/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Young ancient

Knight Esquire

P. Power


P. S. Power

Knight Esquire

Chapter one

Rolph didn't send him off to Kolb, Tor's new Knight, the instant they landed or anything. No Tor had to primp and practice first. Apparently that was important. An actual rule or something like it. Some royal thing that a kid from the backwoods wouldn’t know.

Like he’d go and visit without washing first?

The Prince had him bathe and dress in his nicest clothes, which were just school browns that didn't have any visible stains at the moment, then go to present the man with the official document the King had sent. It was in a sealed envelope, with the royal seal pressed into the wax on the back, so he didn't know what it said.

That kind of ate at him.

After all, it could be anything, and it directly related to him, didn’t it?

Hopefully it was something along the lines of, “Don't let him get too killed”, if he was lucky, and the King didn’t secretly have it out for him. On the good side, from what everyone had told him, being a Squire shouldn't be that big a deal outside of a time of war. Mainly training to fight, which he had to do for school under Kolb anyway, and some ceremonial stuff, which primarily had to do with carrying and caring for weapons and gear. The modern weapons and armor were all just tiny amulets and small metal bits, so Tor thought he could manage if he worked at it. Maybe add lifting tiny little weights to his daily regime to build up?

There was a speech he was supposed to give when he walked up to Kolb, so Rolph made him practice it several times before he left the room. Not that Tor would screw it up, but just so it would sound proper and everything. Hit the correct royal accent, instead of sounding like a merchant like he normally did when he spoke Noram standard.

Even though school didn't start again for a full day, Tor found the instructor working with some of the combat students, all giants of course, in the bright summer sun already. Special lessons for the advanced kids, probably. They were all good at least. Way better than he was, from what he could tell. Though it could be hard to tell, since they all just looked like anyone in front of them should die. It was intimidating, even from a distance. Tor waited for a lull in the efforts to approach. It was polite, plus, really, he didn't want to be killed by mistake, if one of them tripped or something.

Freaking giants. Always looming over properly sized people like him the way they did. Well, he was a little short, only five-four, which wasn’t tiny once you got out of the major cities, but wasn’t tall even for his home village of Two Bends.

Three vast students tried to eviscerate Kolb with swords all at once, the man struggling to hold his own the whole time. The combat students were good, about ten times better than Tor, at least, and while none of them could equal the head instructor alone, they worked together well, pressing the man into exhaustion, and then, finally, moving in for the “kill”.

Laughing Kolb surrendered and held his right hand up.

“Take a break and make sure to drink some water. This heat's bad enough without sunstroke.” He spied Tor and looked down at the splint on his leg, then at the paper in his hand, a nice cream colored envelope.

“Tor! You haven't crippled yourself for life have you? Come to resign?”

Tor shrugged with one shoulder.

“Nothing like that. I get the splint off in about a month. It got broken when I dove head first into a middens. Anyway…” Tor took a deep breath.

Kolb walked away, over to the water barrel.

“Walk with me then, or hobble as the case may be. Now, tell me why you were doing a damned fool thing like that? Head first into a middens? Some kind of a dare? A drunken bet? Not going to be a habit is it?”

The large man drank dipperfuls of water, one after the other. Since sweat was glistening on his skin, even in the dry heat, Tor guessed it was warranted. He was just glad that those three monsters weren't going to be coming after him like that any time soon. They stood drinking their own water, carefully not looking at Tor. That was fair. The combat students, even the lower level ones kind of thought of him as a joke, and everything considered, he probably was in their world. Too small to even be an interesting training partner, not a good enough fighter to challenge even the second year students most of the time, and right now no fun to even chase around trying to hit with a practice sword. “Hobble away!” wasn't a very good battle cry at all.

Unless he could incapacitate them with laughter?

Tor ignored them back for the moment, he'd come for a reason after all. Still, he couldn't just ignore the question asked either, not politely, so he tried to give a thumbnail sketch of the situation.

“Um, no, not a dare or anything. There were some kids that fell into an abandoned cesspit that had opened up. Dried and collapsed under its own weight. Everyone else was too big to reach them, so, you know, I climbed down and got them. It collapsed on us, so we had to be pulled out by the rope tied around my ankle, which given everything, broke. Anyway…” He took another deep breath, ready to go into the formal speech he'd practiced.

Kolb stopped drinking and stared at him.

“Did you… save the children?” The large man looked worried suddenly, and all the combat students stopped looking away and stepped closer to him, leaving him feeling a little surrounded.

“Um, yeah, they're fine, I got a shield on the boy, and when I saw the little girl I got her mine before the whole thing fell in on her. Then we got her out. I, um, used direct effect to uncover her. It was… kind of a combat rage thing…” Everyone stared at him for a few seconds, but no one questioned him on it. They were all royals, so they knew not to. It just wasn't polite. He was pretty obviously a commoner, only, of course, he wasn't. His claim to royalty was at least nearly as good as anyone there. So he had that to worry about too. If Tor got too mad, he could go all crazy and try to kill people. Kolb had to know. Even if he was just a regular student, not his Squire, since it might come up. Only so far, when it had happened, he didn't go all crazy. He just tried to save people. Even if he was mad. A little desperately he brushed at his black hair, trying to change the topic.

“Oh! I guess this could be important, if you toss someone an activated shield, it will surround them just fine. Well, if it connects with them at least. The little girl, she's four or so, she grabbed it, bless her. That saved her life. Anyway…”

One of the giants took off the practice helm, showing short cropped and sweat matted blond or really light brown hair underneath. To Tor’s surprise it was a girl, one that looked only a few years older than himself. Obviously a royal given that she must have been nearly six-eight. She didn't have the fine featured look that Trice, his fiancee, or the Queen had, so the size made her looks a little mannish. Not that Tor was going to tell her that. He wanted to live.

Besides, she probably thought he looked a bit feminine, being so small and delicate, so who was he to talk?

She spoke; looking worried herself, which was strange. They weren’t friends or anything, he barely recognized her to tell the truth.

“But… If you didn't have a shield, didn't all the… waste fall in on you?”

“Yeah. Not fun, I kind of built one around me, but it could only do so much, and the rope was already inside it. Sorry everyone, not trying to be rude here, but really, I have to…”

Kolb instructed him to run through a series of exercises, not letting him finish speaking, which he had everyone else watch carefully.

“Karen, give me your combat readiness analysis of Tor here, please.” Kolb called out bends and twists for Tor to try, and the girl made her assessments while everyone else looked on. They were pretty accurate, Tor noticed. He really was still tight on his whole left side and his muscle tone had suffered a bit in the last month. His endurance too probably, without his regular running, or really any other exercise.

“Well… I wouldn't want to send him back to the front lines, but he should be able to practice sword and knife work, energy weapons and shield and… Can you fly?” She asked, her voice sounding honestly interested.

That one he knew for sure at least.

“Yeah. That doesn't hurt at all. Even on long trips. I flew in this morning from Two Bends, um, my home village, which is about five hundred miles from here, give or take. No discomfort or anything. Kind of relaxing really, because it takes all the stress off my legs for a while. I recommend it if you ever get injured like this.”

“Oh! Heh…” The girl looked down a bit bashfully. “I was just asking if you knew how. I take it that's a yes then? So, flying work too?”

Kolb nodded.

“Right, so for the next month I'd like you to work with Tor on that, all of it. Karen's in charge of you for that time. These other two, Petra and Forne, will be your training partners if we can't find anyone closer to your size that can do it without killing you.”

“Alright. Sounds good, um, Kolb?” The man had started to walk away, back to the open exercise area. He turned and looked at Tor as if he hadn't realized that he'd been still trying to speak.

Tor waived the envelope in the air his voice going slightly exasperated.

“Sir Martin Kolbrin, I bring orders from King Richard of Noram. Would you receive them now?” That was all Tor had to actually say, it wasn't some huge or complex thing, but he had to work to hold the envelope out and not just cross his arms and tap his toes like an impatient farm wife waiting for the fresh loaves in the bakery. He managed it, mainly because he knew that being impatient didn't make the bread bake any faster and wouldn't make Kolb move either.

At least his eyes widened in slight shock, which was a little rewarding.

“Oh? Well why didn't you say so?” His voice was playful, indicating that he got that Tor had been cut off about a million times in the conversation at least, which probably meant they'd done it to him on purpose for some reason. To keep him from quitting? Like he had that option? A large hand took the delicate envelope and the seal, the King's own falcon on it in red wax impressed the man enough that he stood straighter.

Cracking the seal slowly he pulled the paper out gently, looking at everyone else warily. The combat students all held their breaths a little while the big man read. That was understandable, as it could be orders for anything, and the King probably didn't send party invitations like this.

“Oh-ho!” He called out suddenly, then kept reading, nodding after a bit. After about two minutes he placed the paper back in the envelope and set it down on the practice weapons table, holding it in place with a large lance or cutter. Tor could tell what it was if he picked it up, of course, even if he didn't recognize the sigil immediately. Anyone could learn to feel magical fields if they paid attention after all. Most people never bothered, just like they didn't bother to learn how to make their own. Then again, the same could be said about playing music, and Tor couldn't do that at all himself. He couldn't even sing, mostly.

To his surprise, instead of setting Tor instantly to work, or yelling at him to get out of the practice area, a huge hand slapped him on the back hard enough to stagger him a little.

“Tor here managed to get himself named a Knight Esquire! Skipped a whole rank, and only his age decided the matter. The King doesn’t want him to get a big head, even though he has his three marks of valor already. All since the last break too. Someone’s been busy.”

Kolb looked proud of him and for some reason so did the other students, even though he wasn't really one of them. They all took turns pounding him on the back, Petra taking pains to do it for the longest time he noticed, her dark skin shining with sweat. Karen, his new trainer for the next month, actually hugged him. It was a warrior’s hug, which nearly broke things in his chest, and was followed by a pounding on the back that seemed happy, but may have been a subtle assassination attempt. The girl picked him up into a second hug and turned to Kolb gleefully holding him off the ground the whole time.

“So, Squire… that pretty much means slave, right? And Knight Esquire, that means we can both boss him around and expect him to do it without complaint?”

Kolb grinned. “Pretty much.”

“And I get him for the whole next month?”

“Yep.”

The girl, a woman really, set him down and started doing a little dance that looked entirely too happy to Tor. Everyone laughed, so Tor wondered if it was all a joke or if, just possibly, Rolph and Count Thomson just didn't know what being a Squire actually entailed. He knew that neither one of them had ever held the position. He softly reminded them that he still had to get his school work done and had some projects to work on, and that on occasion, if possible, he would like to have at least a little sleep. If possible. Please. It must have looked pitiful, because they all laughed harder.

Kolb clapped him on the back.

“Don't worry Tor; we're just having you on. Congratulations by the way. Report here to Karen tomorrow afternoon, your normal time. She'll assign you tasks and what not as she sees fit. I know I don't have to give more instruction to you than that, so I won't.” Kolb smiled and for what was very nearly the first time Tor could remember it didn't leave him feeling like death was the natural next likely outcome after seeing such a thing.

With that he got sent back to his room, feeling well enough about the situation. At least Karen seemed nice so far. Sure, she'd probably beat him black and blue in the days to come, but that was only to be expected. She probably wouldn't be able to help it, not if she was going to make him work on sword fighting against her friends, which seemed to be the plan. Oh well. As long as they didn't cripple him permanently, he'd deal. Actually, he realized, he'd deal with it even if they did. It wasn't like he had a choice.

Rolph went with him to dinner, where they found, of all things, Dorgal Sorvee, Tor's favorite bully, his friend Marco, and the same guy with the creepy all black eyes that Tor had set Wensa on nearly two months before all sitting in the dining room. Across the room from them sat Wensa, her face blank and her eyes taking in Tor closely when he walked in.

They went to the food receiving window with their trays. The food was a simple roast foul, with potatoes and carrots on the side. Rolph tried to avoid the carrots, but Tor took some. After all, it was free food, right? There were no sweets served at the school, not even honey for bread in the morning, but Tor didn't mind overly. The food at the palace had been so rich that some good plain food seemed like a nice change.

Dorgal and Marco stared directly at Wensa, as if trying to intimidate her. Because, yeah, that would work. Cutting off her hands wouldn't intimidate the woman. Literally, he'd heard. She'd just accept the loss and move on, if the stories were correct. Royal Guards were trained to be like that from childhood and this one was tasked with the protection of the Heir. That probably meant she was even harder than the others, didn't it? Wensa stared at him and so did the other man, the older one with the all black eyes, who sat at the table next to Dorgal.

Tor pointed all this out to Rolph, who raised his shoulders slightly, a subtle movement that Tor almost missed. “Keep your eyes open then, and be ready to move if you have to. You have a shield?” He said this casually, taking a small bite of the chicken, using a knife and fork, like they did at the palace. Tor picked his up country fashion and took a bite, nodding a little himself.

Nothing happened after that, until the meal had almost ended, then Captain Wensa got up, still staring at Tor and made her way over. She actually ignored Rolph, except to tell him that she expected him in class early the next day for extra assignments. Before she left, her look going cold, she leaned over to Tor and whispered softly from about six inches away from his ear.

“I see you still haven't learned to protect yourself against poisons yet? You may want to rectify that. Soon.” Then the woman, lean and hard as he remembered her, steal gray hair pulled into a bun that looked uncomfortable to him, walked out without looking back.

Looking down at his mainly clean plate Tor blanched. Right. He'd kind of forgotten how much she hated him. Poison in the food then? Nice of her to warn him, but what could he do for that? He'd try to think of how to avoid it, but there were just too many different poisons to learn them all. He'd be better off trying to build a field that could recognize food, and tell him if anything thing else was there.

Which made sense.

How many different things did he eat on average? A hundred different things a week? If he broke it down into ingredients it was probably four times that. Compared to the ten thousand or more things that could kill him in food, it seemed easy to manage. He could make a limited feedback field; it was just a complicated version of the temperature control field. Those were rare, but easy enough now that he had the basic concept down. It would take a lot of work to build the whole thing right, but…

Yeah, that part would do what he wanted.

What he needed though was some way to signal him that there was something in the food that didn't belong. He knew what he'd want for that, a very bright light, something that couldn't be missed at all. The only problem there was that he didn't know how to make one. They existed, but he'd never gotten to hold one even. They were expensive, and the ones in the palace he'd seen where all placed out of reach high up on walls or the ceiling. That had been a stylistic thing, Tor figured, since they couldn't have possibly known that he'd be coming when the light features were built, years or possibly decades before.

He didn't sleep well that night, and had to skip breakfast the next day, just in case Wensa came after him. Rolph laughed and said that Wensa had just been yanking his chain, but Tor shook his head and refused to go anyway. Better hungry than dead, right?

The morning’s meditation was peaceful enough, easier for him now than before, what with all his copy work, which was mainly meditation anyway. Dorris the instructor nodded at him as he left, still refusing to speak, but seeming content about it at the same time. In his next class he just asked the instructor how to build a light field. It made sense to him, but Instructor Fines blinked at him as if he’d suggested they dine on another student later.

“Tor! This is novel building, not “copy other peoples work” class. But I'll give you a hint this once… Even though I shouldn't have to… Think about the nature of light. Examine it and reproduce the field. It's basically how everything is done in this class, in magical construction as a whole, and light is one of the most basic parts of reality. So, just since you asked… Have a light for me within three weeks, no fair using an already existing field as a template; I know you can do that. Bonus points if you have if for me faster than the deadline.” The man smiled as if he'd done him a favor.

His mind spun in place for the rest of the day. He skipped lunch as well, hunger starting to become slighting annoying. It wasn't so bad in a trance state, so he made a point of dropping as deeply as he could into his own mind and focus on everything going on around him, so he wouldn't walk into walls or something.

He'd have to make the whole thing that night. Somehow. He couldn't take the hunger otherwise, not and keep up with his schedule at all. Damn Wensa anyway. Why was she so bent on hurting him? He hadn't done anything to her had he? Well, OK, he had sort of told Dorgal and his friends she was a Royal Guard and her stomping over with weapons in hand had kind of confirmed it… But she'd started it. What could he do though, but try and survive?

Tor made a point of focusing even more deeply as he walked to the weapons practice area. The sunlight hit his skin, so he tried to capture the sense of it in the air, hoping that would be enough to distract him. It was amorphous, hard to find and gone instantly. How could he duplicate that? Or… well, did he have to really? He focused harder and stopped walking about ten feet from the stone wall of the practice court.

Light… it was already a field! That's why he couldn't find it, trying to sense it like something physical. Oh, it existed physically, but what made it work, that portion of it, Tor could simply get a feeling for like any manufactured field he wanted to copy. It wasn't too difficult to find, it was too easy. He snorted to himself. No wonder Fines had told him to just find it for himself. He felt a little stupid for having asked now. Well, lesson learned then, look for himself before bugging others or thinking something was hard before even trying.

Inside the practice court he sat down on the ground awkwardly just inside the gate, a little to the left of it near the stone wall and picked up a small stone, about the size of a gold coin. Could he capture the feeling well enough? He focused for about forty-five minutes before the rock in his hand finally started to glow, dimly at first, but then brighter, more so than the sunlight, then the sun in the sky itself. Then brighter still.

Suddenly it got too bright, so he threw the stone away, an instinctual and slightly panicked move. It was leaving spots in front of his eyes even with them closed. He could even follow the arc it took through the air, to the point it landed on the ground.

Right at the feet of two giants hitting each other with wooden weapons and wearing full armor it turned out. He wondered abstractly if they'd like some of the heat equalizing amulets. Maybe they'd accept that in exchange for not killing him? That padded practice armor had a point, he knew, since shields were rare, his kind of shield, but it looked incredibly hot right now. Both people had to turn away from the small rock, which had finally started to dim.

“Blind!” One of them cried, not in fear, just indicating that he couldn't see for some reason. The call was echoed by his opponent, Petra if Tor recognized the voice. Next to him saw a shadow, a little blind from the rock he'd made glow himself. It was a big shadow, but not one big enough to be Kolb, he didn't think so at least. When she spoke he got it instantly.

“Wow. That was effective. New battlefield weapon? Meant to leave the enemy blind?” Karen asked this in a soft voice, obviously trying to not call more attention to herself if possible. Probably to keep the other two from beating him to death for having attacked them out of turn.

“No, I was just trying to figure out how to make light. It worked. Um, yay? I have a new project to work on, and it's going to be a little useful to it. Plus I need it for a class, different project. Sorry!” He called out to the two still standing and not moving, still unable to see. Tor climbed to his feet and stood, his left leg hardly supporting his weight at all, since he'd sat on it funny, not even noticing that he was doing it in the working trance. He dusted the tan earth from his darker brown clothing making a soft cloud in the air.

Karen smiled and had him walk with her towards where the practice weapons were kept.

“So… I was thinking that since you can't run and that's what you normally practice doing, right? Since you can't do that, let's work pells and lifting stones for strength, then we'll do an intense sword and knife drill and maybe head out to the range so that we can practice there for a while.”

That would be different at least, since he'd never been out to the range before. Kolb didn't even let him practice with a bow and arrow, claiming that it would probably be wasted anyway, since no one used them any more to fight with and the aiming system for everything else was just so different.

Karen, it turned out, expected him to be some kind of weapons expert it seemed, and came at him like he was one of the combat giants. He barely managed to hold on and had to resist trying to run away at least three times. They fought first with knives, and then swords, standing face to face, without moving their feet at all. Without dodging it was a lot harder not to be killed by the girl than normal. Not the practice kind of killed, the actual dying kind. She didn't hit him in the leg at least. Just everywhere else.

“Now, it's about three miles to the range, I don't know if we can get a wagon out, so… do you think you can walk it?”

Uhg. He could, Tor was pretty sure, but it would ache. The three miles out wouldn't be so bad, but coming back, that would not be fun. He told her this, hoping she wouldn't just think he was a wimp. He smiled. Really that should be, he hoped she didn't think he was more of a wimp. She probably had his measure pretty well already after all.

“Oh… Well, I suppose we could fly, but we'd have to check the gear out and it's all booked for the day, so, since that's not an option I guess we should cancel that. Too bad, because I really wanted to get your take on the state of our practice weapons. Maybe soon?” She didn't seem that put out at least and didn't punish him with a lot of extra work, though she did ask him to walk to his dorm and back as many times as he could without hurting himself, to help build his injured leg back up.

Tor didn't bother with dinner after that, it was still mid-afternoon when he couldn't comfortably walk anymore, so he started working on the poison testing device before he could collapse from hunger. The light turned out to be the simple part, now that he understood it, adding in the proper fields for all the foods he ate was harder. Not that they weren't familiar to him, he ate them after all, so it wasn't that difficult to remember.

No the hard part was holding all the fields at once, in the end he had to do them in a cascading style, adding one to another and into much larger sub-fields that he used for the final make. It took all night and most of the next day. And then the day after that.

Someone fed him something, which he hoped wasn't poisoned, and they gave him water to drink. Right. He added water to the list of things, then juices and cow’s milk, goat’s milk and struggling to remember what it was like from the few sips he'd ever had, wine and hard cider.

The complexity of the field was huge compared to what he'd ever done before. The power levels needed were small, but there was just so much to focus on. It wasn't enough just to know food, he had to separate the plates and cups, from things that could be used to harm a person as well. Plus hundreds of other things, including just a sense that something might be unbalanced in a food item. Or around it. Diseased food too.

Finally after a long time, the days not making any impression on him anymore, he opened his eyes. Tor was alone, and it was morning. He thought. It was light outside at least. He stood, barely making it to his feet, legs almost not able to hold him up.

How long had he been out? Longer than five or six days at least. He knew what that felt like, having done it before a couple of times now.

Tor didn't make it to the door before it opened and Rolph came in with Kolb and the nice older man with the beard he'd seen before. He looked at them and smiled.

“Hey.” His voice croaked. Tor had to clear it for a while, and drink some water, before it just sounded like a frog lived in there.

“Wow, how long was I working?” He almost apologized for not greeting everyone properly first, but Rolph answered before he could say anything else.

“Eleven days! I'd thought you were just working on something at first, I mean I could see the template in your hand and all, I get what that means, but then you just didn't move. Two days ago you stopped even drinking water, so Trice and I decided we had to get help. I don't know what that is, but is the latest diaper rash treatment or whatever really worth all this?” The look on Rolph's face was stern and more than a little worried.

Eleven days.

Gods. No wonder he couldn't speak. Worse Karen would probably kill him when he went back. Kolb looked worried too, but the girl had been put in charge of his training, and as far as everyone else could tell her new trainee had run away after only one day. He decided to distract them all, if he could. He held up the template, one made in wood, with lines written over both the front and the back of it in tiny script. It was twice the size of the normal wooden planks he got, because he'd found the first two he tried weren't big enough for everything he needed to write down.

He pointed at it.

“Testing device for food, to tell if it's poisoned. It should tell us if there's anything in the food that doesn't belong.” Holding up his hand he grinned tiredly. “Yes, that includes exotic spices and foods that I just haven't encountered… But also poisons, inert materials, and so on. I need to test it, but I don't know how…”

The older man whose name he'd never even heard stroked his beard slightly. “I think I can arrange for that. You… Probably need food, water and sleep first though. Let's say tomorrow at noon? That gives you nearly a full day to recuperate. Do you think that's enough?” The voice sounded like the man was truly concerned about Tor's health and well being.

Nice of him.

Tor nodded and laid back to go to sleep before anyone even left the room. A while later he was woken up by hard punches on his right arm. They hurt, and didn't stop, so he opened his eyes. Trice sat next to him crying, and kept hitting him.

“Don't… ever… do that again! We thought you were dead… or going to die soon anyway! Promise me you won't do this kind of thing anymore!” She looked scared, really scared. Rolph handed him some bread and cheese.

“Bought it in town from a randomly selected shop I've never gone into before. Next we'll send someone else for food, if you need more. I got a lot…” He turned to Trice and shook his head, but gave her a half hug.

“Trice, don't ask him not to do things he may have too. Just…” Rolph turned to Tor and held his gaze. “Just promise that you'll be more careful and try not to die? If you're going to try impossible things, couldn't you at least let us all know first?”

That, he told them, would be doable, he just hadn't realized how hard this one was going to be at all. It was so complex that he wasn't even sure it would work. That earned him a punch in the chest from Trice.

Hard.

Tor rubbed at it gently while she spoke, figuring that it was going to bruise for certain.

“Oh, it'll work. If you scared me like that for nothing, then the weddings off, because they'll never find your body!” She growled this at him in a way that made him swallow hard and blanch a little.

OK, so it would work. Or else. He could get behind that. Casually he tried to work his way over to his shield, which sat on the table next to the bed.

Rolph laughed, getting what he was trying for, and made him eat as much food as Tor thought he could without getting sick, which wasn't much after the long fast and then slowly sip cool water until he fell back to sleep. When he woke it was black outside, so he lay there for a while, not wanting to turn on a light. Eventually, board and stiff, he decided to make some copies of the field into metal.

They copied fast. Almost too easily, given all the work he'd had to do originally. The copper pieces he'd gotten for it were about the shape and size of his little finger. Each had a tiny sigil on it already, just a mark he'd cut into each with the little cutter that he still had from when he built the first shield. It made a groove that should work well enough as an activation focus.

A tiny area of extra shiny copper on each piece, he thought it looked nice. Not glorious or stunning in any way, but clear and easy to use. That counted, right? This was just for him and, if it worked, his friends. It wasn't like most people had to fear being poisoned by Wensa after all. They probably should, but if they didn't know her, that might give most people a little protection at least. Even she wouldn't just break into homes at random to get people.

Would she?

Tor could feel the fields on the metal, or else he would have thought he'd just screwed up and it hadn't worked. After that, tired as he was, he got up and ate some more. Yellow cheese and half stale bread, but it tasted surprisingly good for all that. There was even some dried fruit. The real kind, slow dried in the sun, not magically. Chewy apple slices that felt velvety to the tongue.

So, all Tor had to do now was go to each class, beg forgiveness for missing, and pray that Karen would decide that murder was too harsh a punishment. Tor thought for a second… Maybe he could bribe her with gifts? She'd mentioned not having flying gear yet, and he'd brought extra back with him, the new version even, and a shield? It wasn't much, but maybe it would distract her from being too angry with him? If she hadn't just written him off already and moved on to the next thing.

Dorris took his return with aplomb, of course, and simply indicated that he should sit with a hand gesture and that small half smile she almost always wore. After class he explained that he'd spent eleven days straight working and she bowed slightly, then sent him on his way with a tiny smile and another small wave towards the door. The novel build instructor, Fines gave him a long look and told him that his project was due soon.

“Oh, the light! I figured that out the same day, it took about an hour, so I kind of forgot about it and moved on to harder things. I'll bring something in tomorrow…” The man smiled and waved his hand.

“Oh, don't worry about it, what did you come up with that was so important you missed class for two weeks?” His voice made it clear that he trusted totally that Tor hadn't just been skipping at least. That was heartening.

The man seemed impressed, in a reserved fashion. He wanted to wait for it to actually work or fail before passing judgment. That was kind of him too, since Tor had no clue if it was even really possible. It did have a light incorporated, he let the man know, which earned a smile and a promise of a good grade if the whole thing worked. That would count as a light well enough, unless it was inferior in some way, the man assured him with a serious smile.

His other classes went about the same, much to his relief. He had to apologize and grovel a bit, but no one suggested he leave school over it yet. Tor went back to his room for lunch, ravenous already, even though he'd eaten just a few hours, five, before. Half way to the room, in the center of the cobblestone commons Trice and Sara found him.

The blond girl smiled at him, seeming friendly, but Trice stood facing partially away, refusing to make eye contact. She crossed her arms and huffed.

“Ready for the test? If you die, I swear I'm never talking to you again.” The words were funny, but the tone was so serious no one even chuckled. She sounded ready to cry.

Tor wasn't really ready; he had to grab the fields from the room. With a bit of math he decided to take half the metal pieces and the big wooden template. That would leave him enough for his friends if the others were needed for testing. Taking a deep breath, he walked out, not knowing where they were going at all. No one had given him a location for it.

Sara patted him on the back, her hand lingering for about fifteen seconds. Trice didn't react to it, so Tor figured it wasn't outside of what was proper really. Finally the pretty blond spoke.

“Oh, it's in our dining hall. You get to have lunch with us today…” Sara looked at him and winked.

It made sense that they ate daily, he'd seen them do it after all, but he hadn't been aware that they had a dining hall like his section had. The buildings were smaller, and set back from the rest of the school enough that no one would have ever gone into one by mistake. The walk wasn't that long, even if they had to walk at his pace, which still kind of limped along. Tor almost wished he had something better than browns to wear, since the girls both wore blacks, and really nice ones at that, made of fine, airy materials. Meant to keep them cool in the late summer heat? Neither looked hot, no sweat or anything, so they probably wore their amulets for that. He did. Otherwise even the school would have been too warm for him. Never the blistering heat of the Capital, but hot enough to annoy and make him damp in all the wrong places.

The room they took him in to was filled with people. Most in black but a few in much livelier colors, some of the girls in pretty dresses even. Many of them ate already, which made him more than a little hungry in response. The food smelled really good too. Maybe not palace level good, but at least two or three times better than what they got at the other dining facility across campus. At the front of the room the older bearded man, wearing a large, well draped black velvet coat, a bright green shirt under that and a red floppy hat, along with black trousers made of something that Tor couldn't identify and didn't bother trying too, watched him enter.

“Ah! Mr. Baker. Just the man. Please, come and join us.” The voice was warm and he gestured regally enough that the move wouldn't have been amiss in the palace itself.

As he got to the table he saw that it held plates of food, each dish was different, some obviously things he'd never encountered before. A few looked like raw meat, and one of them seemed to still be alive in a glass of water. An eel? He'd heard of them but had never seen one. Did people really eat those? Alive? Eek. It didn't look very good to him. It slithered in the clear glass, a grayish black that shone even in the water, making it look slick and slimy.

“The test is a simple one. Use your device on this food and find what's poisoned before we eat. Begin as you will. I don't know how the device might work. Do you need anything in particular, or a special condition for the food?”

Pulling one of the little copper rectangles from his belt he activated it with his thumb and just moved towards the food. He went slowly at first, not knowing if anything would happen at all. Most of the people in the room, students mainly, but a few older people, including servants, watched with a bored quality. Maybe they saw things like this all the time? As he approached a plate with mashed potatoes, gravy and beef slices the device in his hand lit up.

It didn't glow itself, instead, as he'd intended, the space around the hand holding the device glowed with a golden light so bright that it was kind of hard to look at. Tor wanted to make sure that the signal never got missed by mistake after all. If you sat in direct sunlight, it would be clearly visible. Good. He moved over the beef, holding the copper close to it, nearly touching, but the unit stopped responding, it was obviously the mashed potatoes then. Or the gravy. Either way, he wasn't going to eat it.

“I can't tell which part in particular is poisoned though, unless I separated them somehow, is that required for the test? I think it would make a bit of a mess and I don’t really want to touch poison, if I can help it.”

The older man smiled and shook his head, “No, I think knowing what not to consume is enough for now. Good to know it could be used to do that though. Knowing which part of a dish is tainted could help lead to who had access to the food for investigations. Please, continue.”

The next two plates were fine, but then he got to a fish dish that lit up. Again it had a sauce, this one some kind of fruit based thing. The eel, however unlikely that was, didn't make the device glow at all. Gross, but apparently it could be eaten and was even close enough to things he ate regularly to count as nutritious and wholesome. In all he found five plates of food that had been poisoned. The man nodded and clapped.

“Very good! One last test then…” The man clapped and a simple pot pie came out. The man indicated it with his head, telling Tor to test it.

Nothing happened.

Until he started to take the device away and it crossed the side of the ceramic baking dish. It obviously wasn't food, but the dish itself made the air light up. He didn't understand it, but Trice did.

“Poison on the dish? So that if you touch it and then put your hands to your mouth…” She pantomimed the action, getting a glowing look from the man. He actually clapped his hands.

“Indeed. Exactly right Patricia. I would say your device is a ringing success. I'd like to test it further, if I could borrow it? Or… do you have more than one again?” The man seemed excited for some reason.

“Oh, yeah, ten right now, five on me, so here, take this one.” He handed over the one tested, and the man got the girls to help him open a large wooden case that had glass jars inside, powders and liquids. Were they all poisons? The answer came pretty quickly, when one after the other, they all were all opened, corks popped and stoppers breached, only to make the new device cause the air to glow with what looked like very bright sunlight.

The old man suggested that Tor get something to eat. That sounded like a wonderful idea, since his stomach growled at him a little. Not so loud as to be embarrassing though, thankfully. After testing one of the plates of food in front of him again, just to be sure he hadn’t missed anything, a fish dish with a white cream sauce that came with braised asparagus, he did. That, even more than the testing itself, seemed to get attention. Was the fish not good here? It tasted fine. Better than that, really good in fact. They used slivered almonds in the sauce, Tor thought, which gave it a little texture. Trice looked at him wide eyed and then smiled. She held the device that the old man was testing and Sara put the poisons back in the case carefully, making sure she didn't touch anything else with her hands.

Tor got that; a simple sneeze could spread deadly poison around the room. I occurred to him that playing with poisons in the dining hall might be just a little dangerous, but no one blinked overly at it. Whatever else these people were, they weren't cowards at least.

So, probably insane? Good to know.

Just as they were finishing a man who looked to be a few years older than Tor walked over, obviously someone special, if based only on height. The guy was about six-four or five, so a short royal, for a guy, or one of the merchant class? Hard to tell without just asking. He eyed Tor with a smile, but didn't approach directly, heading to the older man instead.

“Dean Hardgrove?” The words made Tor stop eating. “These devices… Would they be available for purchase or lease soon do you think? My parents have gotten into a bit of a pickle with the Count and Countess Ward and it would be… good if I didn't have to become a Baron in the next few weeks, I think.”

Two things popped out at Tor, first, that the old guy he'd seen several times was the Dean. Thank all gods he'd always been polite to the man. Not that he wouldn't be normally, but some of the situations he'd met him in had been stressful. Tor hadn't always been at his best at those times, had he? For that matter, Tor reflected, the guy had always been exceptionally nice to him, the son of a humble baker from Two Bends. It made Tor rather like him, since as far as he could tell, the man treated him just as well as he did everyone else, and that standard was high.

The second thing was the man announcing that the Count and Countess of Ward were being a problem for his people.

Them again. Not his favorite people personally at the moment.

He reached into his pocket and pulled two of the poison detectors and held them out to the man.

“Here you go. Let me know if you need more of them. No wait…” He pulled another from his pocket and handed it over too. The last he had with him other than his own. “Just in case they come after you too.”

Trice walked over and gave him a hug, which he took to mean it was a good move. She didn't kiss him, but then being around all these poisons, who could blame her? Also, it was the public dining hall of her school, in front of her friends and peers, so that could be the reason too. That she even hugged him here made him feel special. She didn't have to after all. At school she didn't really have to keep the fiction that their marriage plans were real after all. For that matter, since it was a noble arranged marriage thing she didn't even have to with her parents. They'd be all right with the idea of her marrying him as a business deal type thing, right? So was the hug real?

Tor decided to pretend it was, regardless. He got little enough attention from women; this tiny bit was a luxury. Might as well enjoy it while it lasted.

The man in front of him stood straighter. He had a smile on his face, but also looked baffled at the same time.

“Oh! Yes, these would be lovely for my parents, but how much? I can have funds sent if it’s more than I have on hand… This is definitely worth whatever is asked.”

Sara started asking questions of Tor her voice serious and low, Dean Hardgrove listened as well, his head nodding along with what she said. “Tor, how long did these take to make, the original template I mean?”

It was a leading question of course, because she obviously knew the answer. She'd been on Tor watch duty more than once he'd been told and had done some things to care for him that made him blush when he thought of it, so it wasn't anything casual. She knew and just nodded when he said eleven days out loud.

“And you nearly died making them, why did it take so long?” Her voice was curious and everyone had moved in to listen, actually gathering around the table. He tried to keep his explanation short and simple, explaining that it was just a complex subject, so the field took a lot of time to build in order to be comprehensive. That was all really.

After about five minutes of this Sara shrugged and turned to the man.

“About two thousand gold. Each. That price is the one for friends here. I wouldn’t expect it to last once they go into manufacturing.”

The man didn't even blink. No one else did either, not even the Dean. Two thousand gold? That seemed high. High enough that Tor felt uneasy holding on to the one in his pocket for a second, before realizing that the price didn't really apply to him. Or the man in front of him come to that. Not if his family was going up against Ward. That guy… annoyed Tor. The whole getting Ursala pregnant thing still rankled a little when he thought about it, and then his trying to sleep with Varley hot on the heels of that… Sure, the Count wasn't exactly bright, but Maria should have coached him not to go after the Princess just then, shouldn't she? Not that he felt any great love for Maria either, but… Well, he wasn't going to hold what she'd done at fourteen against her forever. Maybe she'd fixed herself already even? People could change, if they tried.

The man started to speak about arranging the funds, catching Sara's attention and a few of the other students, for some reason. Tor shook his head, and took the last bite of the fish dish, making an effort not to scrape the delicious sauce up with the side of the silver fork. Real silver too. Everything here was nicer than what they had at the other school. Probably because that one housed the rabble, fighters, scholarship kids and… The Prince. At least one full Count too.

That made sense though. A lot of royals had their kids over there too. Was that too keep them from getting too full of themselves? Heh. The idea that some of the nobles where that smart impressed him suddenly.

“Oh, those are gifts… For your parents and you. Really, let me know if you need anything else. I won't let my friends be harmed. Not if it’s within my ability to stop.” He couldn't explain why, not in public, because that would have compromised Ursala, and Tor wouldn't do that, which could have made things difficult to explain if a small gasp hadn't gone up around the room. That distracted everyone nicely.

Leaning in to him Trice grinned and spoke so close to his ear that it had to look like she was kissing it. “Oooohh. Now you've done it. Almost everyone wants one of those, and here you are just giving them away!” Her chuckle sounded warm enough, not like she was angry or anything. Was being poisoned really that big of a fear with the rich types?

Well, he'd seen firsthand how everyone at various court functions had reacted when he ate out of turn. At the time he'd kind of thought that was just about his breaking protocol, but if it was really that big of a problem… Well, if it was, he'd take living as a village baker. No one had ever tried to poison anyone in Two Bends.

In his lifetime, two people had been knifed, and one of them died. Both those were the same fight, but that was all as far as serious violence even. For the most part people just discussed things if they had a problem, or got Tom the Mayor to settle it. Looking at the empty plate in front of him he noticed how nice it was. Fine china, not earthenware like he was used to at home or even the other dining hall. Oh well, if he broke one of those plates he could at least afford to pay for it, this thing in front of him would be costly if dropped.

Looking around at the eager faces he made up his mind.

“Alright,” his voice was soft, but everyone suddenly quieted down to listen as if it was important or something. “I need to rest for a bit and get caught up on my actual school work, so I don't get kicked out. So far they've been really nice about everything, but Kolb's going to have my behind if I don't get back to regular practice and so will Karen. Also I can't keep pushing the Dean like this, not going to classes for weeks at a time… everyone gets that, right?”

Behind him the Dean chuckled, but didn't comment. Hopefully that meant he hadn't decided to kick him out already. It sounded like a friendly laugh at least. Tor tried to smile at the man over his shoulder a bit, encouraging him to stay friendly. Patricia chuckled a little as well and squeezed his shoulder again.

“But after that I'll start making batches up for everyone here.”

The crowd smiled a little, everyone seeming, if not excited then at least pleased. Good, he didn't want anyone to feel left out or anything, even if he didn't know them personally.

“Sara, would you start a list? I think… First come first serve? Um, not to seem greedy or anything, but this is only for the students and… the faculty here.” He looked around and noticed the servants as well, one or two looked disappointed. “Well… anyone that works here at the school. But it would be too much work to make one for every extended family member, you know? So, one apiece, at least for the free ones? I'll send the template off to Debri after that, or, I don't know, maybe make some up for regular sale, since, you know, the shields and flying gear are taking up most of the manufacturing set up there right now. Is that OK? If anyone has a pressing need back home, please talk to Sara about it and I'll make sure things are taken care of faster those people.”

Trice went white, probably realizing that they could have sold a huge amount of those even at the school or to peoples parents at least. That or she worried that he'd work himself too hard, which was kind of her if that was the worry. He squeezed her hand a little, since it hadn't left his shoulder. He looked at her with small smile then the Dean as an afterthought.

“Don't worry. These will come slow and are only copies; I won't push myself too hard or anything. Or miss classes for it.” It got the girl to nod at him at least, even if she didn't look exactly convinced yet.

The Dean told him that this section had about thirty students in all, but that the total for the whole school was about three hundred, if the offer wasn't just for the special school students. Then nearly a hundred instructors and staff. So four hundred of the devices in all? Tor could do that. Really, it should only take him about a month, even going slow, since the template passed fields so easily, but he didn't mention that out loud. After all, when Karen got done with him, he may not be able to do anything for the rest of the month.

At the thought he sighed and stood.

“Right. Now though, I have to go and take a beating from a combat giant. It's deserved, for missing all the lessons I have, but that won't make it hurt any less.” He looked downcast on purpose and shook his head mournfully.

Everyone in the room laughed and more than a few patted him on the back on the way out. Yeah, he could see some of them commiserating with him on that score. They were mainly smaller people too, compared to the shield bashers that they had to practice with sometimes. Sara stayed to make up that list and managed to get the Dean to sit beside her, which should keep everyone polite enough.

When he walked out Trice looked back wistfully.

“God, I should have grabbed that list first! Oh well, I can wait a few weeks or months even. Right now no one’s probably trying to poison me personally.”

He made a face at her and snorted.

“Right, like you, Rolph and Sara aren't getting yours before dinner? Tovey too. I kept the ones for you in my room. For that matter I need to send some off to everyone’s families as well. Um… well, you aren't mad at me though are you? I know that this is a lot of gold to just give away, but…”

She grabbed his shoulders and kissed him just as they reached the commons. It was a good kiss, one that lasted long enough that someone passing by, another student even, coughed loudly, which made them both laugh.

“You're kidding, right? From childhood on every noble is taught to worry about being poisoned, to follow protocol and actually examine our food for anything that might hurt us. Extra grittiness, a strange flavor or color, anything.” She made eye contact; the blue of her eyes looked clear today, almost crystalline somehow. Like some of the gems on the walls of the palace.

“When you ate the fish with white sauce off the testing table… that really won them over. It showed how confident you were in what you'd made. I thought a couple of people were going to pass out from fright honestly.”

She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him gently into walking.

“But to answer your question, no. I wouldn't be mad over something like this. School is ninety percent about gaining new contacts when you're a noble like we are. You just won over almost everyone here. Yesterday you were the guy that made stuff they had to fight to get, and probably couldn't, even if they had the golds. Today you're their friend that cares about them enough to see to their personal protection, even at great personal cost. Doing it this way is brilliant too. No one will think you’re trying to curry favor with them in particular, so it just makes you seem… You know, I don’t even have a word for it, but it’s good. Every time they eat for years they'll think about their buddy Tor standing between them and death. I wouldn't have suggested it…because I just wouldn't have thought of it really. Of course your offer will include some people you aren't overly fond of… unless you want to snub them? Dorgal for instance?”

That idea made Tor happy, for about half a second, then he just sighed and shook his head.

“I don't like Dorgal. He's a bully and not overly bright, at least not that I've ever seen. But I don't want him to be poisoned, or anything, either. I don't know if he'd want anything made by me, but the offers there for him too.” That had to be done, didn't it? Dorgal wasn't his friend, but someday they'd all be adults and he wouldn't want an enemy if he could help it. Especially if he ended up with the guy as an in-law or something. For that matter he needed to make sure and send some of the devices off to Meredith Sorvee and her family too.

Even if he was trying to get out of it, she'd offered to marry him. No matter her reasoning, that was kind. Tor needed to make sure she knew that he appreciated the gesture.

They walked the rest of the way back to the room slowly, but in silence. Inside the room Tor started pulling out field amulets and handed two of the poison detectors to Trice, one hers, the other for Sara. He set two more aside and loaded up a cloth sack with some of the other fields he'd brought back from vacation with him.

“What's this?” Trice pointed at what he held in his hand.

“Oh, well, I made up about twenty flying rigs and new shields just for the school and about that many of the temperature equalizing fields. Those guys in practice armor roast this time of year. It's really bad. Then I added a few more, because, you know, I need to personally bribe Karen and the others into not killing me. I missed eleven days without giving any notice. Kind of surprised Kolb is even letting me come back, to tell the truth. It's probably just so Karen can give me a good thrashing before he kicks me out of his section. I can't really blame him, but, you know… bribes. So maybe?” He shook the bag a little, holding it up hopefully.

Trice started kissing him again which ended up with him laying on his back, her on top of him for a few seconds before she relented and told him to get off to weapons practice before they decided to kill her fiancee for real. He didn't exactly run to the weapons practice area, not being able too, but he walked quickly. He really didn't want to be too late after all. Eleven days was late enough.

When he got there Karen was working with another person, both in well fitted practice armor, so probably their own, which meant they had money to spend on luxuries like that. She called out instructions, but not nearly as many as she used the one time she'd worked with him. That made sense; the smaller form in front of her was nearly as good as she was. The moves weren't quiet as clean maybe, and the reach not as long, but the blows hit almost one for one between the two. Tor had only tapped the larger woman about once every four or five hits she'd made on him, and most of those simply lacked the needed power, if he was going to judge himself honestly.

This went on for a while, so Tor watched, trying to pick up pointers. After all, he'd probably have to work with one or both of them in the future. Their fighting style was very similar, like they'd had the same teachers, or practiced together a lot, maybe both. More, Tor realized, that instruction hadn't come from Kolb. They aimed for the head and body most often, but in a general way, not specific weak points in the armor for instance. Kolb stressed hitting weak points if possible and growled if you didn't get close enough. Maybe more with him than the others, because he was so small and needed the advantage, but Tor had heard him telling everyone similar things.

After about ten minutes Karen had knocked the smaller form down with a shoulder thrust and started beating him while on the ground.

“Get up! If you go down like that for real he'll kill you. Get up!

The thrashing didn't stop.

Chapter two

Karen kept screaming at the smaller person to get up, which they finally did, being hit the whole time, about thirty seconds later. No complaints came, they just started fighting again. Well, whoever the other person was, Tor knew one thing; they were tougher than he was. A better fighter too. Obviously whoever Karen feared would kill them, it wasn't him. They continued back and forth for another twenty minutes before they stopped to get some water, sweat dripping from both of them.

After the tall woman doffed her helm, the padded gray leather dark now, because of the sweat, she drank dippers of water for a while without stopping. It must be extra hot today, Tor realized. He hadn't noticed, since it just felt pleasant to him personally. He dug out one of the equalizing amulets, looked at the other person, a boy that looked familiar, and realized they each should have one. Heat didn’t care if you were in charge or not. It took a second to find, then another to untangle the hemp strings they were on.

“Here.” He handed the amulets over without saying more.

Almost automatically they put them on and activated them.

“Whooo!” Karen yelled suddenly. “Oh my god…” Her eyes closed for a bit and then she smiled.

“Where have you been all my life? I’d heard about these, from Rolph Merchant, but I didn’t think I’d get to use one.”

The boy looked at him and smiled a little, a sad and abstract thing. He got it now, it was the boy with the washing, the one that helped him test the clothes dryer that first time. He'd grown, standing at least four inches taller now, even after only a few months.

Royals. They grow up so fast. Tor smiled a little but didn’t laugh. The kid was a Countier after all, and could take offense.

“David, isn't it? David Derring?” Tor held his hand out to shake and the boy’s face lit up a little.

“Yeah. I didn't know if you'd remember me or not.”

Karen looked at them and grinned herself. “And here Davie's been telling everyone at home he hadn't made any important contacts yet. This will make dad happy at least, as long as we can keep you alive…” Her look went dark then, but she shrugged and turned to Tor, explaining.

“Out of the blue some Count challenged him to a duel last week. It's insane, of course, who challenges little kids like that? They've never even met. Worse, since the guys a sitting Count, Davie can't even kill him, but the guy can take him out without anyone saying much at all. Apparently dad got into an argument with him when they were at the Capital, so the guys trying to punish him by killing my brother.”

Duel?

In theory, Tor knew they could happen, but he didn't know what the rules were or even if there were any. He asked, not even thinking that it might be hard for the boy to hear until after he said the words, but David answered with authority. He'd obviously been studying up on the topic. No doubt. Tor would have been doing that too.

“It's simple enough. Two men meet, or women, though not usually mixed it's not totally forbidden, and they fight, using whatever they can bring. Well, it has to be just the two of them, and weapons that can be carried on your person, but you show up with your best weapons and fight until you can't anymore. Usually it stops when one of them is dead. But in this case, I can't actually try to kill the Count on purpose. If he dies by an honest accident, that might work, since he challenged me, not the other way around. I have another two weeks to get ready. He's coming here to kill me.”

The boy looked down and hung his head.

“The guy is huge and has a shield and full combat aura if he rages, as well as direct effect in a fight. I don't have anything yet, I may never. So, my odds aren't good.”

Any weapons? Did that mean that shields would count as well? He asked, getting a snort from Karen.

“Well, yeah. But we can't borrow one from the school for it, since they aren't allowed to be involved and short of getting one on the black market, which is almost impossible… what are we supposed to do? The weapons have to be legally and fully owned, they can't be borrowed anyway. It the law. Even a Count has to follow that one.” She looked miserable, almost ready to cry, which didn't match what he knew about her at all.

Tor scratched his nose absently.

“Oh. Well, I guess he can just use the shield from the flying gear I gave him for his birthday? Oh, yeah, right…” He pulled out a set, flying rig and shield and handed one to Karen and another to Davie. “Happy birthday, Davie. Sorry your gift was late like this. I’ll have the rest of it soon.”

Karen went slightly pale. “But…”

Tor's eyes flashed and he didn't let her speak. Pointing rudely with on finger at what she held instead. Then he bowed from the waist going about halfway down. He hadn’t tried to kill her after all. He stood after about fifteen seconds, hoping that was long enough.

“Yours is by way of a blatant bribe to keep you from killing me too much for being gone all this time. I apologize fully and humbly for my absence. If it helps, it was work related, and I felt that my life hung in the balance. Um, I made a new kind of poison detector. You two get those for free too, but, you know, there's a waiting list, everyone here is getting one if they want it. David… well, he's my friend. He helped me do testing on my very first novel build project, and you know, there's no debt between friends. I don't know if that's a thing here, but it is where I come from, and it means that at need he can have anything I own, or can make, obviously you too Karen, if it comes up. Besides…”

Surprising even himself his voice came out in a half growl. “This Count really thinks he can kill one of my friends that easily? Not if I can do anything about it. Now, we need weapons for you too, right? I've never made any, but let's see what we can come up with…”

Karen wouldn't let them go out to the range instantly to examine weapons, because Tor had to exercise first. Needed to badly as it turned out. The only kindness he was shown was that Davie got to beat him instead of Karen, and he had a feeling that the boy was pulling his blows out of pity, due to his still injured leg. Otherwise he'd have been dumped on the ground more times than he was. Then they worked stones, swinging the heavy rocks with their metal handles around in various exercises until he just couldn't any more. That was normal, but then she had them do it with lighter weights and didn't let them stop until they could barely budge even the smallest ones, which only weighed ten pounds each.

Only then was Karen satisfied enough to fly with Tor out to the range. David, for all that he now owned a set of flying gear, had never actually gotten to use the schools yet. First years and non-combat students didn't rate, it seemed. Tor chuckled at that, because he wouldn't have either, if he didn't have his own. Even at that, he'd never practiced fighting with a shield on at all. Unless having Count Ward pound on him that one time counted as practice? He was probably supposed to stick to the idea Kolb had taught him and run away if he could. It seemed like a good plan to him. Fly away now, if he had the right amulet with him.

The range, when they got there, was not impressive. A bit of a letdown really. It was just a large open area that had some dried and scrubby grass growing in clumps, and bare earth along the far end. The ground rose into an earth berm that looked to be twenty or thirty feet thick and about the same height. In front, near the ground, there were a few objects set up as targets. A painted boulder with a fresh looking red x stood next to a half dozen standing wooden plates that were hung in red painted frames.

Karen walked to a locked box next to where they landed and slapped the lock plate, which got the box to open. She took out three of the object inside and handed one to Tor.

“Keep it pointed down range please. At all times if possible. These are real weapons, if… Well, I think you'll get it. Pick a target and give it a try.”

The device itself looked familiar, just a silver piece of metal that had a small sigil on it where his thumb could reach pretty easily. It was obviously made for bigger hands than his, but he was used to that, and just gripped it closer to the middle, before pointing it down range. He aimed at the boulder, not wanting to waste the wooden targets, and activated it.

A puff of dirt came off of the dirt backing, about ten feet too high. Since he stood about two hundred feet away that was probably just due to poor aim. It wasn't like he'd done it before. He aimed lower and hit the rock, but it didn't do much. The boulder moved a little. At least he thought it did. That might have been imagination.

“This is just a force lance, but it's only about four times what a student’s lance would be. The fields degrading. Not that we need vast power levels for practice, but it would be nice to have a few around that could be aimed reliably. Here, try this one. Aim for the stone again.”

Nothing happened in the air between the boulder and himself, but a flame finally burst out of the air around the boulder. He'd seen something like this one before at least. Close up. The flame flickered and died almost instantly.

All of the weapons did that as he tried them. They worked for a single hit or blast, and then you had to trigger them again. The flame one was just that weak, the field flickering and fading even as he used it. He caught the feeling of the field, but realized that it took power from the user to make it function. Why, he wondered? That didn't seem like a good idea for people that needed to keep fighting for a long time, did it? It could work by just concentrating ambient heat at the point of focus just as well. Better probably.

The rest all did the same, except the cutters. Even the one explosive weapon they had for practice was weak and grabbed energy from the user. That, Karen explained, was why they didn't just stay on all the time. You had to be very strong to use a weapon like that, and no one could do it for more than about a minute all told, and those people paid for it in exhaustion latter.

Well. That explained why Wensa hadn't suffocated him with fire at the shield test then. She'd just run out of energy? Thank goodness for that.

Tor saw a half dozen ways to improve the weapons instantly. He'd have to fly back before he could get the ideas on paper, but he nodded. So better weapons, and one that could take out a Count without killing him? That… could be a lot trickier.

He didn't promise anything, but Karen probably got that he wasn't going to let a kid go into a fight with a grown man unarmed. He'd challenge the guy himself first, even if it meant he had to die. As it was though, honestly, David was probably more capable of surviving this fight than he would be. The shield would help, probably, and a few weapons that didn't drain him while being used.

Tor focused on those, a force lance that would pack a punch and an explosive that could be used if things got really desperate. Then he needed something that would take out the man’s personal shield somehow. Really, that would be the hardest part. It would be easier to beat the man unconscious even through the shield than to disable it. That would be dangerous though, because beating him into giving up was just a breath away from killing the man.

In the end he didn't have anything even remotely like a shield remover ready in time. Tor felt a little panicked when he flew with Rolph and Kolb out to the testing range. Karen and David already waiting, everyone clearly feeling a little agitated, except Rolph. He seemed cool and relaxed about the whole thing.

“Don't worry Davie. If Tor's on it, you'll be fine.” His large friend, long red hair pulled back into a ponytail, smiled and patted the boy on the back.

The vote of confidence was appreciated, but Tor just hoped what little he could bring to bear would be enough to save the kid. The fields were on copper tubes, because he couldn't afford to give away real silver, even if it was the standard for weapons. He couldn't even afford solid copper. Taking a deep breath he held up the first one.

“Force lance.” Triggering it he aimed at the targets, the constant barrage of force hit the backing wall first, but he didn't turn it off and it didn't just pulse like a normal weapon. He spoke while it hit the targets knocking most of them down as he swept the weapon back and forth.

“It doesn't take personal energy; it's just an organizing field. I'm a little uncertain why the regular ones grab from the user, to tell the truth, but this is way easier to use and you can leave it on. It's strong, but shouldn't kill the guy instantly if he has a shield or even heavy armor. On the good side, it will affect a person even through one of the shields I've made, except for the newest version, which you'll be wearing, so even if he has one of my earlier models it will be at least a little effective. That way the weapon can't be used against you even if he takes it away or something. It just tells stuff to move, kind of like the flight field, or more like the Falcon's or how a water pump works. Obviously you can't fly with the new shield on though, not yet, so wear both and only use the new one when you're on the ground.”

Taking his thumb off from the sigil Tor moved to the next one.

“Alright, this is… Well, it's not a proper military weapon at all. It just locks all the air out of an area, so that a person inside the field, about ten by ten, can't breathe. Really it doesn't even remove the air, it just doesn't let it flow, the original idea came when I was working on water sculptures that will hang in the air. Anyone want to test it?”

To his surprise Kolb volunteered with a small smile. After about half a minute he waved his hand and Tor stopped.

“That works! I could still fight, but I couldn't breathe, and it felt hard to move. Like being stuck in place. So he won't be able to fight fast, even in a combat rage. Keep this trained on a person and move back as they do and within a few minutes the fight should be over. Nice thinking Tor.” Kolb stared at him for a moment, then smiled. Really he looked proud.

Tor held up the final piece he had and took another huge breath then let it out.

“This is… Look, David, if the counts going to kill you, I mean really kill you, like you’re going to die, not just be beaten a little, then use this, but… well, I think you'll get the idea.”

Tor turned and activated the device, pointing it at the field next to the range, flat, but holding a few trees and some boulders as big as the one with the red x on it. It exploded. Huge walls of dirt and rock flew back and up, digging furrows about fifteen feet across into the ground, moving it back and forth he outlined and then dug out a rectangle with a berm at the back, since it was the only place the earth and stone could move. This took about three minutes. It was loud, like thunder the whole time. Tor was the one doing it and felt a little like soiling himself in fear, just from the sound.

When he turned around everyone stared at him. Looking odd. Well, it wasn't exactly normal was it?

“Yeah. So, not much of a toy. Still, if the guy won't back off, it gives you something to go to.”

Rolph stood breathing hard, looking at Tor and swallowing almost convulsively. “Tor…”

Kolb took it and gave it a try for about thirty seconds himself. Then handed it off to Rolph to use, each of the others going after that. Then the large bald man picked up all the weapons.

“So, Davie, these are all yours, but you can't have them at school, obviously. These are just too dangerous. I'll keep them for you until the duel, if that's acceptable?” This question was addressed to Rolph, who nodded slowly.

“Yes… Um, Tor, I'm going to have to request that you not give these out as gifts. Especially those explosives.” His hand flew up. “I know, by law you can, and I can't order you not to… but…”

Tor snorted. “No doubt. I'm not even making extras of these. I'll turn the templates over to your dad directly if you want, or whatever. These aren't something for the open market. Maybe the force lance for battlefield use, but who else would need it? I wouldn't have even made them if this Count wasn't being so insane about this. Sorry, Davie, but if he was just planning on giving you a beating, I would have just handed you the shield and flying gear and called it good, you know? As it is, if it turns out that's all he's going for, well, I think you should just take the beating and let it go. This could all go wrong in so very many ways…”

David nodded somberly.

“I know. I promise, if I can deal with this that way, I will.”

Rolph clapped him on the back and chuckled, sounding a little weak. No one said anything about it after that and Tor was able to spend the next two days making poison detectors instead of weapons prototypes. A few batches even got packaged up to go to peoples families, including Meredith Sorvee who he sent ten to, with written instructions. He'd kept up a steady flow even while working on the new fields for Davie, so a lot of people already had them, Tor had seen them at meals even. Sara passed them out for him, because she was really sweet that way, with some help from a few special school kids he didn't know, just setting up a table in the court yard and going down the list.

Wensa had at least backed off from mentioning how he didn't have anything for poisons yet, but she kept giving him sour looks every time they met. Dark things, like she felt bad about not having killed him yet. Or something at least. Tor couldn't think of what else she’d be thinking about him.

The night before Davies duel, the evening that he finally got to take the splint off, as Tor walked slowly out of the dining hall, he came under attack. A real one too, not just someone calling him names or glaring.

The person was masked, and too small to be a royal, probably at least, but wore a familiar gray skirt. Wensa.

She didn't do much, just kicked him down the stairs, a single stomp to the middle of the back which sent him flying down the first twelve feet or so, landing with a solid thud. Stone struck him over and over again as he fell. He couldn't even slap the shield on and then, as he turned to face her, he found himself all alone. Tor activated the shield and waited, then limped back to his room, his leg killing him. Rolph wasn't in, having some kind of big Prince meeting he had to attend with the Dean. His friend had just mentioned it this time, happy that he didn't have to pretend to be drinking to try and fool him this time.

Tor just sat in the room waiting to come under attack again, his shield turned on. Hastily he made a copy of the force lance he'd designed, putting it on a much shorter piece of copper tube, making a single cut in the metal for the activation sigil. Who needed a weapon like this? He asked himself sardonically…

Right, anyone that had a crazy Royal Guard after them. He built it as fast as he could, because he had to sit in the room without his shield while he worked. Then he waited.

As he really should have expected, nothing happened. Wensa was good about biding her time after all. Tor knew that already. She'd waited months just for this and probably wouldn't stop now.

About two hours later the door opened and he just managed to not hit Rolph with the force lance.

“Shut the door!” He must have looked a sight, because the Prince didn't hesitate, slamming and locking it quickly.

“What happened?”

“Wensa tried to kill me! She kicked me down the stairs outside the dining hall. Well, I don't “know” it was Wensa, right build, gray skirt, but she wore a leather mask so that I can't really lodge a complaint, after all, I can't prove it was her, right?” Tor gripped the force lance tighter, which got Rolph's attention.

“That's not… one of those explosives is it?” He said the words softly, as if he talked to a mad man. Rolling his eyes Tor snorted, a slightly more derisive sound than he'd really intended.

“Gods no. That would be moronic. I'm not that far gone yet. It's just a force lance, better that I just die myself than accidentally take half the school out. I just didn't have anything else that would work better for this, so I had to make do. What did I do to her anyway?” He touched his face, bruised in at least three places by the feel of it.

“I've never done anything to her at all. Is she… insane or something?” Tor knew he sounded scared and didn't care. The woman had orders to not kill him or even attack him, from Count Thomson, unless the King had revoked those orders? His own voice going soft he asked Rolph if that was possible. Could the King have ordered his death?

“Not likely. If he had, well, he'd probably either send the whole army, or he'd order you to just do it yourself. And given that you would, killing you would just be foolish, right? Waste of resources if nothing else. I'll check, but I'm almost certain that this isn't anything to do with him. If it is, then it's probably a miscommunication. That can happen… You know, he tells Wensa or her commander that Tor, his good friend, needs to be taken care of, meaning give you hugs and cuddles, and somewhere along the line that gets taken to mean “kill Tor” or something like that, but… If that were the case, she wouldn't have worn a mask and really Tor…” The Prince looked strained.

“She wouldn't have stopped until one of you was dead. The Royal Guard don't. That's why I figured that at the shield test she wasn't really trying to kill you. If she had, then you, or she, wouldn't be alive now.”

Rolph went out, wearing a full shield and carrying his own force lance, which wasn't, he told Tor, half as powerful as the one he had, even though it was military grade. The plan was to alert the authorities and see what was going on. Worse come to worse Tor would at least know that he had to run away or something, right? It made sense, but Tor worried about his friends’ safety and told him so. Rolph just shrugged and gave him a careless grin.

