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Chapter 23
4 Sp'mo' (Ha'day)


By the time they landed Tuesday evening, they had covered about 950 miles for the day, far more than they had done while traveling over land on their first day, bringing their two day total up to about 1080. That left a mere 370 miles to travel the next day. They took off again around 2:1:50 Ha'day morning; by Second Six, they stopped a couple of miles outside of Triscot, and hid the wagon in an area of the forest with which Darius was quite familiar, from his childhood days of playing adventurer. Cameron scried around the village gates, and saw that wagons were, indeed, being stopped and inspected. This might not be unusual, but they all agreed it best not to take risks.

Looking through their various things, they decided what they felt they should bring with them, which wasn't much. And so, the group hiked toward the village together, before splitting up to each enter individually, or in pairs, at different times. It was of course probable that the guards would have descriptions of each member of the Chaos, though it was unlikely they'd have drawings of any of them to go by. Still, they hoped that they'd be less conspicuous if they didn't all show up together. For a little extra protection, Cameron cast temporary glamours on each of them, which altered their appearances very slightly, but enough that they might be overlooked. They did, however, worry that it might be conspicuous for anyone to come into town without some means of transport, so Cameron managed to summon wild striders for a few of them, and the others took neatly-packed flying carpets. Darius, being most familiar with the village, gave his companions directions to a diner where they all could meet up later.

Walking the old familiar streets of his home village made Darius happy, as it usually did when he returned here. He decided that while in Triscot, he'd try to avoid taking any Happiness pills, and hoped he'd feel no need of them. But then, he'd often enough been depressed, here, as well, both in the years growing up, before the war, and during his occasional visits over the years since. Of course, he'd always survived his bouts of depression before, and he felt certain he would now. Though he might very well do a bit of drinking, while here....

Suddenly, Tiejo scurried up beside him, seemingly from out of nowhere. But then, Darius's thoughts had been somewhat distracted. He told himself he'd do well to be more aware of his surroundings, not just fall into nostalgia, but really keep an eye out for where people were and how they were acting. Anyone could be a potential enemy. He smiled as he thought that his paranoia, which normally caused him so much pain, might actually come in handy, for a change. His smile quickly vanished, however, as it occurred to him that he hadn't the vaguest notion whether or not Tiejo had said anything, in the few seconds since he'd shown up. Turning to the street rat, he said, "What's up, Tiejo?"

"Years it has been since Tiejo has been in Triscot. Not since the days... well, soon after Master was taken. Is a nice village, much like the Village of Jumping, I think."

Once again, Darius couldn't help but grin. "'Village of Jumping'? Really, Tiejo? I know you have a naturally curious way of talking, to say the least, but... 'Village of Jumping'? Surely that particular bit of muddling was intentional."

Tiejo grinned sheepishly. "Perhaps I am sometimes doing this just to see if anyone notices. Usually, they do not. Is nice to have someone catching me at the game. Ah, but Jump Village and Triscot are much alike, though, no?"

Darius looked around. "I'd never really thought about it, but there are certain similarities. Both places are rather... lush, relaxed. I think in Triscot, it's often more affected, more ostentatious in a way, than it is in Jump Village. More opulent. But both villages are certainly given to displays of natural beauty, as well as architectural beauty. Jump... is more about simplicity, but Triscot does alright with looking that way, at least in some areas, even if it's ultimately more affluent. In any event, both villages are... less urban, I suppose, than most of the villages on First Land. But if Triscot and Jump aren't exactly urban, they're surely both urbane, especially Triscot. It's a neat trick, how people here can manage to be both rather elegant and casual at the same time. You don't see that a lot, elsewhere."

"No, sir, that you don't," came a somewhat raspy voice from somewhere nearby. Darius and Tiejo both looked in the direction of the voice. Their eyes fell upon a scruffy-looking man, sitting with his back against a wishing well, which itself sat in the center of the intersection of two rather wide pedestrian paths. "Done some travelin', in my day," continued the stranger, who appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s. "You're very right, sir, most people are either casual, or elegant, or businesslike, or what have you. Not some simultaneous combination thereof. It's a different breed we've got, here in Triscot, and no mistake."

