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Chapter 33
6 Sp'mo' (We'yetday)

1

Lt. Gregory deCamp glanced at his wrist, checking his magical timepiece. Looking up again at the man sitting across the sizable desk, he said, "Excuse me, Marshal, but it's very nearly time for the rally to start. Unless you've changed your mind about viewing it in the common, we should probably set aside all other business for now, and get going."

Poss Primus sighed, staring at the mechanical clock sitting on the far right corner of his desk. He knew full well what time it was; he'd simply been delaying as long as possible (in fact, if he hadn't been waiting for the rally, he would have gone home at least two hours ago). King Demos had told him about the impending speech via t-mail a few days ago, while he was still en route to First Village. The marshal had then explained his own feeling that it would be best to wait until he'd had a chance to fully brief the monarch on recent events in the Northern Alliance. Their meeting was scheduled for Wor'ginday, two days from now; five days from the brief t-mail conversation they'd had this past Tuesday. The King had been adamant, however, about not altering his own schedule, and asked if the marshal might brief him right then, rather than waiting until he reached the capital. Primus said he had reason to doubt the security of even their most highly encoded t-mail bubbles, and would prefer to conduct the briefing in person. Then, when he'd arrived in First Village yesterday, he'd immediately called Demos (or at least his secretary, who said the King had retired for the evening). And he'd called again first thing this morning, wondering if he could reschedule their meeting for today. And again, Demos had insisted his schedule was unalterable. Too much to do in preparation for this evening's speech. Well, there was really nothing Primus could do about it. He wished he at least had some inkling of what Demos was going to say in his address. Feeling out of the loop like this didn't suit him, so he'd been in a foul mood all day. Which was not something he wanted the men and women under his command to see, so he'd remained in his office as much as possible, throughout the day.

DeCamp, of course, had been with him for years. He was as much a friend and advisor as he was an assistant, and there would have been no point in Primus's trying to hide his mood from the lieutenant. In spite of that, he was the one who, earlier in the day, had talked the marshal into joining the troops to watch the rally in the common room, rather than on the private screen in his office. Now he sat patiently, quietly, for a centhour, before once again raising his wrist to stare meaningfully at his timepiece.

Primus chuckled at that, and stood up. "Fine, I'm coming. You needn't shout like that, Lieutenant."

DeCamp smiled and said, "My apologies, Marshal. I'll try not to let it happen again."

And with that, the two of them left the office together.

2

Just as Darius and his friends reached the outskirts of town, they heard an odd crackling sound. Stopping in their tracks, they turned in the sound's direction; it appeared to be coming from a nearby post office. Alecstar was about to say something, but before he could, there was a series of three chimes, followed by a voice.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," said the voice. "I am Hubert Goodnews, editor of the Triscot Daily News, and I have the distinct pleasure and privilege of being master of ceremonies- or MC, as the kids would say- for tonight's rally, here in our fair village. There's already quite a crowd gathered here in the park, waiting for things to get under way. For those of you who can't make it here to see King Demos on the big screen, you'll still be able to hear his speech on any of the bubble-speakers which have recently been set up around the village. As I'm sure you know, every village on the Land has been equipped with at least one visual bubble-screen and many audio bubble-speakers. Details have of course been provided in various newspapers around the world, including my own; but I'm told the king will open his speech with a special announcement about this exciting new magical application. So, I won't spoil the surprise, which includes details left out of the news reports you may already have read. Following the speech, please stick around for a special concert: the first ever public performance by the Royal Orchestra. I'm sure the anticipation is fairly killing you, but fear not, Triscans, for the wait is nearly over! In just a few short centhours, King Demos Royal's speech will commence." Again there was a crackling sound, and the transmission cut out.

Darius asked, "So... what was that sound at the start and end of... that? Kind of sounded like paper being crumpled, or something."

Star said, "Just before the MC spoke, I was about to mention that. The article I read called it 'simulated static'; it's a sound effect meant to replicate the activation of mechanical speakers. Apparently the Sorreters who worked on this new system heard of such things from a spirit. Naturally, magical bubbles have no need of this noise, but it's an imperfection inherent to the technological devices of other worlds, which is being mimicked here. It's meant to give the system... character."

"Ah." With that, Darius began walking again, and the others followed.

As they got further into the village proper, there were more and more people roaming the streets. Soon, Rune announced, "Well, it's been a fun day, but I really should be going. There are places people like me can find to sleep, though space is often limited. I've a feeling there may be more vacancies than usual, if my fellow street rats are out indulging their curiosity about this speech... or availing themselves of the opportunities presented by such crowds. I hope to see you all again sometime. ...You're not going to change your faces again, are you?"

Darius grinned. "Wasn't planning on it. Anyway... have a good night."

"You as well," said Rune, as he wandered off.

Tiejo said, "Thinking I am that some opportunities I may find, as well. Not so much what Mr. Parallelogram was speaking of, but... if street rats are being about, talking to them might be good to do."

Darius nodded knowingly (and smiled inwardly). "Good idea, Tiejo. I trust you'll let me know how that goes."

Tiejo grinned conspiratorially. "Now that in the loop you are being, my friend, of course. Finding you I will later, perhaps, somewhere in viewing range of bubble-screen..." And with that, he scampered off.

Darius, Star, Tom, and Jasp continued on their way, though the going was getting slower as the crowd continued to thicken. Many groups had opted to cluster around various bubble-speakers, which made Darius fear it was already too late for his group to get close enough to see the bubble-screen, and he wondered if they, too, would have to settle for listening to the speech. Though another part of him preferred the idea; as it was, he was feeling more and more uncomfortable with even these outlying pockets of people. The thought of getting mixed up in the far greater crowd that was surely in the park right now filled him with a certain degree of dread. Still, he reminded himself both that he needed to get over such feelings, and that he was quite capable of dealing with large crowds if it was for the purposes of entertainment. After all, World Fairs were more crowded than this, and he'd enjoyed the third one... more or less.

As they passed one group of people who were gathered outside a restaurant, they once again heard the simulated static, followed by the chimes. But the voice that came next was not that of Hubert Goodnews. It said, "Good evening, my loyal subjects! I am Demos Royal, which those of you watching on screens around the world can see; perhaps I don't look quite as good as the drawings or portraits you may have seen, but I trust I'm at least recognizable." There was some chuckling from the group Darius and his friends had paused beside. Then the king continued, "Those of you listening on speakers, well, and those watching, too, I'm sure most of you have never heard my voice. Anyway, you'll certainly have plenty of chances to see and hear me, in the future. I'm going to be speaking tonight about a number of topical issues, but before I get into that, I'm here to officially inaugurate the Land's first public address system; or 'PA system,' for short. And I do know a thing or two about inaugurations." More laughter from the crowd. "As you may know, there are now public bubble-screens set up in every village, along with bubble-speakers throughout each village. This system may be used for any important public announcements, both by federal officials such as myself, and by local officials on matters internal to each village. Also, a deal has been struck with various newspapers to utilize this system for the 'bubblecasting' of news. Mostly this will be audio only, though there may occasionally be visual newsreels- an Earth term, if you'll think about it; though we choose to borrow the word, obviously our magically recorded video won't be in reel form. Anyway, there will also be bubblecasts of debates and campaign messages; being the reigning king, it's only natural that I have the honor of the first such address, but be assured, all candidates, federal and local, will be given equal time using the PA system.

