of Father god of Fire. Could such creations effect him? Cause him to live vicariously in the physical world? Intoxicate him? Seduce him?

Before, even during the Celestial Wars, he played a defensive game. We attacked him to get the Devices. He fought like fury to keep the Devices. Yes. He certainly immobilized them in the Fiery Fissure Fortress but they also appeared to immobilize him. Kept him bottled up in the Fiery Fissure Fortress. The situation was neutral. Not peace of course but still stable. A sort of very slow motion distant war. A sort of war on ice if you will. But not an all out vendetta that we have now. Full frontal attack. All the time. On all fronts. I wonder..... what would happen if.... if ..... we just let him have it back......?"

"Can you hunt down the monstrous rabid wolf and kill it and retrieve the Device and return it Horsham? You are not yet fully healed and the monstrous beast has killed two full packs of dogs and hunters Celebeau has already sent after it. No matter how wounded, the beast seems immune to any death's blow. And ...there is the second question..... if you got the Device .... could it effect you? The Device sounds like a powerful and seductive thing.... dangerously seductive......"

"Not the sort of thing you want a drug addict and drunk to go after....."

"Destiny is not playing fair to send a man into danger to fight a thing he is least capable of fighting. Especially as Ben the Braggart lays comfortably on his back on his honeymoon flet being caressed by Luna and never risks his life at all for all his claims of being fearless and bold."

"Ben is Destiny's Darling. I am Destiny's Bastard. But I swear to you that I will either destroy the Device, or return the Device to the Fiery Fissure, all in order to save Arcadia, or die trying. May a transmutation curse damn me if I fail and may a Celestial Curse damn me too. But if I go mad trying ---- kill me and do the deed yourself. I honestly know no other person I can trust with the danger of the Device. I believe Celebeau is underestimating the dangers though he is certainly moving to seize it. As is Bela. Show me the names of the hunters. Yes. See. I recognize at least eight Crows on the list. Both Bela and Celebeau are hunting the Device down. But I trust neither man just as neither man trusts me. But at least I know how dangerous the Device is. Foreknowledge may not save me but it will at least forewarn me. But above all we must not allow Ben to get hold of the Device for he will surely keep it and find out how to use it. And I sincerely believe the Devices are war machines that will only unleash Celestial Calamity on one and all. All my spies and all my intelligence confirm that. Celestial Calamity. Celestial Curses and Celestial Calamity rains down on anyone who touches a Device. Madness and ruin. Bad luck and exile and catastrophe. The history speaks plain but no one has been willing to read it. Anyone who hoards or uses a Device will be damned by Celestial Calamity."

Lady Confabulate nodded, her face worried. "Oh yes," she said, "and I have done as you asked and had Wells take your weapons and sharpen them and ..... most curiously..... silver gilt them. And Wells has even added a pure silver long knife as his gift. And even more amazing, He has done it all for free." Lady Confabulate unwrapped the lethal weapons and Horsham carefully inspected them before rising from his sick bed.

"Were Monsters my dear lady, must be killed most carefully...."

Horsham dressed in his old battle tunic and painfully hobbled to his horse. He needed a stable hand to help him mount the large horse for he did not have the strength. Once up he smiled wearily down on Lady Confabulate. "Pray for me when you pray to your household gods my lady. Write to Lord Naratun for me. He must not commit suicide even on Royal Command. The status of his name beside your name is needed to keep the Shadow Opposition alive. And he is too good a patriot for Arcadia to lose. And if I do not see you alive again may I say ------ I have come to rely on your friendship and sympathy to guard my back against adversity. And I do thank you. You are a most gracious lady indeed."

"And I have come to admire you too Horsham as a most valiant man, though much maligned by Fate and Chance, and I feared doomed by Destiny. I will pray to my household gods for you."

Horsham reached down and kissed Lady Confabulate's hand. Then he rode off. She waved as he rode away, a brittle looking Elve but nevertheless an Elve with a stout heart. Horsham never saw Lady Confabulate alive again.

Horsham rode to the Rocky River where he had mapped the pattern of rabies and murder amidst rumors of sightings of a monstrous Were Beast of hideous shape and size. The rumors were wild for the people were frightened and frightened people do not give coherent descriptions. Bela ignored them altogether. He told his hunters they were hunting simple rabies infected wolves or rabies infected Country Folk. Vicious but imbecilic homicidal beasts under the influence of disease. Celebeau told his hunters they were hunting something that came 'from the Land of Shadows and may be a monster of unknown and possibly unnatural and horrible nature'. Then he held funerals and wept with the shattered and grieving parents for he doted on little children and the Were Beast seemed obsessed with stalking little children especially. The mangled bodies of the dead children were horrible. But more horrible were the 'lucky ones' who escaped being killed outright. They nevertheless died infected by rabies and as Ben often boasted, only Ben ever survived the bite of a rabid beast and lived to boast about it. And worse, three adorable children turned into Were Monsters and killed their sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers before finally they were killed by Celebeau's men who nevertheless wept shamelessly even as they killed the fay little moppets infected with soul killing Were Disease.

Horsham however read the transcripts very carefully and decided that there were a pack of beasts running loose: a hairy Lessor Werewolf or man beast (an Elve probably), two Greater Werewolves (rabid mutant Countryfolk Wolflings of grotesque shape and size and dangerous cunning), and another even more hideous and grotesque monster beyond the pale of imagination of the victims to describe coherently. The witnesses appeared incoherent because the beasts were four quite different beasts beyond the knowledge of the peasants. Nature never begot such beasts. But Horsham had in fact seen such beasts beyond the River of Shadows. Indeed he had seen many a grotesque monstrosity roaming in the far north. Tracks of monsters. Even sightings of monsters. Even duels with monsters. Monstrously diseased men too of course. But also monsters. Genuine monsters. The Dark Lord was not only experimenting to create hideous new diseases but hideous new forms of mutant life such as Nature never intended to roam the world. So he took the transcripts at face value. He prepared to hunt down four monsters running with a pack of rabid wolves and rabid Countryfolk ie werewolves.

Horsham was not in good shape and neither was Blackie. The valiant Blackie was an aging horse now. Neither man or horse had the health or strength to race across the wild forests of the Rocky River in a bold and wild hunt. So Horsham instead studied his maps. The sightings and the victims formed a pattern based on terrain, weather, time of the evening, and the phases of the moon. Horsham spent a week giving his battered body needed time to heal while deciphering the mystery of unnatural madness. Meanwhile three more children died. Celebeau was beside himself and broke down weeping at the funeral of the last victim. Horsham just made careful calculations with his knowledge of Dwarve mathematics. Then he calculated when and where the next attack would mostly likely take place. He rode to the desolate farm and secretly staked out a lookout, not warning the family, spying on the next child he suspected would be the target but not warning anyone, and waited.

It was twilight. The fog was just beginning to roll in, a milky blanket hugging the contours of the landscape. The moon was due to be full tonight. A wind blew from the north. The farm was next to a shallow stream and abutted a grove of trees and a stretch of semi-tamed wilderness. There was only one family dog and he was not a mastiff or wolf hound, only a sheep dog. Horsham was in a tree. He had made his best educated guess that this would be it. If he was wrong then nothing would happen here and a child would die somewhere else. If he was too slow then the child he had been watching for the last two days would die horribly.

The fog bank rolled slowly toward the isolated farm. The dog barked. The mother called for her child, a fay little girl, to hurry up feeding the pigs and hurry inside. The father was hastily driving the last animals into the barn before retreating to the home he had desperately tried to fortify with salvage wood over the holes that were windows. The kitchen door was open and cast a warm halo of golden light as the twilight waned. Horsham perched in the tree and listened with all the force of his still pristine hearing for any strange little sound that would warn him of creeping beasts. But all was banal: pigs squalling, chickens clicking, cows mooing, the dog barking, the man hastily clicking his tongue as he rounded up the last stray animals, the little girl singing as she fed the pigs the muck left from the kitchen leftovers. The animals were behaving as normal, no noise or panic at all.

The girl skipped into the kitchen. The father locked the barn door and ran into the kitchen. The door slammed shut. The sound of wood being braced over the door was heard. Then silence. Nothing had happened at all. Nothing. Nothing. Horsham had guessed wrong. The beasts were attacking some other farm instead. Someone else was dying somewhere else. Horsham flinched, closing his eyes for a moment. Then he quietly jumped down from the tree and walked into the fog bank.

The world went opaque, milky dark as the fog surrounded him. The air was clammy. The full moon was but a misty and distant orb in the milky fog. The trees, like muffled shadows, rustled softly. The moist earth smelled fetid like something rotting into moist decay. The garbage dump was nearby. The dog was not barking. The dog was NOT barking!

Horsham froze. He had not seen the dog run into the warm kitchen! He quietly pulled out his silver gilded steel long sword and held it with his right hand as he drew his silver gilded throwing knife with his left. He listened. Where had he last heard the dog barking? Then he heard a soft sound of something being dragged across moist earth. A weight. Or a body. And then another sound: something eating something else. Horsham quietly crept toward the refuse pile that every farm had where all the muck and garbage ended up. His feet made no sound in the moist earth. He barely breathed.

The fog bank was now all around him, dense, moist, clammy. The sound of flesh being eaten continued. Horsham crept closer. Slowly. Carefully. His eyes seeing only fog. Any other man would have been terrified by the blindness of the fog. But milky, shadowy blurs were increasingly becoming the norm for Horsham as blindness slowly crept around him like a fog of the eyes, slowly stealing away his vision. His eyes bulged but he expected to see nothing until he was upon it: the creature. The Beast. The Monster.

"It is not either of the Greater Werewolves for they stalk children. It has to be the Lessor Werewolf man beast." He strained to hear the soft sounds of flesh being eaten and blood being sucked. He crept toward the sounds. The fog was now so dense he could not see a foot before him. Then the beast reared up before him: a hairy man animal entirely covered with fur, with snarling teeth dripping blood and mad red eyes. It reared from the carcass of the dead dog and snarled, it's hands with three inch long claws dripping blood. The beastly man snarled at Horsham. Around his neck something silver gleamed: an Elven Crest.

Then there was an sound behind. Something was behind him! That was not possible! Horsham threw the knife into the Lessor Werewolf man beast and spun around just as the giant monestrous thing leaped through the fog, aiming for his throat. It was an ambush. The beasts were not hunting the child but hunting him! Horsham swung his sword in a wheel gesture, slashing the giant blurry thing in the fog attacking him, then he leaped into the air, pivoting in midair, before ducking and rolling as he hit the ground. He felt the rush of fur as some giant beastly thing leaped over his head, just missing him. A huge beast. Unrecognizable. Grotesque. Hideous. Bloated. It's belly swollen. The giant beast was pregnant and near to term to give birth to a litter of monsters. The monster's mate, the Lessor Werewolf man beast leaped up, howling, wounded by the knife and flaying on the ground. The giant monster screamed and again lunged through the fog after Horsham who scampered to his feet and welded his sword, hacking at the beast that reared up over eight feet tall, roaring and howling as it slashed at him with huge paws filled with sickle claws. Flashing teeth, dripping with diseased saliva, shown in the moonlet fog. The huge mouth as a maw of death and disease, fetid as a grave. And red eyes burned in the fog. Burning red eyes.

In the distance, from the farmhouse there were cries of horror. Distant. Distorted by the fog. Horsham lunched at the huge beast that towered over him, over a thousand pounds of bloated girth, grotesque belly, bristly hair, huge claws and teeth, and mad eyes. Behind Horsham he heard the Lessor Werewolf howling as it crawled behind Horsham, still trying to join the attack. He heard it crawling, one leg wounded. But it was still crawling forward to protect it's mate, the pregnant She Monster. Horsham ducked a slashing mass of bloody claws, wheeled around, and blindly slashed again. He hit the Lessor Werewolf a glancing blow and he bayed and retreated, crawling on all fours, retreating back to the garbage dump and the carcass of the dead dog where it wailed in impotent fury.

Then Horsham wheeled about again, nimbly leaping across the dank ground for all his size and girth while blindly trying to spear the beast with his long sword. Alas the She Monster proved nimble too despite her grotesque size and bloated belly. The monestrous She Monster panted in the fog, a blurry shadow, then lunged again. Horsham ducked and rolled away and again he felt the beast as it leaped over him, brushing him with it's coiling tail as it passed overhead. Horsham rolled across the damp ground, then he leaped to his feet and ran like hell, back to the farmhouse where screams were filling the fog.

In the fog a blurry halo of gold was swelling. The farmhouse was on fire. Fire was erupting from the door and scampering up the thatch to erupt into smoking waves of fire. The panicked family had run out of the house on instinct only to run straight into the waiting arms of the rabid Greater Werewolves who had set fire to the thatch and sod house so very easily. Unlike mere rabid wolves, Greater Werewolves, once benign Countryfolk, can plot murder even when in their beastly incarnation, especially in their beastly incarnation.

In the fog, illume by fire, Horsham saw the beasts tearing apart the dead bodies and shoving body parts into their bloody snouts. Interrupted, the beasts turned around and glared at Horsham for so rudely interrupting their feast. The Greater Werewolves were crouching on their hind legs as they tore at the flesh with their front paws. Their snouts dripped blood. Grotesque teeth stuck out of grotesque jaws, some of the teeth impaling the jaws and upper snouts, the jaws misaligned. Their eyes stared straight on at Horsham. Red rimmed eyes but clearly not imbecile wolf eyes. Rather, they were cunning eyes. Evil eyes. But eyes of creatures that once were humanistic. Changelings. Wolflings. They held the torn flesh with clawed front paws that featured human thumbs.

Seeing Horsham they jumped up and down on their haunches, their bushy tails pounding the ground, as they clutched at their prizes, as if fearing Horsham might try to snatch the food away from them. Clearly they were not alphas in the pack but mid rank predictors. The She Monster chasing Horsham was the alpha female. The rabid Greater Werewolves, bloody foam of rabies dripping from the fangs along with the blood of the kill, snarled and bayed to the alpha female She Monster. She howled back in response, the leader of a diseased pack of homicidal man eaters. All four Were Beasts were in various stages of Were Disease. Rabies was but the least contagion. Were Disease was as contagious as the Black Plague but infinitely more evil for the victim did not die but rather lived to kill first it's own family , then other loved ones, then other families, then any and all of Mankind, as Were Disease slowly drained the sanity away -- very slowly -- leaving the victims of Were Disease initially fully aware of their grisly murders.

Behind Horsham he heard the snarling of the She Monster as she wallowed forward, her pregnant belly almost dragging. Further back could be heard the sound of the Lessor Werewolf man beast crawling forward too, to join the kill. To join in killing him.

Surrounded by Were Beasts, Horsham gasped, biting down his terror. Then Horsham lunged forward and impaled the smaller of the Greater Werewolves before him with his pure silver long knife before leaping up into the smoldering sod and smoky thatch. It was the rainy season and the thatch was thick and mossy and dripping wet so the fire was mostly smoke and but scattered patches of flame. Horsham gaged the condition of the slowly burning thatch, then paused and looked down from behind the smoke to a ghastly hell scene being played out below.

Below, the She Monster came into view, illuminated for a moment by the fire, as monestrous a creature as only the Dark Lord could have created in the bowels of the Fiery Fissure Fortress. Her hunger bottomless, she seized the dying body of the Greater Werewolf and ripped the flesh to pieces, tearing it apart, shoveling huge pieces of bloody flesh into her huge mouth. The Greater Werewolf mate cowered as it's mate was eaten. But the picking order was too well defined by death and violence for the Greater Werewolf to challenge. The Alpha Female She Monster feasted with impunity on the grotesque body that was once a fair and gentle wife to a fair and gentle man. And the man, now a Greater Werewolf, only bayed and howled as the last few flickers of human memories died with the remains of his one time wife. Man and wife monsters had long ago killed and eaten their children, their parents, their neighbors, and their kin before becoming Man Killers at large. The murder of his once time wife was now but a final flicker of horror after so many acts of horror played out over too long a nightmare time. Insanity blotted out the last human spark altogether now. The Greater Werewolf bayed and howled -- for a share of the feast.

"My belly is eating me alive my Mistress" the Greater Werewolf screamed out. "My belly! My belly! Since I ate a portion of the killer who failed to kill the evil one who stole from our Master the Dark Lord. My belly twists in agony as if the evil hand of the evil man that clutched the evil thing is ripping my belly apart from the inside out. And the cold thing in that hand is eating my belly from the inside out. And rabies is eating me from the inside out. And I am eternally hungry and eternally thirsty! And my mate -- my mate-- my wif----- my mate ---- the meat is still quivering! Blood still flowing! And I am hungry ---- hungry ---- hungry" the Greater Werewolf pawed out for some of the bloody meat that once was his mate and once was his wife.

Then the Lesser Werewolf man beast crawled into fiery view. It was still quite recognizably a man, an Elve. Around the hairy neck Horsham again spotted a flash of metal, an Elve's crest, still encircling the beastly man's neck. The man beast bayed and howled as it crawled on it's belly on the ground beside the giant alpha female. It was groveling to it's mate. "I too am hungry my Mistress and my mate! I too am hungry. Eternally hungry and eternally thirsty!" He too pawed out for some of the gristly meat. "Permit us to feed on the dead and dying too! Permit us to feed! We want to feed! Let us feed!"

The alpha female paused, roared, then tossed a half gnawed joint to the beastly man who panted in appreciation, before shoveling the meat into it's mouth. Alas the beastly man still had a mostly human face and therefore only a limited snout and could not open it's jaws nearly so wide as the alpha female who could apparently swallow whole joints. At the present moment she in fact was swallowing the entire body, minus the head that had already been eaten, of the angelic little child.

To reestablish it's position in the pack, the Greater Werewolf that had lost it's mate to pack ranking and pregnant cravings, now crawled up to the alpha female on it's belly, bayed, then panted too. "I too want to feed! Let me feed! Let me feed!" The alpha female snared, then tossed a partly gnawed leg of the dead mate to the Greater Werewolf who then feasted on it's dead one time wife. Meanwhile the alpha female gently stroked it's gargantuan belly with one bloody hand, as if gently stroking it's unborn litter of monsters. No wonder she was so ravenous, a behemoth beast with a bottomless appetite. Meanwhile the Greater Werewolf also clawed and clutched at it's belly as if pregnant too, as if something was alive inside and clawing to break out. The Device. The Greater Werewolf had eaten of the kill that had tried to eat Ben and failed. The Device was now bouncing about in the belly of the Greater Werewolf before Horsham. And Horsham gasped in utter horror.

Children are especially rich morsels for a pregnant female to consume to feed her soon to be born pups. Monestrous pups. The horror of the She Monster was very clear. The horror and the danger. But the Device's tantalizingly presence so very near also teased Horsham. "If only! If only! So close! I am so very close to the Device! I would be vindicated! I would beat Ben! I would be able to save Arcadia and be the hero again if I could slay that beast right now and seize the Device! I must seize the Device!" Horsham pulled out his magical golden sword and prepared to leap straight into the middle of the grisly scene.

But then sanity knocked Horsham back to his senses. Horsham realized that he could not possibly kill three monsters by himself, even with a silver gilded steel sword, even with a golden magical sword that could kill but four more times, even with both swords in both hands. The idea was sheer lunacy. At the very least he would be wounded by a carrier of Were Disease and slowly but horribly morph into a Were Beast himself. At worst he would but provide the She Monster with more meat to feed on. So he ducked and leaped across the slowly burning thatch and jumped down the other side of the farmhouse and ran off. The beasts were too busy eating to bother to give chase. Horsham ran all the way back to Blackie and then rode like hell to intercept Celebeau. The hunters had to move fast before that alpha female gave birth er Arcadia be overwhelmed by a voracious mob of cunning Were Beasts who could ambush, set fires, plot murder, and spread death and rabies, and worse, Were Disease, beyond the pale of imagination. If those beastly babies lived, Arcadia did not need fear being conquered by distant armies from the Land of Shadows. It would not last two years under a deluge of deadly contagion: Were Disease carried by mutant beasts that once either used to be human, or else were forcibly bred with humans prisoners of war. Horsham had to get back to Arcadia and warn it about the true extent of the deadly danger.....

"I want to know the truth! Now!"

"Please Celebeau! Ben is not well. Now is not the time."

"........I want the truth!"

"I told the truth!"

"No you omitted crucial facts. Like how did Ringold die? Really? And how may of your fellow prisoners were suffering from disease, and what type of disease, and ..."

"It was a death hole! We were all dying of disease damn it! Look at me! Do I look healthy even now!"

Ben pulled up his tunic and show a body that was still stick thin, his ribs protruding, his hips harsh angles, his gut a bottomless hollow. Luna whimpered to see her lover so exposed, his ravished body still too painful to permit hope of his ever recovering.

"Please Celebeau! Not now!"

"How did Ringold die?"

"Fighting a Werewolf."

"Or fighting a Werewolf, being bitten, not killed, contaminated, to become a Werewolf himself? A carrier of deadly disease! Were Disease!"

"What does it matter?"

"Did you see him die?"

"No! I was too busy trying not to die myself!"

"What does it matter Celebeau?" Luna wept. "Now? Nearly two years later?"

"That monestrous pack of Were Beasts up the Rocky River, so busily butchering men and women, and mostly butchering little children, happen to include two Greater Werewolves, some ghastly and pregnant She Monster, and a Lessor Werewolf wearing a mithril crest around it's neck. And that monestrous pack of Were Beasts did not appear in Arcadia until you came back from the Land of Shadows ...... after losing most of one hand to a rabid wolf tracking you and following you, as you have so often boasted Ben! A rabid wolf? Or a rabid Ringold? "

"So maybe Ringold did not die.... just got bitten...... but once bitten he would be as good as dead."

"Rabies can cause Countryfolk to mutant into bizarre monsters and we do not even know how a rabid Elve might mutant! Were Beasts can be men who are bitten but do not die outright! Were Disease is related to Rabies. The Dark Lord has tinkered with Rabies to create Were Disease. Put two and two together and add it up damn you!"

"So maybe it is ......maybe Ringold...."

"Tracking you back here!"

"How do I know! And why do I care! I survived! That is all that mattered!"

"And the wolf that bite off most of your hand, the famous wolf infected by rabies, the wolf that swallowed two thirds of your hand still clutching the Device, that wolf, was it a wolf ONLY infected with rabies or a Lessor Werewolf or a Greater Werewolf?"

"Please Celebeau! If Ben had been bitten by a Werewolf then he would be showing symptoms of Were Disease by now. It has been almost two years since the attack.. He has never recovered but it is because of Rabies and not Were Disease."

"The symptoms are not dissimilar Luna and the first people to die are always the nearest and closest: the family of the victim. Horsham said ..."

"Horsham said! Horsham said! What nonsuch! Horsham knows nothing! Why even bring that fraud into this? What lies has he been peddling?"

"Horsham tracked the Pack! That is why! And Horsham said the surviving Greater Werewolf was howling that it's belly was 'eating him alive! A thing clawing him from the inside out, trying to burst out. An evil thing still holding a cold thing. He apparently ate part of a pack member who apparently failed to kill some 'evil one' who stole something from the Dark Lord. So Horsham was damn near the Device! A Device now bouncing about in the belly of a Greater Werewolf! Alas Horsham was also outnumbered by three giant Were Beasts of utter horror to take on the Greater Werewolf by himself."

"Coward! I could have taken them on!"

"Nonsuch! Bragging! You have not even joined the Hunt thus far! Beasts killing children have not roused you from your honeymoon flet!"

"Sick bed!" Luna corrected. Ben growled.

"What does it matter what beast has the Device in particular?"

"But I sent men out hunting without being able to warn them of their danger! Damn it! If I had but known the facts earlier I might have saved so many young lives! Children! I have seen the bodies of such mangled and brutalized children!"

"Or is it the Device you are really after Celebeau?" Ben asked sharply, his eyes suddenly hot.

"What is the connection anyway?" Luna asked, in tears. The mention of children reminded her of her recent miscarriage.

"The wolf who ate part of your hand, gave you rabies, and swallowed the Device -- what did it look like? Did it have a mate? Was it running with a pack? Was it running with a pack of Were Beasts? Did it continue to track you into Arcadia? Did you led a Pack of Monsters into Arcadia?"

"I don't know and I don't care! I way nearly dying at the time so I was hardly paying attention!"

"Did it continue to track us? Then the horrible beast killing all those children is the same beast that was tracking us...."

"Into Arcadia! You led a Rabies infested, Were Disease infected pack of monsters right into Arcadia! Here! Here! And you did not tell me! Damn it! And now the Device is in the belly of a Greater Werewolf which is running in a pack of rabies infected wolves, rabies infected countryfolk, and Were Diseased monsters, all right here in Arcadia! And the pack also includes Ringold, Gloriana's brother! And the alpha of that murderous pack of hell creatures is a alpha female near to term and about to bred a litter of monsters!

The Were Beasts are coherent and cunning and in vary stages of Were Disease! And they are quite capable of plotting murder and mayhem even in their bestial incarnation! The pregnant alpha female is feeding on human babies to give birth to monstrous babies of her own! The pack also includes over twelve countryfolk infected with rabies and morphed into Greater Werewolves, plus over eighteen lessor rabies infected wolves. Practically an army of horror! My men never had as chance! I have lost over eleven gallant men because I could not tell them the extent of the danger they were in! Because you were not honest with me! You! Who led that pack of monsters into Arcadia. The whole pack was tracking you! The whole pack of monsters! And you lied!"

"I did not know a pack of monsters were tracking us Celebeau! Please! Please! How can I sleep at night now knowing children are dying because of us! The gods will never allow me to conceive a child now!" Luna burst into tears, her thin hands over her face. "I have damned my womb! My love has been stained with evil! People curse me and spit at me in the street. My beautiful love. How can love, beautiful love, become the magnet of such evil and disaster!"

"An't nothing of the sort!" Ben shouted. "An't nothing to do with us. War. War is war. Survival is survival. We survived! Anyone would have tried to escape that hell hole! Anyone! Survival of the strongest! I didn't do nothing wrong but survive!"

"Your survival unleashed the Black Plague, Typhoid, Rabies, Were Disease, dead babies, and a rogue Device all over Arcadia. Arcadia is becoming one giant field of death because of you! You! People are cursing you! They are praying to their household gods and cursing you! Blackheart's murder attempt on you was after his wife died of the Black Death! Her body so horrible no one dare look on it! He carried his dead wife to her flet in the Sacred Grove and then he came here to kill you because you are responsible! You! Ben! Luna! Both of you!

Lord Naratun was ordered to commit suicide after he tried to submit a Bill of Sanctions against you for bringing the Black Plague and a Device back from the Land of Shadows after his Regency Bill was killed.. Five Court Wizards have been ordered to commit suicide for refusing to lie about the origin of the Black Plague and for ruling that the Device is officially a 'Talisman of Pure Evil carrying the Shadow of Celestial Calamity'. Five other wizards have been ordered into Nitthing Exile. We are now down to three gutless wizards who are but aging charlatans. So much for Court Honor! Horsham has submitted a Bill to Exonerate Prince Kitsune as possessed by Device Evil, acting under the evil influence of the Device. People have started to also say Rhingol's illness is being caused by the Device."

Luna rocked back and forth and wept. Ben glared stubborn, incapable of apologizing or even feeling guilt. His pride would not allow him to ever acknowledge failure.

"At least tell me the truth about the Device you stole and then lost!"

"Nothing to tell! It is nothing but a stupid jewel. It smells like muck..."

"It smells like intoxicating perfume so heady you feel in an opium dream of utter delight. And it is very beautiful. A pearl of wondrous beauty wedded to mithril. It is more beautiful than anything the human mind has ever conceived. We carried it for two days and despite the baying of the pack tracking us, sent to track us by the Dark Lord, still I dreamed of paradise! The beauty was so intoxicating. The wonder of it. It was like the Fragrance of Hope and Love incarnate! Losing it made me feel for a brief moment as if my heart would break. It was for those two days a symbol of my love for Ben. Pure. Beautiful. Eternal. But when I lost it I wept in despair. But then I realized it was but a babble and not a symbol of my love for Ben at all. It was but a thing. A babble. Love is deeper than some jewel of splendor. And Ben was alive, by my side. What did it matter?"

"Then why did you go back and try to retrieve it? The wolves and werewolves and monsters were all tracking you by the smell of that Device."

"I don't know why we went back. We threw it away after we realized we were being tracked by it's intoxicating smell. I don't know why we went back.....why did we go back and risk our lives to fetch it Ben? We could have gotten clean away. You would have recovered clean from the typhoid. It was the rabies that has ravished all of our hopes for your recovery since. We could have gotten clean away.... we did we go back Ben! Everything went wrong when we went back! As if we were damned the moment we touched that accurst jewel! Oh Ben! Why did we have to go north and try to steal a Device! Everything has gone wrong since! So horribly wrong! If only...."

"That damn Device an't nothing but a stupid jewel. I needed to prove to Rhingol, to everyone.... to all those people implying I was a fake.... I had to prove I was what the bards said I was.... a hero! The Hero! The Hero who never knew fear! Horsham. Damn him. He told everyone I was nothing but a fake! He's the fake! The sham! Not me! Not me! And I proved it! I did it! I stole a Device from under the nose of the Dark Lord! I did it! All those Celestial Wars and you Elves all failed! Heike. Rufus Royal. Dannoura. But I did it! I did it! I got a Device!"