"Uh... yeah," said Darius. He wasn't sure how to respond when people just started talking to him randomly, especially people like...

"Street rat?!" exclaimed Tiejo. "You are being of the fellowship of street rats, yes?"

"Tiejo," said Darius with some embarrassment, "that's rude."

"No, he's right," said the stranger. "I reckon that's what I am. My name's Rune Paralellogram, actually. I'm a mathematician by trade, as you might guess. Ah, yes, parallelograms always were my favorite geometic shapes, you know. Kind of a silly surname, but I like it. Doesn't really fit me, anymore, though. Used to be I'd travel around, spend a year or two in one village, teaching math to a few students, then moving on. Not exactly a trade, mathematics, but it's something everyone should know the basics of, don't you agree? Yes, indeed. Used to be too few people seriously studied the subject, unless it was related to a more specialized trade they were pursuing. Nowadays, kids all learn the fundamentals, though, it's a requirement. What with the new schools the Order has set up, since the Coming."

"Well, I'd think that's a good thing," said Darius. He still wasn't exactly comfortable talking to this stranger, but it always helped when people said things he could think of responses to. Usually he couldn't, but if someone was talking about something that interested him.... And anyway, he supposed this had been the plan all along, to talk to people, find out what they thought about the Order. (After his conversation with his allies the other day about why they trusted him so quickly, he'd determined to be more cautious in the future, when meeting new potential recruits to his cause.) "Also, it seems there'd be more call than ever for mathematical masters. So if you don't mind my asking...?"

"How did I fall on such hard times? Well, I tell you..." Rune looked away for a bit, a distant look in his eyes. For just a moment, he allowed himself to be grateful that people had actually stopped to listen to him; most passersby didn't, of course. And he totally understood that; when he'd been more or less gainfully employed, he'd always shied away from street rats, himself. Especially the type that suddenly started talking to a passing stranger as if they were old friends, as he now did. They seemed crazy, if not necessarily dangerous. But he quickly waved these thoughts away, and proceeded to tell his story. "You'd think it'd be a good thing, fair enough. And yet..." He shook his head, and again looked at Darius and Tiejo. "Listen, I looked into these schools, when they first started. I was curious, if apprehensive. The mathematics department seemed sound enough; it's pretty much an absolute, you can't lie about the subject." With a wry grin, he added, "It just wouldn't add up, if you tried." But he quickly relinquished his grin, and his expression turned even more serious than it had been before. "However, I also looked into the other departments. Science is okay, and it's interesting that the subject even includes a basic introduction to some fundamentals of magic, though not nearly enough for students to be considered even novice apprentices. That's still left exclusively to Sorret, and of course Woodstockade. There are classes in music and the arts, as well as sports and physical education, that's all well and good.

"There's reading and grammar, which is quite good, especially given this new trend I've heard around here in the last couple of years, of people affecting some kind of fancy speech, which they say was used on Earth well over a thousand years ago. You know, the kind of stuff that Tooblan mimicked in that play of his, A Midsummer Night's Speaking Contest." Again, Rune looked amused, just for a few moments. "Heh. Everyone always compares him to Shakespeare, so it was frightfully clever of him to play on that, show that he could write in such flowery fashion, while clearly pointing out to people that he's not Shakespeare, as... while his plays and poems are often thematically similar, they were written in a contemporary Landian voice. So he should be taken on his own merits. Still, as much as everyone might appreciate that play and its self-aware humor, in the roughly 300 years since it was written, people still haven't stopped drawing the Shakespearean comparison. ...But anyway, my point was, people nowadays are talking like that. And in their minds, at least, they seem to do so unironically. Though it is interesting that for most people, vernacular hasn't changed much at all in the centuries since Tooblan's time. In fact, I think it's pretty much the same as when the Land was first created, 912 years ago. Much as it was on Earth at the time, I understand. Undoubtedly, Earth's own vernacular changed greatly between Shakespeare's time and when the Land was created, roughly four hundred years later, I believe. Also undoubtedly, Earth's vernacular has itself changed somewhat in the nine hundred years of the Land's existence, and will always continue to do so, while ours, likely, will not. I fancy millennia hence, when we finally have direct contact with the people of Earth, rather than just spirits, our way of speaking will sound dreadfully archaic, to them, if they understand it at all. I daresay they'd find it shocking that we speak the same language. My understanding is most planets develop their own languages, but the Land's is Earth-based, and that should seem impossible to them, when they meet us. Heh. But anyway, I digress again, as I'm wont to do. This whole thing of people lately adopting Shakespearean-style speaking, I'm sure it's a passing fad, and won't ultimately catch on or change how we talk, in the long run. Still, I do find it a bit troubling, because it's not what I'd call proper grammar, so I'm glad the subject is being taught in school.