"But now for something I'm sure you'll all find far more interesting than politics..." Again there were a few chuckles, which led Darius to wonder to himself whether these people understood that Demos couldn't actually hear them. "As you may have heard, after my address tonight, you'll be treated to a concert by the Royal Orchestra, which has never before performed for the benefit of commoners. I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do. However, this is just the first of many such entertainment usages of the PA system. It may also be used for the bubblecasting of concerts by various musical groups, and talks are under way to set up stations for the bubblecasting of pre-recorded music, as well."

Darius exclaimed suddenly, "This is incredible! Cameron and I were talking about this very sort of thing, awhile back! Star, I think... you people in the Band all talked about radio together at some point, didn't you?"

"Yes. I suppose Cameron may be disappointed that he's too late to invent it himself, but... I'm sure he'll be interested in hearing about this, anyway."

Meanwhile, Demos was still talking, and Darius had missed a bit of what he'd said. "-plays may be seen around the world. And like the music stations, there will also be stations for bubblecasting pre-recorded video programs. Of course, magic is not quite the same thing as the technology used on worlds like Earth, but I'm sure you've all heard of movies. I hope you share my excitement at the idea of such media finally coming to the Land. While music bubblecasts will be free, admission will be charged to see movies on the bubble-screens, but I think you'll find it worth the price."

There were cheers from the small crowd outside the restaurant, and excited murmuring. Darius couldn't help smiling, himself. He said, "I certainly look forward to that. But to get a taste of it, I really think we should continue on to the park, and try to see the screen. Hopefully we won't miss anything too important on the way, but I suspect there will be enough speakers scattered around that we'll never be out of hearing range for long."

As they came within sight of the outskirts of the park, Darius could see he'd been right to be worried; the crowd here was indeed quite large. Plenty of people were struggling to see the screen, and many seemed to have given up entirely, resigned to merely hearing the speech like all the smaller crowds throughout the village. Of course, even that could be problematic, as there were any number of people who were talking, making it difficult to hear the bubble-speakers. Darius and his companions continued walking along the outside edge of the crowd, hoping if not to find an opening to move closer to the screen, at least to find some higher ground.

"This really shouldn't be called an amphitheatre," said Star. "The proper term is actually 'bandshell,' which personally-"

"Yes, yes, of course," Tom cut in. "I can certainly appreciate someone in a band liking any term with 'band' in the name. But I do think it might be advantageous if they eventually get around to building an actual amphitheatre here. Or maybe even a fully enclosed building. Either way, I think such a thing will be necessary, if they intend to charge admission for movies. But I suppose for present purposes, they wouldn't have had time for anything so elaborate."

"Agreed," said Darius. "At least if there were a specific number of seats, one would know with certainty whether or not they'd be able to see the show. And if there's one phrase I absolutely can't stand, it's 'standing room only.' ...Heh, now that I say that, it sounds kind of ironic. 'Can't stand standing.' Eh?"

Tom groaned; the others ignored the comment.

Darius had closed his eyes for a moment, lowered and shook his head, as he sometimes did when amused. Consequently, he bumped into someone, which caused him to immediately open his eyes and step back. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, suddenly blushing slightly. He was glad it was somewhat dim, and hoped the stranger wouldn't notice his reddened cheeks.

She said, in a voice which was at once cheerful and strained, "Don't worry, bumping into people can't really be helped, in situations like this. It's funny, I never was a big fan of crowds, but now I can never get away from one."

Darius stood and stared, unsure what she meant. He felt like he should say something, but had no idea what. So, he simply said, "Uh..."

The stranger smiled and shook her head. "Sorry. Um, my name's Lauren Whitecorn; this is my husband, Johann. You've probably had some of his tortilla chips; they're served in pretty much all the restaurants around Triscot, as well as being available in many markets, both here and, increasingly, in other villages."

"Hi," said Johann, absently.

Darius had always been particularly uncomfortable around people who thought that just because they came into random contact with someone, they had to introduce themselves. It seemed to him that Johann might well feel the same way. But he didn't want to be rude to Lauren, so he said, "Uh, hi. I'm Darius."

"I suppose you must wonder what I meant by never getting away from a crowd." She reached out and gathered several children closer to her, and called out to another, "Herschel, come here!" Turning back to Darius, she said, "These are our children, Suzu, Anastasia, Mireille, Ulrich, Ricardo, and Herschel."

"Wow, that is a crowd," said Darius.

"Our youngest, Vladimir, is at home with a sitter."

"Um, so..." he trailed off, hoping to sound interested enough not to be rude, but not so interested that Lauren would feel compelled to continue the conversation much further. He doubted he could possibly succeed in this hope.

"Yes, and we should be having more, before too long! My friends all think we're too ambitious, but I always say, our world is relatively young, yet. I mean, half a million people may sound like a lot, but older worlds have billions, at least! Can you imagine? It makes a crowd like the one watching the speech here seem pretty insignificant."

"I guess."

"Anyway, in the old days, I mean the really old days, it wasn't uncommon for people to have large families, but in the last century or two, at least, I think people have been easing off, feeling the population has started growing too quickly. Of course, they say, it was important for a long time, because there were so few people, but now there's so many... But really, it's not actually that many. When you think of how much of the world is still unexplored, unsettled... surely many more villages will need to be founded, for centuries to come. And for that, we need lots more people. I think it's much too soon to be cutting back on the size of families. And especially when you consider the elves... obviously they're still a much younger race than we are, so their families still tend to be quite large. I think they're trying to catch up with us, even though we were around for several centuries before they were. But if they keep outpacing us, it may not take long before they outnumber us. Sure, right now they account for what, about two percent of the world's population? As opposed to humanity's ninety-six percent... but what if they continue having large families and humans continue the current trend of small ones-"

"I suppose you don't worry about the merfolk population, which has increased even more quickly than that of elves?"

She waved her hand dismissively, "Well, of course, humans and elves can't live in the seas or oceans, so what does it matter?"

"I'm not sure what... any of this matters, if you don't mind my saying. I mean... you're not, like... racist, or anything, are you?"

"Racist?" She took a moment to let her subword sense kick in, then suddenly her eyes widened and she hurriedly replied, "Oh, heavens, no! Perish the thought. Of course I've nothing against any sentient race." She laughed nervously before adding, "Well, I mean, I can see where it might sound that way. In all honesty, though, I don't mind if the sentient races reach an equilibrium, not at all. And I'm not saying I would feel any sort of... tangible insecurity, being a minority, if it came to that. I'm just saying, well I mean after all, humans are the race created by God, and all. Not that that makes us inherently superior, or anything, but..." Her face got flushed, which Darius noticed, and made him realize he'd ceased feeling embarrassed about having bumped into her.

"Of course not," he said. "Don't worry about it. Anyway, look... my friends and I are trying to catch the show, so, if you'll excuse us..."

"Of course! No, I'm sorry to have distracted you!" She turned around, motioning for her family to do the same, and started walking away. Johann glanced over his shoulder and cast a look at Darius that he supposed was meant to say 'Sorry.'

Darius looked at his friends and said, "Well, that was random." With a shrug, he turned back toward the screen, which was still out of sight. But at least there were speakers nearby, from which he could hear Demos saying something about internal enchantment engines.

