Chapter 20
2 Sp'mo' (Wor'ginday)

1

"Tooblan Company, you say?" Tom said to the man ahead of him in line at First Village Mutual. He had struck up a conversation in part to pass the time; these lines could take rather a long time. But mostly it was just to garner an anecdote for a future discussion with Alecstar, as an example of his ability to be... less antisocial. "Some of my friends just saw them the other day in Jump Village. Either they happened to be almost done in that town, or you people travel fast."

The man's name was Simon Parker. "Actually, I'm just a part-timer. It's a little-known fact that the core of the Company travels from village to village, but there are some performers who live in one place, and perform with them whenever they happen to be in town. My main job is as a valet at one of the new, fancy hotels that cater to the nobility by adopting ideas from other worlds. Ideas like my job, for example. Basically, I park carriages. But I have a few lesser duties, as well."

"And you expect you'll be performing with them in the near future? Will the main troupe be coming soon?"

Simon shrugged. "Hard to say. I don't think they have any bookings here yet. Not that they need to give much advance notice; most theaters will drop everything if the Tooblan Company shows up and asks to perform."

"Naturally," said Tom. For a moment, he stopped to ponder whether he should find it offensive that less-famous acting troupes should be dismissed without warning, simply on the whim of world-wide star performers; or whether he should be glad that the greatest consideration was given to those with- and here there could be no serious argument- the greatest talent, rather than simply trying to treat everyone equally, even if they didn't deserve it- in a particular field, of course. Finally, he decided to simply ignore the question, and frown in annoyance, on general principle.

And suddenly, he was at the head of the line, Mr. Parker having completed his transaction during Tom's brief reverie. The man stood just off to the side, evidently wishing to say something more to Tom, when he finished his business.

Tom stepped up to the teller's window and handed the woman standing behind it his bank card and a withdrawal slip.

The teller looked over the card, raised an eyebrow, and looked up at Tom. "No order-name?"

"No. If you'll check your records, I'm sure you'll find my account in good standing. It is based at your Plist branch. I know it's somewhat unusual, but I assure you it's quite legal not to have a surname."

"I haven't really studied the surname law, sir, but I'll take your word for it. Must create quite a few complications, I should think. Seems like it'd be more trouble than it's worth. If it's even worth anything; that is, it wouldn't be worth anything to me, not having a last name. But I don't doubt you have your reasons. Let me just check my files...." After a couple of minutes, "Yes, you do have an account with us, and it seems special arrangements were agreed upon, for just the one name. However, I'm afraid your assets have been frozen, sir."

"What?!" Tom shouted. He meant to follow that up with a stream of other words, many of them expletives, but his mouth wouldn't form any more words, as his mind was for the moment dumbstruck, boggled, concentrating simply on 'what?'

"If you'll have a seat in the lobby, a manager will be with you in a few centhours, and you may discuss it with him."

"I-" and again he could think of no more to say. He found himself moving away from the window, still looking over his shoulder at the teller. Presently he turned around and realized Simon Parker was holding his arm, pulling him toward a bank of seats by one wall.

They seated themselves, and Parker whispered to him, "You said your name is Tom?"

"Yes?"

"No surname?"

"Yes. Er, no?"

"And your assets have been frozen."

"Apparently. Though, I don't think.... Anyway, I suppose my companions could come in to make their own withdrawals."

"That would hardly be wise. I'm afraid their accounts will have been frozen, as well. And we shouldn't stay here. Let's go."

"Go? Go where? Why?"

"Because the police will be here presently."

"What? Why? Who did you say you are?"

Parker sighed. "Not here. I'll explain after we leave, put some distance between ourselves and this place."

Tom despised feeling so confused, and having so little control. But he figured the best way to remedy the situation was to take answers wherever and however he could get them. So he got up and followed Parker out of the bank.

After walking for a time, Parker stopped at a bench just off the pedestrian trail, where no one seemed to be too close at the moment. "You're with the Chaos, aren't you?"

Tom had no idea what to say to that. Part of him wanted to deny having any knowledge of such a thing. But right now he was curious, and decided the best way to gain information was to share it. Cautiously. "Maybe." Oh, yes, Tom, he thought to himself, 'maybe' is always such a clever cover. No one would ever derive a definitive 'yes' from that.

"Well, maybe I have a third job, myself. Maybe I'm an Adult for LandOrder."

"So?"

"So, maybe I've heard a few things, bits of gossip. We are supposed to be helping you people, aren't we?"