"Ah, but what else? Let's see, there's geography, which I suppose is useful, though at this point in time- as I mentioned, a mere 912 years into the Land's history- with less than two dozen villages in the world, and only three lands- or as they'd say on Earth, continents- and several islands explored, amounting to probably less than a fifth of the world's surface, I shouldn't think there'd be much to actually study in that class. Oh, sure they have maps of the whole planet, but what's the point, if the unexplored landmasses haven't even been named?

"Then there's a bit of a nod to things like philosophy and sociology, and here's where I begin to take an issue. Granted, they don't officially indoctrinate anyone, per se. The law dictates a separation of church and state, and schools fall under the purview of the state. Of course, religion has to be mentioned, as it influences abstracts like philosophy as well as relative absolutes like history. Even if religion is rather a different thing on the Land than it is on Earth or most other worlds, because there it is a matter of faith, whereas here, there is is incontrovertible proof of certain things, which means faith isn't really a requirement... There are still some disagreements on certain points, obviously, though mostly these are political points; which gets confusing, given that religion and politics are meant to be kept separate. That's the trick, though, isn't it? It's impossible for them to be kept entirely separate, with regards to education, unless one wanted to entirely abolish any form of social studies from schools. And to be sure, even I would be against that. I think it's good to teach young people to think freely, to compare different ideas, and try to understand one another. So as I say, it's complicated, and even if students are taught different views and ideas, and certainly tolerance, the lessons may well be almost imperceptibly weighted in a direction which is favorable to both the church and the state. ...I'm sorry, by 'church,' I mean First Order, though even Protestants and Independents have their own churches, don't they? See, even I fall into the trap of absently associating a vague word with a specific denomination. As for 'state', obviously that refers to the Second Order, for what else is there? Even so... the word doesn't have to refer to one specific government, in theory.

"Anyway, social studies leads inevitably to history, which I called before a relative absolute. But it's certainly not as absolute as mathematics. It's more open to interpretation. Even if certain events absolutely happened, there are at least two sides to every story, neither of which is necessarily completely right or wrong. And all is open to different opinions. And that's just when the complete truth is presented, which needn't always be the case, when history is taught in school. On the surface, students seem to be presented with a balanced view, but again, there can be subtle weighting to the side that favors the powers that be.

"So, to wrap up my extraordinarily long answer to a simple question, I just couldn't bring myself to be a part of the school system. I know some masters are specifically trying to make sure a more balanced view is presented than the texts might allow, though there's no telling how effective that will ultimately prove, and it might very well be dangerous for them. Not to say the risk isn't worth taking, but... it's not like it's my place to take it. I'm not a master of history or sociology, all I can teach is math. If it's risky for a history teacher to present an entirely unbiased perspective on things, it would be infinitely more suspicious for a math teacher to interrupt a lesson on alternate interior angles, to share his personal political views with his class. But I hardly think I could avoid doing just such a thing, to assuage the guilt I would feel at being a cog in a machine that I couldn't completely endorse.

"So, instead, I tried to keep to the old ways, privatized, personal education. Which I would be more comfortable with even if I had no concerns about the possible ulterior motives of the school system, anyway. But now, no one wants to hire freelance instructors; all the kids go to these schools. Which means, there's simply no work for me.