Luna stared in shock at Ben. "I thought you went after the Device to buy my hand in marriage? Was it only for renown then? Fame? To have the pub bards recite more gaudy stories about you? To prove you are better than Elves? Not Love. Not me?"

"I did not say that!"

"Yes Ben. You did." Luna said quietly. "Oh Ben. Our love has been stained and damned by a act of bravado because fame and envy has gone to your head. Did you ever love me at all? Or was it always about fame? Bravado? Being first and being famous? Getting the prize before anyone else could? Proving you are better than anyone else? Oh Ben. I am so very sorry for you. My love was pure. Your love was only vanity and pride."

"I loved you Luna!" Ben shouted. He grabbed his wife and shook her. "I don't know why I said that just now! That was not me! I don't know why I said it! That was not the reason!"

"Then why did we go back? Going back has damned our love and damned our loins! We are hated now! Justly! By our many victims! Our glorious love affair has caused nothing but evil!"

"No! No! I love you! And I will never let you go! Not never! Not ever! You're mine! You hear! Mine! Mine! I rode into the Fiery Fissure to possess you! Isn't that love!" Ben kissed Luna violently but Luna turned her face away.

Celebeau shook his head. "Luna bribed a corrupt soldier to steal it with her entire dowery Ben. It was Luna who got the Device and then covered her tracks with the mutiny that also freed you. Luna did it. Luna got the Device. You just got yourself captured and put in a hell hole of contagion which you then spread all over Arcadia. That is all." Celebeau looked at Ben with his steely eyes, bland, blank, unreadable. Ben glared with malevolent fury. Then he flinched before the truth.

"Luna did it" he said slowly. "Luna. Not me. Not me at all. It was all Luna. You are right. I just managed to ride into a trap, get ten famous heros plus Ringold captured, tortured, infected with diseases, and finally killed. Not even torture even. Disease. They were using us to test out new diseases on."

"Then the Dark Lord let you escape to spread all those diseases south to Arcadia. You brought typhoid. Others brought...well... I have counted at least five or even six diseases carried south by human incubators. Typhoid. Typhus. Virulent Trench Disease. Virulent Influenza. The Black Plague was just the most famous. We are losing Arcadia Minor now because nearly half the population died and there are now too few people to put up a fight to keep it! And when Arcadia Minor goes then the battle front will move further south to our own front door step. The heartland. The farmlands of Arcadia that we need to feed us. And I have only an ruined army now to fight. The Plague has gutted my army. How do I fight and win battles without men! Without an army! I am the scapegoat. I accept the role as punishment. But Rufus Royal himself could not fight and win with only a third of the Imperial Guards that we had but ten years ago!"

Celebeau turned to go and Luna stopped weeping and caught his hand wept over it. "I am so very sorry Celebeau. I understand now why we are hated. Oh that I could take back my decision to ride north to steal a Device! I am so very sorry!"

"Who got this intelligence about the number and nature of the Were Diseased Pack?" Ben asked.

"Horsham. As usual. He tried to do the job himself but could not. Still recovering from a murder attempt in a back alley. But he did kill one of the Greater Werewolves and sent me the carcass. He tracked the pack too. At least I know what I am facing now. I am reorganizing the Hunt now. And silver. The weapons were all wrong. He killed the Greater Werewolf with silver long knife. Were Disease allows the carrier to recover from even fatal wounds with quicksilver speed. Only silver can inflict mortal blows on carriers of Were Disease. Clever swine. He even had his sword silver platted by a Dwarve before he rode out. All special silver plated or pure silver weapons. I never thought of that. No wonder my men could wound but never kill the beasts. Now I have to start all over again! And in the meantime more children will die! And I may not be able to hunt down the She Monster before she gives birth! Then what? Horsham said the Were Beasts have various stages of human traits. Brains. Cunning. Human thumbs. The Were Beasts might have been, like Ringold, originally human victims, or Were Beasts forcibly bred to human prisoners of war to conceive Super Werewolves. Were the only experiments ones of disease? Or did you see prisoners of war being raped to bred mutant monsters too?"

Luna whimpered and rubbed her hands raw. "The Captain of the Guard hinted to me while drunk that the Dark Lord was experimenting with hybrid Orcs conceived by forcibly raping female prisoners of war.... rumors of bounties for females captured and handed over to him..... rumors of monsters conceived by poor female victims tied down.... the monsters bursting out of their wombs and eating their birth mothers.....horribly stories..... I did not want to believe them.... they have tormented my dreams since to the point that I almost fear getting pregnant now."

Ben looked darkly, his face closed. "I did not see nothing that did not happen outside the cage I was in..."

"But Ben, you told me they experimented on you.... not just the typhoid ..... that was why we feared conceiving .... the health of any baby we might conceive.... because they experimented on you...."

"Typhoid! That is all! Just typhoid! They just poured some black blood into a open wound on my arm ....that is all!"

"Ben? Ben?" Luna wept as Ben stormed out of the room, then she looked at Celebeau with guilt and grief. "Please! I did not think..... put two and two together..... see the result of all my action.... and now I am curst by all the victims of my passion and my love. How can love become evil Celebeau?"

Celebeau sighed. "Love can morph into as foul a monster as Were Disease can morph a beautiful man into a murderous beast. We were both besotted and now, having made our beds, we must lie in them!" Luna wept. Celebeau stared at her dry eyed. "I won't judge you Luna. I can't. I am as weak and as culpable as you. You whitewash Ben's evil with the whitewash of love. I whitewash Ben's evil with the whitewash of hypocrisy. For the honor of the Royal Family! To protect the Royal Family! All rise for the honor of the regiment! All rise for the honor of the Royal Family of Arcadia! But the colors are all tattered and the flags are all stained. And I ....I... must conceal our Royal Shame behind lies and hypocrisy! But I gag with revulsion! The Royal Family as become a marble tomb pristine and grand and noble outside but revolting inside! I gag at myself! Even myself!"

"Oh Celebeau! Celebeau! Yet I swear to you now that Ben did once love me -- before he knew who I was and before his vanity colored his judgement and diluted his love. I was warned.. You tried to warn me. Everyone tried to warn me. I would not listen. Mere Mortals can not love with the same pure intensity we Elves bring to love. Elves fall in love only once but then it is forever. My tragedy is I fell in love with Ben and I will spend the rest of my love suffering for it. But it is too late! I love him! Only him! It is too late! Too late!"

"Yes," Celebeau said softly, "too late for both of us. We fell in love with love and we fell in love with people unworthy of our love. But being Elves, we are still compelled to love totally and absolutely, regardless of our folly."

"My heart will break for guilt and grief! Tell me what I can do to atone! Please!"

"Can you at least make Malian see reason about Rhingol? We must pass a Recency Bill so I can run the government! A madman now runs the government of Arcadia! I have sworn an oath not to aspire to the crown so this is not some plot of mine to seize power! Rhingol needs to be protected from himself too! Can't you convince Malian of that? I told her. I tell you! I have sworn an oath! I will not seize the crown! That is why I swore the oath! Risked a dreaded Transmutation Curse! So I could cleanly ask for a Recency Bill! Not out of ambition! But rather out of honor! Out of concern!"

"I will try!"

"If you can at least get a Recency Bill then perhaps History might forgive you Luna! I forgive you now for I too have done evil by accepting the baton of Supreme Command that ought to have gone to Rufus Royal so long ago! We both will be damned by Society but you at least might be forgiven by History is you can get a Recency Bill passed! You must do this thing! Now! Before anyone else gets arrested or executed or declared a Nitthing Man! Or worse! I cannot deliver a death warrant to Lord Naratun! I can't! I can't! That good old man..... Do you know how many good people have perished because of us?"

Ben sneered. "That good old man tried to get me executed for treason. But I will get him executed first!"

Luna cringed. Then she stood upright. "I will do it! Give me the bill!" Celebeau gave her the bill, all red tape dangling from blobs of red wax, with Celebeau's name square in the middle. Big and bold. For Celebeau wrote in a big handwriting like a studious child. And Celebeau, to his credit, wrote out the Recency Bill himself and did not have a scribe to the dirty deed. The Recency Bill therefore made Celebeau an open target.

Ben glared at her. "Don't be absurd! Not before Rhingol and Malian can liquidate our enemies! Don't be stupid!" Luna stared at Ben. Then she clasped the bill tightly and ran out of the room. Celebeau sighed, closed his eyes, and shuddered as memories of dead children all along the Rocky River appeared, his personal nightmare too.

"How dare you call yourself a child of mine! Traitor!" Malian screamed, the holes that were her eyes bottomless behind a human mask as thinly veneered as a bad copper rhingol coin. Malian snatched the bill out of Luna's hands and tore it up in sparking fury. At that moment Rhingol the Great entered the room, having heard the screams of Malian and the whimpering of Luna. Luna stood there, whimpering, one hand before her face, as her abnormal mother sparked and flamed like a supernova. For a brief moment Malian ceased to even pretend to be human, but some monestrous force of raw nature, superhuman, supernatural. Then Malian saw Rhingol's face and pulled herself together, resumed her facade of humanity, and smiled. She hold out her hands and stroked Rhingol's face with genuine love.

"Dearest. It is nothing. Not a thing. Do not worry! I will always protect you as long as you will only love me! Love me! And I will make all well for thee! My Beloved! My Soul! My Dearest heart!" She stroked her husband's face and wept with love. Luna, standing afar off, wept in fear.

"Why is Luna weeping? What are those pieces of paper?" the funny looking Elve knelt down and picked up the torn paper and tried to put them back together in a table as if it was some childish parlor game.

"It is nothing. Do not trouble yourself my Human Heart."

"Recent Bill? What is a Recent Bill?" I am missing some of the pieces...."

Malian crushed some pieces under the heel of her foot. "Recent Bill to petition you to have another official Birthday Party now that Luna is recovered."

"Father," Luna asked, "I fear the burden of rule have exhausted you and the infirmities of age have worn you down. Perhaps Celebeau could assume more of the burdens of rule to spare you the oppressive weight of responsibility. He has sworn an oath to never wear the crown so he is only acting out of sincere concern for your well being.... as am I when I ask you to consider..."

"Go away cruel and abnormal feeling daughter! Do not listen to her Dear One! Listen to no one but me! Only I totally and absolutely love you!"

"Of course Malian! But what does the Recent Bill ask? Luna is right......of late..... I have been.... as if the twilight sky of my mind has been oppressed by the dark shadows of night..... and dreams... bad dreams like weeds bedevil my sleep.... weeds, and creeping shadowy things peering out of the shadows at me.... eyes.... staring.... everyone is staring at me of late..... my wits.... oh Malian! Are my wits deserting me? I have been wondering....wandering.... am I going insane? Oh Malian! I am going insane!" The Elve shuddered and his hands covered his face in horror.

"A garden.... Our World used to be such a beautiful wild garden ....but now it is become a charnel house of death! The Reek of Death and Decay is all around me! And this war! Bodies! Bodies everywhere! So many dead bodies! The stink fills the air! A graveyard! All around me! A graveyard! Oh the reek! Yet I have dreamed of late of a garden of unearthly delight where everything smells so sweet! So intoxicating sweet! But then I wake! I wake to a graveyard! Arcadia is become a graveyard! Oh that I could wake to my dream of unearthly delight! Paradise on earth! It would be like renewed hope! Fragrant Hope! I need hope! I am losing all hope!" The Elve wept in Malian's arms as she held him fiercely while glaring at Luna show shuddered in fear and crept away.

"Do not fear my husband! All will be well! You are just exhausted. That is all. Mere weariness at the burden of command..."

"Then perhaps I should let Celebeau assume more responsibility..."

"No! No! Do not trust him! Or her! They do not love you like I do! They plot and they plan! They scheme and they dream! Of Power! Of the Crown! Celebeau sleeps with Gloriana who lusts for the Crown of Arcadia and Luna sleeps with Ben who lusts to rule in your stead! They plot and then plan with their lovers! They are sleeping with the enemy! And they conspire! Conspire! Like Rhinga's bastards! They conspire! Cast them aside! Only listen to me! Only I love you! My love will be your balm! My love will heal your weary mind! You are but weary! There is nothing else wrong! Nothing! But love me and I will love you forever! And my love will protect you!"

"Yes! Yes! But I think Celebeau and Luna are sincere in their concern.... even is not correct in their conclusions...."

"No! NO!"

"No one loves me anymore..... No one cheers me anymore..... and they have cut down all the cherry trees that once lined the Grand Canal.....and the smell... the smell..... only in my dreams do I smell a sweet smell of paradise! But it is far away.... far away....."

Malian led Rhingol the Great most gently from the room. But all her love could not save her husband from that sweet smell of paradise so far away ....a siren song of unearthly delight calling to him, calling to Rhingol to come and fetch it and carry it away close to his heart, like a canker of the soul masked in an opiate of rosy delight. And Malian fatally pinned all her faith on her love when she should have pinned all her schemes on destroying the Device that was destined to destroy Rhingol the Great.

As for Horsham, he rested, still weary and aching of body, in his tiny mew above the stables. "My body let me down Blackie!" he told his beloved horse as he groomed him. "I could not do it. I could not hunt down the Were Monsters. Track them yes. But not kill him. They were too much for me. For us both. I let us both down. We are the heros no more. We can only spy and let others seize the glory of the kill. I had the right tools to do the job but my body failed me. Yet when I am healed.... my wounds are, after all, still healing... I may yet be able to conquer the beasts and seize the Device and so vindicate myself in the eyes of Arcadia." But Horsham knew with his mind what his heart could not bare to believe: he was too old to slay monsters of the night like the epic heros of old. He was too old.

"This is my Third Act Climax! A bitter act indeed! The dregs of my life. The dregs of my life's history, played out for History. Pub Bards will never even remember me to sing an after song after the main epic ---- which will be of course, as always, about Ben, the Darling of Destiny. Not me. The Bastard of Destiny." the aging man hid his face in Blackie's luxurious mane and wept as bitterly as Luna wept far away in the Palace. "It feels as if my heart will break Blackie! Break!" Horsham dropped down into the straw and wept with such bitterness as he had never before known.

"Pull myself together! I have to pull myself together!" he ordered himself. He stood up as straight as if he was on parade and being inspected. "Prioritize! We must prioritize! One! There is a Coup in Progress! By Bela! Using Nellie! To get Prince Grafton crowned king. But it will result only in a blood bath! We have to stop it. Two! The Device! We have to get it before Bela or Celebeau or some rogue gets it! Like Ben! May the gods damn him to the Fiery Fissure! And we must give it to Lady Confabulate to return to the Dark Lord. Three! Ben is trying to get me killed! All the Shadow Opposition! Including Lady Confabulate! We must defend the last person on earth that we can remotely call a friend! Four! We must guard my lady's back while she conquers the evil of the Device by the most cunning of gestures: total surrender of the thing back to the Dark Lord! Yes! Yes! She can do it! She must do it! Meanwhile we must decide who WE will put on the throne of Arcadia! Five! And then there is the Sojobo problem. We have to deal with Sojobo the Harbinger of War and his protegee Saburo Agat. Six. And finally there is Kitsune. We have to deal with Kitsune. Seven."

Horsham brushed Blackie and neatly braided the still rich, if greying, mane and then tended the giant hoofs, brushing the feathery hair, checking for burrs or cuts in the hoof, then trimming the hoofs in turn. Not shoeing. In the First Age horse shoes, like stirrups had not yet been invented. Then Horsham led Blackie out of the stable and carefully exercised the great horse before cooling him down and tending him with all the care that Malian bestowed on Rhingol. Like her, Horsham funneled all his frustrated love into one abnormally deep channel. Horsham feared people too much to risk human love.

Then Horsham asked if Lady Confabulate was back yet. When told no, he went and washed in the private bath she gave him access too, complete with very hot water and a private key and inside bolt. The bath had no evil dwarve mirror to haunt him with memories of his younger self, so long ago declared by Bela no less than a demigod of human beauty. Now Horsham was no demigod and he knew it. But he did not want a dwarve device to tell him that either. He already had too much factual evidence of his decline to want any more evidence brutally presented to him to see.

He soaked in the tub as the hot water slowly cooled, his bad leg aching, his still healing wounds aching, his whole body aching. He rested his head against the back of the tub and sighed as the water steamed, then defused, revealing his body for him to inspect: the battle scars, the cutting scars, the greying chest hair, the escalating beer belly, the declining beefy muscles increasingly larded by body fat, the calloused hands, the still dainty feet, as dainty in their way as Nellie's dainty little feet. Feminine feet contrasted by huge killer hands. One wet foot rose from the water and played with a small vase of fresh flowers by the edge of the marble tub. Horsham tugged at one Orc bitten ear. Then he ungracefully rose from the bath and dried his body with a linen towel and dressed in the new clothes neatly folded on a stool by the tub, so thoughtfully left by Lady Confabulate so he would not look entirely like a vagrant.

Horsham pulled the linen tunic over his head and pulled it over buckskin leggings. He pulled on new wool stockings and then pulled on his old boots. He brushed back his wet hair in a rough tangle away from his head, using his fingers as a comb. Then he wrapped the faded red sash around his waist and under his beer belly before belting on the worn leather belt. Then he tucked the old bronze short sword and long knife between the linen tunic and the leather belt and sash. His fleshy girth alas held the weapons firmly in place. He slipped on his soiled old battle jerkin and shoulder harness and steel long sword and golden dragon stinger sword. He put on his old Grey Owl Battle Metal and Crest over his head and rested the silver around his neck and patted it. Then he put on his old wool bonnet, the platter shaped wool soft and flat against one side of his head, the rim black with sweat, the feather in it's silver pin holder wilted. Then Horsham unbolted the door, turned the key, opened it, and confronted a hostile world.

"How did she die?"

"Lady Confabulate tried to assassinate Ben the Beorach and died at his hands instead." The butler was shattered but still trying to stand straight and tall even if his face was wet with tears. He felt no shame in openly weeping. "She went to the Palace early. I did not know why. Now of course..... she waited for Ben and Luna appear and lunged for him. She knifed him in the side but he broke away and pulled out the knife and impaled her through the heart. Then he dragged the corpse of my mistress out to the public square and hung her up for all to see. My mistress! My beloved mistress! Hanging there for all to see like some common criminal! Oh what are we to do? What is to become of us? Chief Junipii has supper prepared. We were expecting her back. Now she is never going to come back! Our Mistress!" The butler shuddered and then grabbed Horsham and wailed. "You have to go and rescue her! Our Mistress!"

"She is dead."

"She is hanging like some common thief! Some common criminal! You have to rescue her body! We will take it to the Sacred Grove and place it on the flet of her kin. We will pray to the household gods and wail our grief for all to hear! We will do the Sacred Rites of Death! But first you have to go rescue her body!"

At that moment Chief Junipii appeared, welding a large butcher knife. "I will go."

"No. Give me the knife. I will go. I am armed but I will use the kitchen knife as a symbol for you all. Through me all of the servants of Lady Confabulate can say they shared in the rescue of their dear mistress." Horsham gently pulled the knife out of the cook's hand and nodded. Then he patted both men gently, and then marched toward the Public Square, the butcher knife held in his left hand and his steel long sword in his right hand.

"I should have realized what you were planning my lady! But alas! When I came back without the Device you moved on to Priority Two: kill Ben the Beorach. Now I am utterly alone in Arcadia without a friend or ally in all the world to stand by my side or guard my back."

Horsham reached the Public Square. People were already milling around, staring in horror at the spectacle of a noble lady of the Elite 1000 hanging like a dead dog from a public gallows like a common criminal. But these new gallows on the Pally Mall were reaping a harvest of aristocratic fruit on it's bony wooden branch. Lady Confabulate was the sixth noble born Elve to hang here. It was becoming almost routine now to see the elite of the Elite 1000 die here. Nowadays only the Royal Courtiers were allowed to commit suicide in their pavilions and not die so vulgarly though presently Lord Naratun was stubbornly refusing that fate, defying the Royal Family to actually condemn him to the now infamous Pally Mall gallows. The horror today was how Lady Confabulate died. Ben had gutted her chest brutally, hacking off one breast, before knifing her in the heart and then slashing her throat until her head was half off. She was a ghastly, bloody sight. Almost dis-in boweled. When Horsham appeared, Royal Guards ran out of the Court along with Ravens (MP's) to post themselves between Horsham and the corpse of Lady Confabulate.

"I will kill you all if you try to stop me rescuing the body of my most gentle Lady! I may not be able to kill quite all of you but who wants to risk being the majority to die?" Horsham brandished his steel long sword and the kitchen knife for the fearful Guards and Ravens to see. They blanched and the line of men wilted as they muttered nervously, debating their loyalty to the Royal Family against their desire to live.

At that moment Celebeau marched out of the Palace. The Guards and Ravens broke ranks for him to march through. Celebeau glared at Horsham who pointed at the corpse. "See! Ben's handiwork! My lady hangs like a common thief when she was a patriot of Arcadia! And dying thus, and denied proper burial rites she will surely haunt us all!"

Celebeau stared at Horsham with blank, steely eyes, his mind shielded, his emotions guarded. A full minute passed. The crowd muttered and murmured around the two men. "I thought you respected taboos Celebeau!" Horsham hissed. Then Celebeau suddenly spun around on his heels and marched up the wooden steps to the platform and cut down the body and gently carried it down and most gently slipped it into the waiting arms of Horsham who put away his weapons so he could carry it most gently home.

At that sight Ben stormed out and marched up, a long knife in his hands, screaming bloody fury along with a flood of Beoarach profanity for all to hear. "That motherfucker tried to kill me. That whore's corpse must hang for all to see!"

Celebeau slapped Ben across the face. "How dare you use profanity in front of a lady of Arcadia!"

"She suckled at her mother's breast so she is a motherfucker! And she married Confabulous whom she did not love for politics and for a title at her parents's behest and profit so she is a whore! And she tried to kill me not one hour ago! So she is an assassin!"

"But Lady Confabulate is still a titled member of the Elite 1000 and a friend of mine and you will not curse her in public or in private within my hearing. Or I will be compelled to defend her honor! And I will!" Celebeau announced in a steely hard voice for all to hear. "Horsham. Take her to the Sacred Grove and perform all the Sacred Rites of Death. As is proper! You know them well. You first performed them for Rufus Royal and not a month ago for Blackheart, a war veteran under your command even while you were still wounded from a craven ambush yourself. And not two days ago you performed them yet again for Lady Chestnutdale who was cravenly attacked by some bounder of coward late at night while returning home from the opera.. Do them now for Lady Confabulate. Do them well. Do not omit one rite. Take the full two days as is proper and lawful and expected. I will post guards to protect her flet er some 'thug' dare violate her body in infamy!" Celebeau glared at Ben who stood grim faced. Horsham glared at Ben, then turned and marched off toward the Sacred Grove.

"How dare you Celebeau! You as good as hung a placard out for all to read: 'Come and try to kill Ben the Beorach!'. You have made me a target!"

"You have made yourself a target! If you are hated then you have earned your hatred step by step and insult by insult! I rue the day Luna rescued you and brought you to Arcadia. I welcomed you as the Hero at Large! But you have not saved Arcadia by one battle or one war! Or even one skirmish! Rather you have damned Arcadia and contributed to her ruin! My city state bleeds as brutally as poor Lady Confabulate's corpse! For all to see! By the gods if I could get but one witness to testify lawfully in court!"

"I demand..." Ben shouted. But the words for once withered in his throat when he looked into Celebeau's dead fish eyes.

"Tell me Ben, my Brother-in-law, once my so-called friend, what is your plan for Arcadia once you have butchered your way to the top of the dung heap? What is your glorious plan to save her? My poor bleeding city state? I mean you are so busy plotting your assault on power but what is your plan once you get there? Do you even have a plan? To save Arcadia I mean."

Ben's face was confused. His eyes blank, taken back by the question. He had always been able to bully Celebeau before. Now he was confused. Then his face hardened. "I won't be bested by anyone! Anyone! I am Ben the Beorach! The best! I can still whip the ass of anyone else! Anyone! Any Elve! All your Elves have been so proud! So arrogant! For so long! My daddy was so in awe of you! My mum worshiped you as gods on earth! How I would laugh at her pathetic worship! She would actually pray at alters to the gods: The Elves of Our World! And Mother god of the Waters! The God of Mercy and Tolerance and Compassion! Well when did mercy and tolerance and compassion get you anywhere? As for Elves! What did you Elves ever do to deserve to be our masters? Our masters! The Masters of Our World! You got to the real estate first! That is all! You stole the land first! And you stole it from the Dark Elves and Green Elves to boot! You stole it from your fellow Elves! Does that make you my master? Bullshit! No one is my master! I am my own master! And I will be the master of my fate and my destiny!"

"The assumption being that if you are the master of your own particular fate and destiny then you don't need anyone else. You can survive alone. Utterly alone. To hell with Arcadia right? And when you become the master of your particular fate and destiny then will you consider yourself my master? The Master of Arcadia? Then what will you do when you have power? I mean....you do know that Arcadia, unlike you, is losing the war for survival! So tell me Ben, once you become everyone's master, what is your plan to save Arcadia? Even if you don't need Arcadia to survive, even if you plan to survive utterly alone. Do you plan to save Arcadia -- if only for Luna's sake? Do you plan to save Luna at least? Or does your great plan only focus on your own survival? The Survival exclusively of Ben the Beorach? You. Yourself. Alone?"

Ben growled and sputtered. But the blank look again appeared. Like all Beorachs, Ben saw no further down the road than the day after tomorrow. Survival of the strongest does not think long term but short term to it's immediate survival. A bully does not plot long term. He lives in the immediate presence of today's bullying and tomorrow's gloating. A Beorach saw no further down the road than to survive as long as possible, kill as many people as possible, and steal as much loot as possible. The only difference between Ben and his other Beorachs was the fact he lived to amass glory and renown and power instead of physical loot. Ben lived on his hatred and his envy and his prejudice and his rage, fueled by his degrading memories of his degraded parents and his degraded youth. Ben prided himself of being first, and being free, and being fearless, but deep down Ben the Beorach was trapped in a cage stronger than any he suffered from in the Fiery Fissure, a cage of memories he would never be able to escape.

And being born fearless, that is to say being born without a conscience and the weakness to feel guilt that inspires the cowardice of morality, Ben was incapable of feeling regret or empathy or moral constraint that sane men should feel. Being born without fear was both Ben's greatest strength and his greatest tragedy. Fear is sanity. Without fear to act as a safety brake, a person can only be reckless to the point of self destruction-- after first destroying everyone around them.

Ben did love Luna. It was his love for Luna that gave Ben his saving grace, his one touch of humanity. Fearlessness only gave him heartless bravado that the pub bards mistook for insolent valor. Ben was famous for being fearless but that was not his nobility. Luna gave Ben's his only real nobility that the bards should have sung about instead of his reckless fearlessness. But Ben's love for Luna warred daily against his amorality that he boasted was 'fearlessness'. And increasingly his amorality was winning over his love for Luna. Love for Luna appeared to drag him down. Love for Luna appeared to make him appear 'weak'. Love for Luna endangered his obsession to survive at any cost. Love for Luna threatened to waken his dormant conscience and that would awaken his apparently missing sense of fear. That would be fatal. That had to be avoided at all costs. Luna weakened Ben the same way his love for his poor dead mother weakened Ben. Love was weakness. Survival demanded brutality and the total eradication of all gentle feelings, weak feelings, feelings like guilt, or regret, or empathy, and most of all: Love.

"Tell me your plan to save Arcadia Ben" Celebeau ordered with quiet ruthlessness, his seemingly dead eyes hard and pitiless. "Tell me. You long ago said you had a plan to save Arcadia. I hired you because you said you had a plan to save Arcadia. I protected you because you said you had a plan to save Arcadia. I covered your back and covered your evil all because you said you could save Arcadia. I became your lap dog. Your stodge. Your garbage collector. I ate my pride and my honor and my integrity. I lost my self respect and the respect of Arcadia. All because I knew I could not save Arcadia and you promised me that you would save Arcadia. So now Ben, tell me your plan......NOW!" Celebeau screamed.

Ben staggered back as if struck by some physical blow. He stared at Celebeau, the usually wooden man with the dead eyes who endured the contempt of the world behind a shield of steely stoicism. Then Ben reared up to his full six foot two inches and glared back in triumph. "Fight!"

"That is your answer? How pray you should Arcadia 'Fight' with a shattered shell of an army of bitter and resentful Merrach peasants, beleaguered and impoverished land gentry, bankrupt Elite urbanites, bankrupt tradesmen, fleeing Dwarves, and fearful townspeople? Pray tell me how we are to 'Fight' with obsolete bronze weapons? No Dwarve engineers with high tech catapults? Few trained cavalry? No hill forts. A Mirage Line that is a public joke. And no money in the treasury to buy Beorach mercenaries who are yet again on the Dark Lord's payroll to rape and raid and ravish our tender countryside? Your countrymen I may add. Tell me Ben how we are suppose to 'Fight' under such conditions?"

