/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: The young ancients

Knight of the Realm

P. Power


P. S. Power

Knight of the Realm

Chapter one

The fine bed he sat on was soft, of course. Tor would have expected nothing less of one found in the King’s palace. The dark wooden frame had a high polished sheen, the covers silky and new looking, not worn with age at all. Whatever they used to stuff the mattress just formed under him when he shifted and sure as heck wasn't straw. That he was in it was a bit of a mystery, but no one else seemed to mind, at least they hadn't come to tell him to get out yet.

That it was comfortable didn't mean all that much. It had a lovely brown and gold coverlet, done in silk, like the sheets, which were both wonderful… and a complete waste of resources to his mind. Silk sheets? Expensive and far too easily stained, plus hard to reuse for anything else later. Cotton would have made a lot more sense really. Then when it got too worn it could be turned into children's clothing or even rags and given new life. Personal comfort shouldn't outweigh practicality, should it?

Ursala, his friend, had assured him that she'd make sure no one bothered him while he worked, palace or not. After all, he was building magical devices she wanted, so it was kind of critical that his focus remain as intent and smooth as possible the whole time. Those things led to quality work, which was important.

So far that hadn't happened at all. Not even a little bit. Being left alone that was.

That he'd managed to focus was a bit of a miracle really.

For some crazy reason people kept trying to visit. Tor realized how absurd that was, sure, but it kept happening anyway. Ursala was Countess Thorgood, and even her words hadn't kept them from his chamber door. What did he have to do, hire the King himself to stand guard?

It was insane, of course.

The man was way too busy for that.

With everything going on, why in the world would anyone ever want to sit and chat with him anyway? His friends he could see, looking to share and keep the social connections strong, but they all knew he was working and generally left him alone like they should. Tor had good friends that way. No, it was all the people he didn't know that kept bugging him.

Stupid people.

OK, that was a little unfair, they were just scared and looking for ways to protect themselves from the damage of war, but really, that was what he was doing. Trying to help people be a little safer. Making his little trinkets to help them be secure, and to keep their people and homes that way too.

You'd think that would count for something.

True, Tor was just making copies of magical devices right now, amulets to shield people in battle or from attack, some flying rigs, military grade Not-flyers and the like. All things he'd designed himself and made so many times before that he could do it without even holding the original template in his hands now. It was rote work, and should have been boring, except that he went too deep while doing it to notice that kind of thing anymore.

Pure concentration trumped boredom every time.

Luckily. Otherwise he'd have given all this building up long ago and gone to sea or something more active. He'd only been to the ocean once, but it had been kind of impressive. Sailing on the waves would be an adventure if nothing else.

As he finished the latest batch of one hundred shields, Tor inhaled deeply. Swimming back to consciousness again he oriented himself. First feeling the soft silk under him, smooth and slightly tacky, then where his legs rested against the soft down of the mattress which was as it should be. Perfectly normal. Then he heard them. Voices coming from about ten feet in front of him.

Annoying voices.

Grand… more visitors.

“I simply must have an audience now! War is upon us and I can't leave my County unprepared. Master Tor must simply produce enough shields and weapons for my people as well.”

The voice wasn't familiar, but had that base rumble that Tor associated with all the royal giants.

He tried not to automatically hold it against whoever the man was. Some of his best friends were giants. And, even if they were over-sized and used too many resources to be efficient, they were still good people. Maybe this fellow would be as well. Probably not. Most of them were a little too into themselves, to feel good about.

Tor felt like grunting a little, anger suddenly ripping through him. He “must” make things for this guy? Really? Most people at least asked if he would, even the King and Queen requested politely. But then they got that it worked pretty well, especially since he never actually told any of them no. If they wanted his things all they had to do was ask, but a little bit of courtesy wouldn't hurt. He was putting out twelve hundred field devices per day, by himself, and this man wanted him to do more? The Debri manufacturing house only put out half of that each day and they were the main official supplier of flying rigs and shields for the whole kingdom. The agitation tried to turn into full blown anger as he opened both eyes and found the man that had been speaking, looming in the doorway, a pissy look on his face. In front of him stood a cowed looking boy of about twelve, maybe thirteen, baring the giant entry to the room with his body.

Intimidated or not, the kid didn't move, which almost made Tor want to cheer. It was hard to stand like that, looking up at someone nearly twice your height and not get out of the way. Tor knew the feeling himself. It was like they could trip and crush you at any moment.

The very large man, dressed in incredibly nice blue and black clothing didn't try to push the smaller figure out of the way at least. He just stood arguing to be let in, as the boy rather politely refused him, his brown haired head nodded as he spoke as if trying to influence the man to agree with him through force of will.

It wasn't working.

That could be done, theoretically, but it would take some kind of direct effect, which required a vast amount of focus, as well as knowing what you were doing. Tor couldn't do it. Not yet at least. Or at least he’d never tried it, which wasn’t exactly the same thing.

“Um… My Lord Morris? I was told to not let anyone in to see Master Tor. If you'd like to make an appointment with him, there's a list, you see, and a few people ahead of you, but if you wish I can put a good word in with the Master and try to gain you an earlier time slot… He's working almost non-stop though, making things for the war effort right now, so-” The boy wasn't someone Tor knew really, a page? That seemed likely; the pages were all small boys that he'd noticed, or small girls with short, boy like, haircuts. He hadn't talked to a lot of them yet, which was obviously an oversight on his part if some of them were going to be acting as his personal guardians like this. He'd kind of thought they just ran messages back and forth. Apparently they were expected to do more than that.

Like stare down giants.

The big man looked over at Tor and noticed that his eyes had opened. He tried to walk past the kid only to find that he wouldn't budge at all. Heh. Morris, who was probably a Count given the name, Tor decided, frowned.

“I'm a Count boy! Get out of my way or I'll have you whipped and hung by your thumbs for good measure!” The Count, who must have been nearly six-eight compared to the smaller figures five-two or so, bristled and started to draw his hand back to strike with a backhand. Afraid or not, the small figure in brown didn't move out of the way, even as he cringed from the proffered blow.

“I wouldn't.” A soft voice came from the hallway behind the count, male and deep, a bass rumble even compared to Morris, the feeling that loomed was familiar, even though the bits of skin and hair Tor could make out seemed too dark to be his friend right now.

Prince Alphonse. Or, as Tor knew him, Rolph, his buddy, and roommate from school. In disguise, sort of at least.

“I can almost guarantee you that if you strike a child in his presence Tor won't make anything for you, ever. In fact he'll probably come over and kick your ass right here in the hall. Don't think he can't either. I suppose you could try it and see if I'm lying, but really, getting your name on a list is about the best you can do here right now. I'd just take that and leave quietly, or at least start trying to be a bit more civil with our staff.” It wasn’t his normal tone, but Rolph sounded a little cold. Like ice. It was his half whispering that did it.

A deep chuckle came from someone that Tor couldn't see at all, “Too right Bertie. I'm marrying his sister, and we're close personal friends, he was the one that introduced us even, and I still have to sign up to visit with him myself. No fair jumping the line here.” There was good humor in the voice, which Tor recognized as belonging to Count Toverland Morehouse Thomson. Tovey, a friend of his from school, back when they'd all gone. Forever ago it seemed. Months even. It was nice that the blond giant had come to visit. Now if they could just get rid of this other Count…

Count Morris bristling a little, which Tor understood. Tovey may be the man’s equal in social rank and position, but he was also only about twenty-one years old. Or was it twenty still? Tor was pretty sure he'd missed that birthday, along with his own and Rolph's. Working too much to pay attention. The Prince and he were both eighteen now and had been for a while. Really he needed to get himself caught up on presents pretty soon, or at least send out a card or two. Not to mention all the ones he'd missed with his own family back in Two Bends, and all the people back at his own house. They were his guests after all, in a way, even if they lived and worked there full time. Which made them family, didn't it? Tor hadn't realized how far behind he'd been falling on social obligations.

Hopefully people would cut him a little slack because of the war. The most recent event, County Ward in the southeast declaring war on the rest of the kingdom, kind of had everyone in an uproar. After all, the Wards, the Count and his young, incredibly bitchy, but beautiful, wife, had tried to kill nearly fifty people in the last months with poison. Who knew what else they'd been up to. Tor suspected they were working with the Austran nation, but couldn't really prove that yet.

He couldn't even really prove they were behind the attempt on his own life some four months ago. Less than that? More? Tor didn't remember now. Too much work had shifted his ability to keep track of time at all. He'd have to buy a calendar.

The older Count had salt and pepper colored hair, and a nice looking mustache. Full and manly. Mid-tone dark skin, which was about average. He hadn't lowered his hand yet however, even facing the Prince and heir as well as a fellow Count. Tor stretched a little, grabbed the bundle of shields he'd been building from in front of him on the bed and got up slowly, moving directly over to a piece of paper that sat on the floor along the wall along with several others. The one he wanted for this group of copper disks said “Printer” on it in his own cruddy hand writing. It wasn't visible any more, being buried in field devices, but it was the right stack. The metal of the copper plates made a solid clanking sound as it bumped the other bundles already there. There were several thousand pieces just in the one pile.

Once that was done, Tor stretched again and then turned to look at the noisy and angry seeming man that still filled his doorway, apparently not willing to let the others through or remove himself. Tor noticed that the boy still hadn't cleared the door either, even after being threatened with a beating and torture at the hands of a man that could legally do exactly that. That was pretty tough. If a giant had threatened him like that at twelve, he would have wet himself and considered anything short of dying a win.