"But still, I do get by. Can't afford to travel anymore, so I settled in Triscot. People are kind and generous, here. Perhaps it's a touch of guilt, of the aristocracy, you know? 'There but for the grace of God go I,' that's what they say, right? So they throw me a few bits and shillings, here and there. Now and then a rumpy. Enough for food and water, and at least once a week I can afford the public baths, which is more important to me than it seems to be to many in the 'fellowship' this young lad speaks of. They'd prefer certain means of... forgetting their troubles, if you know what I mean. Personally, I'd rather smell presentable. Still, if I didn't do that, I could better afford some of life's little luxuries. I always say, 'If you can afford a bottle of birch beer, then you are in Heaven, sir.' That's what I always say, I do. Damn, I miss that stuff."

It took Darius a few moments to realize Rune had finally finished speaking. When he did grasp the fact, he replied, "Well, I'm sure I could stand you a bottle, if you like. In fact my friend and I were just on our way to a local diner to meet some other friends for a late lunch, if you want to join us...?"

"Um. You don't think they'd mind?"

Tiejo assured him, "Worry not, fellow! Used they are to me, and a street rat I be. Hmmm, yes, and one who knows the value of a good bath, just like you."

"Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt. I am a mite peckish, to tell you the truth. And it's been some while since I've been amongst proper company, you know." He struggled to his feet, but waved away the hand Tiejo offered. Once he was standing, he asked, "Ah, but... grateful I am for the offer of the beverage, but I hesitate to ask about food, as well...."

"I could handle that, though I don't think any of my friends or I will be getting anything too fancy, for the foreseeable future. We need to conserve our resources, which have recently become a bit more limited than expected. But if you're worried about accepting too much charity, you needn't concern yourself. I like what you've had to say, and it's not far removed from things I've been thinking about, myself. Believe it or not, I think at some point you might make a valuable friend and ally, for certain of my purposes; though I can't say much about that at present. Certainly, though, your words are worth a burger and fries," said Darius with a bit of a grin. "Oh... and by the way, I like parallelograms well enough, but my favorite shape was always the trapezoid."

Rune seemed convinced that it would be alright to accept the stranger's kindness, and nodded. As he and Tiejo followed Darius, Rune said, "Ah, another fine shape, the trapezoid, can't complain about that choice, young man." After a moment's silence he added, "But you are sure this diner serves birch beer, right?"


"'Eat at Dane's', the sign says," said Tom disdainfully. "Clearly, we've yet to reach the famously ritzy portions of Triscot." Everyone was seated together, at a few tables clustered by the window. Darius had said he chose a spot near the window so they might enjoy the view, but of course they all knew it was so they could keep an eye on anyone heading toward the diner, who might make trouble for them. Tom now turned to the latest addition to the group, and added a second "Clearly" to his earlier statement. But then his gaze shifted to Tiejo, and, feeling slightly ashamed, he decided to say no more. Not ashamed enough to apologize for the remark, however.

No one, including Tiejo and Rune, displayed any hint of offense. Darius, meanwhile, had been absently staring at a prohibition sign on the wall, with a picture of a t-mail bubble behind a circle-backslash. Of course, since such bubbles looked virtually identical to any number of other types of magical bubbles (or even simple beads or marbles), there was, printed below the picture, "NO T-MAIL." There was no espression on Darius's face, but inwardly, he was smiling as he remembered the first time he'd seen that sign, back in 900 or 901, when magical items first started becoming more affordable to the general public. He hadn't been coming to Dane's long, at that point, so over the next couple of years or so, the sign became inseparable from the diner itself, in his mind.