"Sort of. I guess. A bit."

"Well, I heard that the known members of the Chaos have had their assets frozen and warrants issued by the High Court for InterVil to bring them in for questioning. Not arrest, you understand, but it might be unwise to comply. No one's quite sure where the orders originated, but we're sure it's from outside the system. Or at least through unofficial channels. Or at least... I dunno. But clearly, someone somewhere has some interest in you people that they're not talking about, officially."

"Okay...."

Parker shrugged. "Anyway, doesn't sound like something I'd like to get messed up in, and I just thought you'd like to know about it. If I were you, I'd get your friends and get out of town before long."

"Thanks. I'll convey your warning."

"Good. Well," he said, standing, "I was gonna tell you I might be able to get you a free ticket to see a Tooblan performance whenever they get into town, but now it looks like you should be out of here before then."

"Maybe some other time." Tom stood and shook Parker's hand. "Well, thank you again. ...It may be awhile before we can leave, our wagon has to be repaired, and I'm not sure where we're going to get the money for it. We'll figure something out, though. But do you think, if we need to, we might be able to get some protection from LandOrder? Stay with them instead of at an inn, maybe?"

"I wouldn't know. I doubt it, but your liaison might as well look into it. Good-bye." And he walked away.

Tom departed in the opposite direction, to talk with the others, at the garage.

2

"Ampersand & Ampersand," Darius said with a quiet chuckle, and not for the first time today. "I can't stop loving that name.

"Yep," said Joe Ampersand, the mechanic, "Pop just always liked the symbol and its name. Kind of a weird thing to pick for a clan name, though, so I always thought. He's got a weird sense of humor too, I guess. Seems like you share it, though."

Darius just said "Mmm." Meanwhile, Relic Ampersand was just coming into the office, from the garage, followed by their Sorreter, Jake Strumming. "Ya gotta admit," said Relic, "lotta folks out there got a lotta weird names. Some utilitarian, obvious. Some a bit more inventive. Some you wouldn't never figure out in a hundred years. Lotta folks just wanna have fun with it. So I did. Partly I did it fer the name it'd let me give the business, father and son."

"I like it," said Darius.

"Anyway," said Jake, "Relic says the body's pretty sound. It'll take a little shoring up, but it won't be any trouble for him and Joe. Shouldn't take long. As for the magic, your friend Cameron was right, most of the spells will have to be entirely replaced, and the remnants of the old ones completely cleaned away, first. There's a few on there I'm just not familiar with, though. For example, what Mr. Underground called an 'autopilot,' that's busted, and I couldn't possibly replace it. Sure would love to know where you got it done, though."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible, just at present," said Jasp. "But I'll look into getting it replaced, myself." With that, the gangster left the office, and the building, to place a discreet t-mail call.

Tom passed him going in, as Jasp left. He stopped him for a moment to say he had something he wanted him to hear, when the others came out. Jasp nodded, and Tom continued into the office. "Darius, guys, can I talk to you all outside, in private?"

Darius shrugged, and turned to the mechanics. "We'll be right back." Then the Chaos members present all followed Tom outside, where he told them about what Parker had said.

Jasp was still on the bubble with LandOrder's Tanq don. "Did you hear that, sir?" he asked the face in the bubble.

"Yes. And I'm afraid we dare not touch that, right now. But bring the wagon in if you have time, to get a new autopilot spell installed."

Jasp sighed. "Thank you, don. Close and vanish." And the bubble vanished.

Cameron suggested they all try to find out, via t-mail, the status of their own accounts. He assured Darius he could protect the calls with a trace-blocker spell. And so they each in turn called their banks, those of them that maintained accounts. (This excluded Tiejo and Tino.) Everyone's account had been frozen. They were all asked to stay on the bubble while their calls were transferred to a manager; they all quickly and politely declined, saying they were in a hurry at the moment, but would be sure to stop in personally in a day or two.

Jasp was the only one to swear (under his breath). Responding to a look from Darius, he said, "Well, it's not like I don't have plenty stashed away back home. But if they know I'm with you, they may well know who and what I am. And that means I'll probably be losing my emotional stamp."

"Sorry to hear that. But I'm sure you make a better spy than Adult, anyway." This, Jasp met with a scowl.

"So," Jasp asked, "do any of you people have any idea where you can get money? Any secret caches around here?"

After a little discussion, they discovered that, while most of them had hideaways not far from here, they were all rather understocked with cash, at the moment.