Forcing himself to walk smoothly, Tor padded over to the scene in his bare feet and placed a hand gently on the slightly smaller boys shoulder trying to get his attention without startling him. It made solid contact which made Tor wince. Neither of them had a shield on? He'd been working, so his had to be off, which he fixed with a tap to his chest, the intent of the move activating his personal amulet, but his guard? The boy had just never been given one. The magics were a little hard to get most places, for all there were thousands of them sitting along the wall.

A grave oversight if the boy had to go toe to toe with giants on Tor's behalf. Without saying anything, even as everyone else just watching, he moved to the box of devices he kept on the small table next to Holly's bed. He pulled a shield out that already hung on a stout leather thong, which had to be one of the countesses at work, because Tor always just used cheap hemp string himself. Then, looking carefully he grabbed a copper tube that held a force lance field as well. The leather got draped over the kids head from behind, which made him jump, and the tube was pushed into his right hand. The boy grasped it a little weakly not understanding yet. Then, again without saying anything, Tor activated the shield for him reaching over his shoulder to tap the sigil. The shields locked and then forced away from each other, but it didn't hurt, so Tor didn't worry about the effect.

Rolph laughed out loud. It was a soft thing that sounded menacing, but was really just that gentle because of the stab wounds that the Prince had all over his stomach. That hurt, being stabbed like that, and the fact that Rolph was up walking around already, less than two weeks after the attack that had nearly killed them all, was impressive. If anyone had ever thought the price was soft, or a wimp, they needed to rethink their position now, didn't they?

Still, the laugh sounded menacing, which worked pretty well really. It's what Tor would have wanted to do himself if he hadn't mainly been living in a trance state. That tended to wash out his outward emotions a bit. Most of the way, really. Until he got all the way out of the working state he'd seem flat and boring for the most part.

That chuckle could have been on purpose. Rolph, Prince Alphonse, Tor corrected again, was good at judging the moment like that.

“Or,” he added, looking at the Count with a grin. “Tor might just do something like that. Military grade force lance? Please tell me you didn't hand a kid one of those explosives…”

Tor nodded to the boy.

“Force lance and shield. Not instantly lethal, but it should even things up if need be.” Tor gestured to the page to let everyone in. It was obvious that he wasn't going to be getting back to work any time soon. He tried to seem casual about it, but coming out of a working trance to find some overbearing giant threatening his bodyguard or whatever the boy was, kind of made him feel a bit surly. It was a fight to keep that out of his voice, flat affected or not.

“Please, let's sit for a moment and see to things, then I really need to go and exercise for a while, all this sitting has to be balanced out somewhere… and for some reason everyone keeps thinking that beating me without mercy is the way to do it.” It really was the common thought too. Maybe because running wasn't a group activity, but Tor kind of wondered if some of them weren't secretly taking pleasure in it.

There was only one chair, a standard thing for all the palace rooms, which they gave to Count Morris, letting him feel important, so everyone else had to sit on the beds. Tovey and Rolph perched on Holly's, leaving Tor the one he and Ursala shared, he gestured for the boy to sit down next to him, which got a surprised grunt from the older Count, even though the other two accepted it as normal. He was Tor, and that meant he barely noticed class distinctions to their minds. Really he just didn't want the kid to have to stand while everyone else got more comfortable. It didn't seem fair.

“What, is this boy supposed to be in on our meeting as well?” The Count asked sourly. At first Tor didn't know if he meant him or the kid, but then realized that with his new full beard, he didn't look nearly as young any more, probably even close to his own actual age. Tor glanced at the boy, whose head was hanging just a bit. Now that he saw the face and not just the brown mop of hair from the back, he recognized the kid, though he didn't know his name. He'd been the first person to ever act as a meal server for him after all, having brought the plates to the table on his first visit to the palace. That was pretty memorable. He'd also been at the council meeting about a week back, along with a girl that Tor thought was his sister. They looked a lot alike at least.

Tor shrugged.

“Of course. He's an open council member, as well as my personal assistant and bodyguard. As he told you, he's in charge of arranging all appointments for me and helping to schedule needed work. He needs to be here if you want to schedule anything doesn't he? I don't even know where the list is being kept myself, which means he's kind of in charge of me. Now, you seem to have pressing business, so, why don't we get to it?” Tor fought to keep his voice polite and light and thought he might have made slightly sleepy sounding at least.

For the palace this was practically calling the Count out, for all it lacked social grace. Then again, the man had threatened to hit someone that was obviously just doing their job. The King himself wouldn't have done that, nor any other member of the royal family. For this guy to come into the palace and think it was OK to do that…

Oddly, Count Morris ignored the lack of courtesy and started right in on his spiel, one that was a lot more pleading suddenly that the Prince of the realm and a fellow Count were watching. Funny how that worked, Tor thought. The man sat straight and cleared his throat, pulling at his deep blue velvet tunic to straighten it.

“It's come to our attention that Master Tor is making field devices for several County’s forces now, since the declaration of hostilities between County Ward and the Kingdom of Noram. My County of Morris borders Ward on the west and sits as guard to the Capital itself. I was hoping that I'd be allowed to purchase some shields, weapons and flying gear for my own forces, since we may be expected to act in the common defense…”

It was a good argument, Tor realized, and done in a way that he absolutely hated, sounding as if the man was talking about him like he wasn't there, even as he looked at him. The Count seemed to be giving most of his attention to Rolph, which made sense, then to Tovey, only making casual glances at Tor at all. Right, because Tor was just a device to him, a thing to make what he wanted, not a real person at all.

Really he was paying slightly more attention to the kid next to him than Tor himself. At first it didn't make sense, until Tor saw that the boy had casually been pointing the force lance at the Count the whole time, ready to put him through the wall if the man attacked. Heh. Well, Tor had named him as a bodyguard, hadn't he? It probably also explained why the guy wasn't talking directly to him or making much eye contact. He didn't want to seem hostile…

That seemed like a good plan actually, given everything. Apparently the Count picked up on the fact that the boy hadn't backed down even when he didn't have a weapon or shield. Now that he did, the kid was probably nearly the man’s equal in a fight, even if he was untrained. There was a real reason everyone wanted shields for their combat troops. It could make a single man worth about ten in a fight. More if it was a very high end shield. What the boy next to him wore was that. In fact it was better than what the elite military had right now. The weapon in his hand was too.

Rolph nodded gently, “I see. Well, on the surface that sounds reasonable, but there are limited work hours in a day, and expenses to be met. Plus Sir Torrence has prior obligations to meet. If he were to stress himself on your behalf, and it is a real stress by the way, not to be taken lightly, enough so, that at the current rate a royal edict has already been proposed to prevent him from working any harder and requiring a vacation — not a joke by the way Tor, mom's about ready to storm the room and take you out by force you know — what can you offer for his time and efforts?”

Count Morris may have been overbearing, entitled and grumpy, but he'd come to deal, even if it meant doing so with a common looking little man sitting barefoot on a bed. The man offered going rate for all devices provided, and a small section of land that he assured was a good fertile farm in a valley bottom, that could be tenanted with Tor's people. Conveniently enough it was a strip that directly bordered County Ward. All goods raised there would go to him untaxed for twenty years and the man suggested openly that he had a daughter and some young nieces that Tor could sleep with if he wished. Or nephews if he'd rather.

That part was said with a smarmy eye and a smirk towards the boy, who was most likely underage for such things. It wasn't judging, just calculating and creepy the way it was said. Tor was going to hit the man for even making the suggestion, an irrational and stupid impulse since hitting a Count would not go over well, but the man flew backwards out of his chair first, which was helpful of him. It save Tor from having to do it. The boy next to him looked down at his hand, shocked.

Rolph laughed.

“I think that answers the question about your nephews or young nieces rather succinctly. Tor, what say you as to the rest?”

As the Count fought his way to his feet, looking angry and like he was going to try and attack someone, Tor grinned and spoke quickly.

“Well… I can offer two thousand units next month, or… given the delicate nature of the location, I may be able to sacrifice some sleep and get things done faster, but I can't promise anything right now. I have a trip to Afrak coming soon as one of my obligations… It predates the war, but is an important project to them. So important that I've been named the Ambassador even. That won't stop me from working totally, but will slow things down. Is that all right?”

The man stopped, fists clenched, glaring at the boy in brown who still aimed the force lance his way, looking more than a little scared. Tor got that. A sitting Count could have a commoner put to death for an attack like that, even if it was hilarious. Actually, the most likely occurrence for such a thing would be death. Counts could be touchy like that. It helped right now that everyone else was pretending that it didn't matter though. That it wasn’t a matter of honor or pride as much as happenstance. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the older man snorted a sound that wasn't amused but didn't seem overly angry either.

“I apologize if my offer gave offense sir, none was intended.” He bowed to the boy, just a bit, and smiled tightly, then turned to Tor slightly. “Of course sooner is better, but since no one in the world could be expected to deliver such devices in four times that, I guess I can't complain too much, can I? Thank you. Again, forgive me for any… disruption to your day. I've been a little stressed as you might imagine. The Wards aren't exactly friends of mine right now. It's a shame really, we've always gotten along well enough in the past. I really don't know what Marvin is thinking. Declaring war… Preposterous.”