"...Until now people have simply learned to drive wagons or other forms of transportation, on land or air, and it was expected that they wouldn't be doing so unless they knew what they were doing. But with the advent of this new technology, my opponents in the upcoming election are advocating the establishment of a governmental department to administer licenses which one would have to obtain before being allowed to drive anything at all. Not just the newer IEE vehicles, but older models as well, whether powered by striders or magic. Even things people have driven for centuries with no problems, for the most part. You may recall there was talk of such licenses back in 902, before the Second Order even existed. I did my part back then to preserve the freedom of the people to drive, and I intend to do so now. Naturally, my opponents will have their time to tell their side of the issue, and you'll be free to make up your own minds."

"Wow," said Darius, "I'm definitely torn on that one. I kind of hate the idea, on a certain level, but on another level, I suspect it makes sense. I might actually say that... the fact that Demos is against the idea of driving licenses, that kind of tips my opinion in favor of such a thing."

"Eh," said Jasp, "I'm torn, too. But hey, the more things that become illegal, the more opportunities there'll be for the gangs to make a profit, somehow or other."

"I wonder," said Tom, "if this question of licenses is related to the agency Cameron mentioned when telling us of the IEEs, about the government approving new magics or inventions."

"Might be related," said Darius, "though it doesn't sound like quite the same thing. One would assume that if a person was to be granted a license to drive an IEE vehicle, the engine itself would first have to have been approved for use, by the potential agency he was talking about. What this makes me wonder, actually, is if the establishment of licenses is some kind of compromise the powers that be worked out in exchange for allowing the engine's manufacturers to put their product on the market. Or rather, keep it there, since some such vehicles are already in operation."

"...several proposed new agencies," Demos was saying, "for different types of products. One would exist to determine the safety of any new drugs before they'd be allowed to come on the market, as well as determining whether existing drugs should continue to be allowed. Now, don't worry, alcohol's not going to be outlawed, that's a foregone conclusion, no matter who you vote for. Though certain limits might be placed upon its usage, especially when driving. Whether or not licenses are made mandatory, not using alcohol while driving is something even I agree with. There's such a thing as too much freedom, if it means endangering yourself or those around you. Luckily, so far it seems most people have sense enough to not drink and drive, but there have been a few alcohol-related accidents, over the years. And many other drugs are far more problematic. Yet, until now, there have never been any specific laws regulating their use. Nevertheless, many reputable apothecaries have refused to sell any drugs they personally deemed unsafe, which has led to people obtaining such drugs from gangs. As much as you may be wary of certain things being outlawed, the reverse may also be true. To wit, if the agency declares certain previously illicit drugs to be safe, as long as directions for their use are followed, it may become more likely to get them from legitimate sources, thus decreasing the profits of gangs, and granting greater freedom to decent citizens, rather than taking away freedoms you've always taken for granted."

"Wonder what such an agency would say about Happiness," Darius mused.

"So do I," said Jasp. "Though it might be interesting to see if our apothecary who developed it could take out a patent. And whether his personal profits selling the formula to other apothecaries might be funneled back to LandOrder. Of course, Demos has ties to various gangs, so... even if he has to maintain a public appearance of being against them all, he must have worked out some angle to keep everyone happy. I should make some inquiries about that...."

"Well, no offense, Chief Underground," said Tom, "but my own main concern here is that drugs tend to be bad news." Glancing at Darius, he amended, "'Cept for alcohol. Generally speaking."

"As you said before, when I first picked up a sample of Happiness. So, it makes sense to me if you're in favor of a new government agency that would regulate drugs. But on the other hand, that attitude would seem to totally go against your attitude from an even earlier conversation- before you joined us, Jasp- wherein you said you were against the government sticking its fingers in every pie."

"Yeah, well... you know, I wasn't thinking about drugs, at that time. So, whatever. Am I not allowed to make up my mind about different things on a case by case basis?"

"Oh, by all means. Though come to think of it, at the time, we were applying the idea of such agencies specifically to magic, and in an earlier conversation still, I got the impression you weren't fond of magic, so by that logic-"

Tom cut him off by saying, "Yes, if you say so. There, I said it. You probably knew I would. If you say so, I make contradictory statements sometimes. Don't always consider every possible angle of whatever topic is at hand. Bloody sue me, then. This whole question of agencies, departments, whatever... it's all new, so of course I haven't had time to think out my opinions on every possible consequence of such agencies, all the pros and cons. If I have to be honest, the truth is I often just say whatever's in my head at any given time, and sometimes... my thoughts are inconsistent. Can't be helped."

Darius grinned. "Sue you? On the contrary, I don't think I've ever liked you more. My own thoughts are nothing if not inconsistent. I may not like that about myself one bit, but oddly enough, I've often noticed that the things I can't stand about myself can be things I like very much about others. Not sure why; maybe it's just that it makes me feel less alone, knowing I'm not so different, after all."

Tom just grunted.

Star spoke up now, saying, "If you're all quite finished, you've been making me miss what Demos was saying. Jasp, did you catch any of the last bit? I think I heard the word 'Syndicate.'"

Jasp was frowning. "So did I. But like you, I didn't hear much else."

"Sorry," said Darius. "I'll shut up for now."

"I as well," said Tom. "Though I do feel like it's a bit quieter here without Tiejo around..."

3

Scamper, scamper, scamper! went through Tiejo's head as he darted up and down various streets and alleys throughout the village, constantly turning his head to look in every direction, hoping to spot fellow street rats. Of course, he wasn't expecting to spot too many in the nicer sections of town, and in a place like Triscot, there weren't many bad sections. Still, every village he'd ever been to had its share of 'rats; and while he hadn't personally been to every village on the Land, he'd heard that the only two villages completely lacking in 'rats of any classification were Monab and Woodstockade. As this thought crossed his mind, he wondered- not for the first time- why it should be that there apparently weren't any elven 'rats, just human ones. Maybe because there were few enough of their race that there were still plenty of jobs to go around, though somehow that explanation just felt vaguely insufficient to him to account for the fact. Assuming it truly was a fact that there were no elven 'rats; of course one couldn't believe everything one heard. However, the thought of elves brought his mind around to the Land's third sentient race, merfolk, and he wondered if there were any 'rats among their kind. Perhaps he should ask some of his dock rat friends if they knew of any merfolk rats, and what they might specifically be called. Water rats? Sea rats? Aqua rats? Mer rats? He began grinning as the possibilities swirled in his mind. Or maybe they'd be named after some aquatic animal, rather than a land-based one like actual rats, though he hoped they'd stick to the traditional terminology.

He shook his head, and as he did so reflected that that's a bit of an odd thing to do when one's head is already always moving back and forth to scan one's surroundings. He wondered if anyone looking at him would even notice a difference; perhaps there wasn't one, actually, but only seemed to him to be because he had meant to shake his head, and therefore perceived it to be so. Again he shook his head; he had done so the first time to return his focus to his present purpose, and stop thinking about... mer rats. He did it the second time to stop thinking about shaking his head. Which he then began thinking was ironic, and almost shook his head a third time to prevent himself from going off on a mental tangent about irony. But instead, he just started grinning again, then wondering when he'd stopped grinning, which he realized he must have done if he now restarted doing it. Mind is being too wandery, he thought. Should to be thinking simple, undistracting thoughts. Scamper, scamper, scamper! That's the ticket!