Ben shrugged. "Men with balls fight. Only cowards need to hide behind hill forts, or fancy Dwarve stuff like 'Steel', or need fancy Dwarve technology like them silly catapults. Only cowards need 'formations' and 'battle lines' and 'shield walls' and crap like Horsham is always peddling. Crap like body armor. Crap like cavalry formations. Crap like 'armies instead of mobs'. Bullshit! The Beorach are mauling your frontiers to pieces and they don't need no stuff like that. They fight with any crap they steal off the battlefields, and they fight without battle strategy, and they fight without forts but they win because they have balls! Cowards lose! Heros win! Victory only takes balls! Is it my fault no one but me has the balls around here? The guts? The bravery? It an't my fault you an't got no balls to command Celebeau! Give me total military command and I will show all those fags and cowards how to fight! Then Arcadia will win this damn war!"

"As usual! Your glorious plan is not anything but another grab for more power! Is that all it is?" The dead eyes glared, the bitter man inside the dead eyes utterly scornful, the humiliated and ridiculed man utterly defeated. It had all been for nothing. His self abasement for Arcadia. His endurance of Ben's evil. There was no magic plan. There was no plan at all. Celebeau flinched, his dead eyes closed for a moment as the full reality of the defeat hit him, the impact of the wave of total despair rolling over him. Then he sagged and wearily turned away from his one time friend, his little tin god, his pub proclaimed savior, and his 'Hero at large', and Celebeau marched woodenly back into the Palace. Luna stood weeping inside the doorway to the Palace. Celebeau could not find it in his heart to console her.

"I have lost myself and I have lost Arcadia. There is only Defeat. Catastrophe. The only question is when. How long can we endue the slow and drawn out dying of Arcadia, like some ghastly torture before the final death throes of final eradication 'mercifully' terminate our suffering? Oh by the gods! How can I go on?" Celebeau put his hands over his dead eyes and pounded his face with his clinched fists. The guards stared at him in horror, never before seeing such a famously stoic man unravel in public. "The gods are all mad dogs and they play with us for their sport!"

Luna whimpered to see her kin suffer and reached up and touched his wet face. Celebeau slapped her back so hard her nose bled. All his self loathing spilling out, Celebeau hit her again, then again, the one kin and human being he had counted on to love him back and not betray him. Except of course she had betrayed him. Luna flinched as her kin vented out all his rage and loathing and despair on her head, slapping her with the back of one hand over and over and over.

Then Celebeau pulled himself together, standing at attention, six foot eight inches tall, forced his face back into it's usual emotionlessness, the steel shutters again slamming shut over his eyes that were the windows to his dying soul. And then Celebeau marched back to his office, sat down, and worked for the rest of the day as usual, signing off on documents, signing off on letters to widows and orphans, signing off on pleas for supplies for the Front, signing off on pleas to Cleardan of The Havens and to Durham of the Old Citadel, a Dwarve Celebeau personally loathed, begging for monies and war munitions Arcadia could no longer pay for with it's debased and inflated and worthless copper rhingols. The latter was the most bitter of all for such a prejudiced Elve as Celebeau.

Luna crept back to her honeymoon flet that she had so long ago wishfully built when she first met Ben the Beoach and fell in love with the mysterious and dashing stranger. Now she sat on the willow crafted tree house high up over the beautiful gardens of the Royal Palace, sitting on the honeymoon bed that had in fact become only a sick bed for a sick man and a lonely woman who was now mostly a nurse rather than a lover. Luna sat on the bed she had made both literally and figuratively and wept, her face bloody, her eyes swollen with tears. "I live in hell. My life have become a fiery fissure of utter hell" she whimpered. "When my belly swelled with child then I dreamed nightmares each night of a monster bursting out of my womb and strangling me alive. And Ben nowhere to be seen. Even now I dream of dying abandoned, alone, utterly alone, all alone, in my wedding tunic and kilt of bridal green, on my wedding flet, abandoned and utterly alone. And no one weeps for me. And no one sings my death dirge. And no one comes back to gather my bones as mementos. And only ravens of death feast off my corpse. A tree filled only with ravens of death. Eating my flesh and feasting off my bones."

Ben came and tugged at the rope ladder. Luna abruptly hauled the ladder up into the flet and continued to weep quietly. Ben stubbornly sat down on the grass under the flet and glared at anyone who dared pass by, as if challenging the world for his possession of Luna. One hand, the human hand, ripped up tender grass by habit as he glared sullen and furious. The artificial mithril machine hand pounded the earth in a tight fist until it killed all the grass under it's brutal blows.

"How dare that pompous ass of an Elve challenge me! How dare he! How dare Celebeau judge me! Asshole! Asshole! Weapon. All right! I will find a weapon! A weapon that can win the war! This lousy war! Wait! The Device! The Pearl Device! That is it! Sure! By Father god of Fire and War! That is it! Sure! Why else did all those damn Celestial Elves wage all those 'Celestial Wars' to try to get them things? Sure! Sure! That Maestus the Damned guy came back from the Watery West with weapons of iron and weapons of war to wage war to save Our World from the Orcs and from the Dark Lord and from the Dark God. That Maestus guy was nothing but a war munition guy just like Durham at the Old Citadel. He invented iron for war weapons didn't he? I bet he invented them Devices to be war weapons too! Weapons of war! Sure! I mean their names: 'The Five Devices' -- that gotta mean war machines right? Right! War Machines! Why did the gods of the West damn him anyway? I bet them Devices are super war machines! So powerful and so deadly that even the gods were scared of them! Yah! Yah! That is it! I just gotta get one and figure out how to make it work! Sure! Sure! That is it!

But what about Luna? She keeps telling me of bad dreams. Her bad dreams. Premonitions she calls them. Nonsense! Nonsuch! She is slowing me down with her fears! Trying to scare me! But I an't scared of nothing! Transmutation curses and Celestial Calamity my ass! But Luna is scared and she is slowing me down! Forcing my hand! That and my bad health damn it! So I paused and see! What did it get me? Love. Love. See! It slowed me down! I should have been out hunting for that Beast that has it now! The Device is a super weapon of war and we have to figure out how to use it. Then Arcadia will win this damn war. I will win this war! See! See! Me! Me! Ben the Beorach! So I gotta join the Hunt. Now. Before some damn fool gets the Device before me. Transmutation Curse and Celestial Curse my ass! So what do I do? Calm down Luna and calm down Celebeau and then go out and get that damn Device! That's what!

But Horsham! He keeps knifing my back. The swine. Shadow Opposition. Firing up the opposition. Getting everyone upset and ranting and raving. Making fun of me! Making fun of my poor dead baby! Saying it would have been born with two heads or imbecile or something! Giving Luna bad dreams too! So she was scared of her own baby, my baby, the poor dead baby she was carrying in her womb before they killed it. Them. Them. All of them. Everyone who hates me! Them! Horsham! Scared her into talking like she don't want to try again! Scared of my baby! Scared of me! Damn Horsham! I have to smash that bastard down and break his nose and bash his face in before he does the same to me......"

Horsham was arrested the moment he left the Sacred Grove three days later. He was gaunt from performing the rites along with the entire household of the late Lady Confabulate, plus the five surviving members of the Shadow Opposition, plus angry members of the Elite 1000, plus Lord Naratun, plus a surprised mourner: Prince Grafton. Then Horsham spend one additional day and night of private mourning, all without food and only water after sundown as the Sacred Rites required. So he was in a poor state to fight a phalanx of Ravens, seventeen men, weapons out, the cream of the cream of military authority to enforce authority. They marched Horsham off, but not to the Palace or the Jail but to the Cockpit. Horsham could not fight off seventeen men but he tried anyway, if only to maintain his reputation as a brawler.

Ravens forced the bloody Horsham through the dark back alley and then down the back steps of side of the elegant townhouse of Bela, down dark stairs to the damp basement where they bound him to chains and then tied him to a chair under a single ceiling oil lamp. One MP, enjoying the situation, gave the oil lamp a wack and left it swinging wildly, a bobbing light in the dark room. He grinned at Horsham. Horsham remembered him by his healed by clearly previously broken nose. Broken in a brawl by Horsham of course.

Three hours later, after he was chilled to the bone, his bad leg aching from the damp, the chair smashed to pieces but the iron chains still firmly holding him in place, Bela finally casually descended the stairs and ironically inspected the damage to his property: both wooden and human.

"I don't appreciate having to bribe a copy of your report on the Were Beasts from under Celebeau's nose. As a spy, I expected you to report on the Device to the Cockpit and not the Palace."

"You told me yourself I was no longer employed by you. Ex spy. Ex soldier. Ex hero. Ex Ex Ex and kiss the whores goodbye."

"Once a spy, always a spy. Celebeau is reorganizing his Hunt. Belatedly so am I. Rhingol has gotten it into his deluded brain to join the Hunt for the child killers too. As a courtier I have graciously offered to join my most royal king." Bela smiled ironically, his most elegant smile of benign grace. "So did Celebeau. I am surprised Ben has not jumped up from his honeymoon flet to join the Hunt. Everyone is joining the Hunt. I hear young Gildagad and Cleardan's chum Beardon have joined the Hunt. Everyone is eager to kill the rabies infected beasts killing poor children. But of course only a selected few really understand the real purpose of the Hunt: to seize the Device. The first person to get the Device will keep it and let no one else near it. Winner takes all. The Device. It is all about the Device."

"It should be about little children being killed. It should be about a She Monster about to give birth to a litter of monsters. It should be about holding Ben accountable."

"Accountable? Such a novel Dwarvish term. 'Accountable'. Charming. As always." Bela smiled his most elegant smile. "I don't appreciate my spy playing spy for Celebeau." Bela stood before Horsham, graceful as always, but his beautiful face was quietly implacable and his musical voice was icy.

"I made my report to Celebeau because I trust him only slightly more than I trust you: that is to say scarcely at all. You actually said it well: whoever seizes the Device first will never give it up. They will underestimate it, be seduced by it, make excuses about it, and slowly but surely be enthralled by it. Even the glorious, unconquerable Ben the Beorach, once he stole it, could not bare to surrender it to even a rabid wolf who later was eaten by another Were Beast of the Were Pack. He risked his health and his love for Luna to go back to try to snatch it back from the mouth of a rabid wolf even as a pack of Werewolves was hunting him down. He risked Luna's life and infection by rabies and even worse: Were Disease, all to get that Device. Yet when confronted by the illogic he lies even to himself. 'It is just a jewel. It is just a babble. It is just some smelly thing to buy Luna's hand in marriage.' But then why risk Luna's life to go back to get it? Why risk Luna at all by going North to steal it? Ben is lying even to himself. That says something very loud and clear to anyone willing to -- read between the lines." Horsham smiled, remembering the first time he heard that cliche, in the Cockpit, young and naive and such very long time ago.

"As for Luna she lies too, even to herself. My transcript by Luna's own maid and my private spy shows Luna is lying too. 'A symbol of my love for Ben' or some such nonsense. Nonsuch! Sentimental piffle by a besotted and deluded woman. Why go back for it? Ben was practically a skeleton by typhoid. Why risk going back and possibly getting infected by rabies or Were Disease? Why risk it? The whole pack was after them! Rabid wolves. Lessor Werewolves. Greater Werewolves. A ravenous She Monster. Why go back? Why fight a rabid wolf, and wound it, and try to kill it, just to snatch back a Device when the whole Were Pack was hot on his heels? Ravenous! Eating everything and everyone! Even their own fellow pack mates!

Because the Device is a siren call to the damned! A siren call no one can resist. Even the Dark Lord I suspect. Maestus the Damned created five war machines and disguised them by making them appear to be jewels of splendor that magnify the Five Senses. The Pearl Device Ben and Luna stole magnifies the Sense of Smell. Intoxicating beauty and intoxicating magnification of each of the Five Physical Senses. Maestus put on some sort of fail safe to protect the Devices from premature misuse by ignorant blunderers. Multiple fail safes in fact, created to make the finders and keepers of Devices to hoard them, and treasure them, and worship them. instead of using them. He knew he had created monestrous creations too dangerous to use."

"But alas," Bela added elegantly, "he died before telling even his vicious red haired offspring how to use the damned Devices. But Maestus the Damned still forced his children to take oaths to seize the Devices or die trying. As you say, that says something. But Maestus the Damned was a genius and his stupid thugs of brats are not. But Durham the Deathless, also a genius, a greater genius than even Maestus, will be able to decipher them for me. A war machine is a war machine. Not magic. Not supernatural nonsuch nonsense. A war machine. A machine created to wage war -- perhaps against anyone---- perhaps even against the very gods. Maestus was damned for heresy against the gods of the West after all. But a war machine is still a war machine. Just a war machine."

"You of course plan to seize the Device before anyone else can seize it in order to learn how to use it. Being a patriot you assume of course that you will be able to use it safely. Celebeau assumes his natural stupidity will protect him from malevolent misuse. That and his naively given Oath to Renounce the Throne. But if he got it he would all too soon be violating his oath and risking Transmutation Curses to weld that accurst Device. And you for all your patriotism, in fact because of your fanatical patriotism, will also damn your soul the moment you snatch that Device. Durham for all his mechanical genius will also be seduced by the sheer brilliance of it. Ben will, despite all his protestations, snatch it immediately when he sees anyone else try to snatch it and weld it. Ben will be second to no one! But Ben will find himself playing second indeed to the Device. He was willing to betray his love for Luna for a Device. He would betray Luna for it and betray the world for it ."

"But you speak as one planning to rescue the world by snatching the Device eh Horsham? Why do you think you can safely weld it?"

"I don't assume any such nonsuch. I know in fact I risk my life and my honor if I dare touch that accurst Device. But at least I understand the danger that everyone else is underestimating. The Devices are profoundly evil, created by a damned Elve, created in some damned place the Celestial Elves absurdly choose to call 'paradise' but which was anything but paradise for all the evil committed there that caused them to be driven into exile and damnation back on Our World. The Devices are curst by the gods of the West. The Devices are fiendish machines of evil. And the Devices cannot be decoded or deciphered or exploited or welded by anyone. Man. Elve. Dwarve. God. I don't trust you Bela. Not anymore. And I won't help you. Not anymore."

Bela smiled an enigmatic smile as he strolled about the damp basement cell. "Reconsider," he said softly as one finger touched the damp, dank wall. "The cold moisture dripping down this massive stone foundation is doing your arthritis no good at all. And no one will be able to hear you either."

"No. I guess Celebeau was right about one thing: you did convert your basement into a torture cell. How Patriotism has corrupted you Bela. You used to be a good soldier. You have become a bad patriot."

"The ends justify the means. The stupidity and decadence of the Royal Family has forced me to be ruthless. If Rufus Royal ruled or commanded the war then I would not have to resort to such measures. What would you do with the Device? May I ask. Mere curious speculation."

"I would either try to return it to the Dark Lord to keep caged up in the Fiery Fissure Fortress or else try to destroy it."

"Not use it."

"No. Never use it. Tell everyone not to use it. Not to go near it. Get rid of it like a moral plague."

"I simply cannot allow you to so advise anyone, or else indulge yourself in such reckless schemes. Arcadia is losing the war and Arcadia must seize the Device and use it to win the war."

"You once said the Device was too dangerous to use yourself. What has changed your mind?"

"We are losing."

"Or else the Device is further warping your already warped mind. Luna said it was a 'symbol of love'. Rhingol says he dreams of a paradise of 'fragrant hope'. Celebeau says nothing but he is sending yet more hunters out to get it. Ben lies but he risked Luna and his love for her to get it back. The Device sings a different siren song to anyone near enough to feel it's influence of evil. Now you sing a different song too Bela. A song sung by a siren of destruction. The old Bela would have realized he was being influenced by evil. The old Bela would have resisted."

"The old Bela would have waxed sentimental about sparing the life of an old friend and colleague. And once, long ago, you were my friend Horsham! I am so sorry to confess that! And I was your friend too! How pathetic I am to confess that! I felt sorry for you. I even rather admired you for your pluck and tenacity in the face of such colossal bad luck as would rival a Celestial Elve. But I can't let you get hold of the Device yourself, or interfere with Cockpit business . You would be too formidable an opponent."

"The Coup of the Royal Family? I note you dawdle so Ben can exterminate the Shadow Opposition before you make your next move, a move that will result in a blood bath. Has the entire Shadow Opposition become enemies of state too? Like Ben and Luna? Like Rhingol and Malian?"

"They are enemies of state! You have become an enemy of the state! The Shadow Opposition quibbles about morality, squandering precious time on debates about ethics versus expediency. Rules of engagement. Lawful restraint. Definitions of torture. Human rights. Law versus order. You submit appeals for 'Common Law' and try to erect barricades of laws and legal hedgerows bristly with 'thou shall nots'. You advocate the adoption of that quaint Havens institution: the Steering Committee. Democracy I believe you call it. You try to organize the countryside mayors and gentry to demand more say in government. You say that is the cure for Rhingol's blundering and Celebeau's stupidity but it is not! It would merely further slow down the wheels of government! Like sucking mud. Oozing legal muck bogging down needed action. Effective action! We need effective action now! Not more incompetence! Like Celebeau, you quibble and won't do the dirty deeds necessary to save Arcadia. So the Cockpit must do the dirty deeds necessary to save the state!"

"Listen to yourself Bela! You used to be so sensitive to the vagaries and frailties of the human mind! Listen to yourself Bela! The Device is effecting you! Long ago I first learned about the Steering Committee from you! Now you deride it! I have not changed! But you have changed! And it is the Device effecting you! The Device is effecting everyone! Think about this last year! Everything and everyone has become unglued! Maverick! Why? It is the Device!"

"But not you? You have not changed? Only you have not changed and become a maverick? Please! You have become almost as dangerous a maverick as Ben! You were near the Were Beasts, including the beast carrying the Device in it's belly like a ulcer after eating the rabid wolf who ate the Device after tearing it out of Ben's hand ---- along with most of his fingers I might add. Didn't you hear the 'siren's song' of the Device?"

Horsham paused and thought about it. "How odd? No. I did not hear anything ....no .....I did hear a siren's song! Yes! Belated! Oh yes! How clever of the Device! It sang to me of redemption if I could but slain the beasts! Resurrection! Restored glory! Restored youth! How clever! Really! Bela you should appreciate the cunning of the Device! It really can masquerade most cleverly! Hide behind facile facades! Really! Disguise itself! Sell itself to it's victims! Such a cunning chameleon!" Bela flinched, his brilliant mind, despite itself, analyzing the data, overriding his fanaticism that was seducing him. The dangerous logic spoke to his intellect even as the dangerous seduction appealed to his emotions.

Seeing Bela pause, Horsham continued. "I suppose the Device can mine the unique weakness of each mind and craft a psychological attack accordingly. Like a spy who slithers through the back door to unlock all the defenses while all the guards patrol the front gate in vain! Oh Bela! Can't you see the cunning danger of the Device on the human mind? You were the master of deciphering the mysteries of the human mind. It was your forte! Your particular forte! Do it now! Study yourself! Study how the Device is effecting you! Everyone! Me! You! Everyone! If you are the supreme patriot then you must see that the Device is the greatest danger that Arcadia faces and that no one is safe until the Device is gone back to the Fiery Fissure! Please Bela! Please see! Once we were friends! War veterans! Fellow Crows! Please see! I beg you not for myself but for Arcadia! We both love Arcadia! We both want to save Arcadia! We are both patriots! Ask yourself why when are we on opposite sides? Is it not the Device dividing us?"

Bela's beautiful face was conflicted as his brain struggled against his heart. Then the beautiful face hardened. "My reason is absolutely unaffected" he announced. "I have always prided myself on my ability to think logically and precisely. No machine or abject or babble or mechanical creation can cause a person to become deluded or depraved or insane. I am absolutely the same man I always was!"

Horsham winced. His large blue eyes moistened with sorrow. His ravished beauty was for a moment all the most beautiful for being ravished and ruined. "I am not. In my mind and my heart and in my body I am not the man I was even last year. Much less two years ago. I wish I had your confidence. Your absolute surety. It is because I doubt that I conspire to erect barricades and hedgerows of prickly laws and legal restraints. Because I doubt everyone -- including myself. Especially myself."

Bela was taken back by this. It was the last direction of attack that he anticipated. Horsham had attacked by the back door of his heart rather than the formidable bulwark of his brain. One hand, despite itself, reached out and stroked the tangled mane of dark hair. "You always had such beautiful hair Horsham. What a shame you hacked it off a few years ago. It is only now growing back.." Bela ran his fingers through the luxurious tangle of dark hair just touched by silver. Then his hand clinched, making a fist in the hair, grabbing it, hauling Horsham's head back hard under the light of the lone oil lamp. Horsham winced in the pain but then looked straight and true into Bela's eyes.

"I am a patriot too Bela. I sincerely believe in my actions as sincerely as you believe in your actions. At least grant me the dignity of that. As a drug addict and drunk I swear to you that the Device acts on the brain exactly the same way as opium. It is a self defense mechanism to insure it's mechanical survival against attack. It ferrets out the particular weakness of the brain and latches onto it, and bonds to it, and merges with the brain, and then seizes the brain and hold the brain captive. It is because I am a former drug addict and a present drunk that I can see it so clearly while you cannot."

Bela pulled the head back still more until Horsham's muscular neck ached. Bela's other hand caressed the arched throat, then seized the exact spot to crush the human windpipe. Horsham did not flinched through the brutal angle had forced his mouth open to gag. His brilliantly blue eyes strained but did not blink. Bela paused. Then Bela made a sudden move: he kissed Horsham on his open mouth then released the hair and abruptly moved back into the darkness of the damp cellar.

"I did not mean to do that. I don't know why I did it. I will never touch you that way ever again. It was unprofessional of me. Of our relationship as spy master and crow. I apologize."

Horsham was shaking under the emotional assault, all his stoicism when assaulted by violence evaporated. He was still bounded by chains. For the first time he appeared afraid, vulnerable. Bela saw it. Horsham's fear humiliated him. He bolted up the stairs and left the man in the darkness. A few minutes later a Raven came down and unlocked the chains and freed the man.

"Lucky bugger! I thought you were a goner for sure! But you must have spun some gossamer lie to seduce Bela for I practically saw him running away! White as the grave! But I suggest you don't try your luck around here again!"

Freed, Horsham rubbed his wrists ruefully. "The Cockpit has become too dangerous for the likes of me. I consider myself unemployed. See you in some pub bar brawl but may the gods never see me here ever again!" Horsham waved one hand in an ironical salute and then he forced himself to saunter casually out of the cellar into the bright light of day.

The next day Horsham, who had worked all night, had professional scribes neatly write out placards that Horsham then boldly paint with his rune and then posted on ten decisive locations around Arcadia including the High Street, the Front Gate of Military Headquarters, the symbolic Front Gate of Arcadia, the Orangery, and the Public Square where the High Street intercepted the Pally Mall in front of the Royal Maw. There he pasted the placard directly on the new gallows. The Placards stated the following:

As a concerned citizen of Arcadia I demand an accounting of our government's conduct regarding the following:

1) Random accusations and indictments based on little or no evidence, based on faceless witnesses and base informants, that result in arrest, torture, secret trial or no trial, resulting in execution or declaration of Nitthing Man Exile.

2) Governmental misbehavior in the face of patriotic questioning or patriotic opposition to the conduct of the War, or the conduct of the Royal Family, or the conduct of various diverse parties of power and authority.

3) The corruption of diverse parties of power or authority acting with apparent impunity in the face of public disapproval and concern, without restraint or fear of public censure or investigation, resulting in unfair advancement of some and unfair abuse or exploitation of others.

4) Promotion of insider parties into positions of power or authority or responsibility based on pedigree, or insider connections, or insider information rather than promotion based on merit or competence, including the exclusion of whole groups of citizens based only on race or class regardless of merit.

5) Financial mismanagement of Governmental funds, assets, treasures, and currencies without fear of audit or investigation or accountability, either out of incompetence or greed or the desire to exploit or punish.

6) The monopoly of the reins of power held in the hands of only the Royal Family without advice, contrary opinion, alternative ideas, or valid concerns by the citizens of Arcadia, including the Elite 1000, the Rural Gentry, the Mayors of Merrach villages, the Mercantile classes, skilled Tradesmen, Soldiers, Administrators, and the hard working men and women who pay taxes and fight wars and bare the brunt of upholding Arcadia's welfare on their broad shoulders but are denied any say in the fate of their beloved city state.

As a citizen of Arcadia, a veteran of twenty years of war to protect Arcadia, a Grey Owl Metal of Valor wearer, and a tax payer, I demand that the Government of Arcadia respond to my accusations openly and fairly and objectively. If I accuse falsely then indict me openly, and accuse me openly, and refute point by point and accusation by accusation my broadside.

People of Arcadia: If I am arrested and executed, or declared Nitthing Man, or murdered in some back alley by nameless assassins, then remember my broadside and engrave in your hearts my accusations. Not in fear, but in just anger avenge my ruin for publically demanding justice from the Government of Arcadia who rules us with the authority of naked power and ingrained privilege rather than by moral authority.

Horsham of Arcadia.

***

Horsham was rearrested the same day. This time he was hauled to the Jail where he languished in chains, not alas in the 'Horsham Suite' but a damp, fetid cell barely four feet by four feet square and without a window or any ventilation outside of the massive iron grill that was the cage's door. Horsham sat hunched over in his own filth for a month on only stale bread and foul water until Ravens hauled him out and dragged him to the Palace. After a month hunched over, Horsham could not even stagger. The Ravens enjoyed dragging him five blocks through filthy streets, in filthy gutters, before dumping him in a back courtyard of the Court.

Dumped in a heap, still in chains, Horsham had to look up to see the dirty boots of Ben the Beaorach looming over him. "Ready to kick a man when he is down? Like the dirty Beorach coward you are?" Horsham said in bitter triumph. One boot raised up. "Only dogs love to stick their snouts in every pile of dung in the street. You were ever the bony dog!" One boot delivered a fierce kick directly to Horsham's guts. Horsham rolled into a ball in pain in the flagstones. "Dog! Dog! I though you prided yourself on your total ignorance! Your total brutality too of course! But also you total lack of education or knowledge other than Beorach Thuggery. Did you get Luna to read you my broadside? Did you enjoy the part about you?" Ben's dirty boot delivered another brutal blow to Horsham's side -- and his last remaining kidney. Horsham writhed in pain. "Still here? Not playing the dashing hero coming to the rescue of dead babies up Rocky River? Not hunting down Were Monsters and rabid wolves you led from the Land of Shadows straight down to Arcadia? Don't care about other babies dying eh? Too bad Luna's brat died though? No Bennie the Furry Pup Junior yet? All five legs and imbecilic brain, drooling spittle while drinking beer and belching and wallowing under the table after raping the servant girls? What a picture Floradale drew! So true to life! Our future king to be! Oh lucky Arcadia!"

Another blow landed on Hersham's skull and very nearly killed him. Blood erupted, flowing over Horsham's face, his hair matted and sodden with red. Ben reached down and hauled Horsham's face up by his hair and prepared to deliver the blow of death. Horsham spat at him, spitting out blood.

"By the gods! Stop that or I will exile you from Arcadia!" Ben looked around and saw Rhingol the Great himself standing there. The funning looking Elve was starring in utter horror at the brutality of the scene. "By the gods! Have civilization sunken so low that men murder other men in plain sight! With impunity!" The funny Elve, not dignified even at his best, now doddering on the cusp of dementia, pulled Ben away and slapped his son in law in his face. "How dare you brawl in the courtyard of my home as if it was some drunken pub room fight! Like some thug! I won't have it! I won't! You hear me! I am still king and I am still Rhingol the Great!" Ben pulled away in fury, barely controlling his anger and rage. Horsham slumped down into the flagstones and gagged, blood flowing down his face and out of his mouth.

"That man wrote that damned placard! That is Horsham! The infamous Horsham of Arcadia! See! See! That is the damnable villain himself!" Ben pointed to Horsham. Horsham crawled to his knees and looked up at his king and saluted.

"Did you read my placard too?"

"What placard?"

"The placard he posted all over Arcadia" Celebeau announced. He walked into the courtyard and held up a placard for all to see. Then he slowly and precisely read it out loud. Rhingol, not the brightest Elve in the world, did not understand a word of it. Ben turned red with renewed fury. Horsham tried to smile but his face was too battered.

"The best thing I ever wrote. Don't you agree?"

"What does it mean?" Rhingol asked naively. "I listen to my Gentry and even my Merrach Mayors all the time! I even gave the Merrach Mayors babbles to wear as Mayoral Necklaces. I like everyone. Why doesn't everyone like me anymore?"

"You pretend to listen and give away babbles and throw parties but that is not responsible government," Horsham corrected. "My King, you don't listen. You don't take advice. You don't share power. You let insiders abuse outsiders. You let Ben the Beorach run amok. You lock out whole classes and races from government altogether. You let minor members of royalty ingrate themselves, and enrich themselves, and extort and exploit the general public. You allow corruption, and abuse of power, and exploitation of authority to continue shamelessly, under your very nose, and do nothing about it People are dying, being hung, being ordered to commit suicide now. Dozens. Like Lord Naratun who refuses, god bless him! And Court Wizards who died rather than officially lie to you!. You are innocent yourself but people around you are not innocent! And now your innocence looks to the world to be deliberate ignorance, willful ignorance in the face of mounting and flagrant abuse and incompetence!"