Tor stood and almost put out his hand to shake, but caught himself. In the Capital it was all about bowing. Right. He made a low bow, as appropriate to his old station, forgetting for a moment that he was a Knight now, A Countier too. Not just a student from the country. Everyone else stood and there were bows all around, with the kid making an effort to get lower than Tor was. Oops. Well, at least his new guard or whatever knew the correct protocol. Tor still had to think about it himself, but then he hadn't grown up with it.

The Prince smiled politely, even though the bowing had obviously hurt and walked the older man to the door, which the boy shut quickly behind him, turning around with wide eyes. Rolph pointed at him, a single finger accusing without a word, making the kid cringe again and look down.

“Ger, what are you trying to do, start a war? Get yourself killed? I admit, it was funny as all hell, but Count Morris isn't exactly known for his sense of humor. That he didn't call you out… Well, I guess he wouldn't have would he? As a commoner you'd just be put to death, he doesn't know about your family ties. Since I know Tor, that means that he'd have probably challenged him to a duel first, and won, which means the Morris heirs would probably go to war with him and really, we don't need that right now, it would just be a mess all around, so please, in the future, for the good of the kingdom and the war effort I must ask you to hold off on attacking anyone unless you really have to, all right?” The tone was half scolding, half fairly high humor, but the boy nodded as if given a reprieve from death.

Smiling Tovey pointed at Tor, gesturing with his whole hand really, the polite way of addressing an equal, or even a near equal, so really nice of the guy all things considered, and told him that they'd actually come to see that he got his daily exercise, which was to be weapons practice in the salle with Countess Printer and several others. Whatever a salle was. Nodding Tor went to find his socks and shoes. Ger shifted uneasily.

Right, what to do with him?

“Ger is it? What's your full name, if that's not it I mean…” Tor didn't want the kid to be uneasy if that was all the name he had. Not everyone used last names even in the Capital. Ger was a fine name. Certainly as good as Tor. Better probably, since more people had it, or something similar.

“Gerald Negev Cannor, Master Tor sir.” The boy sounded humble and could be barely heard suddenly.

“Tor. Not Master Tor. Especially if we're going to be working together. Were too close in age for anything like that. Do you have exercise clothes around? I guess for the time being you should just go to my practices with me, unless you have some of your own to go to? I don't know… what kind of training have you had?”

As a palace serving boy, grandson of Laura the head cook that had died in the attack at the Queen’s birthday it turned out, and otherwise an orphan, he knew how to read and write and do sums, as well as cook and bake a little as well as palace protocol. No one had ever taught the boy to fight, even though he clearly had the reflexes for it. An oversight for sure. So really, about where Tor had been at the same age. Only bigger, stronger, and made of sterner stuff all around. Nodding he suggested that Ger go and do all the exercises with them that day, until proper training could be set up. Tovey agreed with him at least, though Rolph wrinkled his nose.

“Even the little kids can do more than I can right now, it's embarrassing.” It was clear that the Prince was kidding, at least mainly, but Ger ducked his head again, as if ashamed that his abilities might outstrip the wounded royal.

It took half an hour for everyone to show up in the salle, which turned out just to be a large open room with vaulted ceilings, sanded wooden floors that were well worn instead of polished, and high windows to let in natural light. Tor wondered if they'd been constructed that high on purpose so that when his practice weapons flew out of his hand they wouldn't shatter as easily, being hard to hit way up there. It made sense, though how the builders had anticipated his coming Tor didn't know.

To his surprise half the people in the room were the royal family. All of them. Even the King had turned out, wearing a set of worn black canvas exercise clothes. Next to him the Queen wore a white outfit of similar material. They both looked good, Tor realized, fit. Already working with Holly was Karina, the middle child and second in line to the throne, both with shining saber and dagger combinations, fighting as if their lives depended on it.

The sword work was nearly as good as Tor had ever seen.

Countess Printer was what he'd always referred to as a “combat giant” back in school. Mainly royal kids that were trained particularly for war. Strong fighters that were groomed for handling their families’ petty squabbles, or on very rare occasions, attacks from other lands on Noram. Holly had been more muscular in school, but then she'd recently been poisoned nearly to death, which he knew from personal experience could cause muscles to waste away and weight to be lost fast. That she came at the exercise with such skill and ferocity only made sense. Indeed, now that he thought about it, he could recall the woman having beaten him around the exercise yard at school a few times before she graduated. It had been a popular sport at school, his small size and tendency to scurry away rapidly being considered a bit of a challenge.

What surprised him was that Karina, who he'd always thought of as a little vain and shallow, a little too concerned with what other people thought of her and a little prissy, was giving at least as good as she was getting, even though Holly was nearly six inches taller than she was. It was impressive to say the least. If Tor had been faced with the woman, he would have run away himself. Either woman, he realized.

“Ger, watch them. Try to pick up what you can until I call you over for exercises all right?” He pointed at the two women broadly, the motion catching the Queen’s attention, though she didn't move, going back to watching the action herself.

That made sense, because when they ended a few minutes later she moved out to work against Holly and Karina herself, taking on both of them at once. If either of the younger women was holding back, it wasn't readily apparent at all. In fact, if anything it looked like they were both trying even harder, hacking and slashing from both sides, their four blades moving to attack and being pushed aside over and again. Eventually the Queen lost, but it took nearly ten minutes and was close. As she “killed” her daughter, Holly moved in and got her in the back, tapping her lightly.

When that was done Tor loosened up, swinging around in the familiar exercises, Ger joining him, trying to copy what he did watching with careful side long glances. The King started working with Tovey as they limbered and stretched. It was a lot more even a match-up than he'd have thought, the King being huge, over eight foot tall, nearly a foot larger than Tovey, but the Count having just a little more actual skill with a blade. The shining silver swords shone and gleamed as they danced, singing out a familiar tune. If the women had been impressive, this display was a little awe inspiring. Intellectually Tor knew he'd seen better fighting. Kolb fairly regularly handed Tovey his behind pretty easily for instance. Then again, Sir Martin Kolbrin, Kolb to his friends and students, had been the weapons instructor at the Lairdgren School for a reason. But in this moment, these giants, feet tapping a staccato rhythm on the gray stone of the floor, looked almost untouchable.

When they finished Rolph pointed at the King and Tovey, both a little out of breath. The King raised his eyebrows.

“Do you think this much activity would be wise just yet? Your wounds…”

“No, not me, that would be silly, I'd end up bleeding all over the floor and it looks freshly cleaned. The boy that washes them would be most put out, and rightly so, probably come and take his own turn thrashing me too. No, you two against my champion. Tor, if you'd be so good as to dispatch these ruffians?” Everyone laughed, including Tor, but he went out onto the floor clutching his borrowed practice blades gamely enough. They were short compared to what everyone else had of course, and he wondered for a second if he'd picked up Varley's old set, since the youngest royal had only started to shoot up in the last six months, having been closer to his own height before that.

Since they were playing the part of ruffians, the King and the Count didn't bother saluting or letting him actually get out onto the floor. Torrance had to suppress the urge to simply run away, that being what he'd really been trained to do at school and dove for the floor instead, rolling with blades held out carefully, directly towards the King. With his right hand blade, the longer saber, only about two and a half feet, he “sliced” the counts leg off at just below the knee and then stabbed him several times in the stomach as fast as he could, then came to his feet running fast before the King could use the giant blade in his hand.

Laughing, Tor ducked and spun in place just past Tovey, hitting first the back of his left leg then making a “X” pattern over his lower back and placing a slightly awkward sword point into his heart from behind. Sabers didn't stab well he knew, so he repeated the motion several times, trying to keep the large Count between the even larger King and him. Then Tor jumped to the side and threw his practice dagger at the King, since he was the only opponent left, Tovey having been “killed” at least twice in that last exchange. The hilt of the dagger hit the King’s leg, of course. If the point had hit Tor would have passed out, most likely. His ability to throw a knife was virtually non-existent after all. That didn't matter. King Richard and his reactions were what counted. He danced back first, a natural reflex to a knife being thrown at you, even a practice one, and then tried to capitalize on it having missed by plunging forward fast. As expected.

Tor threw himself flat to the floor and cut the giant monarchs left foot off as he stepped onto it. At least it would have done that if he had a real sword and a strong enough arm. On the backstroke he rose up and stabbed the King in the groin, indicating it without contact, then the stomach twice before having to roll out of the way of the massive blade that tried to bi-sect him.

Dancing to his feet, Tor ran around the giant monarch, making a point of staying out of range the whole time. At the end of the first one and a quarter circles, just as the large man tried to shift his feet again, Tor moved in and hit him in the legs twice more. If they had armor on it wouldn't have counted most likely, so Tor reset, ran away some more for a while and tried again. Then again. The King was so freaking tall that he had to finally jump through the air to score a solid blow to the side of the neck with the longer blade he had left. Hardly fair really, but nature was what it was.

No one said anything for a few moments.

Finally Rolph cleared his throat, “My champion two, noble ner'do-wells, zero.” His voice was slightly smug, considering the two giants had obviously just let Tor win. It had to be that, didn't it? After all, they were so huge and very good. Well, Tor decided it was kind of them not to humble him overly. They'd have to work harder with him though, so that he didn't get all soft.