To the outside observer, if anyone cared enough about a scampering street rat to bother observing him, Tiejo's route might well have seemed erratic and random. However, Triscot was one of the several villages he'd spent some time in, over the years, and he knew the streets reasonably well. So, there was a method to the paths he chose, and he managed to quickly cover quite a lot of ground, in a surprisingly efficient pattern. Moreover, all his zigging and zagging was steadily bringing him closer to one particular section of town with which he was particularly familiar. An area on the outskirts, on the side opposite that of the noble estates such as that of Darius's clan. It was here he thought it most likely to find street rats, and as he approached the nearest street in this district, he wondered if he might run into Rune, or anyone the old math master might know. Though he also was aware that there were places for 'rats to stay even in the nicer districts, and imagined Rune was the type to prefer such places over the ones to be found here. Still, one never knew. He found himself wishing he'd thought to ask Rune earlier if he might introduce him to some rats. Tiejo, of course, had his own acquaintances among the street rats, wood rats, river rats, and hill rats of Triscot, but it never hurt to utilize all the resources at one's disposal. He sighed, thinking, Nothing I can be doing about it now, unless seeing him again I am.

He slowed his pace as he entered the district which, while easily the worst in Triscot, was still at least as good as many of the nicer districts in a place like Tonad, for example. As he walked, he passed small groups of people gathered around bubble-speakers. He didn't notice any 'rats among the first few groups he saw; in this section of town, people knew well enough to be on guard against pickpockets, and so any 'rats looking to make some money tonight would be "working" in the more affluent districts, where not only were there bigger crowds to provide cover for such endeavors, but just as importantly, people tended to pay less heed to the safety of their purses. (And it didn't hurt that those purses tended to contain more and often larger denomination coins than in this part of town.) Tiejo caught snippets of Demos's speech, as he had now and then throughout his earlier run through town. Finally, he spied a group of people who were easily recognizable as 'rats, though in some other villages they might well have passed for peasants. Rune Parallelogram once again crossed Tiejo's mind as he thought that one good thing about Triscot's street rats was that they were more likely than those of other villages to visit the bath houses. And not just to swipe patrons' unattended clothes or purses.

He casually walked up to the group and said, "Greetings."

"Well met, sir," said one of the street rats absently.

"Wondering I was if I might-"

"Soft, gentle sir."

Tiejo paused in some confusion as to what the 'rat meant by 'soft.' After a few seconds, he hesitantly ventured, "I'd like-"

"Anon! Attend we now to the oratory of our lord, via yon charmed orb. For the nonce, prithee be at peace."

Tiejo detected a note of irritation in the other's voice, though he still got the sense that if he waited, the 'rat might be amenable to hearing what he had to say. He was even more certain that if he kept talking, the other's irritation would increase. So, for the... nonce (and here his subword sense kicked in to indicate 'present')... Tiejo decided to just be patient, and join the others in listening to the bubble-speaker.

"...Such new agencies," came King Demos's voice, "and the new laws which would come with them, in spite of the greater freedoms I mentioned, would indeed have the potential of creating new crimes. And crime is already, regrettably, at an all-time high. Our nation's police have their hands full, trying to deal not only with individual crimes and criminals, but the ever more powerful gangs. There are those who say we have insufficient funds to increase the numbers of our police forces, and so private citizens should take a more active role in defending their neighborhoods. Most prominent among the groups which are already active in such efforts is the Syndicate, a completely unofficial organization which has the support of one of my opponents in the upcoming election, Quinn Darkstrider. He believes the police should begin working with the Syndicate, thereby giving their actions a legitimacy they do not currently enjoy. However, I must respectfully disagree. While I appreciate the concerns of both the police and the citizens whom they don't always have the manpower to protect, and therefore honestly believe many people within the Syndicate and other such groups have the best of intentions, I cannot help but think that legitimizing their efforts would only serve, in the long run, to engender an atmosphere of vigilantism among the Land's citizens. Groups such as the Syndicate are much the same as those that led to the establishment of official police departments over six centuries ago. As such, it's tempting to think there is no real difference between vigilantes and police, or to think the modern groups are just honoring history. However, much has changed in the world since those days. Even then, people realized there was too much potential for people to commit crimes in the name of upholding the law, if there were not some kind of regulation to justice. And now, the world is a far larger and more complex place than it was then. If people want to help fight crime, they should simply join the police, or at least call the proper authorities if they witness a crime. They should not attempt to take the law into their own hands, nor should the government or the police encourage them to do so.

"But, as I said, we don't have enough funds to increase the police's manpower. There are various proposed solutions to this, ways of reallocating the funds already available. Another of my opponents, Jared Localpride, puts forth the proposition that we should eliminate the military, pointing out that our world went for just over nine hundred years before we had our first war, or anything like a military. Perhaps we were just lucky in the past, that village never turned against village, or perhaps it was because Landians are by nature not a warlike people. Either way, there is now but one nation, thus no apparent enemies. Of course, the solution of spending money on the police rather than the military seems impossible to begin with, since the police are employed by villages, while the military is employed by the federal government. But, it has been argued that if the government didn't maintain a standing military, it would require less national taxes, and local taxes could therefore be increased. Those making this argument also say money could be saved in the short run by providing minimal training to new police, as such, relying to an extent on the training which the army has already given its soldiers and officers. Because, obviously, if the military were disbanded, that would be a lot of people in need of finding new jobs... and they'd be the perfect people to be hired by the police departments, once they had their budgets expanded. I have to admit, I do enjoy a certain irony, considering that when the army was being raised, much of its training came from the police.

"On the other hand, some feel it is still necessary to maintain our military at its current level, because however much peace may seem a foregone conclusion at this point... it seemed just as certain until the war of 903 was actually upon us. So, one must be prepared for any eventuality, however unlikely it may seem. Besides which, they say, the idea of raising local taxes is infeasible, even if federal taxes are lowered, because most people, even if they enjoy lowered taxes in the one case, will nevertheless be unwilling to accept raised taxes in the other. It's only human nature to feel one's being treated unfairly. Soon enough, people will forget how much they once paid federally, and see only how little they once paid locally.

"I must say my own feeling is, as yet, not determined with any precision. I would certainly not suggest disbanding the military entirely, for any number of reasons. But when you consider there are currently about fifteen thousand men and women serving in the Army and nearly nine thousand in the Navy, which together amounts to about five percent of the world's population... it does seem a bit excessive. A great deal of thought must yet go into the matter, but I do believe most likely the budget for the armed services will have to be reduced. As to whether this leads to lowered taxes nationally or increased taxes locally, it's too early to say. In the meantime, I urge you to think what legitimizing the Syndicate could mean. It means people with no training and little if any oversight would be allowed to bear arms against anyone, and be given the benefit of the doubt, over the claims of whomever they may act against. Certainly, members of such a group would undergo little or no screening prior to admission, unlike the police, who are carefully examined before being hired, and who are bound by strict regulations to ensure they do not overstep their authority. It would be sad indeed if a group like the Syndicate, which- as I say- was started with the intention of making people feel safer, instead ended up making honest citizens frightened that they might be accused of a crime they didn't commit, and possibly even executed without due process."

After pausing for a few seconds, Demos smiled and concluded, "But, I've droned on long enough, I'm sure you're tired of my voice by now. And even more importantly, this should be a festive occasion, the inaugural use of the PA system. I fear I've been encumbering you all with unpleasant thoughts. As important as it may be to give these matters their due consideration, for now I hope you'll chase such cares from your minds and hearts, and return to them at a later date. Time now, my beloved subjects, for the promised concert. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Royal Orchestra!"

The king held out his hands to his right, and the image panned away from the throne, settling on the orchestra pit along the left wall of the throne room. The music started slowly and quietly, but it soon rose in both volume and tempo.