“For once it doesn't seem like anyone is coming after me at all. Go figure, huh?”

When Rolph came back, the Dean, Kolb and to Tor’s surprise, Wensa, came with him. Tor pointed the force lance, shield already activated.

“Don't put your hands near those pockets… Please.” Tor wondered what the hell was going on. Had an order to kill him gone out then? Had they all come to make it happen? He didn't think Rolph would, even if it meant going against his own family, not without explaining it to him first at least. And the Dean? Well, the guy knew poisons, but Tor wouldn't fall for that, and his shield wouldn't let them through. Maybe he was a brilliant fighter or something in his own right… Kolb?

Yeah, the man would kill him if ordered too. That just made sense, he was a Knight after all. He had to follow the King’s orders without question. Normally not a problem, Richard not being unreasonable. Why then? What was this all about?

Wensa stepped forward slowly, hands raised above her head, properly raised, not ready to fight.

“It wasn't me. I was with several other instructors at the time of the attack. They've already vouched for me.”

“Right. Like you couldn't just order them to lie for you? I think you'll have to do better than that. I was there after all. I probably have your boot mark on my back from the kick that sent me down the stairs….”

Rolph walked around him slowly and asked him to lift up his shirt. Right, he'd made it so that no one else could do that, to prevent clothing from being used as a weapon against the shield wearer. It was a hard field addition to pull off and as far as he knew, totally unique to his newer work. He lifted it awkwardly, his left arm bruised and tightening up painfully; he pointed the force lance and readied himself to fight just in case. When Tor got his right arm behind him, pulling up the hem for Rolph to take a look, Wensa rushed him.

Of course she did.

Just like he'd suspected she would, trying to finish what she'd done earlier.

He triggered the force lance in his left hand, which blasted the older woman back into the wall, breaking the door frame next to it and after a few seconds, punching her through the wall itself. On the ground outside she stood up, not even affected by the blast it seemed. He hit her again, which took her off the stone walkway and kept pointing the device at her, which drove her into the ground with a sickening thud. She rolled when she hit the ground, stood up and turned to run away. He swept the weapon over her. How was this happening? It took him a second to figure it out. She had a shield on. How had she gotten one? Had she stolen it?

Rolph jumped back. “Crap! Run, get away… Were losing him!” Everyone else standing behind him reeled. Had Wensa managed to attack them somehow? Some kind of poison or a special mind effecting military field? Well, it wasn't getting through the shield he wore, so he jogged to the stairs and walked down them slowly. His leg just wasn't up to running them yet. Especially going down.

Tor kept hitting Wensa with the weapon over the banister and then as he traveled towards her. At least it was an old shield, not one of the new ones that would stop a weapon like this. Or not one that he'd made. He'd assumed it was one of his, but as a Royal Guard, she probably had one on all the time, right? Still, he wouldn't be able to do anything to really stop her, not with a shield like this one on. Unless…

He'd built a field that passed through the shield, two of them in fact and others that could work inside of a shielded space. What if he did something similar now?

The woman tried to get away, rolling again, with agility that would have put an acrobat to shame. Tor kept her off balance the whole time, hitting her without stopping. What should he try first? A smile crossed his face. It was a long shot, but it could work…

He built a small field, one that simply mimicked natural sun light, it wasn't a strong thing, barely enough to flash for a few seconds before it faded, but he built it right in front of her eyes. In the dark courtyard that should blind her for a minute or so. She didn't cry out, so Tor didn't know if it worked or not, but she seemed to have a harder time getting up as he closed with her, at least a little, so maybe it had a bit?

Once close enough Tor held the lance on her and held her pined to the ground with enough force that the woman probably couldn't breathe, shield or not.

“Why do you keep trying to kill me?” He asked his voice sounding strange and gravely, like he'd been screaming, which he knew for a fact he hadn't. “Why?”

No answer came. Of course not. She wasn't afraid of him after all. What could some baker’s son do to her anyway? He might make her uncomfortable in the moment, but that wouldn't get him any answers, she'd just wait and come back for him later.

“Look, tell me why you keep trying to kill me now or…”

It took way too long for real dramatic effect, but much like he had with the blip of light, he created an explosive field not three feet from her head. The sound had to rock her, even if nothing from it touched at all through whatever shield she wore.

“I can build one of those inside a shield space you know. How about the middle of your head? I don't think even a rock head like you would survive that. Now, tell me why.” He smiled and stepped closer to her, until only about ten feet of space sat between them. “Now!”

The voice he heard next was soft and wasn't Wensa's at all.

“Hey… Tor, what's going on?” It was Trice, standing beside him, with about half a dozen people behind her. Rolph and the people from the room. Sara and Count Thomson had come out too. Good, maybe they could help?

“Wensa tried to kill me, then faked up an alibi. We were all talking about it, peacefully even, and she attacked me again. In front of Rolph, Kolb and the Dean, so I have witnesses this time. Kind of confirms it was her originally, doesn't it? Not that it matters. I'm trying to get at why right now. Anyone have any ideas about what to do? How the hell did she get a shield anyway? Did she steal it or, I guess Royal Guards don't steal… Did she make someone give it to her?” His breath came in pants. Mainly because he was stuck now. What could he do? Kill her? He thought he could. He probably could create a small explosion in her head, at least with her pinned down like this. It would take a few minutes, but he could do it. Well, he could build the field. But… he wasn't a killer.

Even holding her down like this was hard. Not hard to do, but it felt… Mean. Wrong. But if he let her up she'd attack him again. Not that it would be right now, but… later, when he couldn't defend himself, in his sleep maybe. Did he have a choice?

His fiancee looked around and shrugged. “Sounds reasonable to me. He's not in a combat rage. I've seen that on him and even if he was, Tor kind of stays reasonable compared to most people, however that works. So, why did Wensa try to kill him? Tor wouldn't lie about something like that. Really, I don't know if he can lie at all, so…” Her voice went into a questioning tone at the end and her hands came up. Right, now what.

“I think I really can kill her through the shield, we can't have someone like her running around trying to murder people, can we? I don't want to kill anyone, but, I don't think she's going to leave me any choice. First she tried to kill me at the shield test and no one believed it, because I wasn't dead, which I guess is fair enough, since she's a Royal Guard and all. Then she threatened to poison me. When I took that off the table, she tries to kick me down some stairs so that it would look like an accident. Which, considering she has orders not to kill me from a Count… Those still hold right?”

Tovey nodded, but he too looked at Rolph. “Not countermanded?”

The Prince nodded in return, if a bit slowly. “Yeah, I checked, nothing like that from the Capital at all. Didn't think there would be.”

When Tor looked up four forms stood around him holding weapons of some kind. It was almost like they'd just appeared in the air, rather than walked up normally, but he knew he was more than a little distracted. Two popped to mind as being instructors at the school, the other two as weapons instructors. The other Royal Guards? Great. The situation hadn't been complicated enough already. Well, it showed that this wasn't just Wensa then, didn't it? The silvery glints in their hands looked deadly, especially being pointed at him.

“Down!” Tor yelled as they opened fire on him. He spun, sweeping his little force lance across where they stood. They, unlike Wensa, hadn't gotten hold of any shields, at least not any good ones. They flew back hard and didn't get up quickly. The lance he had didn't hurt them directly of course, it just made their bodies move after all, but the impact against the ground probably stung. Without hesitation he hit Wensa again as she struggled to get up, probably to attack him again.

“Uh-un. Your friends aren't going to help you out of this.” It took going back and forth several times, but he finally had all the other guards knocked out about half a minute later and didn't lose Wensa either.

“Right so, if there's no order to kill me from the crown, then all of these royals guards have gone rogue? Little hard to believe. I need an explanation on this pretty quick here Rolph… I don't know what to do, but I know I can't leave them alive to attack me later, Royal Guards don't stop. You told me that yourself. So… I mean, I have to defend myself, right?” His voice had taken on a panicked air but no one laughed at him.

Not knowing what else to do, he started building a small, tiny really, explosive field inside Wensa's skull. One with a simple mental trigger on it, so that he could set it off on command. It took about half an hour to form something that wouldn't just fade in seconds, but in the end he had one ready. During that time he'd had to knock out the other people trying to attack him several times, because they really didn't give up. It was both scary and annoying. Finally the Dean and Rolph managed to convince them to put their weapons down and move back.

“Alright, Wensa… I just built an explosive inside your head. What you're going to do right now is deactivate the shield you're wearing and go to whatever lock up we have around here. Then you'll stay there until we decide what to do with you. If you try to leave, no matter where you go, I can set this off. If you attack me I'll set it off too. Even if it means getting your brain splattered all over me. Do you understand? You have… Let's say, ten seconds, to comply.”

He turned off the weapon in his hand and put it away. It looked all confident, but what he'd just said about the field in her head, most of it was a lie. Showed how well Trice knew him, didn't it?

Yes, Tor could trigger it right here, watching her from ten feet away, but twenty feet away would be hard and fifty impossible, at least under this kind of stress. Plus, in about ten minutes the field would fade totally. He could set it off now, but the effects just wouldn't last all that long without a lot more work.

The woman glared at him as she got up, which earned her a blast from the force lance, that he pulled out almost instantly.

“No… I said deactivate the shield, take it off and give it to Trice. Then, if you know what's good for you I suggest you don't try to attack me or even look at me like you want to. This isn't that hard, really. Just stop trying to kill me, and don't force me to kill you.”

Seriously! What did it take to get this woman to not try and attack him? She finally tapped the field, but only because Rolph and Tovey both ordered her on that point directly, then she took it off and passed it to Trice. It wasn't around her neck, just in an inner pocket. Tor walked all the guards, hands high over their heads to a small building that he'd never noticed before, just off the commons. It wasn't that he hadn't seen it, just that he couldn't notice it, at least not without focusing on it tightly, which in the nearly three years he'd been at the school he'd never had any reason to do. Some kind of mental disruption field? That made a certain kind of sense. It had two small holding cells in it. Once inside it was easier to notice by far, like a normal building almost. Tor had all the Royal Guards locked up inside a minute and a half, then he spoke to them through the bars.

“Right. I have no doubt that any of you could escape from here within moments. If you do, if any of you do, I'll be forced to protect myself. That means detonating Wensa first. It's true, the rest of you could run away and I can't do much to you. But I still suggest that you wait for this situation to be resolved first.”

Then he walked out. Everyone but Rolph followed. Staying to talk for some reason. He caught up to them in the commons a few minutes later, looking… vexed. Tor shook badly, pure fear reaction, but Trice held him anyway, even if he did shake like a tiny dog in her arms. No one said much for a long time. It was the Dean that spoke first.

“Well, that seems settled for now. I don't think anyone will risk going anywhere for now. They should know that you can't have built a field strong enough to last the night in her head in that time, but then again, you've done a half dozen other things they probably knew couldn't be done already, so they may not want to risk it.”

Rolph shrugged, looking at Tor directly.

“Wensa swears that she didn't attack you on the stairs Tor. She said that she only went after the weapon in our room because she saw an opening. It is how their trained, I can vouch for that. You pointed a weapon at her, so she responded as best she could. It also explains why the others came after you like they did. They didn't see you protecting yourself from an attack, just subduing one of their own. I ordered them to all stay in holding for now, just so you wouldn't have to try and fight them. We wouldn't want you to get hurt or anything, right?” Rolph gave him a smile as if he was placating Tor, which was appreciated greatly. Much better than the chewing out he probably deserved for letting all this happen, even if he didn't know how it could have been avoided.

Tor nodded and took a very deep breath, trying to regain his composure a little. Those people might have lost temporarily, but the same trick wouldn't work twice. Wensa had nearly gotten him on the stairs, even though he walked around wearing a shield almost all the time. He'd never even thought about someone just kicking him down some stairs! What else had he missed? If that had been a knife or a cutter instead of a foot he'd be dead right now. Did he have to live his whole life with a shield on?

Tor pointed this out to everyone, how clever the attack had been. Kolb shrugged and told him that it wasn't Wensa. Him saying that took Tor off guard.

“But… mask aside, it fits, about six-four or so, lean and strong, gray skirt… I know that Royal Guards have all those oaths, but if she's gone crazy or something those wouldn't hold, besides, she doesn't even know that I'm a Countier right? So she just thinks that killing me is a game or something maybe? Let's face it, to royals and their guards, killing a commoner doesn't mean very much at all. About the same as a goat or pig really. So if I'm just some regular guy to her…”

Rolph got a thoughtful look. “Well, I haven't told anyone at least. But she really does have an alibi and I don't think she forced anyone to say she was there. They didn't seem stressed about it when asked at least. Of course if it wasn't her, it does leave the question of why anyone would attack Tor. And dressed like that, it would have to be a setup. So something near professional level at least. I'd guess that some of the special school students might be able to think something like that up, right?”

His tall friend looked at the Dean, who nodded.

“Yes, but… well, Mr. Baker is rather popular over there just now. With the entire school I'd imagine. Those poison detectors he gave everyone… Well, if anyone needed funds badly enough to kill, they could just sell theirs and get two or three thousand gold for it right now. More than killing a schoolboy would earn them, by far… Even a noble one.”

That brought up the whole Countier thing, which oddly enough, past the story itself no one seemed to care much about. Given everything, why would they? Everyone was someone here, right? Even him, it turned out. His title as Squire actually meant as much or more in all real world terms. For that matter giving out flight fields and poison detectors meant more than either of those things to most people, according to Kolb and the Dean.

Kolb gave him a tired looking smile.

“A lot of people here have titles. Not many of them keep the soup from killing a body though. That kind of thing has an impact on people.”

Before going to sleep Tor made up a complete set of weapons, an explosive and one of the air thingies. It got him to bed really late, but he just didn't know what Wensa and her group would come up with next. Then, reluctantly, Tor got up when Rolph shook him awake. He packed up everything and tucked the weapons into the little inner pocket of his brown trousers. It wasn't good for quick retrieval, but he could, possibly, buy time by already having his shield on. He activated it on the way out the door. Rolph gave him a funny look, but didn't say anything about it overly.

The big redhead shrugged.

“The dueling ground is on the outskirt of town, we can fly out after breakfast. I heard that a few nobles have come to see it, so maybe we'll see some familiar faces?” Rolph obviously knew something about who was coming, but didn't want to give away the surprise. Tor didn't care, as long as David lived. He just hoped that whatever this Count was bringing to the party the boy had enough to make it a fair fight.

Tor could barely eat, as worried for Davie as he was. Rolph ate well enough, but then he seemed to think everything would be all right for some reason. Tor could only hope that was the case.

The dueling field, like the weapons range, was a bit of a disappointment. It was just an empty field of short cut grass. Or it would have been empty if there hadn't been about a hundred and fifty people standing around the center, most of them tall and well dressed. Two camps had formed already, one around David and one around a huge man that must have been about eight foot tall and who wore very nice looking armor, shiny silver, polished to a mirrors gleam and obviously heavy. He swung a huge sword, one that must have been about five foot long and had to weigh forty or fifty pounds, at least if it was made of steel, which it looked like from a distance to Tor.

Jerk. Bringing giant swords to kill a boy. Probably trying to make up for his small manhood.

David on the other hand had, almost comically, had dressed down to a pair of plain student browns, real canvas ones, not silk, and held nothing in his hands at all. He had his flight gear on and a little leather bag on his left hip, just about big enough for all the weapons and possibly a couple of sandwiches to spare. He didn't look overly worried. Either the boy felt truly confident or was hiding the fear really well.

Either way it was incredibly brave.

Tor held back and waited for whatever else the Count would pull out. The armor was pretty, but in a fight to the death, or in his case to a horrible beating that could at least lead to death, it wasn't enough. He probably had a shield on under it and wore it only for effect. Same with the sword. It looked cool, sure, but as a Count he'd probably have military grade weapons on his person at all times anyway just as a matter of course. Rolph did, and wore a shield around too, even if he didn't turn it on most of the time. So the other stuff was just to throw David off?

Or maybe make him look good while he tried to kill a fourteen year old boy just to spite a third party? That… made some sense. After all, what kind of an ass set up a little kid for murder like this?

A royal one, obviously.

After half an hour a man checked a pocket watch openly, using large and obvious gestures that got everyone's attention easily. This gentleman wore red from head to foot, except for the gold buttons on his jacket. Even the leather shoes were a bright and matching color. He yelled loudly, his voice carrying over the whole field.

“The Count William Cordes Smythe Rodriguez gives greeting to all present, and states that the folly of offense given him is too great to let lay. He asks that all present know that this boy, Countier third, David Edmund Derring, has offended the Counts sensibilities… by daring to exist.” The man cleared his throat and looked embarrassed to be there suddenly. Tor didn't blame him. Calling a boy out to his death because you decided he shouldn't exist? It was about the stupidest thing he'd ever heard. Rolph winced.

“He's compounding the insult so that Davie can't pull out without being dishonored. It's a setup, obviously. What kind of a monster kills a kid because he's mad over some vote that the father made?”

Tor reeled physically, actually taking three full steps back before he caught himself and stopped. This was over a vote? He'd thought that the Count was at least angry over something somewhat reasonable, a border skirmish or maybe sleeping with someone’s wife, or daughter maybe. Tor had kicked a Duke in the groin and the guy hadn't challenged him to a freaking duel. A flash of anger took Tor then, acid started eating at his stomach and Rolph's eyes went wide and he hit his shield.

“Um, Tor? I… just remember your shield this time…” His large friend whispered. Tor shook and ground his teeth a little.

This was… ridiculous didn't cover it. He was of half a mind to go and give the guy a piece of his mind right here and now. Before he could, a man dressed in all green except for the silver buttons on his coat stepped forward and addressed everyone present.

“The Countier third, David Derring gives greetings to all and offers full apology without reservation for his trespass of “existing”.” The crowed actually chuckled. “Further, out of great kindness and compassion, he offers the Count his life. Do you yield sir?”

Laughing the man started to wave this away. Before he got his hand half raised Davie shot up in the air to about a hundred feet pointed one of the weapons at the ground a good ways away and triggered a full minute of explosions. Then he landed and bowed towards the Count.

The man in green nodded to the boy once, and turned, yelling again.

“Again, the Count is offered his life. Do you wish to yield sir?” Yelling or not the man was a pro and kept the tone bored and bland.

Tor felt like wetting himself from all the noise personally, but thankfully didn't really have to go.

Instead of yielding, like a sane person, the Count demanded that the boy be stripped of all weapons and shields, so that they may meet on a “fair” footing. After all, borrowed or stolen weapons didn't count, only those owned by the combatant outright. Rolph patted him on the shoulder.

“You're up Tor.”

Right. He walked to the center of the field, near but behind David.

“These weapons, shields and flying gear belong to Countier David Derring, given by me personally, without reservation or outstanding debt of any kind, which I believe makes it legal for him to have?” He looked around to find that most of the crowd was nodding. Good.

“Further, if you want to demand a fair fight, how about you don't pick on a boy you've never even met? What the heck is with that anyway? Are you just a bully or are you actually insane? If you want a fair fight maybe you should kneel down so that you're at least close to the same height you over grown moron! What, are you afraid that if you faced someone not still in their first year of school it would be too much for you? Even making this challenge marks you as a coward, doesn't it? How about you withdraw now and save everyone here a lot of grief and heartache later instead of trying to act like this is anything but you having an ego issue and taking it out on an innocent person? Are you really so vain and… and evil that you'd attack a little boy because your angry at his da? If you want to fight so bad, why don't you try me instead? At least I'm old enough to need to shave each morning. No, wait, that would be too much for you wouldn't it? I'm sure we can scrounge up some six year olds for you to choose from if you don't mind waiting a minute. Perhaps my little sister, since you seem to like making sure the fight can't possibly be fair at all.” Tor shook a little in rage. Not combat rage, just the real kind for once.

OK, so it was a bad plan to taunt a man in armor who was holding a sword, Count or not, but the idiot was threatening the life of one of his friends. The laughing crowd seemed to be in support of his words. At least they were for the first ten seconds until the man in red withdrew the first challenge and threw down a second.

The Count challenged Tor.

He laughed.

Tor couldn't help it. Was the guy really that stupid? Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or maybe he was just too pissed from the fight the night before to think straight, but either way he'd had about enough of this guy.

“Alright. Let's do this then. At least this time he has a reason to feel insulted. Moron.” Tor didn't wait for any fancy calling out by nicely suited gentlemen with loud voices. Instead he turned to the man in green and spoke softly, feeling like killing someone for the first time in his life.

“Clear the field please.” Tor growled, a low tone that most of the people around him probably couldn't hear. The loud guy near him swallowed and stepped back suddenly for some reason. Remembering not to turn his shield off this time Tor let his face pull into a grin.

“Clear the field!” The deep voice of the man in green rumbled so loudly that Tor could feel it in his chest standing over ten feet away. Did the man practice yelling then? It was impressive.

He couldn't take the shining giant in a fair fight, of course, and running away wasn't an option, not now. Instead Tor just walked towards the man, who dropped the sword and pulled an energy weapon of some kind, just like he figured would be the plan earlier. It didn't do anything to him, which caused the man to panic a little and scramble for his sword. Right, because the military grade weapon not working meant a sword would? Brilliant. The man should have run away right then if he couldn't bring anything more to the fight. Tor kept walking.

At about fifteen feet away the man charged. Tor just reached into his pants, understanding it probably looked a little rude when he stopped to think about it, which made him smile for a few moments and blush. Tor pulled weapons from the pocket as the man hacked at him vigorously. And uselessly. The ground popped and even rumbled a little under his feet. Tor largely ignored the other man all together while he worked. The guy had power behind the blows it seemed, but it didn't concern him overly. That could happen when you were eight foot tall and probably weighed close to four hundred pounds, most of it muscle. Tor sorted the weapons in his hand carefully and put the explosive one away again. No need to murder the guy, even if he was a bit cheesed at him. Not yet. Tor had all day if needed.

The force lance hurled the man back and then to the ground. Tor held him there for a while, then used the device in his left hand to make the air too hard to breath. The man gasped and choked on the ground, then flopped a little as he did. When it looked like he was about to lose consciousness Tor let him have a little air.

“Hey, would you like to yield? No real percentage for either of us if you die here today. I can’t say that I care overly right now myself, but it’s your call.”

“Never!” The man gasped.

“Really? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here, why don’t you take a few minutes to think about it? I’ll even add a “pretty please” to sweeten the deal.” Tor knew he must look and sound insane, but really just couldn’t care.

“Yield, pretty please?” The crowd chuckled again.

Tor held him in place and then took his air away again. The man struggled and his mouth opened and closed like a fish on land. Really it was pitiful enough that Tor felt bad for the Count. He didn’t want Davie to get hurt, but that didn’t mean he wanted to kill this guy either. Even if he was a mentally defective a-hole with a superiority complex.

He let the field go. The man sucked in air loudly, signaling he was alive.

“Really? We can’t just call this here? You don’t even have to yield officially, we can just stop and all go home as friends. I’ll even apologize for making fun of you if you do the same for calling out a fourteen year old boy by… mistake. Is that fair do you think? Anyone can get angry and make an error. Not everyone is willing to simply admit it though. Only the good ones. What kind of person are you sir?”

The man struggled to his feet, still breathing hard. Everyone just waited. After two minutes the man bowed his head.

“I apologize for allowing my anger at the Countier’s father to drive me to challenging the boy. It was wrong of me and I now see the error of my ways.”

Tor nearly passed out. He been expecting the fight to resume after the Count recovered a little, this… well only the one honorable thing to do now, he realized.

“For my part I must express my own chagrin at finding that I have maligned a good man in error. I let my own anger foolishly get the better of me. I apologize fully and unreservedly. I was wrong. Let’s set this aside and all leave as friends?”

The Count approached him and bowed from about three feet away. Tor bowed back; making sure his bow was a little deeper. Burks the room servant had explained all that kind of protocol to him before he left the Capital, mainly after any of it would have been useful to him. When he stood he put the weapons away in the inner pocket.

“So, boy, who is it that I fought this day?” The man sounded far more genteel suddenly. It was probably just a trick so that he could turn around and attack him later, send assassins or something. Tor almost cracked that the man had fought his own ego and won, but decided not to push it.

“I’m Tor.” He said instead.

“Ah… of course you are.” The man said weakly bowing slightly again.

Chapter three

“Torrence Green Baker!”

The voice ripped across the dueling field and sent a chill down his spine. Taking a deep breath he turned slowly, fighting the urge to run away. Flying away would be the better option he knew, since his leg was still a little gimpy from the break. When he finished the turn he was glad he hadn’t tried that. His mother stood next to Baroness Morgan, and both of them wore flying gear. The good kind too. He did leave the shield on, just in case.

That the Baroness was dressed in nice flying clothes of leather and silk was natural enough and she looked pretty in it too. He’d even seen her in them before so he recognized her instantly. His mother he’d never seen in anything other than a skirt or dress, and all those in country blah, a kind of blue-tan-gray, that plus the fact that she looked way younger than he remembered her ever being threw him for a few seconds. He put it all together, the whole not aging thing of course, she was pretty much immortal after all, but blinked a few times first. She looked like she could be going to school here, not nearly old enough by half to be his mother. Actually some of the other students looked older than she did.

“Hell…” He started trying for a greeting, but got a sudden harangue that stopped him cold. Tor decided to just listen and glanced at the clothing she wore, brown leather pants, new looking tan boots and a green silk top, a deep green that looked almost black. Mercy had on deep blue. House colors? The King had purple and gold, which Tor liked, because purple was his favorite color, but deep green wasn’t too bad. It worked with his mom’s black hair and pale skin, so it would probably work with his too. At least the house colors weren’t pink and yellow. The idea nearly made him laugh. Lairdgren. In proper country speech that just meant “Lord Green” which made sense. Heck, Tor’s middle name was Green. It all kind of clicked into place suddenly.

“Your father and I did not send you off to school to get into fights like some kind of common ruffian! I’m of half a mind to send you home right now young man. Of all the irresponsible, lame headed, hare brained things to be doing! Well, I hope you haven’t been neglecting your baking skills, because after this little display you’ll be lucky if anyone will let you do even that. Hmph!” Her voice was just as shrill and harsh as he remembered it at least, so that hadn’t changed.

Looking around he saw that Dorgal Sorvee had walked over, probably enjoying the fact that Tor was being chewed out in public like this. Well, it was embarrassing, but she was right. He should have watched what he said and let David deal with it. But still…

“Ah, ma’am?” Dorgal said in a genteel voice, bowing slightly. “Now, normally I’d be all for watching the little baker boy here be taken to task for, well, pretty much anything, since he bugs the crud out of me most days, but he wasn’t in the wrong here. Count Rodriguez challenged a first year student to a duel to the death because he was mad at the kid’s father. Tor got him to challenge him instead. Then handled it without killing him, which was rather smoothly done. That weapon Davie Derring has is… Well, that plowed looking field next to us? It was grass earlier.” The greasy seeming boy shrugged.

“He would have killed the Count and that wouldn’t end well for anyone, probably starting a war, and wars are messy, don’t you think? Bad for business all around. Now, if it pleases you, knowing all that, do continue ripping this guy a new one. I’ll get some snacks and take notes for later use.” Dorgal bowed and stepped back with a smarmy smile, far enough away that the glare from Tor’s mom barely scathed him.

“Friend of yours dear?” Mercy put in, obviously trying to change the subject.

“Ah, no, kind of the school bully actually. Little shocked that he didn’t find some way to use this to his advantage yet. Not that he’s the violent type. He just says things, you know… Related to Meredith Sorvee I think. Good thing Trice asked me to marry her first.” Standing about fifteen feet away Dorgal blanched. “Though really, I’m sure Meredith is a great person… I just couldn’t risk it, in case she’s a relative of his.

“So, if you’re not here to see this debacle, why have you both come? It’s not… Trice hasn’t decided to break off the engagement already, has she? She didn’t mention anything to me about that…” He knew he hadn’t been a very good fiance yet. Since they’d been back he’d spent almost all of his time working on one thing or another, not paying attention to her like he should. Sure the whole thing wasn’t really real, but on the off chance that he could win her over, shouldn’t he try? Or at least… Well, he should make himself look as good as possible to her, so that she might recommend him to other women as a decent person, after she was done with him. He’d make a point of working on that, if the whole thing wasn’t up already. Had she met some other boy? Well, he’d certainly given her time to, so who could blame her?

Mercy shook her head. “Nothing like that. In fact she was just telling me how happy she is with you and how she hoped you didn’t die out there. It looks like you took more of a beating than it seemed though, did your shield fail or…”

Tor touched his face. “No. These… a Royal Guard kicked me down some stairs last night. I took her prisoner and locked her and her troop up in a holding cell after. I guess I get to go deal with that now. Do you think that the King would have secretly ordered my death… or I don’t know, would Connie have done it? I thought we were all friends, but… No one’s talking about why Wensa keeps trying to kill me. She’s claiming that she didn’t do it last night, but it sure seemed like her.” Tor rolled his eyes. “Sorry, I’ll handle all that later. Now, to what do we owe the pleasure?”

The reason they were there surprised Tor a little, but not in a bad way. Terlee had decided to come and visit Count Thomson. They were flying over and saw the gathering of people so they decided to land and see what the situation was. Probably hoping for jugglers or a party.

“Imagine our surprise…” Laurie began dryly, still glaring at Tor a little.

Terlee was over by the Count, who stood in a small group of people around David Derring, it was a good enough excuse to drag everyone over, since it was his sister after all. Besides Trice stood next to her as well. His sister looked… good. Royal, if tiny. Her hair was pulled back simply but her face had been made up like the ladies at court did, but with less color, so it looked more natural. She wore an outfit similar to his mothers, but that pulled in at the waist a little more and pushed her bust line forward. Courting clothes. David smiled when he walked up and started making introductions.

“Tor! Tor, this is my father, Count Derring, of course, and my mother.” The man and woman looked at him as if he’d done something special. The man bowed slightly towards Tor.

“I was just saying how lucky it was that David didn’t fight Count Rodriguez.” The man said, his voice a little prickly for some reason. Tor shrugged and agreed.

“Yes. David’s at least five times better than I am at fighting and really didn’t have as much reason as I did to let the man off easy.” Tor spoke softly, trying to pitch his voice so that the Count alone would hear him.

The Count looked surprised.

“Oh, yes, well… I did rather mean that weapon that you gave him. That was impressive. The fool should have surrendered on his knees right there. Still, we are, of course, just as glad that it all ended without any death. Right Davie?” The voice was dry and a little smarmy sounding to Tor’s ear, which couldn’t be right. Wouldn’t any father be simply happy that their child was unharmed in a case like this?

“Of course.” The kid sounded so subdued suddenly that Tor wondered if his father had ordered him to kill the man outright or something. If so, he’d make sure that David knew to blame him for it. Tor hadn’t known of any plan, after all, and who could expect some country bumpkin like him to get a complicated plan like that anyway? So far, as nice as both Davie and Karen were, their father wasn’t making a very good impression. He felt creepy. On a field level, not just his looks or something basic like that. Torrence looked up at the man his neck twinging a little from the extreme angle. Huge and creepy. Almost evil.

The Countess Derring, a sweet looking, if large, mousy blond in her mid-forties, meaning she looked younger than that, moved in and gave him a hug. Tor was baffled for a few seconds.

“Thank you for my son.” She whispered directly in his left ear so softly Tor almost couldn’t hear her. It didn’t sound like thanks for saving his life, which he hadn’t done at all. The boy really would have won pretty easily. If Tor managed it, he would have. Probably by leaving bits of Rodriguez all over the back of the field. So, was it thanks for making sure her son didn’t have to kill the Count?

David smiled and continued the introductions.

“You know Karen and Count Thomson of course…” He gestured with his right hand, a move far too elegant for the heavy canvas clothing he wore. He didn’t sweat, which meant that he had on a temperature equalizer too most likely. “Next to him on the left is my cousin, Ducherina Patricia Morgan. She goes to school here, I don’t know if you’ve met? On the other side of the Count,” he continued without pausing so Tor couldn’t explain anything. No one else tried yet, so Tor let him continue. “Is the lovely Counserina Lairdgren, Tamerlane.”

Tor blinked at that, but didn’t say anything. It made sense, if his mom wasn’t hiding any more, and Terlee wanted to try and catch Tovey, she had to do it as a Counserina. It was real enough, but still felt a little like lying to Tor. Still, he wouldn’t ruin it for her. She was obviously trying really hard and wasn’t even hiding behind her hair while being talked about. That had to be hard for her. Tor gave her a small bow that wasn’t even ironic.

Then David smiled at the other women.

“I recognize my aunt, of course, the Baroness Morgan, but the other lovely lady…” Davie sounded smooth, like he’d said things like that all his life. Tor wondered if he really had. Did they learn to say things like that with a straight face while they learned to walk? Of course, since the lovely woman was his mother, Tor might be a little jaded. She did look nice, nearly as good as Terlee, he had to admit. Maybe better, it was just so hard to separate her from his mother, as ridiculous as the idea sounded. The creepy Count apparently thought she was lovely too, because he fairly stared at her. It surprised Tor enough that he jumped when Count Derring stepped towards her suddenly.

“Laurie? Oh my! Of course that only makes sense… David, Maggie, this is Counserina first, Lorali Lairdgren. I haven’t seen you in years, not since school…” He didn’t say any more, and no one told him anything. It was kind of pointed.

So, Tor inferred, the man wasn’t an old friend exactly. Funny, Tor could see that somehow.

Still, maybe this just wasn’t a good day for him? After all, someone had tried to kill his son already, if nothing else, and that had to tick the guy off. Tor felt a little rough and surly himself and was hoping no one blamed him for it, so maybe he should extend the same courtesy to Count Derring?

“Hello Daniel. Yes, I’ve been living the country life and only recently decided to venture forth and visit with some people again. Since my son Torrence is attending school here, and… some other reasons,” She cast a sidelong look at Terlee and Tovey with a smile. “We thought we’d make this the first leg of our little tour. Next we’re going to visit with my father, then head down to the Capital and look up Richard and Connie. We’ll probably be leaving later today or early tomorrow at the latest.”

It took things a second to click in place for Tor. Slow from lack of sleep probably.

“Hey, not to be a pain, but do you think you could wait an extra day or two? I want to send some things down for Connie and her family. Also, I guess I should send a few things for Count Lairdgren since were related and all? I’ll let you tell me what kind of things he might be interested in though.” It wasn’t like they’d ever met or anything, so how would he know?

They worked out that they could stay one extra day and not be too far off schedule. Tor suppressed a groan and kissed his mother on the cheek, then gave Terlee a quick hug. Trice got that he was about to disappear, probably for the next day at least and pulled him into a hug. “Remember to eat. I’ll be by with some food in a few hours.”

He took off pretty quickly; it was early still, so if he could manage a batch per hour… Blowing out air in a big puff Tor flew faster. It was going to take longer than he had as it was. Eh. Well, that was everything lately. He rushed back and got to work without delay, tired or not.

Oddly enough, no one expected him to go to school on any day he’d fought in a duel, no matter how lame the actual events were. At least he though that’s what Rolph said to him as he got through the eighth set of ten poison detectors. He’d rebuild the weapons to make them more suitable for school use later. They didn’t really need anything that would instantly destroy, well, a battlefield or almost anything else that got in the way.

For Count Lairdgren he put in two copies of everything he had, including water pumps, since he didn’t have to make them. The design wasn’t perfect yet, but it let you pick where the water needed to start from with the first plate and where it emptied with the second. They worked up to about two hundred feet apart. The effect was a lot like a miniature version of the Falcon’s river, which was neat enough, he guessed. A pipe of water that floated in the air. What wasn’t to like?

Tor kind of wished he had some water heaters ready to go, but he just hadn’t had time to work on that yet at all. He made his way outside to the central court yard just before everyone was planning to leave, trying to hide the fact that he stumbled a little every ten steps or so. He felt bleary and drowsy, but managed to smile at everyone anyway. He’d gotten Rolph to help him carry the chests out. They were heavy enough that Tor didn’t want to try it alone, not walking down the stairs. Each had float plate on the side but that didn’t help him carry them… which spurred yet another idea.

He’d been putting them all on the bottom until Sara had pointed out the fact that doing it that way made it harder to get at them and it didn’t make any difference at all as far as actual flight performance. The field surrounded the box anyway, making it lift itself. Duh. He’d felt stupid when she mentioned it, but made the change instantly. A good idea was a good idea after all. Resisting it would just make him look even more stupid.

Tiredly Tor pointed at the boxes.

“Lairdgren has the green top. Cordes the purple. Odds and ends in the green one, I made a list and it explains how to use it all, it’s in the chest. The other one has a hundred poison detectors and the templates for the new weapons. I figure I’ll let the King decide what to do with them, if anything.”

Then there were hugs all around, which included Rolph. Tor had kind of gotten that his mother, once out of Two Bends, had become all royal again, so when she gave his friend a warm hug, it seemed, well, not normal, but just friendly, not like his mother was going to start doing something wrong with the guy. What amazed Tor was that Terlee hugged the Prince as well. He hugged her back happily enough that Sara raised her eyebrows and grinned at both of them knowingly. It took Tor a second to realize that if Terlee was a good enough option for Tovey, she was also likely in the potential marriage pool for Rolph. Things were still rough with Ursala after all, after getting pregnant by Count Ward like she had. Then marrying a man that didn’t exist to keep things from being less than honorable. Tor blinked the thought away and tried not to let the shock show on his face.

Tor waved as they left, rising into the sky with all the luggage. Then he hugged Trice for a while, using her mainly to hold him up as she laughed about it. But he still didn’t get to sleep. He had to go to class. As it was no one should be cutting him much slack. After all, he’d just been making copies of stuff, not doing novel work. It made a difference. In his mind it did anyway.

It wasn’t until after lunch that they came for him, as he walked to the practice yard to meet with Karen. Kolb led them to him, which Tor accepted as being his duty as a Knight, not him being a traitor.

Freaking Knights and their duty.

The Dean. Proctor Campbell, and two Royal Guards in full livery that wore flight gear on their left hands. Tor slapped the shield amulet on his chest, earning a small smile from Kolb and a worried look from everyone else. The two Royal Guardsmen in particular. Their severe black and purple uniforms looked too warm for the weather, which was just starting to cool enough to be pleasant outside in the weapon court.

Kolb stopped about ten feet away. “There you are Tor! We’d heard that you hadn’t slept in a while, but these men came all the way up from the Capital to be of assistance in our little guard problem here. It seems that everyone is getting uneasy, since half the Prince’s retinue of retultors is vacationing in the holding cells. Plus, you understand… any day now we may need the space for some drunken, malcontented, student. So we need to get that cleared up, don’t you think?” The tone was jovial as if the whole thing was just a lark or something. Then again, they probably would need the cells for drunks soon. Royals did like to drink.

He’d forgotten about the whole situation while he worked, of course. That was kind of a given. If he’d been focused on that, no work would have happened at all. Tor wondered what they expected him to do about it though? They’d make their decisions and he’d deal with the aftermath, no matter what that was. That was just the way things worked, right?

Apparently, for the first time in his life, that was wrong.

They expected him to come up with what was to be done. All on his own. Like that was a wise plan or something. He’d opened his mouth to ask whose brilliant idea it was when one of the guard mentioned that it came directly from the King himself. Tor nearly laughed, but didn’t feel like explaining to these people that could kill him without thinking about it and get no more than a hard look from their superiors for their trouble.

Tor yawned. He couldn’t help it.

“Sorry, I’ve been up for two and a half, nearly three days now. So, I guess we should go and see if we need to kill all those Royal Guards or just Wensa then. Let’s go.” His words probably didn’t thrill the men with him, at least they all looked a little less than pleased with him at the moment, but what did they expect him to do? Give them all hugs and tell them to play nice from now on. He nearly laughed again. If it wouldn’t end in his death, he’d be willing to try it, just for the comedic value if nothing else.

Half an hour later he ended up facing Wensa and the other four Royal Guards through the bars of the cells. One he recognized when his right arm twinged as the Weapons Instructor that had kept hitting him there in a practice session about half a year before. Even back then they’d been gunning for him? Oh, probably not. No need to be paranoid. They didn’t have a reason to back then. Then again, they didn’t know either.

“Alright, you four there, why did you attack me the other night after Wensa tried to kill me?” He leveled the accusation squarely and glared a little, sullenly. They’d had time to get their stories straight, so he doubted that anything they said could be trusted, still, he needed to give them half a chance to prove that they weren’t part of some bigger plot.

One of the men, a man that taught music, of all things, just shrugged and grinned.

“Really, we didn’t know what was going on and just saw you taking out Captain Wensa, so we scrambled. It seems like it was just a misunderstanding as far as I can tell. Conflicting mind sets is all. With a bit of help from someone outside this room, trying to frame Wensa. Well, either that, or you dashed yourself down the stairs to frame her, but… We all agree that probably isn’t too likely. It’s hard to damage yourself like that after all. Reflexes kick in, force you to protect yourself. Still, we’ve all heard about how you climbed into that middens and had them yank you out by your ankle. If anyone here other than one of us could pull a trip down some stone steps off with intent, it would be you.”

Tor answered by lifting his shirt and turning around. He still had the shield on, but Rolph had told him that the painful bruise had made a wonderful boot print outlined in blood blisters; purple on blue-black he’d been assured. None of the people in the cell hissed in shared pain like almost everyone else had, but Kolb stepped over, had him drop the shield and scrubbed at the wound vigorously. It hurt, but Tor got it, he was proving it wasn’t make-up, after a second everyone else got it too.

“OK, so that’s real and you didn’t do it yourself, which lends a bit of credibility to your story…” From the second cell there came a rustling and Wensa held her shoe through the bars. It was flat soled, where the boot print had a heel, at least from what Tor had heard. The Dean put the shoe up to his back and grunted.

“This is considerably smaller than the bruise. We can expect some spread of course, but it would seem that it’s still made by a larger foot.”

Shaking his head Tor let his shirt drop.

“Not really, all that proves it that a bigger boot was worn. If it was smaller, then it would be significant, larger could mean anything from a bigger foot in the boot to just good planning on her part before the attack. Granted, I doubt she did it just to get the lady into bed, but really, who knows what her motives might be? Gold most likely. Let’s beat a confession out of her.” He deadpanned the last bit tiredly.

Oddly enough even though three people in the room other than him had heard that before, Wensa was the only one that laughed. Everyone else looked at her meaningfully as she snorted in an undignified fashion.

“What? It’s funny. All we really have so far though is that someone dressed in a gray skirt, around my height attacked you Baker. Lots of people could fake that. They wouldn’t even have to be as tall as I am, stoop a little and you can shrink by three or four inches without even calling too much attention to yourself. Wear lifts and high heels, which that boot print could be showing, and they look up to three inches taller. That’s a seven inch spread. Really, is that enough to even hold me on?”

The woman didn’t seem smarmy at least, her face, thick with lines and hair a bit greasy made her seem tired, but not like she was being smug. Then again Royal Guard could mean professional liar as well as a lot of other things, thief, assassin, whatever was required. Tor mentioned this casually. The Royal Guards on both sides of the bars looked angry about it, but no one tried to deny it.

“Besides, you’ve already tried to kill me, and threatened to as well, so why should I believe you’re innocence now? And don’t tell me that if you tried to really kill me I’d be dead. Even a Royal Guard can run afoul of poor luck now and then.” He looked into her eyes, which turned out to be a light bluish gray. Not a pretty color at all, but it worked for her face, giving her a half insane look that matched her actions.

Wensa smiled.

“Easy enough. I didn’t try to kill you at all. Ever. Let me list this off for you.” She held up her right hand and started counting from the thumb, a big thing that would have made Tor feel a little inadequate if it weren’t for the fact that he was more than a little pissed at the woman already.

“At the shield test; if you remember I’d been observing you for nearly a week before hand? I don’t think you managed a single test of the device that I didn’t witness. I knew what you were preparing for. So on the day of the test I simply helped out, because Kolb wasn’t aware of all the work you’d put in. I already knew it would work… Well, at least I had good reason to believe so. You could have still died or been injured if the work hadn’t been quality, but if you weren’t ready to test the device you shouldn’t have been out there at all.” She gave him a single slow blink as she finished saying that.

The other guards and Kolb nodded, but the Dean and Rolph looked slightly horrified. It was Kolb, his voice low and rumbling that spoke first.

“I figured it was something like that. I did note that there was no move at the time to capitalize on the obvious weaknesses, which honestly she wouldn’t have skipped if the intent had been death.”

The gray woman tilted her head towards the large weapons instructor. “Just so, after he succeeded there so well, it was clear to me that he could prove to be an asset to the kingdom, so I made an effort to make helpful suggestions as to other devices he could make, and observed him to see if I could suggest any possible improvements to his work.

“I have to say, I was more than a little surprised when you spoke of who I was to those students and their friend. It took nearly half an hour for me to convince them that I really was just a jealous lover and that if they got in my way I’d have them expelled. No doubt why they keep glaring at me every time we meet. Also a bit surprised that I could pass off a force lance and an immolator as calculating tools for geometry. What the heck are the students here learning?” This she addressed to the Dean who simply shrugged.

It made sense, in a way, but just because she had her story right, that didn’t mean that she wasn’t out to get him for real and just smart enough to hide it. Still, what could he do? It was just possible that she was telling the truth, right? If she was, then having her killed or even locked up long term wasn’t fair at all. Kicking her out of her position, if he was allowed to do that, wouldn’t work. A fanatic like her, and all the Royal Guards were fanatically loyal to the King as a rule, an actual job requirement, wouldn’t be stopped just because she’d been asked to go away politely.

Finally, after standing for far too long thinking about the whole thing, Tor made up his mind.

“Fine, everyone can go, except for Wensa, she needs to meet me outside. Now.”

The looks he got were serious and dark, but the woman followed him without comment. The other guards stood back, but didn’t leave. The art and music instructor started twice to ask what he planned, but Tor just held up a hand for silence once they were out in the court yard. The cobble stones were hard and slightly uneven under his feet. Taking several deep breaths, feeling more than a little panicked, Tor removed all his amulets and weapons and handed them to Kolb, who looked more than a little shocked at the action.

Tor took a deep breath and then forced himself to relax.

“Kolb, please hand Wensa that tube there…” He pointed to the copper tube with four distinct notches near the bottom to act as a makeshift activation sigil. Tor held up his hand before Wensa took the weapon. “Don’t trigger that unless you want me dead. It’s an explosive weapon.”

The Dean put a hand out towards Kolb, “Are you sure…”

With a massive shrug the Knight handed the tube over and told the Dean that the King himself had put Tor in charge of the disposition of this matter.

“If Tor says to give over what’s possibly the deadliest weapon I’ve ever heard of outside of legend to Wensa, then I will. Be careful though Wen, you could destroy the campus with this thing in about half a minute without even feeling it…”

The woman took it, a curious look on her face. Taking another shaky breath Tor closed his eyes and spoke softly.

“Right. So I can’t live looking over my shoulder waiting for you to kill me all the time. If you want to kill me, orders or not, do it now and we’ll call it good, all right? No one will do anything too you over it, or bother you at all because of it and you can just go about your life happily guarding or whatever it is you do. If you are going to kill me, baring orders from the King later, then I just ask that you do it now or not at all. Does that sound fair?”

He stood silently for a second, wondering if he’d just die as a matter of course. The woman wasn’t any kind of friend to him at the very least. If she was really trying to get him, he’d probably never get to open his eyes again. Instead, after about fifteen seconds, he heard laughter. Wensa first, then all the Royal Guards after a few seconds.

One of the guards, the dark haired female Weapons Instructor that had kept hitting him on the right arm before, walked over and patted him on the back.

“Oh well played! Perfectly done.”

Tor opened his eyes as the voice spoke. Wensa handed the weapon back to Kolb with a grin. “So, is the weapon really all that powerful?”

Rolph looked at it and turned more than a little white, his right hand pointed at it. “So powerful that the template was sent off earlier today, to my parents directly, not set up for manufacture anywhere that they might accidentally get into the wrong hands. I… didn’t know that Tor had one himself… Did you have it during the duel with Count Rodriguez?”

All the Royal Guards stiffened and stared at him, but Kolb spoke before anyone else did anything, holding out his right hand towards the guard to forestall speech. “Knight Esquire Brown, Countier four Lairdgren, was challenged by Count Rodriguez to a duel to the death after the man dropped his spurious claim against Countier David Derring. You all know about that of course, stupidest thing I’ve heard of in a long time and I’ve heard some winners. Tor baited the man into fighting him instead of the boy, who was armed with another one of these,” He hefted the copper tube, with two fingers. “Rather saved the Counts life by the way I think. Tor just held the man down and made him squirm for a while until he gave up, leaving him unharmed. Then settled the matter with apologizes all around so the Count could save face. Probably stopped a war between Derring and Rodriguez.” Kolb stared at Wensa directly. “Those two really need to calm the heck down. Derring’s kids have twice the intelligence of the man himself when it comes down to it.”

Wensa looked at Tor for a few seconds, then bowed. She held the move until Rolph walked over and nudged him. “If you don’t want to bow back you should at least say something…”

Right. He was supposed to be a royal now and all that. God, he was so not trained for this. “Um, so Wensa… jealous lover?”

Everyone laughed and the woman stood up, smiling. She shrugged and winked at him with her left eye slowly. “Well, you are good looking, if a trifle short. Lairdgren… Well, that explains the lack of size at least, I… can you become a Countier by appointment or…”

Shaking his head Rolph summed it up in a few words.

“By birth, his mother. Counserina first. She’s been in hiding from an old threat. Just decided to come back into circles, figuring everything is probably calmed down by now.”

Taking another deep breath Tor looked at Wensa, still shaking a little. “So, are we good here? Do I need to be looking over my shoulder still?”

The older woman nodded, her face going serious. “Yes, obviously. I didn’t try to kill you, but someone did, and it was done with enough intent that the person doing it wore a mask and tried to mimic my general form. They should have used a weapon though. That speaks of, well, at least forethought. Even if not meant to kill you, it was obviously a serious attack. You need to remain vigilant. I promise though, short of an order from the King or Queen, I’ll not kill you myself. Not without a good reason at least.” She gave a short bow again and stood up nearly instantly.

That, Tor knew, was both correct and probably the best he could do with the situation. He held out his hand to shake on the deal. It was a country thing, a handshake sealing a bargain, but the woman didn’t flinch away from it, merely taking his hand in a hard clasp.

“Deal then. I’ll keep trying to watch my back and you don’t kill me without a decent reason. Better than I expected to tell the truth. I kind of thought you’d just kill me really.”

For some reason the other guards all laughed at that. For a bunch that he’d been raised to think of as humorless killers they sure laughed a lot. Maybe it was just him? Did they find him funny? Probably. Oh well, what could he do about that? For their world he was probably exactly wrong. Too small, too country and too naive in general. That could lead to laughter he figured.

Maybe someday when he learned more he’d get the joke?

He got his weapons back from Kolb and all the amulets, then handed the explosive one back to the large man.

“That one’s for you. Being your Squire and all I’m supposed to…make sure your weapons are ready and all that anyway, right? I also have a shield for you, and flying gear. Force lance and air thingie too. I probably should have given that to you already. Sorry, I’m kind of new to all this Squire stuff. Well, if this is over for now I need to get back to my work out, or Karen’s going to have a fit and probably beat me half to death, and who can blame her? I’ve hardly been showing up at all lately.”

They let him go, and he tried to keep his eyes open in case of attack. Would anyone other than Wensa want him dead? Why? Maybe Count Rodriguez, but the attack on the stairs had come before the duel and the man hadn’t even seemed to have known who he was until he told him. Sure, that could have been an act, but over all Tor didn’t think so. Rodriguez seemed at least as genuine in his apology to David as he was in his anger in the first place. More so to tell the truth. Something definitely hadn’t been right with that situation. Was Count Derring really such a jerk that killing his son seemed just to the guy until he was called on it? If so Tor felt sorry for Davie and Karen.

Had he insulted anyone personally? We’ll, he’d been at court for a while and it could just be that someone didn’t like having him around, a dirty little country hick. Offended by his existence? No one had said anything directly to him about it, but then, would they? He tried to think back and kept coming up blank. Some people might be annoyed with him, he wasn’t perfect after all, but who’d try to even just bang him up like that? Dorgal? The guy was a bully, most of the time at least, but he’d never tried to hurt Tor physically. He was about words and intimidation as far as anything Tor had ever seen. And really, if he was going to try, he and his buddies could have just jumped Tor at any time and not gotten into any real trouble, being rich and all that.

After the weapons practice and exercise, which included a little slow running to start building his left leg back up, and a lot more gentleness from Karen than he’d expected after being called away like that by Kolb and the others. She didn’t hold back with him at all when they worked together, but she didn’t yell at him either, except when she had him on the ground beating him with her sword. “Get up Tor! Roll out of the way! Anyone you fight with will knock you down in a few seconds, you’re too little for them not to, you need to stay ready for it…” She added in a few stomps for variety.

Then she had Petra and a few other people take turns doing the same thing for a while.

It wasn’t comfortable at all, but she didn’t seem angry about anything, just pensive. Finally, just before it would normally be time to leave, she gestured to him.

“I… didn’t know that you were a Countier before Tor.” The large woman looked ashamed, as if it could somehow be her fault. She bowed towards him and held it.

“If I ever did or said anything to give offense, please-”

Tor patted her on the shoulder gently, which got her to stand up, looking shocked, but only for a second.

“You’ve never been anything but perfectly courteous to me. Besides, we’re friends, so if you had, I would have mentioned it before.” He nodded at her firmly, knowing that his Two Bends logic might now make a lot of sense to her very royal mind, but it got her to grin happily enough.

“Oh, good then! I couldn’t think of anything, but, um, well, and please don’t take offense, but I kind of thought you weren’t a royal, before I met your mother and sister. I definitely don’t want hard feelings to fester there. Especially since Davie and Petra would gang up on me in my sleep if they thought I had. They both kind of think you’re great by the way…”

He blushed a bit and looked away shyly.

“Um, thank you?” Tor hated things like this, never knowing what to say.

Karen just smiled and patted him on the shoulder, more of a solid thump than a proper pat.

“Good then. I hate having to grovel anyway. So…” She looked serious again. “If we’re friends, does that mean I can get some of those weapons from you like Davie has? I can’t afford to buy them, but…” Her look went slightly wicked then.

“But I can let you borrow Petra if you want? I don’t think that would hurt her feelings at all. My too of course.”

Thinking about it for a few seconds, he nodded. They could both probably use the weapons and gear. It just made sense.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to hand out those explosives. But if Kolb OK’s it, the rest should be doable.”

“Really? I was kidding, about the stuff, I mean, you can have me and Petra anyway, in the evenings after lessons maybe? That would be a good time.”

Shrugging Tor figured it was her way of making sure he got enough practice in. Maybe it was rude to just yell at a Countier and tell him to get his but to painful extra training? But if he needed it, she had the right.

“I don’t know when I have the time, really, but let’s make sure you all get those weapons anyway. Oh, and please tell Petra thank you for me? You too of course.”

For some reason Karen seemed really pleased with the fake deal. That he needed work on his weapons skill was clear after that. He didn’t have to do it that night at least, which was good. Karen hugged him as he left the training square though, either happy about the free stuff, or more likely, trying to make him feel better about needing extra lessons.

It was really sweet of her. Especially since she could have just hit him in the head with the side of her practice blade and ordered him to show up.

There were other things to do first though. Hard things. Royal things that he wasn’t prepared to handle at all.

Tor sat in his room later trying to think of anyone in the world that might dislike him enough to do something like that. Kill him, or even just push him down some stairs for fun. That was what he was doing when Rolph, Sara and Trice came in. Standing, he gave Trice a hug and then, feeling more than a little awkward about it, a kiss on the mouth. It wasn’t exactly romantic, he knew, but he really did want her to know that he appreciated her efforts so far. She kissed him back for a few seconds, far more warmly and expertly than he’d managed. She held him and sighed, her chest pushing softly into his through the slightly shiny black blouse she wore.

“Now that’s more like it. What’s up?”

It took a while for Tor to explain everything that had happened, but less time than he’d thought, since Rolph had already filled them in. They’d actually come to help him work everything out. They all had ideas too, ones that, oddly enough, fit their individual backgrounds more than the situation at hand. The idea that they all walked around in different worlds took him for a few seconds. Everything overlapped, of course, but did Tor actually live a different existence than they all did, even while in the same space? That… actually made a lot of sense.

He saw things to be fixed, by making a device, or a plan, or just by working hard. Rolph, for all that he was a great guy, really just kind of expected everyone to fix things for him if he asked. Being a Prince, that worked for him, most of the time at least. Trice was more calculating, but her world made her guarded, suspicious and more than a little un-trusting of people she didn’t know well.

Sara thought like what she was raised to be too, naturally enough, but what she said was still news to Tor.

“It could be one of the other merchant houses… Your stuff is taking a lot of the high end market right now and probably will for years to come, even if you don’t add anything new to your line… And really, how likely is that? You have a half dozen things that no one’s even making yet, ready to go. Stentli house for instance, used to have all the shield contracts for the military. What they offer isn’t half as good as the second Tor-shield, which is what’s in production right now, and even if someone copies that, you have three versions that are better, ready to go right now. But…” The girl shook her head. “They wouldn’t start with something like that. They’d probably send in women to ply you with sex for a while, try to find what you need or want and provide it to win you over, soften you up first, or… possibly just come and beg you on hands and knees to work with them instead. I’m a little surprised they haven’t yet, to tell the truth. Debri would be if you’d gone with Sorvee back at the beginning you know. They… might even spread rumors about how evil Debri house is or how we’ve been cheating you, which… Well, it’s not the long term plan, but that argument could be made until we start getting the money from the military for the shields and flying rigs they’ve been buying up. It’s probably destroyed their business, your new work… They couldn’t have been ready for you to just show up like that at all.”

Tor took a deep breath, a sudden and shuddering thing that rattled in his chest. It made him feel young, and stupid, and he couldn’t help it. His work had taken business from other people? He’d never even thought of that. To Tor, the idea that he might even make money from anything he’d done seemed like an abstract thing, so of course he hadn’t considered what might be happening anywhere else. Why should he?

Tor stopped and shook his head. Could he fix it at all? They had people to feed and workers that needed their jobs too. Looking down at the floor he wondered out loud if Stentli house would be willing to except a couple of his other devices, ones that Debri house couldn’t make right now due to the new military contracts anyway, to replace the coins that he’d taken from them and their workers?

Sara chuckled at him. “Tor… I’m… sure they would… Do you have anything in mind?”

No one was making the heat equalizers or the poison detectors yet he pointed out. He couldn’t keep making them all himself and a few more people might want some. Sara smiled, moved across the room and sitting next to him draped her arm over his shoulders and planted a warm kiss on his lips that made him sit up straighter, worried what Rolph and Trice would think, though they both just smiled at him.

“Debri will let go of the heat equalizers to keep the peace, and the water pumps, but the poison detectors… Tor, if you want me to sleep with you, or for that matter every woman in Debri house to be lined up at your door, just go ahead and suggest that one to my mother. I’m pretty sure that you don’t really want that though. Well, me maybe, if I’m lucky, but not all of the women in my house are exactly good looking…” Then she leaned in and kissed his cheek and started stroking his back with her hand gently. Seductively.

Blushing Tor shrugged her off and held up his hands, grinning but feeling awkward. “Alright, stop that before Rolph and Trice both start kicking my butt. Fine, can we get them the equalizers and… water pumps to start with? I didn’t know that I was hurting anyone…”

Sara pointed out that it really wasn’t likely that they’d be trying to kill him over that, which he already knew. Obviously. Getting them something to replace what he’d taken wasn’t about protecting himself, but protecting them from the damaged he’d done.

It was only fair.

For some reason saying that made Sara chuckle, but not the others. So for once she was just being weird? Good. He’d been starting to feel like everyone in the world got everything and only he was missing it all. The gold haired girl shook her head a bit, smiling.

“It’s a good thing you’re a builder and not a merchant Tor… I’ll see to it though.”

They all kept brainstorming. The ideas came, but most of them were nonsense really. Would his instructors be mad enough at him to do it, because he hadn’t gone to class enough? Rolph roared with laughter at that and rubbed his knuckles on the top of Tor’s head. It kind of hurt.

“They could just tell you that you had to go to lessons first, don’t you think? Or, if they were really all that put out they could just tell you to turn your shield off and beat you in the commons. No one’s even suggested that you’re not getting good marks yet Tor. Well, Kolb isn’t that happy with your progress I hear, but the rest of the instructors all say you’re getting top grades. I checked the last time I went around telling them all you wouldn’t be making it to class so you could work.”

Tor smiled and shrugged. He’d have to work harder in the afternoons somehow. Karen was always there to help him out he knew. She’d said that at least, that he should spend time with her and Petra. Maybe some extra practice wouldn’t hurt? He kept trying to put together who’d dislike him that much though.

“No one from Two Bends hates me that much, I don’t think, plus, how would they even get here? It’s kind of a long way to walk over some old grudge from grammar school, isn’t it? Plus no one there’s that tall. So what does that leave? Wait, that Duke? Um, Winchester? I guess that he could have done it; I mean we got in a fight, sort of… Not him personally, of course, he’s way bigger, but he could hire it done, or get a friend to do it maybe?”

That didn’t seem very likely according to Rolph. Sitting on his own bed cross legged he looked lost in thought for a while, then he shook his head.

“I’ll have it checked out, but I really doubt it. If anything the Duke probably thinks of you as his personal hero and friend, you saved him from harming an innocent woman in public and then didn’t even shame him about it afterwards, you even named him a personal friend, which takes a lot of the sting out. Everyone kind of accepted it as his buddy Tor stepping in to keep him from making a social error, so really the only looked a little bad in the whole thing, and like his friends cared enough to step in when things got hot. Nearly perfectly played by the way. No one can even belittle him for “losing” to you now. He wouldn’t have wanted to really harm his friend, would he? Even during the event, after getting his attention all you really did was stand there and let him beat on you. It’s kind of hard to take offense at that and it really is what a very good, and powerful, friend would have done. Still… Just in case I’ll get a message off to… No, let’s go down in person. We’ll beat a message down if we fly anyway… and we can go down for dad’s birthday celebration week. Mom will like it and we get a break from school anyway.” The large redhead nodded and started to speak more excitedly. “Of course we wouldn’t be expected to show up for it normally since it’s only a weeklong event, but the fact that we can fly down in hours means that I should go at least. That gives us a week to plan for it even.” Rolph seemed pleased by the idea at any rate.

The King’s birthday? Tor had totally forgotten about that. Yeah, they got the week off, which he’d planned to use as free work time, but now that he knew the man, was even on a first name basis with him, he’d probably be expected to get him something. He still didn’t really have any money and didn’t expect any from his work for months yet. Looking at the others his eyes went wide and he stood suddenly.

“Do you… I mean, would it be too tacky, if I made him something? I don’t know what he’d like, but… Well, how about water heaters for the palace and guest house? For baths. Or would that be too bland? What do people normally get a King anyway?”

The Prince gave him a wry look.

“Honestly? Generally useless crap that he never touches after the party. A water heater for his bath would probably go over well, at least with the servants that have to use a fire to warm the tub for him in the winter if no one else. For that matter if you decide to do that, get me one too. I’ll pay you.” Everyone else chimed in that they would too, but then Trice kissed him, pushing Sara out of the way with a gentle nudge, slipping in between them and wrapping Tor in a tight embrace from the side, her right breast pushing into his side firmly.