"He is accusing me Rhingol," Celebeau said dryly.

"No. Actually I am accusing other certain leeches and parasites and schemers of the Court. Celebeau has given an oath to renounce the throne in order to prove he is sincere in his desire to save Arcadia from defeat and ruin. Let him take over the reins of government and rule for you my king. You are old and weary. Let a younger Elve take over the responsibility and burden of command. You will still be King of Arcadia! Rhingol the Great! But let Celebeau rule for you behind the scenes. And let Celebeau make such reforms and modifications to the government as will to make it better. You are not surrounded by enemies but by concerned friends!"

"A formal Steering Committee of Dwarves, Merrach Peasants, country bumpkin Gentry, and ambitious members of the Elite 1000 who have long plotted behind your back!" Ben added. "Disgruntled soldiers. Embittered veterans. Ambitious Rufus Royal collaborators. The chief Rufus Royal collaborator being Horsham of Arcadia! And the chief member of the so called Shadow Opposition waging treason all this last year behind your back!" Rhingol's humorous face vanished behind suspicion and paranoia. Ben pointed a finger at Horsham. "Lady Confabulate was his second in command of the Shadow Opposition and she died attempting a royal assassination. And Lord Naratun is close behind him, using Horsham as his shield!"

"I was not aware Ben the Beorach had become Royal? Royal? Your Royal Heir and Successor? The Next King of Arcadia? Your replacement?" Rhingol stared at Ben now.

"I am protecting you Rhingol! Someone has too!"

"All of this is unseemly!" Celebeau exclaimed. "The common stable boys are listening! We are degraded. Let this discussion be continued indoors, as is more fitting."

Ben grabbed the placard. "This is treason! Horsham has signed his own death warrant!"

Rhingol appealed to Celebeau. "It is treason?"

Celebeau winced. He had been trying to ease Rhingol into some degree of calmness in order to get him to sign the Recency Bill. Now it was all unraveling in emotion and passion. Celebeau paused, his eyes steely.

Ben pointed at Horsham. He has to die! Now! Now!"

"My King!" Horsham exclaimed, "the placard is true because my very treatment has proven it true! I was arrested, degraded, starved, beaten, threatened with death, all for only challenging the abuse of power and authority by some parties of the Court. If I have committed treason then arrest me publically, and indict me publically, and bring me to public trial, and confront me with your witnesses and evidence that prove my treason! And conversely, let me bring my witnesses and evidence before the public to refute the accusations made against me! Bring me to public trial! Let the Truth prevail! Only criminals fear the light of day! Bring me to public trial!"

"That seems reasonable...." Rhingol said weakly.

"Secret Court Marshal," Ben said. "Horsham is a soldier. This a military issue."

Rhingol appealed to Celebeau. "What should I do?"

"Secret Court Marshal!" Ben ordered.

"Public Court Marshal" Celebeau announced. Only criminals fear the light of day. Public Military Tribunal."

"A waste of time!" Ben said. "Soldiers are by definition expected to follow all orders of authority blindly. Not question or challenge! Horsham has violated his oath as a soldier! Any military tribunal is a waste of time! Hang him!"

"No man surrenders his conscience when he enlists to fight for his country!" Horsham replied. "Rather, he is all the more obligated to obey his conscience while waging war for he represents his country incarnate as a soldier!"

"Every man has a right to public trial," Celebeau said. "Horsham is a military man but every military man has a right to public military tribunal. Any less is injustice and unworthy of Arcadia."

Rhingol waffled. "I want to ride out on our heroic Hunt to fell the beastly fiends ravishing my citizens! All of this is delaying our heroic undertaking."

"Let the Military Tribunal do their job. You can ride out my king and wage personal war against the monsters ravishing Arcadia. I will ride along side you. Bela has also volunteered. Let us ride together. But I will monitor the Military Tribunal during the Hunt to permit you to focus your full attention to defeating the monsters at large. Monsters at home..... are best left to the Military Tribunal." He added the last part dryly.

"My king! Let me ride too!" Ben stood at attention. "Let Horsham stay safely in jail while we sally forth to wage war against the fiends!"

Horsham snorted in scorn. Celebeau's steely eyes glared. "Horsham,"Celebeau corrected, "did the preliminary scouting of the Were Pack ravishing Arcadia.... while still wounded... by an cowardly attack in a back alley..... by someone who had reasons to murder someone..... because their own less than glorious actions might be taken into 'account' then...." Celebeau stared at Ben. "As for Ben. I believe Ben is still too ill to join the Hunt and I have expressly ordered him NOT to join the Hunt accordingly! Er he slow down the Hunt and handicap the success of the Hunt's chance of success! The Were Pack appeared after all after ...."

"I will not join the Hunt then" Ben said hastily. "I acknowledge my poor health, the result of prior actions, hasty actions, and I will stay in Arcadia...."

Well then!" Rhingol clapped his hands together in simple minded joy. "Problems solved. The Hunt starts again in two days as agreed! Let it be so!"

"Let it be so" Celebeau said dryly.

"Let it be so" Ben said sullenly.

"Will Ben sit on the flet of Military Justice?" Horsham asked with mock innocence.

"Ben is a 'Superior Man' just like you Horsham and not an officer" Celebeau corrected. "Only officers, Elves, can sit on the flet (board) of the Military Tribunal. Anything else is absurd..." Celebeau nodded at Ben.

"Will I be kept chained in a four foot by four foot cell and fed only stale bread and stinking water while sitting in my own filth?" Horsham asked. "And denied all chance to prepare any defense at all while Ben volunteers to marshal all the forces of my accusers?"

"Ben, like I said, has no authority or job or position on this Military Tribunal!" Celebeau replied testily. "You are released on your own honor. If you flee then you will be declared an Nitthing Man automatically and all charges will be deemed true. You wanted this public trial! Enjoy it! It may be your last time to perform, as you so love to perform, on the public stage."

The men all departed in opposite directions. Rhingol departed happily, thinking the problem over. Celebeau departed weary and exasperated that his slow and careful toadying to Rhingol was about to be unraveled. The Recency Bill was priority number one, not Shadow Opposition quibbling. Ben departed in smoldering anger. Legal games were not his forte. Thugs loath legal maneuvers. Horsham limped home in pain but quite happy. Legal games were not his forte either but right now he had no other game to play but the dangerous role of indicted man on the public stage of a Military Tribunal.

King Gildagad later wrote: "I discovered Horsham's placard some two years after he wrote it. By that time of course He was a Nitthing Man. His placard was consigned to the debris of history. I was first mystified, then fascinated by the ideas I discovered in that forgotten document. As a Havens man myself, the ideas inflamed my already sensitive awareness of the concepts of Steering Committee and what we in the Havens called 'Common Law'. I let the ideas ferment in my brain and later when I encountered Horsham, then an outlaw in exile in The Havens, we conversed on the beach many a moonlit night about the disastrous course of the war, the decline and fall of Arcadia, and most tantalizing of all, the concept of Democracy, Common Law, and the revolutionary idea of combining Taxation combined with Voting Rights.

Under the influence of Horsham's dark charisma I wrote out the what I later called my 'Magnanimous Charter' which I passed through the Steering Committee with crucial changes by Cleardan who nevertheless signed off on it, insuring it's passage despite much debate and later regret by the Twilight Elves of The Havens. They later saw their monopoly of power diluted and they rued the day Dwarves and Mere Mortals were franchised to vote. In some ways I rued the day too. I bite off more than I could chew with Voting Rights and in the Second Age saw my power too ebb. But I do not regret discovering that forgotten placard and still consider my claim, no matter how battered and dubious, to history to be grounded on Horsham's placard."

Ben however took the placard as an immediate threat. "I must join the Hunt but you must stop Horsham!" he told Luna while he packed his weapons.

"But Ben, you promised Celebeau that you would not join the Hunt. He is right. It is far beyond your present dubious state of health."

"I promised to stay in Arcadia -- I did not promise which part! I have to join the Hunt. It is imperative!"

Luna gasped and embraced her husband, kissing him madly. "Oh my true love! It is because you are acknowledging your guilt, and my guilt, and seeking out atonement for the evil we brought from the Land of Shadows in our mistaken Quest for the Device! Oh you have restored all my beliefs in you! Thank you! Thank you! You are again my Ben!" Ben stared at her conflicted.

"Everyone is after the Device. And Horsham has upstaged me. His placard has directly insulted us and he jeered at our miscarriage! As bigoted as the Elite 1000! He jeered us! He repeated all of that pervert Floradale's insults! Clearly he was in cahoots with that knave all the time! Probably part of the plot to kill us! He caused you to miscarry our child! The swine! The swine! We have to smash him down! Smash him down! Kill him! Kill him! Damn it! He is become our mortal enemy! What you said yesterday...... Nemesis. Horsham is our Nemesis!"

Luna flinched. "Ben. I will always love you but now I see you with open eyes. You are riding out to get the Device again aren't you?"

Ben staggered back. "No! No!" he sputtered. "But everyone is riding out to get it so .... I have to...."

"Promise me then that you will refuse the Device if it by chance or destiny falls into your hand! Promise me! An oath! Now! Right now! Or I will leave you Ben! I will not share you with that accurst Device! I know with all my Elvish instincts that Device will destroy us! Destroy our love! So pick one or the other! Me! Or the Device! Now! And if you take an oath remember that oaths come rooted in transmutation curses that betray the betrayer in ways most cruel! No cunning deceit and double wording and devious clause will allow you to escape that oath! So what will it be? Me? Or a Device?"

Ben gritted his teeth, his lower lip thrust out in defiance. But then, seeing Luna's quiet determination, his still ravished body suddenly sagged. Conflicting emotions flashed across his face. "I love you! Why are you forcing me to choose! Why force me to choose!" his non answer was itself an answer. Tears welled in Luna's eyes but her face stayed quietly firm in the face of Beoarch swaggering.

"Then I will take an oath then! If you will not Ben! 'You will never take a Device into your hand or you will kill my love and kill me!' That is my oath to you! A sacred oath back to back to a transmutation curse. Do what you will Ben! I have given you the oath you should have given me!"

"I thought you loved me!"

"I do. I have damned my soul and debased my honor by loving you. I will love you until the day I die. But if you ever take a Device into your hand you will kill my love and you will kill me." Luna said the oath firmly and precisely. There was no wiggle room in it for Ben to scheme with cunning deceit. Luna's oath was as hard and cutting as the diamonds in the infamous 'Pride of the Dwarves' Necklace. Luna spoke her oath and turned and walked away. It had already morphed into a transmutation curse that she always feared. Ben however still refused to believe that the net of doom had seized them, the one time Darlings of Destiny. Ben cried out but could not find the words to swear an oath to her. Luna looked backed quiet and opened eye at her husband, flaws too apparent for her naivete to conceal anymore. "I love you Ben. Even now. I will always love you and support you when you are right. But I will not attack Horsham, or rig his Court Marshal, or campaign in anyway against his placard. You see Ben. I happen to agree with his placard. I in fact have signed off on the one placard that you did not rip to pieces. I have just come back from doing it in fact."

"I destroyed all the placards!"

"I asked Celebeau and he gave me his copy that he took off the gallows where hung Lady Confabulate who you butchered and brutalized most foully. I have signed off on it. My rune is big and clear. And I have posted it on the front gate of the Palace for all to see. I have ordered the guards to guard it too. And I intend to inspect it each day to verify that the placard stays there until everyone knows I have signed off on it. I, Luna, the Princess Royal of Arcadia, agree with everything that placard says. I have also submitted my name as a witness to Celebeau for the upcoming Military Tribunal.

If you murder Horsham you will only prove to all of Arcadia that the placard is true. Your behavior thus far has proved it is true. I advise you to stop conspiring in politics Ben. You are not any good at it. Your mischief only shames you and hurts Arcadia. And it plays into Horsham's trap. He expects you to kill him. He wants death. A spectacular death. It will vindicate him in the eyes of Arcadia. A martyr. Horsham was always suicidal and self destructive. Instead of being obsessed with destroying Horsham you should just let Horsham destroy himself.

I also warn you not to murder Lord Naratun. I now know someone has made repeated attempts on his life. I consider Lord Naratun a honorable man who ..... alas.... might have been right all along when he submitted his Bill of Indictment of Treason of us. Then his Bill of Regency. His Bill of Investigation of government corruption. I have been so....very....naive. If Naratun dies violently I will consider you his murderer. I will consider his violent death prime evidence that he was speaking the truth. Do you understand me? I now understand you all too clearly! Do you understand me now?" Luna stared dry eyed at her husband.

"Instead I suggest you try to salvage your own reputation Ben. Nowadays even the Pub Bards know our Quest for the Device brought nothing but evil to Arcadia. I dream of dead babies each night. Evil dead babies. We are curst by the victims of our love. Any child we beget will only be tainted by evil and hounded by curses. If the gods were kind to Arcadia they will keep my loins as icy as Gloriana's. Let Prince Grafton inherit now that Celebeau has disinherited himself. Celebeau at least has atoned for his failures. Atonement is good for the soul. Try it Ben. It just might make you a better man. Love does not. Clearly. Love forgives. Love endures. Love suffers. But Love does not make one a better person at all. Rather the contrary I fear."

Luna quietly left Ben the Beorach flat footed and alone. It was the first time she ever stood up to Ben. If only she had before then perhaps Arcadia might not have declined to it's Fall and Destruction.

That night a demon assaulted Horsham in the Sacred Grove while he was keeping vigil over the flet of Lady Confabulate. Everyone feared her violent end may have propelled her soul to continue to haunt the world as a ghost. The violence was so unspeakable, the graphic violation so echoing of the murder of the Battle Maiden that Ben was supposed to have been exonerated of killing and mutilating so many years ago and which now people remembered anew. Horsham was doing sacred Giga Sidh Dances night after night, borrowing the costumes and talismans from the ailing Kitsune, rehearsing before Lady Wisteria to get the sacred gestures and steps correct. Glamour had to be perfectly executed or it could not work. Kitsune was still under house arrest and too ailing and fearful of madness to do the job himself and there were no more Court Wizards now. The last three committed suicide hoping their ghosts would haunt and kill Ben the Beorach. Alas they really were old charlatans. Their ghosts did not haunt anyone living or dead. But a demon assaulted Horsham in the Sacred Grove anyway.

To haunt anyone you have to evoke the strongest Glamour and the strongest Glamour was fueled by violent emotion. The strongest and most violent emotion is hatred and fear. A demon exploited from the shadows of the tall trees and leapt onto Horsham who was decked out in a bulky magical costume and further encumbered by a wooden mask. Horsham staggered under the violent assault before finally fighting the monster off with his bronze short sword. But the demon marled his chest badly. It wanted to marl his face and bite off his nose and gorge out his eyes but ironically the sacred wooden mask protected his face.

Horsham limped back to the Wisteria Pavilion covered with blood, the ancient costume in bloody rags. "It was not a gutter brawl I swear!" he shouted out before anyone could say anything.

"Could you recognize the demon?" Kitsune asked. The small Elve was wane, bundled in blankets, his face gaunt, his hair tangled, his eyes feverous. Horsham nearly fell down by his sick bed.

"Only a howling blur! All giant claws and fangs and red eyes."

"Horns? What type of horns? Fiery balls of fire over her head? Or a mallet? Or a sickle? What about human heads dangling from her belt? Were any flets violated? Any dolls nailed to any trees? Or....Or ...." Kitsune panted, flustered. "Where is my Kjiki Glossary of Ten Most Wanted Demons...." he shouted in panic. Then he collapsed on his bed. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu held the sick man tenderly in her arms while shaking her head at Horsham. Horsham pulled off the bloody tatters and gently patted Kitsune on the shoulder.

"It is all right. I will use the Golden Sword."

"You have already used it on Kiyohime's banshee ghost, and Red Bishamon, and Maggot Maggotous' dragon, and Ryuson, and Supbia. You only have four more heads you can use it on before the magic is exhausted. That is why you relied on the silver to attack the Were Beasts. You know you will have to confront Saburo Agat and Sojobo the Harbinger of War sooner or later! They are seducing my brother Prince Grafton to his soul's peril! Agat has invoked powerful glamour to make himself immune to all attack and Sojobo is the most infamous of tengu demons of all! You can't use up all the magic! And ...and..." Kitsune panted. Everyone consoled him.

"I have one or two more supernatural lives I can take beside the obvious suspects!"

"But one spare head! But one!"

"Two".

"No! No! I need you to hold one death in reserve! Me. Please! When I get further along in my illness! I don't want to end up like the Were Beasts!"

"You are not suffering from Were Disease Kitsune!"

"Nearly the same! I am losing my humanity slowly and turning into a beast like victims of Were Disease! You have to reserve one death of the Golden Sword ..... for me! Please!" Kitsune nearly screamed it. Horsham blanched but nodded. "And you will need a witness...."

"Why?"

"You will need a witness! Take my word for it!" Kitsune nearly fainted.

"I have one lethal blow then .... and I will use it to kill the demon tomorrow night in the Sacred Grove"

The next night Horsham came prepared for battle. He positioned a Raven (MP) in a branch of the flet tree of Lady Confabulate. Then Horsham sang under the flet , doing a very slow dance, not in costume except for a sacred mask, holding the Golden Sword of the Dragon Stinger under his cloak. At the stroke of midnight the demon suddenly materialized and hurled itself at Horsham. This time Horsham was ready however. The demon was dressed in a blood red, it's hair a bloody tangle, it's eyes blood red, it's fangs and claws blood red. But it was a clearly a woman but a woman transformed by hate and fury into a living mask of evil. A living demon.

The Raven cried out in horror even though he was safe high up in the tree. But Horsham quickly pulled out his Golden Sword as the demon leaped onto him. Man and supernatural demon fought fiercely, the demon clawing at his face, covered by the sacred mask, and trying to tear his neck open. The creature's fury made her appear to be a whirl of claws and fangs. For a moment Horsham panicked in sheer terror battering the creature down, trying to get the monster off him, so he could turn the sword around and hack away at her. Yet the monster fought back howling in fury, her strength superhuman, her hatred so furious that she attacked like ten Orcs. Finally Horsham stumbled and fell to the ground on his back under the onslaught. The demon leapt onto him, furious to tear the mask from his face and then tear his human face off. Horsham let her spend all her fury focused on the sacred mask while he plunged the Golden Sword down through her back. The blade of the Sacred Sword went straight though the demon and Horsham impaled his own chest at the shoulder, the magical sword driving straight down a foot deep into the earth, pinning Horsham down with a corpse pinned to his chest like a impaled butterfly. The Raven jumped down and pulled out the sword impaling the man and woman. Then he turned the corpse of the woman over. It was Lady Supbella Ryu, quite human again, and quite dead. Horsham was covered with blood, his own and her blood.

"Hack off her head from her body so her demon spirit cannot come back to haunt the Sacred Grove as a dead ghost!" Horsham gasped. "And the arms! And the legs! You must do the Disbursement Ritual! I cannot!" The Raven shuddered but did as commanded. First he hacked off the legs and arms. Then the head. Then he put the body of the dead woman in the Ryu Flet by her dead son and grandson. He put the severed head across the Sacred Grove in the flet of her mother's family and piled bones all over it so the head could not break free and tumble like a tumble weed back to the Ryu Flet and reattach itself to the body. Then the Raven hide the arms in Supbella's father's Flet and her legs in her godfather's flet in different parts of the Sacred Grove so the body could not run away or attack anyone else. Then the Raven helped Horsham limp back to the Wisteria Pavilion.

The Raven never made any official report and no one said anything about how Lady Ryu died. The distant kin of Lady Ryu noticed severed body parts scattered all over the flets of the Sacred Grove but no one had the bad taste to ask why. They assumed they were severed for a very good reason and abided by the Ritual of Disbursement. The Ghost of Lady Ryu never haunted the Sacred Grove again. But the mistakes of the past still continued to haunt the present. The next day Horsham finally got an answer back from Prince Grafton about his association with the famous warrior Saburo Agat and the infamous tengu demon Sojobo the Harbinger of War.

"I perhaps sold my soul to the demons but did not the Clan of Heike do the very same? If Arcadia can win the war then it will be justified. You know and I know that Arcadia is on the ropes. If we lose Arcadia Minor then the war comes to Arcadia Prime and the breadbasket of the nation. All our food and all our income from wool and linen sales comes from Arcadia Prime. War would both starve us and render our nation bankrupt. We need to buy more war armaments and erect hill forts. We need to feed the standing army and the refugees fleeing to Arcadia City. We cannot afford to lose Arcadia Minor which is the long suffering shield protecting Arcadia Prime from assault. The reality is if we lose Arcadia Minor this year or next year then the war is lost for all intensive purposes. So yes, perhaps I sold my soul to the demons but at this point only Sojobo can win the Battle for Arcadia Minor side by side his evil adopted son Saburo Agat.

Both are evil. You don't need to tell me that! Sojobo Agat is all rustic charm and vulgar good humor but I know he is a tengu demon who glories only in war. Saburo Agat is even worse. He is a monster of a man. Not in his outer form though he conceals much. He appears to be a beautiful young Mere Mortal man in fact. But his soul is as evil as any man I have ever met. He is all arrogant pride and selfish egotism. He glories only in battles and cares not a jot about who dies or why. He fights only for honor and fame and glory. He dreams of supplanting Ben the Beorach as the single most famous Mere Mortal in Our World History. You are right about his being a snake changeling. He has their infamously slick and oily nature, heartless, cold blooded, ruthless. He glories in killing and debases and violates the dead bodies of his victims, dragging them around the battlefield tied behind his chariot. He rides about in a gold gilded chariot like a demigod he claims to be. He acts like a king. He behaves like a prince. He lords it over everyone, even me. He despises everyone, even me. He obeys no one but Sojobo Agat and even spat at Celebeau once during a military review.

But Saburo rigged the game by immersing himself in glamour. He claims to be invincible. He is certainly a fierce some fighter and has needless to say never lost a duel on the battlefield or off. I am surprised he has not yet challenged you. He speaks of you often -- with scorn of course. He despises everyone as weak, fearful, inferior to him. He thinks he has no weaknesses but his colossal arrogance will be his undoing someday for everyone loathes him and his belief in his invincibility makes him reckless. I use them. They think they are using me. But I use them for Arcadia's survival. Is that not worth something even if I debase my soul?

I know you fear that Sojobo betrays all his clients. He wages war for the delight of war. But if that wins Arcadia the Battle for Arcadia Minor then why not? Sojobo betrays his protegees. He will betray me and he will betray Saburo Agat. But if I can live long enough to see Arcadia victorious and Saburo Agat dead then is it not justified? Someone has to do the dirty work. Celebeau won't. I must. If the victory is bought by my betrayal and destruction then the price is cheap.

I know you think me ruthless now. I have grown ruthless. My prior life was futile. What did love affairs and beautiful clothes achieve? Poetry? Music? Art? Nothing. Nothing at all. I was always a failure. But if the sacrifice of my life buys Arcadia victory then am I not doing something worthwhile at last? It is not just going after the crown. If the nation perishes what use is a crown? Arcadia's fate will be decided this year or the next. What use is a crown if the nation perishes this year or next? I am not just doing this for a crown. I am do this for the sake of Arcadia. Arcadia is worth dying for. Have you not risked your life time and again for Arcadia? Faced death? Am I not doing the same as you my friend?

As for Kitsune, I cannot afford to associate with him now. I must wrap myself in the moldering battle flags of Heike no less than Rufus Royal and Prince Heike himself. But I told Kitsune to his face that I would have to abandon him. But I also told him Lady Wisteria Fujitsu would never abandon him and you would never abandon him. I have been honest with him, and with her, and now with you. At least grant me the honor of that. I am honest with myself too. I will die violently because of my alliance with Sojobo and his evil protegee Saburo Agat. Perhaps as King of Arcadia. Perhaps as General of Arcadia. Perhaps as the victim of Ben the Beorach. But in war one dies violently anyway. Please Horsham, understand what I am doing and help me. Don't fight me. I have Saburo Agat guarding my back as my official gesith and isn't that dangerous enough?

Adulterine Grafton."

Prince Grafton was right. Having Saburo Agat as his official bodyguard guarding his back was more than dangerous enough. Saburo Agat went down in history alongside Ben the Beorach, but as the single most infamous killer in Our World history.

Personal Runes. Runes could change and often did. Horsham created special runes for his Nitthing Exile.

Above: Lord Naratun drawn by Celebeau. Below is a marble bust of Saburo Agat.

Above is the so called 'Wisteria Mask' believe to be based on Lady Wisteria Fujitsu. Today that is refuted.

Damaged marble head of Prince Grafton.

Above: Bela Moonlight on the Water. Below is Sojobo the Harbinger of War, a cartoon by Celebeau.

Chapter 3: The Debris Of History.

"I hear you have nominated Celebeau? May I ask why?"

Horsham was in Lady Confabulate's kitchen writing letters, organizing stolen and copied government documents, witness lists, affidavits, depositions, death bed accusations, death bed confessions, marshaling Lady Confabulate's private correspondence, and desperately hoping letters topped only by 'Horsham of Arcadia' would still be read by genteel friends of Lady Confabulate. In short, Horsham was preparing his legal defense. Lady Confabulate had no children and her only heir was an distant member of the Country Gentry through Lord Confabulous' bloodline. The house was semi shut down, the furniture covered, the servants nervous about the new heir and their jobs. Only Chef Junipii who had many offers to cook in the best homes of the Elite 1000 was not nervous. He let Horsham use the unused kitchen as his headquarters. But it was near to midnight and no one was around now ---- except for Bela who had quietly slipped in through the locked back door. He stood in the shadows now. Horsham shivered involuntarily at the sound of Bela's soft, silky voice. He turned around and saw his one time boss and friend hovering in the shadows. Horsham patted a sheet of paper under which he kept a butcher knife, and then calmly replied.

"Elves live a goodly long time. Celebeau comes of a family of Elves who live especially long. There is no reason to think that Celebeau will not live a very long life. Who knows what will happen down the road. A 'Celebeau Recency' is playing for time. Being only Regent he would have to rule discreetly and therefore would be more inclined to institute reforms advocated by the Shadow Opposition. A Regency is an inheriting weak hand. Right now that is desirous. And down the road -- who knows. Gloriana might die or be murdered. Celebeau might figure out how to divorce her or separate himself from her. Some miraculous heir might appear. Who knows. Down the proverbial road. Playing for time right now is the best option Arcadia has."

"Why not push for Prince Grafton?"

"Ben would make that a blood bath. Prince Grafton and Ben are already at each other's throats. Celebeau would make that impossible too. He loathes Prince Grafton as any half brother always loathes his shadowy half brother from the wrong side of the blanket. Malian would kill Prince Grafton. She loathes him because he is the child of Rhinga whom she as good as murdered. No. A Prince Grafton Coup would only trigger a bloodbath. And a bloodbath or civil war on top of a losing war is death to Arcadia. You botched it Bela. You had your chance and you botched it. Your coup failed. Coups are one-time only events. Second Chances are not options. If you successfully killed the Royal Family then sure, why not? I have no moral qualms against Prince Grafton in particular. He is not good but he is not bad. But your coup failed and Rhingol and Ben and Celebeau won't let you have a second wack at killing them all. On the other hand a Celebeau Regency will not be a bloodbath. It will be quiet, discreet, genteel, all the things Twilight Elves profess to love. Back door reform. Back door rule. The classic Spy's Solution. Why don't you like it?"

"I don't like Celebeau. I have butted heads with his ass too many times to tolerate him. And Ben won't let a Celebeau Regency happen."

"But Luna will. A wedge have been driven between man and wife. My spies have conformed it. Luna has publically signed off on my placard. Here is her witness name! See! Witness for me! Amazing eh! Actually she even said she would agree to Prince Grafton. But Ben won't even if Luna does so it is a Celebeau Regency. Celebeau is toadying up to Rhingol and trying to calm down Malian in order to slip through a Regency Bill. And most importantly of all: Celebeau will stand up to Ben. I saw it myself. Celebeau has finally found his balls where Ben castrated them. Or maybe he acquired some Bull Surplus via Dr. Kakoff up Goldenthrond. But Celebeau is finally standing up to Ben. Bela. Give up on your coup and back a Celebeau Regency. It is your best fall back position."

Bela circled around the shadows of the huge but empty kitchen. He past a rack of huge butcher knives. Horsham quietly placed his hand on the paper under which his knife was hidden. Bela kept circling in the shadows. "I see you are preparing for your operatic trial. Marshaling all your forces? But will any of Lady Confabulate's old admirers really come to your rescue Horsham? Or let you twist in the wind at the end of a hang-man's rope? The Shadow Opposition is finished. No one is guarding your back. No one is by your side. You are completely alone. Accept for me of course. Every other door is close to you. You are absolutely alone Horsham -- except for me."

"Are you my friend?"