Cameron suggested he might translocate to one of his stashes in another village, and return here with some gold. But Darius said, "Probably InterGang's local spies will be watching us, and their Sorreters will be able to track you. But I have another idea." He had withdrawn a card from a pocket hidden within his cloak, and studied it as he spoke. One side read:

Frank Numbercrunch

accountant, idea man
231 Grey Avenue, Plist
servicing also First Village & Tonad

quasi-partner of Dex Bigthink

This side he merely glanced at a moment before flipping it over to read:

Dex Bigthink

accountant, idea man
922 Nomatter Plaza, Jump Village
servicing also Shipsister, Tanq & Triscot

quasi-partner of Frank Numbercrunch

"What's that?" asked Tom, nodding at the card Darius was holding.

"Something George Taverner gave me. I think I might just know who we could borrow some money from, if he's in town."

3

They all decided to go with Darius, except Tino, who remained at the garage to keep an eye on their wagon.

Checking the local business directory, Darius located Dex Bigthink's Tanq office, which was about thirty centhours' walk from where they were. Along the way, Emma asked, "Darius, didn't you say your uncle lived in Tanq? Perhaps we could visit him, even maybe ask to borrow-"

"I'm afraid not," Darius interrupted, shaking his head. "I don't want to involve him in our troubles. I might call to warn him. I mean, even if we don't do anything to involve him, chances are the authorities may look there for us. I want to warn him of that, and apologize in case any of our enemies cause him any trouble. But if he actually did get involved, things could well be even worse for him. "Besides, this is a bad time for him; he's going through some personal stuff. I don't know much about it, but I don't want to add to his troubles any more than can be avoided."

"Oh. Okay. Hmmm." Emma seemed a little disappointed, and Darius considered saying something like 'It was a good thought, though.' However, he couldn't. He allowed himself a moment to hate himself for his frequent inability to say things he wanted to say, but quickly redirected his thoughts to more pressing matters.

They all walked on in silence for a few centhours after that, until Tom remembered the reason he'd been talking with Simon Parker in the first place, and told Alecstar about it. Soon a few of the others broke into the conversation to discuss the Tooblan Company, when Tom mentioned the possibility one day of getting free tickets for a performance.

Darius remained silent, considering the possibility that, because of him, none of them might ever again have the chance to see any plays, or concerts, or anything. They could be killed, or imprisoned, or meet with any number of unpleasant fates. He hoped like Hell that one day they would indeed all be back in Tanq, sitting together in the finest theater in town, watching the Tooblan Company perform Elder Nimoth or The Courage of Larcath, or any old play at all. Anything would be great, as long as they could all watch and enjoy with no fear of anyone or anything. He'd even pay for all the tickets himself.

Finally, they all arrived at Bigthink's office. Darius and Tom went in first, and the others followed. Fortunately, there didn't seem to be any other clients, active or potential, around at the moment. There were just enough seats in the lobby for the lot of them. More fortunately still, Dex was in, rather than at his home office in Jump Village. His receptionist announced them, and he came out to greet them.

"Ah, hello, and welcome, ladies and gentlemen," he said, closing the door to his office behind him. "Are you all together?" They nodded. "I think, then, that we should all meet out here. Not quite so much room back there, unless you care to elect a delegate or two from your party to discuss matters privately? No? Well, it's settled, then. Please do be seated. One moment-" He went back into his office, and came back out, wheeling a chair before him. "Chairs on wheels, isn't it great? Everybody should have one of these." Not once did his smile leave his face.

"Well," he continued, once he and his guests were all seated, "who's going to go first?"

Tom was about to stand up, then decided to remain seated. He said, "My name is Tom, and I've had some dealings with Frank Numbercrunch. It was my friend here, Darius Lonewander," he said, inclining his head in Darius's direction, "who thought to contact you. We're having a little financial trouble, you see. We thought perhaps you could loan us some money. We've a wagon in need of repairs, and we'll likely need more coin to hand in the near future, as well."

"Tom, you say? I seem to recall Frankie mentioning some fellow who chose to take no surname. He manages your savings account, does he?"

"That's right."

"Takes a nice little percentage of your interest each month, too, as payment. It seems to me, unless you've suddenly taken to spending extravagantly, you've more than ample funds at your disposal?"

"Well, yes, but my assets have been frozen, you see."

"All of our assets have been," said Darius.

"Hmmm... interesting." The smile left his face, replaced by a questioning look. "Now why would this be, I wonder? Have you done something illegal?"