“Wait, I get one free, right? Being that were going to be married and all?” She laughed, but Tor shrugged. Fiction or not she really would get one anyway, they all would. He dared to kiss her back, because it seemed to be the way the game was played. He’d miss it, he realized, when the whole thing was over.

It was nice even if it was make believe. As far as he knew Trice hadn’t even been sleeping with anyone else. Then, being discrete was, generally, supposed to be a big part of things in her world. He’d probably only learn that they were breaking off the engagement when a go-between came or something like that. How was that done anyway? Tor had a strong suspicion that he’d find out within the year. He suppressed a sigh and hugged the tall girl beside him for a while, hoping it wouldn’t seem desperate. After she was gone he probably wouldn’t get a lot of contact with anyone, so it seemed like a good idea to save it up now if at all possible.

They had a plan at least. It wasn’t a good plan, as far as finding who had kicked him down the stairs, because they all knew Duke Winchester probably hadn’t even thought about the events of that night after he’d made his apologies. From what Rolph said the guy was normally pretty even headed and nice, not the kind of person that would hold a major grudge over a fight that he’d gotten into with a stranger that was helping him and who’d allowed him to save face, even though he didn’t have too.

The next week was spent largely working, locked in his room. The water heaters for baths didn’t take that long, because he already knew how to pull heat from the ground. It just took figuring out how to localize it in space, so that it would only heat water outside the body, but inside a specific space, big enough to heat even a very large tub. It wouldn’t do to cook people from the inside out after all. The unit was built to allow for temperature control of the water, just by hitting one of the five sigils on the hand sized silver plate.

It cost a lot more to do the work in silver, especially since he made six of them for the gift, but it was a present for the King specifically. The rest of the copies he made in copper like usual. Trice told him to make up about a hundred of them and took off with one of the first ones for herself just after he finished them. That left him with four days in which to do school work. Thank goodness Sara brought him the first of the supplies from Debri house or he wouldn’t have had any material to work on at all. She assured him that it was all his to use however he wanted, not just on house projects.

Tor made up some things that he thought people might like at the palace, complicated devices that he turned in for class credit with his novel build instructor. Fines smiled when he showed them to him and told him to keep up the good work with a pat on the back.

He didn’t know if anyone would really like them or not, but they seemed like fun to him and gave him something to hand out that would probably never be sold anyway. Just little doodads with no market value. Plus, if it helped get him a good mark in class…

On the morning they were set to leave, actually a day before classes were officially released for the holiday, but a fairly useless day anyway, since most of the students wouldn’t be concentrating on work at all, but rather on parties and getting drunk for the next week or whatever useless things that the real kids did when no one else was looking. It meant that all the instructors, except Dorris, the meditation teacher, had been willing to let him out of lessons early. For some reason she seemed to feel that such distractions, and striving to overcome them, would be beneficial to her students. She was probably right of course, which was why she had the job. They left just after that, so he felt pretty centered and relaxed while they flew along headed south.

He actually had two chests this time. The one Rolph had lent him before and a new one that Debri house had sent with the work materials. He’d had to off load most of that in his room, but kept a few things just in case he needed to make copies of anything for someone, or, just as likely, he had an idea and managed to get a little time to work on it.

It was chilly aloft as they flew, thousands of feet off the ground like they were, but not so bad he needed to use an equalizer or anything. Even moving as fast as they were the ground moved slowly enough under them, a bare crawl it seemed. The forest finally gave way after the first two hours in the air and Rolph gestured for them to land in a city that Tor had never been to before. It was big. Not as big as the Capital, but large enough that it had its own wall around it. That was a mud brown, but it had a crisp feel to it, like it had been built either a short time before or that it was cared for religiously. The sides were shear and smooth and reached at least twenty feet high.

There wasn’t a good place to land near one of the gates, so they used a central courtyard area. One that as they descended seemed to be nearly as big as the whole school campus, which meant his sense of scale had been way off as to how big the place must be. Youch. It was a lot closer to the Capital in size then, if with a lot fewer people about. The cobblestones were flattened on the top, an almost polished looking shine that meant a cutter had been used on them at some point and then weather and years of walking feet had dinged them up a little. They were pretty, marble or something that reminded him a little of a gem, sitting in the mortar. Impressive and expensive to use as paving material.

The scent in the air, cinnamon, clove, and anise seed all mixed together hit him as they touched down. Some kind of sweet confection? To let his nose lead towards an outdoor stand that seemed to be serving something that looked like festival food. Maybe they had a big King’s week celebration here? People certainly looked happy enough. Rolph smiled and headed over to the stand, coming back a few minutes later with a small tray that held four giant sized rolls, each bigger than both of Tor’s hands put together and smothered in rich looking white frosting.

They sat on the edge of a fountain near the center of the space, sitting on the edge of the pool. It had a statue of a man in the center, but Tor didn’t bother looking at it other than to note it was there. After all, he’d never had a festival cake like this before and he wanted to analyze it. The anise seed was the principle flavoring, though otherwise it was a cinnamon roll like he’d learned to make as a child. It had a sugary caramel on the bottom, which meant that they hadn’t stinted on the filling for it. The frosting was too much, and he had to covertly scrape most of it off onto the serving tray. It was good, very much so, he just didn’t want to make himself sick on the sweetness of it. Just the little he’d gotten was pushing it already. He smiled and leaned in to Trice gently, bumping her arm with his shoulder.

“A little strong on the licorice flavor, but other than that these aren’t bad. Is this an annual thing, do you think? For King’s week?”

“I don’t know… If it is these people certainly have a love of Uncle Richard. It looks like they have jugglers and singers coming out over there… We probably need to be going soon, but…”

Rolph winked.

“Hey, we can stay for a bit, an hour or so anyway. After all, we’re making really good time thanks to the new flying rigs. I don’t want to leave the luggage just sitting, but…”

Just then a group of people, all dressed in finery and looking more than a little nervous, walked over to where they sat. At first Tor wondered if the festival was supposed to be a private thing. If it was they could leave of course. He didn’t want to mess up their tradition or whatever. The man in front, a slightly older man with blond hair and eyebrows with a square jaw that made him look important, wore three different colors of mustard yellow. The shirt was a little poufy but had a good solid looking workman’s vest over it. The covering made sense for this time of year. It wasn’t cold out, most likely, not that Tor could tell, but it wasn’t the heat of summer anymore either.

The man smiled and bowed to everyone.

“Hello! I’m Baron second Ferdinand Gala. Thank you all for coming to join us for our celebration! We weren’t expecting any important guests, but everyone is welcome…” The man seemed to run out of things to say, allowing an older woman that looked vaguely familiar to Tor to step forward.

She wasn’t pretty, a little broad faced and slightly hard lived, but her smile grew wide making her face seem alive. Light blue eyes glinting over her own red outfit that, other than the color, looked a lot like what the Baron second Gala wore, except that the vest was a tasteful brown, which worked well with the almost burgundy colored shirt under it.

She bowed towards Rolph and held it. It was a long enough action that everyone else followed suit after about ten seconds, eyes going wide.

“Prince Alphonse! So good to see you.” The woman announced this, Tor realized, as more of a warning to anyone in earshot about who was there than anything else. Clever of her, and something he should remember just in case a similar situation ever came up in the future.

The woman then bowed to Trice, who had stood when Rolph had. No one seemed upset, but it was probably a good idea to meet strangers on their feet, so Tor stood up as well when Sara did. He got ready to slap his shield on just in case, but tried not to look like a spas about it. So far these people had seemed polite enough.

“Baronetta Morgan?” The woman hazarded, her voice a little tentative.

“Ducherina Morgan, but please, call me Patricia.”

The woman went wide eyed and bowed again. It was well done on Trice’s part, since she’d have been in her rights to chew the woman out over getting her title wrong. That she’d treated the whole thing casually made her look good he knew. It would have to him at least, if he’d been the one making the mistake.

“Thank you… Patricia.”

Sara grinned and moved forward to give the woman a small hug.

“Aunt Betty! This is my aunt, well second aunt really. She leads Debri house in Galasia. So, that must be where we are.” Sara chuckled and stood back so that she could be introduced.

“This is Sara Debri, daughter of Heather Debri and the woman that personally arranged for Tor to make the miracle that saved the city!” Aunt Betty yelled this rather loudly, her voice sounding joyful enough to Tor. It was kind of true, in that Sara had passed the message to him herself and explained what was needed, plus he’d done it because she was his friend and asked. He nodded a little. Yeah, it was fair.

The crowd had grown a bit while the introductions were being made and a large cheer went up, almost making Tor trigger the shield for real. People surged forward to try and touch her, as if her good deeds would give them luck or maybe just trying to cop a feel if the look on some of the men’s faces could be interpreted by someone like him. After a half minute both he and Rolph started laughing and slapping at hands a little, forming an impromptu honor guard of sorts around their pretty blond friend.

Ferdinand smiled and stuck his hand out towards Tor, indicating that he got that the smaller man was probably some country guy. Tor took the hand easily and shook, leaning in from a distance as was appropriate.

“Don’t want to forget anyone. May I ask who you are sir?” The tone was polite and interested, kind even.

“Oh, me? Torrance Baker. I’m just the guy that helps with the luggage and whatever little projects come up.” He waved his hand towards the boxes behind them. It was literally the truth after all. He’d even nailed the plates to all the chests himself earlier.

The Baron second smiled and patted him on the back as the crowed started chanting Sara’s name.

Chapter four

In all it took nearly two hours to get Sara back from the crowd, and another three for everyone in the town to feel satisfied that they had done everything in their power to make sure she knew how grateful they all were to her. Singers came forth and sang several songs in which she featured prominently, which made her blush prettily and hide her face in her hands. The singers weren’t all that good, some hit more than a couple flat notes and the words made it clear that the writers hadn’t been professionals at all.

It was heartfelt and touching for all that. Tor felt tears coming to his eyes a few times when the songs spoke of how they were nearly dead, how people had laid in the street suffering and even those not made ill were dying of thirst as they struggled to care for those that simply wouldn’t make it. He hadn’t known how bad it had been. When a group of school kids acted the whole thing out, he had to hide his face from the crowd, so that no one would see how soft he really was.

Crying at a children’s play? After a few minutes he noticed that he wasn’t the only one. Ferdinand used a handkerchief to dry his own tears and caught Tor noticing the action, his own eyes tearing a bit at the time. He smiled a little, sadly, and went back to watching the play.

Then the scene changed to a dark cave, in the wilderness most likely, but you could only see the inside, a rough place that looked well constructed enough that you really kind of felt like it was a cave in truth, not just a painted backdrop. Someone had put some real effort in, making it three dimensional and everything.

A tall blond girl, who might have been twelve or so entered the cave, fighting her way through several trials to get there. A wall of force that had no source, which she cleverly tricked a giant with red hair into turning off for her was the first one. Tor smiled getting it. That was supposed to be Rolph? Well, he was big enough… The force field then was the door to their room? There was that magical device he had to use to let her in, so the play was kind of right in a stylistic way. Then she had to face down a pack of wild beasts, who she sang to sleep with her beautiful voice. The girl could actually sing, Tor noticed, even if the song itself was just a simple lullaby. Then she had to face freezing to death while she walked the endless track of cave, snow falling on her even inside. That, no cleverness would fix, so she had to simply persevere, going on simply because Galasia needed her too. A boy narrated this for them, so they didn’t get lost.

Tor couldn’t get the last things. Freezing? In his room? Was that about the heat plate thing? The timing for that would be way off though. And why were there beasts? Their dorm didn’t even have a pet cat or dog like some of the sections did.

Finally she had to face the evil troll know as Tor. He was short, played by an old man that stood on his knees, so that the proportions were “right”. Their Tor had a lumpy mask which appeared to have currants or raisins stuck all over it haphazardly. Moles he realized after a second. The nose was huge. Big enough that Tor touched his own nose self-consciously. His nose didn’t look like that. It was slightly small if anything. In his whole life no one had ever bothered to make fun of his nose, not even Dorgal. His hair, his too pale skin, his being too skinny or little, all that, but his nose? Trice saw him do it and stiffened a bit, he noticed. He did it again and gave her a worried grin.

The troll Tor didn’t seem to care much for Galasia at all, saying several times that the city deserved its fate for being lazy and not doing the work they should have to fix the problem before it poisoned them all.

“They deserve to die. It’s no kindness to save them, for they shall only forget in time and let this happen again. Oh yes, oh yes. Humans always forget their lessons.” The troll shouted at the audience shaking a fist. The audience booed back and called out denials, saying they’d never forget.

The girl cried, and pleaded, and even offered her own hand in marriage to get the evil little being to cooperate, which he cruelly spurned. He spent several minutes berating the girl for daring to think she was good enough for a being of true magic like him and called her names that Tor thought were a bit strong for a children’s event, if not actual curse words. The troll even called her ugly and suggested she go away and die several times. Tor definitely didn’t remember that conversation with Sara at any point. Really it had been more of her handing him an envelope and explaining things and him setting to work on a plan, then going almost directly into an emergency build.

Finally the evil Tor Troll relented, but he placed a geas on the devices he sent with her, so that they would run for only twenty years and not a second more.

“If in that time the fools of Galasia cannot fix their own problems in two decades, then they deserve to parish. Any fool could fix such a trifle in the time they have. Let them not come back to me a second time if they fail to even try! I’m much too busy for such nonsense. Much too busy. Now take these devices and be gone girl. I have work to do and no time to stand about nattering with the likes of you.”

Thanking the mean little being profusely for a while the girl then flew to Galasia to save city. She just held her left hand out in front of her and ran around the stage while a crew of others changed the scene. It was the wrong hand for the flying rigs back then of course, and Sara would have walked back to her room, not flown anyway, but that was pretty trivial all things considered. It was a cute way of doing it, giving you something to watch while the work was being done behind her. It even gave a hint that she was flying when they carried the new backdrop in. No one else died from the sickness and the water that had gone foul and stinking was restored, better than it was before even, made clean and pure so that it could be drunk safely without even boiling first.

Really, for a kids play it was pretty good. Better than anything the Two Bends School had ever put on. Tor clapped loudly when it was over and the kids all took their bows. For a laugh the old man that played Tor the troll came out for a bow too, only to have the girl take him away by the ear. It was cute, obviously planned out ahead of time; still the laugh it got was earned.

The girl was actually a decent actress, which Tor mentioned to the Ferdinand, who sat closest to him, being on the right of the bench they all sat on, Trice being on his left, holding his hand a little harder than normal.

“My daughter Meryl. They all worked very hard on this production, as you can tell no doubt. I can’t say that I agree with their presentation of Tor as a troll myself, the man saved us after all, and never even sent a bill for the work. But still, it’s not like he’ll ever see it right?”

Shrugging Trice turned to the man. “Well…”

Rolph moved in and gave the man a serious look, Sara just looked scared and embarrassed for some reason. Embarrassed he could get, after all the play had made her seem a little… godlike. Scared made no sense at all to him. Tor looked around and saw that she was staring at him. Worried that he’d go all Troll on them maybe? He smiled at her and winked.

“Well, they all did a great job. Do you have any plans for fixing the sewer breach yet?”

The large blond man smiled and spread his hands.

“We have to re-dig the sewer, holding the broken section in place while somehow leaving the whole thing working. It won’t be easy… if it’s even possible. It was a poor design to begin with. Short of making a whole new system though…”

Tor’s mind started spinning. If the earth was packed hard enough and the surface turned to glass or brick, would it hold water he wondered? Could he make a device for excavating? That should help a little at least. If he could come up with something. Wasn’t it like moving water? He’d done that before with dirt, if old dried feces counted as dirt at least, which really, it should. It had a lot of the same problems and wouldn’t work if they hit solid stone at all, but…

Standing the Prince moved to his side and shook him by the shoulder a bit.

“Tor, don’t fade on us now, we need to leave soon or we won’t get to the Capital by nightfall.”

Right. They were traveling. Maybe he’d come up with something in the air. Or maybe that would be a recipe for sudden crashing. He’d have to be careful.

Ferdinand’s eyes went huge and then he stammered, sounding a bit breathless.

“You’re… Tor? As in…”

“Oh… yeah, obviously my nose isn’t really that big… I didn’t want to mention that, because, you know, the play and all. Plus everyone was so excited to see Sara. They really did a good job, make sure and congratulate them all for me? I’ll let you know if I come up with anything that can help with rebuilding a new sewer system for you.” He shook the man’s hand again, which was a little limp this time.

Hopefully it wasn’t anything he’d said; Tor didn’t want any more enemies than he already. People here already thought he was a troll after all. He kind of wondered how that had happened. Had his message at the end come across as that hostile? Tor had just meant that the problem should be fixed, not that they were responsible for it happening and all those deaths. That was kind of harsh and he’d have never said that, even if they were responsible like the play had accused him of saying. If they thought that’s what he meant, no wonder they kind of thought he was evil. They got the short and ugly part right at least. Not the nose though. If they did the play again they should probably change that. No moles either.

They flew straight through the rest of the way, and Tor thought he had the basic control and flow system down for the earth movers by the time they got to the King’s river and started to follow it. They’d gone at least two hundred miles further east than they should and overshot the Capital by a good ways, which was a pain, as it meant nearly another hours worth of flying. On the good side he finally got to see the Falcon’s river, or at least half of it. It was so clear that it really didn’t look like much from the air.

Well, as long as they remembered to turn it off once the rains started, they’d be fine. He’d have to make sure and pass a reminder along to someone at the palace. Connie maybe. He could do it when he gave her the thing he’d made for her. It wasn’t a present, not really, he told himself. Just something to pass the time. She probably wouldn’t even like it and, well, even if she did, being Queen, she got a lot of stuff every day.

It wasn’t like Tor was singling her out for any special reason, other than that she’d been nice to him. Right? He definitely didn’t have a puppy crush on her. Certainly not. She was his best friend’s mother for goodness sake! Who did that?

On top of that he had a perfectly lovely and nice fake fiancee. He just wanted to make sure she knew that he appreciated her kindness. That was all.

She probably wouldn’t even remember who he was. Richard either for that matter. They were both busy people. He was just…some cave troll. He chucked a little remembering the old man trying to pretend to be as short as he looked compared to Sara. They’d over done it a little bit. Sara was less than a foot taller than he was after all. Oh well, artistic license and all that.

The nose still bugged him though, making him touch his own self-consciously.

They weren’t met by guards this time as they flew in, but they did see a small red building next to four large white arrows on the ground that all pointed to an x. An official landing area? Rolph took them in carefully, descending slowly so that if it wasn’t the case, someone could come warn them off or something. Instead a thin young man that must have been about the same age of everyone else in their group came out with a clip board.

“Gentles!” He cried loudly enough to be heard from thirty feet away easily. “Welcome to the Capital. I’m Steward, and I’ll be your Two Bends representative for the day. If you have any packages that need to go out, the next pick up is tomorrow, though special delivery is always available for an extra fee. We can also signal for transportation from here if you have errands in the city. Please let us know if anything we can do for you will help make your stay here more pleasant.”

Two Bends? Tor smiled, getting it instantly. His family already had a building up just outside the Capital and a landing place for anyone flying in? That was clever of them. Or possibly of this fellow here, Steward. Tor moved in and shook his hand.

“Hi Steward, yes, some transport would be great. Um, we need to go to…” Tor froze for a bit, he’d been working so much he didn’t know what anyone’s plans were at all. Everyone else had places they could stay, except for him of course. He could always just stay in the corner of Rolph’s room or something if need be, or even sleep outside, if everything had been filled up. That things might be a little more cramped this time had been mentioned to him more than once. Really, no one knew if their own homes here would be full or not, as far as that went.

It was just possible that Trice’s parents would have lent the house out for instance, if they hadn’t flown down themselves. Debri could have high powered guests in too. Since no one was expecting Rolph home really, even his rooms might have been given over to some Count or something.

Stepping forward the Prince suggested they try the palace first.

“After all, if nothing else we can all sleep on the floor of the tool shed out back, I’m sure.” He added with a wink. It made sense to Tor, and he knew that Rolph would do it, even if no one in the palace would have let him most likely. They’d find something, even if a servant had to give up their own bed. Well, Tor at least didn’t need anything fancy. The floor was good enough for him. It would be like camping out, sort of.

It took a bit for the carriages to come, again three of them, like the last time they’d been to the Capital. This time the whole trip took a lot longer though. Nearly four hours of riding in the carriage to get to the palace grounds, sometimes not moving at all because of all the people in the streets already, putting up banners and hangings, sweeping and getting ready for the coming festivities it looked like. The events seemed to be quite a lot bigger here than at the school, and Tor had thought they made a big thing of it there.

It was dark when they pulled up to the gate, a Royal Guard walked up to the carriage carefully and held up an oil lamp so that he could see who was trying to get in at this time of night. He greeted the Prince by name and asked, very politely, as to who else might be with him. With each name spoken the man checked a thick bundle of papers to see if they were allowed entrance.

“Sir… we seem to have everyone listed except for Mr. Baker. I’m afraid that I can’t allow anyone not listed in, by order of the King, Sir…” The man looked… not pleased at least. Tor just shrugged.

After all, why would he be on the guest list at all anyway? They hadn’t known he was coming. That the others were on it, well, they’d been Rolph friends for a lot longer than he had, at least as far as palace visits were concerned. Right? And Trice was even family and Sara was Rolph’s “special friend” which Connie knew personally. Or, well, maybe they just didn’t want someone like him here right now? Save room for the important people?

“Uh…” Rolph looked around for a second. “Right, well, no use arguing with a Royal Guard, would you be all right waiting here for a minute while I get this sorted out Tor? It won’t take but bit I’m sure…”

His friend sounded embarrassed, like it was something he’d done that caused this inconvenience. Tor just hoped that he could find someplace to stay if they wouldn’t let him in here, at least for the night. He could always fly back to the school the next day if not, but it would suck waiting for ten hours until it was light enough to fly. He climbed out of the carriage so that it could drive in, wondering if he should grab his trunks as the carriages disappeared into the palace complex. Too late for that, he realized. So he wondered around for a bit.

An hour passed and no one came back for him, not even to tell him to go make other arrangements. At two hours he kind of wondered if he’d just been ditched all together. He didn’t even have any coin on him, what he had being in his main trunk, so getting something to eat in town was out of the picture. Not that he was hungry particularly, but it would at least give him something to do and a place to sit. The guards were changed over about then and the new ones didn’t know who he was, so they asked him to move away from the gate all together.

Asked… was a little more polite than they really were about it. They kind of threatened to hurt him if he didn’t leave right then, even after he explained the situation and who he was waiting for. Not knowing what else to do and not really wanting both his legs broken at the knees as offered, he turned and wondered back into the city. The streets were dark now and, as it had neared midnight, no one was out on them at all, except for him and a few women that looked lonely, standing out on the street corners in their distinctive tall boots, asking him if he wanted to spend some time with them.

Not even Tor was so naive that he didn’t get it.

Still, they didn’t seem happy with their work at all, not to him. Then again, how much work could they be getting if no one else was out on the street right now? He kept on walking after explaining that he didn’t have any coin at the moment. Oddly they were all pleasant enough about it, winking at him and telling him they knew how that was. Even though he couldn’t be their customer, they smiled at him and said nice things, which was sweet. Tor had never met any women like that before and had expected, well, that they’d be bad. Mean or course. Instead they just seemed like people. Fairly pleasant ones even, that didn’t hold his being poor against him.

No one tried to stop him, or rob him, which wouldn’t have worked anyway. Even if he hadn’t been armed and wearing a pretty good shield, what would they have gotten, some amulets? Those might be worth a little. Maybe he could trade one for a meal or somewhere to stay? If he could find anyone to trade with. Even the prostitutes had gone in by the time he’d thought of it. Not that he wanted to trade for their services, but maybe they’d have known someone, or where he should go?

So instead he just wondered, hoping that when light broke he’d at least be able to see the wall and figure out where one of the gates was. His feet were getting sore from all the walking, but it just didn’t feel right to sit down anywhere. Most of it was either in the street itself or someone’s private property. Sitting in the street was a bad idea in general, plus it would look weird. No one did that. With private property, well, someone might let him sit or even lie down and take a nap, if he could explain things to them. But no one was out yet.

Hours later he finally saw someone moving, opening the door to what looked like a small shop. Tor didn’t want to spook the woman, who looked about ten years older than he was, even though it was hard to tell in the light. He stood well back and called out to her.

“Excuse me please,” he started, causing the woman to turn around and look at him, smiling a little.

“Let me stop you there.” She held out her right hand, about half way into the room behind her already, as if ready to run if she needed to.

“I’m not a prostitute, don’t have any money to steal, and don’t have any work for you for the duration of the festival, unless you can bake or know the city well enough to do deliveries. So…”

Tor laughed a little.

“I don’t know the city at all, but I can bake. At least I can for the country; I grew up in a bakery, literally. But I was wondering-” The woman cut him off.

“Alright. I’ll bet you to making some things. If you can do it without burning half of the product, I’ll give you room and board, plus half a silver per week for the duration of the festival. Not to dazzle you with my clever math, that means half a silver all told. You’re here to work though, not goof off all day or ogle the girls that come in and if you pinch my behind even once you’re out on your ear. Deal?”

It sounded like he could at least get off the street for a while, so he agreed. Especially since she wouldn’t let him finish a sentence otherwise. It kind of reminded him of home already.

Board meant she fed him, right?

The interior of the shop was much nicer than what he’d grown up with, but the ovens were almost identical. Large brick things that took up the back wall of the space completely. Tor started the fire without being asked; using a single match from the small stone box she had next to the fire tools, which got a nod from the proprietress. While he did that she started lighting oil lamps so they’d be able to see what they did.

Once she had the four lamps they were going to be using going, she turned and stared at him for a bit. “Oh! You’re a bit older than I thought, what, about fourteen or so?”

Tor fought not to sigh at her with a hangdog look. Instead he grinned a bit wryly.

“Seventeen. My name’s Tor. Torrance Baker actually.” He looked around for the starter and flour, which were kept away from the stove here, since it was already warm enough for dough to rise. It would die if it got too active overnight, most likely, given the heat.

“Tor? Like the magic river? Well, easy to remember at least. Call me Debbie.”

“Isn’t the river called the Falcon’s?” He asked her innocently. He kind of wanted that name to catch hold, but feared it might be too late already.

The brunette shook her head a little. “Not that I’ve ever heard. “The River Tor” after the great wizard that built it. Why would it be named after a bird?”

Tor explained about the three bronze statues that held it aloft while they started for the day, really trying to sell the majesty of it, how it looked like their wings were lofting the clear stream of water into the air. That wasn’t exactly something he knew first hand, but it sounded good.

They moved quickly, the woman seemed pleased enough with his work at first, and even more pleased when he got everything out of the ovens in time. That, of course, was the real secret to baking. Paying attention to what was going on. By the time light began to show through the clear and decently large windows in the front of the shop, they had racks filled with breads, rolls and sweet confections already cooling for the day.

“Those small hand-pies you’re working on are the big favorite during the festival, kind of local tradition. Fruit, meat, even the vegetable ones will sell out. If you feel hungry yet, try one of the beef pies when you take them out of the oven. Let it cool a bit first, of course.” He face held a smile for him as she said the words.

Now that he had enough light to see her by, she looked a lot younger than he’d thought, maybe early twenties. Her hair was brown and held up under a kerchief, and she looked well fed. Not fat by any means, but healthy and clear skinned. She reminded him a lot of Terlee, only taller, about six foot, and more outgoing. She told him stories about her life as she worked.

“How about you Tor? What do you do when you’re not busy being a festival baker?”

“Other than being ditched in a strange city by my friends? I’m a student, as the brown outfit suggests. I go to school up in Lairdgren near the top of the County. I’m there on a King’s scholarship and came down for the week with friends. Well that… and I make magic rivers and other bits of magic of course in my spare time. I guess I should have stuck with baking though, huh? That or just stayed at school for King’s week. They didn’t let me in the palace at all, and her I thought the King and Queen kind of liked me.” His voice had gone playful enough that he didn’t sound bitter about the whole thing, he thought. Debbie just smiled and kept working, nodding her head as if he’d told a bad joke. Tor darted to one of the ovens and pulled out a tray of full wheat loaves then freed them from the sheet they were on and set aside on the stout wire racks to cool.

Debbie stood stirring a bowl of icing, which would coat the sweet hand pies she’d told him earlier. It sounded good to him. The meat pie he’d had earlier was good enough that he could see why they were a traditional favorite at least. The apple and peach they were making right now scented the whole room wonderfully.

“Well Tor, it sounds like you need to make some new friends if that’s how they treat you. Why would anyone do that? Abandoning their friend that far from home. Anyway, their loss, my gain. You have the job by the way.” She kept working as she spoke.

“Thanks!” That she thought he was good enough to work with her filled him with a quiet sense of pride. It could be hard to impress strangers after all, and this woman was obviously good at her job. You probably didn’t keep a shop in the Capital if you weren’t.

At least now he wouldn’t have to rush back to the school or worry about starving. Plus, Debbie was nice. He’d hate to see her struggling with increased traffic and losing sales because she couldn’t make things fast enough.

After about nine in the morning, people started coming in a steady stream, brightly colored in festival clothes even this early and mainly smiling. It was fun and uplifting. Finally Debbie had to just go to the cash box and help customers the whole time, leaving Tor to make more pies as fast as he could. It went on like that for hours without a break, but he kept up with the demand, almost.

At about three in the afternoon he heard Debbie talking to someone in the front.

“I don’t know… let me ask my assistant.” The voice that called from the front was crisp and business like, but friendly all the same. “Tor, do we have any of the peach hand pies ready for sale? We’re out up front.”

They did, sitting on the cooling rack, the hard clear glaze just dry enough, if they packaged them carefully. He pulled the whole tray and moved with it carefully towards the front.

“Yes! Still warm from the oven…” He nearly stumbled when he saw who was asking for them. A tall blond woman wearing a nice dress made of a light colored fabric that would almost pass for white, but was really a soft lavender. It took Tor a second to remember her name though, since they’d only met the one time.

“Ah! Collette, isn’t it? Baronetta Coltress? We met at that party, you were there with Tovey?” He reminded her, in case she’d forgotten him already. It could happen; he’d been far from the most impressive person in the room that night after all.

“Tor?” Her hands came up in front of her slightly, clutching each other. She didn’t look worried or anything, just a bit surprised.

“What are you doing here?”

He explained the whole being ditched thing and how he’d gotten a job baking for the duration of King’s week. She blinked as if he was telling a bad joke.

“But… you could stay with any number of people, couldn’t you? Why I’m sure Tovey would love to have you and of course I’d gladly open my own home…”

It was really sweet of her to offer, but he’d already promised Debbie that he’d help her out, hadn’t he? He made a point of explaining carefully and winked at her as she left with a full sack of various kinds of pies.

“I have to keep my word after all, or what point is there to speaking?” She blinked at him for several seconds and then gave him an odd smile and a tiny bow.

“Words to live by.” She said, very softly, and then left, smiling just a little and looking at him over her shoulder, even as she walked away.

Tor went back to work. They left the ovens to burn down starting at six, but kept the doors open late. Debbie had Tor do most of the cleanup work, which wasn’t hard or anything, and not even boring, because it was a new place, to him at least. At nine she showed him to a little cubby in the back. It had a small cot in it, and a thin blanket and pillow ready to sleep on. The room was tiny and he felt glad he wasn’t one of the tall royals, because then he’d never be able to fit in it. It was decently clean though, looking like it got swept out pretty often and everything. No bugs even, but that was important in a bakery. Want to lose customers? Let them find insects in their bread.

“It isn’t much but…”

It would do. Tor just wished he had his luggage, so that he could use his toothbrush before bed. When he mentioned it, Debbie held up a finger.

“I have an old one here… I know it’s a little gross, using someone’s old toothbrush. It hasn’t been used for years though, so anything on it should have died by now.”

She could have used it in front of him first and he still would have gone ahead and brushed with it. After the last day he needed it too badly to quibble over a few germs. She locked the front door as she left, giving him a smile over her shoulder. He could get out from the inside, but no one could just walk in by mistake. He was tired enough that even being in a strange place didn’t keep him from sleeping soundly, hardly even tossing on the hard cot. He woke up with a start when he heard the door open in the morning.

“Rise and shine sleepy head!” The woman sounded far too cheery for this time of day, but he made himself get up anyway. She’d probably gotten less sleep than he had after all, having to walk home and back. Saint that she was, she let him have fifteen minutes to get ready, wash and brush his teeth again before they started. It wasn’t a full bath of course, but he used a bucket of water to scrub up as well as he could behind the shop. He’d have to figure out what to do about his clothing soon, or he’d end up with yeast growing all over them. Then he’d smell like beer all the time without even drinking.

The day went faster since he knew what he was doing and they couldn’t really stop working if they wanted to keep up with demand. Solid work always helped to pass the time, he knew. Debbie ran from the front to the back as he scurried around trying to keep up with everything. For him it was the fastest he’d ever moved while baking by far. At least he had his equalizing amulet. Tor felt a little bad for Debbie, who was obviously uncomfortable most of the time. Not bad enough to give up his own amulet… yet, but he felt himself getting there.

He had a few more ready to go, sitting in his luggage. Somewhere in the palace if they hadn’t just put it all out on the street. Rolph better not have let that happen. Even if he wasn’t important enough to be a guest there, just dumping his stuff would be rude. Most of what he owned was in those two cases. Things weren’t important, not really, but they could be handy. For instance it would be nice to have his own toothbrush and soap.

At noon Debbie let him have a break, a few minutes to eat a couple of the hand pies, that and bread being what they had extra of at the moment, and wash it down with a few cups of water. He just sat on the floor in the back while he ate, looking through the door at the people coming in. That’s why he noticed when the sun went away.

It hadn’t really gone, of course, it was just that a really large person stood in front of the windows looking in. A few seconds later the blond man entered the shop, looking around curiously.

Tovey.

Tor brushed off some crumbs and wiped his mouth with his hand before standing all the way up. He’d finished anyway. Count Thomson looked around for a few seconds as Tor walked out from the back. Debbie’s eyes goggled a bit.

“May I help you my lord?” She actually stood up from the wooden stool she used and curtsied, not that Tovey could see her behind the counter.

“Tovey! Enjoying the festival?” Tor felt happy to see the familiar face. True, he could, in a pinch, just walk to the nearest gate and leave the city on his own, even fly back to school by flying north and following land marks, but inside the city… He actually had no idea where he was.

“There you are! Everyone’s been off looking for you. Alphonse has been half convinced that you’d gotten yourself kidnapped by a whore master and set to servicing tourists, and Connie wanted to send out the troops to search every part of the kingdom for you. I would have shown up with everyone in tow, but I wanted to make sure you were really here first myself. Collette told me you were. She also told me to mention that the hand pies were very good by the way. She’ll probably be back in tomorrow for more. The Baron, her father, particularly enjoyed the apple raisin ones with icing. I was asked to make a point of telling you that.”

Tor made a mental note of it. He could have some of those ready, he let Tovey know.

“Ohhh, hey, if everyone isn’t hating on Tor right now, do you think someone would send my luggage over? I’d kill for a clean shirt and my razor, you know?”

The giant man nodded and looked over at Debbie.

“Those pies do smell delicious. What kinds do you have?”

That started them on a discussion of what was available, which allowed Tor to get the unbaked pies from the rack into the oven. Thankfully they were a pastry, and didn’t need to rise. After he was done he popped his head back out to check on his friend who was just passing over some coins in exchange for a large bag.

“I’m here for the week.” Tor said simply. “So if you could help out with the clothes and stuff…” He felt more than a little awkward sending a Count off to get his laundry, but really he didn’t know where the palace was from here right now, and if he went, he doubted that the guards would help him retrieve his things for some reason. First, it really wasn’t their job. Second, he’d probably pissed off more than a few of them with the whole Wensa thing, if they’d heard about it. They might not kill him over it, but being a little difficult with him was probably fair. Who could blame them? If someone had locked up his friends for what turned out to be no reason he’d be a little cold towards them too, probably.

“Sure, I’ll get your luggage, but you are coming to the party tomorrow, aren’t you? Everyone will think you’re mad at them if you don’t. Not that I’d blame you myself, but you don’t seem too upset about things…”

Tor shrugged. Why would he be upset overly? This wasn’t what he’d had in mind and he still had to find out if Winchester was holding a grudge, but it would serve. Plus, Debbie had said that she was making about forty percent more money this year so far, because they could keep up with demand. It was a huge jump in earnings for her, even after his half silver for the week.

“I guess. I, um, don’t know how to get there though. I kind of wondered over a big chunk of the city after getting left at the gates like that. So…”

Tovey laughed and told him that he’d take care of everything, then left which after a few minutes caused even more people to come in than before. After all, anyplace that’s good enough for a Count must be good enough for the man on the street, right? Tor had to keep baking until nearly nine that night. People kept streaming in, even after they normally would have closed. At about ten Rolph, Trice, Sara and Varley all came in with his luggage. Debbie took the lull they caused by their presence to close the shop. Or more to the point, the half dozen large Royal Guardsmen standing out front, keeping everyone else out. They’d pretty much sold everything out anyway.

“Yay, luggage.”

Tor didn’t have but about three seconds before everyone rushed him. Even Rolph hugged him, picking him up off his feet and swinging him side to side for a second, before Trice grabbed him and kissed him soundly. Sara joined in that, but just kissed him on the cheek. From Varley he just got a hug, but it was a lingering one that she didn’t let go for nearly twenty seconds.

“Oh, hey, everyone, this is my boss Debbie who owns the shop and gave me a job for the week. Debbie, this is in order of who’s going to be yelled at least, Princess Veronica Cordes who is, as far as I can tell, blameless in the whole Tor abandonment project. Sara Debri, who’s not only pretty but has no particular reason to run out of the palace looking for me, except that we’re supposed to be in business together, and losing a whole Tor like that has got to be embarrassing. I mean, what would your mother say? My fiancee Patricia Morgan, who you’d think might have at least come and told me that I needed to find someplace for the night through the fence and finally a guy who claims to be my best friend, Rolph. Oh, um, he’s sometimes called Alphonse too.”

Debbie looked like she was about to pass out, but then so did everyone else so maybe that was fair?

It was the giant red headed Prince that spoke first, blushing brightly.

“Tor… Look, it wasn’t like we meant to leave you at the gate; it was just that we had to find dad to change the gate information and he was off in a meeting with some of his advisors. We finally had to get mom to go in and get him to change the order for the gate guards, which turned out not to need changing, because you were on the list, only not as Torrence Baker, but just Tor. It really was there too, I looked at it myself, right on the first page with the important people and everything, please don’t be insulted, no one was trying to snub you or anything…” Rolph looked worried, as if Tor would throw a fit or something.

It didn’t really matter. Sure he’d felt abandoned and lost for a couple of days, but it wasn’t important or anything. A sad look crossed his face, he felt it form and made it leave as soon as he could get it too. Standing off to the side Debbie looked at each person in turn, as if trying to figure out what was going on.

“So, if this is Princess Veronica, and the heir is here trying to claim that you weren’t really abandoned at the palace gate then… you’re… Tor?” The bake shop owner looked at him skeptically for some reason.

“Like I said I was, yes. Tor Baker. Student, grew up in a bakery, makes little magic stuff sometimes and gets abandoned at the palace gates. Anyway, everyone needs to go now, because Debbie needs to get some sleep and we go back to work inside six hours.” For affect Tor yawned himself, which got a real one from Debbie. They really had been working hard and on short sleep and would be for days.

Rolph bowed deeply and held it for nearly half a minute. When he stood he spoke softly, not looking up.

“Both father and mother have personally requested, if you’re not too angry with all of us, that you come to the party tomorrow night? I know that we’d all love it if you showed up. This was just a stupid set of errors, honestly Tor…”

The Princess dimpled at him and kissed him on the cheek. She had to stoop slightly to do it. That was no fair of course, since she’d been about the same height as him when they met just a few months before. He suppressed a sigh. They grow up so fast, Tor thought, looking at her.

“Show up a bit before nine, mom and dad will want to talk to you first. Groveling to be done and all that. Dinner party, obviously, so don’t fill up first. Oh! Mom said to tell you that she’s sorry about the mix up and to give you a kiss from her.” Varley giggled then touched his lips with her own warmly. It wasn’t lingering, but it wasn’t a quick peck on the cheek either. “I know dad felt horrible about it too. He didn’t send a kiss though. And Karina wants you to bring her something, because she’s a selfish little bitch, couldn’t even be arsed to come check on you, but wants you to bring her prezzies…” Varley looked at Debbie and winked. “But you didn’t hear that from me.”

It took several minutes for everyone to leave, and another round of hugs from everyone and a kiss from Trice. Debbie locked the door after them all from the outside, leaving him with his cot.

Tor got ready for bed and almost fell into it. In a normal bakery he’d have gotten to sleep way earlier, but during the festival people stayed up late and ate more than normal, so it was worth staying open until the last people came in. Well, nearly the last people. He heard some drunks walking past near midnight; at least he assumed the loud, off key singing belonged to a drunk or two. He just rolled over and went back to sleep. Morning would come soon enough. Too soon.

At least when Tor woke he could scrub up and get into some clean clothing. He used his own toothbrush and toothpaste and actually had some real soap with him, the really strong kind that stripped the grime, and a few layers of skin, right off without too much scrubbing. He did it quickly, knowing that they had a lot of work to get through as fast as possible. If he was going to leave early at all, he needed to have everything made to last Debbie until they closed.

Before they could work he had to push his chests out of the way. They were both big, but the new one had a nice flat top to it, and was banded in iron for extra strength, so the other could be stacked on it securely. It was the one that held all the extra devices he’d brought along. Thinking about that he got into it and pulled out a few things that he thought Debbie might find useful. An equalizer for the heat, and a hot water heater for her bath at home. Looking in the case he realized that he didn’t have a lot with him that really related to an actual person much at all. Unless she wanted to learn to fly? Down at the bottom he had twenty room temperature control plates, so he gave her two, one for the shop and one for home.

She looked at him uneasily, seeming bashful suddenly, which wasn’t like her normal assertive self at all.

“Um, why are you giving me things? These must be worth a fortune. Hundreds or even thousands of golds. I’ve been making you slave away for a hard cot and food you’ve been making most of yourself… I really expected that you’d be gone when I got here this morning to tell the truth.”

“What and lose out on all those sales? You have a business to run and what would I be doing if I stayed at the palace anyway, giving people presents and getting underfoot? Here I’m out of the way and doing something useful. I can give you things that you might even actually use even. Besides, when I needed help, you gave me work and let me stay here. I know it was all an accident, and even if it wasn’t I shouldn’t complain about the royal family not wanting me around all the time, but I’m still a little mad at them for making me walk the streets thinking that everyone had forgotten me. I’m of half a mind to just skip tonight, but people would be offended… Probably at least. If they noticed I didn’t show up at all.” Tor smiled and showed her how to use the temperature plate and set it up in the front of the shop for her, on the wall near the counter, so she could reach it easily to control the temperature.

The work went fast, since he had a pattern now, and while he had to keep pushing all day, because he was wearing down a little from lack of regular sleep, it wasn’t too hard to keep on top of everything. Not for the first half of the day. At about one in the afternoon it started to get crazy. Lines stretching down the street, all leading to Debbie’s little shop. People bought things, but also took their time, staring at him for some reason. Enjoying the cool too. Some kids came in and just sat on the floor near the corner, just for that.

Tor finally had to give them temperature equalizers to get them to leave. They were little though; no older than seven and the youngest was maybe four, a cute little girl that looked a little thin and underfed. Seeing that, Debbie sent them off with a wink, a small swat for the eldest and a bag of treats.

Even though it was probably the busiest day she’d ever had and everything could have been sold. Tor felt tears come to his eyes, but hid that by making up more hand-pies in the back, as fast as he could.

Collette had to wait just to get her dad some of the apple and raisin hand pies that she’d asked for through Tovey anyway. It was a little embarrassing, but they just sold out of everything too fast to keep them on hand.

“Do you plan to go to the party tonight?” She asked, looking at him wistfully, standing in the door to the back room so she could talk to him while she waited. “I was invited to go with Count Thomson originally, but he had to dis-invite me, because the girl he’s going to marry is going with him instead. Counserina third Lairdgren, um. Tama-Lyn? Do you know her? Apparently she’s not the understanding type, even though she could get in on her own. I’d be miffed, but who can blame her really? I wouldn’t want my future husbands sometime girlfriend hanging out either, not that the Count and I are that close.”

Tor had just walked into the room with a large tray of still warm hand-pies which he almost dropped. “Tamerlane. Um… Well. You’d think Tovey would have shared that tidbit with me. She’s my older sister. I knew that she and mother visited with him at school, but I didn’t really think… Well much of it at all, which probably means I’m a bit of a moron, but there you have it. Well, good for her.”

At least Tovey was a nice guy. He felt a little bad for Collette, and told her so, but she just wrinkled her nose at him. “It’s not like he and I were close or anything. Not overly at least. He just thought I was pretty enough to walk around with at a few parties. I was kind of hoping I could go with you, so I could at least mix and mingle. It’s the second largest event here at the Capital and generally you have to be a Counserina or better to get invited on your own. Only Noram Day is larger, but that event is so hard to get into at the palace that I’ve never been. But if you’re not going, I’m out of people that I know who can get me in the door. Well, drat.” She sighed dramatically then smiled.

“It wouldn’t be a big deal but my half-sister is in town with her husband and since he’s a sitting Count he’s automatically invited, though I hear that he’s kind of on the outs with Alphonse, because he got the Prince’s fiancee pregnant.” She whispered this as he filled the basket she brought carefully with the pies, adding in a few peach for her as well as the apple raisin for her dad and plain apple for her mother.

It took Tor a few seconds to catch on.

“What!” He said too loudly. She looked at him and nodded.

“I know, it’s a huge scandal, I couldn’t believe it myself, but Maria told me herself. It was a big thing and Alphonse even attacked Count Ward, if you can believe that. No one was hurt though, thank goodness.”

Shaking his head he looked down for a second with a frown on his face. “Sorry, what I meant to say was; what, Maria’s your half sister? I already knew about the rest. I was there.” Standing between the two royal giants as they tried to fight in fact.

“Oh yes. She’s… well, she’s not a very kind person all the time, to tell the truth, not to me at least. It’s not that she’s evil, but if she gets to go to a party and I don’t, she’ll rub it in for weeks and I kind of have to take it, because she’s a Countess now.”

Giving it a few moments thought, Tor stopped, even while the line grew out front, finally she touched his arm making him jump. He made up his mind suddenly and nodded.

“Right, well… My own fiancee is going to be there. Ducherina Morgan? You met her at that party we met at? We got engaged the next day actually. It’s not a real engagement, but we kind of have to fake it for a while for other reasons, as odd as it probably sounds. So, I can’t have you as a real date there, but I think I can get you in, baring incident. Can you be here at, call it, seven? You might end up being turned back at the door, but if so we’ll both leave. I won’t leave you stuck standing there or anything like that.” Especially after it had happened to him. Well, if nothing else it was at least a good learning experience.

Don’t “accidentally” keep your friends out. He’d be sure to remember that if he ever got a palace of his own, or even had a gate to guard.

She clapped her hands and squealed a little, getting attention from the whole room for a few seconds, including Debbie, who looked at him like he’d grown a second head and was carrying on a conversation with it. Collette seemed happy enough when she left at least. After that Tor buried his head and started working non-stop until six, hoping that he had enough product for his boss to keep the place open until nine or ten. All the product racks were full; mainly hand pies, golden brown and flaky looking. Most of those had a soft white hint of sugar glazing on the top. A steady stream of people came in though still, laughing and smiling the whole time.

He scrubbed up again standing in the small yard out back, because the shop, which had running water and a restroom, didn’t have a bathtub. He used a large wooden bucket with black iron bands around it instead. A woman across the way saw him strip down to the waist to wash and made a sharp, festive noise at him. Tor smiled and waved to her, she looked a little plain, and about thirty or so, but had a nice smile. At least she seemed playful in her attentions and hadn’t screamed in fear about a half naked man. In Two Bends it would have been a bit of a scandal, but here it was just… Wednesday. For that matter, Tor kind of thought that if the woman had been the topless person no one but him would have batted an eyelash. Then, given the heat, he kind of wondered why anyone wore clothing here at all.

Changing was a problem. He had clothes, Rolph had sent an outfit for him, just putting it in his trunk, but lacking Burks to help him into it, dressing took a lot longer. It was frustrating, because he couldn’t reach the laces that ran up the back, and in the end he had to break down and ask Debbie to help him. It was a heavy silk and velvet thing, with no color in particular to the whole outfit. Debbie thought it made him look older.

“Good though. Kind of small for a royal, but you could be one of those merchant princes from Tellerand. Not that I’ve seen any, but I hear they have about your size and look. Dark hair, pale and, um, short.” She whipped back to work as if he’d be insulted by the fact that he wasn’t all that tall. He’d lived it his whole life and came from a place where everyone was his size. It was the people in this place that looked too tall to him. He grinned at his boss’s back and finished getting ready.

Tor barely got the chests drug around before Collette showed up, in a very pretty powder blue dress that had more lace on it than could possibly be comfortable. It looked warm, uncomfortably so, and she was trying to cool herself a little when she walked in, with a silk fan that nearly matched the color of the gown.

“Good evening!” The tall blond said when he walked out, doing a double take when his luggage followed him, hovering about a foot in the air.

It was just a simple modification of a basic luggage float. It would go up to the point he lifted it to and then stay there. He had an amulet around his neck that it followed, no matter where he went. It had some issues, for instance, it could be confused by doors and would try to pass through a person if they got in its path, but if you paid attention it was way simpler than trying to carry something that weighed that much. The main chest was just on the edge of what he could pick up on his own. Copper and silver plates and even amulets, added up way faster than it looked like they should and he had a lot with him. Party favors mainly.

About twenty minutes later a carriage pulled up, the wood was polished, a deep, dark color that spoke of taste, and a lot of care, because in the Capital anything that shade would show each speck of dust easily, and that did collect. On everything. It probably had to be cleaned daily to keep it looking like it did, which was virtually spotless.

Tovey stepped out of the back, along with a pretty woman that wore a red dress designed to catch the eye. She was short, and looked different than he’d ever seen her. He realized who she was at least fifteen full seconds before she seemed to recognize him though, so he figured the points had to go to him on that one.

“S’t… Torrence? You look great. Who’s your friend?” She asked this with an accent that sounded a little fake to his ear, but really, if he just listened to her without remembering she was Terlee from Two Bends, she sounded like a royal. Way more than he did. He sounded a bit more like a merchant in accent, at least that’s what Rolph had told him. Then, Tor had learned to speak like he did by copying Rolph’s, which at school was all “Rolph Merchant” his disguise, “Prince Alphonse” sounded different.

Tovey looked puzzled by the addition of Collette to their group as they stood in the store for a few moments. He waited for an explanation apparently, and possibly a bit anxiously, so Tor filled them in. He could get the possible unease. Terlee was from Two Bends, not the Capital. Having an extra girlfriend around might just make her go off. Except that it was Terlee, and Tor knew his sister better than that. She might hide all evening, but she wouldn’t get openly angry.

“Collette is a friend of ours Terlee. She was originally going to go to this with the Count but they decided that wouldn’t work too well, since the situation with you and he has changed? I’ll need to be filled in on that sometime soon I think. Anyway, since she’s a friend of mine too, I’m getting her in to the party. There’s more to it than that, but that should serve for now.” To his amazement Terlee just smiled and took Collette’s hand gently.

“Nice to meet you.” She said, getting something similar back from Collette, who seemed happier and more at ease suddenly. Of course the situation could have been a lot more tense given everything, so that probably made sense. Terlee was a lot of things, but mean wasn’t one of them and apparently, rumors of her not being understanding aside she really was trying to adapt to the new situation at least as hard as Tor was. If anything she fit in better, he decided, feeling proud of his sister again. She’d gone from Two Bends to engaged to a Count in what, a month? A month and a half? Tor had been out of the village for nearly three years now and still wasn’t engaged to a Count at all.

Tovey helped him boost the chest onto the back of the carriage, moving it easily. Tor couldn’t have picked it up that high on his own, not within two feet even. He marveled a little, knowing that no matter what else happened in his life, he’d just never be that tall. No wonder people let them lead. It was just darned impressive. Before they got in the back of the carriage Tor took out a handful of amulets and started handing them out.

“Presents. One to keep your temperature stable,” Tovey pulled his out from under his shirt, so Tor took the one he’d tried to give him back with a smile. Good to know that he’d kept it all this time. “The other is just, well, here….” He put the amulet on and looked down at the little array of sigils and tapped the first one.

A soft white light grew slowly out of the air around his body, resting about two inches off of his skin. It wasn’t glaring and showed better in the back of the dark carriage than it would under bright lights, but it wasn’t meant to be useful, just interesting.

Collette looked at hers.

“Why are their seven sigils though?” She didn’t hit any of the others, being smart enough to know better. No sane adult ever touched a sigil without knowing it was safe.

“Each ones a different color of light. It’s harmless. Let’s see…Here.” He reached over to her and hit the right sigil, fourth from the left, not noticing at first that he was tapping so near her chest until after the light blue sprang up in the air around her. He suddenly felt awkward, but no one else seemed to notice. Terlee matched her own with red light after a few tries and the Count decided that green suited him best.

“If nothing else,” Tovey said as he looked at the people with him, smiling in that relaxed fashion of his. “At least we’ll be easy to see.”

Chapter five

Tor nearly just left the city in embarrassment when the gate guards tried to turn him away again at first. He didn’t have an invitation.

No one had even mentioned the idea to him before. Count Thomson had one, printed in a fine hand on sturdy paper; it was black ink on a smooth cream colored paper that he’d never seen the like of before. It even had his sister’s name on it; right there in hand inked lines. Rolph hadn’t mentioned even needing one at all! Well, at least he’d warned Collette that this might happen. She didn’t seem overly put out by it at least, just shrugging it off.

“Do I get to keep the amulets? I think that I could use them to deflect the worst of Maria’s bites tomorrow… God that sounds mercenary doesn’t it? I just-” the woman shrugged a little and touched his arm gently, leaving her hand on it as the gate guards kind of glared at them for not having the proper papers. Had the invitation just been some kind of game then? Why? Then again, they were all royals and everyone knew that they didn’t do things in a straight foreword manner if they could help it. Even Tor had grown up with stories about that.

So was this really him being snubbed? Worse he’d brought his own witnesses. Crap.

He should have just skipped it, shouldn’t he?

“Of course, heck, I’ll load you up with amulets and fields if you want them, I brought plenty. I guess I really did make someone mad at me here. I wonder what I did? Probably being too short or something silly like that. Well, anyway, Tovey, would it be all right if we borrowed the carriage to get Collette back home? I’m horribly embarrassed about all this. I was asked by Rolph and Varley to come personally, they said that it was directly from the King and Queen and I figured… well, I guess things are different than I thought? Nothing for it now.”

He forced a smile, even knowing he sounded horrible. It was just that his stomach was making an effort to sink through the bottom of his tummy that did it. Probably trying to hide, away from the shame he’d brought on them.

The Count and Tor’s sister both got out, but looked uneasy doing it. Tor made a point of giving the King’s presents to the Count for delivery, since it was right there anyway, and the little gift he’d worked up for the Queen as well. Why should their fun be ruined? He told them to go and have a good night, sounding like it was a funeral the whole time.

Poor Collette had to ride back with him in borrowed shame, instead of mixing and mingling like she’d planned. She looked so pretty too. Anyone keeping her out of a party was a moron, Tor decided, feeling lower than he’d felt in days.

Really he would have just left the Capital right then had it been just him, just rising into the air and flying off, dark or not, but he owed her at least something for having shown up with him. When they got to her house he off loaded a large amount of plates, water heaters, room temperature controls, a few more of the glowing amulets, five personal shields and flying rigs along with two luggage plates. It wasn’t enough, he knew, so he gave her four more amulets for luggage, but anything more would be getting redundant. Collette hugged him as he turned to leave.

“Don’t worry, it’s just an oversight I’m sure. Things do happen with large events like this.” She sounded a little worried though, slightly upset. Warnings or not, he’d really let her down, he knew. Tor should have seen it coming.

Why hadn’t he?

Because he was foolishly trusting, that was why.

Moron.

He knew she was probably right, but it felt like he was being snubbed on purpose. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, if he hadn’t been asked so very clearly like he had been. If no one had said anything about it, and just left him at the bakery after delivering his stuff, it would have been all right. Oh well. He walked back to Debbie’s, so that the carriage could get back to the party were it might be needed later. When he got back, not too late, since the Baronetta lived about a slow ten minute walk away, even with his luggage floating along behind him on the fairly busy street, he found that Debbie hadn’t even left yet. The clock on the wall said it was only about nine-thirty. They’d made decent time in the carriage for once at least.

“You’re back already? Did you forget…” When Debbie looked at his face she cringed. “What happened?”

The explanation didn’t make very much sense to him, or to her either. After all, she’d heard the Prince and Princess ask him to come themselves, and assured him that he hadn’t misunderstood or anything. It wasn’t the wrong night or time. They’d both been very clear, and she reminded him, insistent that he come. He asked her if she’d help him undo the lacing, so that he didn’t have to try and break it in order to get out of the clothing. She locked the door and went to work.

“Tor, you do know you’re glowing, don’t you? Is that…bad? Like a combat aura? Only for Wizards?”

Laughing he explained the amulet, took his off and gave it to her. They were pretty useless over all; you could just barely read by the light, but looked pretty enough in the dark. Shrugging he unpacked most of the contents of the trunk he’d loaded with various things and left it with her, setting devices on her counter. Her look seemed scared at first, but he told her that she could sell them, or if she wanted, give them away. He made little piles out of the remaining things and told her that he’d be gone in the morning and apologized for leaving her in a lurch.

“It’s, really it’s probably nothing, an oversight like Collette said or… I don’t think I’ve done anything that bad to anyone at least, but if the King or Queen is out to get rid of me, or just doesn’t want me here, I’d better get out of their city, you know? Just in case. I’ll leave in the morning, if that’s all right? They know I’ve been working here and I don’t want to track trouble to you if there is something.”

After she left, he felt like crying, but didn’t. He’d been silly to think that any of them liked him after all. Tor was just some kid their son knew from school and while they’d been nice to him, it wasn’t reasonable to expect them to want him to be around, was it? Who was he to even imagine that was possible? Some country hick that didn’t even know all the correct social rules. He hadn’t even known that he’d need an invitation on paper.

Really Tor had never even heard of that before, so even knowing to ask was out of the question.

A light came from outside, through the windows in front. Tor went out to watch the show, looking up in the sky with hundreds of others on the street, most of who clapped or made noises like it was a fireworks display. It wasn’t.

He knew what it would do, of course, he’d built the device, but seeing the huge spinning disc of colored light shift and fade over the Capital made him feel good for a second. It was complex and interesting to look at and made for a decently good show, he thought. Except that it was made by him. After a few minutes a face appeared in it, translucent and glowing still. The face of the King. His face looked strong and regal, holding just a hint of a playful smile, what he’d seen from the King every time there hadn’t been an emergency. Then Connie’s came, looking youthful and radiant. Rolph followed, a little more solid looking than the others, a little more lifelike, because he hadn’t had to work from old memories to build that face at all, just look across the dorm room. Karina looked happy, almost joyful since he’d remembered how she’s seemed when he’d given her something or other and Varley looked about three years older than she actually was. Pretty though. As lovely as her mother at least.

It was probably too gaudy and cheap for them, he found himself thinking, almost wishing they’d just turn it off. Instead they left it running all night long, the order changing after the first time through, the main colors of the wheel shifting from deep purple and gold to blue and green, then fire colors, orange and yellow.

He’d been stupid to give it as a gift, thinking it was the equal of… anything. A basket of rolls would have been as good, better even, because at least the servants could have eaten them. Or the dogs. Did they keep dogs? Probably. They could use them to chase down runty troll peasants like him, if they got too annoying. Now everyone would see how stupid he was. With that thought, he fell asleep.

Kind of.

He woke over and over again, unable to feel comfortable no matter what position he took on the hard pallet. He’d been fine the night before. But now it just didn’t work for him and he kind of ached as he laid waiting for the dawn.

When first light came, finally, he got up knowing he probably looked listless. Tor brushed his teeth, just so they’d be clean, and collected his things up slowly, feeling horrible the whole time. He waited for Debbie to get there, standing out front, so that he wouldn’t leave with the door unlocked. Not that he thought anything bad would happen. Most of the city was asleep still and even the boss came in later than she had been, knowing that would be true. But it just felt rude and right now he didn’t want to do anything that would leave anyone else feeling slighted if he could help it. He asked directions to the nearest gate in the outer wall and she pointed and told him to go up three streets and then follow the road he found on the left until he hit the wall.

“You can’t miss it. I…” She looked down but didn’t say anything.

Right, she had to get to work and here he was leaving her without a chance to find extra help. Still, since he didn’t know what was possibly going on, not for certain, it would be better if he just left, drawing off any attacks so that only he was affected. The walk to the wall took most of the morning, but the guards at the gate didn’t try to stop him, even though they stared at the boxes training after him. Probably wondering if he was smuggling something out of the city. Once outside the gate he reset the cases to fly, using the regular floats and then decided to take off without waiting any longer.

He was hungry, but he didn’t have money with him to speak of, having left the last five golds and two silvers he had under the cash box for Debbie. He hated the idea of leaving her like this after having promised to work with her, good reason or not. Also Tor didn’t want to risk being caught. They may not hurt him, but they might embarrass him in public again. Probably just standing around, pointing and mocking him for sport or something.

It might not be fair of him to think that, but the whole thing kind of felt that way already. Like they were snubbing him, just to make a point about how much less he was than they were. Maybe that was what they were really doing? Just letting the world know how little he actually counted?

The flight was faster going back to the school, since he flew directly there and didn’t bother stopping in Galasia, where they apparently thought he was a tiny evil troll anyway. With a big nose. He landed outside his room in the courtyard, the cobblestones uneven and hard under foot. He nearly tripped on one of them, so he kicked at it a little angrily, which did nothing useful at all. Then, without considering how dangerous it might prove to be, he reactivated the flight rig and the floats on the cases, lifted up slowly and resettled them on the third floor walk way just outside his room. From there he could drag them both in without having to try and get help going up the stairs.

Having nothing else planned for the day, he just sat in his room and waited. Nothing would happen he knew, but what else could he do at all? Work?

That… actually made sense.

There was a need for excavating in Galasia, and even if they did think he was an evil troll, that still had to be done. A few kids getting the wrong idea about him didn’t mean a whole city deserved to be left in a lurch. Also, he kept putting off making that house drier for that lady he’d met at that palace diner. The one that they’d let him go to. Tor didn’t know her name, but he had directions to her house somewhere around his room.

Also, there was an idea he’d been playing around with for a while, one that probably wouldn’t sell at all, but might be kind of nice to have, if just for himself. Tiny beverage coolers and warmers that let you set the temperature of whatever you had in your cup. With a little practice he could work it into the cup itself, so it wouldn’t even need a separate plate or anything. It was pure luxury really, but might be good for traveling, since technically you could cook or chill a one person meal in it, if it was made right.

Tor got some water, went to the restroom and started working without hesitation as soon as he settled on the bed. If nothing else he still had his work, even if no friends were left to him. After two days he had the first half of what would be needed for Galasia. He went to the dining hall for diner, ate as much as he could, and slept till morning. Then he started on the second half.