That led to him having to work against everyone else in turn, with the Queen and Princess Veronica being the hardest for him. The Queen because she was so good. Wickedly so, and faster than she'd shown working against her daughter and the Countess, apparently not feeling a need to hold back against the likes of him. Tor won, but just barely. Again he wondered if she'd let him win, taking mercy on him? She was always very kind to him, and may have just not wanted to hurt his feelings, not that Tor would be bothered by something like that. A lot of girls had beaten him up in combat practice. He was kind of used to it by now.

Varley was hard because he couldn't bring himself to hit her. She was… Well, bad would have been unkind to say, but certainly the youngest Princess could use some more practice. She did manage to beat him though, by pretending to cry, kissing him when he came to make sure she wasn't hurt. Then stabbing him with a dagger she had hidden in the folds of her green canvas exercise outfit.

“Argh! Taken in by a pretty face and guile, our hero and champion goes down…” Rolph roared with good humor. Tor chuckled too. It was a fair move, so it counted as a clean kill. No one said you had to use only physical skill in a fight. If that were the case he'd have lost almost all of them he'd ever been in, instead of simply… managing them, like he had.

Ger sat, his eyes wide the whole time. Finally the King and Queen came over and, smiling, asked if the boy was his new Squire. The tone was serious even, so Tor shook his head first, then gave them a half nod as if the idea wasn't too farfetched. It wasn’t really, was it?

“Nope. First he needs some training and practice, and then, if no one objects, I think he should go to Lairdgren if possible. The school there's still open right?” The King nodded, his face suddenly pensive. Tor glanced at the boy and nodded.

“He has a sister too, so we need to make arrangements for her as well. I'll cover that and any training they need until then, school and lessons and all that…” Tor winced hard and blushed, looking at Ger, realizing what he'd just done. He'd just let the words pop out without considering them.

“Sorry Ger! I don't even know if you or your sister have other plans or anything and I was talking about you like you weren't right here. I apologize. Um, do you have any other plans?” It occurred to Tor that he was not just being pushy, but didn't even know the sisters name. What kind of person did that? He blushed at his own heavy handedness.

Ger raised his head proudly.

“We don't have positions yet sir, but we can work, we don't need charity.” The young man’s voice held more dignity than Tor thought he could muster himself, so he nodded.

“Right. I knew that. I've seen you do it, so that isn’t in question at all. I guess what I'm saying is that I have some positions available at my house. There's a lot of training needed, so, you know, it's more like an apprenticeship than a job to start with, and you'd both need schooling to do the whole thing. Even if you become squires you'll want that education. You do get paid a little, as well as room, board and tuition. We need to talk to your sister too, maybe…” Tor looked at the Queen. “Connie, I know you're busy, but would you help me with that? I don't want anyone to think… that I'm taking advantage of these two.” Tor remembered how Count Morris had looked at Ger as if the kid was something other than his assistant. The girl was even the right gender for him, if too young. Cute too, so people could take his interest the wrong way really easily.

Connie nodded regally and Rich smiled hugely at Tor, clapping him on the shoulder suddenly.

“Just let me know when the Squireship papers need to be signed and I'll start working up the signatures. That can take some time you know. Counts get all prickly about it, as if it was real work to sign their names.”

From behind Tor laughter came as Rolph told them all how Ger had defended his new bosses honor by knocking Count Morris on his behind with a force lance. The boy ducked his head in shame but had to fight to keep a smile off his face at the same time.

“Humph.” Holly said, her eyes noticing that the kid was there finally. “Well if Tor tells me you'll do, when the time comes you've got my imprint. Morris is a stick in the mud at the best of times. Still, he does hold a key position strategically, so outfitting him isn't a horrible plan, and he's loyal, I'll say that for the man.” Her words were considering, but her tone stayed sad and dark the whole time. She still missed her husband, Tor could tell. It may have been an arranged marriage, but she took it seriously enough to make Tor both a little envious and scared. In the end, he suspected that Holly Printer would destroy the world to kill the Wards, if that's what it took. Tor couldn't belittle the feeling, but also couldn't forget that he lived in the world himself, along with everyone he cared for.

Tovey allowed as how he could possibly also add his signature if he got a good recommendation from Tor as well. Rolph clapped the boy on the back and smiled.

“There you go Ger. Now we just find one more and you can start on your path to Knighthood! Or, knowing Tor, probably any other career you want. It's a good situation to go into. At Wilderness Station you can probably get your own house even, though you might have to make it. Lots to do there now. Tor even has his own whorehouse, though you're a little young for that yet.”

Ger blanched and looked at Tor nervously. Varley got it first, and explained.

“Don't worry Ger! Tor won't put you or Gemma to work there. Alphie just meant that you could use their services, when you got a little older, that's all. Well, unless you want to work there, then that would be all right I guess…” She teased a bit, getting knowing nods from the other royals. Tor snorted.

“Not until they're at least fifteen though, for working there at least and then only on school breaks. If you want to spend your money that way, that's up to you, or I suppose you could trade work with some of the women if you wanted, in exchange… But as to working there, I have different plans. Those being almost anything else you want to do that doesn't make my little country bred mind spin in circles. We'll get with Connie and your sister later and work out what you two actually might like to try.”

And, Tor decided, see that any relatives they had might be informed and kept in the loop. For all he knew some aunt or uncle would want them to go into the family business. The kids seemed smart enough from what he'd seen after all. Which wasn't, admittedly, very much. The Queen announced that everyone should present themselves at dinner to see to it. Connie like to do that, set up dinner meetings. It gave her an excuse to have extra ceremony or something. That, entertaining and such, was really her job as Queen, it seemed unimportant at first, but once you realized how much everything in the kingdom hinged on people not having ruffled feathers and feeling like they were important… well, it was probably as crucial as anything the King did, if in a very different way.

That gave them several hours, which for Tor meant just enough time to wash up and put out two hundred more devices, shields and flying rigs this time, just to keep things slightly fresh. Doing only one kind of thing without stopping would eventually wear on his own field, which couldn't work, because he was a person, not a shield. Do that too often and it would just kill you. It was covered on the second day of school even. It wasn't really that dangerous, but it was something to keep in mind pushing like he was.

Ger wanted to stand guard at the door, but Tor sent him to look up his sister as soon as Holly and Ursala came in, since they could keep the wolves at bay he assured the boy, both being Countesses and all that. Ger looked at Holly and, obviously remembering her practice earlier, nodded. Not a lot would be coming through her, Tor agreed.

Ursala, tall and blond, leaner now than he'd ever seen her, though not skinny at all, let her eyes follow Ger as he bowed himself out of the room in best servant fashion.

“Cute kid. Are we assigned a page then finally?”

“No, that’s Tor's new ward and possibly future Squire. There's a girl too. Orphans, the last of their immediate family being killed by the Austran attack. The cook that led the servants against that Larval assassin? Anyway, we just need to get your signature and the kids can both be squires, we already have Thomson, which will make their lives a lot easier I dare say. No orphanage for them. Already offered surety towards any schooling they want by Master Tor here. Plus the kid knocked around Count Morris earlier. Tried to imply Tor and he were lovers. Turned out to be a mistake. If he's going to do things like that the boy is going to need to be at least a Squire. Really, we should get with the King on that tonight, in case Morris gets in a snit over what happened earlier. We don't need a potential fighter like him executed just to keep the likes of Morris happy. Not with a war on.”

For some reason all that earned him a warm hug from Ursala. And a kiss. Then a little more than that, until Holly started to chuckle darkly.

“Not to break up your fun, but we should be getting ready for dinner, we're all supposed to be present tonight to discuss this and see what the kids want to do. You could probably dodge it of course, but since they're like as not going to be your side-range step kids, after a fashion, I'd think you'd want to be there.”

With a soft smile Ursala moved to get ready, helping Holly as needed and vice versa. Normally they'd have dedicated palace servants, if they didn't have their own, but the place was so crowded that they'd opted to do without. It would leave someone to attend to older people that needed the help more than they did. Holly was used to field conditions she'd said, and Ursala was too, in a way, living in a little hut with Tor and the others. They didn't really have servants at all. Just a tiny prostitute that brought their meals in sometimes.

Tor was already more or less dressed, except for shoes, so he made one last batch of shields. Flying rigs may be neat, but fighting forces only needed so many flying warriors it seemed. All of the military wanted shields though. That and lights. He'd have to start on those too again soon, and weapons. Really he was waiting on that last part though, until he could talk with the King, and maybe Rolph, alone about it. The Prince was, of course, vital to the war effort. If anything should happen to the King, he was in charge and no one wanted a six month training period for him to get up to speed while Austra hammered the kingdom back to the cataclysm. They hadn't really attacked in force yet, but they had some boats off the coast harrying fishing vessels at times. Mainly name calling so far for some reason. They'd take advantage of a vulnerability though.

Who wouldn't?

Besides, Rolph was smart, it would be stupid not to get his advice.

At dinner a lot more people showed up than he'd expected. For some reason half of them were people from his house, well, Wildlands Station, which was a lot more than a single dwelling now, but he hadn't known they'd be coming for dinner. For that matter, given the plain and practical dress that most of them wore, it didn't look like they'd known they were coming either.

It fell to Rolph to make the introductions, because, like Tor, he knew everyone at the table by name and was the highest ranked person that did, so the job was his by tradition.