"Not as such," Darius replied. "The particular charges against us, whatever they may be... Well, they seem to think we're involved with the gangs, and after a fashion we are, but not through any choice of our own. And we're not... we haven't done anything illegal, no." Not yet, he thought to himself. But I suppose open rebellion, whenever we get to it, is probably against some law or other.

"Charges, you say.... Are you all wanted?"

"For questioning, so we hear. Not arrest. Perhaps 'charges' was the wrong word. But we also hear there are those who are... um, sort of unofficially going through official channels, who might take things over if the authorities get their hands on us. We could disappear and have very... unofficial things done to us. We'd gladly comply with... well, answer any questions... if it weren't for the people behind the scenes, whoever they are. People who most likely are to be feared. I'm afraid I don't know more than that."

"I see. Hmmm. Well, I'd like to help you. I do trust you. That is to say, I trust Frank's judgment; neither of us would take on clients who couldn't be trusted. We both do thorough background checks, you know. So we both trust each other, and therefore trust anyone we know the other trusts enough to work for. My concern here, primarily, is will you prove to be a good investment? Will you be able to pay me back? I mean, will your assets eventually be unfrozen, if you evade the law?"

"There's no way for any of us to know the answer to that," said Darius. "But of course we'll do all we can to extricate ourselves from our current predicament."

"Have you any ideas as to how to go about that?"

"Not any direct ideas, just at the moment, I'm afraid. But in the course of our adventures, possibilities may present themselves. I have a strong feeling that we are either going to achieve very great things... or else, fail miserably. So, you know. It's a gamble, but if it pays off, it'll pay off big."

"That's quite a prediction, young man. Care to be any less vague?"

"Uh..." Darius began, trying to think of something that didn't hint in any way at rebellion, and wishing he'd thought of a suitable cover story sooner.

"Might I point something out?" asked Tom, to Darius's great relief.

"Of course," replied Dex.

"With my account frozen, it won't be earning any interest, and Frank won't be getting paid. I know he handles lots of other regular and one-time clients. The loss of this one source of income may not mean too much, but I think he already has an interest in my success, not to mention my liberty. One might say even a certain degree of duty to protect my interests."

"One might," said Dex. "Then, too, it occurs to me that Mr. Lonewander mentioned adventures. In the course of adventures, one oft times acquires treasure of one sort or another, and such things need not be deposited in the bank. They might be stashed away somewhere, or even given to someone like Frank or myself. For safekeeping, and/or in repayment of a loan." His smile returned. "Unofficially, and off the books, you understand."

Darius smiled as well. "There's a thought. Still, perhaps you should discuss the matter with Mr. Numbercrunch, before making a final decision."

"How refreshing! Here you are, desperately in need of my help, and just when it seems like the debate might be going your way, you make a suggestion that conceivably could swing the decision against you. You've no idea. Quite a risk. But then, you did indicate that you're a gambling man. On the other hand, you might be thinking that that very risk could enhance my image of your character, thus reinforcing my trust."

"Yes, or the risk mightn't have occurred to me at all, or I might have thought you might think this, that, or the other, and before you know it, it gets into a whole infinite mirrors thing."

"Yes, and I do so hate those kinds of debates." He sighed. "Whatever your intentions, you're quite right. I should discuss this with Frank."

And so he withdrew to his office, to talk with his quasi-partner privately, via t-mail. A short time later he returned. "Congratulations, all of you. We have decided to take you on, Mr. Lonewander, and company. We'll loan you whatever you need. Within reason."

Darius and Dex went to the office to discuss an exact amount, and get the money from his private vault. A few centhours later, they came out of the office, and Darius was carrying a briefcase. "Thanks again, Mr. Bigthink," he was saying. And to his companions, "Well, I guess we should be going..."

But as they all rose and turned to leave, a man in a dark grey suit walked through the front door, and displayed a badge. "Excuse me. I am agent Callum Monogwrangle, InterVil. I believe you would be Darius Lonewander?" Letting his gaze roam from Darius to the others, he added, "I know who the rest of you are, too." His eyes settled on Jasp for a long moment, before turning back to Darius.

"Yes?" replied Darius. "Can we help you?"

"Perhaps you are unaware that you are all wanted for questioning."

Darius adopted a quizzical expression. "First I've heard of it. Concerning what?"

"I'd prefer to talk about this at HQ."

"Unless we're under arrest- and surely there's no reason for that- I think we'd prefer you give us some reason for your interest."