At this point, the assembled street rats turned away from the bubble-speaker (though, given that it didn't include a screen, there had been really no reason to look at it, everyone had), and now faced Tiejo, instead. "Gramercy," said the one who had spoken earlier. "I must apologize if I was short with thee ere now; I hope thou doest not bear me hard. I fear it would not be meet to have ignored such an auspicious event as that to which we have just hearkened. Obliged we are to thee for thy consideration, and now, grace for grace, we would fain hear thy sounding. Speak as thou list; we are thy humble audience."

Roughly four competing chains of thought were presently at the forefront of Tiejo's mind. The first was his attempt to decide what all Demos had said might mean for the Chaos, but he quickly abandoned that as a matter better left to Darius and the others, who had presumably been listening to the speech just as he had. The second concerned his desire to focus his attention on the music now emanating from the speaker; this was, naturally, his first chance in life to hear orchestral music, and already he could tell he liked it. He wanted to hear more, and didn't know if or when the opportunity would ever arise again, so he was moderately annoyed by the fact that it would be relegated to the background of the conversation now starting. Moreover, he thought that if he'd been willing to wait until the other street rats were ready to talk, they should be willing to wait until he himself was ready. However, he didn't want to seem rude, nor did he want to risk once again losing their attention; his business was more important than listening to music. The third thing occupying his mind was his subword sense's attempt to clarify the meaning of bits of what the other had said just now. He'd gotten the gist of it quickly enough, from the familiar words. But the less familiar ones were giving him some trouble, and he realized it was because, as Rune had mentioned the other day, Landian speech was currently equivalent to the speech of Earth when the Land had been created nine centuries ago, whereas some of the words this street rat was using were from some centuries earlier. It was always easiest for the subword sense to work not merely with Terran languages rather than those of other worlds, but with the styles of speech contemporary to... He shook his head. Thinking about all that was wasting time and effort. (Though he did make a mental note to talk about this with Emma later, as her subword sense was the most finely tuned of anyone he'd ever met.) But what was important at the moment was the fourth item on his mind, which was, of course, the business for which he had sought out these people in the first place.

"Uh... I would fain... speak with all of thee, or is it thou?" As tricky as this was, it occurred to Tiejo that if he had more time to get the hang of it, he could have a great deal of fun with such speech; in fact, he thought, it could end up sounding quite 'Tiejoish,' as Tom might say. "Hmmm, begging your pardon I am being, thinking I am you must to be understanding normal speech, not that my speech is being all that much normal-like, but hoping I am that at least... hmmm. Well, that you understand it, yes. Great fun is your speaking, and an effort I shall make one day to join in the fun of it. But now it is being more important to Tiejo- that is, to me, I am Tiejo Streetrat, hello. Pleased to be making your acquaintance-"

Before he could continue, the one who had thus far done all the speaking bowed and cut in, "The Vole, at thy service." Unbending, he clarified, "Not my given name, as thou might well aim, but 'tis how I style myself. I've never thought to add an Order-name, but if thou wilt, thine own 'Streetrat' wouldst seem as meet for me as it doth for thee." He grinned and shrugged, adding, "'Tis all one."

Tiejo wasn't quite sure what the Vole meant by that, but it sounded like what he'd been talking to Darius about the night they first met. "Yes, a fellowship are we all, whether met or unmet. Many street rats have I met over the years, and many are calling themselves 'Streetrat' as a common Order-name. Not all, but many. Some bother not, and some choose other names. In fact a street rat I met recently who 'Parallelogram' calls himself. Knowing him, are you?"

"'Parallelogram,' thou sayest?" He rubbed his chin. "Nay, I think not, but a witty appellation I find it, forsooth! If fortune fashions it, I fain would acquaint myself with this fellow. Or if not, not. A side issue, no doubt. Certes thou came not to talk of names. Prithee, continue."

Tiejo nodded. "A side issue, as you say. Regardless of names, of a fellowship are all street rats being. 'Rats all, forsooth, whether of dock or hill or wood or river. As I said, many have I met, and many more I fain would meet... if fortune fashions it so. But trusting not strictly to fortune am I being, but rather making it so myself, if I can. Friends I am having- though not more 'rats, these- who have promised to help me rescue my master, who imprisoned is in Near Port, unjustly, by the Order. But more plans have my friends than the rescue of my master; this is being but the first mission of their own little fellowship. Higher ambitions they have, though the precise nature is somewhat in flux, unformed. Their own quarrels they are having with the Order; or as they like to specify, the Second Order. In exchange for their help with my problem, I am doing what I can to help them with theirs. Grace for grace?"

"An honorable enterprise, so it seems, at least for thy part. But as yet I wot not what their part entails, though I may aim at their ambitions. I wonder if it is altogether meet to speak of such matters as openly as thou doth."

"But surely, most 'rats have no love for the Order. Poorly treated have we generally been by them."

"Forsooth. But did thou not just now come upon us listening with rapt attention to the words of our king? How thinkest thou not that we may be among those same 'loyal subjects' he addressed?"

Tiejo thought of getting nervous at this point, but instead grinned and cocked his head to one side. "It could be so. And yet, it also could being that you are thinking... forewarned is forearmed. Wise it is being to know one's enemy, yes? If nothing else, you might listen merely the better to mock him."

The Vole replied, "It might be as thou sayest... or it might be as I suggested. The point I was making is that thou hast no way of wotting which be sooth."

"Perhaps," said another of the street rats, "he is of quick mettle, and a good judge of character."

"Or perhaps," suggested a third, "he is merely brainsick."

Tiejo grinned and asked, "Can it not being both?"

All the 'rats laughed at that, and the Vole clasped Tiejo on the shoulder. "I like thee, my good bawcock. If I might take aim at thine own purpose, I daresay thou wishest to recruit us to thy friends' high-sighted ambitions. To build up their fellowship by borrowing from ours. Is it not so?"

Tiejo nodded. "Forsooth, thine aim is true. I ask not for any immediate action on your part. Just... wherever we go, my friends and I, talking to 'rats I am, asking if they are willing to act in some undefined way at some unspecified point in time, if call upon their aid I ever do."

The Vole stood for a time just resting his eyes on Tiejo, with a subtle and ambiguous smile playing on his lips. Finally, he glanced around him at the faces of his own friends, to get a sense of how they felt about the matter. It was clear to him, as usual, that they would go along with whatever he decided.

But just as he was about to speak, a small group of teenagers approached. As they stopped in front of the assembled street rats, one of them said, "Hey there. Got a proposition for you guys. You interested?"

The Vole studied the newcomers, and replied, "From thine attire, I wouldst judge thee to be of the nobility. What wouldst thou of those such as us?"

The noble who had spoken now blinked in surprise, then grinned, as some of his friends snickered.

The Vole narrowed his eyes and asked, "How now? Whence derivest thee thy merriment?"

"Uh, sorry. It's just... that Shakespearean stuff is so last year."

When he heard the young noble say this, Tiejo though to himself, I was in Plist last year. No one talked that way there. Maybe it's just a Triscot thing. Hmmm, wondering I am if these 'rats are the people Rune was talking about, or if he'd heard such speech from young nobles, before any 'rats ever picked it up.

For the few moments it took these thoughts to run through Tiejo's head, the Vole had been glaring at the nobles. However, he now softened his expression slightly and said, "It may be as thou sayest. Oft times the cultural tides do but slowly trickle down to our own shores, owing to our lamentable sequestration from higher society. Prithee, however, stay thy laughter, for surely it is meet that we in our turn shouldst play the games which by others have since been abandoned. If thou wilt show us such consideration, I then ask thee again, what wouldst thou of us?"