“So, introductions! This is an exciting group of people all around, first let’s do the boring people, and by that I mean the ones that everyone probably knows, not that they’re any less than interesting. At the top of the table we have the King, Richard Cordes, next to him his lovely wife, my mother, Queen Constance Cordes, next to her is Tor, whom I think everyone here knows? No? Right, Gemma you haven't officially met yet. Then let me formally introduce Sir Torrence Baker, Countier four Lairdgren and probably one of the best people I've ever met. In case the title got missed by some, I'm Alphonse Cordes, in disguise right now, but they still let me be Prince for some reason, as well as a pin cushion in my spare time. Not a hobby I recommend taking up.

“Princess Veronica the fair is across from Gerald Cannor next to him his twin sister Gemma who's across from my lovely sister Princess Karina the-”

Trice snorted.

“Princess Karina quick cut.” She waived the stub of her left arm, gone at just below the elbow around the tan bandages standing out from her rather stark black clothes. Her voice was playful at least, which earned her a stuck out tongue from Karina.

Good.

Trice wasn't someone that could be coddled. She was tough as nails most of the time and willing to do anything to get a job done, but if you let her cry or feel sorry for herself she could go on for hours. Loudly. Better to not let her start. Once again Karina impressed Tor without knowing she did it. Varley was clearly a genius, but Karina had her moments of insight too.

Rolph glared at Trice a little.

“Really Trice, if you’re not going to be grateful to her, you should at least be afraid. Think about it.” He didn't smile about the words, but Tor did. It was a good point. Tor wouldn't have been able to cut her arm off like that. He would have frozen up… and let his friend die because of it.

“Anyway, next to Princess quick cut is Sir Martin Kolbrin, Knight of the realm,

Baron and a wickedly good weapons master, across from him Mercy Morgan, my aunt and Baroness Thorgood, then her husband Duke Eric Morgan. Across from him is Countess Ursala Thorgood, my good friend and next to her is Major Godfrey head of the military's focus stone manufacturing unit as well as co-inventor of the people moving transports along with Tor.

“Then we have the lovely Ducherina Patricia Morgan, who, before you take her out Sorlee, didn't actually stab Tor if I have that right…”

From the end of the table a girl in a black military style uniform looked down the table, her eyes going huge. “Lissa? I thought… they all said you hurt Master Tor then run off… I don't…”

Tor shrugged.

“I'll fill you in later, alright Sorlee? It was different than it seemed, a trick of sorts, but from now on just call her Trice or Patricia instead of Lissa. If anyone asks you, they're not the same person.”

The girl nodded, looking more than a little troubled.

“That leads us to Countess Holly Printer, accomplished military strategist and planner and next to her, last, but by no means least, we have Miss Sorlee Farmer who among other notable things is the first civilian transport pilot and instructor.”

The conversation didn't start until after dinner of course, that being the tradition. From what Tor could tell it had to do with the fact that, more often than not, by the end of those discussions people were screaming at one another and possibly fighting. If the nobles wanted to eat they needed to make sure they did it early. Being giants, they liked to eat, so it wasn't a trivial point.

For once the discussion actually went pretty smoothly. Almost too smoothly. Tor didn't trust it. These things always went wrong one way or another.

When asked what they wanted to do, both kids simply said that going with Master Tor sounded like their best option. No begging to stay in the palace, which Tor would have understood them going for, if that's what they wanted, since it had been their home for years. They didn't even ask what they'd be doing really, though Gemma sounded favorable about learning to be a transport pilot and Ger perked up when it was mentioned that they'd both be offered training in how to fight. The only obstacle really seemed to be their aunt, who was the Countess of Cannor. Tor had even met her once.

The memory came flooding back. He'd been a little worked up himself at about that time, but the woman hadn't seemed… robust. A bit frail truth be told, older, and loony as you could get without actually talking to yourself in public. At the time he remembered being afraid the woman would demand that the kingdom help her defend her borders against imaginary threats. Dragons… or pixies maybe.

The King nodded when Tor looked at him, Rolph did the same thing with a sigh.

“Right, so, since these children are her heirs, we can't really keep them from her if she demands them, but by that same token, we can't just pack them off to her either. She's a dear friend and loyal subject, but not exactly mother material bless her.” The King spoke gently, voice low and not un-warm, but a little troubled.

From down at the end of the table Sorlee spoke up, her voice soft and accent still a little thick, but easily understandable to everyone now, which wasn't the case even two months before.

“Sir, if it pleases you… I don't understand… shouldn't the children be with their Aunt? She's a Countess, so shouldn't that be a good home for them? Master Tor's a good man and would make a wonderful father to them, even if he's young, but this Countess is their family…”

A slight clatter came from the back of the room.

“Ah, don't let it concern you overly girl, they're just all convinced I'm insane, that's all.” Everyone swung towards the voice, a woman stood in the doorway, older looking than anyone in the room, but dressed as she was in a light brown military style outfit, her hair cropped short, like the Queen, Trice and Princess Varley, she looked hard and in shape, and while a little wild eyed, she didn't seem half as mad as the last time.

“I haven't given anyone a reason to think otherwise for a long time, so it's only natural, don't you think?” The woman looked at Sorlee as if expecting an answer, so the girl nodded honestly.

“Yes my lady… If you act the loon, people will assume you are. The question is then, are you?” This got a shocked silence from the room. The country girl was honest and gentle of spirit, and it was a fair question, meant with no ill will. In Forest Far it would have just been polite, giving the woman a chance to show that her mind was in balance and that she understood what the situation was. Here it was like accusing the woman of eating babies.

Instead of outrage, the Countess just chuckled.

“How would I know? Crazy people almost always think their sane, don't they? But is thinking you’re not insane a sign that you've lost it? I can only hope not. Sorry I'm late. I came as soon as I heard about Laura, rest her soul. We traveled non-stop or as close to it as we could manage without killing any horses. Now, from what I walked in on, it seems the plan is to secret the kids off somewhere without mentioning it to me? Good plan I suppose, but since I'm here anyway why don't we go over it just to keep the record straight?”

The woman, Mary, Tor was informed after a few minutes of speech by the King and Queen, listened carefully, tilting her head to the side several times in a fashion that seemed birdlike, as if she was listening to something no one else heard. Her words focused on the topic though, a lot more clearly than the last time they'd met, when she spoke of flowers and the fish off her coastline and how they were faring. Really, if Tor remembered it all correctly, she spoke of the fish as if they were personal friends. Same with the flowers come to think of it.

Finally she nodded.

“Well, I'm here now, so no need to pack the children off with strangers. We'll make arrangements for them to come with me then. Family comes first, after all.” It was said with a definitive air, as if nothing else needed to be said on the matter. That was something Tor understood. After all, family did come first. Always.

That kind of seemed to be that, until Holly spoke softly at the end of the table, her voice slightly amused.

“Countess Cannor… are you suggesting that you’re going to steal away Master Tor's new squires away from him? I assure you he's a man of good character and from what I've heard the highest moral standards. You've the word of myself and I believe the entire royal family as well as several of your own peers.” She stood and gestured at Count Thomson and Ursala, a small and tired smile on her face. “Plus, for all that he's short, he's a Countier himself. Countier four, Lairdgren, I believe. So it's not like the children are going off to live as woodsmen in the deep forest.”

Mary Cannor gasped after a second and stared directly at Tor. Had she not realized who he was? They'd met, kind of, once. He didn't have a beard then though, which he knew made him look a lot different. Without it he looked a medium old fourteen, tops. Younger to some of the over tall giants, since their own kids were always so tall. Being short meant young to them. Closer to Ger's age than his own eighteen. For some reason the older Countess started shaking and pointed a bony finger at him.

“Lies.” She said softly. “There is no heir to Lairdgren. Burks only child in line for it died years ago. I should know. After all, Laurali was my daughter too.”

Tor blinked and stared at the crazy old woman for a second. After a bit the woman corrected herself.

“Well, step-daughter, her own mother died during childbirth, but still, she was as close to being my own flesh as possible. When that Austran killed her… Well, that's part of why I turned out the whole of County Cannor's forces for the war. Laurali will not go unavenged!”

Looking down at the lovely white linen table cloth Tor felt the blood rush from his face. He hadn't known of course, about any of this. Burks had sent his mother into hiding and never even told Mary, who considered herself true family, that she was alive at all? Not even after the whole thing had been uncovered nearly a year before? Gods. So now Tor had to explain it all to her?

Well, that was fair.

Just like his mother too, dumping all the unpleasant tasks on a boy. Taking a deep breath he decided to do just that, since Mary Cannor deserved to know as much as anyone in the world, and spoke uninterrupted for nearly five minutes, the woman shaking and finally tears coming down her face. When he ended the story he expected her to storm out, probably taking the kids with her.

Who could blame her? Insane or not, and Tor was starting to think she was closer to high strung than crazy, someone should have told her. It also shouldn't have had to be him. Seriously, he was so going to have to talk to his mother about it. Count Lairdgren too. Him first probably. You didn't do things like that to people!

Instead of going wild and trying to hit him or even screaming, though he was braced for it, the woman walked around the table slowly, her steps making just the faintest clicks on the hard marble under her leather soles. When she got to him the woman swallowed and slowly, almost as if wary herself, pulled him into a gentle hug.

“Laurali's alive? And… I have grandchildren?” She whispered in his ear.

Tor nodded and said yes. He left out exactly how many grandchildren, not wanting to overwhelm the poor woman. There were eleven of them.

Blood relative or not, if the woman had grieved for his mother, thinking her dead for years and called her daughter, that counted, right? Apparently it did to Mary Cannor, since she didn't let go.