"Very well. To begin, you will not deny that you have involved yourselves with the gangs." His gaze returned to Jasp.

"On the contrary," said Darius, "they involved themselves with us. As our friend Mr. Piper told the detectives back in Tonad."

"I've read the report of what he said," turning now to Cameron. "It sounds rather dubious to me. In any event, I have my orders. You are to come with me for questioning."

"By people other than yourself?"

"Yes."

"Who?"

"Various people. I don't really know everyone who wants to talk to you; I'm just to deliver you to them."

"What do you know?"

"I don't think you want to talk about this here."

"I think I do."

The agent sighed. "Very well. You are suspected of plotting a rebellion against the Order."

"That's a pretty serious charge," interjected Dex. "Do you have any proof?" To Darius, "I know a few good lawyers, if you need one."

"There are no official charges, as yet," said the agent. "No admissible evidence, no need for lawyers. Yet. Not that it is any of your concern."

"Oh, but it is. They're clients of mine, and as such, their interests are my interests."

"You also do some work for InterVil, and have a similar obligation to us. A preexistent one, as well as legally overriding."

"Only if you charge them with something."

Monogwrangle waved his hand dismissively, forgetting Dex for the moment. "It doesn't matter. Mr. Lonewander, you and your companions are required-"

"'Requested,' I think you'll find that you mean to say," said Darius.

"-to come with me to headquarters. Your voluntary cooperation will be noted, and will stand in your favor. Your refusal to cooperate may well work against you, in the future."

"If we were ever to be officially charged with anything. I believe that, even without our direct cooperation, your investigations will eventually reveal that we've done nothing wrong. Our assets will be unfrozen. Your harassment of innocent citizens may then be forgiven, without your even offering an apology."

"Haven't done anything wrong, have you?"

"Not a thing."

"Okay. Show of hands: who here has never killed anyone?" The agent raised his own hand, as did Dex. Dex's assistant followed suit. Tiejo sat crouched on his seat, his hand hesitantly half-raised, seemingly trying to remember. Finally, he put it down. No one else raised a hand, nor showed the slightest sign of contemplating it.

"But only in self-defense," Ginger insisted defiantly.

"Unavoidable, sometimes," said Emma. "Unfortunately."

"Besides," said Darius- and at this point, Monogwrangle and the others lowered their hands- "killing isn't always murder. It isn't illegal. There are laws that allow for it, under certain circumstances."

"Such as in the course of adventures," the agent said derisively. "But then, we only have the reports of the survivors that the proper conditions were met."

"Such matters are still investigated by the police. And I've always cooperated fully in such investigations. Not that any of this matters; it has nothing to do with the case at hand. This has nothing to do with killing."

"True," admitted the agent. "Just an example, an attempt at refuting the proposition that you've never done anything wrong. Morally, if perhaps not legally speaking."

"I believe the lawmakers try to make moral laws. Your job is to uphold them, not to moralize or philosophize on your own."

"There's no law against indulging in personal pursuits, even applying them sometimes to your work. Philosophy is a hobby of mine. Especially applied philosophy, with a touch of psychology. I've studied the files on all of you, not only pertinent to this case, but your background profiles, as well. You, Mr. Lonewander, seem to be the leader of the Chaos. Aren't you?"

Darius was surprised anyone outside his immediate group, plus LandOrder, and possibly InterGang, would know what they were calling themselves. And for a split second, he thought of saying that the only way the agent could know that name is if he himself were involved with InterVil, but immediately thought better of it. To be sure, the name proved nothing; it could refer to a new musical group or adventure group or any kind of group at all. Still, he thought it best to play dumb in this case, so he asked, "Leader of the what, now?"

Monogwrangle smirked. "That is what you call yourselves, isn't it? The Chaos? And chaos is what you want to bring back to the world; the old ways. Because you're afraid of progress. Naturally you realize that, as things continue to change, you will become outdated. You have no way of making a living, outside of adventuring, which will, sooner or later, become illegal, or at least so strictly regulated that there's little point in it, little actual... adventure. Your meager book sales would never support you, especially with nothing new to write about. No adventures, no stories. Even if you could get a job, it would mean trying to get along with society, and we all know you're incapable of that.

"Look at Tom, here. He doesn't even try. He knows there's nothing left for him to do. Society has progressed beyond him, passed him by. He lives off interest on profits of a bygone era. Rather ironic that the new era allows him to do this, even as it cuts off his ability to earn any new money by actually working."