The first part was easy enough; after all, it was the same basic principle as moving water, right? Sure it took a stronger field, but no one would insist on moving tons of earth per second, so the amount moved could be smaller, about three foot square per second. He tested it by flying out to the weapons range and working in the mostly destroyed field along side of it. In less than an hour he’d built a thick berm wall along the back and side. He made the otherwise flat part tilt a little so that water would run out the back, away from the other part of the range. It wouldn’t do to flood it after all.

The second part was something totally new, and harder because of it.

The idea was simple enough; just compress the earth in a given area so much that it turned solid. The reverse of an explosive weapon basically, giving an area the instruction to move inward instead of out. But it took a lot of field strength to work a relatively small area down into something hard enough to withstand water. He worked for days and days on it, trying to make the field big enough to be useful.

Rolph came back, but didn’t bother to talk to him, because he was working the whole time, Tor figured. Might as well chat up a wall for all the good it would have done him. As soon as he actually had something worth putting forward for a grade, he went to Fines and showed him how it worked. The instructor was impressed. All of them were.

Tor didn’t care much himself.

Everything just felt like it lacked color. It was like he did things, but they didn’t have meaning at all for some reason he couldn’t explain or even understand. Not that it mattered. All he had was work, right? So he did it and refused to stop.

For once even Kolb wanted to see what he’d done and asked him out to the range with him for a demonstration. Tor didn’t wait to explain, he just started firming up the back berm wall with the new device. It took about an hour and the berm lost about fifty percent of its size from front to back, but nothing they had would scratch it when it was finished. If it wasn’t as hard as stone, it was because it was harder, Tor figured.

“Still, Tor, don’t neglect your own improvement in fighting. As far as I can tell you haven’t even run in months and you’ve been losing weight. Your muscle tone is crap, and let’s face it, you didn’t have that much to begin with. Even if you don’t want to practice fighting any more, you need to exercise for health reasons…”

The tone of voice surprised Tor a lot. He sounded worried.

Sure, Tor had spent a lot of time working, which was low on exercise, at least the way he did it. But it hadn’t been that long since he’d worked out, a little over two weeks. He chuckled and promised the giant bald man that he’d start working with Karen again, at least between work projects.

“If, you know, she’s willing to still work with me. I mean, I don’t want to get her in trouble with the King or anything.”

Kolb asked for an explanation saying he hadn’t heard of anything that would be a problem that way. After Tor told him what had happened the man grunted.

“Oh, that sort of situation? Well, I wish I could tell you it was nothing, but that kind of thing can mean anything from a few paperwork errors to utter disdain and hate. I’ll… see if I can find anything out about it for you. Until we hear something, it probably really is best for you to keep your head down a bit. You’re right to be worried about Karen and your other friends though. No need to get them mixed in something they can’t do anything about. Wars have been started over lesser things.” Kolb put a large hand on Tor’s back and patted it a few times.

“For now try not to worry too much. I’ll look into it; I have a few contacts left in the Capital after all.” The giant smiled and didn’t say anything else on the matter.

Just to be health conscious, and make the weapons instructor happy Tor jogged back to his room instead of flying, it was only about three miles, then hit the bath before going to bed. He’d already rigged all the tubs with heaters, so at least he didn’t have to try and wash in cool water this time. It wasn’t to the point where the water from the roof mounted tanks would go freezing, but when it did, at least the poor kids like him would be able to have a warm soak too, not just the rich ones that could afford the luxury of fire warmed baths in town. More, on the schools tubs you could control the temperature to your liking now. Try that using a fire while you boiled in a big ceramic pot, he thought with a dry chuckle.

He skipped dinner, choosing an extra long soak instead, and went to bed early, sleep suddenly feeling more valuable than eating. He woke a little bit when Rolph came in, but didn’t say anything. What could he say? If his parents didn’t like Tor, his friend would either be forbidden from talking to him at all, or have to try and lie and claim that everything was all right.

If it really was just a small error somewhere along the way though, then why had the same thing essentially happened twice?

It sucked, but Rolph had to pick his parents, even if it meant not liking him anymore. It’s just what you did, sticking with family over strangers.

Not that he’d thought of himself as a stranger. It all would have felt easier if he knew who was mad at him and why. Then he could at least apologize for whatever he’d done, right? Even if they still hated him, he could know that he’d done his bit to make things right.

The next day, after breakfast and classes, he made himself run to the next town over and back twice. It hurt. A lot really. By the time he got back to the room he felt his legs and lower back stiffening up already. Another warm bath helped, but Tor knew that he’d be paying for it the next day. Kolb had been right it seemed. He really needed to keep up with the exercise, at least every few days. Especially running, now that his left ankle had healed up some, because who knew when he’d need to run away screaming in a panic?

Kolb had taught him his “battle cry” on purpose after all.

“Run away.” If only he could.

Instead of sleeping he worked out the moisture removal system for that ladies home, whoever she was, feeling a little bad that it had gotten left so long. At least he’d warned her about that. Still, it felt lazy and slow, like he was cheating her, and leaving an innocent person to suffer.

It was easy enough once he started. There were two plates. One told water vapor in the air to leave a given region in space and collect at the site of the second plate. It would corrode eventually, being damp most of the time, but the field would last for a few years at least, even with that being the case. He’d have to figure out where the woman’s house was and take it to her himself, because he didn’t have the money to mail it any more. No huge thing, he could do it on his next off day and it would get to her faster anyway. Mail would take weeks. Better, he could set it up for her so that she and her people wouldn’t have to struggle to figure it all out. It was new after all, which could make working with it harder.

That basic pattern kept going for a while, about two weeks, broken up only by exercising every few days on his own and not really eating enough. Tor got to classes and worked, but that was about it. He just didn’t have the time when the meal hall was serving food most days and still didn’t have anything coming in from Debri. Torrance kind of wondered if he ever would. After all, if the military was run by the King and the ruler was snubbing him personally for some reason, would they ever see any money for the devices at all? Even if they got paid, would he ever get anything from it? Even Sara had pointed out several times that most merchants would rob you blind if they got a chance and he hadn’t exactly been tough with Debri house about it or anything. Maybe he should pay them a visit and check on things soon?

If he was allowed back in the Capital at all.

Early in the morning of his off days, before it was really even light, he took off for the woman’s house. It turned out, once he read the paper she’d sent for him with instructions as to where she lived, that she was a Countess, or had been until her husband had died, leaving her to live in the dowager property when her oldest son inherited.

Ellen Ward was her name.

Ah. Well.

At first Tor almost backed out. Ward. Those people gave him the creeps. Then he realized that the woman, the Counts mother, had seemed polite and kind at the party, even after the whole Ursala thing. He couldn’t blame her for having a son that wasn’t… bright. The word moronic came to mind, and Tor smiled a bit as he packed things up, but then chided himself. Who was he to even think about such things? Ward hadn’t done anything to him after all. Well, he’d hit him about two hundred times, but that was only because Tor had been getting in his way, right?

County Ward was very nearly on the other side of the kingdom, about three thousand miles away, so he started off early and tried to fly as close to straight through as his bladder would allow. It only took about nine hours and that long only because his stomach finally forced him to stop in a small village and try to get some food.

He smelled out a little bakery, about the size of the one his parents held in Two Bends, but with a fresh coat of paint on the outside of it and a sign that had a loaf of bread and a small man standing behind it with a bread paddle. There was no name on the place, but that wasn’t too uncommon. Even in the Capital names were rare on shops. Everything there was designated by the type of place and location. Debbie’s was called “the bakery by the south wall and the Cartwright’s.” for instance. Here it was probably just “the bakery”. Why give it a more complicated name than it needed?

Tor didn’t have any money at all, not even a few pennies left for supplies. If Debri stopped sending him stuff, he’d have to go back to using wood and cheap paint, or even trying to collect stuff out of the woods. Rocks and branches. It would work, but was hardly professional looking. He took a deep breath and steeled himself as he walked through the door. The old man behind the counter smiled at him.

“Welcome! What can we do for you today?”

“Um, well, probably not much,” Tor began, keeping his voice humble. “I don’t really have any coin with me, but I have some things that I could trade, if you’re interested? Just some stuff I made, magical devices…”

The man didn’t frown at him, but his eyes fell a little dark. Sympathetic enough at least, Tor realized.

“Well then, let’s have a look, and see if there’s anything that we can trade for?” The man’s voice was pleasant and gentle, kind of like the way you’d speak to a lost child. That made sense when the royals did it, but this guy wasn’t any taller than he was. Not even an inch. Tor opened the luggage he had with him and laid a few things on the counter. The man’s eyes went wide.

“Well now! Even if they don’t do much I can trade you what you want for even one of these! All on copper right? They even look like Tor’s! People would wear one just to impress their friends you know. Well, you probably do know, if you made them yourself. Good plan that. Do any of them really do anything?”

“Oh sure… Here.” He showed the man how everything worked, one by one, at the end of it the man stood silent.

“What did you say your name was again?” He asked, staring at the devices on the counter.

“Oh…sorry, I didn’t, Torrence Baker. Call me Tor. Pleased to meet you.” Belatedly he stuck out his hand to shake with the man, leaning in from a good ways away as was proper back home when meeting someone new. The older fellow snorted slightly and shook his head.

“You’re shorter than I thought you’d be, and look younger too. Is that magic? Looking so young I mean?” He said bluntly but with good humor.

Tor shrugged, “Just the way I look. But… you think we can do business?”

The man finally traded three loaves of bread and some sweet rolls to him for a room temperature plate. The man offered a lot more, but Tor knew he wouldn’t be able to finish it all that day, and having baked goods a lot longer than that meant eating them stale or trying to make them into a pudding or something, which he didn’t really have the time or equipment for. Or the eggs. If there was a way of making a decent bread pudding without eggs, he didn’t know it.

He’d be back at school by then anyway. He thanked the old guy and started eating part of one of the wheat loaves as he walked out the front door, it was decent. His parents made better bread, but not that much better. Really it was a matter of taste and Tor simply preferred what he’d grown up with, most likely, rather than the fellow here lacking skill at all. Repacking everything he took off for County Ward again.

The dowager estate was nice enough, from a distance at least, a huge white house, that, while it had seen better days still looked like a wealthy person lived there. Tor could understand the moisture problem here now that he saw it, since the whole place seemed to be sitting on high ground in the middle of what was essentially a swamp. The humidity left him soaked clear through, since his body was cooler than the air around him.

Poor woman, being kept out here like this. He assumed it was her place at least, since there was nothing else even near it for miles and the compound had about twenty buildings scattered about it. No poor farmer would have that kind of set up, right? He’d only brought one of the house driers… Well, he’d just have to send her more, or bring them himself; now that he knew where to find her for sure. If, this was, he reminded himself, the right place.

He knocked on the door of the largest house, hoping that it would at least lead him in the right direction if he’d missed his mark. To his surprise the woman, Dowager Ward, answered the door herself, wearing a light looking tannish-gray skirt and a faded blue top, things that his own mother would have worn in the bakery. It made him feel better about her instantly. Royal or not, this wasn’t a woman that bothered to put on airs, not at home at least.

She stared at him for a few seconds before her face lit up.

“Oh! Master Tor! I didn’t expect to see you here… To what do I owe the pleasure?” Her voice sounded a little nervous, but then if she lived off in the middle of nowhere like this, having a sudden guest might throw her off. He struggled to put her at ease.

“I came to install that gift I promised you at the party? The one to help dry your house out? It really won’t take but a few moments and then I can get out of your hair. I’m really sorry to drop in unannounced like this, but given my typically thoughtless style I didn’t think of writing ahead until after you opened the door. Kind of makes it hard to get a letter out in a timely fashion. I can go and write one now, if I could borrow some paper and a pen? Seems a bit of a waste though… ” He smiled up at her, she was, now that he saw her standing, very tall for a woman. Even one of the royals. She must have been pushing nearly seven foot. Then, Count Ward was tall too, so that kind of made sense. She had that same kind of smooth looking dark skin the Count had and retty light brown eyes, if a little yellow around the edges with age.

She invited him in and immediately started to apologize for the state of the house. It looked clean to Tor, at least as nice as he and Rolph kept their room at school and Rolph was picky about things like that, constantly suggesting that they go over the room and never leave anything sitting out if they weren’t actively using it. The furniture looked old and worn, but the constant moisture probably ate at everything, aging it faster than it normally would have. The wood seemed to fare better than the fabric, which was something that he tried to make a note of. Eventually, if all went well, he’d have his own house and want to put things in it. Wood over soft things for durability. Check. Probably stone over wood if he had to live someplace damp like this then? Something to keep in mind.

The room did smell of mildew, strongly enough to be slightly off-putting, but then, that’s why he’d come, to help fix that. Tor set to work rapidly, finding a nice central location for the interior plate and then going outside with the Dowager Countess, which caused an elderly man to come running up carrying weapon. A spear with a corroded metal head on it. He didn’t point the weapon at Tor at least, just stood by panting while the older woman explained.

“We’ve an alligator problem in the swamp here. Originally a wall had been planned around the whole complex, but my Howard died before we got it finished. So, when I go outside, Georges here has to come and protect me, just in case… I’m sorry.” The woman looked saddened by the state of affairs which made Tor feel a little down himself.

Why didn’t Ward take better care of his mother?

It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money, his being the third richest of the counties according to what Rolph had told him. Tor hooked up the plate to a big, very rooty, tree that he was assured wouldn’t be hurt by water, or the nails he used, and went inside to turn the house drier on. The air dried after about fifteen seconds, the field not taking anything off the surfaces inside directly, but once the air dried, so did everything else in short order. That took about half an hour. The house warmed up as the moisture left, something Tor had been ready for, so he put up a half dozen of the temperature control plates around the dwelling and showed Ellen how to use them.

She went white.

“I… can’t afford to pay for those right now. A slight… difficulty in funds, temporary I’m sure, but…” Her head hung a little as she said it, looking ashamed for some reason. Tor just winked at her, waved his hand a little and grinned, trying to put her at ease.

“Pay? Friends don’t pay, Ellen. You know that.” He tried to give her a confident look as if they’d known each other for years, not just met casually once at a party. Still, it was true enough wasn’t it? You didn’t fly across a kingdom to give things to someone not a pal. Practically what friend meant, someone you went out of your way for, right?

“Anyway, I’ll try to get back soon and see about that wall for you, and some other things… Sorry it took so long the first time, I’ll work on doing better… Hey!”

The idea was probably a horrible one, but made him happy to think about anyway. He went to his case and pulled out two full sets of flying gear and shields. He had more, but he’d only seen two people here so far. He presented them with a small smile.

“I didn’t see a lot around here, so traveling places must be tough, right? Learn to use these and it will help a lot with that. Plus, with the shields no giant lizards should hassle you overly, I don’t think. Just remember to use them when you go out. Here…” He showed her how to use it all, going over everything a few times and then working with her until she had it all down. It took a lot longer than he’d planned on spending with her, but she seemed so happy to have the company that he pushed things. If need be he could camp out for the night somewhere, right? It was worth it to see her eyes light up as she lofted about in the air.

“Of course you’ll need to wear trousers when you fly places, or figure something else out. Otherwise you risk flashing the whole world underneath you. Which might serve to make you popular, but won’t earn you much respect.” The words popped out easily, almost teasing, his mother having said them over and over again to his sisters as they’d grown up and she tried to teach them to control where their skirts went. He froze though, realizing that telling a Countess, even an ex-Countess, that, might be considered rude.

She laughed and flitted down to the ground, smoothing her skirt with her hand, “Right you are! I think I have some old things that will do. Thank you I…” Again she looked embarrassed, but happily so this time.

He waved it away again. “Not a problem. I’ll be back in, well, as soon as I can. I don’t know how long it will take to build a proper wall. I actually have the gear with me right now, but it all needs to go to Galasia, so they can rebuild their sewer system.”

“Isn’t that the city you saved?” She asked, her eyes going to his face, which must have looked sad or something, because she looked concerned.

“Not really. I just built a big water filter for them, which isn’t such a big thing. For one, they aren’t saved yet, it’s just a temporary fix… Really though, seriously, they think I’m a cave dwelling troll that Sara Debri made a complicated deal with in order to get the device their using. Honest, she just brought me a letter from her mother, and I did the work, no bargains at all. I didn’t even get paid for it. They have plays about it and everything.” He chuckled as she swallowed hard, her face fighting a grin.

“Actually, for a kids school play it wasn’t too bad. Even I was rooting for Sara by the end of it. Evil Tor troll…” He mock growled the last bit while shaking his fist a little held by his own face, which made Ellen actually laugh out loud.

She invited him to stay the night, but he shook his head a little regretfully.

“Sorry… I’d love to, this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time, but I have to get to Galasia early enough in the day to show them how to use the new gear and then make it back to school before dark, so I can attend all my classes the day after. It’s a grind, but if I miss too many more, they’ll probably kick me out of school and then my parents will have to kill me, which will make them sad, so I can’t have that, can I?”

He flew off waving over his shoulder, about half an hour later, and then headed roughly back towards the school as fast as he could, left hand pushing out nearly as far as it would go. After about five hours he had to land and make camp in some woods at the foot of the white top mountains, there just wasn’t enough light to fly by and Tor didn’t particularly want to risk hitting the ground. He didn’t bother with a fire or anything, just removed some pine boughs from trees using his little cutter and made a bed. He didn’t get cold at all, but did get wet during the night. Clouds had come in, and while the shield kept the impact of the rain off, the wet still soaked him.

In the morning he blinked as the sunlight glinted off the white earth in front of him. Ah! It hadn’t been rain at all, but snow. He hadn’t even realized it was nearly that cold here yet. Good to know that the temperature equalizers worked in the cold too. Well, he’d actually guessed that, from the ice box in the palace that had felt room temperature to him. It was still nice to know. If he had to now, Tor could just live outside like this all the time with no problem. Shield to keep him safe, and warmth all the time too. Now if he could keep the rain and snow off of him… A little shield hut maybe?

He smiled as he took to the air, trunk buzzing along behind him gently. There was a feeling of peace about the whole thing. A calmness as the land slowly passed beneath him.

For the first time on this trip he noticed someone else flying, as he raced through the skies. That was rare. Well, he’d seen it at school a few times, but that had to have the most flyers of anyplace, nearly, and all in a small area. They didn’t get very close, but he waved to them anyway, getting a wave back. It looked like someone wearing what the nobles were calling “flying clothes”, nice silk and leather. From the way the person had bundled up they didn’t have a temperature equalizer at all. That made sense. No one was even selling those yet. Everyone that had one had gotten it from him directly or at least from someone that had.

He got in to Galasia about mid-morning; it had taken him a while to find it actually, since it was kind of just surrounded by forests, though they had two nice rivers near it as well. Apparently the water from those wasn’t fit to drink either? If it was, then why were the people dying of thirst during the sewer problem thing? Couldn’t they have just gone and gotten something to drink there?

Tor slowly landed in the central square, people looking at him and pointing, probably because flying was still rare enough around here and he wasn’t very royal looking. If all you saw flying were huge people with fine clothes, a smaller one in student brown canvas would get some attention. Then he stood for a while, waiting.

This kind of thing was always hard for him, talking to strangers. Tor did well enough in a retulsional setting, but even then he normally let other people do most of the talking. Who should he approach? There were plenty of people around, most of them suddenly looking away. Not wanting to seem pushy or aggressive? Kind of them, if not overly helpful at the moment.

Before he could make up his mind a boy that looked a few years younger than Tor was walked over, waving in a friendly way.

“Hey! How’d you rate flying gear? Even the Baron can’t get any yet I’ve heard. I’d kill to get my hands on some. I’d get you to lend me yours so I could try it, but I’m afraid I’d just fly away and never come back. I don’t want to be bad or anything, but it might be too tempting….” The boy laughed. He was bigger than Tor, by about six inches but looked to be about fifteen or so through the face.

“Hey, sorry, I’m Conrad. Conrad Gala. Yes, related, but far enough away from anything important that I don’t bother with a title at all. Baron twenty-seven or some such, you know how that is?”

Putting out his right hand Tor nodded. “Kind of. I’m Tor. Torrence Baker. I don’t use any titles either really, about the same reason, far enough away that I’m never inheriting anything. Countier some-muckity Lairdgren, I hear. Such a non-thing my mother didn’t even bother to mention it until a few months ago. Anyway, I brought some devices so that the sewer system can be rebuilt faster, I think I should find… Ferdinand Gala? I don’t know that for certain. He’s just the one I met before and we discussed it.” His voice sounded a little sad and shy to his own ear, but the boy just looked a little taken aback.

“Uncle Ferdinand? I can get you there, no problem. Um, need help with the box?”

The follow float on it worked well enough and was easier than carrying it, so Tor explained it and then slowly followed the boy. It would have gone faster, but the kid kept stopping to watch the trunk stop and move when Tor did. It probably did look kind of cool, Tor allowed, but it wasn’t a very quick way to get things done. Luckily it didn’t take too long, because the Baron second was in his office, just off the square. Handy. The building was a nice golden yellow with green trim. Colorful and happy looking, if not very serious seeming. The whole place had a friendly feel that way, under the sadness of the people.

“Hey Uncle Ferdinand… I brought someone to see you. Um, Mr. Baker? He appears to be claiming he’s not actually a troll if you can believe that. I’m still waiting on my decision. His case is floating around behind him, and really, I’m pretty sure anyone that can do that can make me think anything they want, so it could just be a clever disguise.” It was clear the boy was teasing and being playful so Tor stuck his tongue out at him and grinned. Conrad smiled and chuckled a little.

“He’s also a Countier it seems. Lairdgren? We should let Meryl know that, so that when she writes the next play it doesn’t slander him quiet as much. Maybe make him a midget instead of a Troll?” The boy winked.

“Not that your that short, but you understand, by tradition since the plays already malign you a bit, we have to keep on with the theme.”

Tor sighed.

“I didn’t know that was the tradition here. Well, can’t do anything about it now then, can we? I’m probably going to be a troll forever then.”

Conrad grinned large and patted him on the back. He was friendly at least.

“Oh, sure, but that can work for you too. No one with half a brain in their head will ever try and get in a fight with you. “Tor the Troll” just sounds fierce, doesn’t it? Besides, I promise, Meryl didn’t mean anything by it. She just a kid. It seemed like a better story to her and besides, that way she could star in it.”

It made sense to Tor at least. Maybe he could bribe her into being slightly kinder in the next one?

Ferdinand, still looking huge, and wearing a nice jacket over a white shirt came out of his office and did a double take when he saw Tor. Instead of waiting for pleasantries, Tor just jumped in.

“I mentioned excavating gear last time I was here? So I made some and brought it down. It takes a little practice to use, so I thought I’d show you all how to work with it? I can show anyone you want, but I need to be going in a few hours, so I can sleep in my own bed tonight. I don’t mean to rush you all into this…” The Baron second Gala just smiled at him and sent Conrad off to find some people, workmen probably, though some of them had the same last name. Gala.

Tor thought it was a good enough idea. After all, if the city was called “Galasia”, shouldn’t they be helping to fix any major difficulties? It was kind of what ruling meant, wasn’t it?

Inside an hour, ten men were assembled outside with the digging gear on. They made a huge mess at first, spraying dirt over themselves, Tor, and half the people that had come by to watch what was happening in the field off of the main square. A large building was going in anyway, so Tor had them dig out the foundation for practice, following the string lines that had been put in. After they got the hang of it the work was finished in about half an hour. Compared to the weeks, or even months it would have taken to dig a pit that size with shovels, it was amazing. Then he showed them how to use the loose dirt to build hard retaining walls using the second device.

“Obviously, If you want to run water or sewage through a line, you have to harden all four sides of a pit, which means making a top separately then lifting it in place, but it’s still faster than trying to lay that much pipe. It should speed things up a bit at least.”

The tall boy, Conrad bounced in place a little. “Yeah it should, about a thousand times. You should come back and visit us when we have it all done. Should be about what, a month? And that only because we’re slow and incurably lazy…”

The words could have been bitter, but there was good humor behind them. Tor smiled and turned to the trunk again with a shrug. He pulled out three sets of flying gear and shields, handing two to Ferdinand and one to Conrad. “One of those is for the Baron, of course. Send a note to me at school or something when the works done? I’d love to see what you all do. I don’t know how sewage systems work at all.”

As an afterthought he pulled another set out and handed it to Ferdinand.

“For Meryl? It’s a bribe, so that she won’t make me look too bad in her next work? Make sure to tell her that, will you?” He meant it, but for some reason everyone else laughed as if it were a grand joke. The Baron second seemed shocked when Tor didn’t immediately take the flying gear and shield back.

“You’re really just giving these to her? That’s most generous.” The man gave him a look that seemed nearly sly for a moment and then winked.

“She doesn’t have a marriage set up yet. Only thirteen, but in a few years might be interested.”

It was awkward suddenly, but Conrad saved it, holding his flying gear tightly, as if afraid Tor might take it back.

“Hey, no angling on Master Tor yet Uncle Ferdinand. At least let the next play come out first. Maybe it can be about how you tricked Tor into rebuilding the sewer system?” The boy laughed as the man groaned and looked chagrined.

“Well, it could be worse.” He muttered to Tor, a bit desperately.

Before anyone could thank him properly, or run screaming from him, yelling “troll, troll!” Tor got back into the air. It wasn’t too late, so, if he flew fast, he should be able to make it back in time for dinner. That would be good, because all he had left was half stale bread, the sweet rolls having turned into breakfast already.

The flight back was uneventful, a little boring even, but peaceful at the same time. If nothing else he knew that he had some errands out of the way and while it had generated more, that was how life worked, right? He’d just get down to Ellen’s in a few weeks and build that wall for her and Georges. Next time he’d have to take a little bit of food with him. They frowned on students stealing things from the dining hall, but it could be done if you were careful.

Tor felt half starved when he got back to the room, but to his surprise found several boxes and a small barrel resting on his bed. At first he thought that the school might have been kicking him out, or at least getting him to move to another room, so he wouldn’t be near Rolph anymore, but it turned out, when he read the letter with it, that it was a gift from the Morgans’.

Apparently they weren’t in on any snubbing at least.

That was good. He hadn’t spoken with Trice at all about things, being too embarrassed still, but it wasn’t them calling everything off yet, so maybe he should? She hadn’t kept him out of the party after all, Sara either.

Even Rolph was probably clear there. Really, he wouldn’t have done that to him. Ever. If the Prince didn’t want Tor around for something like that, he’d have just mentioned it. Well, that or arranged for some other event to take place at the same time to get him out of the way. Send him off on an errand or something.

Two of the boxes had dried pears, which he tried immediately. They really were good, like candy almost. It was the new drying system, which left them crisp and light, almost melting in the mouth. The other box had dried apple, which was good too, but not as tasty as the pears. Eric had mentioned that, hadn’t he?

In the barrel was a blend of apple and pear that they both hoped he would particularly enjoy. It came with a teasing warning not to let anyone else have any, or it would all be gone before the day was out. It was a large barrel, about five gallons it looked like, with a tap on it, so he set it up on his table. Careful not to make a mess, Tor poured a bit of it into one of the special cups he’d made, and hit the cooling sigil on the side. After about ten seconds the beverage was nearly ice cold, a thin crust frozen on the top even, so he turned the field off and took a slow sip.

It was good. Really good. As cold as it was, he could feel it almost seeping in to his body. Like magic. He could feel the… delicious… with his entire being, as strange as that was. Closing his eyes he savored the flavor, taking small sips instead of the huge gulps his body demanded. “Delicious” had only been a word to him before, now he not only had a flavor, but a feeling to go along with it. He’d have to pen a note to them in thanks as soon as he had funds to send it.

The day, the last weeks really, had worn at him, Tor realized, because he suddenly felt exhausted now that he had the chance to relax a bit, and a sign that not everyone in the world hated him. That part was nice. Slumping into the bare wooden work chair the school provided, he could barely keep his eyes open. Tor would have just lie down and taken a nap, if his stomach hadn’t spasmed painfully. At first it occurred to him that too much dried fruit all at once might be the cause, he’d never encountered that effect before, but Tor had heard about it. Something to do with too much fiber, he thought. Oops. He started to laugh at himself for it, but the pain got really bad. Worse than he’d experienced before. Ever. Including when his leg had been broken and he was left dangling in the air by it. His throat started to close up and breathing came only in painful shallow gasps.

God!

Desperately he worked over to his desk and grabbed the poison detector he normally took with him to meals; he held it over the cup, which lit up brightly.

Right.

They’d poisoned him then.

Why? Who would do this to him? Tor wanted to vomit, even tried to make himself, sticking a finger down his throat, but nothing happened. He fell to the floor still clutching the detector. The last thought he had before everything went dark was a simple one; what kind of moron invents a poison detector and then let himself get poisoned?

If it hadn’t hurt so much, Tor would have said he deserved it.

Torrance came to, lying in his own bed. The boxes and barrel were gone and the woman in the room with him wasn’t anyone he knew, or had even seen before. She looked at him when he stirred a little and came to his bed side. Her clothing was all blue, a dark and heavy looking material, practical and loose, but with trousers and a tunic, not a skirt, so some kind of work clothes?

She brought him water, and without even being asked, the poison detector, which he triggered before even checking the cup. It was clean. He drank as much as he could, which wasn’t much, and then waited. The woman left and didn’t return, but half an hour later the Dean and Kolb came in.

“Hey…kind of a hard way to get some rest, don’t you think?” The big man teased, his voice was light, but his face held a dark, slightly grim look.

Tor nodded. A very hard way to go about it indeed. A stupid way too. Not something he’d be recommending anyone try for themselves.

The Dean looked at him, a hard look that spoke of fear and dread. “We, um, found the cask and the note that went with it. It was clearly poisoned and the hand that wrote the note was consistent. Meaning one person wrote the whole thing. Other than that we don’t know who did what or when. It may be too soon to leap to conclusions. People don’t generally advertise like that if they’re planning to kill you, so it may well be an attempt to guide blame away from the real culprit.”

That was sensible, of course.

Leaping to conclusions never seemed to help anyone, as far as he’d noticed in life. Still, someone had tried to kill him. Again. Why? Who? These things didn’t have answers yet and it was driving him crazy. More to the point, why would anyone bother? It wasn’t like he was special or anything. In the end Tor was just a schoolboy, even if you corrected for the Squire thing and being one of the many “Countier’s Lairdgren”. If someone didn’t want him around, wouldn’t it be easiest to just ignore him and not give him invitations to functions?

He wondered why no one had come to visit him either. Was that a sign of guilt, or were they just being kept out in order to let him rest? He asked the Dean, or tried to at least. His voice wasn’t working at all. It sounded like someone had poured sand down his throat then stomped on it for a while to mix it around. Really it was worse than that.

It seemed to take forever, but he managed to sit up, and immediately wished he hadn’t even tried. Now he threw up, or at least his body went through the motions. Nothing came out, which was almost worse than if something had. He signaled for a pencil and paper, but no one understood what he meant. He pantomimed the action of writing again. Finally, frustrated, he slowly climbed from bed and slumped to the hard chair across the room.

Tor took up his old note pad and wrote carefully, his hand shaking so much it was barely legible.

Where is everyone?

Had they all abandoned him when the King and Connie decided he didn’t belong at palace functions? Or… Tor had nothing after that. A wave of sadness came over him then, so deep that he couldn’t believe that it was possible to feel that low. He was really alone here, wasn’t he? He knew he wasn’t loved by anyone, but he’d thought his friends were, well, his friends.

Kolb went to the door and called out softly, which Tor appreciated. His head felt like the inside of a kettle drum. Not that he knew what that really felt like, but if he imagined it, that feeling would be… this. Hollow, thumping and ringing. Not fun at all.

After only a few seconds Rolph, Trice and Sara all came in, each had their head hanging down like they were guilty of something. They might have been, but Tor doubted it. It was one thing to decide not to be someone’s best buddy, another to try and kill them. No one here had any reason for that at all. Not that he knew of anyway.

Rolph asked for the room, and even though he had an uneasy look on his face, the Dean left. Kolb followed, but stopped at the door.

“I expect my Squire to be alive when I return.” He didn’t say anything else, but the tone conveyed weight. A promise to back the words up if needed. Possibly with violence.

Rolph just nodded as if it was serious.

No one spoke for a time, but both Sara and Trice cried. Finally Tor wrote something for them.

‘You know, if your parents didn’t want us to get married, they could have just sent a note!’

Trice burst out into loud sobs.

Chapter six

Tor didn’t want to be mean, but the crying was starting to get on his nerves. It either was the case that the Morgans, or at least one of them, had poisoned him, or, and he tried to be very clear when he wrote this last bit out, someone else wanted him to think that. It was actually far more likely to be the second one he pointed out while Trice cried. That or her parents were morons that wanted to be caught.

How likely was that?

Not very.

Tor had talked to both of them at length and not only had they seemed like good people, they seemed intelligent to him. Even if they were secretly evil poisoners, that would have taken a lot of acting talent to pull off, and they would have had to know to set the ground work by trying way back then. That turned out to be too hard to convey with his nearly illegible handwriting at the moment. Darned shaky hands. The tremors seemed worse now than they had been when he’d started writing as if all the stress was making it even harder. Of course, for some reason as he wrote and the shaking got worse Trice cried harder and Sara started in too.

At least the tall blond did it quietly.

Across the room Rolph prowled, looking alternately angry and guilty, finally, Tor wrote down one word on the note pad, then underlined it and held it out for his tall friend to read.

What?

Sara and Patricia didn’t get it, but Rolph certainly did. They’d just known each other too well for too long for him not to. The Prince sighed and sat down with a thump on his own bed, which got the girls attention, even if it wasn’t enough to stop the crying.

“Well… both my parents have sworn to me that they weren’t behind this in any way, and that they’ll lay down their own lives to catch whoever did this to you. Even if it was the Morgans…” This pronouncement got a panicked wail from the normally emotionally solid girl. “However… They could both be lying about it. I mean, you were snubbed at the palace gates not once, but twice. That doesn’t happen by accident, at least not that I’ve ever heard. Sure, mom cried about it for days and even locked herself in her room over it, but dad just got kind of flat like he does. It’s the same if he’s angry, sad… I don’t know what all, because it’s just so expressionless, right? I thought he was upset about it at the time, but what… what if he was just mad at Tor?”

That got everyone’s attention and except for the occasional sob, much lighter than before, everyone focused on Rolph. Maddeningly the Prince didn’t say anything else. He scribbled at first, then realized that he couldn’t make out the words he’d just written, so Tor started over and tried for clarity. It still looked like a seven year old had written it.

‘Why would he be mad at me?’

It seemed a trifle excessive if it was all about him calling the King “Rich”, wasn’t it? Oh, sure, having him turned away from the palace, that would be fair enough. If someone ticked you off regularly, there was no reason you had to invite them into your home. Or invite them to your birthday party. But having him killed? Plus, would the King’s assassins have failed? The idea didn’t add up right. If the guy didn’t like how Tor spoke to him, he could just order him to fix it, right? Or even just suggested it in passing.

His tall red-haired friend raised his eyebrows as if Tor was being purposefully dense.

If he was, it wasn’t on purpose. He held his hands up and shrugged, asking for an explanation. It was still shaky, but easier than writing it all out.

“Well, let’s see, sleeping with his wife, and her being far less than subtle about it in public? He really shouldn’t blame you, since you were always trying to play it right, but mom, well, let’s just say she could have done a better job of being discrete. It wouldn’t be a huge issue normally, he’s not the jealous type, but clearly you have a larger impact on mom than most of her “friends” do.”

No one else in the room looked at him, which meant he had to wave the pad around to get their attention when he finished writing.

What? Never slept with Queen! Who said?

Sara looked at the note and then him. Then frowned, and did both again.

“Everyone is saying it Tor. It’s all over the Capital. I even heard it from my own mother, who normally doesn’t like to gossip, but felt I should know, in case it impacted business with you. We’ve kind of tied our horse to your pack train, so mom’s working to keep tabs on you, probably a lot more closely than you think.” She took a deep breath and continued, soldiering on, or so it felt to Tor.

“It could have been you seeing Collette Coltress too. You were good enough about it that no one knew, until you were both turned away from the gate like that. The Queen might have felt slighted that you were seeing someone younger and even prettier than she is.”

It felt like it took forever before he got the message written, it took a page and a half of the notebook, because he had to write big in order for the words to make sense. He explained that Collette was going just as a friend, mainly so that her half sister, Maria Ward, wouldn’t make fun of her for not being invited. Maria’s name got underlined several times.

The bitch probably had fun with the whole being turned away at the gate thing, Tor bet. It was part of why he’d given all that stuff to Collette, as poor as his little trinkets were, he felt like something had to be done to boost up her spirits if an onslaught was coming from that quarter.

He drank more water, checking it for poison first. His friends all looked at him, a little hurt, but he shook his head. From now on, anything that he ate or drank got checked out. Period. It just looked too stupid, him being laid up from having been poisoned like that. He wrote that all out for them, which got a tired laugh from all three.

On the third day he got out of bed and went to class in the morning, not waiting for permission. He felt sick still, weak and shaky, but lying in bed wasn’t helping him anymore, it didn’t seem. His voice was cracked, sounded broken and strained, but that could be lived with. No one really wanted to listen to him anyway, did they? In the afternoon he couldn’t go to weapons practice or exercise on his own, so he sat in his room making copies instead. He tried for six hours of copy work but had to stop at five. His control just failed after that. Basically, he just couldn’t pay attention any more.

Thoughts of who might have come after him plagued his mind day and night. He had dreams of Rolph strangling him in his bed, only to wake up and find his friend soundly sleeping. Other dreams about the Morgans coming in and stabbing him or once Davie Derring just hacking him apart in practice. It was hard for him to focus, but he made a point of doing it anyway. Six hours a day until he could do it without needing a break. Tor tried to look at it like exercise. Slack off and you lost what you had.

It took almost two weeks for people to start showing up to “visit” him. His mother and father made sense; they were just worried about him. He didn’t mention that the juice that had been tainted was a gift from the Morgans. If there was something to it, then it would be hard enough for his mother to handle later, when it had been proven. If there wasn’t, then making a big issue of it would just color their friendship in a negative way. They’d all just gotten that back and it felt wrong to damage it now.

A lot of the others made much less sense.

Dorgal Sorvee came and knocked on his door one evening, which got Rolph to let him in, along with his friend Marco. Rolph stood by warily, ready to intervene if need be. To fight. Dorgal and Marco didn’t get it, but Tor did. His giant friend had a force lance clutched in his right hand ready to go at a moment’s notice. One of Tor’s too, so that it could stay hidden, since they were smaller than average. Neither man had a shield on that Tor could sense, so if they attacked it would probably be about the last thing they did. He remembered how Wensa had gone through the wall, which had been repaired really fast, now that he thought about it. Almost scary fast to tell the truth. Benefits of having the Prince sharing his room? Probably.

Dorgal managed to sound almost like a real person when he spoke, rather than someone planning to take advantage of Tor’s weakness.

“My father wanted me to check on you and see if your unhappy working with Debri House yet. I mean, they could at least pay you something, after all, you’ve pretty much handed them the military as nearly sole provider for shields, and given them total control of the flight market. All of that is your work and no one else has even managed a knock off of either one yet, meaning you have total domination of those fields. But what have they given you so far? Your own mansion in the Capital? Large tracks of land along the ocean?” He smiled. The speech sounded practiced and like he hadn’t written the words himself at all. For one thing, Dorgal never called him a moron for letting Debri fleece him, or referred to Tor as “little baker boy”. Big signs right there.

“No? What’s that you say? They haven’t given you anything but a few supplies to work with? Sorvee house may not be able to give you as much per unit, but we’ll actually pay what we owe and won’t over reach capacity. Yes, Debri is a reputable house and will eventually give you what they promise; no one doubts that, still-”

Tor staggered to his feet, making the room go silent, and walked to the chest at the foot of his bed. He pulled out the template for the earth moving field. He didn’t need it anymore he’d found, after making a few hundred of the devices already. Tor explained, softly, what it was and how it worked.

Then he handed the template over to the jerk in front of him. Yes, he was a bully, but still, his family didn’t deserve to go downhill because of Tor, did they?

“Ten percent recopy fee to me. Charge what you want, make how many you want, give them away if it suits you, but don’t cheat me. If you do, I won’t do business with you anymore. If you act fairly, then we’ll see. I have a few more things ready to go right now that no one holds even a verbal contract on. Goodbye.”

He didn’t let the men say any more or ask questions, Rolph, laughing, kicked them out of the room with big waves of his hands. After they left the Prince didn’t let his gaze waiver at all from the door.

“That was… odd. My understanding was that you didn’t trust or like him at all. He’s kind of earned your dislike over the years you know.”

Tor nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah, but consider this enough rope for him and his family to hang themselves if they prove that they’re as bad as I think they are. If they deal fairly, I gain from it, and maybe make new friends. If they don’t, I learn from it and take back the template. Works either way. Besides, this way I could kick him out of our room without seeming too mean. “Here, take a present and get the hell out” just doesn’t sound nearly as evil as all that, does it?”

Rolph didn’t even laugh at the idea.

“That’s the noble tradition.” He said, eyeing Tor with something approaching respect.

The next set of visitors was nicer, even if Tor didn’t understand why exactly they came. It was Karen, along with Davie, and Petra the combat giant. For a second Tor wondered if they were planning on beating him for missing class with them, but they all started hugging him instead. Even Davie gave him a hug, oddly enough. Petra even sat on his bed with him for a while and kept patting him on the arm and back, looking concerned. This got a small smile from Davie, and earned the boy a covert elbow from his sister, but really, Tor didn’t mind it. Petra was good sized and strong from all the weapons work, but kind of good looking anyway. She had a really nice, straight nose and pretty brown eyes to go with her short dark brown hair and silky looking dark tan skin. Her look was kind of like Ellen Wards he decided. Or Count Wards. But then no one in the world had ever denied the guy was good looking, and it worked for Petra too.

She made a point of being the last one out the door about twenty minutes later, and turned quickly to give him another hug before she left, which was really sweet of her at least. It seemed like she really wanted him back to weapons practice soon from what she said. The other targets must not be challenging enough, Tor thought, very nearly breaking out in a grin. Before she left he reached out suddenly and touched her arm. The others had left already, so they were alone, though the door was still open a crack, so no one would think he was trying to take advantage of her, Tor didn’t think.

Like he could make her do anything she didn’t want too right now? He almost laughed again. Ever. He couldn’t have taken advantage of her ever. He knew for a fact she could break him in half with one hand. Actually she’d almost done that to him once if he remembered correctly. By accident. In practice. His spine twinged a little at the thought.

“Oh! Um, do you have your own flying gear and shield yet?” He asked gently, voice rasping and grating through his throat.

“Huh? Oh, no… those are hard to get and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able too, money’s a little tight at home since my dad died.” She shrugged a little, but didn’t look away from him. “My brother’s wife kind of hates me and my mom, so she’s gotten my brother to nearly cut us off. Mom has to scrimp just to hold my place here. I mean, she never complains about it, but it’s been hard. It was better when dad was alive.” The last words were just a little sad. Not pure grief, but enough that Tor could tell she missed the man.

“Sorry to hear about that. My condolences. Um, you know, if you ever need to talk about it, I’m here, OK?” Tor looked down for a moment and just prayed he’d said the right thing, he never knew what to say when people died, but his mom had always told the kids that almost anything, no matter how awkward sounding, was better than saying nothing. He shuffled over to the chest and pulled out some amulets and plates for her.

“Here, flying rig, shield, temperature control amulet and, um, some lights for your room? If you want or need anything else, just come and knock on the door, yeah? I’ve got loads of everything now. Too much actually.” Blinking he stopped and pulled a water heater for her. If she was having to scrape by, she might not have funds to go to the bathhouse in town. Tor hadn’t put any of the devices in the girls’ baths, for obvious reasons.

Duh.

He handed her ten of them.

“Could you, would you I mean, set these up in the girls section?” He looked down then, hoping it wasn’t too much to expect of her. She was always nice though, so maybe it wouldn’t be a problem?

This, unexpectedly, earned him a kiss, one that probably would have made even Rolph blush if he’d been there to see it. Well. Apparently it was worth it, giving this tall girl stuff. He’d have to keep that in mind for when Trice dumped him. He had a lot to give away after all. She left shortly after that, but kissed him several more times first.

Definitely worth it.

Two days later, his voice finally starting to work almost normally again, a knock came at the door, a sound he was starting to dread more than a little. Not that anything bad had happened so far, but people kept coming and having difficult conversations with him. Wanting to know how he felt about almost dying and things like that.

It was annoying.

This one he quickly realized probably wouldn’t be any better, since Trice stood in front of the door with her parents, all of them looking nervous as hell. Tor couldn’t blame them really. He gave Trice a hug and then Mercy, who flinched like he was going to strangle her or something, as if she couldn’t snap him like a twig. Eric got a hearty handshake, or what Tor could manage towards that as best he could at the moment.

“Hey!” Voice rasping and popping, not as bad by half as it had been, but still sounding like he’d taken up broken glass gargling as a hobby. “Come in. Not a lot of places to sit…”

They settled uneasily, looking at each other and then the bed as if it might be booby trapped. That… He stopped for a second and thought.

Yeah, it wouldn’t be easy, but he could do that. Set a trap that wouldn’t go off until a single, or in this case two, targets got in range. That he wouldn’t, not just because they might have had something to do with someone trying to poison him at least, hopefully would be enough for them. Eventually.

“So, has anything gone forward with the County Ford relief effort?” Tor knew he was casting around for a topic other than “hey, did you have me poisoned by chance?” but the fact that they’d show up was a good enough sign that they hadn’t. As good a one as he was going to get. It wasn’t like they’d admit to doing it if they had, right?

The relief effort had gone forward, in fact they’d even expanded the project, offering the loan of food driers and shipping in return for half the difference in what would have been lost otherwise. The same deal Tor had made with them. That left the accounting to the honesty of the farmer or his lord, of course, but so far the returns were pretty good. If anything, Eric told him gently, people were erring on the side of giving too much, not less.

“They know that it’s not greed on our part, but a humanitarian effort, I think. Given they still gain from it, most want to do what they can to help.”

It had to be scheduled carefully, because there was a limited number of food driers, and they were using half their shipping containers to turn a profit at any one time, ferrying goods cross the kingdom, but it was coming together well enough that Count Ford was nearly certain that no one would starve when winter came.

Slowly, like an old man, Tor got up and opened his trunk. Buried under the clothing he had about fifty more of the food driers, which he matched with cargo hauling plates, shields and flying rigs. It came to just slightly less than that number for each, because he saved a few back for use specifically in Two Bends. The farmers in that area could use them to preserve a few more things than they’d manage otherwise. Plus, a few of the neighbor kids had apparently expressed interest in working for Two Bends delivery, but needed the gear for it. Why not? It cost him only a tiny bit and would help out his old friends. If need be he’d make rigs for the whole town. Oddly, not everyone wanted to try flying though.

Mercy started crying.

Not little tears or just quiet sobs, but big wracking things that, almost unbelievably, put Trice to shame. The girl looked to be tearing up herself, so Tor tried to head that off.

“Well, I see which side of the family you got that crying from. Oh… wait.” He pulled out a set of ten lights that he’d made and turned one of them on. It matched the one that Rolph had hung on the wall. It made a glow that wasn’t as bright as sunlight, about half that really, which still almost blinded you if you looked at it for too long. There was a nimbus of light around the device that made an aura up to about a foot away. Holding up a finger he showed them how, by tapping the difference sigils on it, they could control how bright the light was. It was new, he told them, but not all that difficult to make.

“But…” Mercy sobbed loudly, a hiccup in the middle of the word. “Don’t you think we tried to kill you?”

Did he? Tor shook his head slowly.

“Not really. Why would you? To get your daughter out of an unsuitable marriage? If that’s all you wanted you’d send a go between or just come and tell me “no thank you” yourselves, not send a barrel of tasty poison. It really was good by the way, until the horrible pain part, then it kind of sucked. Anyway, back to the question. Honestly? I don’t know. How could I? I can’t see a good reason for it, but then I can’t ever see a reason for that kind of thing, so maybe I’m just too stupid to get it? As for this,” he gestured at the pile of stuff in front of him. “Either you’re perfectly innocent and someone wants me to think you’re guilty, which this should thwart pretty well, showing I won’t be swayed that easily, or you’re secretly criminal masterminds, in which case, please consider this a bribe towards my continuing survival. I’ll send more if you want. Really. Much more profitable by far to keep me alive. Yep. Definitely worth doing. I’ll kiss you all too, if that will help?” He’d liked it well enough when Petra had done it.

He smiled at them, chin coming up in a nod that was almost a tick, but wondered if the smile reached his eyes. It didn’t feel like it, but then he was only partly kidding.

“For that matter if you see them, please tell the King and Queen that whatever I’ve done to anger them, if anything, I’m sorry and won’t bother them anymore. Honest.”

They solemnly said that they’d see the message delivered if they could. It seemed that they didn’t think their own reception in the Capital would be all that warm either. Well, Tor told them, at least if they got turned away from the palace they had their own place to go to there. Stopping them before they left, he asked if they could deliver something for them, if they were going that way anyway.

“These lights are for Debbie, who runs the bakery by the south wall near the Cartwright. Please tell her that I’m sorry for leaving half way through the festival like that. Thanks. Oh… um, if you’re willing to play delivery people for me?” Tor gave then a nervous smile, but the Morgans both nodded a bit, looking nervous.

Tor made up a large sack of devices for Debbie on a whim. It got rid of some of the things and cleared space up, so why not? Hopefully she’d be able to give it away or something. It was a lot more than she needed just for herself. Maybe she could sell some of it? If nothing else it was on copper and that had some value.

Trice gave him a little hug on the way out.

It wasn’t lost on him that she’d almost stopped touching him since everything had happened. Probably getting ready to cut ties, but not wanting to do it while the whole poisoning thing hung over her family’s heads like it did. That plus the fact that he still looked like crud. His face, not normally meaty anyway, looked even thinner and more pale than he’d ever been before. If this kept up he’d end up a walking skeleton. Not that it mattered overly. It wasn’t like his looks had ever gotten him women before.

He did manage to finally get back to work and make a new, decently complex, device that didn’t have any use he could think of, but that still got him a good mark in his novel build class. He needed to get back to working on useful things though. A device like the one he just made, that did nothing but listen to a sound and then regenerate it when the plate was activated properly, probably wouldn’t have any purpose at all. It was a fun toy, allowing people to talk and then repeat things perfectly later, but that wouldn’t help a real person, would it?

After lunch, about three weeks later, he decided that it was time to at least make a showing at the weapons practice sessions, even if he wasn’t up to working yet. The truth was that he’d run out of copper for templates a few days before and couldn’t make copies of anything. That had been about his only recreation for a while, so he really missed having something useful to do when it suddenly ended. Plus, the room was filled with enough devices at the moment that he could very possibly open up his own little store if he wanted.

Sara had laughed at him when he mentioned that.

“You’re kidding right? You have more inventory than most device shops in the entire kingdom here. Plus it’s all Tor stuff, so you know its quality. All you need is a shop front…” Her look went calculating, but she’d stopped talking. So if she had an idea, Tor didn’t know about it. It was an idea though, if he got stuck for money, he could always open his own little shop and sell his junk to unsuspecting people.

That’s what he was thinking about when he walked into the training square. No one was retuleing, instead they were all trying to shift around a half dozen stone squares that must have weighed about five tons each, easy. Kolb saw him and smiled, waving him over.

“Tor! Just the man I need. We’re finally paving the upper right corner here, but we have to get these stones cut into one inch thick slabs. Apparently thanks to your new cargo plates, it was cheaper to ship these uncut, but right now, we can’t move them, and none of our cutters have a long enough sweep to do the job, miss by about a foot and a double cut never works with those things. If you’re off at all the stones come out uneven or break. I’m going to go to the Dean and complain about this right now, but we still have to do something about it. Can you take care of it? Don’t just build a cutter, and definitely don’t try to move the stones yourself! I don’t have to be a doctor to see you’re still not a hundred percent.”

Cut the stones without a cutter? Could he do that?

It was, he knew, technically possible. Tor had even generated a few fields that were strong enough to do things on occasion, on the fly so to speak, unanchored things. They’d fade though and this was a lot of cuts if he had to build a new field for it each time…

Well, that was the assignment, so he’d try at least. Kolb wouldn’t set him the task if it wasn’t part of training, even if it did seem unlikely. The man was hard, but he’d gotten Tor to come up with those shields, and the flying stuff, hadn’t he? So far Kolb was right about what he could do if he really tried, no matter how insane what he asked had sounded. Sighing Tor nodded.

“Alright. I can do it.”

That got a slap on the shoulder before Kolb stalked off.

Someone had already set up a cutting guide, just two boards about an inch thick that normally you’d run a cutter down with it activated, so all the slices would be straight and true. Cool. Now all he had to do was get it in place, and get a few of the giant weapons brutes to grab the stones when they came off, so that they wouldn’t fall each time. That part was the most difficult for him, which Kolb undoubtedly knew. It was probably why he’d been told to do it that way instead of just using floats from his room.

“Um, excuse me please?” Tor looked around as about half the people stared at him.

“Kolb ask me to see to these stones, but I’m not allowed to use a cutter, or move them myself. So if I get these into slabs, can you all help get them into place?”

No one said anything, but Karen walked over grinning and patted him on the back and Petra smiled at him gently. Right, he’d been out for a while and had been spotty before that. Tor was just glad they hadn’t decided that a sound thrashing was in order to help him remember to come. Yet at least. They were probably waiting for him to recover a little more. Well, that was polite of them. Also it gave him time to come up with a way to avoid the punishment.

It took a lot more concentration than he was used to using in order to get the first field up. He could feel it but it was tentative and weak. He went slow and made sure that the cut was as perfect as he could manage. It wasn’t good enough, the cut didn’t show, if it had happened at all and the stone stayed intact.

Alright.

He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and made another one, not starting the cut until the field was strong enough this time, so it took a full minute before he could even move and four more before he started the cut. This time the slab came free.

He didn’t want to let the field go, but had to, in order to not accidentally hack anyone’s limbs off as he repositioned the cutting guide and his hand. That, he knew, wouldn’t make anyone happy. For one thing it would make a mess. He let the field go and stepped back while one of the smaller giants reset the cutting guide for him, which was handy. Then he did it again, and again. It took nearly three hours to get all the slabs cut and down on the ground, longer than it should have, because as he got tired near the end his concentration flagged a bit, making a few of the cuts not work right. They lost two slabs that way, breaking off near the bottom, still attached in a narrow strip as the cutting field failed, but they didn’t need them all for the space, so maybe it would be all right.

They were cut stone though. He hadn’t used a cutter, but he may as well have as far as how polished and slick the pieces all looked. They’d need to make them rougher unless being slick was part of the point, to make them harder to stand on when fighting? No one knew, so they just waited for Kolb to come back. Karen got to him first and asked, but that didn’t deter Kolb from walking directly over to Tor first.

“I thought I said not to just build a cutter for it. I have to admit it looks good, but…” Large bald head tilting to the right, Kolb stared at him. Hard and a little angrily.

Karen came to his rescue. Smiling proudly even.

“All direct effect, no cutter involved at all. It was kind of neat really. There must be what, three people in the kingdom that could manage that? He wasn’t even in combat rage or anything. That could be dead handy in a fight, once he practices up with it a bit. So far it was a little slow… But do we rough it up or leave it smooth?”

Rough it up was the answer. Tor was half way through the design of a complicated device that would make small and irregular pits in the surface of the material when one of the guys he didn’t know grabbed a few handfuls of sand and started scuffing it around with his boots. It didn’t make deep marks, but the lines were enough. Chuckling at how simple the solution had been, Tor grabbed a handful of sand and started on his own square.

Not everything needed magic after all.

The practice square looked sharp by the time Tor felt tired enough to leave, dragging just a little from the light work of scuffing his feet like that. It was really kind of pitiful. Worse, he knew for a fact that both Kolb and Karen noticed. They didn’t say anything about it at least. He’d have to start running again soon, he decided.

Or maybe walking? Slowly?

Yeah, that sounded a lot more reasonable.

The next set of visitors he got kind of surprised him, because he wouldn’t have expected them to come and visit him in a million years. They arrived with a full retinue and headed straight to the headmasters offices. Tor learned all this when he was summoned and Rolph had to take him over, because Tor didn’t know where that actually was.

Karina and Varley sat in well padded chairs waiting for him.

“Tor!” Varley jumped up and nearly tackled him with a hug. The move made him stagger more than a little bit because the girl outweighed him now. Not by a lot, but with her growth and his weight loss, they seemed to have traded places. Sigh. Now everyone he knew away from home was bigger than he was. She had her hair up in the back and looked older suddenly, a lot like her mom.

“Varley, Karina. How are you two doing and most importantly, what are you doing here? Come to visit your brother? He’s just outside…”

Karina spoke first, standing far more regally; she walked to Tor and bowed.

“Don’t be silly. We’re here to invite you to the palace. Here,” she held out and envelope to him that he’d missed in his bafflement at seeing not one, but two Princesses in the room upon entering. “This is an invitation for you, and a guest, to the royal dinner party next Tuesday evening. Please come at seven. Father and mother will also be at the main gate personally to make sure that nothing goes wrong.”

She looked cute in the silk and leather flying clothes she wore, the blouse was a rich purple. Varley wore an identical outfit, which made the whole scene even more interesting, though he didn’t mention it. Cute identically dressed Princesses could easily spark a fantasy that would force Rolph to thrash him if he wasn’t careful. If his friend found out about it at least. Tor wasn’t sure if Connie could read minds, and Varley had her moments of insight, but Rolph never seemed to do anything like that at all, so maybe Tor could survive having such thoughts.

Varley chimed in then. “It isn’t a summons, just an invitation. Given everything I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to skip it, but I do know that no one has really figured out what happened, and trust me, no one wants to alienate you at all. I mean no one too. Half the palace staff threatened to quit after the birthday party incident you know and only a solemn promise that this would be handled efficiently and quickly has gotten them to stay.”

The younger girl hugged him again, and then again as they all walked to the door.

“We’re just delivering messages this week. Dad has us flying all over the kingdom. Still, we’re getting massive flying practice in, aren’t we? Please come? It’ll be nice having someone there that I can actually talk too. Please?” She attempted a Karina worthy wheedle, but he stuck his tongue out at her, getting a laugh from the Dean and at least one of the Royal Guard, dressed almost identically to the girls. Ah, camouflage. It should work too. From a distance they’d all look about alike, especially if everyone had their hair up under a flying cap. He didn’t own one, but they were all the rage in some circles he’d heard. Those circles being amongst people with money to waste on funny looking leather caps made to size for the wearer.

“Honestly? I don’t know. I’m a little tired still and wondering around the city looking for a place to stay all night might be a bit much for me right now, you know? It would be nice to see everyone, if they want to see me, that is. I’m just not really certain they do…” Tor relented a little and told her that he’d think about it, because she’d asked so nicely.

The idea of trying to walk around the Capital all night right now really did kind of seem like too much. But still, maybe in a week? Five days. He had to count them out but… It was so hard to know.

Torrance collected more hugs on the way out, which was more than he’d gotten altogether since he’d been not let in the palace the first time. Huh. Well, if they let him in at all, it would be a big deal. He wasn’t going to go without another place to stay first, and some coin this time. If they did leave him stuck he’d be able to get some food and maybe pay for a place to stay. That, he guessed, would be the big thing then. Could he get enough money in time?

Probably not.

Later that night he asked Rolph about what things cost there and, lifelong resident that he was, he had almost no clue. How would he know the price of an inn when he lived at the palace? His suggestion was that they go find Sara and ask. Not so much because she’d know either, but because she might know who would, merchants had friends that traveled and that meant they might stay at an inn and would need recommendations as to which ones to frequent. It neared dinner time, and while the girls weren’t going to be eating in their dining hall, Rolph did know what restaurant in town they liked.

That the little town had eating establishments Tor knew. What they were like inside? Not a clue. Going in had always been a bit of a bad idea for him. Oh, it would have been possible for him to do it when Rolph paid him for the clothes driers for the Queen, but since then he’d spent most of his money on materials to make stuff.

“I guess I shouldn’t keep giving everything away for free. It makes me feel good to help people though and, you know, as desperate as it sounds, I want everyone to like me. So I give them some of the junk I make. So far it hasn’t really been working too well as far as making friends, but I’m sure it will kick in any day now.” Tor made a face that said he was joking around, or at least he tried for that. How well it worked he didn’t know. Honestly he could just barely care enough to try and seem engaging at all. So far so good though, right? It was probably just the poison taking its toll and it would take time to bounce back. Then, he hadn’t felt like things had much spark even before that, had he?

Rolph laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re doing fine. And, by the way, people do like you. A lot really. You just intimidate them is all. You can’t help it. I mean it’s the kind of building you do and how smart you are mainly. Plus your looks. There are other people that put out things as high quality as what you’ve been doing, one or two may even be better, or at least more complex in what they’re doing. Maris and Ent both come to mind. But you do more of it, faster, and with high quality than anyone. People are starting to notice that. Plus the other stuff you’re doing. Drought relief? Helping cities escape a plague? Do you know how many of the top builders help out each year with disaster relief? Or Countiers doing the same for that matter? Other than you I mean? None. Not one. So, yeah. You’re… cool.” Rolph grinned at the use of the term.

Tor got it, because as far as he knew, he’d invented it. At least in that usage. It meant, “alright or good”, now that the Prince was using it, maybe it would catch on?

They talked a little more on the subject while they walked to the restaurant, which while not far, still took several minutes, because Tor wasn’t up to running the whole way, which is what he normally did when he walked with the long legged behemoth beside him. Rolph slowed down this time. Probably to lull him into a false sense of security. It was a crawl for his friend, he knew, so this kindness wouldn’t last too long. He really needed to get back in shape fast. Even thinking about it was exhausting, but it had to be done. Especially if people wanted to kill him.

That part just didn’t mesh with his reality.

When he’d thought it was Wensa, well, she just didn’t think highly of him and had thought he was a possible threat once. But who else would hate him so much? No one really came to mind. It bothered him though. A lot. You didn’t poison a person like that by accident.

Well, unless it had really been intended for Rolph?

Eek. Tor hadn’t even considered that before. I was addressed to him, so he just figured… But anyone that knew him would have guessed that he’d share, right? Possibly even if he was really angry still. That made a lot more sense. His friend was actually important and everything.

Tor was breathing a little hard when they got to the place, so he asked if they could stand outside for a minute while he caught it. Mainly gesturing this need. He didn’t want to be embarrassing inside the shop or whatever it was. He’d never been in a real restaurant before, so a good retulsion was important. Rolph was paying though, it wouldn’t cost him anything personally, which was good or he wouldn’t be going.

They didn’t see the girls immediately, though they both glanced around covertly, trying not to stare at anyone. Rolph got them a table out in the open so that they could wait and easily be seen when they came in. That was the idea at least, or so Tor guessed. They didn’t talk about much, being so exposed.

Rolph ordered wine before the meal, which came in a clear glass with a stem, but Tor stuck with water, which he checked covertly for poison before he drank. His giant friend checked his wine too though, so he didn’t feel too awkward about doing it himself. The place was… odd. People talked at other tables, some of which were hidden behind screens, but open on one side. The dividers were dark wood frames covered with nicely woven white and cream material. It looked like silk, but probably wasn’t. The place looked nice, but it was a kind of surface finery that he’d learned to recognize over the last few months, not the deep kind that the palace had in places. Still, it was the most attractive business establishment Tor had ever been in.