"Well, the thing is... it's about Happiness. You know of it? There aren't any laws against it, but still, it's pretty hard to come by, in Triscot. The police around here tend to keep a strict eye out for its distribution, like they expect any day there will be a law against it. So they... discourage it. And if they saw any of us buying some, they couldn't really do anything to us, but they'd quite possibly call our parents, which could lead to some irritating hassles for us. Besides which, it's not like any of us really want to deal with gangsters, anyway. So we just thought... well, since this is an area which isn't patrolled that much by the police, maybe... you might know where we could get some? I mean, I've heard from some friends in other villages that it's pretty good stuff, and really has no negative side effects..."

"So, thou tirest of one trend, and simply hasten on to another."

"Uh, I guess. So, do you have any, or what?"

The Vole shook his head. "Not a whit. My fellows and I traffic not in such vile poisons. Rather, we find what sport we can with our natural wits. I wouldst suggest thou doest likewise."

One of the other nobles clucked her tongue and said, "See, Lars, I told you appealing to this gutter trash would be a waste of time. Of course they wouldn't have anything worth buying; if they did, they wouldn't be homeless, now would they? Besides, if they're just now getting into last year's trend, how could they possibly be expected to already be into something au currant like Happiness? Maybe we should try again next year, though by then I'm sure no one who's anyone will be using the stuff anymore."

"Nay!" exclaimed the Vole emphatically, "Return thee not next year, nor ever, thou churlish jackdaws! Aroint thee!"

A couple of the nobles drew daggers, which prompted all of the street rats (except Tiejo) to do the same. The Vole calmly advised the nobles, "Do not seek to engender our ire; I assure thee, if thou testeth our mettle, thine own shalt be found wanting."

Lars, the spokesman of the young nobles, allowed himself a wry smile, turned to his friends and motioned for them to sheathe their knives. As they did so, he said, "Come, fellows... let's away. Forsooth, it was an unadvisŤd disposition which led us to seek audience with such varlets as these. I much commend fair Angelica for her foresight, and the more fool I for failing to attend her wise counsel ere now."

"But," said one of the others (the first to have drawn his dagger, and the last to have put it away), "they insulted us. We can't let that slide; leaving now would be like saying we really think they could take us in a fight. We could totally take them, Lars."

The leader's grin widened as he said, "Certes. But to engage in battle with such baubles would be much ado about," and glancing over his shoulder at the street rats as he began to walk away, he rolled his eyes and concluded, "nothing."

His friends now laughed and turned to walk away with him, as the street rats shouted "Fie!" at their backs.

Once the nobles were out of sight, the street rats sheathed their own knives, and the Vole turned back to Tiejo, who wondered whether he should tell his new friend that Darius used Happiness. Is honesty the best policy he asked himself, or is discretion, in this case, the better part of valor? Before he could decide, however, the Vole said, "So... where were we? Or... where werest we? Nay, that soundeth not meet... Um...."

"Devil take it!" exclaimed one of the rats. "Maybe we should just quit that whole game. It was fun for awhile, talking like that, but it's bloody hard. It just doesn't come natural."

Another chimed in with, "Yeah, besides, Shakespeare peppered his his flowery speech with all sorts of analogies that would make no sense on the Land. Tooblan did his share of writing in that style, with analogies which presumably did make sense here, but even still I never got most of it, being untaught, and all. So if we're gonna be 'meet' about it, we should at least try to make up our own metaphors or whatever, rather than just, like, trying to copy some of the basics ad nauseam. But that'd be even harder than what we've been doing, which, as Spike said, is already hard enough."

"Right," said Spike, "thanks, Dean. And anyway, Vole, what's the point if the trend was over before it even reached us? I hate to say it, but maybe those jerks were right to laugh."

"Feh," replied the Vole, "I bite my thumb at thee!" And after saying so, he actually did it, though he then immediately began laughing. "Ah, kidding! Okay, fine. We can stop. I'll admit, as much as I enjoyed it, I did sometimes feel it was a bit too much pressure, to no real purpose. Still, I doubt not that I shall continue to occasionally mix a few 'thees' and 'thous' into my speech."

Tiejo was a bit disappointed by this turn of events; he'd been looking forward to getting better at such talk, himself, but there seemed no point if he'd be the only one left on the Land who did so. Ah well, he thought, back to plain ol' Tiejo-speak. However, he did suddenly remember one question he'd meant to ask the Vole. "Um, but... wondering I was, you called the nobles, I think... 'jackdaws,' was it? Was that not what you called Tiejo, a bit earlier?"

"Hmmm?" The Vole rubbed his chin and thought back over the conversation. "Oh, no, I called you 'bawcock.' It means 'fine fellow.' Jackdaw, on the other hand... eh, I dunno, I just think it's a kind of insult. Refers to some sort of bird. I know not if it exists on the Land, or whether either Shakespeare or Tooblan ever mentioned it, but... I think I heard the term somewhere, in a negative light." He shrugged and added, "I just like the sound of it."

"Not that it really matters," said Dean, "'cause really, that style of speech, at least here on the Land, is supposed to mix together various old-fashioned styles, not just Shakespeare, or whatever."

Tiejo nodded and said, "Well, anyway, supposing I am that a fine fellow or bawcock should not to be withholding relevant informations. Clearly you are disdaining of this Happiness drug, so letting you know I should that one of my friends has tried the stuff, and liking it he is. Hoping I am this will not to be dissuading you from joining our cause... though of course, not saying yet have you been whether or not intend you do to offer any help."

The Vole laughed again and said, "Eh, no worries. I wouldn't wanna try the stuff, myself, but as long as a person doesn't abuse it, there's probably no harm. It's not like I never have a wee nip- or sometimes not so wee- of certain intoxicants. I was really just messing with those guys, on account of I don't like their kind assuming that our kind would get involved in anything disreputable, even if it's not currently illegal."

"Not that 'our kind' never does such things," said Spike. "It's not like such a reputation just appeared out of the ether, one day."

"Ah, sad but true," agreed the Vole. "Anyway... if we're going to choose something disreputable to do, I think we might set our sights a little higher." After glancing around to make sure there was no one to overhear, he said, "Rebellion sounds like a worthy cause, and a lot of fun, if you and your friends ever truly get around to it. We'll talk to some others around town, see if we can't find some like-minded individuals among the various 'rat communities. It's the least we can do, for a member of the Streetrat Fellowship. And I must say, I wouldn't mind putting an end to this ridiculous class system. The so-called nobility always had their money, I don't see why they also feel the need of some semantic esteem-booster, at the expense of others."

"Although," said Dean, "Demos is fun to mock, as are any nobles who fall for his rhetoric."

"Ooh, good word, 'rhetoric' is being. Learned it years ago from my master," said Tiejo. "Rarely having heard it since then. And thinking you were that untaught you are being!"

The other rats laughed at this, and Dean said, "Thanks. I think."

"Well," said the Vole, "wouldst thou care to join us for some repast?"

"Gramercy," said Tiejo, "but return now to my friends I must. Hoping I am to see you again."

"As am I, my friend, though not too soon... I imagine it'll take time to prepare for whatever services you may one day call upon us to render. Well, then, off with you, now! And good luck."

"Yes, luck to you as well, bawcock! ...Or jackdaw, whichever it was being...." And with that, Tiejo grinned, waved, and scampered off toward the center of town, and the park.