"It's not so unusual for someone my age to be retired, if they can afford it," said Tom. But Monogwrangle ignored him.

"The Band, of course, will do alright. People always like good music. But you'd miss adventuring, wouldn't you? As I said, eventually progress will eliminate the kind of adventuring you all do, as valid career choice. And even if it doesn't become strictly illegal, certainly there will be less and less leniency towards such things as- and forgive my use of the word- 'murder'."

Alecstar said, "You know, it's not like the police are never forced to kill in the line of duty. Do you call that murder, too?"

"The police do not go out looking to kill anyone."

"Neither do adventurers."

"So you say. But they do go out with the purpose of doing something completely unnecessary with their lives, just for fun. Adventure serves no purpose in society whatsoever. Your kind might be better than criminals who specifically intend to commit crimes, but you can hardly compare yourselves to those whose job it is to prevent or react to crime."

"Just an example," said Alecstar with a slight smirk. "An attempt at refuting the proposition that killing need always be considered murder. Philosophically speaking."

"Yes, I'm sure that's something you feel the need to tell yourself, Mr. Inco. That certain actions, however unpleasant, may be justified, whether committed by adventurers, police, or... well, people in other occupations." The agent looked rather pointedly at Star as he said this last part, which made the adventurer wonder exactly how much information about his past was contained in InterVil's files. Star's smirk faded, and he looked away.

"Now, where was I? Oh yes: the Band. Some kind of interesting crew you all make, I must say. A Protestant spirit-talker, an Elf in self-exile, a probable ex-Sorreter, and of course, Alecstar Inco. Then there's the absent one, who has no official records of any kind. We know his first name, and what he does in your band. Other than that, he might as well not even exist. Which, in itself, perhaps makes him more suspicious than any of you. Oh, I'm sure you all have your reasons to want the Second Order brought down.

"Then there's the street rat, who's just crazy, you know. Soon there will be places for people like him, mark me.

"And as for Mr. Underground, well... I don't believe I need say anything about him.

"But the worst is Lonewander, still. Absolutely worthless. You may even end up with a fate similar to the street rat. You, who came from noble stock. A wealthy family, who always treated you well; and now they're gone, you're alone, you have nothing... and you don't even miss them, do you? You never liked them. They, who were probably the only noble clan on the Land to fight against the Order's ideas of a class system that would have put them among the highest echelons of society. Adam could have been chief councillor of Triscot, maybe even king, someday! I generally hate nobility and their snobbery, but yours was a clan I could respect. They did some things wrong, like opposing the Order, but at least they treated all people as equal. They were smart, hardworking, honest, decent.

"But you... how can you share genes with them? You, who think only of yourself. And there's not much there to think about. Foolish, crazy, worthless, simple, pathetic." The agent was really sneering now. "No wonder you hate progress so much. You could never survive in any but the most primitive of civilizations. No wonder you want to overthrow the government. Chaos!" he scoffed. "Feh!"

He turned to the others. "You should all just abandon him, and save yourselves a great deal of trouble. Most of you could easily survive without him. With him, you will surely all fail. He'll drag you down to his level, and make you nothing. Just like he is."

He took a few moments to calm and compose himself. "This," he said quietly, "is how I, personally, feel. I did say you wouldn't want to talk about this here. Anyway, now that that's over, let's all be going. We can get this over with, and we won't have to bother you any more. Maybe. If you take your own best interests to heart, and if my sources turn out to be mistaken about your intentions." He turned toward the door, waving for the others to follow him.

"No," said Darius, calmly but firmly.

Monogwrangle turned to look at him. "What?"

"Perhaps I agree with some of what you've said about me. But not about any of the others, not the negative stuff, anyway. In fact, they are now, as always, perfectly free to go their own ways, no questions asked. But until they decide to do so, they are fellow adventurers, traveling companions, and friends. They are not criminals, and they are not revolutionaries. You may have fun with your armchair psychology. You may have your sneaky little spies who'll tell you and your people whatever they think you all want to hear. You may have a badge, and the whole of InterVil, the High Court, and both Orders behind you, but we have our rights. We go where we will, and so long as it's within the law, we do what we will. You cannot tell us what to do or where to go." And Darius allowed himself a slight, fleeting smirk as he added, "But perhaps I could tell you where to go."

"Maybe I have the authority to make the official request an official order. Voluntarily or involuntarily, you're coming with me."