Chapter Two

Tor discovered two things about Mary Cannor very quickly. The first was that she had a kind of off-putting body odor. That was probably due to the fact that she'd spent the last week riding in one form of carriage or another without stopping for anything. Awful things, carriages. Slow and bumpy rides at the best of time, probably a lot worse on the unkempt roads between the major cities. Plus hot in the spring and summer when you got near the Capital. The second thing was that she might be crazy, but that didn't mean stupid at all. She'd come for the kids, true, they were her heirs and family, her great nephew and niece, but also to try and score some better weapons for her forces. She almost instantly tried to get Tor to agree to make some for her people for free.

Before he could agree, since, obviously he was going to help out family that way, Gerald stood and cleared his throat.

“Aunt Mary?” He sounded tentative, but by calling attention to himself he almost instantly found himself wrapped in the much taller woman’s arms. He did a credible job of hugging her back at least, even if she did smell.

“Um, sorry, I was going to say that there's a waiting list for things from Master Tor. He put me in charge of scheduling and, well, I've decided that the counties around Ward need to be provisioned first. That means Printer, Morris and Callwood. Then other people who might be attacked by Austra or the Ward's directly. After that, well, since Cannor is sending all their forces to fight, we need to get them in too, but Master Tor can only do so much work in a day…” After he spoke he looked down, then, without anyone saying anything his eyes popped open wide and he gulped, looking directly at Tor, seeming a little scared suddenly.

Tor just shrugged. It was a plan and when he stopped to consider it, one that made sense. Better than his just doing what everyone asked, which had been the previous idea. Ward was his major concern at the moment too after all. Down the table Holly agreed vocally, letting them all know that it sounded like a good idea, even if she did benefit from it directly. From the other end of the table Rich cleared his throat.

“Indeed. Don't forget the kingdom in there though Squire Gerald. Oh, that reminds me. Would you Gerald Negev Cannor and you Gemma Negev Cannor, both please rise?” Smiling the King walked around the table, coming to them, and having them kneel. The words were familiar to Tor, basically telling them that they were good people and great things were expected from them. The — or else — was implied.

“Arise Sir Gerald, Sir Gemma.” A large hand had been placed on each of their heads with a big smile, even though the King had to go to one knee himself to reach that low in a dignified manner. They all stood.

“Sir Gerald.” Tor said softly. “Sir Gemma.”

That was the one weird thing about all this. When a woman became a Knight, she was called “sir” not lady. The same was true for a Squire, though after the first ceremony the sir didn't get used at all, they were just Squire whoever and that generally only when being introduced to someone new, with a full explanation of their situations. The King stood and spun on Tor.

“I know this may seem a little odd, but your assistant isn't going to be your Squire, Tor. Instead I'm putting him with Sir Kolbrin. The truth is, you just don't have time, or need, for a real Squire. Squire Gemma…” The King chuckled. “Karina, you asked to do the honors…”

The Princess rose and walked around the table not stopping until she reached Trice.

“Lady Patricia Alyson Morgan, Ducherina third, please rise.” She said it with such a serious tone that Trice’s eyes went wide. Probably scared that Karina was going to lop off the other arm. Fair enough. Even if it had been for her own good, that kind of thing had to leave scars. Trice managed to find her feet though.

“Please kneel…” The little ceremony took longer, because there was a listing of deeds needed for a Knight. You only needed three, which Patricia had, even though it was news to Tor. The first one listed, everyone knew. She'd heroically saved them all not a week before. Hard to miss that.

The next Tor suspected, but hadn't known for certain. She had, under orders from the King himself, sacrificed her love, him, he realized instantly, to infiltrate the Ward estate and seek evidence on them. Apparently calling him names in public counted as heroic now. Hearing it said out loud made him cringe.

Then his stomach and heart fell horribly, a deep plummet that made him wonder if things inside him had actually come loose for a moment. After all, he'd nearly killed her for that, for hurting him, and built a weapon that probably shouldn't exist to take out almost everyone else too, after hearing her malign him in a restaurant about nine months before, or was it less? Tor didn't even know what day or month it was to tell the truth. His head hung a little thinking about it. About Trice.

She'd been ordered to say those things by the King? Probably forbidden to tell him either, so that it would all look real. God. Why? Taking a deep breath Tor turned to stare at the King, who at least had the grace to look embarrassed. Connie looked down too. She knew the whole time? All that, the hurt he'd felt, the pain, his anger and tearing himself apart over it for most of a year and she knew? But… She was supposed to like him.

The last deed was about something that he'd never even heard of, saving some woman's life. The name wasn't familiar at all, Deborah Harding? It meant nothing. Something about a waterfall?

Looking at Rolph, Tor realized something then, his friend, his best friend in the whole world, had known. It was there in his eyes, the shamed look on his face. How long? Across the table Varley looked down after catching his eye. Her too? Gods, had everyone known the whole time?

Probably not, Rolph wasn't such a good actor that he could have hidden it from him, not at the restaurant or in the days after. Was he? Tor started to shake with rage. Next to him Ger went pale and suddenly skipped back, pulling Gemma and Mary away with him and, rather wisely, triggering his shield at the same time.

“Please rise, Sir Patricia!” Karina, down the table a ways said loudly. Just to be cute she tapped Trice on the nose. “Bodabink- you're a Knight!”

Everyone not staring at him and moving back, laughed.

Tor stood himself.

“Sir Patricia.” He said, his voice going dark and bitter, even to his own ears as the combat rage took him. She'd not only humiliated him in public, something he'd basically made peace with, because she claimed that she was doing it to try and find the people that tried to poison him after all, but the King made her do it? And even after everything, no one had told him? They were all just laughing at him then? Having a go with him? Was he just a joke or a game to them all then?

Without moving or gesturing at all the table blew away from him, lifting up and over the chairs on the far side easily and crashing into the wall behind them, some forty feet away. Everyone at the table stayed in place, having shields on, he realized, but most of them still moved away, running for the side of the room. Tor tried to calm himself, he'd done it before, but this time he couldn't care enough to drop into the needed trance state.

Instead he glared at the King.

“You! It was all your doing? What did I ever do to you? You know… Forget it. I'm out of here. Don't talk to me again. Ever!” He shouted the last part, knowing that it sounded childish but not caring. Everything had been a set up, Rich had ordered his fiancee to tell the world about how much she hated him and how stupid and ugly he was? Fine.

They could run their little war without him then. He almost demanded all the money that the kingdom owed him, but decided to just forget about it. He didn't really need gold. They could take it and shove it up their collective royal asses for all he cared.

They'd probably enjoy it even, stupid royal freak perverts.

Tor stormed out just heading towards the nearest exit once he got into the stone lined hallway. It was hard to navigate the palace, it was so huge and he'd spent most of his time in his room here, not exploring or learning the place.

That didn't matter. All he needed right now was to get outside. For a second he was tempted to just build an explosive field and blast his way through the walls, but realized that there might be innocent people on the other side. Even enraged he wouldn't risk killing an innocent person. Not just for this. Instead he stopped and looked around.

“How do I get the hell out of here?” He asked the air, his voice and body trembling hard. After a moment a man, who looked about forty, giant of course, wearing the black and purple of the Royal Guard stepped out of the wall. A panel had opened up from behind a cloth hanging.

“Follow me please, sir.” He said, his voice sounding humble and a little scared. Normally being scared of a giant Royal Guard was Tor's job, not the other way around, but that didn't make a difference right now either. Tor followed. If the man was misleading him, he'd… Well, he'd probably run away. It wasn't the guards fault if he worked for jerks, was it? They were selected for training as tiny children, it wasn't like he'd ever had a real choice in the matter or anything.

They walked down a half dozen hallways, maybe more, switching back and forth, before they reached a door that took them outside. When he got there twenty armed Royal Guards stood waiting for him. No one pointed their weapons at him at least. They didn't move on him either.

“Master Tor sir…” One of them said, a woman he didn't recognize really, but who felt familiar, if that was a thing. “We, ah, we don't really know what to do. It… wouldn't be good for you to go into town in this state, but…” She didn't shrug or do anything he could take the wrong way. Right, he was insane right now, wasn't he? But not crazy enough to stay here with these monsters that had done what they did to him. Why? Just to get the Wards? They still could have told him at any time, even if it had really been the only way, but no, he didn't rate knowing why people were destroying his life, did he?

All he had on was a shield. Not even a temperature equalizing field. Screw it, he decided and closed his eyes for a minute, still shaking. He'd built a thousand flight fields hadn't he, ten thousand? He could make one now that would be good enough to get him out of there. Raising his left hand he lifted into the air and started flying, in the dark, towards home.

It was a fantastically stupid thing to do of course.

The second the combat rage stopped, he'd be stuck, forced to land, if not just plummeting from the sky to his death. Well, he had a real shield, so he'd live. Most likely at least. A few people had crashed while flying, but so far no one died, the shields took care of that.

Torrance was tempted for a moment to turn the shield off and just let it happen. Instead he focused on the flight and twenty minutes later, as he started to calm down, he just landed, going so slowly and carefully that when the field cut out he was still nearly twenty feet up in the air. The ground cracked and thumped when he hit and his legs buckled, slapping hard into his chest, pain ripping through him.

As he lay on his side he got it. When he'd thought about deactivating the shield, his personal intent had done it. Oops. Combat rage led to direct effect, which in this case apparently led to broken legs. He felt them with his hand. No blood at least. They were broken, sure, resting at funny angles both, but not that badly, he'd live. Probably.