Turning to reply to Tom's comment, he said, "I've just always liked this place. I was never all that comfortable with the level of affluence with which I was raised; I tend to prefer simpler things. Not that my clan didn't live simply, compared to most other noble clans. I mean, I do have something of a taste for certain finer things, but then, I have friends who have an even greater taste for such things, though they could never afford them. It really is a shame, it seems such a waste that someone who prefers simple things should have more than enough money, while those whose tastes run more toward refinement... don't. But anyway... my friends and I used to come here when I was younger. We all liked it, and we all could afford it. There was... another acquaintance I had back then who would accuse me of 'slumming' whenever I hung out with my friends, but it wasn't like that at all, really. We just liked the same things, is all. Certain books and plays and things. Simple things that we all could afford and enjoy. Thinking back, I had rich friends who liked nice things, poor or middle class friends who longed for things they couldn't afford, while others of that class were happy with what they had, but I don't think I ever had any rich friends who were into many of life's less expensive pleasures." Darius shrugged. "Whatever their status or tastes, though, most of my friends were more just acquaintances. I only really had three people I considered close friends..." He suddenly thought of his earliest childhood friend, who he'd lost touch with eventually, and was going to mention him, but decided he'd done more than enough talking already. He often feared he was boring people, whether they themselves were bored by what he said, or not.

Alecstar, meanwhile, had been paying only minimal attention to anyone. He'd been reading a newspaper since they all sat down, and now, sensing a lull, he spoke up. "Here's something you might be interested in, Darius. You too, Jasp. Seems there's already an investigation underway concerning this 'Happiness' stuff. Growing very popular very quickly. Studies show no evidence of deleterious effects, so far."

Darius glanced in Star's direction. He had the paper open to a middle section; on the front page, Darius read a headline about the election campaigns, something concerning a new candidate he hadn't heard of, Quinn Darkstrider. He very much doubted this Darkstrider person would pose much of a threat to Demos's re-election, but it couldn't hurt to keep informed. "Can I see that when you're done? Actually there are probably a number of articles I'd like to read...."

"Of course."

"Anyway," said Jasp, leaning in toward Darius, "I just want to know if it's safe to talk about certain things, in this old haunt of yours. I've made contact with certain people since I got here, and there are some things to discuss, but..."

His head jerked almost imperceptibly in the direction of a nearby table, where a couple of employees were on break. One of them was saying, "My main job is at a bigger restaurant, and one thing that always seems weird to me is how when the servers are insanely busy, I have nothing to do, and vice versa. I understand there's a certain order to these things, but still, you'd think they'd be bringing me some dishes to wash all along, if they keep seating new people. You know, others must be leaving to make room. But no, it's nothing for an hour, then bam! A million damn dishes, all at once. And not just from the servers, but the cooks and everyone bring me all their stuff at once, too. It's kind of feast or famine, for a dish washer... But this place, it's much easier. We don't get such huge crowds." The dish washer glanced momentarily toward the Chaos party, then looked back at his friend and said with a frown, "Usually. But anyway, my point was, it gets annoying to hear people complaining of boredom, while I'm utterly swamped. As well as complaining about how busy they are, when I'm bored."

His coworker, apparently a cook, just said, "Uh-huh."

Then the owner, Dane, yelled from the counter, "Hey, Nero, back to work!"

The cook stood up and said "Later" to the dish washer. Tossing the guests a glance of his own, he looked back to his friend and said, "Your turn's coming soon, man." With a grin, he headed in back to wait for the orders to come in. The dish washer picked up a magazine, and started reading.

"You all enjoying those birch beers?" asked a waitress, who had suddenly returned to the table to see if they'd finished reading the menus yet.

"Indubitably," replied Rune with a smile.

After they'd all placed their orders, Darius turned to Jasp and said, "I'm pretty sure it should be safe, once everyone's back to work. But, we might as well wait a bit. There's somewhere I want to go after we eat, someplace that... well, I wouldn't expect anyone to be around, so it would obviously be safer to talk there."

And so, they all enjoyed a brief meal, and then prepared to follow Darius wherever he might lead. All but Rune, who parted company with them immediately after they left the diner.


Emma and Tom each had a strider; when they left the diner, Ginger joined Emma on hers, while Tom continued to ride alone. The others walked alongside those on striderback for a while, until the businesses became fewer and farther between. The further they went into the residential area, the fewer houses they encountered, and they all noticed that the fewer the houses, the higher the apparent value of each. Finally, they reached a point where there was little sign of habitation at all, aside from a highway which was largely untraveled. At this point, Darius unpacked his carpet and mounted it; the others who were on foot did likewise, except for Tiejo, who seemed to prefer to keep his feet on the ground, after a few days of flying. It was around this time that the glamours Cameron had cast upon himself and his companions, before entering the village, began to wear off.