They weren’t there five minutes when Tor noticed the noise coming from one of the tables with divider screens, about three back. The voices were familiar, being the girls they’d come looking for. There were a few male voices mixed in as well though, which made Tor catch his breath.

Right.

Well, it was very possible that Trice had a boyfriend or, by the rules of royal society, maybe a half-dozen? If she was here with one of them then… what was he supposed to do? Ignore it? Leave? Rolph didn’t seem to think anything of it at least, so maybe it was just a regular crowd of friends he didn’t know yet? Either way he tried to ready himself so that he wouldn’t look like a fool. It wasn’t like it was a real engagement or anything and it probably wouldn’t even be a sham one for much longer the way things had been going. It was a little sad — for him — but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t have a real life while she waited for Count “way to old” Lockland or Overland, whatever his name was, to forget about her or pick a new girl to try for.

For that matter, maybe he already had? The guy was a Count after all. Even if he was eighty or whatever, a lot of girls would be willing to marry him, just to be a Countess for a while.

After a minute of increasingly loud conversation, it became clear that they were talking about him, which surprised Tor to no end. People talked about him when he wasn’t there? Rolph sat up suddenly as the conversation turned a little. Pointedly so.

“What about Tor? You think I want to be married to a midget? He kisses like a dog. Well… OK he’s not that bad, but even hugging him feels like I’m trying to make a move on a little boy.”

One of the men said something that he didn’t pick up, but then the woman, clearly Trice, continued, getting even louder, making it easy to hear all over the room. “He has the personality of a doorstop. I could probably have sex with both of you in front of him, taking one in each hole while saying that he was never going to get any off of me and he’d still agree to marry me, just because he’s that desperate. It makes sense, what woman would ever want him? He knows it too. He told me once that he figured his best bet was to try and make enough money that his parents could bribe some naive country girl into thinking he was worth something.” A loud and sloppy snort followed.

“But I doubt even country girls would fall for it. They want a real man, not a lap dog.”

Ah. Well, Tor thought letting his body go still and dropping into the deepest trance state he could on short notice, he hadn’t realized that she’d felt exactly that way. He’d really thought they were at least friends.

It seemed not.

A different voice, male and deep spoke next. He sounded a little pissed.

“I don’t know… he hooked us all up with those poison detectors, and gave me ones to pass to my parents, didn’t even blink about it. Could have charge six thousand gold for it, I was ready to pay, but then he gave them to us even knowing that, just because we needed them. Then he made and gave out over four hundred of them? That’s what, eight hundred thousand gold? That doesn’t sound like a doorstop to me, more like a hero. He doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but when he heard I needed his help, he was there. Didn’t even hesitate or hint that I owed him anything. I do, but he’s never come to suggest it, has he? Look what he did for Galasia… they’d all be dead if not for him.”

That got Trice laughing long and loud. Her voice was a little slurred so Tor assumed drunk, at least to some extent.

“Yeah, sure, he saved Galasia… you know what they think of him in Galasia? They think he’s an evil troll! They’re not far wrong are they? Well, he’s not evil… Just stupid. He doesn’t even realize that we’ve pocketed all the money from those devices of his we’ve sold here at school. Too dumb to even ask what happened to all those thousands of golds. Who’s that slow on the uptake?”

A female voice, softer and much more gentle, spoke then.

“I have his money Trice. Just because he’s not greedy about it that doesn’t mean we’re going to steal it from him. I’m just holding it for him in case he demands a large payment suddenly; it was my mother’s idea. We really are strapped for ready cash right now with the retooling and all that, and will be for another few months.”

Patricia cackled.

“Right! Admit it, you’re all just taking advantage of him too. He was enough of a sap that he almost married Ursala Thorgood when she popped pregnant with Count Wards’ kid. If he wasn’t such a genius at making things, I’d wonder if he was actually retarded. Well, I say we milk him for all we can get now. Even a moron like him won’t let it go on forever. If Rolph catches on to us, the deals up. He at least has a spine. Bit of a doof, but at least when he’s dicking you Sara, you don’t have to worry about him making puppy eyes. Not that Tor’s even ever tried to get me into bed. Maybe he really does like little boys like Maria said? That would explain so much…”

Trance state or not, the blood left his face and head in a rush. He slapped the shield amulet on and stood carefully. He couldn’t afford a fight right now, he was too weak. Not a physical one at least. Digging into the inner pocket of his trousers he pulled out the small tube that carried the force lance field and took a deep calming breath.

“OK… you heard all that, right? I’m not imagining it or, I don’t know, they aren’t talking about someone else and I’m just being egotistical about this, and thinking it means me, not some other guy name Tor that she doesn’t want to marry and saved Galasia, right?”

The Prince looked about as white as Tor felt.

Well, it was instructive at least, coming to this restaurant, even though he couldn’t really recommend the experience to anyone. Rolph stood up too, even more slowly than he had. Tor made himself shrug. No big thing. He’d already known that women didn’t like him. He’d just thought…

Tor didn’t know what he’d thought, not any more.

Trice, apparently however, wasn’t done yet.

“You know what I hate about him most though? He drinks half a glass full of cyanide and pops right back up like one of those little toy dolls. Push him over, he comes back up, push him over he comes back up! He didn’t even have the common decency to die like a normal person. I was in his room with Rolph and you, Sara, crying, because I just wished I didn’t have to deal with him anymore. Then he turns around and is nice to my parents! They probably had him poisoned! And he’s all “How are things going in the County Ford relief program going.” He deserves for Debri house to be robbing him blind.”

Probably. Tor knew he wasn’t that good with money. He’d never had any to be good with and didn’t know the upper crust rules for making collections. It was time for him to learn it seemed. Well, he could do that. Tor would make a point of starting right then in fact.

He walked over to the divider and rounded the corner quickly. Rolph followed right behind him, standing just a little to the side as if to stop anyone from running away. Nice of him if it came to it. All Tor had in mind was talk though. For now.

He grinned. It must have looked half mad, because everyone at the table went wide eyed at seeing him, even Trice. He stared at her directly. She started out by smirking at him. It didn’t help at all.

“So… obviously the weddings off. By the way, I knew it wasn’t real the whole time, I was just trying to help you out so you wouldn’t have to marry Count Overland. You’re welcome by the way. I’ll be sure to send him a note letting him know that you’re free again. You,” He pointed at Sara with the force lance in his hand. “Please inform your mother that thanks to this… informative little meal, she has one week to pay in full everything that’s owed. One penny less and I’ll come collect it myself. I do not think she wants that.” His voice popped and crackled still and he sounded formal and cold. Harsh.

“Oh! Patricia, please tell your parents that I want the gear I gave them back, as well as everything you’ve gotten from me. False pretense invalidates all claims of them being gifts, don’t you think? If you’d just broken up with me I would have let you keep it all, so thank god we came tonight, so I could find out what you really are. You have twenty-four hours for that. Just give it to Rolph, since I never want to see you again. Either of you. I’m sure we can find a better home for that junk. Some pigs might want it for instance? Or I can throw it in a trash heap.”

He turned and left then, Rolph stayed, but what he said didn’t concern Tor at all. It took everything he had not to kill them all as they sat at the table. This, even when he knew that most of them had nothing to do with anything. One guy had even sounded favorable about Tor. Defended him. That fact didn’t help anything. They were robbing him on purpose? Trice hated him and thought he was sub-human? How had he been so wrong about them for so long? Maybe he really was just that stupid? Well, he’d have to stop that now. He may not be loved, or even liked, but he could be feared.

Damn straight he could.

If he applied himself, he could probably do that really well. Couldn’t he?

It took an act of will to force himself into a trance state deep enough to stay out of a full combat rage. He couldn’t spare the time right now. He had things he needed to get ready, and little time to do it in. He tucked his rage and sense of betrayal down, deep inside. His trust for anyone in the whole world evaporated a little more with each step.

They’d all lied to him. Everyone, over and over again.

Fine.

They wouldn’t get that chance again.

Towards the bottom of the chest in his room he found it. The single, totally blank, piece of copper that he owned. It was cut into a small, notched rectangle, just like all the poison detectors were. That would work well enough. The field he put on it was just like the explosive he’d made before, except about ten times stronger, maybe a lot more than that, A hundred times? A thousand? He wasn’t really certain. The field was strong, from his rage. It took extra effort and nearly fifteen hours, but the focus that he’d needed to cut the stone earlier served him well. The work left him cold inside, without much emotion.

That suited him; he had the personality of a doorstop, didn’t he? He’d never known how angry and rage filled doorstops were before. It made sense, with everyone constantly bashing them in the head with doors like that.

Rolph didn’t come back to the room, at least not that Tor noticed. He wasn’t there in the morning either.

Probably off with his girlfriend counting Tor’s money and laughing about him with his cousin. Maybe not. She’d called the Prince a doof after all. To him that was probably the same as being called a moronic child abuser, wasn’t it? As the heir he probably didn’t have people mocking him like that to his face very often. Tor was just about to go out and see about getting the coin and gear from them when Rolph came back. He had a chest nearly as big as the one Tor used for clothes. It had a float plate on it, one of the flying kind, not a follow along. After a few seconds he understood what he was looking at, it was the trunk that he’d been tied to when he’d gone into that cesspit for those two kids. It even had rope marks on it from the day, strong as it was.

“Look, Tor, she was drunk and trying to act big for her friends, she didn’t mean-” The giant redhead looked at him and stopped speaking all together.

“She didn’t mean it? Funny, you get drunk all the time, but you never accuse me of liking little boys, do you? You don’t say a fraction of the things she did, and when you do say anything, you make sure I know it’s just a friendly joke. And that’s on the rare occasion that you can hardly walk on your own, not just being a little tipsy. I should have known better than to trust a woman. I won’t make that mistake again. What’s in the box?” His voice sounded flat and angry still. Oh, well.

Tor pointed with the little copper piece.

“Oh, this is the gold and gear you requested last night. Sara asks that you take it, but hold off on going after Debri. She’s afraid that if you do, you’ll bankrupt them. I get that you’re mad right now, but that won’t help things, not really.”

Tor didn’t move as a wave of anger washed over him so deep, so bitter, that he wondered for a second if he’d ever liked or trusted anyone really. It took nearly a minute to pass totally. It didn’t leave him feeling any better, just more tired.

“I should trust her… why? She’d been keeping gold from me and helping Trice do… I don’t even know what she’s been doing. Using me? Well, that ends now. She’d better tell them to have everything ready, because I’m coming for what’s owed, and if they don’t have it, I won’t just be putting them into bankruptcy.” He tapped the side of the little rectangle with a half smile.

Rolph’s eyes went cold. “Shit. Is that one of those explosives that shouldn’t be allowed to exist?”

“Not even close. It’s so much more powerful that I don’t think I can really describe what it will do. Except destroy, I mean, duh, kind of the point, no?”

Tor laughed hard.

“Don’t worry, now that I have this stuff, I’ll have more soon. A lot more. Devices that will do things that no one should have ever bothered thinking of. Trice thinks I’m too soft and sappy? To stupid and that it would be better if I were dead? Well, I’m sure she’ll get her wish, but you know what I’m wondering right now?”

Rolph sat down on his over sized bed hard.

“No… No, Tor, I really don’t know what you’re thinking about at all.”

Tor grinned wildly.

“How many of the bastards can I take with me?”

Chapter seven

The Prince stared hard at Tor for about half a minute, then looked away, staring at the wall for a while. After a bit the much smaller man shrugged and went to the chest that had just been brought in. Popping the top of it he noticed that it wasn’t, as he’d imagined, filled with gold coins or even with amulets like in some kind of fairy story. It was filled, instead, with various kinds of cloth bags.

Some were simple canvass, about the size of his hand, each seeming to have about a dozen gold coins in them. Others were fatter, but held more silver and even some copper coins, the amounts varied in each wildly. One of the nicer bags, a blue silk, a color that would have made a pretty dress for Trice, held nearly a hundred gold coins all on its own. In the upper left hand side of the trunk there was a bag that held plates and amulets. It didn’t look right to him at first, since he knew that he’d given them both more than that over the last months.

It took a second, but he finally got it.

“They kept the flying gear and shields?” His fingers shook as he pointed at the pile of devices. “And the poison detectors?” Tor heard his voice break, crack and pop, both from the damage of nearly dying and because he just sounded like a little kid whose puppy had died.

“Even after all this… they still try and rob me?”

Closing his eyes he took a deep breath, dropping into a deeper mental state than he normally maintained while trying to interact with the world. Those were just things. Junk, he’d heard it called. Let it go, he told himself — several times — inside his head.

Be at peace.

He didn’t open his eyes until his breathing had slowed to something approaching normal and his mind had — cleared was an overly ambitious description — but become something less volatile and potentially violent. A little less.

“Tor… I need you to promise me something.” Rolph’s voice was more serious in that moment than Tor had ever heard it before. Darker. Even when he’d been in a near combat rage he’d sounded happier somehow.

“What would that be?”

“Don’t… don’t kill anyone over this. Not for at least a month. After that, if you have to… promise me you won’t let any innocent people die because of it. Please.” There was clear pleading in the prince’s voice. Simple and raw.

He didn’t answer right away. Sitting on the edge of his bed it felt like he was going to fall through the bottom of the world. It was a place that he didn’t even know could exist, that place so deep inside of him it would have been frightening if Tor could have cared anymore.

The end of everything.

Tor nearly told Rolph that he couldn’t do that, couldn’t promise not to simply kill the whole world in his rage. It was that close. A hair breath away from losing everything and simply taking out all the people that had hurt him, which in that moment, felt like the whole world, even though that really couldn’t be the case. Most people in the world hadn’t even heard of him, and he’d only met a tiny portion of them. The world was big and he was small. People were many and he was just one.

That thought, that he wasn’t that important, that the world didn’t know, or care, about him that much at all, that’s what did it. He felt like he hit the bottom of himself then. But rather than crack into a million pieces, or even rise and start killing everything around him like a spoiled child with too much power breaking all the world’s toys, Tor felt himself sink through it.

It was an odd, gradual feeling. It really felt like the bottom of the universe was passing through him, slipping past him somehow. Then, without warning, the world, the universe itself, opened up inside him.

It was huge. Vast and important. He almost laughed with awe and relief. His problems hadn’t gone away, of course, but he could see how unimportant they really were now. He sighed and opened his eyes.

“Right. Well, I’m not going to hurt anyone over being put down. Not even by someone I kind of loved and thought at least liked me a little as a friend.” He took a deep breath and smiled. It had to be a sad thing, just because the blind rage was gone and he could tell that he wasn’t the center of the universe now, that didn’t change things, did it? It colored it, reshaped it a little, but nothing was shifted yet. If he wanted things to be different, he’d have to make it happen. That was always the same, right? Change started with yourself?

Rolph went white for a second, an actual change of color.

“Um, what?”

“I said that I’m not going to hurt anyone over this. I’m mad and upset, but I won’t let anyone else pay for my hurt feelings. That would be wrong. I agree with you and…” It took him several deep breaths to get the words out.

“And I’m trying to let this all go.” Even though it ached horribly inside.

“Seriously? I mean, that’s great… But you’re going from “how many can I take with me” to “let’s be reasonable” inside ten minutes, that’s…”

Shakily Tor made himself laugh, it nearly came out as a sob. Sitting on the edge of his drab little student’s bed, wearing his old and worn brown clothes he must have been a sight. Right, like little Tor the sap could have ever been a threat to anyone? What Rolph was getting at was clear though.

“Yeah, that’s either insane or a lie most likely. But I just realized how small I am, my life, my existence, not my body. I was just sitting here thinking how much I hurt and what I’d do about it, when I finally got that I’m just not that important. That sounds wrong…”

His hands clawed at the air a little bit as he spoke, trying to scrape words into existence.

“It’s… I’m not less important than anyone else, just that I’m not any more important either. Not when you stand back and see the big picture. Reality is vast compared to our tiny worlds. For me to take anyone else’s life away from them would be wrong, no matter how much I hurt or suffer because of what they do.”

Then the laughter, real laughter, broke through. He laughed until tears came and then he cried for a long time, knowing that it wouldn’t matter how stupid he looked. Rolph would still be his friend at the end of it all. Finally after about twenty minutes he stood up, legs shaking and mind still fuzzy, but clearer than it was before.

“But, right now, I can’t be here. I may not be important or anything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel this… shame. The embarrassment of all this. I have to leave.”

Tor felt sad about it, but there was no way he was going to brave the looks of revulsion from the others on campus, or, just as bad, pity. Rolph tried to talk him out of it, but eventually had to see that Tor couldn’t stay there any more as well.

Everything was finished.

He repacked the trunks slowly, so that he’d have room for supplies to take with him and so that he could give back Sara’s trunk. A thought occurred to him as he dumped the coins out on the floor to be counted up. There seemed to be an awful lot of them.

“Did… Sara take out her percentage yet?”

“I doubt it. She’s really scared that you’ll just ruin them all Tor, I don’t think she stopped to even consider it. Does it matter though?”

Tor looked at all the gold and silver on the floor and winced a bit. It was more money than he’d ever seen in one place in his life, and he hadn’t even unpacked half the trunk yet.

“I don’t know why they tried to keep the money from me Rolph. I mean, wouldn’t they stand to make a lot more from my stuff if they were just fair and honest with me? Over time I mean? Hell, I’d have given them the money if they’d asked for it. Why do all this? And… why not take what was owed out before sending it along? I… don’t understand at all.” He sounded baffled and sad again. But didn’t let it bother him. If he wasn’t like that for a long while, he’d be surprised.

The Prince plunked down beside him and started dumping out bags of money.

“Well, what Sara told me, before, and don’t get too mad at me, but yes, I knew that the money was being kept back like this, was that she was afraid that you’d just give it all away to people in need or something if you knew about it. With most people that would have been, well, trying to rob them. Sure. But with you it kind of makes sense. You’re generous, to a level that few ever approach at all. I think that idea kind of scares the merchant in Sara’s heart, to tell the truth. And… notice, the gold’s all here. It hasn’t been spent or anything. It doesn’t exactly all add up, but last night Sara did mention that her mother suggested she hold it back, even though she didn’t know you were there, right? So maybe she wasn’t in on… I don’t even know what to call it. Trice isn’t normally like that!”

Meaning what, Tor wondered? That she was being reasonable and that he was just that awful? It was probably true. Mainly at least. Tor finished counting up and then got Rolph to help him figure out how much twelve percent was.

“The deal was for ten percent though, wasn’t it? For everything she sold?”

Tor shrugged.

“Yes, but I’m a moron, remember? I’m sure I don’t know the difference. Besides, this way she can’t claim that I ripped her off later. Not with the Prince and heir, her own boyfriend, doing the counting of the actual coins himself and putting in an extra two percent. I don’t want any mistakes here. I don’t want anyone coming back later and saying I cheated them or acted unfairly.”

After they reloaded Sara’s trunk, Tor asked Rolph if he’d return it for him, so that he could avoid seeing Trice for one thing and so that he could get into town before the shops closed to get supplies and what not. He didn’t know where he was going, but he’d need materials for new projects at the very least. It was kind of all he had left after all, work.

The shop in town where he normally bought his copper pieces was still open and would have been for hours Tor saw when he looked at the clock on the wooden wall beside the window. It wasn’t even noon yet. Tor had gotten so disoriented that time didn’t mean anything, it seemed. That could happen in deep working states he knew. Really, it always happened. Hours melded into each other and lost meaning. This was just worse than normal.

It was tempting to buy everything he’d ever wanted from the place, solid bars of copper, silver and even a few tiny ones of gold to put fields on. He kept his purchases sensible, not because of the gold, which for the first time in his life he had enough of for what he wanted to do, but because of the space. He had room in about half of one of his trunks, if he left almost all the extra devices he made behind. Tor could get an extra piece of luggage, or even just convert and old wooden crate for the purpose, but he didn’t feel like bothering. What should he do with them when he left, he wondered?

Giving them away to people just seemed like it would help validate what Trice had said about him. He didn’t want to stick around to sell them all either. Just leaving them there would mean that someone had to clean up his mess and dump them or find a place to store them out of the way.

Well, he’d deal with that when he got to it. It really wasn’t that important after all. They could just go in the trash bin.

The canvas bag he’d brought to carry the heavy bits of metal and jars of acid in kept slipping slightly in his grasp as he walked. It would have been easier to take the trunk with him and use one of the follow along floats, but he hadn’t thought of that at all. It probably showed how out of it he really was at the moment. Well, he’d get through this. It didn’t feel like it, but nothing in this situation would kill him. For one thing he’d learned to check all his food for poison and walk around with a shield on most of the time.

On his way across the commons Kolb, Karen and Davie Derring came running up. As impossible as it seemed Davie looked to have grown at least another inch since Tor had last seen him. It boggled the mind more than a little. It had only been a few days. The large bald weapons retuletor spoke to him first.

“Tor! We’ve heard some troubling information…”

Great, so everyone knew about it already? Well, that was inevitable, the reason he needed to leave this place now.

“If what you heard is that my engagement with Patricia Morgan is off, and that I’m a moron that’s too short and ugly to live, then your halfway up to date. I’m also leaving — in a few minutes — and in a few days, if the palace actually lets me in for the dinner I’ve been invited too, instead of snubbing me again, I’ll be resigning my Squires position. If not, if they don’t let me in, well, I’m still resigning, they’ll just have to collect the letter from the front gate. The whole thing was just a fiction so I could Marry Trice anyway. No need for it now.” He meant to say it in a friendly manner, and would have settled for a raspy and sad lament, but he sounded like he was going to rip someone’s head off if they tried to stop him.

Like he could.

Kolb froze in place, started to say something, but then didn’t at all, his mouth moving a bit like a fish. It was Karen that spoke, her voice a lot softer than he’d heard it before. She wore the kind of brown silks that a lot of the rich kids did for classes, he’d never seen her in anything but canvas like what he wore, he realized suddenly. Not even at the duel. Of course that had been a fashion statement of its own and a show of support for her brother, who’d dressed like a regular school kid to shame the Count. But yeah, she was one of those rich royal kids too, wasn’t she? For that matter, so was he, royal at least. For all the good that had done him.

“Tor! That’s awful, my god… But no, that’s not it… There’s a fire burning half of County Ross, in the middle of the kingdom? Mainly grass fire, it’s… really bad. A few of the guys wanted to fly over and help fight the fire, but the school won’t let us use the flying rigs or shields, because they don’t belong to the school really, being on loan from you, so we need your permission to take them. I have the one you gave me, and so do Davie, Petra and Kolb, but we need ten others…”

Ah. Tor laughed. Everyone looked at him as if he’d lost his mind, which of course, he had, most likely. Just for a minute there. He grabbed his face with his hands, making the tan bag slip a bit and groaned loudly. A frustrated sounding thing. He was, obviously, a moron. A self important one at that.

“Sorry. I have some other rigs in my room. I’ll just give them to people outright, so this doesn’t happen again. I think I even have enough for everyone plus a few. About fifty. I’m, the disaster isn’t funny, I just… I assumed you were coming to talk to me about other stuff and then…” He kept chuckling. “Sorry. The size of my own ego seems to be the theme of the day. Let’s go get people set up.”

He handed the bag off to Davie without asking, just holding it out to see if he’d take it. Not only did he, the boy carried it without perceptible effort. Tor wondered if that’s how the whole Squire thing actually started originally. Some guy like him not wanting to carry the heavy gear. It worked for now and sped the whole process up a good bit. They got to the room a lot faster than Tor had been walking on his own, the seriousness of the situation hurrying all their steps. He gasped for air at the top of the stairs but didn’t stop, since he had to trigger the door lock himself or it wouldn’t work. All the plates were still on his bed as well as the amulets, so he didn’t even have to search for anything.

“Right. Flying rigs, shields… Um, here, try these,” He handed over a clutch of copper weapons to Davie. “Those are the ones that choke off air.”

Karen gave him a quizzical look and a head tilt, so he shrugged and explained quickly.

“Um, fire needs air. Take the air away from an area and it can’t burn. That’s basically what happens when you throw water on a fire too. I don’t know that it will work fast enough, but it’s worth a shot.”

Tor looked at what was in front of him. Water pumps, yeah, those might help. Temperature equalizers. He didn’t know if it would do much, but just in case he gave them all that he had. Lights? Well, the fire wouldn’t stop at night. It should be bright enough, but what if it wasn’t in the right places? Really they needed so much and he couldn’t tell what might be useful sitting here, or off in Two Bends.

“Um, I don’t know if I can actually help fight a fire or anything right now, but maybe I should go along, in case you need a field made or copied maybe? If, I mean, I won’t just be in the way? I wasn’t doing much anyway…” Tor swallowed, expecting them to all chime in that they didn’t need him. He was barely able to climb the stairs after all, so it was a valid argument as to why he shouldn’t go. Instead Kolb clapped him on the shoulder.

“Good, saves me from having to ask. We’re all staging in the weapons square right now. Davie, run get us a trunk or two so that we can bring all this with us? Might as well take everything we can, no telling what will come in handy.”

Tor loaded up his own trunks, not leaving anything personal behind. He doubted that he’d ever be coming back this way. Sighing he tried to let go of it all. It was sad and he kind of wished he could have finished school, but maybe that had been a stupid dream all along? Would he have been happier if he’d just stayed in Two Bends and been just another baker? Well, life happened, so he had to keep going from where he was at the moment. That was all he could do after all. Even magic wouldn’t change that.

Davie came back with two large trunks, both without flying plates, which only made sense, as no one was making those except him and he’d never sold any. He also brought large young man that filled the doorway as he held the second trunk. At first, in silhouette, it looked like a royal man of about twenty, but when he walked closer and Tor could see his face clearly it was obvious that the boy was even younger than he was, about Davies age of fourteen or so. Face still rounded with baby fat, even though that should have been impossible given how large he was.

The kid must eat like a horse, Tor thought, good thing he was a royal, or his poor parents wouldn’t be able to keep him fed.

They didn’t have time for introductions, as Tor started pointing at things and giving orders, his breathy voice so raspy that he wondered if flying into a fire would be wise for him right now. Then again, if he died… he died. No big loss to the world. Even less to the universe. He kept pointing at things.

“Just use the straps to hold the float plates in place. Normally, if we had time, I’d nail them on, but this will work. I flew to the Capital and back using the same technique once. Just stack the devices in, then the amulets, try to keep them a little bit separate, so that we won’t have to fight to figure out what’s what in the weapons court. Their all metal, so don’t worry about breaking them.”

Everyone worked, even Kolb, who helped get the trunks outside and tapped the plates on each one, then, without warning, lifted off for the weapons section. Everything went with him. Even Davie and Karen lifted off almost instantly, Tor started too, but noticed that the boy that had helped with the trunks just stood, right fist clenched hard enough that it turned white. He looked off at the retreating backs of the flyers, legs locked and stiff as they stood on the stone walkway.

“Um, are you all right?” Tor tried to sound calm and friendly about it, but the kid was kind of scary. At least he had his shield on already. The larger boy shook his head hard; a sharp movement that made Tor nearly wish he hadn’t asked.

“It’s my district, I mean, I’m only Countier sixth, but, it’s my home. I don’t know how to fly though. I was supposed to be up in the rotation to learn next month. I…” Before the boy could start hitting anything Tor started talking.

“Walk with me then. This is a crash course on how to fly. Pay attention, because you aren’t going to have a lot of time to get things wrong.”

It really wasn’t that dangerous Tor told him, but slamming into the ground, even with a shield on, hurt. No one had died yet at least. Tor couldn’t walk and talk very well, and certainly couldn’t jog and talk, so he activated his flying gear and explained while he floated along about five feet from the ground. By the time they got there, one Countier Gary Ross was ready to try flying for the first time.

“Look… some people get scared the first time they fly and some can’t hack it at all, being up high is just too much for them. If you find that happening to you…” Tor turned and gave Gary a grin and a half way credible floating bow.

“Then toughen the hell up. People back home need you, and that counts more than being afraid, right? It counts more than dying even. If you can accept that now, then being afraid, even being terrified to the bone, won’t stop you from doing what you need to.” Tor gave the boy a single nod and went to get him a flying rig.

Not ten minutes later, they took off, Kolb in the front, because he had the map and Tor holding the rear with Gary, so that he could call out suggestions if needed. Also that way they wouldn’t bash into anyone if Gary messed up. They were needed, some flying tips, but the kid was no worse at flying than anyone else had been their first time. Better than a lot really. Way better than Tor. Of course the controls were easier now that he’d fixed them, on turns if nothing else. At least there was no five minutes of spinning in place when Gary tried to turn in the air the first time.

If Gary was afraid he hid it well. His lightly tanned face only showed a steely determination that Tor kind of admired. The look on his own face was probably still just lost and sad, if not close to tears. He thought of Trice for a few seconds and his eyes welled up, liquid dripping down his cheeks and then whipping back as soon as they fell out of the shield, making him glad that Gary was flying along side of him, about a hundred feet away. If he’d been in the back he might have gotten hit.

Tor let those thoughts go. Yes, he could accept that he was short, ugly and that no woman anywhere would be insane enough to love him, or even touch him, unless they were faking interest or being paid to do it. It should have been obvious from the start. He was just a troll after all. Could he even blame her for saying those things? They were all, well most of them, true.

Oh hell yeah he could.

Now that he knew how their royal society thing worked, how people weren’t supposed to make fun of other people if they showed interest in them, how very deeply these ideas were held, and worse, that Trice herself had never said things like that about anyone else, even the old Count that she hadn’t wanted to marry, who she always spoke of in respectful terms, even to her friends… Yes, he could blame her for it. It didn’t make him feel any better, so he dropped into a meditative trance, using flying as his focus. Trying to measure the control of his left hand as perfectly as he could, the residual tremors having been making his flight more than a little shaky so far.

Shaky or not the crew of eighteen people got to the fires before dark. Just because it was close and looked to be the biggest place around by far, they stopped at a walled city. Lines of men and women were surrounding it, digging and sweating as the fire line moved towards them. They landed well back of this line, behind the people that desperately fought, near a clutch of people that stood shouting at each other.

“We can’t hold the line, we need more people, we have to get some water on this thing or we’ll lose the Capital.” The man looked old. Around eighty or so, and had rough workman’s hands which he waved under the nose of a much younger, but still old looking man, who must have been in his forties or so. The second man was huge. Not just big like a royal, but so big that when he spoke things clenched inside Tor in fear.

“How do you suggest we do that? Bucket brigade? We could try working hand pumps out here, but that would take half a week, if we’re lucky. Burying the fires more certain anyway. We just need more people.”

“Da!” Gary yelled running up to the older men. He jumped in front of the giant and gave him a quick hug. “I’ve people from school, all fighters except, well, him… but he’s…”

“Gary! Good to see you boy! We can use all the help we can get. But, um, we aren’t taking children on the fighting line yet. Things are desperate, but we won’t throw lives away.” At first he looked at his son, which Tor thought was a trifle unneeded. The kid was more than big enough to handle a shovel. Then he realized that the man was looking at him too. Great, this crap again, Tor thought.

He had half a mind to tell the giant to go fuck himself and just leave, but instead took a deep breath to calm himself and dropped into an even deeper, calmer mental place. Or tried to anyway.

“Fuck you.” He said, the words just slipping out. Yep, he’d lost it, telling Counts to go do anything was a bad plan in general and really, no one wanted to be cursed at, did they?

“I have magical water pumps, earth moving equipment, and other things you wouldn’t even know to ask for to fight your damn fire. If you don’t want my help then fine, but insult me right now and I will be forced to kick your ass.” Tor stalked over to the man, everyone staring at him like he was crazy, except the old man, who chortled.

“Good! Let’s get the pumps set up and people on anything else you’ve got kid. Don’t mind Scotty here now, he’s just confused as to what needs to be done.”

Tor laughed, if a little weakly and popped the top on the main chest, listing things off as he set them on the ground around the chest. No one anything for a second, then ten, but the old guy started yelling at them.

“Move! Get the gear and figure out how to use it! Basic activation? Can you show us how to use it fast?”

Tor grabbed an earth moving rig first and showed them all how it was done as fast as he could. Right hand pointing at the ground, left hand directing the stream of earth. Then handed it off to Davie to try, giving the giant a dirty look as he did.

Kid indeed.

The water pumps would take a reservoir or river to use, and for best effect people that could fly, so he asked Karen to be in charge of that, since he knew her, and she was used to acting as Kolb’s second in command. At least as far as Tor went. He pointed at the giant that was Gary’s dad, who would be easy to see if nothing else, and told him to get the temperature equalizers to the front line. The people on the ground would need whatever help they could get them, even if it was just to help keep them from getting too hot.

Kolb, who had actual experience with the air stilling devices, owning one himself, headed up that section, Tor hadn’t been sure that it would work, but it was at least as effective as the earth moving devices, which seemed to be getting the job done at about a hundred times faster than a single man with a shovel. They only had twenty of those, and fifteen of the air stilling devices. It would be tight. Yeah, it represented the equal to about three and a half thousand new people coming out, and it really might not be enough, Tor realized. All they could to was fight as hard as possible.

After about twenty minutes, Karen and her team headed into town and had water roaring out in thick streams that they sprayed at the fire from the air. That worked too. Still, even with all that the fire was tenacious. As it got dark, not too long after that, Tor looked at Gary, who stood uneasily, as if he wanted to help fight the fire himself. He should have been. Tor wanted to himself, but given his health knew that would be stupid, but Gary? He had everything needed. Health, strength and courage. These people were underselling him by a lot.

No children on the fire line… Well, there were other things of use to do.

“Gary. We’re going to need light soon. I have some things that will work, but I don’t know how to deploy them. Here, see the controls?” A few seconds of tapping earned a nod from the large kid, which Tor hopped meant he got it.

The boy stood for a minute, eyes closed, then, without saying anything, he took all the light plates, using both hands for them, headed back towards the wall of the city and bobbed over it, flying. Fifteen minutes later groups of men, women and children boiled out, each one holding one of the lights. Ah! Tor never would have thought of that. They could just stand back and light things up, but also move to where it was needed. Brilliant.

It was probably a royal thing, thinking of getting help from other people like that. Tor wouldn’t have at all. He probably would have just stuck the lights to the wall of the County capital, which had a name it turned out. Rossalynd.

Almost no one slept that night, the fire slipping past them again and again, no matter what they did. That wasn’t such a big deal, each time someone would simply use and air choke, or bury the new patch of smoldering grass with dirt, until somehow, the fire jumped the twenty foot wall and got inside the city.

The scene outside the city was surreal, eerie even, smoke blowing across them in silent waves, the fire making a constant roar that sounded a bit like the ocean, but not, all at the same time. People wanted to run in to save the city, but the old man wouldn’t let them. Losing the external fire line lost the city too. Karen, floating in the air above everything turned her pumps spry towards where the first blaze had begun, but it just couldn’t reach. Not even a tenth of the way.

“Got anything in your box of tricks for this boy?” The old man said grimly, his eyes tired. He sounded defeated, like they’d lost already.

Did he? What did he have left? Temperature control plates wouldn’t matter at all, and the fire wasn’t going to be poisoning anyone right now, so that was out. There were some cups that would cool or warm beverages and while a cool drink sounded nice right then, it wouldn’t put a fire out. The only thing he had left were the set of twenty building air dryers he’d put together for Ellen Ward. Making the buildings, or the fire, drier wouldn’t help.

But…

“I think I might. Um, here…”

The dryers weren’t meant to carry a lot of water at once, but they could carry some for a while, sending water to where ever the second plate was for collection. If that was over, near, or on a fire itself… He didn’t know if it would work, but it was worth a shot. Tor told the old man what to say and got him to scream out instructions. Old as he was, his voice carried a lot farther than Tor’s did at the moment. Tor took two of the plates and flew them in, over the city and held them as Karen and one of her friends, Petra he thought, used their pumps to hit the drying portions of the plates directly.

It worked, the loose streams of water that collected in the air hit him hard, like a torrential rain, in two streams each about three foot across. They slapped at him, the water focusing on each hand sized copper plate, making them slippery, and trying to rip them from his still weak grasp. His right hand shook, aching from the strain, the plates trying to push apart, slick water building up between them, but he held on. Just barely, an act of will more than real physical strength, and got the first fire out by just hovering over it for a while. The second one was worse, white hot already if small, so he dropped the plates directly inside of it.

He was soaked of course, but none of the people watching seemed inclined to make fun of him yet. That would probably come later when the school children described him as a midget troll that tried to despoil their young Countier by wetting himself on him or something.

Flying had to be a euphemism for something naughty didn’t it? Everything else was to those freak royals. Tor wanted to growl, memories of Trice coming back again, and what she’d said about him. There wasn’t time for that though, so he forced himself to just pay attention to what was at hand. Trying to save a city.

When the fire went out he got the plates back out of the puddle that had formed which was probably hot still, but thankfully his shield and temperature equalizer took care of that. Then Tor put out the third fire, which was barely even burning. After that one he looked but couldn’t find anything else that seemed to be alight, so, hoping he didn’t run into anything, plates still trying to slip out of his hands, and trailing water the whole time, Tor flew back to the command area and signaled Karen and Petra to stop, and go back to fighting the fire outside the wall. The drenched clothing wasn’t such a big deal, except that his pants were all wet, and of course insisted on drying last, so that he was walking around the next morning looking like he’d peed his pants.

Embarrassing.

The first three times Scotty, the giant man that was Gary’s dad, mentioned it, Tor ignored him. It did look like he’d wet himself after all, and everyone was tired, so the guy was probably trying to get a laugh to boost morale. People did laugh. A lot. Each time it dug into the already fragile parts of himself, pushing at him… making him more and more angry. On the fourth time Tor gave Scotty a level look and asked the man, fairly politely, to knock it off.

“Or what little boy? You’ll kick my ass? Ooh, I’m so scared!” He mugged a little for the exhausted people around them. Right. Tor shook his head slowly and felt his stomach grow cold inside.

A lot of the other people, most of them from the area, had chuckled when the giant said it. Tor could see that. They were his people, plus it had been silly of him to say anything like that in the first place and the guy was probably trying to save face. Really, he probably didn’t even have to, as big as he was. Tor threatening him wouldn’t be taken seriously, by anyone. You didn’t have to prove you were tougher than a kitten, did you? Of course not.

The only problem was that Tor didn’t care at the moment. Not really. He closed his eyes and tried hard to be concerned about anything, but nothing came to him at all. There was just a hole inside that emptied into the bottom of everything.

And a burning anger, which at that second was pointed directly at the giant in front of him.

Jerk.

He held up one finger to the man and triggered his flying gear with a quick tap after a few seconds. Tor raised high into the air and looked around, trying to seem calm about it all, until he found a large field, probably ten square miles in all and nearly that far from Rossalynd, that was burning along merrily. Pulling the blast device he’d built into the poison detector looking bit of metal out of his shirt he aimed, triggering it for about a second.

The world erupted with a blast that probably made the city jump. Literally.

The field of grass stalks was flattened and churned, with a large crater in the center of it when the dust cleared, a giant cloud in the shape of a toadstool over it, growing slowly. Most of the fire was out in the field, and the surrounding area for miles, so at least there was that. Tor landed by the man gently, if not in a smooth looking fashion, and smiled at him. What that looked like Tor didn’t know, young and surly probably, but that would have to do for now, Tor didn’t have anything better to offer.

“Scared yet?” Tor said his voice soft and menacing.

The man froze, not moving, or blinking. Tor really didn’t want a fight, but the guy didn’t seem to want to leave him a lot of choice either. Plus he was too huge to play with. If they fought, Tor would have to kill him. Instantly and without hesitation. Knowing that he switched weapons to one of the smaller explosives and got ready for the giant to move. Time passed slowly, Tor glaring with an insane smile on his lips, trembling slightly and Scott Ross just holding very still.

Kolb came flying in at nearly full speed and noticed the little situation lining up, beneath him. It was the old man that came walking over first however, looking calm and relaxed about the whole thing.

“I see you got the fire out in the south section outside of the city? Bit extreme, but it’s good to know we have a back up if we start to lose the line. Try not to use that too close to the city again though, eh? I don’t want to leave cracks in the wall. Just got it the way I like, about fifteen years ago.”

Smiling Tor put the little device away, tucking the small copper rectangle away under his first, the hemp cord it was on itching for half a second while it moved.

“Sorry about that. I’m just… Well, it’s been a rough couple of days. My engagement had to be broken off and some harsh words were said. I’m sure that this guy, sorry… don’t know your name,” he pointed at the giant man with one finger, not carrying that it was rude. It was that or the explosive in his other hand. But then, hey, that one was already pointed, wasn’t it?

“Didn’t mean to be insulting when we flew in, but my, er, lack of being tall, was mentioned prominently as well as looking a bit young as that situation blew up, in public. So I over reacted. Then when he tried acting tough with me, well, I’m kind of at my limit, you know?” Tor stared at the man, letting his expression go blank. “If you want to die, I can arrange it easily enough. Right now, if you move on me, you’ll just die. If you call in an army, they die with you. Do you get what I’m saying here? I really don’t care right now one way or the other myself, but I promised my best friend that I wouldn’t kill any innocent people just because I’m ticked off. I’m pretty sure that goes away if I’m attacked though, and right now my personal definition of “attack” is pretty loose I think. So, you know, it’s your choice. I came to help you fight this fire though, not argue like twelve year olds over who has the biggest manhood.” Tor waved his left hand not smiling.

“I’ll cede that one to you if it’s that important, but keep pushing me, and I will end you. If you think I can’t because I look too young or small to be a threat, then go ahead and try something, because it probably means you’re too stupid to live anyway.”

The giant man stormed off, probably to go get some weapons. Tor shrugged. He really just couldn’t care right now at all. He’d explained himself, even if he had been a bit of a prick about it. But these people had to learn that he wasn’t a child and wasn’t going to put up with insults about it anymore.

Kolb landed near him and walked over slowly.

“Say, Tor… What exactly is that thing you used? It’s rather… effective.”

Oh, right. Tor got it out and showed him. “I made it the other night. Just in case I have to fight, you know an army or two… It’s just an explosive. Like the one I gave you only larger in power and size of effected area. It has continuous activation too, but I didn’t think that would be needed right now, so I just tapped it once.”

Huge shoulders slumping a little the bald man glanced at Tor with a slightly wry expression. Then, for the first time Tor could ever remember, the Knight sighed at him.

“So, are you really sure that you want to start a fight with a Count’s heir? It’s clear you could take out his forces, but is that really a good idea? I know that things haven’t been going well for you lately, but I can’t see how that would really help anything. It’s a lot of people to kill just because you don’t feel happy in the moment.”

“What?” Tor let his voice sound shocked. “He’s a Count’s heir? I thought he was the Count! Well, that changes everything. I was being nice because of that you know. After all, Gary said he’s a Countier sixth, so it’s not like they need this one for anything, right? Lots of spares.” Tor waved his hand in the air just a little, moving the tiny device around with it. Then he shook his head and sighed and put all his weapons away. No need for him to make things worse, not really.

He felt like doing it though. Like killing the giant moron would make him feel better. Take some of the pain away. Pain didn’t work that way though. Even Tor could see that.

“I’m just kidding. I’m sure that we can let this go now. It was just tempers flaring due to stress. Since we all know what the situation is, I don’t think we have to continue on with it.”

The old man next to him winked and moved to pat him on the back.

“That’s using your head now. Figured you for a smart one, thinking to bring in all that gear with you. We’d be trying to hold an evacuation route instead of people sleeping cozy in their own beds and complaining about the smoke and frightening noises right now without it. Still, we aren’t out of danger yet. This may be the largest city in County Ross, but we have a lot more to deal with if we’re not going to lose thousands of lives to this thing.”

That, Tor knew, was true, he’d gone up and seen it in the air himself several times. It all looked smaller from up there, but the bright lines of the fire were clear, day or night. Worse, the farther they got from the city, the harder it would be to fight. The pumps wouldn’t reach that far, built short so that they could never get out of control or be able to cross back on themselves.

He could lengthen that of course. Tor had run a river three hundred miles once through the air, he could build something smaller that would go out ten or so, if he could get the time to work, and a place to do it. He didn’t know if he could manage here. It was noisy and he really couldn’t relax, thinking that a giant and angry man might sneak up on him, and say, kick him in the head, as he worked? He couldn’t build the field while wearing a shield either. It was a quandary.

Finally he decided to just do it. If Scotty the giant wanted to kill him, then it wouldn’t work, but otherwise it needed to be done. Tor wished he could sleep first, but that wasn’t happening, he knew. This was too important for him to nap. Without preamble or preparation, Tor plunked down on a bare patch of dirt, took two plates, and started building. No one bothered him that he could tell, even though it took at least a full day before the work was ready. Someone had given him sips of water while he worked, but other than that, nothing.

He didn’t test first, the field needed to be copied too badly for that. It just had to be right, that was all. In two hours he called over Karen, who looked exhausted, and explained the new devices to her. Two hours later he had another ten ready to go.

Then he kept building until everyone that could fly out had one. The number of flying people had grown somehow, but Tor didn’t ask about how. The devices were his job, deploying them he had to leave to someone else. He figured that someone had just grabbed the rigs from his gear and handed them out, probably along with lessons. If so… Then fine. Technically it was illegal for anyone not a member of royalty to have a shield and the flying gear was nearly as closely guarded, but he could give them away. Really to anyone he wanted. The idea was that if Tor felt strongly enough about it to not sell the things for thousands of golds, then it was probably important.

These devices hadn’t been given out by his own hand maybe, but he’d back it, if anyone asked. It was, oddly enough, late in the day when he finally stopped working, his eyes wouldn’t focus right, but he’d encountered that before after long work sessions. He also had a bad headache that made him want to throw up. Not a big deal. Builders got those if they pushed too hard and having just come off of being poisoned, not even being recovered fully, not even by half, he should have expected it. It would go away in a day or two. Most likely. It could last longer. A week. Not more than that. Hopefully.

A sleeping area had been set up near the wall, it was light out still, which always made it hard for him, but he decided to just rest his eyes for a while. He flipped his shield on just in case. Enough attempts on your life and you start learning to be cautious, that or you died.

Tor felt his eyes shut as he settled on the bare ground, not having a blanket or anything like that with him. It didn’t matter. He slept anyway. Once he woke up with dirt in his mouth, which shouldn’t have been possible, not through a shield, but that didn’t bother him too much, he was just so tired that he spat a few times and laid his head on his arm and went back to sleep. He’d gone to bed while it was light out and didn’t wake up until the morning, as a light spray of water hit him. Opening his right eye he saw the sky above him, a dark and even gray color.

That would be good, he thought. Rain would, as long as it wasn’t coming with lighting, help a lot. If it was hard enough it might even take care of the worst of the fire for them. The part that hadn’t already burned out. Luckily the harvest season had already passed, so that they didn’t have to contend with the loss of all their crops. Otherwise the grains they harvested for the kingdom would have gone up already. That would be bad. Even in Two Bends most of the flour was made of grains from Ross. All they really had to deal with now was the damage and the remaining fires. Rain away sky, Tor thought, hoping it would be enough to make a difference.

He got up and rubbed at his face, the black of his beard stubble must have looked a sight. He could, at least theoretically, grow a beard. It might even make him look less like a little kid if he did that. He never had, but he did have to shave every day and had for years. It was an idea at least. Not shaving was easier even.

After he got up and used the facilities someone had partitioned off about twenty yards from the wall, Tor got some water and drank until he didn’t want any more, then asked the first person he saw that kind of looked familiar, a big man who wore student browns that Tor was almost certain had clobbered him in practice at least a few times, a question.

What day it was.

It was hard to keep track of things while working sometimes. He thought it was Monday morning, but the guy was adamant that it was Tuesday already.

Argh.

Well, Tor had things to do, at least if nothing here needed him for the time being. The rain made that unlikely, nature easily trumping any work Tor could manage. So he should at least try to make his appointment with the King and Queen. Not that he really cared. Being sent away from the palace again didn’t really thrill him as an ideal plan for the day.

Still he shaved and scrubbed up in a bucket of cold water. Halfway through he laughed and went to get one of the bathtub water heaters. Then the bucket steamed slightly as he washed up. Other people were looking at him enviously and muttered about special perks, so after he finished he broke out the other water heaters and set them out near the wash bucket line. Using some bits of rope he found, hard brown stuff that barely qualified as twine, he hooked up all the buckets so everyone could have warm, or even hot, water to wash with if they wanted.

That done standing out in the rain shirtless and not getting any drier, but not cold either, thanks to the equalizing field he’d just put back on along with all the others, he dressed and went to find Kolb.

“Right, so, off to the palace. If they let me in, I’m going to resign still, if they don’t, well, then I’ll resign with cause. Getting real tired of all this stuff, you know? Anyway… Um, which way is the Capital from here do you think?”

It took a while for him to get all the equipment, now that the fire was largely handled. Tor noticed that not even half of what he’d lent out had come back yet. No big thing, it was almost dumped a few days before anyway, but he didn’t want people to think he was a pushover. Smiling a little, he told the old guy that any other gear that came in they could just toss in a box for him and for anything that was missing they could just toss fair market value in gold into the same box. Tor didn’t think that it would be a hardship for them overly. It was just incentive to not rip him off after all. If they returned the gear, they didn’t have to spend anything at all on it. Well, the cost of sending it to him, but that wasn’t a big deal, all things considered, they could send it slow post and it would only cost about four silvers.

Some of it was, clearly, still out being used to fight the fire. The new pumps for instance were all mainly out still and should be. The flying gear and shields for the people doing that where there’s now. The rest that he didn’t have, well, if someone wanted anything of his that badly, they could get off their butts and come ask him for it themselves. He didn’t really need it all, but it was the principle of the thing.

He shrugged, because this kind of led to another problem, didn’t it?

“I don’t really have an address. I…” For a moment he came up blank. There was always his family though. That would have to do.

“If you could send it to Two Bends, County Lairdgren, addressed to Tor? That should get it to the right place, eventually.”

The gardener looking fellow said that he’d see what he could do. He didn’t seem displeased by what Tor had said, so maybe something would actually happen. Probably not, but hey, life was too short to waste worrying over things he could make more of in a few days worth of work.

By eleven in the morning he was in the air and flying towards the Capital fast, but with a deep sense of dread. Now, if he could just “accidentally” take a wrong turn he wouldn’t have to deal with even more people that hated him and thought he wasn’t good enough. The very idea almost made him just turn around and fly back to the remaining bits of fire. It took all his will to keep flying straight on in the direction he was told to go.

At least this time he had some funds with him if he needed it.

Chapter eight

The two hour long trip through the winding streets of the Capital reminded him yet again how much he disliked carriages. The road here was really pretty nice, smooth, with well fitted stones that should have been like riding on glass under the wheels, so it wasn’t the roughness of the ride. No it was the close space around him while the whole thing moved. The little jolts and divots in the road that would have gone unnoticed if he could see outside through more than a tiny window, left him feeling a bit sick and disoriented instead.

It would have been so much better if he could have just flown.

That got him thinking, which at least distracted him from the ride he was on if nothing else.

What if he set the flying rig to go slower, no more than say, twice what a carriage could do, and fly only a few inches above the ground? Did it count as flight at all if you were still shorter than everyone else around you, and went no faster than a very quick person could run? It really only had use the Capital of course, unless other cities started to decide that flying inside their limits should be forbidden. Still, it would be easy enough to make happen, and might make a fun toy for kids. In a lot of ways easier than a real flying rig too. Not so easy that he could make one riding along in the back of this box on wheels, but he was able to do most of the planning for it.

That had gotten a lot easier with practice. Planning out new builds. He used to have to take note and work things down over several times, but now it was just mainly going through the whole thing mentally first. Way easier.

The carriage, unfortunately, got him to the gate about half an hour before seven. The driver helped him offload, and then left, having already been paid. Too bad, because Tor had been willing to pay the man for his time to wait and at least see if he had to leave or not. The gate guard wouldn’t let him stand out front of course, so Tor had to walk up and down the street while time passed, his luggage following him along so it wouldn’t get in anyone else’s way. What did they think he was going to do, camp out in front of the gate?

The idea of a lean-to made of scraps from around the city tickled him. He could set it up right next to the little hut that the guards hung out in, using the wall around the palace for one of the walls and the corner made by the guard shack as the other. It was all pristine white already, so he wouldn’t even have to paint. Maybe he could pump water over the palace wall from the pond garden and set up a little pool that floated in the air for bathing? Of course he’d probably have to fight with the Royal Guard daily and there were no restroom facilities out here. Maybe he could build a separate lean-to for that? He didn’t really know how to dispose of waste, so it would just have to be a bucket or something like it for now, but he’d used worse.

Seven came, at least by the bells he heard ringing somewhere off in the city. They were pretty, deep chimes that would have woken the dead had they dared trying to sleep at this time of day within the walls of the Capital and maybe a little ways past the tall outer wall. Tor walked up to the gate, little invitation in hand, waiting to be turned away again. He actually held his breath as the gate opened, but they let him walk through and no one even tried to kick him out yet.

Or broke his legs. That was good, because walking was still hard enough as it was.

Tor kind of remembered Varley or Karina mentioning that he was supposed to be met by the King and Queen, but no one else was outside. Not even a servant to tell him what to do. He’d come to the correct gate, hadn’t he? This was the main one… right? The courtyard was empty. Not even the guards were walking around in here. He’d have triggered his shield in case an attack was about to come… but didn’t have to. He’d never turned it off, not even for the ride over.

Nothing happened. It was just like everyone had vanished, leaving the world silent and still.

What was he supposed to do, he wondered, go and knock on the front door?

Chuckling a little, he did just that. Still, no one came at all. Were they pretending to not be home? That… seemed beneath them. He used the big knocker in the center of the door, but still no one came to let him in, or even send him away.

For a second he contemplated building a cutting field and slicing through the door, but that seemed far too rude and destructive. Even if he wasn’t welcome here anymore, it was someone else’s home, not something to be casually destroyed because of a whim. Or anger, no matter how deserved it might seem at the moment. Shrugging he decided to walk around to the back of the building and see if he’d just gotten the wrong place. Maybe he’d misunderstood the directions. He knew it was the right day, or the guards wouldn’t have let him in.

When he saw the small outbuilding used as the kitchen he got what must have happened to delay everyone. Then nearly panicked.

Black and gray smoke was pouring out and flames had engulfed the side closest to the palace. It was far enough away that he could barely hear the shouting. Looking around he didn’t see anyone near him, so he activated the flying rig, hoping that this being an emergency and not technically “in the city” would get him out of too much trouble. He struggled to dig out an “air choke” from his waist pocket with his right hand; it was what the people fighting the fire up in Ross had started to call them.

It worked; you just had to make sure no people were in the field when you turned it on. Of course, hands still clumsy, and far too shaky to not look palsied, he managed to drop it on the ground, and had to land to find it. He still had everything else at least. He checked, fire or not, because someone accidentally checking their food with his little “poison snoop” explosive would die. Anyone around them for a long distance would too. It kind of needed to stay with him.

Clutching it tightly in his right hand he flopped up to the burning building, where some people screamed at others not to try and put out a grease fire with water. The water group didn’t listen, being made up mainly of guards. The Queen stood back, not trying to yell anything, just looking scared, Varley was next to her, both dressed up very prettily, but that was so normal for them Tor ignored it almost instantly. The King shouted orders, but he was supporting the water group.

Stupid.

All throwing water on a grease fire did was spread it around. No wonder it had gotten this out of hand.

Tor tried to sound strong instead of sick when he yelled at Richard. He looked at everyone else too, but the King kind of needed to shut up.

“No! Clear the building. Now! Clear the building! The airs going to not be breathable in a few seconds! Get out of the building and stop throwing water you morons!” Tor had to use both hands to steady the field as he darted in the door. The air stopping effect focused around the first thing the line of sight touched, other than air itself. In this case a blackened work table that had once, probably less than half an hour before, been a nice piece of sturdy oak. It still was. Half of it was just charcoal.

Once the building was cleared, it only took a few minutes to have the fire under control and about five more minutes to make sure that the hot grease wouldn’t re-ignite. The shield he wore kept most of the smoke away from him, not all of course, because it had to let air through too and some of the smoke was too fine to keep out and still breath.

This time he wasn’t even soaking wet after.

Thank goodness, because really this was his best set of clothing. He still had the ones that he was supposed to wear to the birthday party, but they weren’t his, belonging to Rolph. Anyway, if he’d worn those, they’d smell like grease smoke right now, if faintly.

He backed out of the smoke filled kitchen shaking his head.

“Well,” he quipped, loud enough for everyone in the yard to hear. “I think we may need to make other plans for dinner. Is there another kitchen?”

The tall gray haired woman that had given him food one time ran to him, crying, and gave him a hug.

“Thank you! I thought for a second that the whole thing was going to go.”

He patted her back awkwardly with his shielded hand and murmured in her ear.

“It’s all right now. It’s OK.”

He was released by the cook only to find himself grabbed from behind. The arms couldn’t crush him, since he still had the shield in place; Tor tuned, more than a little awkwardly, to find Connie struggling to hug him, Varley trying to join in and Richard valiantly, and ineffectively, tried to clap him on the shoulder.

After a few seconds he slowly stepped back from them. He wasn’t trying to give offense, but the whole thing was a little overwhelming, especially since he didn’t know where he stood here. Not really. For all he knew some of these same people might have helped poison him. Or at least ordered it. Hardly time for hugs and cuddles.

There was crying off to the side, it sounded young, and like more than one person. Tor looked and found the source of the noise, two kids, a boy and a girl, both looking about twelve, and more than a little familiar. He didn’t have names for them, but they were familiar from some of the functions he’d been too, as servers. The two little ones at the back that normally brought the plates and silver.

The girl had white blisters going up her right wrist and the boy had similar burns on both hands, his left having taken the brunt of it. Crap. Tor left the King and Queen standing without a word and ran to the kids, gasping from even the small effort. He didn’t know what to do. Minor burns just got some cool spring water and a loose wrapping at home, but these were way worse than anything he’d seen before.

A voice, dark and husky, male it sounded like, but in a kind of way that he couldn’t really be sure, spoke from behind him.

“Such wounds should be cooled. I have pain medicines in my bags that should help, but no advanced healing gels. They look like second degree burns only, so as long as infection isn’t allowed to set in, they should be fine. I’ll run and get those medicines, if someone here can see to some cool water or ice? Don’t let ice touch the wounds directly, put it in water!”

Tor turned to see a pink and blue dress or robe hurrying into the palace faster than he could have run being pulled by a horse. The skin was very dark, but he couldn’t see the face. What that person had said made sense though.

“Ice? And a bucket or large container of water? One for each of the burned people if we can manage it.” Tor spoke the words gently, but a purple and black clad Royal Guard ran off and started organizing the unharmed servants as if the King had ordered it himself. Probably just glad that someone had a useful suggestion.

Throwing water on a grease fire…

Ice they had, the cold boxes still working perfectly, they just had to use some little hammers and chisels to break ice off of one of the big blocks and float the chunks in water for each person. Four guards got the water for them and brought the buckets directly to each child, running with them quickly, but not spilling even a drop. It was like they’d practice this, just in case, or something. Tor knelt down trying to explain to the kids as they kept crying.

“Alright, this shouldn’t hurt at all, but it will feel cold, don’t be afraid, it will make you feel better.” He didn’t really know of it would or not, but the boy put his hands in first to his bucket and stopped making noise almost instantly.

“Thank you sir. Go ahead Gemma, it helps a lot.” With this recommendation, the young girl put her right hand in the cold water. She kept crying, but much more softly.

Before anyone’s attention could come back to him, a running figure burst from the palace door and moved towards them fast enough that all of the palace guards had their hands on their belt pouches. No one drew at least, which was good, because it was just the dark skinned person that had gone for medicine.

Looking at the individual in question closely, Tor still couldn’t decide if they were male or female. Pretty either way though. The colors of the robe were bright, pink and blue, with a few green strips around the edges. If the person wore shoes at all normally, they’d flown off in the run, because bare feet stuck out below the legs now. The skin was really dark, an even tone much closer to true black than anyone he’d ever met. The eyes were a glassy light blue, and the hair was a bright and fiery red that made Tor think of a bird as to the color. Male or female, they were certainly fascinating to look at. Beautiful even. So Tor used the excuse of watching them apply the medicine to the kids to observe.

They held a small vial, filled with something red, that when used to draw a line on the skin all the way around the arm above the wounds apparently got children with burns to stop crying instantly. It was a miracle really.

“Hey children, this is the good pain medicine, so you won’t feel much of anything for a while. Don’t worry, your hands are still there.” The smile was straight and bright, almost glowing from the face.

The Queen went over to the strange looking person, and bowed. It was a low and humble looking thing coming from the Queen, but the colorful person bowed lower and longer, making the move look graceful and planned. If Tor had tried the same thing he would have looked like a backwoods hick trying to put on airs. Of course just standing there he probably managed that anyway, didn’t he? Tor snorted softly to himself.

“Thank you Ambassador Mutta. Your concern and aid is most appreciated.” The King put in, which got him a tolerant smile and nod of the head without even a glance in his direction.

“It is only what one does in an emergency.” The ambassador turned to look at Tor, and suddenly smiled, a big toothy thing. “Ah! Finally someone correctly sized! I was beginning to think that everyone here was trying to outgrow the others for some kind of contest.” Mutta must have been a full inch taller than Tor so he smiled back and winked.

“Not at all, the goal is to be the shortest when you’re fully grown. So far I’m winning. Of course I haven’t told anyone else the rules yet…”

“Hah! Someone with a sense of humor. Are you the court jester then? The one that tells jokes and stories to amuse us? Do you sing and dance too? It was suggested in my briefing packet that there might be such. Can you caper merrily? I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like fun, doesn’t it?” The ambassador actually seemed excited by the idea, clapping their hands a little bit.

The King and Queen both looked horrified, but Varley had to hide a smile behind her hand. Tor just crossed his arms playfully and sighed loudly at Mutta.

“No… I applied for the position, but wasn’t cute enough. Instead they hired some giant guy named “Alphonse”. Now, I personally don’t think he’s funny at all, but what can I do? He’s got family connections here.” Mugging slightly Tor pointed at the King and Queen then shrugged exaggeratedly. The Ambassador laughed hard.

“Alphonse! That is the heir right? I met him earlier. He is indeed quit funny. He kept trying to set up a marriage for his younger sister Karina with me. She seems like a very nice girl, but I didn’t get the impression that she was interested in women particularly. Still, it might be interesting, what with her light colored skin and all. That’s rare back home, so you all look very pretty to me. You especially. You have the lightest skin of anyone I’ve ever seen. Even my grandmother is darker, and she is… The Gray Lady.” The last bit was confided with a leaned in body posture and said softly, but easily loud enough for everyone else to hear, so meant for their ears too apparently. The Queen smiled, but Richard had to fight to keep his face calm for some reason. It didn’t look happy at all.

Did he not like Mutta or was it him? Or… really, maybe he was just worried about the burned kids or what they’d do for dinner. Tor decided not to care for now. The man would tell him or not. He focused on the strange woman and nodded.

“I can see how that might happen, you look incredible to us as well. Bright like a bird, and your skin looks so smooth and even. Stick around for a while and by this time next year woman at court will be dying their hair to match yours. Failing at it too, probably. But you know, mimicry is the highest form of flattery they say. Though… really, I’ve always been partial to bribes myself. They seem to work better.” He shrugged again and made a funny face.