4

As the symphony began, Tom turned to Darius and said, "Well, if we want a ride back, we'd best find your... uh, Evan."

Darius was a bit disappointed that he wouldn't get to listen to the music, particularly since the crowd was mostly being quieter for that than it had been for the speech. But he well remembered wandering around during the third World Fair, four years ago, and enjoying whatever snippets of different musical styles he heard as he did so. He supposed this evening's music would be more consistent, with all the speakers scattered wherever they might go to look for 'Evan.'

With a sigh, Darius replied, "Of course. But maybe we should head back to the spot where Tiejo left us, as that's probably where he'll go to find us." The others agreed, and they began threading their way through the crowd. Those around bubble-speakers tended to be more talkative than those surrounding the park, but the music could still be heard over the various conversations.

At one point, Tom suddenly shouted, "Hey, Philo!" He called out a few more times, and waved, but the man whose attention he was trying to catch apparently failed to notice. He was perhaps a dozen yards away, caught up in a conversation with several people, and there were a fair number of others in the space between Tom's group and Philo's.

After a little while, Tom gave up. He turned to his companions and explained, "That's Philo Dabbler, an old friend of mine, or perhaps I should say old acquaintance. Not sure he really has any true friends, as he dabbles in relationships just like he dabbles in everything else in life, hence his surname. But I do run into him, from time to time. He's a jack-of-all-trades, like me, but also calls himself an 'idea man,' rather like Dex Bigthink. In fact, now that I think about it, I believe it was actually his idea for Dex to form a partnership with Frank Numbercrunch, about ten years ago."

"So," said Darius, "you want we should try to make our way over there so you can say hi?"

"Um... I wanted to, but on second thought, maybe it's best he didn't notice me. He's the kind of guy who either ignores you, or rather... not ignores, but is just oblivious; or else if he does notice you, you'll be stuck talking to him for hours. Or more precisely, stuck listening to him talk. You just can't break away, because he always has a lot to say. Which is fine at first, because most of what he has to say is actually quite interesting, usually, but after awhile... your interest will likely start to wane sooner than his does. Still, he's a good person to know. And I do want to catch up with him at some point, but not tonight. We really should concentrate on finding our friends and heading home. It's been a long day."

"Okay." Darius started walking again, then abruptly stopped and said, "Wait, didn't Tiejo say he'd look for us near the bubble-screen?"

"Oh yeah," said Jasp. "So, should we go back?"

"Suppose so. Maybe-" and he was interrupted by a chiming t-mail bubble. The call turned out to be from Evan, and so Darius said, "Open."

"Hey, I'm in the stands listening to the concert. I'm thinking it's going to be next to impossible to find each other in this crowd, so why don't you guys head back to the estate when you're ready, and I'll meet you there."

"Your estate... Evan?"

"Well obviously."

"I mean-"

"Yes, I took your meaning... Darius."

"Okay. See you later. Close."

After the bubble vanished, Darius said to the others, "Well, it looks like we only have to find Tiejo."

By the time they made it back to the park, the concert was still going, but some people had already begun leaving. Apparently orchestral music didn't appeal to them, though Darius commented to his friends that he found it breathtaking, and Alecstar agreed. Jasp said he could take it or leave it, while Tom merely allowed "sounds like they know what they're doing."

Among those who passed by them was someone who seemed not even to take notice of the music, but rather was grumbling, "Bloody knave, can't believe he gets to call himself 'king.' What's worse, people keep re-electing him. Fine, maybe I wasn't cut out for the job, but anyone would be better than him. Yet here I am, forced to herald his damn speech, not even globally, but just in a single damn village... 'Pleasure and privilege,' my ass..."

Darius had thought the voice sounded familiar, and when he heard that last phrase, just as the man was passing out of earshot, he turned to his friends and asked, "Hey, wasn't that the MC?"

"Indeed it was," said Star. "If you'll recall, he was one of the candidates in the first world election, back in 904. I can understand his resentment toward Demos, but considering the scandal he was involved in at the time, he should count himself lucky to still have a job at all."

"Huh. I'm afraid I never followed politics closely enough, I don't even remember all the candidates from that election. I was mainly torn between Jake and Dash."

"Wow, seriously? Those two? Oh, right, I keep forgetting... you were about fourteen at the time."

"Yeah, yeah..."

Just then, Darius noticed a familiar face exiting the park a ways off, and he impulsively rushed over to greet him. "Benj?"

Benj Illustri looked up to see his old academic rival, for the first time in eight or nine years. This startled him, not so much because of how long it had been since they'd last seen each other, but because of the brief exchange he'd just had with his father, in which Darius's name had coincidentally come up. It had been such a random disagreement, Benj scarcely knew how it had happened. (Certainly he'd had no reason to defend Darius, out of the blue, but what his father had said about Adam had just triggered a memory, and so he'd spoken without thinking.)

Both of them had of course been a bit on edge ever since their argument at lunch, earlier in the day. But in spite of his irritation at being forced to attend the rally, and his father's irritation at needing to force him to do so, Benj had decided to act the part of the model son. After all, for all their differences, he did love and respect his father. Besides which, just because he didn't personally support Demos, that was no reason to remain uninformed as to his position on the issues which would determine the outcome of the election. And if there was one thing Benj absolutely could not stand, it was being uninformed, about virtually anything. By the time they'd left their estate to head to the park, Benj couldn't even remember what had made him so adamantly opposed to the idea, in the first place. On top of that, he, just as much as his father and mother, had been quite looking forward to the Royal Orchestra's performance, even though, unlike the commoners in attendance, it would hardly be the first time the Illustri family had heard them play. Of course, they had even heard them in person, on a trip to the palace in First Village.

During the speech, Benj had found himself impressed with Demos. Not so much what he was saying, but the way he was saying it. But this was hardly the first time Benj had been impressed by Demos's unique ability to make himself sound enough like a noble to convince the peasants he was their better, while simultaneously sounding enough like a commoner to avoid alienating them. Almost as impressive, though hardly unique among politicians, was his ability to speak so many words and yet say next to nothing. There were of course some people, among all the classes, who would recognize this fact; but the majority would simply remember having enjoyed listening to the speech, and if they couldn't quite recall any given candidate's position on the matters he'd addressed, they'd likely blame their own fallible memories rather than the speaker's caginess. Even those who did pay attention- particularly reporters and those who actually read newspapers- would hardly bother pointing it out, because the same could be said of almost all the politicians. And even if a person were to respect a candidate who was forthright in expressing his opinions, that's no guarantee that that person would agree with those opinions. And in the end, all the candidates would have to come down firmly on one side or another, though most would try to postpone that until as close to the election as possible. In fact the majority of the campaign period amounted mostly to who could present himself as the most likable candidate, each trying to sway the votes of as large a number of the more gullible citizens as he could. The final declaration of actual positions would chiefly be to influence the die-hard followers of politics, with firm opinions of their own. It wasn't a bad strategy, considering most voters did not themselves have firm opinions about most political issues, anyway.