"Paranoid as always." Bela laughed softly and emerged from the shadows and stood before his one time Crow. One hand casually turned some piles of papers around as he perused them. "Usual legalistic dribble. Below you as a military man and homicidal killer. Legalistic mumbo jumbo. Flets in the sky. You disappoint me. It is pathetic. Worse, it will not work. Legalism and Taxes. That is almost as bad as Dwarve Mathematics. No Elve wants to wallow in such stuff! Only a pettifogger would find such appeals appealing. A tax man perhaps. Dwarves certainly which is why no one allows Dwarves near government. A race of pettifoggers." Bela casually tossed the compositions of painstakingly composed legal theory aside.

"What do you want Bela? If this is just so much mumbo jumbo then you should not be worried. Let me fail spectacularly at my Court Marshal. If it is nonsuch nonsense then why are you here discouraging me? Let me twist in the wind at the end of a hangman's rope."

"Because I do not want to see a valiant soldier make a total fool of himself. History will ridicule you. Horsham of Arcadia. Ex Hero. Ex Soldier. Ex Spy. Full time Failure and Has-been. Why do you want to consign yourself to the Debris of History?"

"I already am today's trash, consigned to the ash can of History. What do you want Bela?"

"Will you use your trial to sell your pathetic political theories or publicize the Device?"

"Sell my Shadow Opposition Platform of Governmental Reform. That is not a threat surely to the Cockpit? And attack Ben of course, and Ben's possible imbecile heir, and that most surely is not a threat to the Cockpit."

"And if you get off then will you continue to dissuade everyone from seizing the Device, or even try to go after it yourself? To return it to the Fiery Fissure?"

"Yes."

"Why don't you at least try to lie to me?"

"We know each other too well for cheap tricks. Will you go after me then?"

"I must. You will leave me no option Horsham."

"Why not wait until after my trial. My trial could possibly help Arcadia. I sincerely believe that."

"Then make a deal with me. I will let you star in your pathetic trial and trumpet your pathetic Shadow Opposition dribble if you promise to stop your vendetta against the Device."

"I can't offer a deal. I sincerely believe the Device will ultimately destroy Arcadia unless it is returned to the Fiery Fissure or destroyed."

"So sincere" Bela said ironically.

"Yes. I am. As sincerely patriotic as you Bela!" Horsham replied emphatically.

Bela smiled in response, staring at Horsham's famously blue eyes in the ruins of his once beautiful face. It was presently black and blue from Ben's beating. A neat row of stitches along the hairline formed a testimonial to Chef Junipii's skills. As usual, Horsham's hair was an unruly tangle, like a lion's mane. It just reached his shoulders. It was even clean for once for Chef Junipii had scrubbed Horsham's head with a scullery brush before stitching up the ugly wound left by Ben's boot so the hair was thick and wavy, a voluptuous mass of ringlets no longer tied down in a tight braid as he once wore his hair. Bela's eyes wandered as his hand wandered, strolling across the paperwork, two feet away from Horsham's hand on his paper shrouded knife. "Come back to the Cockpit Horsham. Come back home. The Cockpit is your real home. Not here. Not the ruins of the Henhouse. Already shrouded over and empty! Come back. Spy for me. Help me save Arcadia my way."

"No." Horsham pulled out the knife from under the paper and casually put one battle scarred hand over it.

"I don't want to destroy you Horsham" Bela pleaded gently like a parent a stubborn child.

"Who is there?" Chef Junipii was standing by the rack of knives. He loomed tall over the two men. Junipii was a very tall Twilight Elve. A two foot butcher knife also added to his height. "I don't remember inviting you into my kitchen My Lord Bela. I did invite Horsham. I am particular who I invite into MY kitchen."

"Yours for now but for how long?" Bela smiled enchantingly at the two foot long butcher knife.

"Bela, for your information Chef Junipii can debone a carcass in one minute flat" Horsham said. Bela pretended to be impressed.

"I am going. It was only a casual call from a casual acquaintance after all.....old friends....fellow veterans...." Bela sauntered past Horsham, almost touching him as he passed toward the back door. In the shadows Bela turned back for a moment. "Reconsider Horsham. Please. I do miss your presence back at the Cockpit. You were my best Crow. I do freely admit that. And you do really have nowhere else to go. You really are utterly alone .... except for a two foot long butcher knife held by a man soon to be unemployed...." The back door quietly opened and then closed. Horsham's hand on his knife wilted. Chef Junipii put his two foot long butcher knife back in the rack.

"I suggest you do not go to your mew tonight Horsham but rather sleep in the empty spare room beside mine. I am a notoriously light sleeper."

"I have to finish my defense. But thank you Chef Junipii. Bela won't come back tonight. But yes. I will not sleep in my mew anymore. Bela has reformed me! I am resolutely sober!" Chef Junipii did not laugh at the wane joke.

Two days before the Court Marshal the elegant townhouse burned down, incinerating all of Horsham's legal defense and Chef Junipii, as well as seven other servants. The smell of gallons of whale oil hung around the ruins along with the smell of roasted human flesh. Horsham had been called away by a spy of his -- which turned out to be bogus. The papers were clearly fake, faked by Bela, classic red herrings to lure Horsham away just before the fire broke out at two o'clock in the morning. Horsham came back in time to help rescue some of the maids and footmen. Junipii tried to save one too many members of his staff and burned to death. Horsham's entire defense also burned to death. He saved Blackie but faced with a trial only two days away, personal death might have been preferred.

Bonnet in hand, Horsham called at the few surviving members of the Shadow Opposition but was denied entry. People were scared. How could they not be? Theories were theories and reform was reform but murder was murder. Survival is a deeply rooted instinct in the human brain and only soldiers and mothers have training or counter instincts to override the instinct to survive. Horsham then turned to his personal spy organization. But that too dried up. All his informants and snitches vanished. Horsham and Blackie spent the last night before the trial camped out at the symbolic Front Gate of Arcadia, the most public place Horsham could think of. It was the depths of dusty summer as well as the depths of Horsham's despair. He could not help but remember his callow youth, a mere boy of sixteen, when he first entered the magnificent Front Gate of Arcadia, fronted by giant stone eagles, full of hope, full of naivete, and full of potential. A beautiful young boy.

Now he was past thirty six, greying, shabby, fifty pounds overweight, with a bad leg made worse with arthritis, wearing only the clothes on his back. His entire career amounted to a battered Superior Man feather, a dirty self-crafted battle jerkin, a tarnished silver Grey Owl Metal of Valor, a equally tarnished silver military crest, old buckskin leggings, worn boots with holes in the soles, a dirty blanket wrapped around his shoulders, one steel long sword, one golden sword with a very limited warranty, a boot knife, and a heroic war steed that alone continued to stand stoically beside him in the dusty public road. An heroic steed too old to wage war, much like himself. People scurried away from the hulking man, mistaking him for a dangerous vagrant. But by the light of a waning moon one man came up and stood before him: Bela.

"Why did you spare my life? By burning up my legal defense you killed me anyway."

"It was not me."

"Please! The forgery was yours."

"Yes. But the forgery was for an ongoing project and stolen and misused for another project by another man. Ben. Ben set the fire."

"Why should I believe you? Ben rode off a week ago to join the 'glorious' Hunt. As did you."

Bela knelt down on his bony shanks and looked Horsham straight in the eyes. "I would have killed you if I was the one making the move. As long as you are alive you are dangerous. Ben is cheap and does his revenge on the cheap. And the Beorach always love to set fires to places. Burning flesh and raped girls are Beorach specialities. Practically their repertoire. And I know for a fact that Ben and his ally Harry of the Heavy Hand came back yesternight. That was why I came back too. Harry was spotted in a pub drunk and boasting about the Hunt. Five lousy rabid wolves! Wow! But where was Ben? And Ben did not surface at the Court. The guards will verify that. No midnight visit to the congenial marriage flet. Why? Then gone. Both gone. Gone by dawn. Why? Ask around for yourself. It was Ben. I gather from the smell that he used whale oil. Check out the whale oil sellers for yourself. To gut a stone townhouse you need at least a couple of gallons of top grade whale oil.

Ben must have been in a foul mood. After all he isn't going to earn any Pub Bard renown in the 'glorious' Hunt with five lousy wolves. And Celebeau is hot after the Device, in the field, hunting in earnest. And Celebeau gave Ben explicit orders not to join the Hunt. Ben is defying Celebeau and Celebeau don't like to be openly defied as if he was nothing but some footman left holding the platter. No. The shit is in the street my friend. Celebeau is not happy that Ben is playing cat and mouse with him in defiance of his promise to him. So much for promises and oaths uttered by a Beorach! Ben's oath to Celebeau and Ben's oath to Luna. And all for nought! No Device. No fame. No glory. So Ben an't the happy camper I hear! So Ben decided to vent his spleen out on you. His punching bag. Make sure you don't upstage him at that damn Court Marshal of yours! An attack in the back as always. Usual Beorach mugging and thuggery."

Horsham stared at Bela, trying to gage his words. "You threatened me Bela. Why come now then and tell me this about Ben."

"Like I said. If I had done it you would be dead. But like I also said: it does grieve me that you are being left to twist in the wind. Going bonnet in hand to cowardly Elves! See! I told you that no one would stand by you! I am your only friend left Horsham! Only me! You are absolutely alone ---- except for me. Come back to the Cockpit! Come back home. With me." Bela leaned forward on his bony haunches and his face just brushed Horsham's bowed head. "Come home with me."

"No."

Bela stood up. "I have to rejoin the 'glorious' Hunt myself. Rhingol is a chatty soul and a preposterous hunter. I have been hunting with him and Celebeau. But Celebeau keeps disappearing to 'monitor the situation back home' as he calls it. Oh guess who joined us? Young Gildagad and Beardon from The Havens. I remember when he was a wee lad and Rhingol would hide him in odd cupboards or closets or behind vases and have everyone play hide and seek! Alas the little boy has grown up into a runty teenager. A real mutt. Homely. Bowlegged. Hard to believe he is the scion of Celestial Royalty. Peevish too."

"He knows about the Black Plague up Arcadia Minor. I used him a couple of years ago to be my eyes to track. He knows the true story and not the bullshit Celebeau and the Pub Bards sold the public on. Truth can make naive youths peevish."

"Well I will give him credit for one thing. He snapped at Ben. I enjoyed that spectacle. But like I said: I have to rejoin the Hunt. Can't let Ben or some fool get hold of the Device can we? The real reason some people are hunting while others are risking their lives to kill rabid wolves killing little children." Bela pulled out a lovely pure silver long knife. "I came prepared to kill one particular beastie but neglected to tell anyone else to bring silver. But Beardon and Gildagad blabbed all over the place and even gave away some of their silver weapons. Damn them! I got silver arrows. An't I the lucky laddie!" Bela smirked, for once his soul showing through his facade of serene beauty.

"The real reason you are there. The real reason Ben is there. Part of the reason Celebeau is there. No. By all means rejoin the 'glorious' Hunt. It is dawn anyway. My Court Marshal." Horsham stood up and pulled off the dirty blanket and shook the dust off. "What are the odds the Judges will give me an extension of time to salvage my defense?"

"The day a pig can fly."

"Yah!" Horsham laughed grimly.

"Then why go? Why humiliate yourself?"

"Because Ben wants me to not go. Be automatically declared an Nitthing Man and presumed guilty! I have to go. No matter what. Or else my placard is consigned to the debris of History." Bela looked with conflicted eyes as Horsham mounted Blackie to ride to his Court Marshal.

"It's rigged. And no one will take your placard seriously because no one will dare! Not now!"

"Then you are a happy man Bela."

Bela winced. He did not look the happy spy master even though a discredited Horsham was his objective. Discredited, no one would listen to Horsham anymore. Horsham would be defanged. No longer a threat to Cockpit Business. No one would believed Horsham's warnings about the Device or believe Horsham's Shadow Opposition theories of Government Reform. Horsham would be person non grata. All but Nitthing Man in reality whether or not he was declared cast into Nitthing Exile in fact by the Court Marshal.

The Court Marshal declined Horsham's motion for an extension of time and ruled at once. After twenty years of front line military duty, Horsham of Arcadia was cashiered. Lord Naratun, waiting outside, burst in and fiercely protested, for nought.

"Gentlemen! Today you have condemned yourselves!" Lord Naratun said gravely. The officers sat stiffly at attention. Then Colonel Bierwood replied:

"There is no evidence presented this day that we can rule on!. We can all connect the dots with our eyes and see the picture of gross injustice! But in a court of law dots can only be connected by threads of evidence! I am as much a man of honor as you Lord Naratun. Would you lie? Fabricate evidence? Destroy evidence? Act without proof? Kill without a lawful warrant? Recklessly act without due law or restraint? Yet you expect me to do so? Clearly all of the above has been done by parties known or unknown. But does that allow us to behave likewise? The crime scene is all too clear but all the evidence has been rearranged or wiped clean! I know Confabulous House was burned to destroy evidence and people, good people, died. But what can I do now? The evidence gone, what can I do? Can one witness come forward? Just one and accuse Ben of any crime but crass ambition, unseemly love, and rash and reckless -- but not criminal behavior?"

"No. Only me" Horsham replied. "And my life speaks for me. Twenty years of honorable service for Arcadia as all you gentlemen know full well! I have fought under every single one of you and you know me! Right well!"

"Your reputation speaks but so does your infamy. And though Lord Naratun stands by your side he cannot testify as an eye witness to any crime you have accuse Ben the Beorach of. And this Court Marshal is about you and not about Ben. You stand indicted. Not Ben. What Ben may, or may not have done does not pertain to this Court Marshal. And your conduct is clear indeed. You freely admit to opposing the Royal Family, and you have openly libeled the Royal Family, and have openly defied the Royal Family. As a soldier you cannot defy your lawful commander. Rhingol the Great is your lawful commander. You cannot refuse to take orders and you have. You have refused point blank to obey certain commands of Rhingol the Great."

"Unlawful or reckless or dangerous commands cannot be obeyed by any honorable man!"

"But who decides which commands are lawful and which are unlawful? Reckless? Dangerous? You? Me? Who? As soldiers we have all taken an oath to obey all commands of our superior officers and our supreme commander is Rhingol the Great. You openly, even now, even here, say you will not obey certain orders issued by Rhingol the Great if they are 'unlawful'. You openly, even now, even here, question your supreme commander's mental capacity and judgement and motives. You have openly challenged the conduct of The War in explicit detail. Openly challenged your commanders in the field and in headquarters. There is no clause in our Oath to allow that. You must follow orders, or quite the Military, or be cashiered. As a civilian you may, like Lord Naratun, stand on principle as a citizen of Arcadia. But not as a professional soldier."

"If I was not so disobedient we would have lost the War of the Bluebells. My willful disobedience saved your necks here in Arcadia Prime!"

"Yes. I know. We all know that. Celebeau's affidavit in fact points that out. Let me read it aloud.

'The paradox of Horsham is that his private life is appalling and his professional comportment is unseemly but his professional conduct has always been in motive and action both effective and unquestionably patriotic. However he is willfully un-command able and presently is bringing politics openly into the military arena, commingling oil and water of two fundamental opposites.

Civilian control of the Military is becoming impossible and Civilian Control of the Military is the cornerstone of Arcadian Society. Military Control of Civilian government is no less than the tyranny of the Warlord and I firmly believe the chimera of the benevolent dictator is just that: a phantom myth. No matter how bad Civilian Control might be, and I do not deny the sometime quality of civilian control, nevertheless the quality of military dictatorship would be infinitely worse. I do not object to Horsham's politics even if I am the butte of the attack but I do question the mixing of politics in the military arena. Superior Man Horsham must stand down or retire before commencing his political attack..

The attack by Horsham on Ben the Beorach is valid but the attack should be lawfully done by Impeachment. The particular issue here is Horsham's conduct and not Ben's conduct. I agree that the Indictment of Ben the Beorach was aborted unlawfully during the conclusion of the Star Chamber and no lawful vehicle presently exists to impeach a member of the Royal Family. But this is still a side issue outside of Military Jurisdiction and therefore outside of Court Marshal unless Ben takes to the field in a military role in the future which would put him back under Military Review. Horsham wishes to use this Military Court Marshal to impeach Ben the Beorach and the Royal Family. This is not lawful. It puts the Royal Family under Military Review. Please see the above paragraph. The solution is a lawful forum for review of the conduct of the Royal Family. I suggest working with Lord Naratun to create such a lawful forum. But the forum can not be a Military forum. I believe Lord Naratun and I can create a lawful and appropriate mode of review if we can work together in an atmosphere of calm reason. Horsham's hot headed charge is not creating an atmosphere of calm reason though it is creating a feverous atmosphere that promotes hot headed reactions by all parties in the dispute which is not conductive to solution.'

While in the field yesterday, Celebeau added an Appendix yesterday gentlemen to his previously written affidavit and it reads: 'Confabulous House burned down under profoundly suspicious circumstances and the loss of honorable lives of good men and women. The intent appears to be to destroy evidence intended for this Court Marshal. The evidence may, or may not have been valid or pertinent. But the violence and the motive is disturbing. If arson can be proved and if witnesses can come forward then indictments for arson and murder can be issued even to a member of the Royal Family if the evidence so warrants. But again a military court marshal does not apply to a civilian criminal matter. Nevertheless, the arson of Confabulous House will impact Horsham's defense adversely. Therefore in mitigation I offer this defense: I do not believe a Censure can be lodged against Horsham based on his patriotism and sincerity of motives, however misguided the motives might be. If the Court Marshal finds Censure, it can only be on grounds of impropriety of mixing politics with military issues and or refusal to obey express commands by his superior officers. The dubiousness of his private life, dueling, and vulgarity of his behavior and appearance should not be valid grounds for an issue of Censure. It should also be taken into account that he is a member of the Cockpit and normally deals with espionage which requires an abnormal degree of freedom of action not normally considered acceptable in strict military protocols.'

Colonel Bierwood put down the affidavit. "Please understand I know your achievements! I recognize the metal you wear around your neck! I respect you as a man and as a soldier and as a patriot! But I must find this Court Marshal against you." the whip struck the table. The Court Marshal was over. Horsham was cashiered.

Luna was waiting outside when Horsham, bonnet in hand, wearily exited the grand Military Court alongside Lord Naratun. They clustered in the portico as cold rain poured down in buckets, dousing trees whose leaves were limp and edged with brown and flowers gone to seed. Lord Naratun stood elegant in his neat court over tunic and short kilt, his white hair a halo, his manner cooly professional even in the middle of political disaster. Horsham was openly shattered, his famous blue eyes rimmed by dark circles, his cheeks wet though he had not yet left the portico.

"Why didn't you call me as witness. I was here. Where is everyone else? Why was the Court Marshal so short? One half hour. How is that possible?" The beleaguered woman asked Horsham who was trying to ignore her altogether.

"I can hardly call you as witness when it was your husband Ben who burned down Confabuous House two days ago along with eight servants and my entire legal defense. A year of work. Ashes and cinders. Nothing but ashes but cinders. Without a defense the Military Flet ruled immediately. I am cashiered. Unemployed. Ruined. Disgraced."

"The fire....I heard.... but surely...."

"Whale oil. Three gallons. The smell was unmistakable. And Lady Confabulate feared fire and never allowed whale oil in Confabuous House. 'Nautilus and Nialls' sold Ben three gallons two nights ago while Harry of the Heavy Hand was at the Broken Jug Pub getting drunk. Ben did not even bother to disguise himself. Pretty stupid. But of course being married to Royalty means no Ravens will go after him anyway eh?"

Luna stared in horror. Part of her did not want to believe it. Part of her was all to afraid it was true. "But you lived ....."

"Yah. Bela's spies told him Ben was back in town. Bela always has Ben tailed when he is in Arcadia. Saw him buy the stuff. Bela sent a red herring to one of my snitches to call me away just in time. Bogus. But when I realized it and rushed back the townhouse was already on fire. But Bela won't sign any affidavit, nor any of his crows. Amazing how blind the law will be despite the fact the crime is brazen and eight people died. Some crimes can be brazen and they are never brought to trial but I am cashiered for 'bringing the Royal Family into disrepute' Amazing eh? One law for some. Another law for others!"

Luna stood flatfooted, her face conflicted. "I am with child again."

"Oh lucky Arcadia! Benny the Furry Pup Junior lives again."

"I know many will pray for my child's death. I confess to mixed feelings myself. Just as my feelings for Ben are now mixed. Eight people died....?"

"Chef Junipii, Upper Withdrawing Room Maid Mandy, Footman Bumpity, Scullery Girls Berta and Flosie, Butler Jezeber, Stable hand Buzby, Stable Master Spitz. Some died trying to save priceless heirlooms. Some died trying to save horses. Some died in panic. Some died trying to saving panicky scullery girls. If all had been cowards then Blackie and all the horses would have died, and only two silly and brainless scullery girls would have burned alive. But people were brave and did their duty so eight people died. Ben of course did not factor on bravery, but then Ben did not even bother to think about the deaths that might occur, much less care. Bela cared just enough to make sure I lived but not my legal defense. The staff of Confabulous House, he did not think about either. Lady Confabulate's heir is I hear, whining about the loss of Confabulous House but has not mentioned one staff member alive or dead. So I guess no one cares about the eight people who died but me. I knew them all. To me they all had faces and personalities and life histories worth telling. You might miss Chef's Junipii's cooking at some great house."

Luna stood at attention and wept. "That is unkind. But I deserve to be punished. The gods are punishing me. Destiny is punishing me. I deserve the punishment. I am reaping it now. Payback for all the evil my love affair has caused Arcadia. But what can I do to atone beside suffering for love? No one listens to me. Not Father. Not Mother. Not even Ben. I am powerless. I was always powerless..."

"Why bother to pretend to ask? What can you do? Nothing. You will do nothing. What can you do? Please! Appease your guilty conscience with games with Celebeau! Not with me! What can you do? Will you hold Ben accountable? Please! You will excuse and whitewash and forgive as you have and as you will, past and present and future. Go away lady! You are of no earthly help to anyone! I never thought you would deliver any help! Damn you all! I hope you miscarriage or deliver a dead baby! For any living baby will be either an monster or an imbecile. Both equally disastrous to Arcadia!"

Luna took the venom stonily. "I am with child and every instinct as a mother screams out to protect my child!"

"I bet you will betray even your monster of a child if and when Ben commands. You see, Ben can't brook being second to anyone. Certainly not a child. Share you with a child! Nah! An't possible lady! You're deluding yourself as usual! For Ben you will knife your own child down the road! I bet you a wooden rhingol! See me in twenty years time to collect! But you will find yourself playing second to something lady! A Device! Ben is so eager to hunt I gather! After how many little children died? So eager -- after I verified which monster carried the Device in it's belly! Then he suddenly became so very eager! How many wolves can a sick man kill? Come on lady! But even a sick man can kill one special werewolf! Or at least be there to snatch it first!"

"Ben swore an oath to me that..."

"You swore an oath to Ben lady!. 'Hold a Device in your hand and it will kill our love and it will kill me!' To be exact lady! Because Ben's oaths and promises an't worth the air that bare the words out of the mouth of Ben! So you swore an oath and that oath will be your transmutation curse! See me in twenty years time to collect if I am wrong! But I won't be wrong! And in twenty years time we will both be dead! And Ben too! And Arcadia! But that Device..... Maestus the Damned built his monestrous creations too damn well so that Device .... yah! It will probably be all too alive!"

"Ben might surprise you Horsham!" Luna cried out half heartedly.

"Maybe! But I doubt it!" Horsham snapped back.

Horsham pulled on his battered old bonnet, flattening it against his head, then by habit he wet his fingers and primmed the wilted feather and stood at attention. He gave Luna, the Royal Princess of Arcadia a back handed salute. Then he marched off into the drenching rain in that oddly ungraceful, lumbering gait he now had. Seeing him no one could remember, or even believe, he was once the handsome, graceful duelist of long ago, pulling in the crowds to watch him kill men. Luna wilted. She tugged at Lord Naratun's tunic but he bristled at the touch of her timid fingers.

"My lady, I do not wish to converse with you. I wanted to indict your husband for treason. But for pity for Rhingol, I would have indicted you for treason. I consider you as fully a reckless traitor as Ben your husband. You have never once thought how your conduct would effect Arcadia! You have never once questioned the impact your glorious love affair would have on your city state and your nation. Such supreme, self absorbed selfishness! And now you plead powerlessness!

People around your are dying every day for their country and you do not weight their suffering or their death on the scales of history against your own reckless behavior. I consider you my political enemy now. Tell your thug of a husband I refuse to commit suicide as he and Malian ordered. I won't go quietly! Do you understand? I won't stand down. I won't give up, or give in, or conveniently, quietly, discreetly die. I mean to fight you all the way! I am not being egoistical when I say I stand, the last bulwark, against everything you and Ben, and Malian too, stand for. Mad Love. Criminal Selfishness. And Reckless Ambition.

As long as I live I will fight you as enemies of Arcadia. Ben, and Malian too, plot my death actively. You will do nothing to stop it. But I tell you here and now that when I die, my death will kill the last hope Arcadia has to prevent it's descent into violent civil war and anarchy and barbarity. That is why I wage legal war now so fiercely! I am fighting a inhuman monster and I am fighting a man who plots to become military dictator and warlord of Arcadia! I am fighting to save Arcadia's soul! It's lawful government. It's moral conscience. It's genteel heart of benevolence. It's honor and nobility and history of dignity and graciousness.

Malian will kill any and all who threaten her insane obsession for that pathetic fool Rhingol, at the cost of Arcadia itself. And her assault started by her rigging the coronation of Rhingol and then the murder of Co-Regent Rhinga. And it is climaxing with the liquidation of every single person who speaks out against Rhingol in any way from trivial to impeachment. Even her so-called 'Mirage Line' is not protecting Arcadia but protecting merely Rhingol, and it is wavering and full of holes, a bogus defense that is no defense. Malian would not hesitate to destroy Arcadia if Arcadia dares reject the focus of her insanity: Rhingol.

Ben wants to annihilate all that is good in Arcadia out of pure racial hatred, thinking that raping an enslaved nation will prove he is finally and at last racially superior to Elvedom. But his so called victory will only prove his racial barbarity. Ben, like all Beorach savages, in the end only knows how to destroy and not how to create, how to burn and plunder, but not how to protect or defend. Ben may succeed in destroying Arcadia but Ben will fail utterly in any other thing, including your so called glorious love affair of the century, because Ben only understand destruction and not creation. I only pray I can defeat you before you destroys Arcadia .Ben, Malian, and you. People who boast of 'love' that only brings selfish ruin and death on anyone and everyone else!" The elegant, aging Courtier bowed toward the Royal Princess and then turned to march into the rain after Horsham.

At that moment Cyrus ran up with ten bodyguards and a covered litter. "Father! It was most foolish to leave the Naratun Pavilion without guard! Alone! You did not tell me! You know there have been five attempts on your life! Now please get into the litter and we will march home under guard! Horsham! Please go with Father in the litter. It will be safer if neither of you are exposed to possible attack." At that moment Cyrus saw Luna and he glared at her. "To bad your husband is out hunting rabid wolves in the Great Hunt. I wonder why? After something clearly and it isn't nobility I bet! I am sure otherwise he would have taken advantage of this situation and attacked Lord Naratun! But perhaps you are here to give the signal for the attack eh? An attack while he appears to be out of town? Eh?" Luna blanched. Lord Naratun patted his adopted son's shoulder gently.

"Calm down Cyrus. I am sorry I left prematurely and without escort. But we are in front of Military Headquarters! What could be safer? Even Ben would not dream of attacking me here. And you will take me and Horsham home safely now. Thank you for bringing a covered litter so I won't get wet. Horsham, come inside the litter and wipe yourself off. Then let us talk about the Impeachment of the Royal Family." Lord Naratun smiled politely at Luna and entered the covered litter carried by four stout Mere Mortals and surrounded by ten armed men plus Cyrus. Luna blanched. Horsham tucked Lord Naratun in but shook his head.

"I am totally wet and will not wet you my dear sir. Please stay dry. I will walk beside Cyrus. On either side of the Litter. Your own most devoted body guards. In this drenching rain who will be foolish enough to attack us. Ben is away and after the Confabulous House arson will run to ground for a while. An attack right now would be politically disastrous for the Royal Family. Even Ben would not be that stupid. That reckless. That contemptuous of the judgment of history!"

At that moment Luna, visibly shaking, suddenly entered the covered litter uninvited . "Forgive me my lord. My litter and escort appears delayed and I am unprepared for this drenching rain. It is as if the sky weeps heartbroken. May I go with you as far as the Royal Maw?"

Lord Naratun, too much the courtier, could hardly refuse. He made room for Luna to sit beside him, pulling the traveling blanket politely over her for Luna shook like a leaf in an autumn storm.

"This rain warns that summer is fleeing and autumn is coming fast" Lord Naratun replied blandly, surprised by Luna's rude behavior. "The world has gone to seed and the leaves are limp and ragged as basho leaves in the winds of autumn. The summer has been damp and cruel and I fear the autumn will usher in a cold and hard winter. The balmy seasons of old seem to be vanishing in cruel hard times. Gentlemen. You may proceed to Naratun Pavilion via the Royal Maw." The route naturally took them passed the Royal Maw where Luna desired to be left.