“Not that anyone has ever bothered to try and bribe me, not since my little sister Tiera wanted me to do her chores for her for a week once, so gave me an old, almost broken cutter she’d found. That really worked out for me though, since it was what started me on my current path in life.”

Not that he knew what that really was any more. Tor wasn’t a student any more. He wasn’t a baker, though that was still possible. He wanted to keep making his devices, but could he? Well, he had money to hold him for a while at least. Ten, fifteen years if he didn’t waste it. That should be enough time to figure something out.

“Oh, what is your current path, if it’s not jesting that is…” Her tone was suspicious for some reason, but in a playful way that made him smile a little.

“Right now? Itinerant wonderer. A few hours ago I was helping to put out grass fires up in County Ross. We managed to save the Capital there and all the major cities. Unfortunately a few isolated farms got hit hard, before we could get to them. Some people died, but most of that was before we, the people from my old school and I, got there. That’s all done now, mainly, so I’m kind of floating around at loose ends. This is the last official thing that I have to do. I really just came to see if they’d let me in any more and resign my Squireship. They did let me in at least, so things are looking up.” He looked at Richard and Connie and then pointed at where the building still smoked a little. “I take it that the fires why you didn’t meet me like I was told you would, or,” He frowned a little, thinking. “Was I actually in the wrong spot? I thought the gate on the other side was the main one, but what do I know? This is a long way from Two Bends.”

Connie wrung her hands a little. “No, it was just the fire, we heard the alarm and came to see what had happened, it wasn’t that big to start with, but it kept growing even as we threw more water on it. Apparently the children here dropped a pot of hot oil?”

Wincing, Tor explained that oil floated, even if it was on fire, so they spread fuel all over the room with each splash of a bucket coming in. Richard, who’d been calling for more and more water, orders that everyone else kind of had to follow, closed his eyes and winced hard himself.

“I see. Oops.”

Tor snorted.

“Yeah, oops indeed. Well, you get it now, so live and learn, right? I’ll leave some devices that can help with things like this in the future.” Why not? It wasn’t like it cost him anything. Even if they hated him, it wouldn’t help if the palace burned down.

Taking a deep breath the Queen looked at them all a little desperately. “Now we have over a hundred people coming in less than two hours and the kitchen is functionally down. We have a backup kitchen, two of them in fact, but not enough personnel to get everything done in time. I have to go help, I’m afraid; I was going to show the Ambassador around for a while but…”

Mutta bowed low to the Queen again.

“Were my skills such, I would aid you in the kitchens, but alas, I am but a physician by trade and never learned the domestic arts well at all.” The woman actually sounded humble about it, as if a little embarrassed by her lack of skills.

Tor looked around slowly, taking stock of the situation. Half the kitchen staff was sitting down having wounds dressed. None hurt as badly as the children maybe, but bad enough. Burns, even minor ones, hurt when you got near heat at all. Like ovens and stoves, or even hot dishes. Making them go back to cook injured like this would be worse than cruel. Barbaric.

“I can help with the baking at least and whatever else I’m told to do. Varley… You can follow instructions right? So, um, go get Rolph and Karina as well as any of the house servants that are willing to try and help out and let’s see what we can get done, alright?”

This got a soft gasp from the Queen for some reason.

“Tor… We can’t ask you to do that, not after everything…” Connie walked over and gave him a hug or at least tried to. The shield held her away again. Richard seconded that, his tone going a lot warmer suddenly than it had been before. So it was Mutta the King didn’t like?

“She’s right Tor. Someone tries to kill you with cyanide and then… Well, yes, we need to talk about everything later, but pushing you until you drop isn’t exactly what we had in mind for your visit.”

Wrinkling his nose and closing his eyes a little he told them that he’d be fine.

“I’ll only push right up to the brink of death, then take a short break and get some water before starting again.” He marked this out with flat hand gestures, marking each bit of his plan in space.

At least Mutta thought it was funny. She had a rich and warm laugh. Almost fake sounding, but she knew enough to try, so that counted, right?

Getting the house staff organized was easy in a way. All Tor had to do was stand back and give baking instructions and make sure everyone got where they needed to be in the kitchen. He also watched the bread. The starter the palace used was mild, an almost sweet form that he’d have loved to steal a culture from if he was going to open his own bakery ever, but he didn’t need it right now, because the dough for the rolls and small loaves had already been made earlier in the day and about sixty percent of the baking was already done, in another building too, so it wouldn’t all taste like smoke. He and his crew definitely had the easy job. Some of the diner dishes had to be restarted and at least two replaced all together, since the food was too damaged to be used and took too long to make to simply redo in time.

One of them was a dessert, a custard that took about six hours to make, so Tor made hand pies using Debbie’s recipe to replace it. They were all apple raisin, since he had limited time to get the apples peeled and raisins soaked in apple juice, much less do several kinds of filling, but there were about ten people that could be put to the coring and peeling task. For some reason he got all the royals on his team, including the Queen.

Tor figured it out pretty quick.

They were there because no one else wanted to try and tell them what to do. They were good enough workers, especially Rolph, who started off with the idea that they had to hustle. Varley caught on pretty quickly, and worked with a will after being shown what to do. Karina was a lot better with a knife than he’d figured too, quick and efficient, not timid at all.

The Queen sucked at it, but only because she kept trying to run off and manage the kitchen, which largely meant getting into the cooks way. The woman was biting her tongue so hard Tor worried for a bit she’d sever it. But then, she couldn’t exactly take the Queen to task for getting in the way could she? Someone had too though, or nothing would get done. Tor sighed. Ideally it should be Rolph or one of the girls, since it would be hard to order their deaths, but none of them seemed to see any problem at all, not knowing anything about how a kitchen actually functioned.

“Connie!” Tor finally mock roared at her. “Sit down and do your own work. Your cook is one of the best in the kingdom, but if you keep ordering her to do different things, nothing’s going to get done in time. She’s the expert, and in this she knows what to do better than you do. This is her kingdom and she rules her. Now help with the apples, like a good kitchen girl or we’ll never get done.” Connie blinked, smiled, and sat down. Then she started peeling carefully. Laura, the cook, didn’t even crack a grin, just took a deep breath, nodded once at Tor and got back to work.

He focused on the light pastry dough and then making the filling, getting them all in the oven just in time for Burks to show up and stare at him meaningfully. The man stood out, being at least as pale as Tor was. Behind him were three other servants, all looking at their errant royals the same way. It sent a message, even without words.

Tor tried to claim that he needed to stay, but one of the real bakers for the palace came in and told him to go ahead and get ready, since all the hard work had already been done. Trying not to seem desperate, Tor explained the icing and made up a quick batch for demonstrations purposes which got a perfunctory nod. Tor had an odd feeling that the baker thought he was another of the house servants needed for his real job. Possibly dish washing, given how he was dressed.

Well, as long as they didn’t burn the pies, it would be all right. They’d even be fine without icing if it came to that. Not as good, but some people liked them a little less sweet. Even Debbie made both for her shop. The iced ones sold two to one over the others though.

Burks didn’t pull him all the way back to a real room, instead he found a small space that was about five foot square inside in a small corridor next to the kitchen. Without hesitating the good looking black haired man made him strip and change right there.

Well, the guy had already seen him naked, so no big thing, right? Embarrassing, but…

Apparently it was an issue.

“You’ve lost weight. A lot of it. I’d suggest that you eat more… sir, if that can be worked into your schedule?” Burks sounded a little sour about it, as if Tor had done it on purpose or out of pure neglect for his own health. It was half true, but still…

Tor snorted out loud, making his face as wry as possible, a little half grin and raised eyebrows.

“I’ll work on it, but between work and getting poisoned like I was, it’s been hard. Still, as far as I know, from now on I have nothing but time.”

“I’d not heard you were poisoned sir. Has the… culprit been apprehended yet?” The voice that had been a little disproving, and maybe playful, was suddenly deadly serious and sounded cold, as if the man intended to see justice done himself if need be.

“Nope. Sucks too. I mean, two months ago I didn’t think that anyone in the world would more than dislike me a little, maybe call me names, now I keep having to look at everyone like they plan to kill me. I’ll let you know as soon as something breaks, if anything does. You can help me bring them to justice.” Tor had tried for playful, but it sounded odd and serious when it came out. It was how his voice resonated still, he decided, with the slight rasping and popping.

“Very good sir. I shall stand ready to assist in any capacity needed.” The man sounded so sincere that Tor just nodded. Every time he turned around here the man was doing something to impress him, apparently without even trying. Tor felt himself almost tear up for a moment. It was humbling to see someone so good at their job. Probably why he worked at the palace. Cream of the entire kingdom for sure.

The clothes that had been brought were a little too loose, a fact which Burks cleverly hid by making them even looser, rather than trying to tighten anything. Tor got a nod at least, and if it wasn’t approving as to his looks, at least the servant didn’t tell him to play sick and not go to the dinner at all.

In fact the man kind of pushed him out of the little room a few moments after the last lace was tied, and everything double checked rapidly. While he’d been busy in the kitchen, people had been arriving and mingling it seemed. Well, he’d feel bad about missing all that, but… no.

He just couldn’t be bothered to.

Tor had to turn the shield off to eat, but made sure that he had a poison detector to hand, a real one that wouldn’t make anything blow up. He had that one too, and his flight gear on him ready to go if he needed it. All of this Tor kept hidden, wearing it all on cords around his neck.

This time he found himself only a little ways down the table from the King and Queen, Rolph directly across from him and Connie to his right. Next to him sat Ambassador Mutta, who smiled hugely when she saw him sit down next to her.

“Aha! I knew you must be someone important! Are you related to the King and Queen then? Or an official of some sort? Or… are you really the court jester? That’s an important position isn’t it? Making people laugh is one of the great gifts a being can have after all.” It was said so sweetly and with such innocence that Connie had to cover a laugh. Not a royal twitter or polite covering of a fake laugh, but a genuine one that caught the attention of people down the table a good ways.

“Oh! Or are you her lover? I know that the royalty here engages in a system of much looser relationships than what I’m used to, it was in my briefing packet.”

That got everyone’s attention indeed, and not in a good way. The King glared at the Ambassador, but Rolph snickered a little.

Tor just answered honestly.

“No, nothing nearly so fun or interesting. I just got kind of left off some lists, so their sitting me up here so everyone can see that I’m not out of favor or something like that. As for the rest, yeah, their rules are different than what I grew up with too. Don’t let it worry you too much though, you aren’t obligated to actually have sex with anyone if you don’t want to, though once they find out you’re a single woman, I don’t doubt that the offers will come. You’re far too exotic to ignore. Really, we should probably get the Queen to handle all the proposals for you, just so you don’t end up overwhelmed with men trying to marry you or something. Don’t you think Connie?” He added the last in a whisper.

The Queen smiled and nodded, then spoke in full tone so that the entire top of the table could hear.

“Indeed. Any man seeking Ambassador Mutta’s hand in marriage should come to me directly, as proxy for her own mother, at least while she’s in our kingdom. Don’t worry ambassador, I won’t agree to anything without your say so. This will just keep the wolves off you for a few days.”

Tor hoped they weren’t being too obvious, but he’d had such a hard time figuring out her gender that saying it out like that might help the word get around, stopping some embarrassing suggestions. Rolph blushed brightly and looked down at his plate. So he got it at least.

The first course was a small bowl of nearly clear broth. Almost as one, about half the table checked the food for poison using detectors, so Tor did too, then he waved his over the ambassador’s bowl, which was also fine.

Then he coached her not to eat until after he did. He leaned into her slightly, not touching her at all, but just close enough so that his words weren’t shouted to the whole table.

“Checking for poison, then it kind of goes down the table, we each take a single bite, with the people most likely to be poisoned at the far end. I don’t get how it’s supposed to work myself, hence the poison detectors.”

She pointed at the copper rectangle sitting next to his knife on the right hand side.

“Do they work? The Queen said you were poisoned once?”

He nodded.

“Both. I just forgot to use mine, which was insanely stupid of me. I was alone and felt comfortable, and well, where I was raised no one ever does anything like that. Very rural. Near the middle of a forest actually.”

That led to talk about her country, Afrak, which like Noram was the entire continent.

“I’m not actually a real Ambassador. We don’t really have that position strictly speaking, but the … leader decided that it was worth investigating the floating river here. We could move water to the great desert, but the one here takes sea water, desalinates it, and moves it hundreds of miles without any perceivable extra energy cost! If we could work out something like that we could achieve our dream of recovering that land. It used to be a mighty forest, thousands of years ago. We have the workers to do the needed planting and tending to get it started, even the seeds ready, but water has been the problem for the last thousand years.”

Her hands gestured in the air expressively as she told him about the plan. It sounded good to him. Take useless land and make it green again. They could feed millions off of it, not that they needed the extra food production, their population being very stable, but it was always nice to know that you had the capacity she let him know. It made sense. Really good sense in fact.

All of this had to be learned slowly, because they were interrupted by food coming. Really, you couldn’t tell that anything had happened in the kitchens at all, the flow of good food was normal for the palace, which meant perfect. But with each course everyone stopped and first checked their food for poisons then took their first bite in turn. They were good at it, so it only took about a minute each time, almost like a choreographed dance or something.

The only problems that Tor could see was that the Afrak needed at least three, maybe four rivers like the falcon for what they wanted to do, and each of them would have to cover at least a thousand miles or more if it had to go around a mountain, which they almost certainly would. That and drainage on the way out.

“Sure, the desert will take most of the water, but if you don’t spread it out you might as well be making a lake or small sea there. An interesting project maybe, but not exactly what you’re going for I don’t think. Earth moving equipment will be needed to create irrigation and canals for that. We have some, but right now their designed for doing relatively small scale work on sewers and doing things like building foundations. That could be changed for this I think.” Tor took a bite of roast beef. He was only eating about a third of each course, which Mutta copied easily. Looking down the table he saw that Varley was doing about the same.

The idea was interesting, and certainly doable, making the rivers to get the water into place at least. He was careful not to mention any of that though, because he knew nothing about Afrak. Mutta seemed fun and colorful, but for all he knew she was the one nice person in her whole land. That could be why they chose to send her after all. Best foot forward and all that. He’d never heard of aggression with them, but what he didn’t know about world politics could fill volumes. Still, if he didn’t have anything else to do he could probably get it all ready for them in about two weeks. Call it a month and he wouldn’t even have to push very hard.

Sure, he’d promised Ellen Ward a wall, but that would take a few days at most. The gear for was sitting in his chests, which had been moved into a closet here. If he had to make it again for some reason it would take longer, but not that much. A day, no more than that. Of course he doubted that the palace staff really wanted to make off with his luggage particularly. Even the one filled with gold would be a silly to abscond with since he’d take exception to it. Now if they only took a few bags of gold out, especially from the bottom, he’d probably never miss them at all.

The hand pies went over well, he thought. The kitchen served them up topped with very chilled sweetened cream that was somehow light and frothy. It wasn’t quiet the fluff he’d had before though, but it was very good. The pies were still slightly warm even.

After the meal there was something a little different than the last time he’d been at something like this, in that the King and Queen “retired” to a sitting room near the back of the hall, a space that was cozy only by comparison to the outer room, which was simply huge. The chamber in back was identical in look, polished wood trim, all dark hard wood for the walls and fixtures. The floor was all polished stone, but nearly black in color. If he looked hard Tor could just see veins of different colors in the black expanse. Green, blue and red, all so dark they nearly vanished into the surrounding inky expanse.

What went on in the back room wasn’t lounging it seemed, but high level deals of various types. To his, and probably almost everyone else’s, surprise, Tor was requested to come with them. Rolph was too and Karina started to walk in as well as if expected, only to have the Queen send her off with a smile. Tor shrugged. He really didn’t care if the girl knew what went on. Then again, someone had to stay and represent the King out front while they did whatever it was they wanted to do to Tor. Skinning and eating alive came to him as one possibility, but that was just crazy thinking on his part.

No one could eat that much after a full meal like they’d just had.

He hit his shield amulet, turning it on before he entered the room. If anyone noticed, they didn’t blink at the action, but then again he really didn’t care if they did. It wasn’t that he thought anyone was going to attack him here, but he still didn’t know who’d tried before. Or… really, there wasn’t a good reason for it. He just didn’t feel like trusting anyone now. Not anymore.

The King started, his face long and a bit sad looking.

“I owe you a big apology, several in fact. I’ve been trying to think about how to make things right with you, but really, nothing has come to mind. You simply don’t seem to want anything I have… Which is humbling. Normally I could just buy a person’s good will with a title or a titular advancement, instead it seems I have to beg you not to let go of what you have already. Please don’t?” The King didn’t bow or even look particularly humble, for all his words, but then, he was a King. Even saying something like that was probably a big deal for him.

“The first time you were turned away from our door, well, that was a simple error, as I think you can see? The guard looked for a different name than was written down. With all the titles and marriages that go on in our society that kind of thing happens. No one would really think twice about it, unless they decided to go to war over the slight, of course. It’s rare, but battles have started over less. Even a few recent skirmishes. I simply ask that if you must do so, please keep this between you and me personally? I promise it was not my intent to harm you in any way, but for a mistake, no one else should suffer.” Slowly Rich rubbed his left temple as Connie gasped softly.

“Richard?” She whispered the word, barely making a sound, but the King shrugged in response.

“Alphonse is ready, if it comes to that end dear. I don’t believe it will. Torrance Baker is an honorable man, but not falsely proud or concerned over such things, I don’t think. I don’t think he’d take my life over this even if I’d had him spurned publicly on purpose.”

Tor blinked and looked at Rolph, who nodded but didn’t make eye contact with anyone, and then the Queen, who looked nervous suddenly.

“Um, what?” He spoke quickly, a little too loud for the room.

“Why would I… I don’t understand at all. It’s your home… if you don’t want me hear, then that’s your right. I’m a bit worried that I made someone mad at me, and that’s why I left the city. I just didn’t want anyone to go after Debbie or anyone else for helping me, if I angered or insulted anyone by mistake…” He faltered, it all sounded so stupid, even to his own ear. As he started to blush a bit something strange happened.

The King bowed. Not a very deep thing and not a standing gesture, but real, none the less. He held it for nearly fifteen seconds before rising up.

“Indeed. I promise that isn’t the case however. As I said, it really was a simple error the first time. The second… well, that’s the one that I have to stand ready to answer for, isn’t it? After having the children deliver the invitation like that…” He sighed and put a huge hand on his giant head. Connie reached over gently and patted his other arm, as if consoling him.

She still seemed worried, which Tor didn’t get at all. She spoke softly then, voice low, deeper than he’d heard it before.

“If that had happened to any noble it would be considered an act of war or at least something in which redress would be sought. Even as a Countier… I beg you not blame others for this, I… stand ready-”

The King looked at her suddenly and shook his head, silencing her.

“No dear. I rule here, the failure was mine alone, and the punishment for it must be mine.”

A silence came into the room then. Tor didn’t really understand it all. Oh, he got what was being said, the King was offering to face him in a fight, or maybe just let himself be killed, to prevent a war. What he didn’t get was why. Over being turned away at a gate? It wasn’t a fun thing, but it wasn’t a matter that should cause death. Especially one of a King. What did they think he was going to do? Star a letter writing campaign? Call them names?

That would just be compounding the situation, wouldn’t it?

Richard sighed and shook his head, more slowly, dark hair not moving at all.

“What happened the second time, that was all my fault.” He held up a hand to stop Tor from saying anything, so the smaller man just sat in his chair in front of the rather intimidating red thrones, a small gray thing that was about right for him, but must have felt like children’s furniture for half the nobles they had in to chat with.

“Honestly, I’d forgotten that the event had invitations at all. Even if asked, I probably would have assumed that you’d be staying here with us by then and not need one. It never occurred to me that you’d feel honor bound to stay and work in a local bakery. I… well there’s no excuse. We should have detailed a man or two to walk you in personally. That no one thought it would be needed, well…” He held his hands up.

It occurred to Tor that he was probably supposed to be angry and demanding, that they expected him to yell or make threats or something stupid like that. He just didn’t care that much anymore. Oh, it had been embarrassing, and he’d feared that he’d done something really wrong at the time, that maybe they’d come to try and kill him or worse. Maybe even hurt his family or Debbie. He didn’t know what could be worse than that, but they could probably think of something or hire experts to do it for them.

The big thing had been that he’d brought a guest and was embarrassed in front of her. She’d been kind enough about it, to his face at least, but he didn’t doubt that others had heard about the whole thing in a way that showed him in a less than favorable light, not that people’s opinion of him was that good to start with. His voice was quiet as he mentioned all that.

The Queen nodded and looked directly into his eyes.

“Yes. I’ve heard some of it myself through channels. I promise you that where it’s been found, we have all personally refuted it. What I can confirm to you however is that none of it seems to have come directly from Baronetta Coltress. You have rather a staunch defender there in fact. I had an audience with her to express our apologies and found her… charming, after her initial… coldness. She told me, to my face by the way, that if Richard and I were too blind to see how wonderful you were, we didn’t deserve to have you as a guest at all, much less a friend. That had to take a good bit of… conviction coming from a young lady of her rank and social options. Stuck in that awkward place between being too high too comfortably associate with the merchant class, and too low for almost anyone else. I believe I smoothed that over well enough for now. She showed me the collection of devices you bestowed on her. If I didn’t know you better, I’d have thought you were trying to win her over…”

Rolph, not looking at anyone in particular, softly said a single word in a perfectly flat tone.

“Don’t.”

“Ah…” Connie replied. Then Richard jumped in to change the subject.

“Well, if you’re satisfied that this whole situation is due solely to my own incompetence and not due to malice, which I swear on my name as King and by my breath and blood it was not, perhaps we can move to the next item of business? I’d truly love to not have to get down on my knees and grovel, or have my Kingdom torn apart.” The man didn’t smile about it, and looked directly at Tor.

What was he supposed to say to that?

“Um, I think you people are going a little over the top here. It was either a mistake, or someone just doesn’t like me here. Neither of those things needs groveling and no one would insist anyone be harmed over something like that, would they? Let’s call that done and be friends? If… anyone has a problem with me, please come and simply tell me though? Even if in private. I can… go away or change if it’s something I have control over…”

For some reason everyone stood then, almost as one and bowed towards him, smiling. Connie had tears in her eyes. Before he could scramble to his feet everyone sat though.

“Wonderful! Thank you Tor. There’s a lot to get through and not that much time. Which is real enough, even if I am changing the subject on a high note on purpose. People will only wait so long to be called after all. Then they start getting restless. We don’t want a reprise of the great wine glass rebellion after all. We lost over two hundred pieces of fine crystal that night. “Accidents”.”

Tor thought he knew what the next bit would be about. Her. Trice.

Instead the King asked for an update on the fires in Ross, and then what exactly he’d been doing up there. It wasn’t exactly heroic on his part, but they all seemed happy enough with what he’d managed to bring to the party. Except the part about the massive super explosive weapon.

“I’ve seen a demonstration of one of your, erm, smaller devices Tor. Why on earth would you make something that can do even more damage than that?”

“Um, well, I… don’t have an army? If I have to fight one, I’m going to need to be able to do a little more than just stand and be beaten like some kind of spineless moron with the personality of a doorstop. You know?”

“I… see.” Richard didn’t pursue it any further at least, not directly he took a deep breath and nodded to himself for a few seconds, as if thinking about something. Finally he just nodded.

“So,” The King continued after a few moments, the words drawing out at a measured pace. “Do you plan on making war on Duchy Morgan?” The tone was soft and serious.

The laughter bubbled up out of him. Really, he couldn’t help it; it got worse as he watched their faces fall, concerned looks all around until Rolph suddenly stuck his tongue out at him and laughed along. Sure, the laughter had a strained, maniacal edge to it, but that didn’t matter. It was just the very idea of a great open battle field with him standing on one side and ten thousand men standing on the other. When he caught his breath he tried to explain.

“What am I going to do? Kill thousands of people because my little feelings are hurt? That’s… not sane. I mean, even if Eric and Mercy were behind trying to poison me or… or if it was Trice herself,” The idea struck him harder than he’d thought it would, once he said the words out loud. It seemed too likely when he thought about it. But the idea hurt too much to bear.

“Well, going “to war” like you all keep saying, would be punishing innocent people for what a guilty few had done. I was really mad at first, sure, but now that I’ve had some time to think about things… no. I won’t do that.”

The Queen looked relieved, which Tor understood, it was her sister’s family after all. He swallowed before he said the next bit, but it had to be said, it had to be out in the open so that the King didn’t get caught off guard later. That, Tor knew, catching the man unawares, had to be a bad plan.

“But… Connie, if they come after me, or if they try to hurt my family… or reputation or… or anything… I won’t hurt innocent people over it, but I won’t let that stand either. I don’t think that means “going to war” as you all keep saying, but… I won’t just take it either.”

Her face fell, and went pale, but next to her on his own throne, Richard started to nod slowly.

“That’s fair and wise Tor. No one expects you to simply roll over and die on command, or to take abuse heaped and thrown. I’ll take your word not to go to war over the issue as a pledge? We’ll endeavor to make this clear to them before anything negative results.”

After that was said, Tor kind of expected the meeting to be over and for him to be sent on his way, or perhaps back to the party. What happened instead was that the King, without preamble called for some servants to come and rearrange the chairs, placing Rolph’s on the King’s right side, the heirs position, and Tor’s on the left of the Queen, which she whispered to him was the Queen’s Councilor’s position. She said it with a sad grin.

Since he’d basically just threatened to do something vaguely menacing to her sister he wondered how the woman managed to even bear having him in the same room with her, but shrugged it off mentally.

It was probably just that they were used to nobles getting in a snit and making threats like that all the time. Tor doubted that he could kill anyone even if they were trying to kill him. Even when he thought that Wensa was actively going to murder him, the closest he got was threatening her and that really only worked because as a Royal Guard she would have done it, which meant she had to figure Tor would do the same. Totally different mindsets

New chairs were brought in, nearly matching the ones he and Rolph had, wood almost stained black, with deep forest green cushions on the seats instead of gray. The backs had ornate carvings that he envied the workmanship of, now that he had a chance to really see it in front of him. Whoever had made these was an artist, not just a furniture maker. The whole room was like that, when he glanced around. Filled with art, built into the very walls.

He’d grown up in a room he shared with all his brothers that didn’t even have paint, much less art. Very different.

It struck him then that he really didn’t belong in a place like this. It was like trying to make water and oil mix, and stay that way. You could work hard, shaking and stirring frantically, and get it to kind of looked mixed for a while, but eventually the truth of how different they were came out, the oil separated and floated to the top. Of course he wasn’t the rich oil, but the plain water underneath. That was probably what had to happen he realized. It was why he couldn’t be at the fine school any more, or marry Trice, or even be loved at all. He was too plain. Too bland.

But like water, sometimes he could be useful, couldn’t he? Water, as much as anything, common as it was, made the world work.

The first person to be brought in was Ambassador Mutta who smiled when she saw him and gave a small wave. He winked back, knowing from what the strange woman had said that she was nearly as out of place here as he was and could probably use a friend about now.

Couldn’t they all?

It was interesting, watching them all dance politically, and the delicate interplay of words, that Mutta stumbled over and that nearly put Rolph to sleep. The Queen, oddly enough, handled almost all of the discussion, which alternately seemed to amuse and displease her husband. Finally, a little abruptly for the room apparently, Mutta held up her hand and smiled.

“What I really want is one of your above ground desalination systems. I know that my people can’t make one, the best we can do is a small trickle compared to what I saw on the tour last week and how it floats in the air like that… Well, what would it take to get you to part with it?”

The King smiled and flatly refused.

“It’s too valuable to us, even if it’s only needed every few years. Perhaps we could loan it to you part time?”

After about ten minutes of this Tor started shaking his head, which got the Queen’s attention.

“Tor… Something?”

“Yes, that won’t work. It’s like I said at dinner Ambassador, you need a lot more water than that, and a drainage system in place on the ground or, well I suppose an overflow system could be built to take things back to the ocean in the air, but that kind of defeats the purpose. You really want irrigation that will run constantly. The distances are too great anyway. The falcon wouldn’t even reach half way for what you need, not from what you said and if you’re going to do it right you need a much higher volume of clean water.”

The woman’s face fell.

“I see. So there’s no hope of this working for us?”

“Not that way. I’ll have to build all new field devices to get the work done; it will take a couple months. Well, that’s not really honest, I could do it faster, but I’ve got a wall to build first, and a few other small things to take care of and I don’t want to neglect my other promises. Also, you know, I don’t really have a home right now, being an itinerant wonderer wasn’t really a joke, so I need to get that together. But I think I can get the work done in two or three months baring emergencies. I…”

Across from the Queen the small, very brown, woman goggled at him, her mouth coming open a little. Then finally she smiled and nodded.

“Ah! A joke I see? You are the jester then? I haven’t been clear on that. I really expected more singing. That and bells. The description in the packet spoke of bright colors and little shoe bells. Though there was some confusion as to if that is a Tellerand thing or not.”

Laughing he shook his he’d. “Oh god no. You really don’t want me to sing. No, it’s not a joke, the thing is, I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this for you. Can I deal with a foreign power on my own? That seems a little like overreaching on my part. So you have to go through the King on that. If they,” he gestured at the royals as a group. “Say it’s all right, then I think I can get the rest done. Well, the equipment side at least. Your people will have to do the actual work and get the seeds in the ground, then tend and monitor the whole thing. I’ll really just do the easy part.”

For some reason Mutta kept acting like the whole thing was a joke, even after both the monarchs assured her that not only could he do the work he promised, but was allowed too. After a few minutes the Queen looked at the ambassador and explained again in a fairly forceful voice. A little snappish really, considering she was dealing with the Ambassador of another land.

“Mutta. I know that Afrak is run and controlled by women, but here in Noram we don’t have such artificial restrictions. Tor isn’t the court jester, as funny as he’s been tonight. He’s… a builder, a wizard. Young, but one of the greatest in our land. He makes field devices, magic we call it. The flying river you so covet? He built it. By himself, alone. In less than two weeks. While lying in a bed with a broken ankle he got saving two poor children from a collapsed well. He nearly died in that event, but he didn’t allow that to prevent him from saving a portion of this land from drought. I assure you, if he says that he can do this for you, man or not, you’d best believe it will be done.”

The Ambassador stood suddenly and bowed to the Queen. Then as an afterthought to the King. At least now that bit of interplay made sense to Tor. In her world a man just couldn’t be in charge, so she had to make herself remember to take the King seriously. Or at least pretend to. It hadn’t come in to play much with Tor, because he just wasn’t in charge of anything. Even him running off to help with the baking had probably seemed normal to her. It was the kind of non-important thing that people that weren’t leaders did, right?

As if seeing to the food wasn’t important.

Tor had gotten along perfectly well without having a King or Queen handy most of his life and had never needed a doctor at all, but he ate several times every day. People really needed to get their priorities straight. Farmers, cooks and craftsmen were at least as important as a King. Not that he’d tell the royals that. That would be stupid.

They had armies, so everyone had to pretend they were important.

After that though, the strange woman took the idea seriously, even if she did keep giving Tor funny looks. Incredulous glances that spoke of her not really believing it all. Oh, well. Maybe she’d change her mind when she saw the rivers flowing into the desert? Possibly not. Cultural expectations could be hard to change, and Tor would still be a man, no matter what he did.

Mutta didn’t have a specific price in mind, but certainly seemed willing to offer recompense for the work to be done. The King informed her that the kingdom itself would allow it without cost as a sign of good faith and peace, but that she still had to contract the work with Tor himself. The serious tone he used made Tor laugh out loud, which made everyone in the room stare at him for a second as he clapped a hand over his mouth.

“Oh, sorry. It’s just… Been a hard month. Tell you what Ambassador, good faith dealing here all around. I’ll deliver all the things I said I would, make sure it’s up and working and then you can pay me whatever you and your people think it’s worth, alright? You don’t like the work, you don’t have to pay anything. You can’t get a better deal than that, can you? You can all decide to pay with some chickens and a slap on the back if that suits you.”

At that the woman stood, smiled hugely, and bowed to the Queen again, nearly prostrating herself on the floor. Rolph had to hide a laugh himself when he saw the look on the King’s face. When the woman went back to the party, less than half an hour had passed. The King smiled then clearly relieved.

“Well, she’s not good for the ego, not mine at least, but I have to hand it to her, she didn’t stretch things out overly. I half expected us to be in negotiations for months on this one. Can you… really do the work though Tor?” For all that he’d seemed confident a few moments before, now the King looked worried.

It occurred to Tor that these people had to worry about a lot of things, didn’t they? Sure, everyone did, but the King seemed to feel responsible for everything. Kind of the job though, wasn’t it?

“Oh, well, yes. Really telling her that it would take months was kind of a lie. I explained that though… I could have it all to her in a few weeks, I just kind of wanted to have a little time to work on some other things like I said. It’s selfish of me, but there you have it. Especially since I doubt I’ll get paid for it anyway. Still, it really is worth doing. Just to help turn a dessert into something green like that. How could I not help?”

Before he could finished the thought the next group of people was ushered in. His chair wasn’t moved at all, and no one asked him to leave, so he just sat as the people bowed to the King and Queen. For the first time he could remember they all bowed to Rolph to, if not as deeply and even gave him small half bows, looking a little uncertain of his place. Apparently they were important people, because no one bothered to introduce anyone to him, or him to them. That last part made sense, because he intended to just sit and listen anyway. Perhaps they were supposed to be known on sight?

It grabbed his attention when he realized that the people on the right hand side of the row of chairs appeared to badly desire to go to war with the people on the left.

“We demand satisfaction!” The older man on the far right fumed, his face going red.

Then white.

Chapter nine

Tor, wisely, decided to keep his mouth shut. The situation was pretty serious and the angry man that wanted to be satisfied was already half way to combat rage. Stupid ultimately, but that didn’t mean that people wouldn’t end up dying over it. Possibly in that room, within the hour, if it was played wrong. Tor was glad he had his shield on, but as he felt around mentally, he noticed that no one else did. Connie and Rich weren’t wearing theirs at all.

Even if they secretly didn’t like him, they should have worn the shields. Maybe they weren’t nice enough looking? He could, probably, work something into stone or crystal that would work better for them. Rich people did that sometimes. It was harder to do, but fields on stone just lasted longer, sometimes ten times or more. He’d look into it. They were supposed to be friends after all, so if he saw a way to help them, he had to. It was a rule.

The dispute was between a Baron and a Duchess, who were supposed to have been married at one point, but the situation had fallen through when the Duchess decided that she loved someone else instead. Or possibly just thought she had a better business deal set up. Not a good thing, but it sounded like it was handled well enough at the time, go betweens used, and egos soothed enough that no one had been overly angry.

No one had spoken loudly in negative terms about the other in public for instance. No screaming drunkenly in restaurants or anything.

Over the five years since though, things had gotten strained between them, the Baron refusing right of transit across his lands for instance, which was inconvenient for the Duchess and the man she’d finally married, who turned out to be the head of the Lintel Merchant house, since they’d recently set up a new manufacturing concern to replace their lost military shield contracts. Water pumps and temperature equalizers. They needed the route for rapid shipping.

Tor blinked.

Well.

Apparently Sara had actually been busy at least. Maybe he’d been hasty in lumping her and Debri in with how Trice felt about him? The girl wasn’t the one that had said those things, even if Trice was her best friend.

Tor took a deep breath, which made the Baron snap at him. The man was so enraged that he clearly wanted an excuse to lash out.

“What you think that I shouldn’t have the right to manage my own lands?” The tone was angry and sullen and the words clearly directed directly at Tor, which made the entire royal family stiffen in response. Tor shook his head.

“It’s not that, not at all. I was just thinking about a personal matter that, well… your own situation just pointed out to me that I may have lumped someone else in to a personal matter of my own, unfairly. I guess I have to see to fixing that before I hurt people that aren’t involved in other matters.”

“What?” The Baron asked, his face showing that what Tor had just said didn’t make any sense at all.

Right. Why would he know anything about it?

Tor explained the whole thing, knowing that it made him look foolish and stupid, weak and undesirable, but not wanting the Baron to feel like he was being made fun of. When he came to the end of it he had tears in his eyes, and the room was silent, probably wondering how this half mad midget had gotten into the room. The Queen handed him a light pink handkerchief to blot his eyes with, which had to look ridiculous, but at least his nose wasn’t running from it yet.

The Baron looked at the others in the room, the woman next to him, a fairly young and pretty person that turned out to be his wife, now looked at Tor with tears in her own eyes. Was he so pitiful that even strangers felt sorry for him? It almost made him laugh, but he didn’t want the situation to be misunderstood. Laughing at the already stressed out Baron would end badly. If nothing else the giant man would probably challenge him to a duel. If he didn’t just pull a weapon and attack. The man had three of them. A knife hidden in his jacket, a force lance of indifferent quality and a cutter that had about a two foot sweep on it. Nothing he had would touch Tor, sure, but that didn’t mean an attack wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Instead of anything like that the whole room just stayed quiet for a long time.

“Fine. I’ll allow passage through my lands.” The Baron said gruffly, biting the words as he spoke, not looking at anyone at all. The King looked at the Duchess, who’d grinned suddenly, but hadn’t said anything. The gaze didn’t waiver and after a while seemed to pin the woman in place, she went still. After nearly a minute, her face frozen into blankness, she spoke.

“I apologize for trying to force my way through. It was high handed and unnecessary. Please accept my apology and promise to not do so again.” Her words didn’t have a truly sincere ring to them as far as Tor could tell and her face didn’t look like the matter was really settled either, but the King seemed satisfied with her response and had them all shown the door with a strong suggestion that they not come back to him on related issues for at least another five years.

Connie reached over and patted at his right hand lightly, forcing herself to comfort him, Tor guessed. He was fine though. Embarrassed about what he’d said, but that was all. It didn’t really matter. No woman wanted him anyway, so if they all learned what Trice thought of him, well that wouldn’t change their minds anyway. If you were an ugly little troll, that was hard to hide, right? All he could do was try to be a good person and hope that would be enough in the end.

The chairs were rearranged and only one was left in front of the group of four this time. An older woman came in, tall, like all the nobles were of course, but this one looked tired and care worn. Her clothing was of fine quality, but looked old and had some spots on it. She was quite about it, but it was pretty obvious after a few minutes that the woman didn’t live in the same reality that the rest of them did at all. Her mind was gone and seemed to have been for a long time.

The scary thing was that the woman was a sitting Countess. Unmarried and childless, she had complete control of an entire County, one of the northern ones that used to be rich, until she’d gained power some fifty years before. County Cannor. They hadn’t exactly suffered under her, but she wasn’t a good leader either from what Tor could glean. Distracted at times if nothing else.

She just seemed to want to visit though, and didn’t have a real issue at all. Not even an imaginary one, which was kind of a relief. What would they have done if she announced herself under attack by forces no one else could see or hear? The King was required to give a certain amount of aid in case of unlawful attack, and honestly, imaginary foes had no lawful reason for attack, did they? It would have been an almost impossible fight to win too. Worse, Tor had a strong feeling that if it came to it, he’d have been the one ordered into battle. Rolph too probably. The woman couldn’t argue that the heir and his best friend going to her aid was less than the King really taking notice, even if she was a little off.

He had a momentary vision of both of them dressed in armor made of wood shingles holding broad children’s play swords running around for weeks trying to slay an invisible dragon.

After half an hour the woman stood and left without saying goodbye. No one commented on it at all. The King just smiled at her back, seeming relieved and happy enough.

“Last one coming…”

Two chairs were put out and the Morgans were lead into the room, by one of the Royal Guard, an older fellow that looked to be important, if the extra bit of gold on his collar meant anything. Both wore somber clothing in dark colors. Death colors. They walked in with heads high, until they saw Tor sitting there. He tried not to look away or glare, but really, he didn’t know what to do with himself either. He felt ambushed and glanced at the Queen next to him, then over at the King and finally Rolph, who at least looked a bit shocked too. That part was nice. At least his stupid looking facial expression had his friends company.

The Prince sat up very straight and pointed at them rudely.

“What are they doing here? After what Trice did…” He looked at them angrily. “After what she said about Tor, you two are just lucky that he’s agreed not to kill you. For now. I had to beg a promise from him for that much! I’d have thought you’d be hiding away somewhere hoping you weren’t found. He may not be “noble” enough for your daughter, but you should just thank all gods that he’s not! Anyone else, and I mean anyone, would have attacked already and not given you a reprieve.”

They both sat without responding at first, finally Mercy looked at the Queen and spoke softly.

“Um. Well, this is delicate then isn’t it? We… didn’t know that Tor would be here still. We’ve tried to talk to Patricia, but she won’t answer our letters, or at least hasn’t yet. We don’t really know what’s going on, just that the wedding is off and that Tor’s demanding all the devices he gave us back? Is that right? And Alphonse is obviously upset, but… What’s going on? I’d thought we left on, if not good terms, then at least as good as possible. Did you two have a fight?” She looked at Tor with concern in her eyes.

Tor wondered if they really didn’t know or if this was just one of those complicated ruses that the nobles liked to pull off to make each other look stupid. It could be, he knew. One of the things that Trice had pointed out was that he wasn’t very bright after all.

Grimly Rolph recounted the whole event in the restaurant and how he’d had to beg Tor not to destroy half the kingdom, which was still tenuous, as Tor had a super-weapon that could do just that. Tor almost laughed about it, not because it wasn’t true, but because he literally had it on his person. Hanging on a little cord around his neck. The Morgans went white as sheets. Not, Tor noticed, at the implied threat Rolph had delivered, but before that, when they heard the words that had been spoken about him.

“Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like her… perhaps someone misconstrued or reported the words of someone else?” Mercy began. Rolph held up his right hand and stopped her.

“Heard it myself. Hard to ignore actually, since she was kind of yelling it to the whole room. It wasn’t even in private, so that dignity could be preserved. It wasn’t even during a fight, so that we could blame anger or lack of caution. Nor was she too far gone into drink for sensibility. She knew where she was, and what she was saying. The people around her even argued against her, not knowing we were there to hear them, but she persisted anyway. She wasn’t being led by her fellows into this… If Doretta had been half as vile Wylde would have killed her in the street.” The last bit came out as a low growl.

Tor wanted to leave. Why did he have to deal with these people? He hadn’t wronged them, had he? For all he knew they had him poisoned on their daughters behalf. She even said to a room of strangers that he was too nice and trusting, too easily taken in.

What did they want from him?

It took a long time for them to get to that. What they wanted, it turned out, was to not have to give the stuff back. Richard let out a huff of air that sounded half like a growl himself, matching the tone of the room perfectly.

“Really? In all this, the most important thing you can come up with to bring to our attention is that? Gold? You have gold! I thought better of you both. I’m very disappointed in you.”

They both hung their heads briefly, but Eric rallied first.

“It’s not gold, not just that… anyway, we’ve formed hundreds of contracts with people for goods shipments, most of them perishables, if we don’t do it, then a lot of people that have been waiting for our rapid transportation are going to be stuck, many of them losing a lot because they’d gambled on our ability to get things across the kingdom for them. We dealt in good faith, but now… I can see the reasoning, I even agree, but it isn’t fair to these others.”

The discussion drifted away from him directly for a bit at least. It was both an easy and hard situation.

“So let me get this straight,” Tor finally put in, anger creeping in to his voice even as he tried to hide it from everyone. It made him sound cold and mean anyway. “I either help you make a bunch of gold, or loads of people that haven’t done anything to me at all suffer because I’m being petty? On one hand I can easily fix this by just letting you go ahead, but on the other, if I do, I’m weak and spineless? I just want to make sure I have this all right. After all, it’s you two, and your own daughter, that are setting these conditions.”

What the hell was he supposed to do? He was being petty, even in his anger he could see that, but if he didn’t do it, he’d look weak. To her. Then again, should he even care what she thought about him at all? Tor knew the answer to that without even thinking. He’d though she was his friend and all the while she’d just been using him. She didn’t deserve to have any of his thoughts or concern at all. If he was too nice, or too stupid or even too ugly, well, that was just what he was.

“You know. I hate to mention this, but there’s a really good chance, given what she was saying about me and where the juice came from, that Trice was the one that poisoned me.” Tor didn’t let anyone else speak, waving them to quiet with his right hand first.

“She knows how to do it, she’s mentioned that more than once in fact. More, she could easily have gotten access to the barrel at any point in the process and stated, after the fact, that she hates me and wished I’d died. I knew that we weren’t really going to get married the whole time, I’m not that dumb. Really, I can’t see why you people keep thinking I am. Kind isn’t really the same thing, you know. But I’d thought that we were friends enough that she’d just tell me when the thing was up and we’d keep being friends after that. I don’t know why she’d want me dead, even if I disgust her. Even if she didn’t want to be my friend… It’s hard for me to believe even now, but…”

Tor’s mind made the connections rapidly then.

“God. She’s even the same height as Wensa, and knew that I didn’t wear the shield turned on all the time back then, especially after meals, when I was kicked down the stairs. I know that she has the skill physically, and she even knows when I go to dinner. Crap…” Tears stung his eyes as he spoke.

“She’s had enough access to our room to know how to get in too. The food just showed up on my bed. So whoever did it knew which bed was mine too. Not that hard to do, since Rolph’s bed is special, way nicer than mine, but still, it’s a lot of little stuff adding up…”

Everyone stared at him.

“No…” Eric said, standing up suddenly.

Next him Mercy stood as well. “It can’t be. There simply has to be another explanation. I…”

Looking confused they both stormed out quickly, as if fearing that to stay meant arrest or death. Or possibly that they’d have to face the facts, which might be even scarier for them. Had it really been her? Tor tried to line everything up, it wasn’t, he could see, proof of anything, but a lot of things fell in line really nicely. Or it did now that he knew that she’d hated him the whole time. Even that gods awful fake crying of hers. Who cries like that?

Someone trying to trick you, that’s who.

He buried his head in his hands for a few moments then sat up. Nothing had really changed for him. He didn’t know anything for sure and his absolute position in the universe was still the same as when he walked into the room. Sure… Tor felt pretty crummy, of course he did.

“Even stupid little trolls have their pride, don’t they?” He said to the room, not caring if anyone else got it at all.

Getting up slowly he went to find his trunks, Rolph walking along behind him. They were in a room just off the kitchen, which was pretty close to the first place he’d checked. The lid was up on one of them, it was clear that it had been gone through. He pointed at the state of it, it was the trunk that held all the devices, and all his normally neat stacks were scrambled. How annoying.

“If people want stuff, I really wish they’d just ask, you know? It’s not like I’ve ever refused to give someone something that they wanted. So, who do you think it was?” He re-latched the box and tapped the second float plate with his amulet, then picked the box up with a grunt. He repeated it with the second one, leaving both hanging in the air beside him. It took some pushing to guide them through the door of the small room, but he managed with some pulling and a few half hearted kicks.

“The staff? Some noble that figured out what was in there? One of your sisters?” He smiled. The idea of Varley going through his things was ridiculous. Karina might, but not the younger one. She was smart enough to just request what she wanted, or possibly just mention that having something would be nice, it wasn’t like he’d been stingy with the stuff he made or anything, was it? For that matter Karina probably got that too by now.

The large head tilted as they walked.

“Probably none of the above. My guess? The Royal Guard. Hearing you have a super-weapon they probably felt obligated to try and find it, if it was in the palace itself. If nothing else just to see to the safety of the King. Kind of their job.”

That made sense. Of course the little device was hanging on a cord around his neck at the moment, but Tor didn’t bother mentioning that. After all, shield or not, trying to use it on the ground put you too close to the blast itself. He really doubted anyone could survive that. It was a stupid weapon really. Too powerful to be used in almost any situation. From the air, pointed far away from you was about it. Maybe pointed at flying people a long ways off? Still he didn’t want to have a big fight over it.

The marble floors made only small sounds as he walked out the door to the back of the complex, towards the guest house. The lawn was huge and well tended, which probably took specialty cutters. How did you make it perfectly flat like that three inches from the ground without some kind of guide? He tapped the float plates and let the cases settle behind him.

“Right, that makes sense. Anyway, um, I don’t know when I’ll be back around here, if I ever am, so, thanks. I’ve been glad to have you as my friend.” He held out his hand to shake, but Rolph crossed his arms instead of taking it.

“You say that like you’re going someplace. Our rooms are made up in the guest house and by the way, no one here is going to take no for an answer. Varley said that if I let you go away right now she’d never speak to me again. Now, she’s just a kid, true, but I think she was serious about giving it a good try. Have you ever tried to be the heir to a kingdom if your little sister refuses to communicate with you directly? You may think my jobs easy, but… Let’s just say I’m counting on you as a friend to help me avoid that.” He managed to say all this with a straight face.

“I… just don’t want to be a bother to anyone. I can stay at an inn or something, or, I don’t know, go camp out maybe? I mean… I basically just accused Trice of poisoning me, and she’s your family.” Tor looked at the outer wall surrounding the palace, feeling hemmed in and small.

“You’re all kind of obligated to hate me now. I’m a little surprised no one launched an attack in the room when I said it. The information fits, but, gods, Rolph. I loved her, at least as a friend, but even if I’m not good enough for anyone, that doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings. I didn’t expect her to like me back, but kill me? Why? She could have just walked away and had me giving her things for years if that’s what she wanted.” Tears ran down his cheeks, Rolph took his arm and walked him forward, his right hand pointed back at the luggage without him ever looking at it, then at the guest house with a small flip of the wrist.

“I know Tor. I really don’t get it either. I mean, I’ve known her all my life, we played together as little kids. She was the first girl I kissed, quite chastely by the way, and the first person that ever kicked my butt in a fight. We were four. Hair puller. But if I hadn’t had been in the room with you and someone told me she said those things, I’d have called them a liar to their face and probably called them out. This… It isn’t like her at all. I’m not defending her, I heard it, but it’s like she isn’t the same girl now or something.” Rolph got him inside and had him sit on a low bench just inside the door.

It was just a wooden thing, nice, but its sole purpose seemed to be giving people a place to sit if they needed to take off muddy or dusty shoes. Given that he’d yet to see it rain in the Capital he wondered if anyone here even knew what mud was. Well, the people in the potters distract, they’d know, but would anyone else?

“Yeah, well, it’s magic. An effect I seem to have on women. I guess I really need to just give up on the idea of ever being loved. Maybe those people in Galasia had it right all along? I’m a troll in disguise and too stupid to know it? I guess going off to live in a cave is fitting enough, I could work there, I suppose, and get things done uninterrupted. I don’t…” The tears still fell and he felt like he was a little kid crying because mommy had left on an errand. “I don’t want to be alone forever.”

“Hey, you’re not alone, you’ve got me.” His friend smiled and patted him on the back gently.

“Thanks. I know. That’s… not what I meant.”

Rolph sighed hugely, actually blowing a breath of air out hard.

“I know. It… this won’t last forever you know. It’s not you, it’s just a string of bad luck. It could happen to anyone. Really, a lot of women here in the Capital are fond of you…”

Sure. That’s why they were all beating down his door. He didn’t even have any as friends, they just wanted to use him for some reason. Well, that’s how it felt at least. Maybe he should make it harder for them? After all, if he wasn’t getting anything out of the deal, why should they?

He asked Rolph what room he’d be staying in, which turned out to be the same one as last time. His trunks were already sitting there, even though he hadn’t seen anyone carry them past at all. He hadn’t seen anyone except for Rolph in fact. It was… eerie. Like ghosts had done it or something. Tor had never seen a ghost, but if anyplace was going to have some, it would be a place like this. Old and filled with history. It wasn’t spooky feeling at least.

Burks came and helped him get undressed, thankfully, and pulled back the pale blue covers for him, a thick light blue comforter now that the weather had begun to cool a little. It wasn’t cold by any means, but Tor wouldn’t feel the temperature anyway, not with all the amulets he wore to sleep with now. The heavy weight pressing down on him was comforting, like getting a hug. Except that the thick blanket didn’t care who he was, so he didn’t have to feel guilty about it or like it was just trying to use him for other purposes. What those purposes might be he couldn’t imagine anyway. Maybe to keep from having to be too close to the mattress? He’d have thought they’d be fast friends, but who knew?

Those things could be complicated.

Tor didn’t sleep well, but he made up for it by sleeping long. It was easily mid-morning when he climbed out of the soft cocoon he’d ended up making out of the blankets and sheets. He drank some water from the pitcher by his bed, then nearly panicked, realizing he hadn’t checked it for poison.

How the hell did people live like this? Tor didn’t know, but he didn’t want too.

His heart pounded in his chest even after he checked the water out carefully and found that it was fine. Closing his eyes he wondered if he should just leave, even if Rolph had asked him to stay personally. It would be a lot more comfortable if nothing else.

No, he had to see things through here. No matter what happened. He owed Rolph too much for having been his friend to abandon him now.

Burks entered the room, bringing in a fresh set of clothing, black silk that was loose fitting and had matching under things, also silk. There was a pair of soft sued boots in his size, dyed to match. Before he could change, the man went and began drawing him a bath. A subtle hint that he reeked? Probably. He smelled of smoke and tension if nothing else. He had to dig through the trunk to find one of the tub warming plates, most of which had disappeared “magically” in County Ross. He had a half dozen left at least. So fourteen gone? Well, hopefully people enjoyed their warm baths.

Burks had to run and get him some wire to fix it to the ceramic tub, but it worked well enough once in place. It even looked all right hanging there over the edge, the copper and green worked well with the very pale tan of the vessel itself. After a warm soak, Tor decided to get a little work done. The idea he’d had coming in to town wouldn’t take long, he knew.

Indeed he had it finished by dinner time. It wasn’t good not to eat like that, Burks told him as he roused and started making copies, wanting him to eat right then. Tor declined, trying to stay polite about the whole thing.

Dinner would be in a few hours anyway. It would be greedy to eat twice.

Rolph came for him, with Varley in tow, about half an hour before it was time to eat, just as Tor was about to try out the new device standing in the lawn. As they walked up he tapped the device and rose four inches in the air. Both of the royals stopped and gave him funny looks.

Like they weren’t used to him doing strange things?

“It’s for in town. See, this way I can zip around a lot faster than I can walk, or a carriage can go, but its way more controlled than flying, to prevent accidents. I can move around at walking speed easily and it only ever goes this high, so, it can’t really be called flying right?”

“Hmmm…” Rolph looked at him as if he were trying to break a rule, but Varley asked if she could try it with a sweet smile. Together they zoomed around the yard for a few minutes, then went in, still levitating about four inches off the smooth floor, but keeping their speeds reasonable. When Karina saw them she cried out.

“Ah! Something new!” She got the application immediately. More to the point, she really wanted to get some for her friends, to impress them. Tor nearly pointed out that a Princess worrying about impressing people seemed a little off, but held his tongue and asked how many she wanted instead. Varley winked at him behind her back. She was right of course, it was way easier to just give the girl what she desired without worrying about it. Now they just had to convince the King that it wasn’t flying. Tor thought his argument was sound, but he didn’t want to try and slip it past the King or anything. It really was way safer than flying though, and faster than walking, at least for him.

When Connie came in Varley handed her one of the devices to try out, since it really was a lot easier than flying because you didn’t have to worry about two of the directions at all, they all assured her. Plus afraid of heights or not, four inches wasn’t a big challenge. It took a while but the girls had her floating around the room laughing when Richard came in.

“And what, may I ask, is this?” He pointed at the air underneath everyone’s feet, the look he gave them kind of blank.

Tor cleared his throat, looking at the situation as a kind of moment of truth. The man either agreed with him on this one, or he’d wasted the afternoon.

“These are… Not-flyers. They don’t go any higher than this and um, aren’t flying? For getting around in town, without carriages or, um, any illegal flying type activity?” He tried his best to look confident, but guessed he failed when the King started chuckling.

“Alright, if it’s not flying, then my councilors can’t complain about me trying it, yes?”

They all floated around the room until the cook, the tall gray haired woman named Laura, walked in and ordered them to sit down and stop playing. Everyone laughed, but turned the devices off and got to eating. Connie whispered that Laura had worked at the palace since she was fifteen and had them all wrapped around her finger.

Tor could see why, after the way she pulled together the meal the night before. That was retulsive. A lot more impressive than the little toys he’d brought to dinner at least. Tor doubted that he could have pulled it off after losing half a meal like that. Not for hundreds of people on such short notice. The level of skill she’d shown was humbling.

The meal they enjoyed was a lot more relaxed, everyone seemed happier at least. Tor checked everything for poison, but no one blinked at all at that, they did it too. Given everything it wasn’t even a comment on them. He hoped that they all understood that at least. It was just that he hadn’t seen who came in contact with the food at every step. That meant he checked it. Possibly even if he had seen it the same thing would have happened. Tor didn’t want to be offensive, but he wanted to die a lot less.

Being poisoned freaking hurt.

The next day Rolph came and got him early, about eight in the morning. Tor had kind of planned to try another build, but the Prince had other ideas.

“I was thinking, um, if you’re willing, Sara came into town, and wants to meet with you. At Debri house today? I was thinking we could try out the Not-flyers, since dad’s all right with them. That surprised me, but apparently he just doesn’t want little kids being crippled by drunken morons. So we have license on these. If you’re not going to bankrupt Debri, you might want to let them in on the secret. Kind of cruel to let them drain everything to pay you, just because you forgot to fix what you set in motion then changed your mind about.”

That seemed reasonable, even though he didn’t really want to see Sara. She might have been innocent, or she might have been in on it all from the start. How was he supposed to know? Either way what she said would be about the same. That there was a rational reason for everything she’d done. Then he’d have to point out that her thinking he was a moron and trying to rob him was a reason too. It would just go around in circles unless he could trust her, which, honestly, he didn’t really.

Not right now.

Yes, he’d heard what she said at the restaurant and really, it hadn’t seemed bad or inconsistent with who she claimed to be, but that didn’t mean that she liked him or wanted to do anything but use him.

Still, he could let them know that they had a little more time, and maybe figure out where the golds were at the moment. He didn’t doubt that they could hide it all from him, but hey, at least he could try to not look like a complete push over. Even if he was.

Going by Not-flying was way faster than the oppressive carriages and while people stared at them no guards tried to tackle or even arrest them. That could have been because he was with the Prince. People seemed to actually know who he was in the Capital.

Then again, maybe they all just agreed that being that close to the ground just meant it wasn’t flying too? They moving along at twenty odd miles per hour probably didn’t hurt either. A person could catch them, if they were fast, but it would have taken work. Of course the top speed was actually nearly double that, but that was more dangerous to other people, so they went slow. The controls were similar to the flyers, but on the right hand like the original ones, since they weren’t meant for military use at all. Just getting around in the city. He’d done it that way as kind of a sign that they were a peaceful thing, but didn’t know if anyone else would be able to get that. It was a little abstract maybe.

Rolph looked odd, zipping along in his green silk shirt and black trousers, his legs not moving at all as they traveled. Less odd than he likely did, dressed in another all silk outfit, this one a powder blue that would have looked good on Trice. The color would go with her eyes, not matching them, but giving her a little bit of a softer look than the blacks she normally wore did. He found himself wondering if she’d like the Not-flyers… until he remembered. A sudden flash of rage and sadness moved through him then. It hurt. Like a physical pain coming from a place that didn’t exist within him properly.

He tried to shake it, putting his mind on the world around him instead. It really did make it easier after a few minutes. Tor even found that he could breathe again after a bit.

Debri house looked the same as the last time that he’d seen it, so they hadn’t been spending all the coin from the sales on renovations at least. Not on the outside of the house at any rate. Not that it mattered. Right now he just couldn’t bring himself to care about gold at all, and more than anything he wanted to turn around and leave, rather than face another uncomfortable situation. But he had to.

He couldn’t avoid this forever and they didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t like they were working with Trice to get him or something and short of that, well, wealth wasn’t that important really, was it? Tor tapped the amulet under his shirt, the one with a stylized sandal on it, to signify walking.

Well, it wasn’t walking either, but Tor thought it fit the “Not-flying” theme.

He stood back and let Rolph ring the bell, since for him to do it would have required him to stretch up on tippy-toe to grab the little pull chain or maybe jump a little. Rolph, taller now than he used to be, barely had to reach out straight. The implication being that if you weren’t tall enough to reach it, you better not? The idea that it may have been put up like that on purpose had never occurred to him before, and left him feeling a little cold. Was it a subtle way of telling him that he wasn’t important enough to work with at all? Or good enough?

The door opened quickly. A man just over six foot tall, about fifty years old and nearly as thin as Tor was after all his weight loss, asked them to come in, with a deep bow. Short or not, looking like a child or not, Tor got one too. Heather Debri stood in the hallway, Sara next to her, with a tall blond guy, Sara’s brother Kris, to the older woman’s right.

“Welcome Prince Alphonse, Master Builder Torrence Baker. Please, won’t you come in and have a seat? Perhaps refreshments?” Heather gestured towards the room to the right with a sweeping motion that was choppier than Tor remembered her being. He wondered if, in that room, they’d find assassins waiting or at least a tray of poisoned muffins. He walked in slowly and stopped in shock.

Two for two?

On the table was indeed a tray of muffins, poppy seed by the look of them. They smelled cold, so they were probably either made earlier or bought from a bakery. Warm product always filled a room with stronger scents. Sitting at the table behind them, in a slinky black dress that wouldn’t have been warm enough anymore up north at his old school, sat Trice.

Holding up one finger, Tor forestalled speech, then fished inside his shirt for the incredibly dangerous explosive device that was masquerading as a poison detector. He held it carefully and put his thumb on the activation sigil. It didn’t go off, because that would only happen if he intended it to. He smiled and then laughed slightly, a little bitterly.

“Right, so… if I trigger this device in here, shields or not, we all die. Well, probably. Anyone I point it at will certainly die instantly. Given that we’re inside the city, and this will probably take out half of it or more. I don’t think that any of us except Rolph would survive long, even if we lived through it, you know what I mean? The Royal Guard would probably kill anyone here just for being too close to it at the wrong time.” Tor gestured for the Debri family to move in front of him and put Rolph at his back. It wasn’t much protection for his friend, but it was all he could think of on short notice.

“I don’t know what your plan was today, but I don’t think it’s going to work very well. We’d come to tell you that you had more time, based on the idea that you weren’t really trying to rip me off and that it was all just a misunderstanding based on my incorrect hard feelings, and that you weren’t working with my enemies against me, but this… I think not. You have four hours to have every template I’ve made for you at the palace. I don’t care where they are. If they don’t show up, then I’m going to come looking for them.”

Laughing a bit harder, an unhappy forced sound he held up his left hand palm out towards Heather. “Yes, you’ve heard that I’m not a killer, maybe even that I’m weak and stupid enough to fall for anything. Possibly so, but know this, I may have been too dumb to require payment up front from people I thought of as friends, but for enemies the rules are a lot different. Four hours or I start finding every Debri property in the kingdom and destroying it. If you don’t think I can do it… Well, then you haven’t been paying attention at all, have you?” Tor looked around the room, trying to keep his face as still as possible.

“I’m starting here, so, you know, if you have anything you want to keep, you might want to hurry, or at least move things out in that time.”

He started to back out of the room, but Rolph blocked him slightly. He kept moving until his large friend got the idea. It looked clumsy as all get out, but it worked well enough. Tor wasn’t about to let two special school students have his back, even with a shield on. Just as he got to the door of the room, Trice called out.

“Tor… It… what I said, it wasn’t what you think! I didn’t mean it, I was just trying to make people think that I thought that, so that maybe whoever poisoned you would try to use me to kill you and we could catch them.”