The worst was his right leg, halfway to the knee. There was a lump that wasn't normal at all, and it hurt a lot, so Tor did the only thing he could and dropped into a work trance, fighting to build a field around himself in the cool night air. What could he do though? A though occurred to him, one that he'd never even considered before. Could he build a healing field? They existed, Master Builder Maris made most of them of course, putting out about one per year. She only made one-ups and they cost tens of thousands of golds apiece. She only built them for a specific person too, Tor had heard. One that worked for one person didn't do it for another at all.

What did it take though? Did he have to understand the healing mechanism or… What would happen if he just told the injury to go back to the way it was before? Fix the field? Could he do that? It took hours of focus, but he had time, so just worked without concern for anything but the field he held.

Finally there was a pop, a sense of movement from his right leg, and a sudden absence. At first he wondered if he'd made his leg go away somehow, but that wasn't it, the pain was just gone. He held the field, but nothing new was happening. That being the case he forced himself out of that deep state and tried to climb to the surface, near where everyone else lived most the time. Once there Tor looked around. It was still pitch black out and he was lying on his side in the dirt. Poking at his right leg gently he found that it was there still, and more, it didn't hurt. It felt… normal. Gingerly, ready to fall down in pain again, Tor stood. The leg held, both did. It didn't even ache.

So healing could be done just by reminding a body to be healthy and making that idea strong enough? It should be possible to make an item for that. One that would work for anyone too. Complicated but doable.

Tor slapped his shield on, using it as a buffer against the dirt and lay down again. He was exhausted. Combat rage, no matter how good a reason you had for it, or even that you didn't get into a fist fight with the object of your anger, did that to you. Tor dreaded the headache he was going to have in the morning, but he'd live.

He just wouldn't want to.

Everyone had known? What the hell? There had been signs now that he knew about it himself. Ursala and Sara had both refused to tell him why Trice had done it, but they knew that she didn't mean the awful things she'd said. He'd always thought they were just standing by their friend, but now… Had all his friends been in on it the whole time?

No. Kolb didn't know… did he? Tor didn't know that, honestly. The man was an enigma. A deadly fighter, Knight and even head of the King’s secret army, but Tor had set him up in that last bit, hadn't he? So the man might or might not know.

Major Godfrey… Well, there was no reason for him to know and Sorlee wouldn't have been told anything either. She'd have probably let it slip to him, right? Even though there were no debts between friends, she still acted like she owed him for helping to save her parents farm. That had only taken gold though.

Tor dozed and, as he figured he would, woke up with an almost crippling headache, it was bad enough that he dry heaved for a while before he started walking north, towards his house. The near vomiting did nothing to make him feel better. Actually it made his head throb and feel like something inside was about to burst. He didn't know how far he'd gotten towards it the night before, the wasteland looked pretty much the same through about a hundred and fifty miles past the Capital, then the only change would be that it had a little more rock on the reddish surface. There was no water in this part, unless the falcons was up and running. If that was the case he could get some there, which shouldn't be more than fifty miles or so ahead, right? After another ten minutes of walking he had to start laughing.

He was a builder.

Duh.

The reaction headache must be making him stupid he decided. That, Tor knew wasn't even just him being hard on himself, it really did kind of knock the intelligence down for a while, messing with how the brain worked until you recovered. Thinking was hard and slow for him in the moment, which probably meant it would be a good idea to avoid life changing decisions for the time being too. No one was at their best after something like that.

Tor looked down and found two small rocks, both nicely smooth and red colored. One was shot with a deep black and a little bigger than the other. Sitting down he made a Not-flyer, a military grade one, into the stones. The bigger piece went into his inner pants pocket and the other he just held in his right hand, palm down. Reaching over he just tapped the back of his own hand, using focus to send a jolt of intent to the stone clutched inside. He rose four inches off the ground and after a few seconds started moving forward at about eighty miles per hour. The Falcons river, the floating one that he'd built the year before to help reduce the effects of a drought in County Ford, wasn't turned on at the moment it seemed, which made sense; if there was no need for it, why bother? That didn't matter, because, with only a little searching he found the front gate of Wilderness Station easily enough. His home.

Yay.

It was almost a perfectly straight line from the palace to his door after all.

Right. First he'd bathe and get something to eat, then see if the cook had some of that reaction remedy on hand. Tor knew the guy used it himself for hangovers at least a few times a week, so it was likely. On second thought, he decided, brain suddenly throbbing to an even greater level, maybe he'd do that first? Head feeling like it had been stuffed with wool, painful and nausea filled, Tor nodded and nearly threw up. Definitely that first.

It gleamed in the sun, the compound before him, a reddish black jewel, walls nearly thirty feet high, with four towers, one at leach corner of the wall, and a large palace like structure towards the rear. There was a division between the front and the back, a wall with a simple, if huge, door cut in it. Not that he could see it from the ground of course. Kolb and his people had build on when they moved in. Tor still lived in the little hut he'd built first. It was actually, to the best of his knowledge, the first thing like it ever built with focus stone. Concentrated dirt.

Seeing it he felt a sense of relief. At least he still had a home, even if most of his friends had turned out to hate him or at least didn't care enough to try and spare his feelings at all. Not even Varley hadn't told him and they were engaged to be married. Or they were at least. Tor shook himself slightly and then instantly regretted it.

Don't make any life altering choices with the reaction still on him, he reminded himself again. It would be too easy to pick the wrong course just then. Someone saying hello the wrong way could set him off as things stood. If this were anywhere else, he'd be given easy and gentle treatment for a while, a day or so, until he got back to normal. Instead he'd have to take care of himself, all his friends gone now.

It was so incredibly lonely to think about.

Tor dropped to the ground just in front of the open gate, his head feeling stuffed with cotton in the few spaces it just didn't ache, which was a change up from wool. A finer feeling. More white instead of an oily gray sense to things. At the palace they had a pretty decent remedy for it, some kind of bitter brown sludge that tasted horrible, but made the worst of the pain go away at least. The thought was silly, he realized, since it was the same one he could get from the cook here. Thinking really just wasn't his thing at the moment. He made himself smile and slowly walk forward.

The sun was brighter than normal today too, hotter. Part of that was the light sensitivity from the combat rage, and part because he was out with no temperature equalizer on. Tor could grab one in his hut though, there was a box of them sitting on the shelf behind the table. As he walked in, two men, both low ranked military, in their black uniforms, barred his way. They literally moved to stand in front of him and not let him walk to his hut.

Guards? He'd known that there was normally a man watching the gate, but this seemed a bit more official for some reason. Probably the new war thing with the Wards and the attack on Queen's day in the Capital a week before.

“Where do you think you’re going?” One of them said with a lot more menace than someone should have at Tor's front gate, war on or not. Tor didn't recognize either man, so he tried to let it go. After all, they were just doing their job, right? Trying to make sure no one came to visit without permission or something? Though really, if anyone bothered to show up way out here, shouldn't' they let them in? Maybe find them a snack and a guide?

“I'm Tor. I live here? In fact, it's my house, so step aside please.” It took effort but he managed to even keep his voice civil, pain slicing through his head or not.

The other guard chuckled.

“Right… a little piece of shit commoner like you is the Wizard Tor? Go away before we beat you for lying.”

This got a laugh from the other man too. Of course. Well, if they didn't recognize him, what could he do?

“I'm Tor, Torrence Baker… Really… Can you get someone that knows me at least, instead of trying to bar me from my own home? That's the protocol, isn't it? Get someone to vet the person at the gate?” He crossed his arms, but refused to tap his foot at them yet. He wasn't a farm wife. Normally it would have been just a mild inconvenience even if these men were being obnoxious about the whole thing. His head and mood just weren't up for it today for some reason. Tor would have to talk to Godfrey about this. It was one thing to bar the way, but they shouldn't be rude to guests or visitors, right? Or to him. That part was a little annoying too at the moment. More than a little.

Neither man wanted to be bothered, but finally one of them walked off, coming back with a sergeant a while later. He didn't recognize Tor either. He also didn't seem to think much of his claim of being himself. His clothing was a bit dirty, even though clearly quality for all that. Really, Tor guessed, it was all about his being short. All these men were taller, most of the elite military were. They looked at him and thought “commoner”. Or more likely, “commoner piece of shit”, from what the first men had said.

“Sorry, we don't have anyone available to check out your claim right now, maybe after breakfast?”

Did people actually show up at his front gate claiming to be him all that often? Probably not, which meant that these guys were just pushing him around because they thought they could get away with it. Well, he wasn't in the military, and he was kind of short, but still… Tor nodded and stalked off. He'd just go through the gate around back entrance, he told them, getting another laugh.

“There is no gate in the back.” The sergeant said, obviously deciding that he was a crank or possibly insane.

“Not yet.” Tor grumbled softly enough that they probably didn't hear him over their own laughing.

That was, he realized, about the last straw. This was his house. They were just guests and he hadn't even invited them. None of them except Kolb's people and the ladies of industry, the whores. The military personnel had come in uninvited and set up shop. His house, his rules, right? Well one of his rules from now on was that no one kept him out. He had time to think about this while he walked around the outer wall, it took nearly ten minutes to work his way around to the back. Right in the center of the wall he stopped and took a deep breath, which caused his head to ache even more somehow.