"I don't think so," said Dex. "Not if they don't want to. If you had that authority, you'd have said so to begin with. You said the opposite. I don't suppose you're allowed to lie to people to get them to do what you want, but I don't suppose, either, that your superiors or fellows would take their word over yours. Nor would they take mine. I do suppose, however, that if you're going to take to illegally lying in the course of your duty, you should learn to do a better, more consistent job of it, and not change your story whenever the mood strikes you."

"You..." the agent stopped, and sighed. "Look, you can't really do anything about this. You could make a complaint, later, but for the moment, you can do nothing. You will hand them over."

"They're not mine to hand over, nor yours to take. They are their own people."

"Very well. I'm not alone. There are police outside under my command. You can't stop me." He turned again to the door, to summon his people.

Dex put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. He went to stand in front of the door, turned to face the agent, and crossed his arms. "This is private property. If the police want to come in on official business, I'll need to see a warrant."

"If you don't move away from that door and let me out, I'll charge you with illegal detention... or, say, hostage-taking."

"You're free to leave whenever you like. But you won't come back in without a warrant. If you can get one."

"Dammit!" screamed the agent, "I'm telling you, they're coming with me! I am an official representative of one of your most important clients, and I'm telling you to let me have them!"

"You put me in a most awkward position, Agent Monogwrangle. You must understand, I can't choose one client over another. It just wouldn't be right. I mean, suppose they asked me to abandon you? I couldn't do that. Suppose they tried to kill you, or take you hostage. As you are a client, I'd be obliged to protect you; not that I wouldn't do so for any non-client, of course. I couldn't let them do anything to you that you didn't want them to." He turned to the others. "You wouldn't ever ask me to abandon another of my clients, such as InterVil, would you?"

"Not at all," said Darius, grinning, as he was pretty sure he saw where Bigthink was headed with this.

And then a thought struck the agent. He put on a grin of his own. "So, they're clients, are they? Well, then, they must have signed a contract with you."

"Ah, well, no," said Dex, with a sudden frown.

"Because, of course, you wouldn't want to have proof of your association with them available, in the event official charges should ever be brought against them. You might be charged as an accomplice. But if there's no contract, there are no clients. Dilemma solved."

Dex sighed and shook his head. "Well, sometimes I choose to go with just a verbal contract. Which is considered legal, so long as it can be proven. Therefore they are clients."

The agent sneered again, and mumbled quietly yet audibly, "How convenient for you. It can be proven or denied in court, whichever you prefer." Aloud, "Very well. If you don't believe I have the authority to take them involuntarily, perhaps you'll believe that I have the authority to dissolve any official arrangements you have with InterVil."

"Perhaps. Considering I know you to be someone who will say anything, even lie, to get what you want, I have reason to doubt your word. But as it doesn't contradict anything you've already actually said, I'm forced to accept, until such time as I find otherwise, that you do have that authority."

"Good. So I'm telling you," and he advanced rather menacingly toward Dex, looming over him, "drop them as clients and hand them over, or you will no longer work for InterVil. Which is, obviously, a client not only more reputable than these people, but also one of far greater financial value to you."

"I'm afraid I've already told you I can't choose between clients, regardless of their respective values. None of my clients would ever be able to trust me, if I did that. I would think that, as a client, you'd appreciate that."

"You're not going to do it?"

"No. Short of an official court order, no."

"Then you're fired."

"Thank you," said Dex, suddenly grinning, "you've just solved my dilemma. Since you're no longer a client-" he drew his arm back and threw a fast, hard punch at agent Monogwrangle. The agent's face registered shock for half a moment before he slumped unconscious to the floor. "...No need to choose."

While the others stood just as shocked as the agent must have been, Darius broke out laughing. He thought, looking at the body on the floor, I thank you, too. I was hoping you'd do that. ...Simple as I am. But when his laughter subsided into a wide grin, all he said was, "Better than Happiness."

Then the others began to regain their senses. Most of them were grinning as widely as Darius. But some of them weren't quite ready for that yet.

"But," said Tom, "um... okay. Thanks, yeah. But, won't you get in trouble for that?"

"Oh, a bit, a bit. Even if he didn't have the authority, I've probably lost the InterVil account, now. But I've many others. As for assault charges... as I say, I know a few good lawyers. I could stand to have a few days off, anyway. That's about all it'll amount to. Even if I won't exactly be spending that time in an ideal vacation spot."

"Might I point out," said Alecstar, "that his police are still outside waiting. They could now charge us as accessories to this, and bring us all in. Even if they didn't have the authority to do so before. How are we to get by them?"