Oh. Well. That made sense.

“Ah, I see! So you’d kill me, and then blame them for it? That’s… actually pretty clever. Or…” He tilted his head at her as if inviting comment.

“No! Just catch them, with you alive and well. I love you… I thought you knew that.” Her voice became soft, agonizingly alluring.

Too much so. If she’d just said the words, or sounded sad at the end, it might have had some effect on him, as it was he affected his own soft look.

“Oh? I… well, that makes everything different of course. How could I have been so silly and not realized that you were only playing make believe, saying those things to help me… Of course. It all makes sense now. You were just trying to get attention for your plan, to help me out and… probably help clear your parents as well? That’s understandable. Even sensible. I never thought they’d poisoned me anyway you know, no benefit in it. You just committed to your plan totally, because anything less would leave holes that the bad guys could see?” Tor tried to make himself sound like he actually believed the story. It was a credible job, particularly if she really thought he was as moronic as she’d said.

“Yes. Let’s put the past behind us and run off together to get married right now, we’ll do it today, so that no one can gainsay our love!” He nearly giggled when he said it. It sounded like something out of a bad romantic tale.

It was about that time that her eyes, looking a little hopefully into his own dropped down to notice that the explosive was pointed directly at her still.

“Um, Tor?” Moving just one finger she indicated the weapon with a weak smile.

“Oh that? Don’t worry about that. That’s just there because I may have to take out the side of the house here. You see, the problem with saying things like, “I could probably sleep with both of you in front of him and he’d still go on with the marriage because the ugly little troll can’t do any better and he’s so stupid.” Is that even dumb people stop trusting you. Makes it harder to fool them again I imagine. You might want to work on that one in the future. You know, with the next guy you jerk around like this.”

Rolph took another step back into the hall so Tor called out as he walked backwards carefully.

“Heather, I don’t want to be a dick about all of this, so that four hours will start from the time we leave, not when I first said it, so that’s what, an extra four minutes? I really also suggest that I don’t see any of you around for a while. I’ve not been in the best of moods lately and the facts add up to Trice here as being the likely culprit behind all the attempts on my life just a little too well right now for comfort. Really Trice, you could have just told me you didn’t like me you know. I wasn’t going to make you marry me or anything and I really tried to be a good friend to you.” He looked over at Sara. “Both of you. Why you couldn’t see that as more valuable than making me into an enemy I don’t know. Troll or not, I have feelings too, right? Heh, probably shouldn’t have said that, now you’ll go around claiming that I’m a troll for real. People would probably even buy it, in Galasia.”

He hit the Not-flyer amulet and floated down the hall backwards, the weapon in his left hand. It wasn’t like he had to be accurate with it or anything. If he triggered it they were all dead anyway. Rolph go the door for him and they both took off towards the palace.

Tor noticed that he was hyperventilating, his breathing shallow and rapid, his heart pounding and the explosive still being pointed as he traveled. He slipped the cord back over his head and tucked it away. Focusing for a few minutes he got himself under control and calmed down.

Rolph looked at him sideways as they traveled along, “You know Tor, you really have to stop doing that.”

“Um, which thing, or set of things, that I should stop, are you talking about?”

The Prince snorted and looked forward again.

“Let me count… First, standing in front of people outwardly calm when you’re clearly going into a combat rage. Do you have any idea how freaky it is to hear someone say “I may destroy half the city doing it” when they claim to be holding a super explosive weapon and are casting out a combat aura like that? I thought poor Kris was going to drop right there. I think the girls and Heather had shields on, but I was seeing spots even through mine.”

They continued on for a while without saying anything. He’d been showing signs of combat rage? Really? He’d certainly been worked up, but who wouldn’t be. The fact that he hadn’t hurt anyone and didn’t blast apart a big chunk of the Capital spoke against the idea, but then again, he’d certainly felt ready to die back there. Well, all he could do with that would be to keep trying to make sure he kept himself calm and in check.

“What if they’d attacked and called your bluff? Checking them for poison wouldn’t have really impressed them, I don’t think.”

“Bluff? Um, Rolph… Not to pretend to be all tough or anything, but… I never bluff. Probably not smart enough for it. I was holding exactly what I claimed I was.”

“Then,” The voice came out as a growl. “May I put forth that you need to find a more subtle weapon with which to threaten people in the future? Maybe fire raining down from the sky or the Earth opening to swallow them whole?”

It… was a good point. He had a force lance, but it wasn’t really good for more than knocking people out. On the good side it worked through most shields, on the bad side, Trice had one of the ones it didn’t work through. Tor had wanted to make sure she was protected so updated her almost instantly. Sara and Rolph had them too. Could he do something about that? The idea was… Well not impossible really. The fields wouldn’t be taken out of the metal easily at all. Really, the only sure way of removing one was to either lock the piece up and wait until the field failed, or melt the metal down. Even cutting it up might just make several copies of a field. It wasn’t that reliable, so it wasn’t generally done for duplication, but it could work, if a person was willing to risk losing the whole field.

But could they be suppressed? Maybe. He didn’t have a clue how. Why would he? In his whole life he’d never heard of anyone even wanting to shut a field off at a distance before.

What he could do was make a combination field that would be part force lance, part explosive field and part shield, so that the forces would be contained to one direction only. If he made it strong enough, it should suffice. He could limit the range, to say, a hundred feet? That way he’d be less likely to take out whole cities as he destroyed individual buildings or, and he really hoped it didn’t come to that, people. If it did though, better he get one person than a thousand, right?

Not that he’d have time to worry about that for a while. Debri would give back the templates, then they could work out how they were planning on giving over what money they owed for sales already made. Then they could call it even and he’d never have to see any of them again. It wasn’t ideal maybe, and he hated going back on a business deal, but they’d betrayed him. What was he supposed to do? Besides, the templates were his property, so he had a right to them, didn’t he? If they refused to pay him and wouldn’t give them back, that was just theft.

Inside the guest house Rolph suggested that he get a snack or something, some fruit or bread to take the edge off and then left to the palace. He didn’t say what it was that he had planned, but Tor figured it was something around the idea of reporting what had happened. It felt a little like he’d gone to tattle on him really, but it probably had to be done. After all, Tor fully intended on taking down the biggest merchant and manufacturing house in the Noram kingdom. Richard and Connie were probably going to have a problem with that. If nothing else it would affect the gear that the military was going to get. He wondered how many units that was supposed to be anyway. No one ever told him that kind of thing.

Sure enough, about twenty minutes later Connie, Rich and Smythe of Westend the military councilor came dashing into the guest house, well, it was more of a quick walk than a real dash, just on the edge of undignified, but not totally frantic. Rolph, he noticed, hadn’t come with them. Hopefully off doing something useful. Then again, since Sara was basically his girlfriend, he was probably trying to figure out a way to keep Tor from taking back all his stuff. He could see that, but Sara and her people had obviously decided they were on Trice’s side in all this. That kind of cut ties already, didn’t it? It wasn’t just him being unreasonable.

Was it?

“I’d feel worse about getting the templates back from Debri, you know, but they were a merchant house long before any of them met me and probably will be long after I’m dead and gone and it sounds like they’ve already made a lot of money without ever paying me a penny. Well, unless they don’t come up with my property, then things are going to get… interesting. But, they’ve decided to side with my enemies, so what else can be done? Say, anyone have a list of Debri locations for the kingdom? I mean I can just go town to town looking for them, but knowing where to go will really speed things up, don’t you think? I just want the templates back, I don’t need to trash every location they have to do it.” That was more reasonable than they deserved, but he could live with it.

The King held up his hands, a placating gesture. “Really Tor, won’t you reconsider? We’ve kind of set the military on a specific course for now, based on your shields and to a lesser extent the flying rigs. If you pull them from Debri now, it will set back manufacturing by months, maybe as much as four months or more. I’d take it as a personal favor.”

Taking a deep breath Tor tried to explain his thoughts on the matter. If they pulled the fields now, they could reestablish a more reliable contract with someone else inside four months, or they could wait for these people to kill him, or whatever their plan had been that day, and then nothing else would be forthcoming from him ever.

A lot of people could make copies from his templates, sure. They were designed to be easy to copy. A few people could even probably make new templates based on the originals given time. All they needed was someone that could make templates and copy fields. Most of the instructors at the school could do it, probably. Master Fines could for certain, Tor was sure. The man was good. But if they wanted his original work, that took having him around, didn’t it?

Smythe didn’t look convinced.

“Your majesties, I must submit that allowing a young man, no matter how accomplished, to run around with a weapon capable of destroying cities is… past ludicrous. Even insane doesn’t quite work here. He’s going to end up turning a single failed romance into the death of thousands or more if we aren’t careful. Worse, someone has already tried to kill him several times, of course he’ll react if it happens again. It’s only natural to respond when attacked. Put that together, and try to remember what you were like at that age sire. I don’t blame Tor but… How many would be dead right now if you’d wielded that kind of power at his age? Or if I had? I dare say the population of the world would be a good bit smaller right now.”

The guy was a pompous ass, Tor decided. He’d seemed nice enough the first time they’d met, but now he was talking about him like he wasn’t even in the room. Jerk. Then again, he’d made some valid points. Was he too emotionally unstable to wield a weapon like the one he had?

Yes.

He’d almost killed god knows how many people not two hours before, just because a girl that had said he was stupid and ugly was in the room with him. Then he’d started planning out weapons that almost had to be used to kill people if they were made, just because his feelings were hurt. Was that the person he’d pick to be in charge of a super weapon? Not a chance. He didn’t want to die, but it was a lot better that he got killed than thousands of others because he couldn’t find true love.

“First, Smythe, from now on, if you’re talking about me, and I’m in the room, please make an effort to include me in the conversation, all right? It’s a little rude otherwise and while you may feel like a high and mighty head of the military, you’re still also just a person like everyone else, no matter how lowly we are.” He reached in his shirt and sorted through the cluster of amulets there, all on plain brown hemp string. After fumbling for a few seconds Tor found the explosive weapon and pulled it off.

“Second, even though you’re being more than a little rude, you’re also right, more or less, so here. You keep it. It will probably last less than a year and it’s not a template, so if you want a copy you’ll have to get someone pretty good to do the work for you. Really, no call for it. I made it in a snit when my feelings were hurt and… you’re correct, I shouldn’t be the one in control of something like that right now. Um, I recommend you don’t try and use it on anything closer than a mile away for safety, and flying at the time would be a good idea unless you’re aiming at a mountain or something. Use it in here and I’m pretty sure the palace will be gone along with most of the city, so, do be careful.”

The man let out a gust of air and so did the King, Connie just smiled and gave him a little bow. What had they thought he was going to do, blow them all up? He chuckled, realizing that’s probably what they actually had been thinking. Silly. He’d have blown himself up too and he hadn’t even finished ruining Debri for the day or anything. He told them that, a little curtly.

The King shook his head slowly. “Still on that one then? Can’t reconsider at all? It may simply be that they know something you don’t, might it not? I know you to be a pretty reasonable person Tor, as the last minutes have no doubt shown us all. Maybe you should take a step back and investigate the matter first? We can tell Debri that I’ve, temporarily, asked you to do that, in order to save face, if you feel the need? You can always destroy them later after all.”

Tor shook his head and tried not to frown at the King. Obviously the man was right. It was moronic to go after Debri House over this. Who would do something like that? He was still just so angry about it all though. It wasn’t fair.

“I’ve swallowed bitterness time and time again in this and at each turn I’m met with another twist of the knife or drink of poison. Maybe it’s time someone else took the cup for a while? I don’t think I’ve actually earned any of this yet, not most of it at least. I didn’t do anything to Trice, I made no demands, and held no real expectations, but she dumped all over me behind my back, in public. I saw it once, but how many times had it happened before and after that? Ten? A hundred? Here at the palace you guys wouldn’t even let me in, even though it meant I had to wonder the city and get a job to put a roof over my head instead, which I probably wouldn’t have had to do if Sara Debri and her family hadn’t been withholding the gold that they owed me for some reason I’ve yet to really understand. I mean, I’m bad with money? How am I supposed to get good with it if I never have any? Sure, everyone claims to have a good reason, but none of them are verifiable at all. Has anyone else noticed that yet?”

He gestured at the three before him.

“Me being turned away at the gate… twice in a row. Paperwork mix ups? Seriously? Twice? It’s really hard to believe, and I only have your word for it. I mean, you’re the freaking King! If you tell the gate guard to lie about something like that, he will and probably claim it until his death, maybe even under torture. That doesn’t mean you did lie, I get that,” Tor paced a little, making everyone follow him with their eyes.

“But, think about it, everything is like that. Trice is claiming now that she had some plan to undermine me and tell everyone how awful I was to draw out the people that want to hurt me, but… notice, she didn’t come to me first with that plan, only nearly a week later, after she had a lot of time to think about it and make excuses. Like you had. Debri… They’ve had months. No, I have to make them see that they can’t push me around. Trice at least taught me that. It’s even fair really, they haven’t been paying me and withheld money on purpose already, no one does business with people like that, do they? If that makes thing hard for others for a little while, well, I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to make sure things get up and running as fast as possible, even if I have to do the work myself full time until things are going as far as the new manufacturing, but…”

Smythe turned towards him, having slipped on cream colored gloves that had bits of metal all over the palms, in an almost elegant fashion. It was kind of pretty, in a strange way.

“I’m afraid that’s not good enough.” The man said, stepping forward with a blank stare on his face. “Not good enough at all.”

Chapter ten

Smythe’s plan, once Tor figured it out, was actually pretty clever. The gloves he’d just put on passed something through the shield he wore that made his skin burn where the hands were directed. He had to squirm away from the pain. It would have been all right, except for the other eight men, all clad in black, dull colored clothes that looked like heavy canvas, kind of like what the special students at the school wore for some of their exercises. They just stepped out of panels in the walls of all things. Not all of them had the pain gloves, but two did. It was enough to leave him trapped in a triangle of agony. They could hurt him, or rather, make him burn, but they didn’t have a way through the shield itself physically. Small favor, since those gloves really hurt.

He fought for a moment as the men tried to grab him, wondering what other tricks they’d have, perhaps something to steal the air from around him? He could get a little air from about three feet away, but if they used even one of his own air chokes, he’d be stuck.

Apparently someone had been taking notes, because three of the men had them and the other three had lances he’d built the template for that would have gone through his shield if he hadn’t already upgraded. He managed to get in one good breath before the air went away, burning skin stealing oxygen from his system much faster than normal. He had to get air, and fast too. The poisoning had really lowered how long he could hold his breath, by about half he figured, and it hadn’t been that great a talent before. If he had half a minute before he started to black out, it would be a surprise. Not really knowing what would happen, he triggered the Not-flyer and rose above the ground a bit. Being busy attacking him, no one really seemed to notice Tor getting taller until he jammed his right hand forward and smashed into the three men blocking the hallway in front of him at about forty miles per hour. At least they were in the choke field with him.

Horrible plan though. You don’t really ever think about how much fun breathing is, until you can’t.

Nifty thing about the way he’d constructed the shield he wore, if he touched the ground any force hitting him would go directly into the earth. If he flew or in this case floated a little, any form of impact did its level best to go right back into what ever hit him. Now if he was hovering in place that didn’t really do much. It just meant that he didn’t get knocked around a lot. But, if he was moving fast and hit something that wasn’t, that changed the equation. In this case the men that tried to bar his way flew to the side except the one directly in front of him, who flew straight back until Tor hit him a second time, hard, spinning the black clothed stranger halfway around.

The move got him out of the range of all the effective weapons and while the lances should have worked at the distance he was at, they didn’t go through his shield at all.

Yay, forethought.

Near the end of the hallway, a good two hundred feet away from the original point of attack, Tor spun and dropped the field that kept him up in the air. He had to in order to use his right hand to dig into his inner pants pocket for his own remaining weapons. He felt a little silly for giving Smythe, who’d turned out to be his enemy and an evil man, the explosive weapon like that.

Not because he thought the man would try to use it. If he did that they just all died.

No, it was just that someone that would attack another person in the middle of a fairly civil discussion like that, especially since it was obviously a premeditated assault, wasn’t exactly stable either. Well, nothing for it now. After all, going back that way meant pain and burning again. He got his own force lance out, probably the same type these men carried, from the way they were trying to use it, spraying it back and forth, throwing objects at him in the stream generated.

He returned fire.

Connie and Richard had run away, or possible had been pulled to safety. Either was possible. What they were thinking ordering a needless attack like this he didn’t know. As the men closed with him, weapons raised, ready to fire, if not doing so already. Tor sprayed the whole hallway from left to right. It knocked people down pretty rapidly. They seemed to be wearing shields, but either they weren’t very new ones, or if they were, the shields weren’t made by him. Good. It made the next bit easier.

When he had as many of them as possible taken down, four of the nine seemed about what he could manage at once spread out as they were, because they stood up too fast for more, he rushed them full speed, using the new field to hover just over the floor. Way faster than he could run. Bodies flew again as he hit. At the door he found Counselor Smythe standing in the way, hands raised, burning pain coming off of them, so he hit the man with the direct beam of the lance, knocking him out the door.

The stumbling and flailing of the large older man would have been either sad or funny, depending on the situation, if it wasn’t so dire in the moment. The man had set the military on him. Commando’s it seemed. Who the hell did that? He was a seventeen year old kid for god’s sake. Tor wasn’t even particularly dangerous. What was he going to do, run away at them?

The thought made him laugh out loud, since that was pretty much what he’d actually done.

“Run away!” He called out, as if it were his battle cry.

Even after knocking them down he heard their foot falls behind him, closing fast. Tor pinned the man’s head to the ground with the force lance as he closed with him. It couldn’t have been comfortable at all. Smythe had tucked the explosive device into his left front pocket, which would probably be impossible to get to, depending on the type of shield he had on, he knew. When Tor moved slowly though, his right hand passed. It felt like reaching through thickened mud.

Finally, just as the first of the military men got to him with their pain devices and air chokes, he got it and pulled it slowly from the field. Yes, he couldn’t breathe and was in pain the whole time, the air thick and hard to move through… that didn’t matter though. All that did was making sure a madman didn’t have his super-weapon.

The big difference now, other than that he was armed with a weapon they couldn’t match again, was that he was outside. Rules against it or not, if you tried to kill him, he was going to try and run away, even if that meant flying.

Run away!

The motto came back again clearly. Kolb really knew his business Tor decided, having drilled that into him so forcefully for years. Trying to fight the army meant eventual death, but this… He started to fly straight up when he heard the yelling. The relief from pain was almost instant as he rose, like cool water caressing his tender flesh. Air sucked into his lungs hard, making him cough due to the force of it. That hurt too, but it felt better having the air than not.

“Stand down!”

He couldn’t see who was yelling it at first, but after a few seconds twenty black and purple clad Royal Guards rushed the courtyard pointing weapons. At first he thought they were trying for him, so he rose to a few hundred feet, ready to bolt. Instead they pointed them at Smythe and his men, who dropped their own weapons in an orderly fashion. Tor didn’t go anywhere, but also didn’t let himself be lulled into a sense of security.

It would have been a very convoluted trick to try and pull, using the Royal Guard to make him feel safe from the military, then everyone attacking him, but the royals did things like that. It was like they couldn’t enjoy a victory if it didn’t have six layers of intrigue or difficulty built in.

Finally Richard and Connie came back out, and so did Rolph. They didn’t yell up at him or anything, but they all looked, and finally Rolph waved to him. Tor lowered to about twenty feet so they could all talk, hoping it really wasn’t just another trick.

“Hey, so, guys… What the hell? One minute were having a nice, if slightly heated conversation about how to handle some shady merchants, the next, military guys come out of the walls? What kind of a set up is that? Or do you want me to believe they just live in the walls and pop out on command? If they were Royal Guards I might have bought that excuse, but military commandos living at the palace full time? I think not.” Tor shook his head broadly so everyone could see it.

Smythe stood on the ground, unarmed, or at least without his interesting gloves, looking angry. Well, he wasn’t alone in that, was he? Tor landed, holding the explosive device in his right hand. The man didn’t cringe away, but did speak as if he wasn’t right there again.

“I told you that he was unstable sire! Look at him, holding us all hostage. Ready to kill us if we don’t accede to his demands! We should have killed him when we had a chance. Now who knows what he’ll do?” The man looked smug instead of scared, which frightened the hell out of Tor. He shook after all that and felt a pressing need to use a restroom, but this man looked angry, and then smug, about something? When technically Tor had just won the little skirmish, at least if it was judged by the criterion of his not dying.

“In general people that try to assassinate other people without good cause, and fail, don’t act like the cat that had all the cream Smythe. Do you think that you’re winning anyone over by claiming that the guy that handed you a weapon as a good will gesture not three minutes before you launched an attack is the unstable one?”

He obviously did because he smiled then.

“Oh, I think I’ve proven my point well enough.”

Tor shrugged. Maybe he had at that.

“Well, if your point is that you’re off your rocker and a dick-head, I think you’re doing just fine. Did you have some other point? Because notice, I didn’t set you up with an appointment with a death squad when everyone else was having a conversation about what to do. God, haven’t you ever heard of venting? Didn’t you think that Rich was going to come pat me on the back and tell me to stop being an a-hole and that Connie was going to give me a hug and I’d back down with some minor face saving gesture from Debri house? Haven’t you noticed, in all of this, that, no matter how hurt I’ve felt, how injured I’ve been, I’ve never, ever, seriously injured, much less killed anyone? What — the fuck — is wrong with you?”

Tor put the dangerous device back around his neck for safe keeping, then crossed his arms and glared at the military counselor. He wanted to tap his foot at the guy, but figured that would be a little too farm wife to be taken seriously just now. After a minute of silence Tor looked at the King.

Hands going out, palms to the sky Tor gave the man a puzzled look. “Did he at least ask your advice before doing this? Cause if you told him to kill me, that kind of puts an end to our friendship. It’s a hard and fast rule of mine. I just made it up right this moment, but you know, it really makes sense don’t you think?”

“He didn’t let me in on it at all. I wouldn’t have authorized it if he had let me in on it either. I’m not very pleased right now Smythe. Consider yourself under arrest and confined to your rooms until the council hears this. What happens then will depend a lot on what your exact orders were to these men.”

So, Tor wondered out loud, had Smythe been the one really behind trying to have him killed then? Or maybe this council if they were responsible for the man? No one seemed to know. It was really a grand situation. Tor shrugged.

“So, I kind of need to get out of town now I guess, and not tell anyone where I’m going either. I can’t keep fighting the whole military by myself, not forever. You saw how well these guys did and there were only eight of them. They even used my own weapons against me! The ones I gave you for safe keeping Rich. Not to attack me with. That’s not a small point either. Kind of ticks me off to be honest. I can’t be safe anywhere can I?” He tried not to pout about it, but the idea hit him hard. What little sense of security he’d had was gone now. Tor couldn’t even go home, because Two Bends was even less ready to fight off an attack than this place was. At least here the army, presumably at least, wouldn’t attack innocent people to try and get to him.

That… would have worked.

If they’d grabbed the King and Queen or… Or even some serving girl or man that he didn’t know, maybe Burks or Laura the cook… He would have had to give up to protect them, even if he knew the bad guys were going to kill him. Thank god they hadn’t thought of that yet. He needed to get clear, fast.

Richard walked over and patted the shield behind his shoulders, nothing connected of course, but the gesture was right. “Don’t be silly Tor. I can assure you that this won’t happen again, and at the very least any new threat will be novel.” He smiled and nodded to his wife. “Connie will see to your safety from now on, at least while you’re here. That way if anyone dares try to attack you, we can simply execute them out of hand. It’s one of the Queen’s rights you know, the writ of full protection. Even I can’t breach it. It’s actually the only law that I can legally be put to death for breaking. I’ll have it announced now, if you wish dear?”

“Do it.” The Queen’s voice was steely and hard. She glared at Smythe as she said it and the man actually winced. It sounded like a bigger deal than Tor would have thought.

A vision filled his mind for a moment, of him being ambushed by more black garbed military men and the Queen suddenly jumping out and doing battle with them. It involved a lot of swirling of skirts and hair pulling. Possibly some biting. Not that the woman wouldn’t know how to protect herself for real, she was probably better trained than he was, it was just funnier the way he thought of it.

Smythe certainly didn’t like the idea at all, so maybe she was more dangerous than Tor thought?

“Your majesty! I assure you such extreme measures aren’t needed…” The older man said, his cream and yellow colored robes drifting slightly in the breeze.

Connie glared again, but it was the King that spoke.

“Obviously they are. In my entire reign, no one at this palace has been attacked while a guest here. Not in my name at any rate. Now my own staff is taking it on themselves to decide who should be assassinated? I think not. Guards, please escort the counselor back to his rooms and ensure that he stays there pending the decision of the council.”

Tor just stood, not really knowing what was happening. Queen’s protection? So was he being adopted as a pet or something? He had to ask out loud, because he kept coming up blank on this. It had never, at least to his recollection, been covered in the little schoolhouse in Two Bends. Everyone gave him a look that he interpreted as “silly bumpkin” but that didn’t tell him what he needed to know.

“So what is it? This Queen’s protection. Don’t I get to know before I accept it? Because if it means I have to become a eunuch or something I think I’d rather just go hide out in the woods.” After all, just because women didn’t like him, that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have sex ever, did it? There were professionals for that kind of thing, and really, it wasn’t like he was disfigured or diseased so if he had the money, they might not say no. The ones in the Capital had seemed willing enough and were even nice to him when he told them he didn’t have the money at the time. That they worked for gold was, well what made them professionals, right? Everyone worked for coin. He wasn’t that awful… was he? The idea left him feeling a bit dirty, an artifact of his early upbringing, but it was something to cling to at least.

Rolph ducked his head and turned away. After a few seconds of shaking shoulders Tor got that the big guy was laughing at him, but no one else spoke. What he needed right now was… Varley. She’d tell him what this was. Eye narrowing he asked where the girl was, so that he could get some answers. Rolph finally got his laughter, if not his face, under control enough to explain.

“Tor, it’s not that big of a thing, just, well historically speaking the Queen’s protection has only been used to protect the Queen’s lovers from a jealous husband. So if they announce this it will basically be taken as everyone admitting that you and mom are, you know, together.”

Ah. Tor frowned. Well he wouldn’t let her do it, would he? Let them do it. He had too much respect for them both, for all of them, to let that happen. Even if they didn’t like him at all. Connie’s name couldn’t be linked to someone like him, he told them, his voice going soft. Then he went inside the guest house to get his luggage. Running off and hiding would be way easier with some gold on hand, plus he had his working supplies and some things he promised to do, like those rivers for Afrak and building a wall for Ellen Ward.

When he walked out everyone else had gone into the palace, so at least there wouldn’t be a scene. He took it as a sign that everyone kind of approved of his plan. Well, at least they weren’t going to insist on his ruining Connie’s good name. Better he die alone and forgotten than that, right?

The only real problem was that it was starting to get dark and he didn’t have anywhere planned to stay yet. Really, even though there were supposed to be some good inns around the Capital, he had no clue where they were at all, or even what such a thing might look like from the outside. He’d never stayed at such a place, even while traveling to school.

Debbie might have been willing to put him up in the little back room for the night, but tracking trouble to her door would be poor repayment for her previous kindness. Maybe he could camp outside the city for the night and then figure things out in the morning? He used the Not-flyer to get to the main gate, but the guards wouldn’t let him out. They claimed he wasn’t a prisoner, just that he hadn’t been given permission to leave.

Right. Permission? To leave? He needed permission to leave now? Who needed permission to leave? Oh, right. Prisoners.

This whole situation was just getting ridiculous. It took Tor about thirty seconds to set everything up, moving slowly, pretending to just check the luggage, and acting like he was about to go back to the guest house. Then, guards watching as if they expected him to explode at any moment, or try and fight his way out, Tor simply rose into the air and left.

Permission indeed. Did the morons not realize he could fly?

He got about an hour north before he had to land because he was losing the light. Landing in the dark was just too dangerous, even in the flat wasteland he found himself. He set up a little camp, really wishing he’d thought to buy a blanket or bedroll while he’d been in town. His shield would protect him from attack, not all, as he’d just learned, but most. His skin still felt burned and sore, but that wasn’t anything to major. He’d had worse sunburns. Still, it had hurt enough to distract him, which had been the plan he guessed.

The temperature wouldn’t be a problem, warm enough still for sleeping even if he didn’t have a device that made that a moot point. He even had lights for safety and comfort in his case. But nothing he had would keep him off the ground at all. Or, and this was a real enough consideration as the day wore on, hide him while he relieved himself. All the camping out he’d ever done before was in the woods. This area was wide open, dry and scrubby looking, with a lot of exposed rock, some of it red and very flat on top. On the good side, no one seemed to live out here either, and even if anyone flew over they wouldn’t be able to see him in the middle of the night.

The idea hit him all at once. He had equipment that would let him make a sturdy little shelter and lights that would let him see well enough to work. All he had to do was find the little stream he’d though he saw before he landed and he’d have almost everything he needed. Then again, working in the dark would be hard, even if he used his artificial lights. Instead he decided to just wait until morning. Then he could see about building a proper shelter.

If anyone owned this land, they obviously didn’t care a lot about it, and really, how long would he be there anyway? He didn’t even have food or anything and doubted he could find any out here. Of course as far as Tor knew he wasn’t kicked out of the Capital or anything, so maybe he could go there for supplies? It might work, for a while at least. He curled up and tried to use his arm as a pillow. It didn’t work very well, being too hard and bony for comfort. Sleep didn’t come for a long time, but it did arrive, finally, after several hours of pitch blackness.

When morning came and Tor sat up he had a horrible crick in his neck, it hurt just to try and look to the right, as if someone had kicked him in the neck as he slept. It might have been damage from the fight the day before. If him running around being hit with weapons like that was to be considered such, but whatever it was, it couldn’t be counted as fun. He got up and walked towards where he thought the stream might be, feeling tempted to just fly the distance, but realizing that getting too lazy wouldn’t help his health long term, he needed to walk, and even, if he could manage it, run, as much as possible to recover what he’d lost, especially if he was going to have to fight commando squads now. Flying was better than nothing, but he couldn’t just float around all over the place if he wanted to keep himself from falling apart.

The water wasn’t that far away, and as he lay on the bank scooping it into his mouth, tasted clean and pure. First he needed to get some kind of shelter, a roof and four walls would do, it didn’t have to be fancy, or even large. There was just one of him after all. How much did he really need? He paced out a square that was twenty by twenty paces or so and marked the corners with some rocks he’d found. There were no trees, which felt wrong and a little off-putting to him, but he wasn’t here permanently anyway, so worrying about it would be a waste of time.

The soil was a red brown dirt that was dry, except for right by the water. The lack of trees at least meant that he didn’t have to deal with roots in the soil, so he used one of the excavation rigs to spray the dirt out of the square he’d marked off and then used the compressor to turn the floor and the inner walls into a hard red black “tile” about a foot thick. Actually he couldn’t decide if it was red-black or a deep brown black. It was kind of pretty either way. Shiny and a little like glass. This made a solid and not too ugly pit about six feet deep. Laughing he realized that he hadn’t put in any stairs, so he had to fly out of it and use dirt from about fifty feet away to add the needed steps near where he wanted to put his door. Tor could have used the dirt he’d piled up from the inside of the hole, but he wanted to save it all for the walls and roof, didn’t he?

Then he used that dirt to make the walls, which went up about eight feet, so that it would look like a proper house from the outside, if little. Not that tiny really, since it was about a fifty foot square at the base, big for one fairly small person.

Tor had just been comparing the size to the palace of all things. Because that made sense. A hastily constructed mud hut was exactly like that.

Tor snorted, but kept working.

The walls went up easily enough. He made them extra stout; because the compressor was preset to make sheets of solid earth about a foot thick. Hard as stone and waterproof, it turned dirt into a good working material, which looked more like fine, shiny stone than mud at least. The door was a bit of a problem, because he didn’t have any wood, or way of making hinges, so Tor formed a hallway that shifted back and forth three times instead. That way no one would just walk in by accident, or see him changing clothes, but it didn’t take any other materials like wood or metal, to make. It would also let air in and out, which was important. The structure was tight at the seams and that could foul things fast if people were breathing inside.

The roof turned out to be the biggest issue of the day.

He was able to make thick roof plates easily enough, and it didn’t take long for him to figure out that using a cargo float would work to get it up into place. He had to fly to do it, but only to roof height, so it wasn’t too big of a deal. His still shaky hands were a problem, but by going slow he balanced the huge thing on the top of the slanted roof after only a half dozen or so tries.

When he turned the float off, tied in place with a pieces of string to the stone, the whole slab slid right off the roof and hit the ground with a huge thud. The impact was so hard that Tor could feel the ground move, even from his position about four feet up in the air. Of course the string broke, letting the plate fall to the ground where it ended up with the whole thing laying on top of it.

It took about half an hour to get it back in the air, and another hour to figure out that if he put dirt in place on the top of the wall all the way around carefully, he could use the compressor to tack it on before letting the field go and then pack the paper thin seams that were left with dirt and seal those as well. That took most of the morning and a bit of the early afternoon. Then he just had to finish sealing the ridge line of the roof by packing it with dirt several times, building up a smooth, but flat, top line.

So he had a house now, the shell of one at least. No food and no running water yet, but that could be dealt with, if he hurried. Tor just put the chests inside, emptying his work and clothing chest, and setting all the materials on the ground, then took about twenty gold and tucked it inside his shirt in a small canvas bag. He did make a point of washing up as best he could in the stream before he headed back into the Capital. It wouldn’t do to have people think he was dirty after all. Had to uphold the good name of quasi-fugitive trolls everywhere, didn’t he?

It was a dark thought, worse, it wasn’t true. He wasn’t that bad looking. He looked like his brothers, who were all fine enough that they got their share of attention in the little village, and his older brother Taler had even managed to find a fairly cute wife. Tor should be about in the same general league, right? Not a troll.

He tried to tell himself this for a while, but found his thoughts floating back to the fact that he must be, or that he might be stupid, or ugly, or both, and too stupid to know it? Heh, well, he figured, living out here, even if it was just for the time being, meant that there was no one to judge him. Now if he just could to get into town without scaring anyone and get a few supplies it would be fine.

The flight was uneventful, he landed by the gate they normally came in by, which was the nicest one, near the good neighborhoods, if the ones farthest away from the palace. It wasn’t that Tor was hiding; it was just that he wanted to get established at least to the level of having a real camp, before telling everyone where he was. Some running water, a chair or two. Maybe a nice, thick, defensible wall… Some weapons capable of defending against the King’s army, or a few errant commando squads. That kind of thing.

His shopping took a long time, not because it was hard to get places, but honestly, he really didn’t know where to find the shops at all. Finally, floating slightly above the ground, wearing his old students uniform Tor had to finally give in and ask an old woman if she knew where he could find the central market.

She seemed nice enough looking, gray haired, wearing clothing that was dun colored and sturdy, rather than flashy and meant to impress. She was taller than he was, even with the extra four inches the Not-flyer gave him and though she looked at the air under his feet she didn’t comment on it directly, at first. Instead she smiled and winked, then mentioned it.

“I’m not sure if floating in the air will get you past the military recruiters, but it’s a noble attempt none the less. That must have cost you a pretty penny. Tor-shoes aren’t they? Like the Prince has? I just heard about them yesterday myself. Still, if my recollections of the last war are right, you’d be better off just waiting about a year. They get desperate enough for bodies to fill the ranks against the Austrans and they’ll be willing enough to pretend twelve is a short fourteen.”

It took an act of will for Tor not to simply sputter at her.

“Um, I’ve been out of town since last night, but, what? There’s a war? I swear there wasn’t when I left!” Had they gone and messed things up that much already?

“Oh, well, that would do it. The Austrans haven’t attacked yet, but they declared war last night. Whole kingdoms in an uproar, surprised you haven’t heard about it. Kind of out of the blue too. No “incident” to get things going, just a declaration of their intent to come at us. Guess they got bored again? Anyway, the markets where the main recruiting is going on for the Capital. Makes it a pain to get any shopping done, boys rushing off to die like they are. If you’re wise you’ll take my advice and wait though. No one will think less of you for reaching your growth first.”

Taking a deep breath Tor tried to figure out what to do. God, a war. He hadn’t even heard that Austra was making moves like that at all. Well, the first thing he needed to do was get with Debri house and make sure they knew to keep up with the military contracts… No. First he needed to talk to Rich and Connie. If they could be spared to talk to him at all. This was no time for him to be running around being needy any more.

Dropping into a trance he forced himself to relax and put everything that had happened aside. All of it. If they needed him, if he could do anything to be of help, he’d do it. Tor could bake, or run messages if nothing else. True, Smythe wasn’t his best friend right now, but they’d just have to get past their little situation and get to work anyway. If the man wanted to waste his time killing Tor, then he was too stupid to be in charge of the military and while the man wasn’t his buddy, he hadn’t really seemed like a moron. Maybe a bit misguided? Well, they’d deal. It was war after all.

It took nearly an hour for him to get to the palace, he was making good enough time, way better than he would have in a carriage, but he kept getting lost on the winding streets and had to stop several times when crowds of people holding impromptu rallies to support the troops got in his way. When that happened he just cheered and sang along with the people as he walked through the crowd, if he could understand the words to whatever it was they were singing at all. A lot of the people had gotten drunk already and weren’t exactly chanting words as much as grunting along in rough time with the others. Most were just made up chants about how evil and bad the Austrans were. One of them was actually pretty lewd, and listening to housewives chant about the sexual inadequacy of Austran men made him blush and laugh at the same time.

Given everything Tor expected trouble at the gate and decided that he’d just camp out as best he could until someone came through that could take word inside for him. Tovey or someone he knew had to come through eventually, and when they did he’d try to get their attention, if anyone was even speaking to him right now. He didn’t think he’d be in trouble, well, maybe a fine for flying inside the city limits, but leaving to protect Connie’s good name probably wasn’t a capital offense yet, even if he hadn’t been given permission to go. The guard eyed him nervously for a second, a younger man, but one that he’d seen before at least.

“Excuse me, I’m Torrence Baker, Um, Countier four Lairdgren, maybe a Squire still, possibly not, sometimes people call me Tor? Anyway, I know that it’s probably too much to ask to be let in, but would it be possible to get a message to-” Before he could finish the young man smiled and started blowing a whistle. It was a loud thing, enough to hurt his ears and he was standing a good ten feet away. The poor guard must have been doing hearing damage to himself. He made three short, sharp bursts on it.

“One moment sir,” was all that he said.

Well, Tor figured that if he’d just called in the military to attack him again, at least the guy was being more polite about it than Smythe had been. While the whistle was off-putting, it wasn’t a sneak attack. Instead of the military in their all black outfits, or even the black and purple of more Royal Guard, Varley ran out of the palace. Actually, she didn’t run at all, she floated over, faster than could have been run in the dress she wore, by about four times.

“Tor! Good, we didn’t know where you were. There’s a huge meeting, I’m supposed to check people out at the gate. If I don’t know you, you don’t get in. This is Tor, Kevin, he’s all right. He should be the first name on the list?”

OK’d by a Princess or not, Kevin, the gate guard, checked the papers in his little guard shack and nodded. “Yes, Princess Veronica, he’s right here; Torrence Baker, Tor, Countier four Lairdgren, Squire of Kolbrin, Troll of Galasia, ambassador pro-tem Afrak. With a note that says I shouldn’t point out how short or young he looks or imply that he looks younger than his stated age of seventeen, even though he clearly does. Please come in sir.” The guard smiled at him.

Tor stuck his tongue out at the man, who actually chuckled at the move.

His empty trunk following him, he floated alongside Varley, getting her to go a little bit slower than they could have so that he could ask questions. She answered quickly, her voice sharp but not unkind.

“Um, you’re just the ambassador pro-tem, basically that means “for now”. That way you can go and set up the rivers and things you promised without needing anyone else to guide you around from here. It saves on people and really, I think dad kind of wants to stuff a young looking boy down their throats that they’ll have to be polite, too. They have some trouble with men being in power at all there.” Varley smiled at him.

“And the Troll of Galasia crack?” He asked, walking quickly, giving her a sideways glance.

She just shrugged.

“Sounds like something Alphie would have put in, doesn’t it? I’ve heard worse nicknames though. Makes you sound kind of manly, doesn’t it? I’ll take you to the meeting room. Everyone else, our people here, are already in there making preparations. Well, that and bickering about things. I can’t go in with you. I mean I could, no one would stop me, but I won’t. No one will listen to me and sitting there trying to take notes on what people are arguing about is boring. If you need me I’ll be sitting by the front door with a book.”

She leaned in and tried to kiss him on the cheek, but was blocked by the shield he had turned on. “You know Tor, it makes it a lot harder to connect with people if you live behind a shield all the time. Things aren’t that dangerous. We have guards and walls you know.” Her delicate arms crossed over her small chest, which, Tor noticed absently, wasn’t all that small any more. The girl wasn’t just getting taller, but starting to fill out. She flipped her long auburn hair back slightly and gave him a look that had to be a impersonation of her mother. If it wasn’t then she really needed to get out of the palace more often, because it was almost eerily good.

Tor stuck out his tongue and laughed.

“Really, you should wear your own shield all the time right now, yes, except when you want to kiss someone, I suppose. But I’ve found that having a shield but not using it is about the same as being kicked down stone steps from behind.” That Trice may have done that, well, he managed to keep the tears from his eyes at least. Right, there was a war. No worrying about her right now.

Varley chuckled and raised her eyebrows at him, then winked.

“Alright, I’ll wear my shield more, if you’ll drop yours when I want to kiss you. Deal?” She smiled and tapped her foot impatiently.

“Um, sure?”

Gesturing at him, she waited for him to drop his shield and then kissed him on the lips for about half a minute. He blinked. It was a good kiss, if incredibly improper. She did slap on her own shield when she finished at least, giggling a bit. Blushing he walked through the council chamber door without saying anything after getting his own shield on.

Stone steps and all that, he reminded himself.

The door was heavy, thick wood that was carved with a series of rectangles and stained a flat brown color. In this building where almost everything was a piece of art, this single door looked almost plain. That probably served to show how important it really was. The door handle was iron, pitted with use and age. It turned with a creak and he had to muscle the door open a little. Before it was all the way open Tor double checked to make certain his shield was on, focusing on the field pattern itself so that he wouldn’t risk shutting it off by mistake. He didn’t really know what to expect on the other side after all.

It was chaos.

Or at least the slightly raised voices that could be heard before the door opened were a lot louder. No one was fighting physically, yet, but there was finger pointing and accusations of unpatriotic sentiment. Richard sat at the head of the table with Rolph to his right hand side and the Queen to his left, all looking pretty regal. That made sense, it being in their job description. They’d all probably had lessons in it. Next to Rolph, in a dress too pretty for the room, sat Karina. Her face wasn’t bored, actually managing to look engaged for once, making good eye contact with one of the large, scary men that sat around yelling. He wasn’t a good looking fellow particularly, huge, shaggy bearded, dark, ferocious and rather emphatic as he pointed at a map.

“Here! It’s isolated, close enough to the Capital for troops to be summoned in an emergency, but far enough away that no one will worry about a military take over. It’s the perfect spot!” The place on the map was about fifty miles closer to the Capital than where his little house was, but almost lined up with it otherwise.

What it was the perfect spot for, Tor couldn’t tell from the shouting at first. It sounded like something minor enough, a training base for the military flyer corps. That there was a flyer corps at all was news to him. It probably was a good place for the base, open and with few trees for novice recruits to crash into, except that some things would be hard to come by there. He walked over and pointed to the map, about thirty miles to the right of where the man had been indicating originally.

“Here. There’s water for one thing. You’ll still have to ship in all your food of course, but you can harden the soil into a holding tank with a run off, so the local area won’t suffer from too much loss of water if you’re careful. The soil works with the compaction process well enough. I was just out here,” He pointed over and up by the little stream he’d built next to which didn’t even show on the brittle looking brown paper.

“Yesterday and today working with it. I used excavators to make a small cabin, earlier today.”

Tor snorted loudly and shook his head.

“Of course half of the time it took was because I didn’t know how to put the roof on. More than half really. I don’t know who owns the land, but hopefully they won’t mind a new cabin, because I don’t think it’s going anywhere for a while. It’s at least as hard as stone.”

The man stared at Tor for about fifteen seconds, far too long to be comfortable. Then he reached over to the map and slid the green marker over near the river were Tor had pointed.

“Good point, water. So here then.” His voice had calmed down a lot once someone else in the room seemed to be supporting him at least a little.

The Prince looked forward and nodded.

“I own all that area, pretty much a wasteland, but if you want to use it for a base, that’s no big problem. No trees for building materials… you tried out the system that uses dirt, and turns it into stone you say?” Rolph had seen the excavators and compactors already, even played with them a little, so Tor figured that this restatement of what he’d just said must be for someone else’s benefit. Possibly everyone else, he realized. Why would they know about it at all yet?

Around the people there were sixteen other people, some of them he recognized, Like Counts Ford and Rodriguez. Count Derring sat across the table; a huge oval thing made of real wood that must have been the roughest hewn thing in the whole palace. If it had even been sanded at any point it would have been a surprise and by the cut marks in the wood, real metal tools had been used in its making, not cutters. Either incredibly old or a reconstruction piece worth thousands of gold.

A few people he knew and a lot he didn’t. Tovey gave him a short nod, encouraging him to speak about the building he’d been doing? It seemed a strange topic for a war council but if that’s what they wanted…

For some reason Burks, the servant from the guest house that had been so helpful to him, also sat at the table. Maybe he was there to run errands or something? If so, they couldn’t get a more reliable person for the task.

Why not? They tasked a Princess with meeting people at the gate, even nobodies like him, so why not have a trusted person sit in the room to help out at need?

“That’s right,” he waived his hands in the air as he described things. “It’s fast, using cargo floats I put up a shelter that will probably last a few hundred years short of someone with an explosive weapon going after it. Think of it like large heavy stone. It has a solid foundation and everything. The process is, well, let me short hand it and if anyone wants to see it, or even try it out, for themselves I can arrange that. It takes dirt, pretty much whatever is there and separates out any wet components, bits of leaves, animals or anything else like that, then it compresses it on the primary level until it turns into a single block or sheet, depending on how you set the device. Those are two separate steps, so the excavators can be used for any digging or earth moving really. I was thinking of making a more controllable compression unit so that the soil could be used to make other things, tables, chairs, beds and the like. Even wash tubs, cisterns and pipes for water, its water proof, so it will work. I created the original process for sewers that won’t break down for a long time.”

At least three of the people stared at him and stopped speaking; at first he figured it was because he was too young and unknown to be bothered listening too or something but then one of them started nodding.

“Yes…” It was a long drawn out word from a large man with a halo of white hair around a bald pate who looked like he hadn’t shaved in at least two days.

“If we can really do all that, then… It would work. We could have a training base up in weeks instead of half a year or more. How soon can we get these tools in place? How much will it cost?”

“Um,” Tor said, feeling brilliant as he tried not to stammer in front of all these intimidating people. “Well, how many units are needed? That’s probably the real issue here. The rest can be taken care of as we go. Technically the price is set by Sorvee House for the earth movers. No one holds the compressors yet. I’m keeping those back for Sorvee, if they prove out with the other unit.”

Several of the people shuffled papers. They weren’t all men, three women sat around the table as well, all dressed in flying clothes, so Countesses probably if it really was as hard as all that to get a hold of a flying rig. That made some sense, they probably all were Counts, Countesses, or some kind of high councilor. Tor noticed that Smythe was there too, but wearing simple black clothing, rather than his personal cream and yellow uniform. The man nodded to him, but didn’t do so much as frown, more focused on the people around him it looked like to Tor.

Fine with him, these giants could take the attack next time while he led the retreat. He could spend some time practicing his battle cry for it, like some of the royal combat giants had done at school when they were goofing off.

It was one of the women that spoke, which didn’t surprise Tor that much. That she was one of the younger ones did, a little. Not that he cared personally, but he thought that the Counts would. Apparently not. They all went silent for a minute while she spoke, which they hadn’t been for anyone else so far, including the Prince.

“We have two thousand men ready to deploy for flight training as soon as possible, but the flying devices are coming in slower than projected, we only have half of those already with another two hundred coming before the end of the next month. Realistically speaking, if we have one of these units for excavating for every fifty men in the first group, which should be about eleven hundred strong, including support staff and trainers, that should be sufficient for our needs at that location. So… Twenty-two, plus an equal number of those other devices that turn dirt into rock.”

Tor looked down at the table. They had that few flying rigs? The military was getting most of them! Shouldn’t they have at least a hundred times that? No wonder they were freaking out about him wanting to shut down the production even for a few months. Well, maybe he could help fix that then. Why hadn’t anyone mention it to him before?

“Um, well, I can have that made up… by tomorrow afternoon, if I can get some gear brought in? I kind of came into town today to do some shopping, but then heard about all this and came here instead, I need food and some bedding, pillows, that kind of thing, it will make mass copy work a lot easier.” This next month would suck if he wasn’t very careful. Tor plunged ahead anyway. There was a war and his kingdom needed everyone to do what they could, even nobodies like him.

“Then it will take most of the next month to get another thousand flying rigs together. I mean, that’s if I have to do the shields too? I’m guessing those haven’t been coming in any faster?” He looked at Richard who gave him a shocked look, and shook his head no.

Of course not.

Was Debri house just stockpiling them to keep the price up or was that really the best that they could do? If it was, no wonder field devices always cost so much. He’d kind of wondered at that before himself. It wasn’t easy work for him, especially the builds, but it didn’t seem like anything that should cost hundreds of golds per unit either. But maybe it really was? The thought was a bit scary, to tell the truth.

The room had gone silent for some reason, except for Rolph who looked at him and smiled.

“What all do you need to get this done?”

It wasn’t a lot, just food, some soft things that would get him off the ground and maybe someone to make sure he had water and food and, if possible, a latrine dug. He could do it himself, he’d been planning to when he got back actually, put in a whole building for the purpose. He’d have liked to have something more proper, but he didn’t know how to put together a septic system or a sewer.

Count Thomson stood up suddenly.

“I’ll take care of the supplies. Copper for templates too? That seems more efficient than silver. We should send out a group with him, call his new house the primary location and get the first sectioned trained to use the new devices as fast as they come out. Do we have anyone that has experience with the new excavating devices yet? Other than Tor, he’s… going to be busy.” The voice was deep, possibly deeper than it had been before if that was possible.

For once Tor had an answer even though the question was unexpected.

“Yes. They’re using them in Galasia to rebuild their sewer system. They should have people that have almost daily practice with them. Get with, ah, let’s see, Baron… I want to say second or third, Ferdinand Gala? He should know who to go to, at least I handed the gear I made for them directly over to him.”

They decided to send a group of people back with him, which, oddly enough, included Rolph since he insisted and, as he pointed out, already knew the job of caring for a working Tor. It meant that Tor had to sit down and make up a batch of cargo floats without using a template first, just to move all the supplies and gear they needed. It worked, but took an extra hour at least. The fields were a bear to make at the best of times, and having to work from memory didn’t help at all. Actually, it kind of surprised him that he managed it, all that practice copying seemed to have a real pay off in this case.

Three hours later they were all landing at the little place Tor had started the day before. It didn’t, he knew, look like much. But it was water tight and sturdy, and while the color was an almost black, the man in charge, a captain in this new flying service, said that white wash was cheap enough and painting made a decent punishment detail.

“Or training, if people are flying while trying to paint with a brush. Hitting the roof and what not. Really it’s the same kind of coordination you need to target with a weapon while hovering.” He pantomimed the needed technique holding both hands out and pretending to paint the air.

This got a laugh, but no one doubted that it would be interesting to try. Possibly deadly, but the flyers corps wasn’t meant to be a bunch of wimps, worried about little things like death overly.

Tor did the first two batches of excavators before dinner, which was mildly warmed bread and cheese with some dried fruit. No one but Tor and one other man could really cook, and even warming something over a fire was pretty much out, because there was so little fuel to be found. So they’d need to make ovens too. Well, it was doable. He’d just work that in between the flying rigs, the shields and the rivers and extra powerful excavators for Afrak. No problem.

Sleep was a sign of weakness anyway, right?

Chapter eleven

The next several weeks passed in a blur of work. Most days he only even walked outside for a few minutes a day, for fun, and about an hour of slow running in a big circle around the compound that sprung up almost without him knowing about it. His little shack had been dwarfed instantly, a structure nearly ten times the size being put up the next day as a practice barracks. Then a shower and bath house, which Rolph shamelessly stole all the remaining water heaters for and some of the longer range pumps, to water could be taken directly from the stream out back.

Tor explained what they needed for an oven, and given the ease of building and the desire to keep practicing, a structure was built that probably would make good in-roads to feeding those two thousand people at the real base. He got a wall too, after he asked, one that left him with a compound about as large inside as the palace complex was. The wall was about five feet thick and nearly twenty-five high. So an interior space bigger than the whole of Two Bends, including the Smith’s big orchards. Overdone for his personal house, but the guys needed to practice doing something.

He made the heater for the oven one night after bed time, sacrificing sleep, so that they could set it to running the next day. It took two full days to get up to good baking temperature, because the oven was vast, easily the biggest thing like it he’d ever even heard of, but as designed, the field held the temperature exactingly steady after that.

Tor was kind of proud of that little piece of work. It got to the right temperature and held it no matter what. No more, no less. Given the warming time needed, they just left it on day and night. Luckily it was well away from any of the other buildings, so the heat didn’t bother anyone. Summer would still suck in there if he didn’t get some other temperature controls in place, but he had a little time for that.

After the first two weeks they ran out of new building projects to do, but had more and more people coming in for training, so Tor requested they redeem his word and send a crew down to County Ward to build the wall around Ellen’s place. He also sent the crew of ten young men, most not much older than he was, with the building dryers he’d come up with and a pump for her water tank, so that poor old Georges wouldn’t get stuck doing it by hand for all of them the whole time. He added in some lights and a freezer box plate with instructions for use with them too, just because it seemed like a nice thing to do. The man in charge of the cohort assured him he could build it without trouble.

It became a grind after that, the highlight of his day being when he got to work on other almost new designs for things. It took three days for him to come up with the more delicate manual controls for the earth compressors, but the men that used them said had been worth it. Well, they told Rolph. Tor was too busy to chat mainly.

They could make smaller objects then, some nice furniture and doors that sat on real hinges. Even plates and cups started showing up after that, all in a shining red-black stone looking material. Tor would have liked to try using one himself, but he had too much to do for anything that fun or interesting. Far too much.

For every one thing he did, he got “requests” for ten more devices, some of them interesting, but being novel they’d have to wait. Most of them were downright boring and repetitive work for the military. For instance they wanted to try lights for working at night, that each man could carry. He already had the field and could make them pretty easily now, nearly a hundred and eighty per day without missing any sleep. The military asked for a thousand of them. Just for the initial testing.

As badly as they wanted flying rigs, the shields were even more important in their eyes. Oddly, they requested no new weapons from him at all. Not even the force lances or lighter versions of the explosives he’d made before. He didn’t bother asking about it. If they thought they needed it, they probably wouldn’t hesitate. They hadn’t about anything else so far.

Room temperature plates for soldiers all over the kingdom, personal temperature equalizers for the desert and cold north regions and even a hundred faster versions of the Not-flyer, that some general thought might be useful in ground combat.

Well, Tor reflected, they were a lot easier to learn to use than the flying rigs, and were faster than running. You could very nearly just hand one to a person and explain the controls then send them out without practice it was so simple.

The only good part about the whole thing, other than the free room and board, was that he didn’t have a lot of extra time to dwell on Trice and how much that whole thing still hurt. At the beginning of the second month Tor finally got Rolph to tell everyone that came in that he’d be out of touch for a few days, possibly longer. Sitting on the halfway comfortable pile of pillows that had grown around him on the floor over the last month to take the place of a bed, Tor started building the more powerful earth moving field. It wasn’t that hard, just a larger field to do what he already had something for. It just needed to be about a thousand times stronger. That was all. It sounded like a big deal, but either all the practice he’d gotten making the smaller ones, or just the fact that his brain found it easier to work now than not, allowed him to have the new unit ready inside four days. He kind of thought it would be longer. A lot longer.

As had become his habit, since most of the things he made worked the first time, even if some of them needed to be improved on later, like the original shield, he made up ten of the devices instantly when he was done. As chance would have it, it was just about lunch time when he was ready to get out and test it, which meant the sun beating down, blinding him a little and making him squint painfully for about ten minutes while his eyes adjusted. Tor had lights inside, but they weren’t this bright.

Half a dozen of them flew about two miles away from the compound for the testing, just because no one really could see the need for a giant hole or trench right there, plus, even if this worked right, it could still be a mess.

It was.

It worked just the same as the smaller one, except that it kicked up a cloud of dust due to the fact that it had to throw the dirt a lot farther away just for the whole thing to work. Otherwise it would have just dropped the dirt back in the hole being dug, which would have made the thing virtually useless. With a shield on it worked fine. Perfectly in fact.

He just wouldn’t want to try it without a shield or while standing on the ground anywhere near it. He made a ditch, about the size of a middling stream and about a quarter of a mile long. It took about two minutes. That, he decided appraisingly, should serve well enough. It even had three settings to control the speed of flow. He’d been using high, but turned it down for testing, just to make sure he hadn’t messed anything up too bad on the other settings. It worked well enough on medium and on low it would probably be even safe to use like a normal one on the ground, but about ten times faster. Well, if there was ever another fire up in Ross or anywhere like it, this would be what he’d take with him. The river of brown and red dirt and rock flying through the air was impressive even. The roar it gave off kind of frightened him a little, but Tor tried to play it cool, so no one else would panic. If any of the other men felt the same way they didn’t let it show, so it was probably just him.

It would do. It kind of had to, because the second they got back, literally standing on his doorstep was not one, but three, high ranking officials asking for more fields. Or it sounded that way from what Tor could understand. Two of them were trying to talk over each other. Both looked a bit put out by the other too. Because of course they should each be going first.

“Um, well… It’s going to be a bit. I have to make some rivers and, you know, sleep some time soon. But I’ll try to get right on those…” Tor had no clue what the men wanted at all. Floundering he looked around until one of them, a man that looked vaguely familiar, spoke. He’d been at the meeting about the war… Tor drew a blank as to the name though. All he could recall him as was loud map pointer guy.

“Water transport over long distances? That would be helpful. You mentioned water before, and we relocated the base by a river, good call by the way, but the nearly three thousand people we have in training now are using a lot more water than we’d thought originally. This time of year that river is more like a fairly small stream and we have to let the men wash regularly, or else they’ll get sick.”

That made sense. He’d seen similar things in some of the larger families back home. If even one of them was less than clean, everyone could end up ill, especially in the close and cold months of winter when bathing was a freezing hazard and tended to be sketchy even among the dedicated.

“Wait, you added a thousand extra trainees?”

“Well, yes. The council of counts felt that since you obviously can produce the greater numbers of devices we’ll need, it only made sense to add more candidates. Right now we’re only accepting applications from the elite forces however, so it’s felt that at best we should be able to double or triple the amount of trained personnel.”

If he dropped these men into the pit that he’d just dug and buried them, then compacted the earth over the spot for a mile or so, no one would ever find the bodies. He stared for a while and then casually turned to Rolph and said this out loud. He was kidding, but only just. Didn’t they understand how hard, and worse, boring, all this copy work was?

Not at all. Then why would they? They weren’t the ones doing it. Tor sighed and shook his head. Right. Well, he had to do what he could to support the war effort, but seriously, sleep on occasion would be nice. Oh so nice…

The man next to the first put in a request for as many lights as Tor could make. No time limit, no upper cap. Just lights. The goal was to get one to every man in the military, not just the King’s service, but even the County troops, in case night attacks came from the Austrans. The man wasn’t fat, but had that obnoxious kind of beefiness that some men got from a sense of entitlement, taking just a bit more than their actual share at the table each time. His blue uniform had bright red trim and shiny buttons of silver that were probably supposed to look impressive, but made him look like a children’s entertainer instead. Tor decided not to like him. They wanted a half million lights or more? From him, personally? That was… insane.

The final man was short. Only an inch or two taller than he was and maybe in his mid-twenties by look. Instead of asking for something first, he stuck out his right hand and shook country fashion, leaning in from a good ways away, nearly six foot, as was proper when you didn’t already know someone. He wore a nice outfit of heavy canvas that reminded Tor a bit of student browns, except that it was a deep green that pushed into the territory normally held by black. If the others in the group looked a little scary or obnoxious, this man looked efficient, and like he was supposed to be out in the middle of nowhere like this, not getting ready to walk into an audience with the King himself. The properly sized man grinned.

“I’m not here to ask for anything, just thought I’d stop by and say hi. I’m, well it gets complicated, but basically, for all intents and purposes, I’m your uncle. Dan Green. Laurie is my vastly younger sister by the way. By about three hundred years. Dad asked me to handle this little war thing for him and represent County Lairdgren in the council and all that. Finds all this war talk tedious. I can see you’re busy, but remember not to work yourself to death. Trust me; you have time to do things later. If you get a chance, in a few months or so, come by the Capital at Grenwyn and visit your family. Everyone’s curious about the fabled Tor already. Of course I can see why. I was warned, but… Yes, you really do look exactly like him, don’t you?”

“Um, not to sound brilliant, but whom am I supposed to look like?”

Uncle Dan grinned.

“Your grandfather. My dad? Your both… well, I’ll let him explain it, but let’s just say that you have his looks. More closely than anyone could really describe fairly. Don’t let it worry you. I’m sure you’ll both get along famously.”

His smile widened and his eye twinkled as he said all this. Tor just had to thank him, very humbly, and with real feeling, for not asking for anything. It was probably just from being tired, but for a brief moment he really felt like running away and hiding somewhere that no one would be able to find him. The men went away then, laughing, after Rolph told them that he’d been awake and working for nearly four days and so had Tor, and that work had been harder than the Prince getting water and food by far.

“So, not to be rude, but go away. Shew. Shew. Don’t make me… Well, I’m too tired right now to think of something not to make me do, but I’m sure you can all come up with something appropriately menacing.” He pointed a finger towards the little group and gave them a playful look that said he wasn’t really kidding, even though he was.

Dan Green chuckled and started to walk away, calling out for them to not be strangers. The man seemed nice enough at least. Tor hadn’t even known he had an uncle on that side of the family. Then again, what he knew about that side of the family ended at them all mainly having two arms, two legs and a head. That and they weren’t all overly huge.

The pillow nest in the back left hand corner invited him and he couldn’t resist it, falling asleep so fast that he kind of surprised himself. It was light when he woke up, but when he stumbled outside he saw that it was morning and not sundown at all as he’d half wondered when he first saw it. The little hut he’d built, the size of a decent house really, kept out all the light from outside, cave dark he liked to call it when they turned the lights off. It still didn’t have a front door, just his windy privacy entrance, so he nearly walked into Sara as he came out.

She stood there looking anxious, her hair had been cut a lot shorter than he’d seen it before and looked lighter in color. It was cute on her, but he didn’t comment on it, not sure if he was still mad at the girl or not. Tor looked around, first for Trice and then for the trap. He didn’t actually see either one, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. No matter what else, Trice was crafty and could probably think four steps ahead of him in intrigue. He was still sleepy after all, so maybe more than that. On the good side women were so rare here that you could spot them in the distance just by how they walked. She stared at him shocked. He couldn’t imagine why though. It was, for lack of a better term, his house. Why shouldn’t he be there?