Cyrus shut the door of the litter and the group marched briskly toward Naratun Pavilion. Cyrus pulled his bulky leather over-tunic closer. "This is cold, nasty weather. Winter is coming prematurely." Horsham, dressed only in his tunic and leggings and aging jerkin, a blanket around his shoulders, nodded. His body, still bandaged and ailing from his imprisonment and Ben's brutal beating, ached in the cold, wet weather. The attack came when they entered the Royal Maw.

Men rushed out, swords drawn, silent, fierce. Cyrus and his guards were covered in bulky weather over tunics and had to pull them off to fight-- a fatal split second delay. Horsham, positioned by one side of the litter, formed a shield wall with his bulky body, his steel long sword in his hand. There were eighteen assassins. Mercenaries. Beorach Mercenaries. Fierce murderers for hire. They fought like orcs, each racing toward the covered litter to reap the prize of the killing of Lord Naratun. The fighting was furious, black blurs against the pouring rain, men slipping and sliding in pools of icy rain and blood, swords flashing, metal screeching, men screaming. One litter carrier, bloody, ran toward the Royal Palace screaming before he was killed from behind. Yet behind the closed doors of the Palace, no one stirred, or appeared to acknowledge the ghastly assault taking place in the Royal Maw.

Blood splashed on the gravel as men fell screaming. Cyrus toppled against the litter, still desperately trying to protect his stepfather even with his dying body. Horsham fought down man after man but he could guard but one side of the litter, an little island surrounded by assailants running toward it in a frenzy from all sides. More men dropped to the bloody gravel. A sword pieced the litter randomly. Then another. Then another. More bodies covered the gravel, lying in pools of muddy water tinted pink by blood. Finally Horsham fought off the last frenzied assassin, beating him down with the pommel of his steel long sword. Both men collapsed in the rain, gasping for breath, heaving, groaning.

Horsham grabbed the hair of the dying assassin and shook him. "Tell me who hired you! Tell me! I will cut off your balls and you will never go to your pagan paradise and feast in the long house of your savage gods then! Tell me!"

The dying Beorach groaned. "The price was fifty pieces of gold to the man who killed .......her....... the employer was......" Then the assailant died, blood flowing out of his mouth, drowning his last words.

Horsham screamed and dragged himself to the litter and broke open the door. Inside he saw Lord Haratun's body sprawled over the body of Luna, Royal Princess of Arcadia. Lord Naratun had gallantly thrown his body over her to shield her from attack. Naratun lay died, pierced by over eight wounds both minor and major. Horsham dragged the body aside. Luna was badly wounded but alive.

"Is my womb pierced?" she cried out, almost pleading.

"I wish it was pierced! May you give birth to a monster who will kill it's mother with it's own birth cord! You deserve to die for this foul deed!"

Luna wept. "I saw an vision of this and on impulse forced my way into the litter to shield Lord Naratun. Instead he died shielding me. Ben's evil has reaped at last me. A victim who deserves to die by his hand. I warned him not to attack Lord Naratun. I knew by instinct he would. Oh that I died this day! Let me die! I cannot face my husband and my murderer!"

"The attack my lady was intended for you and not Lord Naratun. The assassins were after you! By entering the litter you doomed Lord Naratun. Call it 'collateral damage'. A charming military term for the death of innocent bystanders! And the doors of the Royal Palace open at last! Too late! Now to save you when they see that you are here. Would that they had opened when the attack commenced! I deliver you to your husband's creatures! Malian's creatures! May Malian kill you with all her insane, self absorbed love and jealous monomania! Or may Ben kill you with his ruthless fearlessness! Heartless! Brutal! Callous of human suffering! A soul like his missing hand ---- brutal mithril! Sleep with the enemy and reap what you have sowed! An evil child of a fearless man! An evil child who will attack you in the back! And may Malian attack you in the back! And may Ben abandon you! Everything lost! Everything gone! Hated by one and all! And may you die alone! Your glorious love affair a bier bed of thorns. Abandoned! Alone! Absolutely alone! And may I live to hear you scream out your pain at Ben's betrayal of you! Betrayal and abandonment!" Horsham screamed in fury. " Betrayal and abandonment! And may grey owls eat your corpse while you are still alive! "

Guards, belatedly pouring out of the Royal Palace, seized the wounded Royal Princess and carried her into the Palace, whimpering and screaming. Horsham collapsed by the bodies of the dead and dying, the flag of the Clan of Naratun dragged in the mud, limp and stained by blood. On the other side of the pierced litter Cyrus lay died, his body pierced by swords, still in death vainly trying to protect his stepfather Lord Naratun. The dead Elve's silver white hair slowly turned red with blood, one hand hanging out of the litter, as if trying to grasp in death the hand of his dead stepson. So father and son died together and so died the Clan of Naratun. And so died the last hope Arcadia had to find a lawful and genteel solution to the problem of civil war and violent anarchy as a warlord conspired to seize power by violent liquidation while another invisible monster murdered with icy ruthlessness. Against violence how can lawful patriots ever survive? Against violence how can due process of law and genteel honor ever win?

Celebeau rode back one hour later that morning from the Great Hunt and heard in rapid succession news about the fire at Confabulous House, the half hour Court Marshal of Horsham of Arcadia, the assault and death of Lord Naratun, and the wounding of Princess Luna. Celebeau groaned and slammed shut the door, latched it, and slumped down on the floor behind the thin wooden barrier against wave after wave of moral disaster. The sound of his weeping could be heard down the hallway. It was gut wrenching. As if his soul was dying. Yet he did not rush off to see Luna but rather barricaded himself in his office.

Then Horsham marched into the building, bellowing, still bloody, one bloody hand holding his wounded side as he half marched, half stalked, half staggered toward Celebeau's offices. Duer, horrified, rapped on his master's door in warning. Behind the door he heard the latch unlatch and then the sound of a defeated man pulling himself together. Duer opened the door. Celebeau was sitting down behind his desk, wiping the tears off his face and resuming his stony look of stupid self denial. Then Duer quietly shut the door and barricaded it against attack as Horsham lunged into the antechamber.

"I demand to see Celebeau!"

"Do you have an appointment?"

"No Father. I have just come from the murder scene of Lord Naratun. Perhaps you heard of him?"

Then Horsham grabbed his estranged parent and shoved him aside and marched into the office.

Celebeau sat stonily and stared at the ruined man with his notorious dead fish eyes. "I know you will sit on your bony arse Celebeau but still I am compelled by honor to protest eight persons being burned alive, three of them Elves, by Ben. Here is the sales token from Nautilus and Nialls for three gallons of whale oil.

Oh yes. By the way. Did you hear? Lord Naratun died in the Royal Maw while no one came to his aid despite the evil deed being done in plain view of the Royal Palace itself? I guess everyone was inside preparing Rhingol's triumph party for the glorious hunt. All the monsters dead now? Is Arcadia safe now? Who has the Device now?"

"Will Nautilus and Nialls sign an affidavit?" Celebeau whispered hoarsely, like a dying man clutching at straws as he drowns.

"Of course not! Nor will Bela's Crows who were trailing him and witnessed the event. But Bela lured me away on pretense just before the House went up in flames so he knew what was going to happen damn it! Oh don't play stupid! You know Ben murdered eight people! Are you going to let him get away with murder! Murder! Burning people alive! And Naratun! Don't you understand he was the very last hope Arcadia had to prevent violent civil war! We are drowning in a sea of blood! Self inflicted! By the gods I thought you had found your balls to stand up to Ben, if not Malian! But clearly the Bull Surplus from Dr. Kakoff did not stick eh! The eunuch of the Royal Family! As always!"

Celebeau clutched at the dossers before him. "Shut up and crawl away Horsham! Oh dare you insult me! I won't put up with such profanity and vulgarity from you anymore!"

Horsham bent over the table and whispered "Malian murdered your own mother Rhinga". Horsham nodded to Celebeau who flinched, barely able to control his stony facade. "Do you know how? I met her! What me to describe to you the effects of mithril poisoning on the human body of an Elve?" Celebeau put his hands over his ears and cringed. Then Horsham bend down even closer and whispered "Only a rank amateur would hire Beorach outlaws in jail on a banditry charge to blindly attack the litter carrying Princess Luna to the Royal Maw. Even the most stupid of pub drunks would have paused, recognizing the clan flag of Naratun. Such a botch up! Only someone totally inexperienced could have blundered so crassly!

Luna lives. She has not miscarried. The baby lives. So you have to continue to endue Ben, and shield Ben, and kiss Ben's arse, because Luna still lives. And you have to continue to pretend you love Luna, and Malian, and Rhingol, all your Royal Family, love them, and protect them, and pretend to publically admire them. As they slowly and relentlessly destroy Arcadia!

So what title has Ben picked out to wear? Warlord? Military Dictator for Life? Or will he be satisfied with 'Consort'?" Horsham nodded at Celebeau who cringed at his office table, both hands still tightly over his ears. "If Ben was smart he would pick Royal Consort and content himself to be Malian's killer dog. He could take over Bela's Cockpit and turn it into a new terror organization for the suppression of virtue! I know! Ben could rename the Cockpit ' The Homeland Shieldwall'! What do you think?" Celebeau shuddered. Horsham grinned grimly. "But Ben an't smart. He is just a short sighted thug who hates the Elve Race. So he won't play it safe. He will finally be compelled to try to get rid of Rhingol and seize it all. And then Malian will kill him. But by then who else will be left alive? Not you! Bet' ya a wooden rhingol!"

Then Horsham stood at attention and bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Ben cut off your balls a long time ago!" Horsham repeated slowly but very loudly for absolutely every bystander and servant and guard throughout the hallway to hear. And Horsham had a very loud voice when he wanted to be heard. And heard he was by absolutely everyone. Celebeau reared up and slapped Horsham across the face. Horsham smiled. "I consider that a challenge to a duel!"

"Nonsuch!" Celebeau shouted, his famously wooden face livid. "I don't duel with riffraff! Cashiered and broken down ex soldiers! Duels can only waged by honorable men of equal rank. You were never my equal Horsham. No ever! Certainly not now! Go away! Guards! Haul this bum away! And if you ever come back to my office I will declare you a Nitthing Man and exile you!"

Horsham spat in Celebeau's face as Ravens hauled him away. "Ben burned eight men and women to death at Confabulous House and he is getting away with it! And Malian or Ben murdered Lord Naratun!" Everyone heard that too. Everyone. The gossip was all over Arcadia by sunset. An open secret regardless of lack of affidavit or warrant or deposition. But by now even the Elite 1000 was too afraid and too browbeaten to fight Ben and how could anyone fight a goddess of mirages? A demigod of supernatural powers and inhuman disregard for human suffering? How could anyone fight people who absolutely did not care how many people died, or how horribly? How could anyone fight people who absolutely did not care because they had no fear, no conscience, no regret, no compassion, no proportion outside of their own self absorbed monomania? Pure, murderous violence is virtually unstoppable. Fearless amorality will always defeat fearful sanity. Sane people are always fearful. Only insane or inhuman people are fearless.

The one time Elite of Arcadia hunkered down in their townhouses, then remembered how Confabulous House burned down. Then they found excuses to flee to their country estates. Ben's open reign of terror, and Malian's invisible reign of terror, had finally won the war for control of Arcadia. Open murder only clinched the victory. Ben the Beorach was now Rhingol's Heir Apparent and defacto Ruler of Arcadia in all but name. The only person left to stop him was Malian who only cared about Rhingol's demented happiness, and delusions of being beloved, and delusions of being in control and adored by an admiring public. Nothing else. So if Ben moved very carefully around the void of power that was Rhingol then he had total impunity. But did Ben have enough restraint to move very carefully around Rhingol so as not to ignite the volatile Malian? Being a Beorach that was highly unlikely. Sooner or later Ben and Malian would collide, both going for the jugular of the other.

The result would not be pretty and everyone both wished it would happen, and dreaded it happening, and fantasied that it would somehow solve the crisis, and knew it would not solve the crisis. Depending on Rhingol's lack of sanity at any moment in time, Malian would either crush Ben and Luna, or exile them (if Rhingol was slightly sane enough to wax sentimental about this daughter's welfare). But the scenario, enjoyable though it might be by Ben's many victims, still left Malian in power, Rhingol a mad void of power, and Arcadia still rolling straight off the proverbial cliff.

Malian would not broke rivals to Rhingol, or heirs to Rhingol, of alternatives to Rhingol, or replacements to Rhingol, or anybody or anything that might in anyway threaten Rhingol. So sooner or later Luna would get her anticipated reward too. But by now people no longer savored Luna's suffering to come. Luna whimpered in her bed, bandaged, alas still pregnant. She cowered in her room, consumed by fear of everyone, consumed by guilt, terrified of what Destiny had in store for her. Whenever it came, it could never compensate for the suffering and death her presence caused. After she was wounded in the attack on Lord Naratun, people universally prayed to their household gods for Luna to die. But no one held their breath. Malian would kill her sooner or later, or otherwise torment her or terrorize her, but it was all too late. Luna could never atone by suffering. No amount of suffering would ever be enough. Memoirs of people who lived through the First Age were remarkably hostile to Luna. It took Celebeau and pub bards a millennium, in fact the entire Second Age, to whitewash her reputation. Celebeau was so compulsive that it amounted to a virtual crusade. So nowadays everyone sees the movies and few read the First Age memoirs. Nevertheless the truth, ignored and denied, stays the truth no matter how often the fictionalized lie is repeated in gaudy cinematic detail or antiquated propaganda.

As for Celebeau, he was not Heir Apparent and would never be Regent. He was no longer even Princely Nephew. Celebeau was only Ben's door mat. Ben's footman. Ben's flunkey. Worse. Celebeau was Rhinga's other child. Malian did not incline to allowing any evidence of Rhinga to exist, certainly not any of her children who might challenge Rhingol's deluded claims of total power. Celebeau was now the official 'Royal Eunuch of Court' and Celebeau was the future target of Malian's vendetta, as much as Grafton and Kitsune. Targets were painted on each and every back of each and every child of Rhinga. Everyone anticipated Celebeau dying just before, or just after, Grafton and Kitsune. And as much as Horsham's placard, Celebeau's Proposed Recency Bill and all his invisible maneuvers behind the scenes to somehow lawfully solve the crisis by some sort of genteel rabbit out of the hat, were litter in the ash pile of history. Celebeau was about to be litter in the ash pile of History too. The witch who predicted his demise as the 'Last of the last, the very last, the Last Elve of the Twilight' was clearly wrong. If Celebeau had any friends, and he did not, they ran for the hills now.

Prince Adulterine Grafton was about to be killed by Ben and he knew it. As soon as Ben rode back from the Hunt he would target Prince Grafton and finish his coup for power. Malian would let Ben to the dirty work of murder that he so obviously enjoyed doing. Malian would let Ben live long enough to kill everyone off that Malian wanted dead. And right now the top of the list was Prince Grafton and Prince Kistune. Prince Grafton was as good as dead. But being as good as dead left Prince Grafton with no options but recklessness. Having nothing to lose, Prince Grafton threw in all his bets on a bluff of cards, a poor hand but the only hand he had: Rebellion. The Civil War that Lord Naratun so desperately tried to stop officially commenced September 19, 4015 FA.

At the Front in Arcadia Minor, where Ben was openly loathed and Rhingol was hated, Prince Adulterine Grafton held a military ceremony declaring himself King of Arcadia. He erected his banner and signed Proclamation placards while the embittered and desperate citizens of Arcadia Minor cheered. It showed how desperate they were to pretend Prince Grafton was anywhere near the level of Rufus Royal. If only Rufus Royal had declared himself twenty years before then his real genius and his real popularity and military victories would have indeed swept him into Arcadia and the Palace. But Prince Grafton? He was a poor man's tin god. Not the real thing. Not Rufus Royal: the Real Man of Destiny who could have defeated the Dark Lord on the battle field and saved Arcadia. Now it was too little and too late. Arcadia Minor was a shattered wreak. Arcadia Prime was terrified. The Elite 1000 cowed, hiding in their country houses. Everyone was too poor, too overtaxed, too desperate, too browbeaten. No mob carried Prince Adulterine Grafton into the Palace on their shoulders while shouting victory. The crowds were few, ragged, cowardly, and indecisive. The Imperial Army was divided and demoralized. The result was not a coup but only civil war on top of a losing war against the Dark Lord. So Sept 19, 4015 FA is also the official date when Arcadia's Decline to Fall turned terminal.

In the middle of nowhere, Rhingol the Great, out happily hunting phantom monsters, found himself deposed in all but name by his son in law Ben the Beorach. The man who still could not abide his son in law now had Ben the Beorach as his Heir Apparent. But Rhingol was in the middle of nowhere, hunting phantom monsters of his imagination,. Charming, senile, doomed. Poor Rhingol never even realized a coup had already taken place and he had lost and Ben had won, howbeit only temporarily until Malian choose to liquidate him, after he liquidated everyone else for Malian. Poor Rhingol was too mad to see that Arcadia was collapsing all around him. And poor Rhingol was now also utterly doomed.

For while Ben lay wounded in the field, everyone still fighting real monsters, everyone confused and distracted, poor deluded Rhingol found an odd thing in the dis-in bowled stomach of a Greater Werewolf and he tucked it away in the folds of his kilt close to his heart. He never let go of it ever again. So Ben the Beorach lost the Device. When he finally woke he found he had lost the thing he had refused to admit to Luna he wanted more than his love for her. For a moment, wounded, he remembered all his love for Luna and for that moment, wounded, weak, he failed to snatch the prize away by force, overwhelmed by his love for Luna. And at that moment Chance and Fate, those spiteful twins, set in motion the wheels of Destiny to bring down Arcadia in it's final Third Act Climax of National Destruction.

Ben curst himself ever after for that one moment of weakness, blinded by love. For ever afterwards Ben plotted and planned and schemed and dreamed about the Device. But Malian never trusted Ben or Gloriana and never let either viper alone in the room with her beloved Rhingol who always wore the Device around his neck or slept by it each night. Ben curst himself and privately he probably curst Luna for making him weak through love at that one fateful moment when he should have been strong enough and ruthless enough to seize the Device and never let go of it. Poor Luna thought the moment of weakness was a triumph of love for her and it cemented forever her love for Ben. But Ben never saw it as anything but weakness. Poor Luna, to preserve her sanity, lied to her soul that she was not sleeping with the enemy when Ben came home and swept her wounded body into his arms and cried and cried, denying any role in the murder attempt on Naratun, (at least that particular murder attempt on Naratun). Luna choose to believe him because he did not possess the Device.

Young Gildagad and cunning old Beardon, not told about the secret of the Device, failed to recognize the split second of disaster, though in hindsight Gildagad later would rue the day. Harry of the Heavy Hand also was ignorant of the moment of deadly destiny. Celebeau was back in Arcadia supposedly organizing a triumph for Rhingol, in fact scrambling to contain and conceal the Ben Arson Plot. Only Bela, secret spy master, saw the moment of disaster. But he too was wounded, minor but in hindsight fatal, and he moved too slowly to snatch the prize for himself. Once tucked inside the kilt of Rhingol the Great, close to his heart, one hand over it to hold it close, smiling like a little child who had found a toy, Rhingol beamed. Bela could only look on, smiling his angelic smile, while gritting his teeth in horror. Once Rhingol had the Device tucked inside his kilt, close to his heart, only violence could have removed it. Brutal violence. An assault on Royalty. So Bela could only smile his angelic smile as the horror unfolded. So Chance and Fate wreaked havoc with all the schemes of scheming men and a fool reaped the prize of death and disaster.

With everyone looking on, so many bystanders, so many witnesses, Bela could not murder his king, and Ben could not change his mind and assault his father in law. Nor could Bela and Ben fight it out between them, both men killing each other over a fatally beautiful bauble that was actually a machine of celestial warfare. So a young teenager and a cunning old Changeling prevented two ruthless men from killing Rhingol and then each other over a Device that no one was suppose to know about. A runty bastard with a pettifogger's tax man's mind kept evil men honest. But alas he himself later fell victim to both Horsham's idealism and Bela's ruthlessness. The final winner of the War of the Devices was a runty boy called Gildagad. And he later hide safely away the last surviving Blue Sapphire Device in a deep and secret place for the rest of his life before authorizing his secret executor to finally weld a Device for it's real purpose: to murder the gods of the West and incinerate Paradise. That was the only way to finally put an end to the infamous Curse of Celestial Calamity damning Our World. So Gildagad ordered the execution the very gods themselves, including the god he worshiped with utter devotion: Mother god of the Waters, the goddess of Mercy, Compassion, and Tolerance.

As for Horsham, he challenged Celebeau to a public duel when no one was officially indicted for the Confabulous House Arson or the Assassination of Lord Naratun. After the public insult, and the failure to publically bring anyone to justice for such outrageous crimes, Celebeau found to his contempt and horror that he had to fight Horsham. He was almost a Nitthing Man himself now. The 'Royal Eunuch'. The 'Whitewasher'. The 'Accessory to High Crimes replacing Misdemeanors of the Royal Family'. The only way Celebeau could take Ben on directly was if he could salvage his reputation and the only way to salvage his reputation was to fight Horsham. The one thing he most despised was dueling -- and Horsham. It was the one thing he had to do now. The fact Celebeau did the one thing he most despised, dueling, meant he was still desperately trying to somehow salvage the situation behind the scenes but lawfully and discreetly.

Alas Beladonna's drunken bounder of a husband stumbled between the two duelists and got himself impaled. The next day Horsham was indicted for murder of Near Royal Kin. Ben ordered the public gallows by the Butchery Guildhall to be refurbished for the execution of a six foot four and three quarters tall man and ordered Ravens to arrest Horsham and deliver him to the gallows 'forthwith'. No trial. No blood debt negotiations. No opportunity for defense. Horsham packed Blackie to flee Arcadia, officially a Nitthing Man down the tengu road of exile. Celebeau was now so powerless he could not stop Ben. Ben was now all but King of Arcadia. To be more exact he submitted a bill to declare himself Military Warlord of Arcadia.

Rhingol was now out of his mind but behaved so drugged that all avenues for appeal were shut. People were too cowered anyway. Naratun's death was the final nail in the coffin of lawful opposition. Horsham's hanging would be the other final nail. Shadow Opposition evaporated into the shadows of cowering terror. The irony was that Malian thought her beloved husband was getting better because he acted so placid. And with all opposition being crushed, she was temporarily modified into inaction.

In fact Rhingol was already hopelessly under the influence of the Pearl Device and obvious to all but the Pearl -- to the point of being even obvious to her. But right now Malian was as lulled as poor Rhingol. So Ben the Beorach was King of Arcadia in all but name except the Bill, signed by Rhingol, declared Ben the Beorach officially 'Warlord'. But at the last moment someone discreetly crossed out the word 'Warlord' and wrote 'Temporary Military Dictator' above it. And Rhingol signed it. And Malian smiled her mechanical smile as the black holes that were her eyes stared at Ben, while Rhingol stroked the Pearl Device that hung around his neck. And Ben was officially Temporary Military Dictator. And everyone knew it. As long as he was of use to Malian, as her liquidator, and as long as he played it smart and did not directly challenge Rhingol for naked power, Malian would allow Ben to play warlord and dictator to his fearless heart's content. So the gallows was heightened to accommodate a six foot four and three quarters tall man. And Ravens marched out. And no one said anything. No one. No one at all. Celebeau locked himself in his office. Not even Bela tried. The Cockpit was locked and Bela fled town.

That night Horsham of Arcadia visited Wisteria Pavilion for the very last time in his life. The pavilion was nearly dark, mostly shuttered, the servants gone, the art and books and costumes packed off to the Old Citadel for safety, the walls stripped, most of the furniture gone, almost empty, almost abandoned, almost. Two people only still inhabited the forlorn place: Kitsune and Lady Wisteria Fujitsu herself. She played her harp in the Garden Room as Horsham slipped stealthily through the garden where flowers wilted in the last dusty heat of the dog days of summer, far past their prime.

Autumn was just over the horizon. The nights were already blowing cold. Rain was damp and chilling too. The leaves of the trees were turning. The basho willow leaves were ragged and tattered. Biers and nettles chocked the flowerbeds. The massive brambles of the wisteria were bony, the green tinged with brown, the ground below already littered as the leaves dropped one by one, eager to abandon the world. The massive wisteria was exposed, bony, overgrown, tearing the timbers of the roof beams with suffocating coils of oppressive weight. One part of the roof of the pavilion had actually collapsed that very summer. Engineers told Lady Wisteria Fujitsu that the whole place would collapse unless the wisteria was pulled down. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu only laughed and played her harp. They left confused and frightened.

Horsham slipped across the garden and let Kitsune and Lady Wisteria Fujitsu see him before slipping into the Garden Room. The moon was a ghostly sliver only and the darkness encircled the pavilion like enemies of doom. Wisteria Fujitsu lit one candle only. Horsham sat down stiffly, his bad leg aching. He looked like a seedy drifter he was about to become. No one said anything. Wisteria Fujitsu played her harp. At two o'clock by the sand clock Horsham stood up.

"Goodbye my lady. I will always treasure my memories of the Wisteria Pavilion. You were the gesith guardian of my soul. I will always consider myself your pupil with upmost pride though you may not so regard me. Now I must throw myself on the mercy of Dosojin, the god of the roads. But gods are notoriously callous and I suspect my tengu road of exile will be stony and hard and end up at a dead end. I don't know how often I will think of you my lady as I ride that stony road, but when I do think of you, I will think of you most kindly. Goodbye."

Lady Wisteria Fujitsu smiled her sad smile but did not say anything at all. Kitsune burst into tears and pulled the blanket over his face. Horsham slipped quietly away. She watched him leave and then watched the darkness slowly give way to dawn. Then she strolled around the garden, a quiet woman quietly saying goodbye. Kitsune stirred from under the blanket when she stood by his bench. She slipped an axe under the blanket and then sat down and played her harp. Kitsune quietly rose from the bench, the hand holding the axe behind his back, and he kissed Lady Wisteria Fujitsu on one cheek. Then he walked into the garden to the foot of the massive wisteria and chopped the massive trunk down. The centuries of massive wisteria crashed down, bringing down yet more of the aging pavilion. The place suddenly looked very old and very decayed when stripped of the glory of wisteria greenery. Much of the roof was exposed as totally rotten, long ago eaten away by wisteria, and held together by wisteria, and pulled down by wisteria. Kitsune dropped the axe and quietly slipped back into the Garden Room. The harp laid abandoned. A few flutters of silk blew in the morning breeze but no one inhabited them. The silk blew across the floor like a ghost of a woman who died a very long time ago.

Kitsune said nothing. He caught the ghostly silks and gently folded the silks up into a bag and then left the decayed pavilion and walked quietly to the empty Heike Pavilion. To his sorrow he found that Ben had ordered all the moldering pomp and glory of Heike pulled down and burned. Because Prince Grafton was using the flags of Heike in his rebellion, the reputation of the Clan of Heike had been declared 'Enemies of the Nation'. Embarrassed guards were lighting bonfires and casting priceless war mementos to past Elven Glory into them. The Glory of Heike was burning into ash and cinder. Kitsune slipped hastily into a little side room. The official vandals had not yet reached it. The nine mysterious Masks of the Sidh Gods hung from the wall. The ex-wizard bowed and then took each down in turn, wrapped it in silk, and carefully put it in the bag. He held up the last silk, the innermost silk gown of Wisteria Fujitsu and carefully plucked the last mask off the wall: the Mask of the Unknown Goddess. Kitsune stared at it, then he looked around. Outside he heard the guards talking.

"Ben has ordered you to arrest Kitsune and execute him immediately. Do it here. Burn his body with the rest of this crap. Except for the fox tail. Deliver that to Ben. That is Ben's order. The Princess Luna is still ailing and might still miscarriage. The child in her womb is violent and kicks her abnormally as if attacking his own mother. She is violently sick and raves about doom and disaster. So Ben wants the tail as a talisman to prove to her that Destiny has not turned against them."

Kitsune held up the mask that long ago almost killed him. He held up the mask and put it on. He did not fight it this time. He let the mask take possession of his body totally. He understood. He accepted. He wanted it. He dressed in the frail silk tunic and picked up the bag and strolled out. No one stopped him. No one recognized him. The woman strolled out of the Royal Court unchallenged by one and all. Why should they challenge a woman. A mysterious woman. Small, Fair. Beautiful.

But Ben the Beorach, out riding to see that his orders to vandalize the military glory of the Twilight Elves, saw the fey woman and ordered guards to hold her. Ben glared at her. Her face was somehow familiar. Then Ben snared at the woman. "Coward! Dressing as a woman to make good your escape! Prince Kitsune! I will kill you today and cut off your fox tail and present it to my wife!" Ben reached down and tore the silk tunic open. Guards saw a woman of the court stripped naked. A woman. They gasped embarrassed and muttered. Ben gasped too. Stripping a female courtier naked was something even he dared not try to do. The woman mutely endured the shame with the same steely courage that Lady Confabulate displayed when Ben hit her in the face with his fist. Ben was shamed and rode away humiliated. He later vented his humiliation not by apologizing, Ben never apologized, but by burning down the entire Heike Pavilion. Then to make himself feel even better he burned down the Naratun Pavilion as well.