As they traveled the main road, they saw occasional smaller roads branching off of it, and while these side roads didn't lead to anything within sight, it was obvious that the end of each one would have brought them to a different estate of some well-to-do clan or other. Finally, Darius turned onto one of the side roads, which Ginger commented looked the same to her as any other, and, lacking any obvious signs displaying either names or numbers, wondered how anyone should know which road they were looking for. Darius replied that one merely had to keep count of the roads they passed. It was simple enough for those who lived on such estates, or for mail carriers, or expected visitors; but at the same time, the lack of signs made it unlikely for uninvited guests to find any particular estate. Tom said most burglars probably wouldn't care about particulars, but Darius assured him that those who had anything worth stealing, could also afford whatever lengths were necessary to protect it.

After traveling in silence for some way, they came in sight of their destination. When they saw what had become of Darius's childhood home, however, they all came to an abrupt stop.

"Oh..." said Emma. "I... I hadn't thought. I mean, I knew, but I forgot... Oh, Darius, I'm so sorry." She had, in a vague way, been expecting to see large, ornate buildings of various sorts, scattered over the grounds. Once, there had been; not ornate, perhaps, but certainly a number of very nice buildings. Now, however, there was nothing but rubble.

Darius jumped to the ground, and stood silently surveying the land for a few moments, his right arm crooked and resting on the still-hovering carpet. Then, quietly and without turning, he replied to Emma's expression of sympathy. "Don't worry about it. You know, it's been a long time since I've been back. I always avoid this place, whenever I return to Triscot. But it looks better than the last time I was here. I suppose Mother Nature has cleaned it up, a bit."

The others all dismounted their own rides, and glanced about as they stood, stretching their legs. After allowing a centhour to pass, Cameron spoke up. "Darius... I think as soon as we got to the main road leading to various estates, we all must have figured out where you were taking us. I didn't want to say anything, but... now I feel I must. Do you really think it's safe for us to talk here, or even to be here? If the government is looking for us, wouldn't they send people here, in case we showed up? And even if they didn't, don't you think they've had an autoscry monitoring this place, ever since the end of the war? And you know you can't ask me to block any scrying, because that would be detected, itself."

Snapping out of his reverie, Darius smiled, and turned to face the ex-Sorreter. "Oh, my friend, I'm sure there are a great many things you know about the war that I do not, and much you know about magic. But there are still a few things I know that you may not, as well as things you might once have heard, that would naturally slip your mind. Things of little if any direct importance to you, but of great significance to me. How could there be anything I don't know better than anyone, about my own home? I'm sure they would like to have placed an autoscry on this estate, but they could not, nor was any blocking spell necessary to prevent it. At least, not any new spell. Soon after my clan joined the war effort, well before the final battle that razed the place, our Sorreter allies blanketed the entire estate with a magic-dampening field. If a person's magic is powerful enough, they might be able to perform a few spells here, but the effects would be greatly diminished. Even t-mail doesn't work here. I remember the day the spell was cast, I was annoyed that I would never again be able to call friends, or listen to musical recordings, or use any magical conveniences I'd grown accustomed to. I say I like simple things, but that doesn't mean I didn't appreciate some of the luxuries that money allowed my clan. Luckily, in the years since, most of those things have become much more affordable and commonplace, but they still couldn't be used here. And to be sure, remote spells like scrying would have no effect whatever, no chance to penetrate the field. So I assure you, we may speak freely, with absolute certainty that no one's eavesdropping from far away.

"However, you're right in that they might send people here to watch for us. But look around," and Darius spread his arms and turned 360 degrees, to indicate the entire surrounding area. "There's nowhere for spies to hide, and they couldn't cloak themselves magically. If they were here, we'd see them. And if anyone shows up looking for us, they won't be able to call anyone, they'd have to report their findings in person, which even on striderback, would take some time, assuming we didn't manage to stop them; certainly we'd have time to escape. So, we'll keep an eye out, and hope no one comes before we head back to town later. For now... let us talk." Turning to Jasp, he said, "I believe you had some news for us, Mr. Underground?"