“Tor! My god, what have they been doing to you? You look… Half dead to tell the truth. Have they been starving you or something?” She blurted all this, her voice sounding concerned as if it were a real emotion for her and not an act.

He didn’t say anything for a long time. Watching carefully he kind of wondered how the men had let her get past the fence line, or more likely, since she wore a flying rig, over it. They…

What were they supposed to do? Jeer at her menacingly? They had a few weapons, but nothing that would touch her if she wore the shield he’d last given her and she was a moron if she wasn’t, with a war on and all.

Tilting his head he regarded her carefully.

“Someone had to take up the slack that Debri house left in the orders. What the hell is with that? The whole retooling barely coming up with two hundred fifty units per month on the flyers? About four hundred shields? You should be doing that per day. Or… I don’t know, are you guys hiding them or selling them at inflated prices to the black market or something? The military said they’re still willing to pay the same for them, no matter how many are produced, so I don’t think it’s a great strategy if you’re sitting on them. Plus, with the war, we all need to be doing whatever we can, not worrying about making gold, yeah?” He didn’t really expect her to answer him. On the good side, unlike that last time they met, he didn’t sound angry, just exhausted. At least part of that was because he hadn’t really woken up yet for the day. If she had a problem with that, she could try showing up at a more appropriate time. Not that he really could call this early, since it was light out.

She blinked rapidly, changing thoughts in mid stream if he still recognized the look. If he’d ever really known what it meant to begin with. His eyes finally focusing he noticed that the hair cut wasn’t the only thing that had changed. Instead of student brown, or in her case black, she wore a dark leather outfit, a brown that should have been so dark as to look black, but was scuffed and covered with dust so as to look a much lighter. She had soft looking boots that hit past her ankles, also dyed to match the outfit she wore, but made, he saw, of heavy material, only the soles were leather, or at least something like it.

“Tor… only you would look at the largest device manufacturing effort in history and put it down as not good enough. Just because you can work yourself to death and past it like this over and over again doesn’t mean regular people can. Anyway, I didn’t come to talk business… I came to see my friend…”

That got his attention.

Of course, he hadn’t been thinking about anyone else in all this, just himself and Trice. Rolph and Sara hadn’t been able to hang out for months because of him making her go away. It had been a little thoughtless and cruel of him. Well, a lot more than just a bit. Duh. Well, he could fix that.

“Right. One moment. I’ll get him.”

Rolph woke up grumpily, throwing a pillow at Tor that hit him in the head, uncannily accurate considering the plates had only been turned on enough to dimly light the cavernous space within the hut. Laughing Tor jumped in and grabbed an over-sized arm, pulling on his friend to very little effect.

“Hey, you have a visitor! Get up before she goes away and you’re stuck with only me for company again today.” He added in a few playful pokes to the ribs just for good measure. Rolph didn’t like to get up sometimes and had to be prodded into it.

It was enough to get his attention and only three minutes later he stumbled out into the bright light. He straightened up and smiled when he saw who stood waiting for him. The wall of red hair and lanky muscle slid towards the girl smoothly, taking her up in a hug that was returned joyfully enough. As they made happy sounds at each other Tor made his way off to the restroom that everyone staying at the little compound shared. It was big enough for about twenty people, but they never had more than a half dozen around at any one time now. Most of those were just people coming in for a single night to pick up devices or make materials deliveries.

They had a cook too, or at least he thought they did. He’d never seen the man, or woman, but the food had suddenly gotten a lot better a few weeks back and stayed that way. Not palace level maybe, but not hunks of day old bread and hard cheese either. It was also just possible that someone flew food in from the Capital instead of wasting a whole cook just on them. He hadn’t asked, because there really didn’t seem to be any reason too. They had food, it was good enough.

He went to his little cabinet in the bathing area, a separate facility from the restrooms and took out some clothes and his cleaning gear. The other men had to keep their clothes locked up, so that people wouldn’t “borrow” it when they ran out of clean clothing between wash days. Tor didn’t have to worry about that yet, even though someone had brought him a shipment of nice things, silk and soft leather stuff, along with a pile of much more practical green canvas that he suspected came from Dan Green or that side of the family, since it looked like the outfit that man had worn. No one else could have fit in his stuff, not here at least.

Not wanting to make a poor impression, since Sara was likely to tell Trice about how bad he looked anyway, Tor made a point of dressing nicely. Not the best clothes he had, but a nice deep green silk shirt, leather trousers and a vest that nearly matched the pants. He had to slip the soft brown shoes back on, because they were what he had. It was the best he could manage, even if the face in the mirror didn’t look good enough to go out in public. Tor shook his head and stopped the thought in place.

That wasn’t really fair he knew. He looked normal enough, thin and small maybe, but he had clear skin and good teeth, his hair was longer than it had been, but not so much that anyone would think he was a girl yet or anything like that. He certainly wasn’t any worse looking than average, just smaller and that only here.

All the people that came through were those that had flying rigs and that meant, by and large, royals or military elite. Both groups tended to be tall.

Taking a big breath and letting it out with a blubbering of lips he walked back to his hut. If he was lucky Sara would have taken off already and he wouldn’t have to talk to her. He really didn’t want to go over everything and discuss how he felt. It should be clear that he felt bad. Other than that, what did it matter, since he couldn’t do anything about the situation at all?

Well, he had work to do anyway, so at least there was that. If you can’t be happy, be busy.

Sara and Rolph weren’t out front of the hut when he got there, so he walked in wondering if they’d gone inside to talk and wait for him.

In the low light he saw instantly that they weren’t talking at least. Blushing he backed out of the room. There had been too little clothing in that scene for his mind to really process, but he had a general sense of what they were doing. Definitely not chatting.

Fine, but did it have to be done in his work space? Not, he knew, that they had anywhere else to do it, but… He felt jealous and a flash of bitterness passed over him for a few moments. Tor worked himself half to death and what did he get? More work.

Rolph sat and brought him water and food occasionally and had women showing up to do things that they’d never even consider doing with Tor. It softened the blow a little that Rolph was the Prince and heir, of course women would want him, but Tor had an odd feeling that it would have been happening if Rolph just been a merchants son too. His big friend had always been popular, even with people that didn’t know he was the Prince of anything. Tor on the other hand, had always been avoided by women, or at least ignored. Unless they wanted something from him.

Well. Tor didn’t know what to do, but figured that he shouldn’t go back for at least an hour and even then he did he should probably call out first. Sara was good looking, but seeing Rolph’s hairy butt pumping in the air didn’t thrill him at all. The image hovered in front of his eyes still, burnt in place in a fashion that it wouldn’t have been if it Tor had wanted to remember it. He sighed and started wondering around. He wasn’t dressed for running and didn’t feel like changing yet, and while he could eat it was likely a bit before any food would be ready, early as it was. So, instead, he walked around looking at what had sprung up when he wasn’t paying attention.

The big buildings made sense for the most part, barracks, a dining hall, furniture shop and so on. Tor chuckled then. They had a furniture shop right here, but he didn’t have any furniture? Couldn’t they at least lend him some? Walking in he saw that no one was working yet, since it was early and nothing probably really started until after breakfast. There was a sheet that was put up for people to request furniture pieces or things for different buildings. Tor blinked. There were a lot more than a half dozen names on the list. Were they covering other places too? Or, could it be that the buildings hid a lot more people than he’d thought? He hadn’t been getting out much and most of his runs had taken place near dinner time. Heh, yeah that could skew his idea of how many people were about.

He looked around for a while, seeing how the place had been laid out. Tor noticed that there was a large stack of completed furniture near the back of the space, a rectangle that must have been a hundred feet long and nearly fifty foot wide, as well as a large pile of dirt off to one side. There was a little door that they used to bring the dirt in he saw, only a few feet across and about five feet off the floor, just above his eye level.

A long work table made of the compressed dirt had been set up with six of the compressors on little flat tables in front of the bigger one. It had large boxes about six inches deep all the way along, about five foot square. It took a second, but Tor got the idea after noticing that there was dirt in each one. You kind of drew what you wanted with the compressor in the dirt, then put the pieces together with more dirt, like how he’d joined the roof onto the hut. Kind of like gluing wood to make furniture. Only way stronger, as well as much faster. No drying time for one thing.

Picking up one of the variable compressors he put the small square of copper, marked with three light green acid etched arrows that all pointed inward and started to turn it on before he realized that he needed a plan first, or he’d just be wasting dirt and making a mess. Quickly he sketched out a chair back, seat and legs, using a measuring stick that sat next to the table to make certain he got it the right size. It was just a basic chair, sized to him, but he did make the back rounded at the top. He made the back and seat both an inch thick and the legs two inch squares. It would be heavy, but it wouldn’t break easily. He also made the seat extra wide, so that he could sit in it with his legs crossed. It was a comfortable way for him to sit, if not proper. His chair, his rules, right?

Just as he finished the last of the legs someone walked in, a man, not royal, but still about a foot taller than he was, if Tor could judge such things based on looks, who wore a workman’s drab shirt and brown pants. He was clean shaven and looked to be in his mid-thirties. Reddish brown hair that was shorter than Tor’s, a military cut that reminded him he should go get his own hair done soon and a look on his face that seemed more than a little angry.

“What,” the man growled, sounding like he was about to physically harm someone. “In the thirty-seven hells, do you think you’re doing?”

“Um, making a chair?” Tor pointed to the pieces and started pulling them out slowly, thinking that one of the heavy legs would make a good enough weapon if he had to fight. He didn’t have any amulets on at all, since he’d been working so much he’d gotten used to not wearing them. The man stalked towards him and glanced at what was being laid out on the table.

“Oh. Well, it’s a little rough… Not too bad though. Done this before?” The man’s voice softened a little as he closed and took everything in.

Tor set the leg down next to the others and shook his head.

“I haven’t gotten to try these out yet, I’ve been too busy. I did a little construction, so I get the basic idea, how to make the joins and all. Just killing time really…”

The man grinned.

“Ah, so you’re the new guy? The one they’ve sent to do shipments for us? A little young, but if you can fly and run the cargo floats, we can get them loaded for you. How old are you anyway? Fourteen?”

Sighing Tor started to try and balance the seat on the legs, which got the man to laugh. He moved in and put the seat, smooth and nearly black, looking like it was made of glass almost, flat on the table, set a small pile of dirt in the corners and had Tor compress each while holding the legs in place one by one. It took about a minute for all four. It was a good trick.

“No, a little older than that. Seventeen. Nearly eighteen now.” Tor, a quick study turned the chair so that it sat flat on the ground and added four little piles of dirt where the spokes of the back would sit, being careful so that the soil didn’t over lap, since that would leave a bulge and not look very nice.

“Also, I’m not the new delivery person. I think she’s over in the hut, um, occupied with the Prince. At least it makes sense that it would be her. I guess there aren’t that many people that have been flying as long so far. Me, but that doesn’t mean I’m all that good compared to some.”

The chair, as he suspected, was heavy. Not too heavy to carry though. They had a clock on the wall, which showed that he’d been occupied for a little over an hour already, only about half of it making this chair. That was fast. He could probably make another one in less than ten minutes, now that he knew how.

It took a second for him to realize that Godfrey didn’t recognize him, and since it was basically his house, it would be rude to make the man guess. Mainly because he just wouldn’t. After all, if he thought that Tor was the new delivery boy, well… It was still hard to figure out how to let him know. Most people looking at him didn’t think “Builder” they thought things like, “he can scrub the pots for us after dinner”. Or in this case probably wondered if he could be given some menial task like shifting dirt around for the people doing the actual work. Not a bad idea, except that he really didn’t have the time at the moment.

The man, Godfry, asked if the new delivery girl was good looking. He didn’t seem to be asking for the normal reasons, sounding doubtful about the whole thing, so Tor asked why that mattered, curious.

“Well, we have fifty men here, most young, and horny enough that the sheep should be scared, if you get my meaning. Drop an ugly girl in here and she’ll have company every night, two or three men if she wants them, or is even just willing to be a sport about it. A good looking woman means fights breaking out. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had more girls, but with only one… Not a good situation really.”

That… was something Tor had never considered before, He also didn’t know that there were fifty men living around him. How out of it was he?

“Oh, yeah, well she’s pretty, if she’s the right one I mean. Very much so. The Prince’s, um, close friend, so maybe that will help keep people off of her?”

Godfry snorted.

“Not likely. Really that’s worse than if she was dating the lowest private on the base. At least then the other men could have some feeling of hope, like they could score with her too. Prince, General, Captain, or I guess in our case, Wizard, that sort getting the only woman, it’s like a slap in the face to all the men that have nothing for company at night but their hand, you get me?”

Tor could see how it might be a problem. Still, the men could just go into town and find girls there, right? He suggested it to the gruff man who shrugged.

“How? Most of the guys here aren’t flyers and couldn’t get flying rigs for that reason even if they were. We have people building furniture, cisterns and plates, making things and what not in the three shops we have here. It’s near on two hundred miles to the Capital and men only get one or at most two leave days per week.”

And by wagon that would mean about six days travel each way, if they moved fast and didn’t actually stop for anything when they got there. Possibly less, but the roads here weren’t good.

Tor could see the problem there.

“Well, the simple solution would be to just, um, bring in some… industrious women that wanted to make money. Though we may be able to come up with something to get people into town… Let me think about it, all right?”

Godfrey laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.

“Yeah, you and me both. Let me know if you think of anything that we can get the higher ups to go for. I just hope this new girl isn’t half as pretty as you said she is, or we’re in for a time.”

Tor nodded.

“Alright. I’ll see about setting up both. Do you think you can arrange for a house or two to be built for the ladies? I don’t know how to get them, but we will. Is that against regulations though?”

The large man laughed again. After a few seconds though he shrugged.

“This is only kind of a military base. Really a gray area. Master Tor owns it and technically it’s his place, but I can OK the military side of things myself. Now if we can just convince the mighty Wizard to let the men have a little fun, I guess we’re set. You want to work on that side? I’d have better luck getting an audience with the Prince, which I guess I could try…” the man rubbed at his face looking a bit sleepy around the edges still.

“Ah…” Tor sighed and shook his head a little as the man smiled again.

“Not trying to be all mysterious here, but, Um, I am Tor. So, yes, we can have the women here, if any want to come. So the buildings?”

The large man just rubbed his face again and nodded.

“OK. I’ll get on that today. If you can arrange any kind of transport too, that would be brilliant. Getting men to and from town on off days… Well, do that and this place will be the most desired post in the military service. Especially if we have girls too.” He chuckled again, but didn’t accuse Tor of lying or look at him in disbelief, which was kind of nice.

“I’ll do that. I might have to send the Prince around to coordinate with you, while I’m working on things, you’ve met? Big, redheaded, friendly?”

“Oh, sure. We hang out all the time… only, not really. He never leaves that hut. Hardly at least. The men sit around waiting for him to, just to say they saw him in person. Tor too, but so far no one has seen him.”

“They have, some of them, I run daily after all. They just didn’t get it was me. Probably thought I was a servant or something. Like I have servants?” Tor grinned and walked towards the door of the shop.

“Oh, um, could I get some furniture for my hut when you fellows get a chance? Right now we have piles of pillows and this.” Hefting the chair a little Tor grinned.

“Sure. I’ll put it on the sheet, sir.”

“Just Tor. Um…”

“Major Godfrey. Base Commander. Workshop foreman too, until we get someone else trained up for it. Well then Tor, if we aren’t standing on titles, Godfrey will do. Or major if the men are around. Could you send the girl over, if you see her? She needs to report in. Should have done that first really, but a lot of the new delivery people play by their own rules. You basically have to be a nobleman to have your own flying gear, and connections on top of that, so it’s not like anyone can tell them different. Say do you know what this one’s deal is that way?”

Tor thought he got the general idea.

“Second in line for the Debri Merchant Empire. But she had the flying gear, shield and stuff because I gave them to her. We’re… A little on the outs right now, but basically friends.”

“Oh? Alright then. So, since we’re friends too now, Tor, do I get free magic too?”

That kind of made sense, didn’t it? Especially if the man was the base commander or whatever.

“Yeah, just talk to me or Alphonse about it and we’ll send over whatever you need. Or, if you want, just come visit? I’m working most of the time, but, yeah, that will work. Also, I guess, Sara might be more comfortable with that. So…”

“Good, well, send her over please?”

Taking his chair he walked out thinking about the problem. The simple solution would be for him to knock out ten or twenty flying rigs and shields for the personnel on the base, and teach them to fly. But if they did that, the military would probably just confiscate what he made. They really wanted those rigs.

They could build that other dwelling and invite some women of “industry” to set up shop, but other than the street walkers in the Capital Tor had never even heard of any women with that particular profession. He wondered if they had a guild or something that could be contacted. Maybe he could ask around and see about that idea. If the market was there, why shouldn’t they earn a living while helping to keep the peace? It was cheaper than having guards walking around what was essentially his house after all. Probably more effective too, in the long run.

Could they… ship the men in cargo containers? If he built the flying rig into a special container, and fixed the plates into the unit itself, it would be harder for the military to take the parts for their own use. Would that work? They could put in chairs so that it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable inside, maybe some cushions? The whole thing would need a shield for safety, one way bigger than any he’d ever made, but… Yeah, it might work.

When he got to the hut he saw Rolph and Sara standing around out front as if they’d never left. He nodded to them as he walked past, wanting to set his chair up, which got them both to follow him in. Rolph looked happy and contented, but the blond girl looked nervous, and like she wanted to cry for some reason. Did she do that every time she slept with Rolph? Or was it just when he was around? Maybe seeing him after such amorous events made her sad or something? Realizing how lonely and sad he must be?

That was slightly depressing, if the case. No one wanted to be the person so pitiful they made others feel bad just by being around, did they?

“I made a chair! Did you know that we have a furniture shop here? As in a place they make it, not sell it. I want a bed too and maybe a little table. I asked for some stuff to be made up, if they get a chance. You should get a bed too Rolph, and I don’t know, maybe we could each get a privacy screen so that the next time I walk in and you two are having sex I don’t have the image haunting me for the rest of my life?” He grinned when Sara turned red.

“Oh, you saw…” Her voice had gone meek and a little scared.

“Don’t worry, all I really saw was Rolph’s giant ass in the air and part of your leg.” Tor shuddered at the thought, exaggerating it for comedic effect. “I probably wouldn’t have complained if I’d seen you instead. Really, feel free to parade around without clothing all you want, but you know, keep Rolph covered? Anyway, Sara, are you the new delivery person? If so you should probably check in and all that stuff.”

Rolph put his arm around her shoulder casually.

“Yeah, isn’t it great? She’ll be here all the time, making deliveries during the day to a couple of bases and into the Capital. I was thinking, if you don’t mind, could she stay here with us? I mean, she knows to be quiet while you work and all that, plus, we don’t have any other space for her yet on base here.”

It made sense, in a jealous making, uncomfortable way that he didn’t really want to think about. Tor could kind of see firsthand what Godfrey was saying about it making the men envious. Maybe if they hid her away from the others the fall out wouldn’t be as bad? Tor pointed to the front left corner.

“Over there? Use some screens to kind of make her a little room? Um, Sara, I know Trice is your friend and all, but please, don’t bring her over to visit. Also, this isn’t a base, it’s a compound. “Base” implies that it’s owned by the military and it isn’t. It’s mine or, if you want to be more correct, owned by you, with me, I don’t know, squatting? Maybe renting in exchange for work done? So, compound, since it has a wall now. ”

Sara blanched and nodded, as if the idea that she might bring Trice here was unthinkable. It probably was, all things considered. The girl probably wanted to see him about as much as she wanted to have an arm lobbed off. Fair enough.

They sent Sara off to meet up with Godfrey, who should be able to tell her what was needed or who to report to at least, if he wasn’t the man himself. After she left, as they ate food that was brought in from the kitchen, Tor related what the older man had told him earlier.

“So Sara is about the worst possible thing that could happen in a situation like this. We can set some of the men to making a new building and getting some furniture in it, maybe a few structures, towards the back where there isn’t anything yet? For girls… but Rolph, I don’t know how to contract anything like that, do you? I’ll also work on the transport thing, when I can. Maybe…” His voice fell off and he started putting together what he’d really need for it. The lift and control fields wouldn’t be that hard, but the shield for the whole thing was a novel build.

He sat down after he finished eating and started working on it. It only took a day, and over the next week he had the whole thing ready. Then he explained to Godfrey what they needed to do with the plates and devices, to install them into a cargo container so that everyone could ride in it comfortably. He left it in the man’s hands and started working on the rivers for Afrak.

That was hard.

It would have been a lot easier, but he decided that they needed to make the amount of flow variable, which meant redesigning the filter mechanism on the side that took water from the ocean. It would let the amount of water going through the floating river either come out as a small but decent stream all the way up to an amount about twice what the falcons river had. In order to twist around the mountains, each river had to have at least ten of the central control devices, which he used as boosters for the field line the water flowed in. It took him a while.

He opened his eyes when he was done, starving and thirsty, hearing crying over in the corner of the room. At least it wasn’t something he’d done.

Pretty sure at least.

“Hey.” His voice was a croak, not a voice at all. He’d done this kind of thing before, so was ready for it and not overly concerned. Tor found a pitcher of water next to him and saw some pretty nice cloth covered screens had been put up around him. They looked like something that you’d see in the palace or at least the guest house there. Shining brown black frames with little squares about eight inches across, with white cloth, like silk, but not, attached to it smoothly. It was tasteful and really brightened the space.

He stood, or at least tried too, his legs didn’t really want to work anymore. That would have been fine, except he really needed to go to the restroom, his bladder screaming at him. Looking around he found that a small table had appeared, which took him aback for a second. Not that there was a table, after all, they could make that kind of thing here, and he’d obviously been out for a long time. What got to him was that he’d missed that the table was there before, even though the pitcher was sitting on it. There was a cup too and next to that a pile of amulets. He checked the water for poison and then, finding it clean, drank it all slowly.

He still couldn’t stand, but could move, he realized, activating the Not-flyer Tor became weightless and stood in the air without using any effort to get up. It wasn’t a long term solution, he’d have to get his muscles working again soon, but it would let him get where he needed to go for now. Like the restroom.

Because that, at the moment, was the single most important thing in the world to him.

When he got beyond the screen he almost passed out.

The hut, which had been a bare space before, had stuff in it. Nice stuff. Rich looking cloth hangings on the walls, carpets in bright colors, deep reds and golds mainly and three sections divided by screens. It looked like someone wealthy lived there or something, instead of being a dirt shack made in the wilderness. Tor floated on slowly, looking around. There was soft crying coming from the front left corner, behind the screens, but it sounded like it was just Sara and really, she cried a lot. Hopefully it was nothing, but he had to pee before he dealt with anything or he’d have an accident.

The place was busy outside when he came out, the whole thing looked bigger, like the walls had grown when he wasn’t paying attention. The restroom at least was in the same place. He wondered if he should stop and take a bath before going back? It seemed like a good idea, since he smelled more than a little. Plus, it would give the crying a chance to stop. Was that too cowardly? Probably. Did he care? That, he decided, he’d think about later.

His face was covered with hair, which wasn’t long, but actually looked like a good beginning to a beard, thick and black, like the stuff on his head, so he left it alone and scrubbed up in a tub of warm water in the open room. Two other men came in and used the tubs near him, carrying bundles of clothes and towels which they dropped on tables that had been set next to the big round things that had replaced the relatively tiny ones that had been there before. Still compressed earth though. They had the warming plates on them, so he soaked for a few minutes with his eyes closed.

“Hey…” A man holding his own bundle of stuff stood before the tub glaring at Tor a little. “Ten minutes per man. Otherwise we can’t all get a wash in each day. There are only so many heaters for these things and I don’t feel like washing cold so you can soak in luxury.”

Tor cracked a single eye open.

There were rules to bathing now? Sighing he got out of the tub and started drying off while the man changed the water so that he could use it without waiting on Tor to fix things. At least he could stand on his own now, kind of.

“You drunk or something?” The man, obviously military, looking about twenty or so, mocked his wobbling. It was a good, if slightly exaggerated impression.

Tor shook his head and explained while he dressed.

“Nah, I was just working without moving for, god, what’s the date?” The man didn’t know, but called out to a fellow in one of the other tubs, who did.

“So, for twenty days. Making Sky Rivers for Afrak. If you don’t move for a long time like that your muscles get weak. Plus, I’m starving. I don’t suppose it’s anywhere near a meal time yet, is it?”

The man laughed and shook his head.

“But, if you want, when you’re ready, I’ll walk you over to the kitchen I know a guy there that might have a crumb, if you’re willing to deal, take a turn on kitchen duty or what not. Always need people on that here.”

It sounded like a plan to Tor, since he was going to take a few days off from building fields anyway while he recovered. Working in a kitchen would at least be something to do. Active enough to start rebuilding what he’d lost with all the field work. Muscle mass and stamina. The man kept watching him as he dressed, staring hard enough that it made Tor feel uneasy as he slipped on all his amulets. Then clothing which he took from the little cabinet his stuff was kept in.

“Hey, that’s Tor’s stuff, you cruising for a beating or something? Base commander said that anyone bothering his shit would end up on the front line carrying a rock to fight the Austrans and I really don’t think he was kidding.”

Tor nodded. Really he’d stopped paying attention to the man after the mention of food, he was starving, as in actually starving. He pointed down at the green canvas he put on, which was a little loose.

“Notice how well it fits though? Now, hurry up so I can get some food… please.”

The man just laughed, as if he’d said something funny. Maybe he just looked funny? At least no one would be assuming he was a child any more. He decided to keep the beard. If the guy wasn’t smart enough to figure out that the guy making Sky Rivers for Afrak and wearing Tor’s clothes, was Tor, then telling him otherwise would be a waste of time. Still, if he had connections in the kitchen, the fool might be useful. Tor didn’t like his demeanor, it felt too slick and wheedling at the same time, but hey, any port in a storm and all that.

At the kitchen the “knowing a guy” thing turned out to be a lot less a specific person and more of just standing at the door and offering to trade work later for food now. Laughing Tor waved the other man away. A tall man, older than the rest and wearing a light brown apron stepped forward and sized Tor up.

“Can you cook, or at least wash dishes?” The voice was skeptical, as if most people couldn’t.

“Baker. Not what I’m doing now, but I have a few days off coming. I grew up in a bakery, literally.”

The man seemed impressed and gave him some bread and cheese from a cold box. Not the kind from the palace, but one that someone had rigged up a room cooling plate to the inside of. It did keep it cool enough, if the cheese was any indication. He’d have to make a freezer or two for the place before the next summer. Right now it was cool outdoors, not so cold he needed a jacket, but then wearing all his pendants Tor wouldn’t have bothered anyway.

The huge ovens at the back of the room where producing a steady stream of pots, a lot more than fifty or even a hundred people would have needed. He asked, curious, how many they were cooking for. It turned out to be nearly three hundred. Apparently while he’d been working someone had decided to turn his little compound into a center for learning how to make military supplies.

Tor suppressed a groan. After all, if people were making more furniture and learning how to do it, as well as other things, that meant they’d need more of the compressor devices, and that, of course, meant more work for him. Yay. Well, at least he was useful now.

Well, he was finishing the rivers first. At least if anyone let him.

Fed well enough that he was uncomfortable, even if he hadn’t eaten much at all, he walked back to his room, using his feet, just to get the exercise.

It wasn’t good of him, but Tor hoped that Sara had stopped crying by now so that he wouldn’t have to deal with anything new. If she was pregnant with Rolph’s child, or worse, someone else’s, it would just be a pain in the ass. This time he wasn’t going to offer to marry anyone to help some girl get out of the mess she’d gotten herself into either. In a way it made him a little sad that he’d lost that innocence along the way. That desire to help a person just because they needed it. Why had that happened anyway?

Right… it happened about when he’d figured out that Trice thought he was a stupid troll.

So, great. She thought he was a moron, which was turning him into an evil Galasian Tor troll. Troll of Galasia. It was even in his list of titles at the palace now. So apparently at least someone there thought it really fit. Probably Rolph.

Inside winding through the outer hall and going down the steps he noticed the crying had stopped at least. Yay. He walked slowly towards the table that had been set up in the common area and sat in one of the chairs. His chair actually, so it fit almost perfectly. The other three were much larger, but he didn’t care. Tor was just glad that no one had carted his humble little chair off without asking first, after all so much else had changed and it didn’t actually match.

A few minutes later there was a stirring from behind the screen where Sara had obviously set up, and the blond head popped out and looked at him, then made a happy sound and flowed out to the table, where she tried to hug him. The shield stopped her short.

“Tor! Drop the stupid shield so I can hug you silly! I thought you might be gone for good this time. Oh!” Arms moved around him when he dropped the field and she held on as if he was keeping her from drowning.

Over her shoulder he noticed a large figure in a dress come out from behind the screen and he almost panicked, starting to slap at his shield, wondering if Sara had set him up to be killed by Trice. But it wasn’t her. This girl was slightly plumper, in a healthy way, and a little taller. Blond and pretty, but no one he recognized. He stared at her for almost a minute before he got it.

“Ursala? But…” A hundred questions popped in to his head then, but instead of getting to ask them he was suddenly rushed by the woman and found himself wrapped suddenly in a pair of warm arms that shouldered Sara out of the way.

Ursala pulled back, breathing hard, her exhalations coming out broken, like sobbing.

“Tor… They’re all dead…”

Chapter twelve

Tor froze.

Who was dead? His mind flitted from one possibility to another rapidly. The royal family? Rolph wasn’t anywhere to be seen, so it could be that or… His family? The idea terrified him more than he cared to think about. Luckily he didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

“We were poisoned, my parents, me, several of the estate servants. Mom and dad didn’t last the night. I… lost the baby and nearly died myself. I just didn’t have as much of the poison I guess. It was in an old bottle of wine, and I only had a few sips, because of the… baby. Other things were poisoned, the wine for the staff too. They have different bottles, the staff, so someone had to have targeted them specifically for some reason.”

She continued then, how it wasn’t just them, but eight other families as well, all on the same day. Two more had been spared, because they’d had and used poison detectors at home. Sara hugged him again, dislodging Ursala this time.

“One of the families that escaped… it was Ridley’s. You know, the first one that you gave detectors to? It saved them all.”

Tor had to think back, but not that hard, “Oh, right, one of the guys that Trice said she was going to have sex with in front of me to prove what a spineless wimp I am? Didn’t he say that his parents were afraid that Count Ward was coming after them? I mean, really, that’s why I didn’t even bother to think about giving him the stuff, because I’m not overly fond of Ward right now…”

Ah.

Ursala sat in one of the chairs and swallowed.

“Right in one. It took everyone else days to put it together, you were working, or we could have asked you earlier. But Ward’s a sitting Count, so it’s, well, if proved it’s an act of war. Worse really, treason, because we’re already at war. This took out two Counts, a Baron and two Knights. Plus servants and others, so many others… Rolph had to go to the Capital to help with all this and show a strong front to the Austrans so they won’t use the turmoil as an excuse to attack.” She shook, holding herself tightly. Tor felt awkward about it, but patted her back lightly until she could continue.

“If this had happened during a time of peace, I think that the Wards would be gone by now. As it is a lot of people are calling for their deaths.”

Sara looked down at the table and move fluidly into the chair next to him.

“Kolb nearly led the combat students from the school on an attack of Wards forces. It took a direct order from the King to get him to stand down and that’s only temporary. Rolph told me that his father was probably tempted to send them in anyway. It’s the second largest group of trained flying fighters you know. Only the King’s military has more… Sorry, of course you know. You outfitted them all. But it isn’t going to take the students at the school that long to realize that the King’s orders don’t apply to them directly in this, not all of them. He only told Kolb not to attack yet. Karen was popular with the combat types and already a Knight at twenty. Do you know how hard it is for a girl to get the title? She must have been tough.”

Karen?

“What? Karen Derring?” God let it be some other Karen. It was a common enough name after all…

“Yes. She was one of the Knights that died. Her younger brother David was poisoned, same thing, bottle of wine. He lived though. They were in their County on a weekend trip, since they could fly back and forth. No one could figure out what the connection to Ward was at first, since it wasn’t to Count Ward at all, but the Countess, his wife Maria.” Sara put her right hand on top of his left, the skin warm to the touch for a brief flash, until the temperature regulated.

“When Maria was at school, when she said those things to you, and those older girls pulled her away? Well, they didn’t just pull her out the door. Apparently they beat her pretty soundly for being so vile to you. One of the other girls was poisoned too, her husband died, but she survived. A Countess. Um, Printer I think?”

Maria? But… why? Yes, being beaten was no fun, but to come back years later and try to kill them over it? For that matter why go after Ursala and her family at all?

Maybe Ursala read the look on his face or maybe she was just filling in the blanks for him, the she seemed to follow his train of thought either way.

“It makes sense in a warped fashion. She goes after the girls that beat her, the woman that got pregnant by her husband, a Count that had thwarted her husband in business and so on. Nothing really deserving of death, unless you’re a self-serving little bitch that’s jumped over most of her family and friends through marriage, and bristles at the idea of the whole world not worshiping at your feet. Then it starts to make a bit of sense. In an insane and illogical way. But insanity and logic don’t always go hand in hand.”

That got Tor to start nodding a bit, slowly, thinking hard.

“Then when I was attacked and poisoned earlier this year…” It made sense. Not because he’d be any kind of special target for the Wards himself, just because he was an easy test subject, someone to practice on.

That was where Sara differed from him in opinion, she laid out a very different scenario without waiting for him to say more.

“Yes, you had to have been really eating at her for a while now. First, not only did you manage to recover from her insults all those years ago, the slanders and attacks she put out about you, you became, well… Tor. The Tor. Then suddenly you turn out to be a Squire and a Countier, with your fortunes growing to a point where even a Count might be jealous. On top of that, you’d offered to marry Ursala when she was in trouble. You didn’t mean it that way, but it was a slap in the face to Maria most likely. That story made the rounds, and really, a lot of people still talk about it. It’s the kind of thing that starts legends you know. A good man stepping in to make things right when a less noble one won’t even try… And in this case the less noble man is her husband and a Count, so…”

Tor laughed. Not a big laugh, but a dark one that might as well have been crying. He wouldn’t go into how little it had done for him with Trice. This situation was way to serious for him to dwell on that kind of crap. It was bigger than him by far.

“OK, so what’s the plan?” Tor waited, but neither one spoke to him for a minute, finally Ursala gave him a vague answer that caused more questions than it answered.

“I can’t say much here, but Tor, the King already has agents in place with Ward. It wasn’t easy to get them in and I was only told because of my parents. So that I didn’t launch an all out attack yet. I can’t say any more, sworn to secrecy on the matter, but if there’s any way to get at this we will. I know you must be angry about them hurting you but-”

He snorted. Angry?

“It’s really just as likely that Trice did it. She really didn’t want to be married to me. I didn’t go after her for it, why should I go after someone that I’ve already, I don’t know, forgiven is wrong. I haven’t forgiven Maria. Come to peace with? I don’t blame her. I just learned that I wasn’t worth very much. I mean the girl was a stupid fourteen year old at the time for god’s sake. With Trice, well, that was way worse. Even if…” He shrugged. Nothing else he could say would help and it would just distract from the situation at hand.

Both of them seemed awfully sure that it wasn’t Patricia Morgan behind the attacks on him, so he let it go. The girl was obviously at least known to both of them and they didn’t want to think that ill of their friend. Well, he didn’t want to think it either, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of choice. At least Trice should have left off trying to kill him, now that the engagement had been broken. He hadn’t even pursued her parents in his anger, or her for that matter.

Probably because he lacked a spine. But yet, here he was, walking upright and everything.

He let it go. The fact was, Tor had a lot of work to do and needed sleep to do it. A deep work state may keep the need for sleep in abeyance for a while, just like it lowered his need for food and water, but it didn’t eliminate it all together and now that he’d eaten, he was exhausted.

It took him a few minutes to explain, but he got into bed after that, letting them know that when he woke up he’d probably be taking a break for a few days if he could. He slept deeply for a while, then had troubling dreams of women saying things to him that he didn’t understand. Telling him that they were innocent, but he didn’t know what they were supposed to be guilty of. Trice he kind of understood, but Maria Ward was there too and… Connie.

It was dark when he woke up. Pitch black. That didn’t mean it was night, but that seemed likely, since he could hear deep breathing in the room with him. Not wanting to wake anyone he tabbed the light next to his bed to the lowest setting, a bare glow that was just enough to see the hands of the clock by. Four-eleven in the morning. Well, if he was on to bake that day he needed to get up and go to work.

He went and cleaned up, putting on his oldest pair of school browns before heading to the kitchen, walking slowly still. He’d need more exercise before he’d recover enough for speed he knew. Way more.

In the kitchen, on a blackboard, written in bright white chalk, there was a list of what was needed for the day. Fifty loaves of bread, assorted sweet rolls and some cookies. It didn’t describe what kind of cookies, so he figured that it was up to his discretion. Bread first of course, since it would have to rise. He had to make ten large batches of dough, but at least they had the bowls for it. Huge things made of the glossy compressed dirt substance that everything seemed to be made of here.

While that was rising he worked on dough for the rolls, sweet rolls for desert, and then got the bread into the baking pans for the second rising as he started to work on the rolls themselves. They didn’t have a lot of cinnamon, so he used orange peel instead, as well as a hint of clove. There was plentiful sugar and butter, which was kept in the big cool room. Just as those where going into the rack near the ovens to rise he decided to start getting the bread in.

It was about six-thirty when the room started to fill up, the bread not yet out, but plenty of space left for the rest of the food. Even if some of the ways they were cooking looked odd to him. Bizarre really. They boiled water for the eggs by putting big pans in the oven on the side away from the bread, which he got to pull out about then anyway and put aside into racks for cooling. That was good, because the water vapor would have made the bread crust chewy, not a horrible thing, but this was the wrong kind of bread for that. The rolls would just have to wait. Chewy sweet rolls would suck. His were meant to be light and fluffy, with a flaky crust. He hoped they wouldn’t over proof in the mean time.

Nothing was fried, because there wasn’t a stove top in the room, all they had were ovens. Tor hadn’t thought about it before, but of course a griddle or stove top could be done easily enough. Those could even be turned on and off. The oven plates needed to be inside the ovens and were too hot to touch… because, Tor realized, he was a moron. Oh, it worked out all right with these huge things that took days to get up to temperature, they’d have to stay on anyway.

Smaller units could have controls on the outside, and so could griddles and warming pots. He’d already done things with remote activation like that. The control for the flying rigs for instance. The actual flight field was on the amulet worn around the neck, not the one on the hand used for control.

As Tor lamented his own stupidity and lack of forethought, the man he’d talked to the day before wondered in to the kitchen looking blurry and tired. He had a cup of something in his hand that smelled familiar, the same stuff that he’d been given for combat rage reaction. This guy just looked hung over to his untrained eye. Maybe it worked for that too?

“Hey. New guy, you actually showed? And did something useful? Smells good even. I don’t suppose that the military would let you out of whatever you’re doing now so you can come work here each day, would they? What do they have you doing anyway, building furniture?” The last bit was, Tor realized, almost like asking people in the country what they did for a living… farm? Everyone around here built furniture, or other needed supplies, so of course Tor would too, right?

“No, I build field devices, magic, and I really think that the military would whine if I tried to stop doing it. I don’t actually work for them though, unlike most of the people around here. I decided to take a break for a few days and they can just deal, you know? Anyway, we need to get the sweet rolls in as soon as the pots of water come out, or they’ll over-proof. Sure, that’s no great horror for this type of product, but too much and it will destroy the texture. I’ll start on the cookies next.”

The man took a sip of his beverage and grinned.

“Heh, Sorlee will like that, this practically gives her the day off. I’ll have to find something for her to do or she’ll get in trouble.”

Before Tor could ask who Sorlee was a young woman walked into the room. She was cute in a young, un-made up way, tending towards very small and thin, making her look pretty youthful compared to what he guessed her actual age was. Maybe fifteen or so? She barely came up to Tor’s chin. The girl smiled when she saw him and the head cook, walking over like she owned the place.

“S’hey ‘on, tought baky m’job. Y’sir’da baky pro’per n’like?” The girl put her hand out to shake with him, so he grinned and returned the move.

“Sorry, Sorlee here doesn’t speak standard very well yet. She can read it well enough, so I just put the information about what we need on the board there, which you obviously saw already. She’s a good girl, got brought in as a prostitute by mistake, seemed to think she’d hired on as a cleaning girl or something? No one can really understand her, so she ended up in here.” The man just shrugged and gave the girl a grin.

Tor looked at her and pointed at the rolls. Speaking in a dialect that, if not exactly like hers was close enough to make her eyes go wide, he told her that the rolls needed to go in the oven as soon as the eggs were done.

“Wow! Someone that can actually talk properly! Are you the new baker? I’ve just been coming in here and working every day for the last two weeks, hoping I wouldn’t be beaten into being a whore. I mean, I knew what I was being hired on for, but when I got here, all the men were so big… I kind of knew they would be, but their mainly that big all over, and it hurt, because I was a virgin when I got here, you know? I feel bad about going back on my word to work for them, leaving them a girl short like that, but until I get used to it I don’t think I can do what they want really. I guess if they’ve got you, I better start training up though. That bread really does smell good too. Better than what I’ve been making. Hey, do you need an assistant or something for a while?”

Tor tilted his head, which made her face fall. It took him a second to realize that she thought he hadn’t understood her. That or that he was going to send her back to being a prostitute right away. She seemed a little young for the job to his mind, but if she needed the work, things were probably pretty dire back home.

“I’m not the new baker, just helping out for a couple of days while I have time off. Not a lot else to do around here and it’s good to keep the skills up you know. Oh, I’m Tor Baker by the way.”

“I’m Sara-lee Farmer. So you’re a for real baker?”

“By birth, however, I can’t leave the job I’m doing for the military right now, making magic devices, what I can do, is help you learn baking well enough to get along here pretty easily and maybe understand standard well enough that no one will make you do anything you don’t want to. If you don’t want to work at the… ladies house here, you don’t have too. No one will force you to. I won’t let them.” He straightened and gave her a matter of fact nod. He was responsible for the women coming here in the first place, so it was his duty to make sure none of the girls were ever abused or made to do anything they didn’t want to. Obviously.

The head cook just looked at him amazed, so Tor explained what they’d been talking about. The man’s eyes bulged a bit when he learned that Sara-lee, Tor corrected the name carefully, but told him that he’d been saying it correctly for her ear as Sorlee, seemed to be intent to continue on as a whore, just as soon as she could practice a bit and get used to it. It was, she told them, a matter of honor. She’d contracted to do it and even if it flew in the face of everything she’d been taught at home, it was what she’d do.

For now though, she really was needed more as a baker, the cook told her which he confirmed with Tor, and offered to go make it right with the mistress of the bases little house.

“Don’t worry, I’ll go later and deal with it. Probably closer to my job than yours anyway, since it was my idea to bring the ladies in the first place.”

“You’re idea?” The man seemed skeptical again. Well at least he wasn’t calling him a child. The beard was really helping in that department.

“Yeah, that and getting the cargo haulers for people so that the men can get into town. I haven’t seen one in operation yet, do they have them working do you know? I made enough plates for ten of them but I’ve been so busy on a project for a while…”

The man gave him a pained look and suggested that he go and see Godfry about those, if he wanted to see one working. Tor had to get directions to the right place, and decided to go look in the afternoon, in the mean time they needed to get to work on the cookies. He decided on a crisp walnut with dried apple chunks in as well, for flavor. They turned out pretty well and Sorlee wrote down the recipe so that she could repeat it later, which Tor took as a compliment to his work. By ten they had all the rolls and cookies out and cooling, ready to be put to use for lunch and dinner.

Since it was part of her normal duties Sorlee was given food to take to Tor’s house. Cook told Tor that no one else wanted the job, because the Prince was staying there and no one wanted to risk ticking him off, afraid he’d fly into a combat rage and kill them, or give them permanent kitchen duty for looking at one of the women there funny or something. No one had been able to explain to Sorlee who he was yet, so she didn’t mind running errands there at all. Before they got to the door she tidied her skirt, brushing out any flour or wrinkles and patted at her hair a little. It was cute the way she primped, her face very serious about the whole thing. The skirt she wore was a plain gray thing and her blouse a color that he’d probably describe as “blah”, one popular in the regions they both came from. It was clearly country village clothing, but worked well enough for her current position as kitchen help.

The girl dimpled at him warmly.

“I don’t understand much of what people around here are saying, but this is the important place, I know that. Most of the men are afraid to come here, even though the red haired giant boy is always nice to me when I make deliveries. The pretty blond woman is really nice too. I think there are some other people here too, because this is the place the magic comes from, unless the red giant is the magic fellow? I don’t think so though, because he always comes to the door right away when I call out. So maybe he’s the magic guys brother, or son, or something?”

Tor debated keeping Rolph’s title from her, but figured that would be mean. It wasn’t a secret or anything. Not here.

“No, the red haired giant boy is Prince Alphonse Cordes, heir to the throne of Noram. He’s a good guy though, so try not to hold that against him. He’s not here right now, off in the Capital. Some important people were poisoned and he has to help clear that up, I think. The blond woman is the daughter of a big merchant house called Debri. Her name’s Sara, like yours, but she pronounces it all funny. “Sah-ra” not correctly like you do. But she’s OK too. Nice enough. Both friends of mine, though I kind of had a fight with Sara, when one of her best friends said mean things about me which caused us to break off our engagement. Her friend, I mean, Trice. I wasn’t engaged to Sara. We seem to be getting along better now.”

Sorlee stared at him.

“Someone broke up with you? Why? Do you drink or something? Beat on her? You don’t seem like that type.” The girl eyed him suspiciously for a few seconds then smiled. “You’re good looking and can bake, so you have a good career and all. She must be silly if she thinks she’s going to do better.”

Tor grinned.

“Ah now, see, I should have gotten you to talk to her first then. She’s a royal though, Trice, so different standards for things I guess. That was months ago, so I need to move past it, right?”

Tor walked in without stopping so Sorlee did the same her eyes going wide when they got inside.

“Wow this place is… This must be the nicest place in the whole world!”

A few months before, less than a year at least, he would have thought the very same thing himself. It was decorated pretty well, which had nothing to do with him, or if he had it right, Rolph either. Sara maybe? He’d have to ask.

Both the women sat at the shiny black table, a dark red cloth had been put over the top, which made it warmer and a little less oppressive looking. The legs still showed and looked like highly polished stone. Ursala smiled at him when he walked in and Sara waved at Sorlee. That made sense, the entire compound having only a few women. Tor doubted that any of the rest of them were as short as the girl at his side making her easy to identify too.

They put the food on the table carefully, unpacking the high sided tray things that the food was being carried in. Neither of them had eaten in the kitchen, so Tor gestured for the girl to sit next to him. He gave her the small chair and took one of the large ones, because she was a guest. It was important to make guests feel comfortable, right? Even the Queen had gone out of her way when he was a guest and the difference in real position between him and a farm girl, who was also a baker and a prostitute in training, was a lot closer socially if you counted it up logically.

Practically the same really.

He made the introductions carefully, but honesty enough. Ursala seemed a little shocked that Tor asked her to sit with them, but Sara just smiled and offered the girl a plate, telling her to help herself to the food. Everyone had to eat after all. Sara was good like that. Accepting people of different classes easily. It probably came from being a born merchant. Anyone could be a potential costumer after all, so it made sense to get along with everyone, didn’t it?

Tor largely translated while they ate, letting the others talk. He snagged one of the orange rolls for himself, the icing was still a little gooey and the rolls just warm enough to be perfect. Ursala was surprised when Sorlee told Tor how good they were. That went into the story of what he’d been doing that morning which turned into the tale of how Sorlee came to be at the compound.

“Right,” she started the tale when it started, with her father getting hurt when a tree he’d been cutting down with her brothers fell the wrong way. “So, he was busted up pretty bad, and we had to call the doctor in, which costs a lot. That, plus losing his work and a less than great harvest and we were looking at a pretty lean winter. It snows where we live, up north a long ways. So I left home, which means one less person to feed and that way I could find some work to help pay things off so next winter won’t be so bad for everyone. I tried cleaning at first, but cleaning girls don’t get paid much, so I found the madam and made a deal with her. I couldn’t understand it all, but that I get twenty percent of what I bring in, plus room and board and that I get to keep any tips I get fair and full. It’s a lot more money than I’d make cleaning for sure. Only so far I haven’t been doing so well at it. She’s been nice enough, but then I’ve been avoiding her. Mr. Baker said he’d go and talk to her and let her know what’s going on, so’s I won’t be beaten into it and can start gradual like. Get used to it in a way that won’t leave me too sore to do anything for weeks on end.”

The conversation after that went way differently that Tor had thought it would. Instead of shock and outrage at an innocent young girl having to sell herself like that, which Tor had to admit was kind of what he felt about the whole thing, or alternative suggestions as to how to make money, say telling her to have Tor just give it to her for instance, which was what he’d been expecting, the women gave her tips to make having sex easier.

Ursala in particular.

“Well, now that your hymen is broken, all you probably need is a bit of practice and to use lubrication. Some oil will work, cooking oil if you don’t have anything else though I’m sure that the madam has some just for that, it’s what prostitutes pretty much have to do. Too hard to get turned on for each man after all, no matter how wonderful they are. Just use it before you have a client, really, best to do that before they come into the room even. That will leave them with the illusion that they enthuse you personally which men like. Actually pretty much everyone likes to feel appreciated and desirable… Just rub it right inside yourself. You’ll have to clean up each time, but then I imagine you will anyway. Has anyone discussed how not to get pregnant?”

That conversation, which Tor kind of had to stay for, being the translator, opened his eyes more than a little. Ursala certainly knew how to prevent pregnancy at least. Why she hadn’t, Tor didn’t get, but given everything didn’t ask either. He’d rather live without the information than cause her pain in the memory.

Well, embarrassing or not, the girl needed to know things like that, and if the prostitutes couldn’t help her out because of the language barrier, he’d have to. Even if that did mean risking a stroke from all the blushing he was doing. No one teased him about it at least.

What they did do, which he thought was pretty kind of them, considering that they’d just met Sorlee and all, was go with them to the back of the compound to where the… houses, were set up. It was just late enough in the day that the mistress was awake and they didn’t even have to wait long to see her. She came in, dressed well enough that it looked like she’d planned on guests, but not so well that she didn’t look a little embarrassed when she saw the two women waiting for her.

“Ah! You must be the ladies with Prince Alphonse! Then you would be…” The woman, who looked to be in her mid forties, just slightly plump, enough to accentuate her curves rather than make her look heavy, regarded him baldly for a few seconds.

“Master Tor?” Her voice sounded a little awed for some reason.

“Just Tor, but yeah, that’s me.” He gave her his best polite grin.

The woman curtsied and held it for an awfully long time, so finally he bowed back, not knowing if that was the right move of not, but at least she took it as a sign that she could stand up straight. Sorlee looked at him with a scowl.

“Are you someone important? If I find out you’ve been fooling me all day I’ll…” She waved a fist at him which got everyone else to look at her in shock suddenly.

“Not really, some people think so, but I haven’t been fooling you. I told you who I was and even that I make magical devices. I probably should have spelled everything out for you, but I kind of wanted you to just like me for me, you know? So, really, no hitting.” Tor said this with a chuckle, shying away from the proffered blow with hands raised and a playful smile.

Saying all that meant that he had to explain to the ladies what had been said, which lead to an explanation of why he was working in the kitchen and what Sorlee had said earlier as well as the request from the cook that she stay on as the baker, since they didn’t have anyone else yet. The madam seemed satisfied with that arrangement as long as Sorlee took lessons in the evenings, learning the trade.

Apparently they really did need the extra girl and being so small, Sorlee would be in demand. A lot of men preferred small women for sex, it seemed.

Since the job was mainly one that could be learned by demonstration, Tor wouldn’t need to be around to translate at least, thank god, not for those parts. But Madame Clarissa wanted to make sure that Sorlee understood some of the broader points, such as using her mouth and hands on a man and the names for such acts in standard so that clients could make specific requests of her. That led to descriptions of things that Tor had never even heard of. Wasn’t sex just… sex? He said as much which had everyone but Sorlee laughing at him. She told them to stop rather forcefully, in fairly good standard, which got everyone’s attention.

“It’s, he’s from near where I’m from and people don’t talk about things like this. It’s not funny, just… right, just proper, for a good man where we’re from. His wife would have told him about some of this, if she was interested in doing any of it. Making fun of him for not knowing it is… mean.”

That got their attention and earned Tor some strange looks from all the older women when he finished translating. They probably thought he was incurably retarded. Maybe that was just the truth? He didn’t understand half of what they were talking about. Use your mouth on someone… Did that mean kissing? He asked out loud, knowing he’d sound dumb, but not wanting to be ignorant forever either. Sara grinned and looked away, but Ursala told him they’d talk about it later. This got a knowing look and a nod from the madam.

“And of course… Tor, if you ever want a demonstration of anything, please remember that my girls and myself are here at your disposal twenty-four hours a day. For you we’ll even make house calls… obviously without charge. One of the privileges of ownership.”

Tor had a strong feeling that the woman was trying to needle him about his lack of looks and skill with women. Well, she was right, he didn’t have those things, but that didn’t mean that he deserved to be mocked about it, did he? Maybe it was just her way of being playful? Then again, maybe she was just being honest? Maybe the only women he could ever hope to have were those he hired for the purpose. The idea left him feeling a little sad, but what could he do about it? Tor knew he should just accept himself for what he was and get on with living. It was a hard thought, but the world, the universe, was what it was. It was too big to be concerned with someone like him anyway. That was true no matter who you were at least.

King or baker, the universe didn’t notice.

After that, with him still blushing fiercely he was sure, Ursala, Sara and Tor all walked over to the area that held the people moving cargo container things. They turned out to look a lot different than he’d thought they would. For one thing Tor had pictured boxes the whole time, big, but roughly square. Instead they were all rectangular, but only vaguely, the front rounded and the whole thing enclosed in back, with sturdy doors that folded out so that passengers could load and unload easily from the side. Inside were benches rather than chairs, big enough to hold four large people sitting side by side. The back held ten benches, meaning there was room for forty people, not including the driver. More if they were normal sized like him, fewer if they were royal giants like the King and Count Thomson.

One of them would have held most of the compounds personnel when he’d come up with the idea, but now there were a lot more people. He counted six vehicles including the one that they looked at, which would mean that there was enough for, two-hundred and forty people to go places all at once? That should be enough, if they all took turns. That plus the women that had come to help out at the base should take a lot of the stress off the men working there.

A voice came from behind him, male and vaguely familiar. Godfrey.

“There’s two more stationed here and two that have been sent to the Capital full time. Their parked at the palace itself. Would you all like to go up? We don’t have any other trips scheduled for today, but it won’t hurt anything to let you see how well they work.”

The ride was smooth, even when they went fast. Faster than a person could fly outside of the craft apparently. In the time it took for Godfrey to point out how the controls worked they were almost at the Capital. There was a hand held device, that you activated and wore on the back of your left hand just like with flying the regular way, and showed them how the set-point control worked, a clever physical device that let you clip the hand control in place quickly and easily so that the pilot could do other things as long as they were flying in a straight line.

“Oooh, can we land? I’d love an update on the whole situation.” Ursala sounded grim as she spoke, so Godfrey, not hesitating, took them in for a landing, a slow and drifting thing over the palace complex itself, taking about ten minutes to settle in next to one of the people moving crafts on the ground.

“Sorry about the wait, we can land nearly as fast as a flyer could, but I don’t want to spook the guards here. Going very slow is kind of the only way we have to communicate our peaceful intentions with the ground at all. Not that anyone else in the world has craft like these yet, but the Royal Guard tends towards careful at all times.” The man sounded apologetic enough at least, even though it wasn’t his fault. Tor didn’t really want to test the crafts shields against explosive weapons with him inside anyway, so taking a bit of extra time worked for him.

None of them were dressed for a state dinner, but all of them were presentable enough for a staff session, so of course, nature and politics being what it was, they’d probably be expected to go to a high court function immediately. Instead a cute Princess, Varley, came out to get them running up to give Tor a hug, causing their shields to bump. Tor laughed a little, but Varley didn’t demand he let go of the shield until they got inside the door at least. Then, as soon as he got it turned off she kissed him. Hard. She didn’t stop until Ursala cleared her throat, several times.

“Hey, Princess… he came with us you know, until you find out if one of us has a claim don’t you think…” The large woman looked at the girl with a fake scowl on her face for a second, but Varley just shook her head and grinned up at her.

“Nope. Sara Debri hasn’t been sleeping with Tor; she’s been bedding my brother. Not that she couldn’t do both of them, but she hasn’t been. I asked Alphie already. You… well, it wouldn’t shock me to learn that you have been and really, given everything, I think you should be sleeping with Tor, for now at least, since it would be good for both of you, but if that was the case you would have corrected me much sooner than you did, if you cared about me doing it at least. Besides, for Tor-centric relationships, as far as I know I have the first position right now, since this is the second time I got him to drop his shield to make out with me and we have an actual agreement in place for it. So really, I think I should be wondering what you two been doing with my Tor up there in the wilderness…” She crossed her arms and raised her chin high in a look that was mock haughty. She spoiled it after about ten seconds with a pretty smile.

Ursala shrugged and told her that mainly they were watching him work off in a corner, though they had taken him to a whore house earlier that day, which functionally Tor owned, it being his compound and all, as well as his idea to put it in.

“He didn’t sleep with anyone though. Not this time. I do have an appointment with him later to discuss oral sex, so things are looking up a little there.”

Everyone laughed, except Tor who didn’t get it. Oral sex? He knew that oral meant mouth, but “mouth sex” didn’t make any sense at all. He may not be the savviest person in that area of life, but he knew enough that he didn’t think that would really work. How could you have kids that way? It was a joke maybe? Well, he got that they were laughing at him, but that was OK. Women just did that. At least they weren’t being really mean about things.

Not yet at least. Maybe they only did that at restaurants? If so, Tor wanted to avoid such places in the future.

The palace looked the same, except that he’d never been to this part of it before. It was deep inside the complex and down a long flight of gray stone stairs that seemed slightly damp. Tor wondered out loud how well the Not-flyers would handle steps like that. They worked on the little steps in the hut, but this was massive compared to that. Varley turned hers on with a quick tap and descended rapidly, but smoothly. Tor didn’t, but not because he didn’t want to. It would just be rude of him to leave the other women alone. To his surprise Varley came back up the steps just as quickly.

“Works like a charm. I figured it out a few weeks ago when they had be running messages for them down here for a full day. I was halfway through the day before I even thought about it. You just have to be careful not to run into anyone, because that can get messy. Don’t worry, it was only Alphonse, so he broke my fall. It also showed him the importance of wearing his shield inside, I think.” She grinned as she floated backwards down the stairs slowly.

The steps went on for a while and the walls went slightly damper and cool the deeper they got. The stone was a dark gray and if it wasn’t for the lights on the close walls, the whole thing would have been gloomy. There were light plates, ones Tor had made himself, since they were in his style and no one else had a template for them yet. If the military had them, that meant the King did, obviously, so it was pretty natural that they’d show up in the palace like this.

The room in the basement was a bit moist, enough that he wished he’d brought them a house drying device, but he didn’t even have one made up, all of them having gone to Ellen Ward. He could make more, if he ever got the time. Right now the King would probably yell at him for wasting his effort on them if he did it. When they entered through the heavy metal door they were met by an odd group of people.

The King and Rolph he’d expected but was a little disappointed that Connie wasn’t anywhere around, a thought that made him blush again. Burks being there was just a little odd, but he’d seen the man around in the last meeting he’d gone to, this time he was dressed very nicely in a deep green suit that actually worked on him color wise. Really, Tor realized, Burks had about the same basic skin tone and color that he did, so if it looked good on the older man, it would probably work for him as well. He wasn’t the largest man in the room, thin and black haired, but he didn’t seem like a servant either somehow. Not in the moment. In fact he seemed to be telling the man across from him off rather soundly.

“No. We will not shut down the school. We move personnel around and keep going. See if some of the older students are willing to forgo military glory for the time being, and stay on as retuletors to replace those we’re losing to other obligations. I thought you were a little more adaptable than that Kyle.” His voice sounded stern and commanding, a little cold maybe. Not the warm, friendly and servile kind of thing that Tor had heard before.

Kyle, it turned out was familiar enough to Tor now, since he’d seen him several times close up in the last few months. Dean Hardgrove. The idea of him actually having a first name and that being something as common as “Kyle” was almost a little funny. There were two men named that in Two Bends after all. No one was laughing, in fact the Dean, for the first time that Tor had seen, looked angry.

“Sure Burks, you just sit back and play whatever little games you have going then sweep in and lambaste me for making the sensible choices? We’ve gone from three hundred students to ninety-four inside a month! Everyone over sixteen has dropped out, most back to family estates or to try and sneak into the military. Kolb has gone off and taken the top combat students with him, god knows what they’re planning. We need to face facts; we can’t hold things together right now.”

Richard took in Tor with a nod and spoke calmly, his attention going to the Dean smoothly.

“Yes. Sir Martin and his personal army… We really need to get a handle on them fast, before they strike out on their own. Best course is probably to find them and set them some kind of task to keep them busy… Have them train with the military maybe? I don’t know. They have the skills for it. Right now we don’t even have a clue where they are. They’re like ghosts suddenly.”

Burks sat up in his hard looking wooden chair and smiled when he saw who’d come in, holding up a hand, a single finger really, to get Hardgrove to shut-up and not say anything more, as he turned towards the door. The chair he sat in slid on the floor just slightly and the man stood.

“Tor! You look… Let’s get you something to eat.” He finished lamely.

Tor didn’t feel hungry at the moment, but he appreciated the thought, he knew that he looked a lot more like a walking skeleton than not these days, flesh lean and hard all over, as often as not pressing right up against bone. Before anyone could say anything Varley turned and vanished up the stairs, presumably to get him food, as backwards as a Princess waiting on him and taking orders from a room servant seemed. It was war time though, so everyone had to serve as best they could, right?

Then again, if Burks was a simple servant here, Tor would have totally rethink what those kind of people did. Why they were even discussing the school didn’t make sense at all.

“Hey everyone. We’ve, uh, come to get an update on the situation with…” Not wanting to just blurt out that Ursala’s parents had been murdered or go into how Karen, his friend, was dead, Tor waved a hand. Funnily enough everyone seemed to get it.

Rolph sat in a big. Old looking, wooden chair next to the King, both dressed in clothing a lot simpler and more heavy duty than he’d gotten used to seeing them in. The King wore what looked like a canvas military uniform in all black and Rolph sat in an old pair of student browns that actually had a bit of wear on them. Looking around Tor realized that, for the first time in his life, he might be the best dressed person in the room. For the men at least, Ursala still beat him, but that didn’t count, because she was a woman. It just worked that way, if he was making up the rules at least. No one else seemed concerned with that kind of thing right now. Of course. That would be too much to ask now that he finally could have been in the lead, he thought with a sigh. Well, at least he was still winning the contest to be the shortest person still, his conversation with the exotic Afrak ambassador flitting across his mind suddenly.

The room had to be the plainest place in the whole building, plain gray stone making a simple square of a room that was no bigger than his section of the hut back at the compound. Not that his house was that small, but with a bunch of giants in it, things got close fast. The same thing was true here. At the back there was a metal door, also in gray that had obviously been opened in the last days, since fresh scratch