The woman tugged the torn silk tunic around her breasts and quietly picked up her bag and exited the Royal Court forever. The next week three quarters of the remaining aging courtiers of the Elite 100 committed mass suicide in protest of the Bill declaring Ben 'Temporary Military Dictator', killing themselves as their pavilions burned down around them. But the public mass suicide only cemented Ben's control of the Royal Court. Now he no longer had to worry about silly court wizards or silly courtiers. He ruled with an absolute hand except around Malian who alone did not fear Ben. But Malian only attacked Ben if Ben attacked Rhingol openly. And Ben never attacked Rhingol openly. Malian cared about nothing else, no one else. Rhingol threw no more birthday parties to himself. There was no one else left to attend them. Ben repeated rumors and gossip to feed the paranoid man's escalating paranoia while he tightened his hold on the vulnerable Luna, pregnant and sick and alone. Malian was a mirage and Ben always underestimated Malian as merely a mirage powerless to contain him. He thought he was using her and failed to see she was using him. He thought he could kill her anytime when she knew she could kill him anytime.

Ben was 'Temporary Military Dictator' and thought that was but one step away from being King. He could never be exiled now. Stripped of everything. Cast off down the road of tengu exile. Desperate for jobs and currying favor of Elves ever again. Begging Elves for favors. He just had to play for time and then launch his final coup. Perhaps a joint coup. That Cleardan back in The Havens was becoming more and more of a dangerous person ..... perhaps a joint coup. Why not? Who could stop him now? Celebeau? No. Since the Death of Naratun and the Nitthing Exile of Horsham and the mysterious death of Lady Wisteria Fujitsu, Celebeau was openly defeated and openly broken. No. Only Luna posed a danger now. Weak Luna. Fearful Luna. Conscience stricken Luna.

Luna was all tattered nerves, raving of doom and disaster, predicting that they would lose everything and end up alone, exiled, damned by destiny. But she was sick from the pregnancy and the wounds from the assault. What a joke that the one assault Ben did not plot was the assault that killed Naratun. Luna's injury was a narrow miss of course. For a split moment Ben almost knew fear when he heard Luna had been injured. But now everything was fine. Totally under his control. Nothing could go wrong now. Not any more. Ben was but one step away from having it all. Of course he would not agree to Luna's request to swear never to accept the crown of Arcadia just as he had refused her request to swear never to seize the Device. How absurd. Now fearful. She made another meaningless oath herself then of course. Like the Device oath. Meaningless. There was no such thing as a transmutation curse just as oaths really have no moral weight and can really be broken with absolute impunity. Fear makes everyone a coward but him.....

Malian let Ben wreak havoc because Ben liquidated opposition to her obsessive love for Rhingol. Gloriana let Ben wreak havoc because Ben liquidated opposition to her. Malian was sure when the time was right she could liquidate Ben and then Rhingol would be happy again, happy and totally loved by her alone, a jewel not to be shared with anyone - much like how Rhingol now clutched the Pearl Device so greedily to his bosom.

Gloriana was arrogantly sure when the time was right she could liquidate Ben and seize power just as Ben was sure he could liquidate Gloriana. Like Ben, Gloriana fatally underestimated the danger that a mirage posed. Meanwhile the Vultures feasted on death at home and at the Front. Celebeau found every excuse to live full time at the Front. But the Front did not want him. He got to wage civil war against Prince Grafton. Meanwhile the Dark Lord took half of Arcadia Minor by the end of autumn.

Horsham rode to Arcadia Minor, the center of the fiery inferno as Arcadia threw itself on it's own funeral bier. But he rode to the haunted place that haunted his heart as much as Wisteria Pavilion haunted his soul: Rufus Manor. He rode to the little glen where once a rustic cottage stood when he was a young soldier on leave staying with the family he worshiped and adored, and dreaming of retiring to be the estate manager to Rufus Royal and Lady Heike while Merry May Rufus dreamed of remaking him into suitor worthy of her hand in marriage. Horsham rode to the little glen still haunted by ghosts of lost causes and lost dreams. The rustic cottage was long ago gone. Rufus Manor was burned to the ground a long time ago. The whole region was abandoned. Burned out. Battled out. Defeated. Cleansed by Orcs of all life. But to Horsham's surprise he saw a flet in a tree that still stood where the door to the rustic cottage once stood. He rode up to the flet and looked up. To his amazement a fey Elven woman looked out of the tree house and smiled down at him.

"I have been waiting Horsham. But look! It is still autumn! Golden colors all around us! You are not too late!" She dropped the rope ladder and Horsham, bemused, climbed up into the flet. The simple willow flet was plain but adored by autumn foliage, fresh cut autumn hay for the bedding, and on the willow walls: eight dancing masks of eight gods. The fey woman smiled in pride.

"I saved them from Ben's rampage. He burned down the Heike Pavilion to wipe the military glory of the Twilight Elves off the history books and into the debris of history. But I defeated him. I saved our masks."

"There were nine. There is one mask missing. The Unknown Goddess."

The fey woman laughed sadly. "We understand each other somewhat belatedly, the Unknown Goddess and I. I have my talismans. I see you still have your talisman. Let us enjoy the autumn of our lives before winter and death puts an end to us. After all you did promise me you would save one blow of your golden sword for me. Grafton is fighting Celebeau as we speak. We cannot save him. We cannot stop the civil war. We cannot do anything now. Afterwards you will kill the survivors. I have no Glamour left to help you kill Sojobo or Saburo Agat. I am sorry. I was never a very good wizard. What Glamour I did have came from fox gods through my being a fox changeling and not through real skill. And that also was my demise. Grafton will find me waiting for him in death. Twin brothers have a special bond that no one else can understand. Bring his body back here and place my twin brother in my arms that we can face death together as we have faced life."

"Yes. I understand now. But why evoke the dangerous Glamour of the Unknown Goddess?"

"It was the only way to escape Ben. And too, I wanted to give you something for all your loyalty to us at Wisteria Pavilion. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu could not and she much regretted it. She told me so the day before she died that she much regretted not being able to show you gentle love when you wanted it and needed it."

"She did in spirit. I understood why she could not in body."

"Yes. That was kind of you to understand. But she also understood the cost to you. You wanted love. You had to find it in back alleys. The lack of gentle love soiled your soul and calloused your heart. Lady Wisteria Fujitsu felt she could have prevented it if only she had not made the one fateful mistake two thousand years before you two met. She told me you were -- how did she put it---- yes: 'Horsham was a beautiful boy who should have grown up into a beautiful man, beautiful in body and in mind and in heart and in soul. Beautiful with all the spiritual power that Beauty can evoke. And Horsham is beautiful still but his beauty is marred by the carelessness of Elves and the lack of compassion and empathy. The spiritual damage makes Horsham's beauty fragile and bittersweet, a damaged piece of art all the more beautiful for the damage. It is 'Yuugen', the flaw that enhances the poignancy of the beauty in Art. The flaw heightens and magnifies the beauty and infuses it with the all the haunting of twilight. Wisteria Incarnate. Horsham breaks my heart for the regret for the damage to the beauty, and he breaks my heart too for the fragility of the beauty that remains.'

I want to give you some gentle love Horsham that we Elves denied you. Through the Glamour of the Unknown Goddess I can. Please let me give you gentle love. Until the golden leaves of autumn tumble down. I have but a month's more of humanity in me before I revert totally to a bestial wild fox. I can not think of a better way to enjoy it. Humanity. Than sharing it with you in a way that restores some of the humanity stolen from you."

Horsham reached out and brushed the tangled hair away from the woman's face. A woman's face. But a face that echoed a friend. And a face that echoed the mask of the Unknown Goddess. Then Horsham gently bend over and kissed the woman very gently. "I made love to a ghost here of Merry May Rufus. I make love to a bewitched creature now. Men might say I never knew love but I think myself lucky to know two lovers even if bewitched. The love is true whatever the state of the bewitchment." Horsham laid the woman down on the hay and gently undressed her and they made love in the hay as golden leaves showered all around their flet.

The leaves fell in less than a month. Horsham woke to strange sounds. Animal sounds. He looked at the beautiful back of the beautiful woman but she shook her head and let her hair hide her face. "I tried to hold our as long as possible! I am so very sorry. Go fetch the golden sword you hid in the glen by the rocks. Please go now. Fetch it now." Horsham kissed the beautiful back and then climbed down the ladder of the flet. The woman stirred and looked down, watching him go. Then the fox woman whimpered, her face already a fox, and pulled out the golden sword she had found the night before and hidden in the hay of the flet. She angled the hilt of the golden sword in the hay and gently slide her neck down the razor sharp blade, letting gravity and magic cut her jugular and bleed out her life. She fell back down into the hay of the flet, woozy, and gently slipped into death.

Horsham looked for the sword where he had hidden it, could not find it, suspected the truth then, and ran back to the flet. He found nothing but bloody silks, and bloody hay, and the body of Prince Kitsune laying as if asleep. Horsham kissed the sleeping prince and then kissed each mask of each Sidh god. Then Horsham dressed and rode off to the battlefield where Prince Grafton was waging war against Celebeau. He arrived at the cusp of the battle as Prince Grafton was being defeated.

The battlefield stretched as far as the eye could see, to the far horizon. It was twilight. Fires and crazed horses reared and thrashed on the battlefield. Bodies cried out, wailed, screamed, moaned, whimpered, some dying slowly, the lucky dying quickly. Tattered flags and broken battle standards littered the bloody field like the debris of history they were doomed to become. Horsham rode mournfully across the field of death until he saw Celebeau on his big white horse. Horsham rode his big black horse up to his adversary. Celebeau was bloody, stained by war and stained by defeat and stained by shame. "Behold my glorious victory Horsham! I have finally learned how to wage war successfully! By fighting and killing my own! I should send the Arrow of Victory home to the Royal Court! But who lives to receive it?"

"Ben the Beorach and Gloriana. Have they attacked each other yet for the tattered and debased crown of dead Arcadia while Malian waits to kill the deluded winner? Or do they wait until you send them the head of Prince Grafton? Ravens feast now and vultures wait to inherit. Do you still consider me the enemy of Arcadia? After this? All of this? I hear Ben burned down the Heike Pavilion and most of the aging pavilions as well. The Beorachs were always good at burning. Does Rhingol the Great even know he has been deposed in all but name? Or does his madness leave him cocooned in rosy hues of delusion that he is still the Sun King of Our World? And he has the Pearl Device too I hear. Arcadia's death is complete. All we need is the time for the climax of the opera to play out to it's logical conclusion. I estimate five years."

Celebeau flinched. "I am too powerless to stop it. But cheer up Horsham! I am doomed to watch it play out! The slow motion death of my beautiful nation! Witches said I would be the 'Last, the very Last, the Last Will and Testament of the Elven Race in the twilight of it's demise.' Such a happy fate! You can die happy knowing I am damned."

"I was as much a patriot as you. You never believed that. But I was. Still am. Believe it not as you will. If I kill Ben for you, would you force Rhingol to surrender the Device and impose a Regency?"

"Luna has just given birth to a baby boy. Mere Mortal. Looks like a baby ferret. Rhingol has his official heir. I would have to depose Luna then too and allow you to murder her baby. That would kill her. And the only way to get the Device is to kill Rhingol. And Malian won't allow anyone to hurt Rhingol no matter what. And Malian is, as you know, a goddess of mirages and far too powerful for us to attack. She killed Rhinga, my own mother you so kindly pointed out. She could and would kill anyone. Even Ben circles very carefully around her. That says something. So this whole discussion is academic. Flets in the sky. Will never happen. Can never happen. Arcadia is as good as dead. Slow motion death, like this battlefield. The lucky ones will be the ones who die quickly. The unlucky ones will die slowly. I will apparently live to die absolutely last of all, the last witness of the Decline and Fall of Arcadia."

"Then this is it? The end? No possible salvage?"

"Short of selling one's soul to a habetrot witch and any wish granted by a habetrot glitters like morning dew and turns to dross like tattered spider's web. No. I see no possible salvage."

"I thought 'Hope springs eternal' was your motto in life?"

Celebeau smiled ruefully as his dead fish eyes flooded with tears. "I thought so too. As usual it appears I am wrong."

"I suppose there is no way for the Celestial Armies to come to the rescue....if Gloriana...."

"Finngold has just suffered a catastrophic military defeat. Tungold has cut and run. Abandoned his older brother on the battlefield. Reputed to have fled with most of the remaining Celestial Elves into hiding. Betrayed apparently by their Amberling mercenaries. Hussan, Bors' right had man turned traitor. No. I don't see any Celestial Armies riding to our aid. The Celestial always despised us anyway as inferior natives to their glorious race. They lived with gods. The gods of the West. The superior gods. We lived here on Our World with inferior gods who have, it seems, abandoned us to extinction. The gods are all mad dogs."

"The Sidh gods died a long time ago. I visited their brugh tomb."

"I note you neglected to tell anyone that."

"I did not think it would be good for morale. What about Cleardan of The Havens. I hear he is organizing a bloody good navy...."

"But the army is dubious and The Havens will be under direct siege if Finnland falls. No. There is no cavalry riding over the horizon to rescue Arcadia. And don't bother to even mention Goldenthrond." Celebeau said the last dryly. He had just written to Goldenthrond and been laughed off by the golden Cabal.

"I hear others cut and ran too: Sojobo the Harbinger of War and his evil protegee Saburo Agat. So much for guarding Prince Grafton's back in battle. Know where the swine went?"

"I saw them riding away west toward Beorach Land. New recruits stupid enough to take them at face value. You won't be able to kill them Horsham. Not even in your prime could you take on those two devils. I saw that Snake Changeling fight. His power in battle is as awesome as it is awful to behold. He killed my Aide de camp. Laughed as Raul died in agony, crying out for Arcadia's pain and tragedy. Then Agat dragged Raul's corpse behind his chariot around the battlefield in front of me. But he later delivered me Raul's head on a stake. How kind of him. Raul's soul will haunt the battlefield now. Most of the souls of the men who died this day will haunt this battlefield. I will call my glorious victory 'Calamitis'. Apropos don't you think?"

"Yes. Very."

"I will ask a favor of you. Enjoy the novelty of that Horsham. Tonight at twilight will you dance the 'Dance of the Butterflies' to try to exorcize the souls of the dead of this ghastly place? There are no Court Wizards left to do the traditional exorcism of the battlefield and though I will do all the Rites of Excarnation yet I know the souls of the damned will walk this battlefield long after I ride away and they will curse me."

"I am too old to dance and I have no costume but I will nevertheless try. Because of my bad leg the glamour of the sacred dance will be weak at best. So tell everyone to stay in their tents, even the pickets, and let no living soul watch the sacred performance er the limited magic be further diluted. But I cannot promise much. Only that I will try my now limited best."

"The best we can do is the best that anyone can ask. Thank you."

"How will Prince Grafton die? He is a Prince of the Realm but apparently nowadays that does not mean much."

"Ben has ordered Prince Adulterine Grafton to be hung."

"And you obey Ben now?"

"In all but name Ben the Beorach is King of Arcadia. To be exact 'Temporary Military Dictator'.

"How charming? Did you think of that? Make the execution tomorrow morning Celebeau. I can't afford to lose time tracking Sojobo and Saburo Agat."

"Rescue?"

"Yes. From the noose. And you will let me."

Celebeau sighed and looked across the battlefield. "Yes. I will let you....."

The dawn was cold. It was early winter. The sky was grey and the breath of the guards and the hangman came out in icy steam. The soldiers watched mute. The flags hung limp. Celebeau sat in his tent with the flap closed. The hangman adjusted the knot on the jerry-rigged scaffold. Then he nodded and guards led Prince Grafton out of his tent and lead him through the soldiers to the scaffold. He climbed the five rickety steps to the noose. He was dressed beautifully for his execution in a handsome blue silk tunic and kilt, the tail of the kilt draped elegantly around his slim waist, his long fair hair tightly pinned by combs off his neck, anticipating death by beheading. He blanched when he saw the noose. Hanging was suppose to be only for Mere Mortals. The hangman gestured and guards tied his arms around his back and tied a black rag across his face as he protested.

"I am not a coward to die in such a way! I am a Prince of the Realm. I protest the matter of my death. I am not ashamed of my conduct in war. I only apologize for losing, and for the tragic deaths of so many brave men on both sides of this tragic conflict." The hangman gestured for a gag. Prince Grafton bristled and stood tall and proud. "May History damn Ben the Beorach!" Guards shoved a dirty gag into the mouth of a Prince of the Realm.

At that moment a man rode through the crowd on his black horse. Horsham leapt down and raced up the rickety steps of the scaffold. The soldiers cheered the bravado of Horsham. Horsham bodily threw the hangman down the steps and then gestured for the guards to withdraw. Celebeau stayed resolutely in his tent despite the fact he had to be hearing what was going on. The guards retreated down the steps. Horsham was now alone on the raised scaffold with Prince Grafton. He cut the gag off, and the blindfold, and then cut the ropes tying his arms behind him. Prince Grafton proudly ruffled the bulky silk sleeves of his elegant court tunic like a bird preening his wings. Then he nodded at Horsham and knelt down elegantly, brushed a speck of dust off his beautiful outfit, bowed his head, and then held out his arms straight and steady like a bird about to take flight into the sky to fly to the Plains of High Heaven.

Horsham pulled out his steel long sword from his shoulder harness and assumed the pose of death. "I am ready to die like a Prince of the Realm. Thank you my dear friend."

"You were and still are 'The Pearl of a Prince of Our Twilight'" Horsham replied softly.

Prince Grafton sighed and nodded his head. Then Horsham nodded and cleanly and professionally beheaded Prince Adulterine Grafton, the Elder son of Princess Rhinga, Joint Ruler of Arcadia, the Goddess of the Moon. The soldiers stood silent and then bowed their heads as Horsham pulled out a square of black silk and wrapped the head in it. Then he gently carried the body and the head down and tied it to the back of Blackie. He quietly led the black horse through the crowd to Celebeau's tent. The tall Elve came out then and nodded to Horsham and saluted his dead half brother Prince Grafton.

"I am taking Prince Grafton to the Death Flet of his twin brother Prince Kitsune as is right and proper. I know I will not be detained for doing this. Then I will go and try to kill Sojobo the Harbinger of War and his protegee Saburo Agat who betrayed Prince Grafton and betrayed Arcadia. I am a patriot of Arcadia. Prince Grafton and Prince Kitsune were patriots of Arcadia. We here today are all patriots of Arcadia. Only one man is not a patriot of Arcadia and you know who that man is. He is the one man not here today!" Celebeau nodded. Horsham left the site of execution unobstructed and did exactly what he said he was going to do.

Horsham tracked Sojobo and Saburo Agat to Beorach Land, not a land inclined to hand out welcome placards to people like Horsham who fought the Beorach as brutally as the Beorach fought Arcadia. Sojobo had just sold himself as a military advisor to the biggest Beorach warlord: Hosjink Minamot. The blustering warlord was regrouping Beorach Land to launch new waves of attacks on Arcadia now that the glory of Heike was burned by one of their own and the 'Pearl of the Prince of Our Twilight': Prince Grafton was dead. No one took Celebeau seriously and Warlord Minamot saw the door wide open for invasion and conquest of Arcadia now. Might would rule now. Military might. The Era of the Warlords and Military Dictators was about to commence. Destiny was on the side of Minamot. Everyone knew it. The only issue now was the exact date of conquest. That conquest was coming was undisputed.

Warlord Minamot was recruiting thousands of raiders and mercenaries eager to loot the bones of the dying cow of Arcadia. Warlord Minamot did not see the military version of vultures stealing the dead meat of the cow brought down by bigger predators as degrading. Looting was as equal an Art of War in the sight of Beorach wolf gangs as Dueling and Raiding and Human Sacrifice. All were equally respected. After all, Beorach Land did not exactly product anything of it's own outside of bumper crops of thugs and robbers and vandals and mercenaries. Beorach Land always lived like a parasite off the fatter neighbors of Finnland and Arcadia and now Goldenthrond. Warlord Minamot had just launched the first successful raid on Goldenthrond who found out shocked that Arcadia had always protected it's rear and now with Arcadia on the ropes, it's golden rear was totally unprotected.

But Warlord Minamot was a careful, if ruthless, professional soldier and hiring a new gesith bodyguard and a war advisor was good protocol before launching all out war. Sojobo seemed the perfect military advisor. After all he had been fighting alongside Prince Grafton only a month before and should know his stuff. Mercenary contracts come with only limited warranties. As for Saburo Agat he seemed the incarnation of war. The Beorach always judged by appearances. Face was everything to the Beorach. Horsham was counting on that. Face. And Shame.

Horsham rode Blackie right into the middle of Warlord's Minamot's recruiting depot and saluted Warlord Minamot as the thug sat on his crude throne covered by fur. The warlord scowled and clinched his war axe. Horsham laughed and jumped off Blackie and spat in his face.

"I challenge you to a duel to the death. I know you are a coward. All Beorach are cowards. I have kicked your collective arses time and again. I am Horsham of Arcadia! The Gesith of Rufus Royal! I spit on your honor! But I am not come to sully my steel killing scum like you Minamot! I am here to kill Saburo Agat and Sojobo. I hear the pair of cowards slunk here after betraying Prince Grafton to his death! Cowards with no honor to betray their warlord! Gesiths who abandon their lord's side in battle are fit only for the latrine! They are worst than you and you are already scum. But I know they are here. Only scum hire scum and only cowards hire cowards. So bring out your strutting braggarts! Let me see them! Let them see me! I challenge them both! Cowards though they may be! If you refuse to reveal them then I will kill you!" Horsham spat in Minamot's face again to make absolutely sure Minamot had lost face entirely and was totally humiliated. He was. The warlord blanched as his thousands of new recruits gasped at his public shame.

Warlord Minamot leapt to his feet and waved his battle axe while screaming out "Bring out Sojobo and Saburo Agat!"

"Swine are hiding in the latrine or else riding for their lives as we speak!" Horsham jeered.

At that moment two men finally appeared and the mob made way for them like waves parting around a rock. First Sojobo appeared, a rough looking hunchback with wild hair and a battle scarred face, dressed in rough leather and suede, a fur cloak hiding the hump on his back that was really his tengu wings folded down. The demon tengu appeared unarmed, welding only as feather fan. Then the fierce tengu demon laughed at Horsham. "Splendid! Splendid! Bravo! What a performance Horsham of Arcadia! As worthy as any I have ever seen on any battlefield! Why we have not yet met I cannot say for I have seen your handiwork adore many a charnel battle bier!" The fierce demon giggled and jumped up and down in sheer excitement, clapping his hands together. Then he unfurled his feather fan and waved it over Horsham's head in totem acknowledgment of Horsham's fame as a premier killer. "I just wished I had seen you when you were in your prime! The show won't be nearly so exciting now! You are an old man. Believe me when I tell you that I would have delighted to see you fight my newest protegee while in your prime as a killer! Oh think what you could have been if only you had come to me to be your patron teacher instead of Rufus Royal! I was most jealous of him!"

"Your kin by marriage! But you betray everyone Sojobo -- especially your kin! All the Clan of Heike can testify to that! Especially your son in law Lord Heike! You betray everyone! That is why I refused to see you out! You betray everyone!" Horsham looked at warlord Minamot and nodded. "Lord Heike was Sojobo's own son-in-law and Sojobo betrayed even him. Sojobo even betrayed his own daughter Lady Aine! I don't give you two months before Sojobo knifes you in the back eh! Scum!" Warlord Minamot glowered but fear shown in his eyes now. Sojobo crackled. "I back only winners! I never bother with losers! I am Sojobo the Harbinger of War! I am the patron of War. I am the teacher of War. I am the creature birthed in the blood of the birth of Death! I am the kin of the goddess of War, Badhb, the triad goddess of Morrigu, Neamhan, and Macha sired by the Impetuous Male. I am not the goddess of Victory! I am not gentle and loving Mother god of the Waters, the goddess of Peace Treaties. Nor am I Maeve the Battle Goddess of Noble and Tragic Valor. If you seek them then seek them! Not me! I am Sojobo the Harbinger of War! I make war! I start war! I sow the seeds of war! I glory in war! How war ends is none of my concern! I never said it was!"

"Shut up you dirty old coward! A creature who sets fires and then runs away is nothing but a dirty old coward. So shut up Sojobo and bring out your brat!" Horsham snared. He stuck out his tongue at the shocked mob and then smiled and swaggered as he picked up some dirt and rubbed his hands in preparation of fighting.

"You sweat for a brave man Horsham" Sojobo crackled. Horsham shrugged. "I smell your perfume of fear". Horsham shrugged again.

"I sweat like a pig. I smell like a pig too. So what?"

Then the crowd divided for a second man to make his appearance: Saburo Agat. Horsham looked on the creature Aodaisho sired with dead Lord Ryu through his loins. The crowd murmured in awe, judging Agat by his glorious facade and also judging Horsham but his decay. It was not a pretty contrast. At past thirty six Horsham was old by Beorach standards where men died by twenty six. The warlord Minamot himself was only twenty eight and he was considered an old man. Horsham was soiled by bad times and bad defeats, by alcoholism and drug addiction, by excesses both physical and emotional, and by this ghastly last year that had seen the deaths of everyone he loved. He was not a pretty sight.

By contrast Saburo Agat was in appearance nineteen which was the height of Mere Mortal masculinity. Saburo Agat was tall too, six foot four and three quarters, straight and tall. He had the beefy weight and muscle, all the powerful features of his biological father. Agat was a carbon copy of Horsham but young and glorious and apparently perfect the way Horsham never was even when he was nineteen. Saburo Agat was also beautifully dressed on gilded armor and mail, beautiful in every way, his body totally covered by metal or mail from his neck to his feet. His dark hair was tightly tied back on his oddly elongated skull. His eyes were gold. His face was a mask of perfection. The paragon of military prowess smirked scornfully at Horsham, a shabby, aging soldier in a dirty jerkin and patched leggings and boots with holes in the soles. The scorn was clear. Horsham licked two fingers and touched up the wilted Superior Man feather in his dirty bonnet crushed against his dirty, greying hair.

"Smirking little bastard of a bitch of a snake changeling. I knew your mother Aodaisho and she was a cold blooded bitch! She said she sired you through me but she fucked some dirty dog to sire you." Horsham spat at the paragon of military prowess. "Sojobo told you that Badhb sired you didn't he? Liar! You are just a dirty little snake bastard. Drop your human act! Show us your scaly skin under all that fancy armor and drop your hair and show us your snake skull! Snake! Snake!" Horsham knew Beorach Society feared changelings of all types. They looked aghast now at Saburo. Saburo could hide a lot but not his forked tongue that everyone already saw and knew about. The paragon of military prowess hissed now at Horsham-- with his forked tongue. Horsham only laughed.

"Bet' ya Sojobo told you another dirty lie to boyo!" Horsham laughed. He pulled out the golden sword and waved it. "Bet' ya Sojobo told you Badhb dipped you in magic from head to foot so you would be invincible! Think you are so damn brave now don't ya! 'Cause you think you are invincible! As if cheating makes you brave! As if magic makes you brave! Eh! Eh! You dirty little snake! Killed a bunch of boys and danced over their bodies and smirked and gloated and preened 'cause you killed them! Dirty little snake! You an't nothing but a dirty little coward! Cheat and coward! Well guess what Agat the Snake? Guess what I got? Got myself a sword that can kill anything! Natural. Supernatural. Magical. Glamour dripped and Glamour soaked. Don't matter! I killed a Dragon King with it! I killed a Worm with it. I killed a Living Demon with it! And now I am going to kill you with it! Dirty little snake! Are you still smirking now? Now that you an't so sure you are so invincible now? Eh?" Horsham waved the golden sword in front of Saburo Agat's face and laughed.

"Saburo!" Sojobo replied, "That sword can only kill two more lives. Horsham has already used up all the Glamour but two! He plans to kill you and then kill me! But cheer up my protegee! You always said you wanted to fight Horsham in a duel to the death! Now is your chance! And it is more interesting now anyways! Now you are equal and you can't count on magic to protect you. Much more fun! Remember! Horsham is a right dandy duelist and knows every dirty trick! But you are half his age. He has cunning. But you are stronger and at the peak of your ability as a killer. Horsham is old. You are shiny new. It is cunning against strength, guile against brilliance, and fear against fearlessness. Now fight!" the tengu demon cackled and jumped up and down in excitement.

"I think the last sentence an't true no more Sojobo!" Horsham replied. "I think Agat here is a dirty snake coward. He only fought as long as he knew the game was rigged. Fight now when he knows he can die? I bet' ya not!" Horsham grinned at the audience, performing the role of his life. "Agat is a coward.... Agat is a coward... Agat is a...." Saburo Agat pulled out his sword and hurled himself at Horsham. Horsham neatly and deftly parlayed the blow, using Agat's fury against him, tripped him up, and hacked his jugular before Agat even knew he was dead. The corpse hit the ground with the hand still tightly clinched on the sword and only a look of surprise on the dead face. Horsham hacked the top knot off and the hair fell down revealing a scaly, reptilian skull.

"Boys will be boys but men will be men eh Sojobo?" Horsham cut the armor and clothes off the corpse to expose the scaly skin. Then he laughed as the crowd gasped and the warlord Minamot cringed back in his crude throne in horror and revulsion. Everyone looked at Sojobo. The tengu demon crackled.