"Right, I contacted our chief spy in the village, and he put me in touch with don Amalgamator, who will be getting back to me later with details of when we can meet with her in person. In fact, we should probably get back to town sooner rather than later, so that I can receive her call. I had no idea coming here would put us out of touch, and it makes me nervous. Meanwhile, a few things I can tell you-"

Just then, Tiejo interrupted. "Fellow!" he shouted, and Darius wondered if he was referring to another street rat, as he had done with Rune.

Either way, everyone looked in the direction he pointed, and saw a man walking their way. He didn't look like a street rat, nor like a member of any neighboring affluent clan. Certainly he didn't look like he was with the police or any office of the government. Still, unknown company was hardly welcome at the moment. Darius was dumbstruck by the man's sudden appearance, as if out of nowhere, in direct contradiction of his recent words about there being nowhere for spies to hide. His shock immobilized him. As he stood there, rooted in spot with his mouth hanging open, Star grabbed him by the shoulder and said with some urgency, "Listen, you all should follow me. I know a place near here that we might hide, but only for a little while. Our enemies would surely find us before long, as the location... well, it was compromised, long ago, but it may have been forgotten. It wouldn't take long for it to be remembered, though."

Darius stared at him in redoubled confusion. "You... you know a place? Near here? But-"

"Just come on!" Star began running, and Darius saw with some surprise that he ran toward the approaching stranger, but he supposed wherever Alecstar had been talking about must be in that direction, by some unlucky coincidence. Surely Star wouldn't plan to kill the man, but he might make a useful prisoner, or maybe he only wanted to get by him. Darius followed, and the others did likewise.

Alecstar drew a dagger from somewhere in his tunic as he ran, and suddenly stopped directly in front of the unexpected stranger. "Who are you? Where did you come from?" he demanded, though he already suspected the answer, at least to the latter question.

The man, who appeared to be in his mid-60s, stopped in his tracks, and blinked a few times, opening and closing his mouth. Then his eyes narrowed, and he seemed to be inspecting Star's face closely, as if slowly recognizing someone he hadn't seen in years (though in truth, he was merely reaffirming something he'd been fairly sure of before emerging in the first place). "Where did I come from? You should know that, I think. It's Major Alec, isn't it?" Suddenly, dim recognition crept into Star's own eyes, and he lowered the dagger, just a bit. "Here," continued the not-quite-stranger, "we worked together on the escape route, you and I, and some others, these eight or nine years ago. Didn't we? It may be hard for you to tell, with little remaining in the way of landmarks, but there's one of the exits, just back there a ways. You yourself have been in and out of it a number of times before, and that's where I've come from. Come to fetch you all, as it happens, though it was rather a surprise to see you here. As for 'who am I', I'm a retainer of Adam's; Sidney is my name." At this, full recollection of the man overtook Alecstar, who promptly returned his dagger to its concealed sheath. And then he stood, staring and speechless; as dumbfounded as Darius had been, mere centhours ago.

And yet now it was Darius who stepped forward, to stand beside Star and address the retainer. "Sidney! By God, man, I never thought to see you again!"

Turning to Darius, Sidney replied with an affectionate smile, "Nor I you, my lad. I must say, it's good to see you, though. You seem reasonably well, and in good company. I've read a few of your books, actually. Exciting stuff, I must say. You must tell me how faithful the fiction is to the facts; but either way, your life so far seems to have been more adventurous than mine. You know, for the most part," he added with a warm chuckle.

"Yes, of course... I'd love to spend some time talking with you. But... I don't understand what you're doing here. What's all this you were saying about an escape route?"

"Oh?" replied Sidney, a puzzled expression replacing his smile. He shifted his gaze to Star, but spoke to Darius. "So, your friend Major Alec hasn't told you? When I spied you both here together, I assumed he must be finally leading you home, after all this time." Turning back to Darius, he said, "What am I doing here, you ask? Why, still working for your father, of course."

chapter 24

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