And so, the rally had not been so bad. Not as informative as Benj might've liked, but certainly no less so than he expected. Mostly, he just found it amusing. And then finally, there was the concert. Predictably, it was at this point that his brother began getting fidgety. While Macen shared his younger brother's interest in information (and had in fact largely inspired it), his taste in entertainment was decidedly more common than that of Benj and their parents. He'd long ago made known his boredom when it came to the type of music the rest of them were enjoying tonight, but of course he had no intention of leaving the rally before the rest of his family did. It therefore came as a relief to him when he received a call via t-mail, and after checking the identity of the caller, apologized to his parents, saying it was important. And as much as they all knew Macen welcomed the call, they also knew he wouldn't have taken it if it weren't important. After all, his job often involved contact with highly placed people... for all they knew, it could have been King Demos himself calling, if he hadn't been sitting on his throne at the moment, for all the world to see.

In spite of trusting his elder son to do his duty to the family whenever possible, Xander nevertheless found certain of Macen's personal likes and dislikes nearly as frustrating as the more practical differences of opinion he had with Benj. And while he didn't question Macen's need to leave in the middle of the concert, that didn't stop him from grumbling about it, on general principle. (Benj couldn't help but derive some pleasure from the rare occasions, such as this, that his father's annoyance was directed at his brother rather than himself.) Eventually Xander's rant came around to the fact that "That damned Adam never cared for civilized music, either," to which Benj unthinkingly replied, "Perhaps not, but his son did. For all his faults, and all the ways he took after his father, at least Darius had well-rounded tastes in entertainment. Which is not to say he didn't also like some of the same things Macen does-"

"Yes, I assumed that was what you were implying with your use of the phrase 'well-rounded.' That he had both good taste and bad."

This retort had irritated Benj on two levels. First, he took it as a personal slight that his father deemed his second statement to be unnecessary. Benj privately accepted that his father was right about that, but that didn't stop it from feeling like an equally unnecessary slap in the face. Second, while he personally agreed that the tastes Darius shared with Macen were 'bad,' he recognized that belief as being subjective. Benj believed that in regard to matters of opinion (such as musical tastes), words like 'bad' and 'good' shouldn't be used objectively. His father, he knew, disagreed with this sentiment, for it was an argument they'd had before (not all their arguments were political in nature). Xander's opinion was that 'Xander's opinions' were fact. And anyone with different opinions was just plain wrong.

Because of his annoyance over this trivial issue, his earlier annoyance over their political disagreement resurfaced. If anything, it was made worse by the fact that he had, until just then, been pleased by the fact that he'd gotten over the afternoon's unpleasantness. All this, taken together, was too much for him to bear, so he said icily, "You know what? The music's divine, but I can hear it pretty much anywhere in the village, right now." With that, he had gotten up and left the family's private spectator box, just a few centhours after his brother had done.

And now, here he was, face to face with Darius Lonewander. "Darius," he said. "Hi."

Neither one was quite sure what to say next, nor which of them should be the next to speak. Darius's mind wandered to the fact that it was usually next to impossible for him to be the first to speak in any situation, however casual, but that Benj had already said 'hi,' so he should be able to speak next. Then he realized he himself had actually been the first to speak, which rather surprised him. But he quickly told himself all this was irrelevant; either way, he felt it was his turn again. After all, he had no idea if Benj had anything to say to him, but he certainly had something to say to Benj.

"So... it's good to see you. Hope all is well."

"Yes, fine. I hope all is well with you, too." Darius started to reply, but Benj cut him off. "Listen, I'm sorry, but I really... I shouldn't have said 'fine.' Actually, I'm not in the best of moods right now, and I know it's poor form to let something like that trump a reunion after so many years, but I really should be going. If you're in town for a while, perhaps we can talk later. Sorry."

Darius started to nod, but then said, "Actually..." and took a deep breath. "We were never close, you and I, and I can't quite see us now... sitting down to lunch, or anything. So there's no reason to schedule an appointment. It may be poor form to be so blunt, but that's not my point. My point is... I wanted to say I'm sorry about the past. I don't think I've changed much over the years, and I doubt you have either, so maybe we'll never be friends... but we once were, sort of, and I've been thinking..." He sighed. "The last time we met, I think you were a better friend to me than I was in the mood to recognize. Looking back, I don't really remember the encounter clearly; in fact, until just recently I'd completely forgotten about it. But that was wrong of me. I mean, it was wrong to have... reacted in poor form to your kindness, at the time. I don't recall what I said, but I suspect I was unduly brusque, so I apologize. And I just want to say, belatedly... you know, thanks."

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence before Benj said, "Well, I don't exactly remember what either of us said, either. But I'm sure it's nothing you wouldn't have said to me had our situations been reversed, so, no thanks necessary. Just... trying to adhere to proper form. Anyway, we were kids. So, your reaction was probably understandable."

"I suppose you're right." Though with a wry grin he added, "But being a kid didn't stop you from showing proper form, even back then. You always were old for your age." Benj rolled his eyes at that, and Darius continued. "As for my saying the same... I'd like to think I would have made the effort, but I can't say for sure. Even if I did try, I've never been good at... offering words of comfort to people. I want to, in certain situations, but I never know what to say. I'm sure whatever you said was... better than anything I would've managed."

"Well," said Benj with a grin of his own, "it hardly requires a tragedy for that to be the case. I'm always more eloquent than you."

Darius snickered at that. "Too true! ..In any event, I'll let you go now. Sorry to have delayed you."

"It's alright. In fact, thank you. Unlikely as it seems, I'd say you've actually improved my mood somewhat." After a moment's hesitation he added, "I'd offer to shake hands, but..."

"Ah, you know me well. I thank you for refraining, old friend."

"Well then, I suppose this is goodbye."

As Benj turned away, Darius started to turn to his companions, but suddenly stopped and turned back. "Actually, Benj, you know what?" Benj turned and looked at him questioningly, and Darius extended a hand. "For the sake of proper form."

Benj exhaled a half-laugh, and shook Darius's hand.

The handshake was mercifully brief, and when it was over, Darius said, "Well, goodbye."

Benj turned once again, without another word (having already said goodbye, and not wanting to repeat himself), and began walking off.

Darius watched Benj until he'd rounded a corner, then turned and walked back to his friends. He grinned and said, "Man, I'm glad Emma wasn't here to see that. She'd be all, you know... comforting. I mean, I'm a fairly emo kinda guy, so normally I appreciate that about her, but right now, I actually feel pretty good. No need to discuss it."

Jasp laughed. "I feel ya, brother."

"So, what should we talk about while we wait for Tiejo?" asked Tom.

Darius replied, "Um... what's actually on my mind right now is something I've often wondered. There are lots of kinds of laughter, but I find that I often do this sort of reverse-sniff that can't really be called a laugh, but it expresses amusement, just a bit more subtly. And I'm not the only one. Benj just did it, too. It always bugs the hell out of me that I can't think what that's called, if there even is a word for it... my subword sense isn't giving me anything. It's kind of like a very light snicker, but not really; especially because I feel like snickering is mildly mocking, unlike what I'm talking about. Same with snorting, which I think is also a bit louder, and a sort of uglier sound that what I'm talking about. You guys got any ideas?"

The others were silent for a few moments, until Star said, "You know what? That sounds more like an Emma kind of question, actually. Maybe you can ask her later. But I rather doubt anyone's bothered to name what you're describing. Sorry."

Just then, from the direction opposite the one Benj had gone, Tiejo bounded into sight. "Greetings, all! Enjoying the speech did you?"

Tom exclaimed, "Tiejo! Thank God you're here." Everyone, including Tiejo, stared at him in disbelief. "What? I told you earlier, it's been a long day. Now that he's here, we can finally go home."

Everyone grinned and reverse-sniff-laughed, and they began walking towards Evan's estate.


chapter 34

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