"How disappointing! I expected better! Another protegee disappointing me!" Sojobo waved his feather fan languidly. Seeing Minamot near fainting, he mockingly fanned the wane face of his employer.

"Prince Grafton died bravely" Horsham said softly. "He compromised his soul not out of ambition but out of patriotism. Prince Grafton died beautifully. This freak died a coward and a stupid coward to boot!" Horsham kicked the corpse in the face. The human head broke off and rolled away. Everyone screamed. Sojobo just shrugged his shoulders.

"Snakes and reptiles shed their skins and surplus body parts so easy!" The tengu demon blandly tossed off his crude cloak and ruffled his wings as all the swaggering Beorach louts suddenly whimpered in terror. The wild hair ruffled into feathers on the tengu's head. The overlarge nose turned into a beak. The demon danced in front of the once bullying bully boys of Beorach Land and laughed, waving his feather fan. "Out of the way little boys. Give us room! At last I am fighting a man worthy of me!" the demon bowed before Horsham who spat at him. The crowd formed a very wide circle for the demon of war and the aging duelist. Saburo Agat's corpse was left in the circle because no one wanted to touch the accurst thing. Horsham wiped his golden sword of Agat's blood, using Agat's gaudy tunic, and then he assumed the duelist's position. Sojobo just pranced about, laughing like a eccentric old man. Horsham waited patiently. He wasn't about to make the mistake and move first.

"This is boring Sojobo. Stop performing like a senile arse."

"Ok boyo!" Like lighting the demon suddenly lurched at Horsham who barely parried the blow by the lethal feathered fan. Fan and sword flashed in rapier fast moves, parrying off each other so fast the Beorach thugs could not follow. Blood erupted as if by magic on the bodies of man and demon alike as sword and fan struck and counter struck. Horsham deftly danced around the corpse of Agat each time Sojobo tried to force him to trip over the corpse. Sojobo deflected every cunning blow as Horsham used up his repertoire of dirty tricks and hard learned battlefield tricks of the killing trade. He started to pant, sweat dripping down his red face. Sojobo giggled. "I know that trick too. Acting like you are on your last gasp! But it is good though! Really! I am impressed! Really! Despite being old you are still quite good!"

Horsham growled and fought on, punching back every attack of the lethal feathered fan, forcing openings for attack, maneuvering, enduring more cuts as the demon deftly fought without even breaking out into a sweat. The demon laughed and giggled when the sword cut him. The golden sword could hurt him but only if it could land lethally on him and Sojobo had no intention of letting the golden sword lethally land anywhere on his feathered body.

Horsham's face dripped with sweat and blood now. He was fighting left handed too now. His right hand was too bloody to hold the sword. Sojobo only giggled. Horsham remembered his duel to the death against the battle maiden of the Maleth Tribe of the Rocky River. She had fought on long after it was hopeless and endured, fighting to the end, valiant in the face of hopelessness. Now Horsham understood her valor. It was hopeless. Even with the golden sword Horsham could not win. Sojobo was just too good. After all he had invented Warfare after Father god of Fire invented War.

Horsham fought on nevertheless, weakening. "I won't die a coward. I won't give up until Sojobo kills me. I will go down fighting." Horsham promised himself. He started to stagger. It was not feigned now. "I won't drop the sword! Try to get one more blow in!" Horsham staggered, ducked a blow, the feathers just cutting the hair off his upper arm like a razor. Then he slashed one wing. The wing wilted. Horsham staggered forward, driving by the momentum of the blow, and he stumbled over the corpse of Agat and toppled onto the ground. He rolled as he landed, trying to avoid the coming blow and the blow came anyway. Slashing into his left arm, to the bone. The sword dropped by itself.

Horsham staggered to his knees, holding his bloody left arm, the blood flowing out, and waited for the coup de grace, his eyes blurry by loss of blood. Sojobo slashed his feathered fan across the neck, a fraction of an inch from the jugular quite deliberately. . Horsham toppled forward, fainting, into Sojobo's arms. The demon laughed and picked up the badly wounded man. The fan and deliberately skimmed the skin of the neck but deftly avoided the jugular. Now the demon held up the body of his adversary and crackled in glee, dancing a jig in the circle. The Beorach cowered. "I have fought one right dandy duel I have! I have! What a prize! And to think he fought while totally afraid! Not like Saburo Agat who fought ignorant of fear, only on the cusp of discovering fear. Oh that I could have seen Ben the Beorach fight Horsham of Arcadia! That would have been a perfect fight! No fear against fear!"

"Ben would win" Minamot whimpered nervously.

"Would Ben? Saburo Agat crumbled into bloody debris when he confronted fear. Counted on being invincible didn't he! Counted on never knowing fear! But fear my bully boys is a tool of war and a trick of survival no less than courage. No my bully boys! Neither god or demon could guess how a fight to the death might turn out against Ben the Beorach and Horsham of Arcadia!" the demon laughed.

"Well....that won't happen now will it?" Minamot whimpered nervously, his hands clutching the crude throne, his war axe fallen to the ground.

Sojobo leapt in front of Minamot and crackled with demented glee. "Won't it? Oh what a shame! I can't have that! Why ruin the chances for a perfectly good opportunity for a fight between Ben the Beorach and Horsham of Arcadia! We can't have that! No! No! We are the Harbinger of War for a reason WE are!" Sojobo dropped the unconscious body of Horsham on the ground. Horsham dropped like a rag doll. Then Sojobo crackled and waved his feather fan over the bloody body. The wounds magically healed. Sojobo knelt down and patted the face. Horsham woke in horror, Sojobo's face leering not one foot from his face. "Wake up Sleeping Beauty! My plucky bully boy! Wake up to fight another day! Fight Ben the Beorach! I declare it! I will it! I announce it to the world! Such a lovely fight to come! And it will come! It will! It will!"

Sojobo jumped to his feet and waved the feather fan over his demon body. Every bloody wound magically healed. Then he giggled and waved the fan awkwardly around his back and bloody wing magically fluffed back into shape. Then Sojobo picked up the golden sword. "Not going to give you a second chance though my bully boy!" Sojobo spun the golden sword around deftly like a child's top and then cradled it on his shoulder. "Goodbye all my bully boys! Darlings all! Wage War! Wage lots of battles in lots of wars! All my darling bully boys!" the demon winked and waved his feather fan. Then he soared into the air and flew away.

Horsham picked himself up, dusted off his jerkin, spat in warlord Minamot's face, and took a rope and tied it around the legs of the corpse of Saburo Agat. "I hear he drags all his victims this way. The dirty little snake. I will do the same to him then in memory of his victims Only a coward debases the bodies of the dead and gloats over men dying before him, laughing at their pain and grief and fear. A brave man fights for his country even if choking on fear. A dirty snake fights for personal egotism only as long as he thinks he is invincible and the game is rigged. Saburo Agat is a dirty snake and I am going to drag his corpse all the way to the burial flet of Prince Grafton and leave him there to rot like a dog at the feet of a Pearl of a Prince of the Twilight. I suggest you don't count Arcadia down and out yet boyos." Horsham suddenly threw a knife into warlord Minamot's face and jumped on Blackie and tore off. No one bothered to pursue him. The military conquest of Arcadia had to wait for Warlord Minamot's son to come of age and right now Minamotson was peeing in his leggings as he cowered behind the crude throne of his dead father.

****

Two Months later:

The border town was grimy and dismal. The only prosperous place was the local pub and it was doing a booming business in alcoholism for embittered men down on their luck, homeless, traumatized by war, beyond caring or self respect. It was the depths of winter and the street was knee deep in mud and patches of dirty snow. Homeless children begged, openly starving. Homeless girls sold themselves for coppers for food, their clothes rags, their bones showing, their faces battered black and blue by drunken men beyond caring or self respect. The public green that once boasted fat sheep and cattle was as empty as the dreams of the hopeless survivors of a war. The pub was dirty as a pig's pigsty, peeling outside, dark and dismal inside, the counter stained, the floor hay filthy, the ale bad, the beer worse, and the rot gut alcohol home brewed: 110 proof brain bashing and memory erasing and conscience deadening. One man lay sprawled out in the gutter, face down in mud, openly dead. No one even bothered to move the corpse. A few mangy dogs prowled and howled. A baby was screaming somewhere. A woman was screaming too somewhere. No one cared.

An angelic looking Elve stood bemused by the scene of squaller, an enigmatic smile playing on his beautiful face. He picketed his horse and sauntered through the spectacle of Mere Mortal Wreckage as if attending a garden party, pausing but a moment before casually strolling into the dangerous bar. Soldiers on leave, soldiers awol, crippled veterans, has-beens, never-weres, all clustered around the dirty bar and glared at the elegant Elve intruding on their Decline to Fall. Bela smiled his most suave smile as if totally at home with desperate and murderous drunks. Bela strolled up to the bar and casually dropped a handful of coppers. "Beers for all". The pub owner growled and greedily scooped on the coppers with one dirty hand before ladling out stale beer to his hostile clientele. No one was impressed but everyone drank the beer anyway.

Bela smiled blandly. "I am looking for a man. A soldier. Nemo is his name. I hear he is hereabouts. On leave. I have a job for him. Back pay too. A copper for anyone who can tell me where he is."

"Going to arrest him?" one awol solder hissed.

"Not at all. I owe him some back pay. I have a job for him. No trouble. Quite the contrary in fact. We are pals. Pale Pals." the men cringed for the last words came out icy as death. But then Bela smiled his most enchanting smile. Still no one was impressed. He dropped three coppers on the counter and the debased copper coins did a little dance before spiraling slowly down, landing finally on the stained wood to glisten in the pale light of animal fat lamps that cast a smoky and smelly light over the scene. The pub owner shrugged and scooped them up.

"I have been paying him to be my bouncer but he has been dead drunk these past three days and no damn use to me. So you can have him. Save me the bother of hauling his carcass out of my establishment. He is upstairs. Third door down the hall." No one cared that the pub owner was a snitch. No one even had the tatters of honor left to abhor snitches. Bela smiled, bowed, and sauntered up the rickety stairs and strolled down the dark hallway to the third door. Bela quietly raddled the door but it was of course locked and barricaded inside by furniture. But Bela's keen ears heard a sound of someone jumping out of the window and scampering across the roof to drop down into back alley. So Bela nimbly ran down the stairs and out of the pub just in time to be there when Horsham landed knee deep in mud, slogging like a pig in the muck.

Bela smiled at the spectacle of a big, beefy man slipping and sliding in a quagmire in a back alley. Bela's grin was quite genuine at that point. "Hello 'Nemo'! Horsham finally floundered to a halt and collapsed in the muck in defeat. Then Bela reached down a hand and hauled Horsham up, pulling him out of the boggy mud. Shaking the muck off in disgust, Horsham grimaced in embarrassment. The two men walked back around the alley and up to the pub's front door again. Horsham marched in and grabbed the pub owner and slammed his face into his own counter. Then Horsham reached over and hauled out two bottles of whisky and walked to a corner table and sat down heavily, his back to the wall, pulled out his sword and put it on his lap, and broke the necks off both bottles and offered Bela one. Bela smiled and sat down and the two men drank raw whisky blandly. Bela at least still had the stomach for it. After draining his bottle Horsham threw up, his belly too cankerous from twenty years of alcoholic abuse to endue more abuse without protest. Horsham then switched to beer but continued drinking despite his cankerous belly. Bela drank the beer too, holding it as well as he held his whisky. The hostile bystanders left them alone, wary, scenting that they were even more dangerous than they.

Bela was elegant as always in a traveling kilt of forest green, the loose 'tail' of the kilt pinned to his shoulders like a hooded cape. His linen tunic was immaculate despite two weeks of travel, his long silvery blond hair tightly braided and neatly clubbed into a queue. His face was apparently as youthful and serene as the day he first saw Horsham, then a raw and callow sixteen year old private, hauling the dead corpse of the Orc Commander toward his incredulous Elven Commanders to prove he really was a brave lad rather than the bullied and terrorized recruit everyone thought he was.

Horsham however was now anything but the raw and callow recruit Bela first saw. Now he was a grim ruin of a man: shabby, dirty, sweaty, his hair a damp tangle, his once beautiful face ravished by war and abuse and demons, his famous blue eyes haunted and half mad with suspicion and paranoia. He rocked nervously as he sat and drank, wary of everyone, suspicious of anyone, prepared for attack and anticipating betrayal from all quarters, on big hand on his ale tankard, one hand nervously clutching his steel long sword.

"'Nemo'. 'No man'. Only you could have picked such an alias! So charming my dear fella!"

"What are you here for Bela?" Horsham relied, his voice deep and rumbling.

"Good news my dear fella! Rhingol has agreed to end your Nitthing Man Exile. You can come back to Arcadia. Free and clear. Well almost....."

Horsham snorted. "Nah! You are here to make sure I an't joining any new rebellion."

Bela's smile stay planted on his face. "Are you? It is occurring only ten miles from here. A mutiny of war veterans against Ben the Beorach. The news of 'Baby Benny the Hairy Ferret' has incited no end of welcome throughout Arcadia. Just about every village and town is hosting 'Burn the Ferret' parties. All the inflammable tender needs is a match. More exactly a focus point. A rallying call. A hero at large, very large. Someone who everyone else thinks can take on Ben the Beorach.

Why even Malian has been asking about your whereabouts. I think she has decided that you serve a purpose in life. To be official: the Nemesis of Ben. Counterweight to that swaggering weight. It is always convenient to have a antipode ready. An antidote. An counter poison. Ben has been acting too big for his leggings of late for Malian's liking.... why even Celebeau has been asking where you were. Why everyone has been practically missing you my dear fella!"

Horsham snorted dryly. "Why join a doomed crusade? Hopeless cause. Celebeau is crushing the latest mutiny as we speak. No one lives now who can be the rallying call, The Hero at large, very large. Ben has murdered or ordered the suicide or execution of everyone who could possibly threaten him. Malian's killer dog. Celebeau lives full time in the countryside. Ben will kill him too in time. Then lets' see. Who will die next? Ben. Yes. Then finally Luna. A pathetic afterthought of Malian. Rhingol is so far gone he won't even remember he ever had a daughter. As for Gloriana, she is a joke even Malian does not take seriously. She will stomp her out like a flea. A golden flea.

Yes. That is the death list. I am sure of it. And Rhingol will not do a thing to stop it. He is, I hear, fully besotted by the Pearl Device to the point that he is ignoring Malian and the famous Mirage Line is waving as we speak. So much for what is left of Arcadia's defenses. And I hear the Dwarves are panting to collect their arrears before Arcadia falls to invasion and burns. They want their salvage. The Rhingol Loans have been sold to the Gord-debt-go-Round. I suggest you move to The Havens Bela before the Dwarve Repro Collectors move in! I hear they are mean bastards!"

Bela snorted now and drank his beer. "Malian never liked Celebeau and will be eager to see him join Prince Grafton and Kitsune on their death flet very soon. The last evidence of Rhinga will then be removed forever. Then as you say. Malian never loved Luna either. But she will die when Ben dies so why waste effort? Yes. You are right as always when it comes to death! Malian will kill Ben and let Luna die a suicide. She is practically a suicide now. Luna, my dear fella, has become an official martyr to her love of Ben the Beorach. She wears her suffering like a crown." Bella smirked.

Horsham finished his beer and wiped the foam from his mouth. His beard was untrimmed and drips of beer clung to the fine hairs. "History will have no end of speculation how and why Ben the Beorach won Arcadia without ever waging one military battle, or even leaving Arcadia City while all the heros at large, very large, died one by one. But the 'Temporary Military Dictator' will find his reign of terror shockingly brief! But Malian will be the most surprised of all. The winner take all will be taken for a ride by the Pearl Device."

Bela nodded with regret. "The Cockpit has also decided to remain neutral of the debacle."

"I didn't see no lady on Prince Grafton's arm when he died either. Nellie cut and ran too. Bitch! Prince Grafton got drunk only once in his life: when he found out she abandoned him. I pitied the poor bastard then. He really loved her and actually thought she was plotting out of love for him. First he fell for poor Kiyohime's false prophecies and then he fell for Nellie's intrigues. Sojobo and Saburo Agat just delivered the coup de grace. Instead of love, Nellie only plotted out of greed. Your payroll salary was choice. A lover's shared noose an't so choice. Prince Grafton stood on the scaffold alone. Broke the poor bastard's heart more than his rebellion failing. Wept like a motherless calf for three days. But he died the 'Pearl of the Prince of Our Twilight' nevertheless."

"Prince Grafton was ever the man to dress for any occasion. Even his execution. Ever the spy eh Horsham? In the camp and spying? If I had known I would have paid you to spy for me."

"Nellie's betrayal was more than enough. When I was first exiled I wrote to Prince Grafton. I told Prince Grafton he was abandoned and should flee to The Havens. Cleardan would turn a blind eye to his exile being a cunning old sailor known for hedging his bets. He needs a general to command his tiny land army. Right now he has no one. I hear that boy Gildagad is actually doing all the mundane military paperwork. Sixteen years old. Grafton might have played it smart and gotten a job west. But Prince Grafton, poor bastard, decided he rather go down swinging but honorable, rather than cut tail and run. Poor swine! I rather admired him at the end, for he did show guts at least. If I ever return to Arcadia I will butcher Nellie Cyprian for abandoning Prince Grafton so cruelly."

"Well, you can come back to Arcadia...."

"And you will let me butcher one of your spies?"

"Nellie is a greedy thing. She has not betrayed me ---- yet but I have ceased trusting her so I won't stop you killing her. She did set you up for the fall right royal after all."

"You set me up for the fall right royal Bela. Nellie was but following orders howbeit with much greedy glee. But to knife both me and Prince Grafton, her friend and her lover, is too hardhearted for even a spy."

"Prince Grafton made the mistake of falling in love with a whore. A whore sells her love and a spy sells her loyalty and no one should have any illusions about either a whore or a spy. And Nellie was both."

"I am a spy. You are a spy."

Bela smiled, his face beautiful even in the smoky light of the dismal pub. "You were my best spy Horsham, and my best soldier, and most of all you were, and still are a patriot. There is a difference. You would live or die for Arcadia. Not for gold. Not for pub bards to tell tall tales about you. You fought for Arcadia like a lover holding his love close to his heart. You always held Arcadia close to your heart. And I always admired you for that."

"You want Nellie dead and you can't do the deed yourself being her employer and all so you want me to kill her eh?" Bela smiled his most angelic smile.

"She has met a spy of the Dark Lord -- unauthorized. And she is planning to sell her assets, both real and personal, and move to The Havens. So yes. I want Nellie Cyprian dead. She is abandoning Arcadia just as she abandoned Adulterine Grafton and you. Knife you.... knife Prince Grafton.... even knife me... yes well.... That is the Crow Game. But to abandon Arcadia.... I consider that treason. So go ahead and kill her. I will even provide a secret death warrant to cover the murder."

Bela pulled out three pieces of parchment from the fold of his kilt and slid them across the table to Horsham. One was a newly signed warrant to kill Nellie Cyprian. The second was the older warrant to kill Ben the Beorach issued by Rhingol over nearly three years ago when Ben eloped with Luna, stole her entire dowery, and rode toward the Fiery Fissure to steal a Device. The third was a Royal Pardon for Horsham of Arcadia. Horsham looked at the three legal documents dryly, reading them with surprising speed that amazed most people enough to think him illiterate because most people could barely read at all, much less read with speed. Bela only smiled angelically. Perhaps he remembered first teaching Horsham to read runes. Then Horsham snorted in scorn. He picked up the warrant to kill Nellie Cyprian and slipped it into his belt pouch. The older warrant, now obsolete, he left in plain sight. He also left in plain sight the Royal Pardon.

Bela appeared sincerely hurt. "I played on Celebeau's guilt and Rhingol's naivete for a month to revoke your Nitthing Man Exile. In the end Malian signed it instead. She plays a cunning game and needs Ben to have a nemesis. She needs you alive -- at least for a while. Here is the Royal Pardon. Take it." Bela's voice was soft. He pushed the Royal Pardon toward Horsham.

"Horsham read the Royal Pardon again dryly. "It appears I am required to marry your sister Beladonna in atonement for murdering her arse of a husband Veggie. The arsehole got between me and Celebeau while we were dueling and deserved to die. He was drunk and a buffoon. I don't admit any blood debt for killing a buffoon. And Beladonna hates my guts. This Royal Warrant is fit only for a latrine. Beladonna won't marry me. So the Warrant cannot be executed. It is a farce. A joke. And you know it Bela. As for the Ben Death Warrant you know it is obsolete. If I execute Ben I will be indicted for Royal Murder. Ben the Beorach is the Heir Apparent now. Luna is nursing Benny the Furry Pup Junior. I would hang for Royal Murder if I kill Ben now. You give me Nellie as bait to do your dirty work and offer me only bogus Pardons and a Death Warrant not worth wiping my arse with." Horsham tossed the two documents back in Bela's face. The Elve smiled and just as casually tossed them back on the table.

"Rhingol has indeed forgotten about the Death Warrant he signed, but a death warrant is a death warrant and this is still perfectly legal. I swear if you kill Ben that Celebeau will not prosecute you and Malian will cover your back. She loathes Ben and loathes Luna and will not tolerate any living rival who might claim to supplant her beloved Rhingol. An heir, any heir, is a threat to Malian's love for Rhingol. So I guarantee that this death warrant is still legal and valid and enforceable. As for the Royal Pardon it too is valid. I guarantee it. I personally guarantee it. I will break each of Beladonna's fingers until she signs the marriage contract to you. But I am her financial life line and she will not dare defy me. She will marry you. She will have to marry you to get money and she loves my money more than she hates you.

And anyways, marriage might suit you Horsham. I will even offer you that job back when..... to be my estate manager ..... retire.... live on my country estate.... be a genteel man. Forgiven. Safe. Secure. What more could an aging ex soldier ask for?" Bela leaned over the table close to Horsham and whispered intensely to the man. "All I ask in return is to kill Ben the Beorach. You can do it. You are the most famous killer in all of Our World! Ben is a thug. And right now a very unhappy thug. So close to the Pearl Device. And so far from the Pearl Device. You can do it! You have to do it! Just kill Ben and you will have it made!"

"Kill Ben. And then kill Rhingol of course. You want the Pearl Device and Rhingol the Mad snatched it before you did. You slipped up back at the Hunt. Carrying only a silver long knife to kill one monster in particular, and then got yourself slightly wounded and got to the Device second ---- behind Rhingol ---- and Second Chances don't happen in Coups and they don't happen with Devices.

You blew it Bela! And now you want me to clean up your mess! Kill Ben. Maybe. Why not? But that is not the whole pie! The whole pie is killing Both Ben and Rhingol! Nah! You can't pull no Royal Pardon out of your kilt pouch to cover me for that crime! And you want me to do that crime too. You want the Device and that means killing Ben and killing Rhingol. But you know I won't survive. Malian will burn me to ash and cinders! And then you won't have to even pretend to offer me any Royal Pardon, or marry me of to your sister, or offer me any bogus Estate Manager Job. Nellie will be dead. I will be dead. All the loose ends will be dead. Malian will vanish after Rhingol dies. She don't give a Maestusean tinker's damn in the Fiery Fissure about Arcadia. And Luna will probably kill herself with grief. So that leaves only Celebeau. If you keep your fingers clean he is just stupid enough to think I was the homicidal manic. Me, myself and I. And he will become Regent ( and your puppet) and you will walk away free as the crow you are!

But I won't be your fall guy again Bela! I an't playing your stodge! Nah! If you are so damn patriotic then you kill Ben, and then you kill Rhingol, and then you sacrifice your life to Malian's murderous fury! Go on! An't Arcadia worth sacrificing your life!" Horsham grinned at the spy master.. The angelic look vanished from Bela's face. He grabbed the two deadly documents in a death's grip. The parchment cracked and wrinkled under the grip of his steely strong fingers. Horsham only grinned. "Drink your beer Bela. It is getting even more stale than it originally was -- like your warrants and your schemes and your plots."

Bela threw the tankard of beer in Horsham's face. It was an instinctive, human reaction. But Bela always prided himself on his icy self control. The beer dripped down from Horsham's untrimmed beard. Horsham took one big hand and wiped the beer away. The drunks in the pub all saw the scene and gasped, pulling away, anticipating violence. Bela's face was livid for a split second. Then he forced his face to resume it's habitual look of bemused amusement. He stood up and folded the Death Warrant and the Royal Pardon and slipped them back into the fold of his kilt. Then he smiled.

"Paranoid as always Horsham. My offer was sincere. You should have taken it at face value. It was you who added the unwritten lines between the lines that History will read. Decline to your personal Fall. Vanish into the Debris of History. Today some drunk lies face down dead in the mud in the street of a dead end town. Tomorrow or next week it will probably be you laying there. And no one will care. You're finished! Over! Done with! My mistake was waxing sentimental! I already regret it! I will leave you to your drunken debauchery and sordid self destruction!" Bela turned and marched out of the pub. Horsham rocked back and forth for a moment, then shoved the table bodily into the air. It crashed in shards as everyone ducked and cowered. Then the notorious killer grabbed his steel long sword and marched after Bela.

The two men stood in the mud of a dismal street in a dismal dead end town on the border to nowhere. The moon was full. It gilded the scene with mithril. They stood two feet apart. They paused and onlookers peered out of the doors and windows and watched. Then Bela reached over and whispered something in Horsham's ear, one hand resting on the dense ringlets of Horsham's dark hair. For a second Horsham stood frozen. Then in a split second he slashed the air with his steel long sword. The air. And Bela.

Bela fell dead in the street, his body dropping like a fallen leaf in the mud and dirty snow. The moonlight gilded his corpse, still warm, with mithril. He lay in the street as if fallen into a deep sleep rather than a brutal death. His beautiful face still had that bemused smile as if savoring a private joke only he knew and appreciated. Perhaps it was the irony of a long ago prophecy coming true at last, howbeit in the most unexpected of ways, as all prophecies always end.

Horsham dropped the sword as he dropped to his knees in the mud beside Bela's body. He wailed, his hands to his face, over the corpse. Then he clasped the corpse to his chest and kissed it and screamed, tears coursing down his face in the moonlight. Inside the pub a drunken Dwarve snarled: "Don't cry like some faggot! People will think you are queer! So you killed a man. You killed more men than Ben the Beorach. It is your only claim to fame. So what. You killed a man. But don't cry over the deed like some faggot!"

Horsham roared and lunged into the pub and grabbed the Dwarve and physically yanked his hairy head off his body, ripping the skull off like a doll's head. Then he dropped the corpse and staggered back outside and again clutched the corpse of the Elve and rocked back and forth wailing while everyone cowered and hide, their hands over their ears. And the moon simply continued to bless the scene with it's patina of mithril, blessing murder as impartially as it blessed goodness and kindness and valor and motherhood. But those qualities were nowhere to be found in this dead end town on the border to nowhere.

Historians later wrote "Why did it happen?" The bystanders might have told the experts of cunning facts that in such a town the more correct question would be "Why not?" But to this day historians still continue to fret and stew and speculate and castrate. Ben the Beorach was a hero, or a villain, or simply ambitious, or simply a Beorach, genetically compelled to do whatever he could get away with, so that was why. Celebeau was a decent man caught in the middle of indecent people, unable to rise to the level of brutality demanded by circumstances, and so was unable to master circumstances, so that was why. Luna was too in love, or too insecure, or felt too unloved and inferior, to stand up under Ben's absolute and brutally consuming love, so that was why. Rhingol was too charming , and then to senile, and then too paranoid, and that was why. Malian was too self absorbed by her all consuming love for one creature, too inhuman, so that was why. Bela was too angelic, or too cunning, or too understanding of the weaknesses of the human mind, or too ignorant of the mysteries of the human heart, so that was why. Horsham was too paranoid, or quite correctly paranoid, so that was why. The Pearl Device had invaded Arcadia, so that was why. Chance and Fate had cast the dice and Arcadia had lost, so that was why. Time had marched on and Arcadia's allotted span of life in history was spent, so that was why. When an empire enters it's Decline to Fall then everyone declines and falls too.

There are many reasons why Horsham of Arcadia murdered Bela of the Moonlight Over the Water. But to this day no one can honestly say what caused Horsham to kill Bela, except perhaps Horsham of Arcadia. And Horsham of Arcadia either never said why, or else never understood why himself. History is full of facts and figures and evidence much manhandled and worn down by pawing. But some mysteries are destined to haunt even the most jaded of historians and the most pettifogger of academics. Why Horsham of Arcadia murdered Bela of the Moonlight Over the Water is one such mystery.

The End of 'Debris of History'.

The Story of Horsham of Arcadia continues in the sequel trilogy: 'The Children of Lessor Gods' which documents the exile and death of Horsham of Arcadia, the rise of young Gildagad from ignorable bastardy to the Crown of the Celestial Elves, the Decline and Fall of Goldenthrond, the willful and doomed Princess Royal of Goldenthrond and her infatuation with the doomed Horsham, the cunning of Cleardan and Beardon in trying to save The Havens from the Dark Lord's wrath, and the End of the First Age in world war and divine cataclysm brought on by the unleashing of the infamous Devices and the fury of the gods of the West against Mankind that will use any weapon -- including weapons of Celestial Calamity.