"I have other exits. Underground tunnels."

"Questionable sort of things to have about a place of business," Darius commented.

"Their lawyers may question anything. Mine can answer anything. Maybe I didn't discover the tunnels until after I'd purchased the property."

Dex led them to the tunnels, gave them a map, said goodbye, and wished them good luck. The members of the Chaos started walking as soon as Cameron had cast a spell which produced a luminescent orb, resting upon his upturned palm.

As they walked, Cameron pondered the sequence of events of the days since all this began. After awhile, he abruptly announced, "I think I know who's pulling the strings." His companions all stopped and stared at him, and he continued. "The detectives in Tonad will have guessed that I might secretly be an ex-Sorreter, that I translocated. I mean, that would be the most likely reason I wouldn't have told them I was a Sorreter at all, now that I think of it. If that speculation got around in InterVil, it would eventually reach our true enemies. The greatest enemy of my people, of course, is Durell of Sorret. Or, Durell Turner, he's called now. And he surely has the connections to pull this off, without letting too many people know he's behind it. He's after me. If he got me, he'd do everything he could to try to make me reveal the location of the Protestant Sorreters. It is your association with me that's putting you all in danger."

Darius had been hanging to the back of the group. Now he came forward to talk to Cameron. "Don't you dare imagine for one moment that you're any more of a potential threat to the Order than we all may be. You may- or may not- have some immediate responsibility for what's going on right now, but we all, especially me, share some of it, too. Don't forget, we were attracting negative attention well before Durell could've gotten involved. And as time goes on, the responsibility will be more and more evenly distributed, amongst anyone who proves truly to deserve to be a part of this. And we'll have a lot more to worry about than we do now. We'll need you then, as we need you now. So don't feel too guilty, and remember the only way you can do us any good is to stick with us. Understand?"

Cameron sighed. "Yeah." He walked on in silent thought from then on, though his bandmates offered their own brief words of comfort.

Darius returned to the back of the group, rubbed his face and ran his hands through his hair, trying to shake Cameron's revelation from his mind, for the moment. He'd have to think about it later, but for now he needed to relax, and think more pleasant thoughts. He grinned as he recalled the end of the confrontation with Monogwrangle, and said again, to himself, "Better than Happiness..."

Emma, overhearing this, said, "I got the impression back there, at the end, that you'd been waiting for what happened, to happen."

"Dex dropped enough hints. Either side could've taken advantage of them, or missed them and lost everything. Seemed fairly obvious and logical, to me."

"See," said Emma. "You're nothing like he thought you were."

"Oh, I agreed with him, for the most part. Always will, I'm afraid. But I do have my moments."

"That you do," agreed Emma. "Or, um... those you do?"

"I dunno," said Darius. "Either way sounds slightly wrong and sort of right. It doesn't matter."

"Already I feel the conversation falling back into the realm of the inane," grumbled Tom. "But still, moments like that one, that Dex provided, do make it all worthwhile. Almost."

"All whiles are worthy," said Tiejo, scampering back and forth between the back and front of the group.

Darius, meanwhile, again fell a few paces behind everyone else. His grin faded, his heart grew heavier. Brief moments or periods of happiness do tend to bring on spells of depression, he reflected silently, and sighed. As if happiness uses up too much energy to maintain a generally neutral feeling. He took out a pill and held it in his hand for a time, head downcast, feet trudging along, every part of him wanting to just slump down against a wall, sit by himself in the dark, and hate himself, and cry. But he knew he couldn't. He wouldn't. He didn't want to take the pill, either. Desperately he didn't. He'd rather just be miserable, for now.

And yet, he unscrewed the cap from his canteen, took a swig of water, and swallowed the pill.

I always loved the dark, he thought to himself merrily, but kept Cameron's glow ahead in sight.

Emma stole occasional glances back at Darius, and worried about him. Not so much about the pills, or the depression, but that he truly seemed to believe the things Monogwrangle had said about him. He'd said such things about himself before. But never with the same kind of passion behind the words that she'd seen and heard when the agent had said them. And yet she could tell, every bit of that passion was there in Darius's own mind and heart. It was just... different. A sort of quiet acceptance seemed to have settled over him, from years and years of firsthand experience of these feelings. But she could tell the passion of self-loathing was still there. While this didn't seem the time to talk about it, she made a mental note- not for the first time- to work, whenever she could, on changing his self-image for the better.


chapter 21

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