Dropping into a deep working state he started building a cutter, a simple magical field that just told matter to go in two separate directions really, on a very tiny level of being. It had to be strong, but wasn't hard to make, not after all the building practice he'd had. It was one of the first things he'd done using direct effect like this. He didn't want to take time to build an actual device right now, so this one just hung in the air in front of his right hand, following it as a guide.

Holding his focus steady he cut through the stone wall as if through warm butter. Tor started with a half circle no taller than he was, then made a line on the bottom. The weight held it in place, but a line appeared where his hand moved. Then he bisected it, cutting the new door into several pieces. When none of the chunks looked to be bigger than his fist Tor let the cutter fade and waited for a second. Then he waited for nearly a minute. The cutter hadn't faded much at all. Heh. That was a strong field for one hastily built. He must be finally getting better at things like that, he realized. A small sign of mastery, even if it was a bit annoying right now.

Holding his right hand out so he didn't accidentally cut anything he wanted off his body Tor kicked the focus stone wall a little awkwardly, a stomp about three foot high. The first kick made some of the pieces slide a little, but it took a dozen more to open up a hole and about five minutes to move enough out of the way for him to walk through. It was five foot thick after all. The action made both his right foot and ankle, plus his head, ache. Whee.

Plus he'd have to fix the hole in the wall now, or make an actual gate back here. Tor decided to bother with that later, after he had some rest and got cleaned up. The cutter had finally faded, almost at least, so Tor just walked in, being careful not to trip as he made his way past the five foot long pieces of smooth red and black stone littering the ground.

“Stop right there!” A voice screamed at him forcefully. Maybe “scream” was unkind? It was a manly bellow maybe. Whichever, it made him wince, head throbbing. Ten military men stood around holding force lances on him. Ah. Still no one that knew who he was? What the heck was with that? Had he come to the wrong compound made of focus stone in the wastelands?

“Down on the ground, now!” The one in front screamed. Tor had a shield on, but no weapons. He let his mind turn to rebuilding the cutter, which sprang back into place almost instantly, though it wasn't very strong yet. That would come, if he had a few more seconds. He decided to buy some time.

“I don't think so. Put your weapons down and move out of my way. This is my house and I won't be treated this way here.” Tor knew his voice shook with rage, but the man in front of him didn't seem to care about his feelings at all. Kind of rude of him really.

“I said get down!” The bully in front screamed again, making Tor a little mad. He didn't care for people trying to bully him in general, and his tolerance for it in the moment was gone completely. The ache in his temples was too much to allow forbearance. It wouldn't have been a problem if they would have done what he said or even left him alone… So of course the moron in front tried to kick Tor in the stomach, because if you don't get your own way, don't bother trying to think, right? No just go right ahead and attack a man in his own house. Not that he was doing so hot in that department himself, thinking, but he had a reason for that. These men didn't, they were just morons.

The move cost the man his left foot as Tor reflexively blocked the move with the cutter field. The man didn't even realize his foot had been removed until he tried to set his leg down. A cutter wound didn't hurt after all, but the man, a captain if Tor recognized the little blob on his collar, certainly screamed loud enough when the stub hit the dirt. The raw wound had to sting a bit. The man crumpled to the ground and grabbed his leg, bleeding profusely.

Then, probably not realizing that Tor hadn't been attacking at all, just trying to defend himself, the remaining nine men opened up with their weapons. They turned out not to be force lances, but a variety of military weapons. No air chokes, thank god. Nothing they had touched him at all, so he started walking.

“I'm Tor you morons, stop attacking me and get this man medical attention! This is my house…” No one listened to him at all. He yelled it again. Finally he just decide to go home, the men screaming at him the whole time. At least one of the men, a private, had enough sense to get a tourniquet on the downed mans leg. None of the men had shields on for some reason, which was too bad for the captain, or he'd still have that foot. For a moment Tor wondered if he could fix it. The cut was really clean and if he could repair the field, like he had his own leg, would that work? He could try, if these morons would stop getting in his way.

They didn't though, trying to tackle him and getting more people to join in. What fun, let's beat up Tor! Finally voices started telling them to stop, first a female voice, one of Kolb's instructors, Petra. Petra Ward. Even if her brother and sister in-law had tried to poison him, she seemed all right. Nice even. Being cute didn't hurt either. After a few seconds she stood in front of him, and started knocking out anyone that came towards him. Less than ten seconds after that half a dozen combat giants took up position around him too.

“Stand down!” One of them, a huge man that stood at least seven-six and was a full Baron ordered the military men. “I said, stand the fuck down!”

“Tor…” Petra said softly, “What happened? Why are they attacking you?” She sounded baffled.

“They kept me out at the front gate, so I came back here and made a new one,” He gestured behind him. “Then they attacked me, probably for doing that, but it's my freaking wall, if I want to put in a new gate, I can. That one there, Captain moron? He tried to kick me, so I cut his foot off. I didn't mean to, acted on instinct. They're just lucky I didn't do the same to the rest of them!” His voice had moved into a half yell. He snorted as he took a deep breath through his nose.

“Now, if no one’s going to try to kill me for a few minutes I need to drop my shield if I'm going to do anything about this assholes foot before you all leave. The military I mean. If they're going to attack me, they obviously aren't welcome here anymore.” That made sense, didn't it? Tor decided it did and knelt by the jerk that had tried to attack him. Mad as he was, a kick to the stomach wasn't really worth a lost foot as a lesson.

It took about an hour to really fix the foot back into place, but the initial repair got managed in less than ten minutes, fast enough that the tissue hadn't died yet at least. That was good, because Tor was pretty sure that if the flesh died, the foot was gone forever. That just felt right. When the work was done the man got up and started walking as if nothing had happened. He went gingerly at first, and was pale from blood loss and shock, but didn't seem to be in pain. Good, he could walk out on his own then.

Before anyone else could say anything Tor looked at the military men arrayed around him in their dark uniforms. He pointed.

“Get out. Get your crap and get out of my home now. You have ten minutes. Don't take anything that isn't yours and get out. Now.” No one moved. Tor got to his feet and pointed again. “Now!”

He didn't wait for anyone to do anything, covered in blood from working on the man’s foot he stalked towards his hut. If they thought he was going to just let them stay now, they were going to be surprised. Though they really shouldn't be. He was a builder after all.

Walking down into his hut, the single room fifty by fifty foot dwelling he'd made for himself his first day here, he moved to his box of amulets and made sure he was better armed. Flying rig, Not-flyer, force lances, two air chokes and going to his bed he dug an explosive out of the chest he had under his bed. No one knew these were there, but he had a hundred of them. They were special, designed to kill, but not destroy the whole world or anything like that. No, that weapon he kept on a twine string, which hung around his neck. It was too powerful to leave lying around. Really he should destroy it, he just hadn't gotten to it yet. Things kept coming up.

Walking outside he noticed that no one had started packing. In fact the military men all seemed to be lined up in front of his house. With weapons. So not even bothering to try and apologize?

Jerks.

He blinked at them, arrayed there the hot white sun. At least some of them seemed to recognize him this time. There were a lot more of them now, nearly five hundred? What the hell? He'd only been gone for a little under a month. How had this happened? There had only been about three hundred before. It didn't matter. Not now. They were just about to leave anyway.

Tor pointed at them with a force lance.

“Go! Get out now.” No one budged.

“You can't order us off a military base! You're not even in the military you sawed off psycho!” One of the men near the back yelled. Tor understood that the guy wasn't anyone in charge, but it was just about the wrong thing to say, wasn't it? He was sawed off? How would they look without any legs, he wondered? Instead, he responded, sounding a lot more relaxed and calm than he felt. So basically he came off as a half insane gibbering fool, even to his own ears.

“True. And if this was a military base, there'd be a problem, but it isn't. It's my home, not a base at all. Now go. Get out.” No one moved. Tor sighed. “Right, then.”

Sweeping the force lance fast he knocked down the first three rows on the right hand side, then laid into them for real. Didn't they get the point? It wasn't that deep or anything, they were being evicted and needed to leave. Seeing their fellows being knocked down and as often as not, out, those with weapons opened fire. Nothing happened to him, but his house got hit a lot. He could hear it, even though nothing they had did much to it at all. Focus stone was tough. Tor kept sweeping their lines, making a point to hit anyone coming his way or holding a weapon.

True, he could just switch weapons and kill them all, but most of them were just guys that made furniture, plates and cisterns for water. They hadn't wronged him, not personally. They had to go, because their fellows had messed up and they worked for the King, but death seemed a little harsh just for that. Still, he had a second force lance, one way better than what they had. He took out most of them then, holding one in each hand, the little copper tubes glinting a bit and feeling smooth to his fingers. His weapons moving back and forth as fast as he could move his arms. This worked pretty well until someone flew into him at speed.

His shield protected him, but Tor was ripped off his feet, carrying part of the ground with him, stuck in the shield itself, as a large man in black hit him full force, actually flying, so about three hundred and fifty miles per hour. He had a shield too, since Tor had kind of insisted that no one in the military fly without one. It was to keep them safe, of course.

Turned out to be a brilliant plan now, didn't it?

Tor didn't wait to hit the ground, tapping the back of his left hand with his right as he tumbled through the air. The tricky part was waiting as he fell, until he knew his hand was being raised upward. If he got it wrong he'd power dive into the ground. He rose. It wasn't really upwards, off at an angle instead, but close enough to let him orient himself without dying. The mound of dirt dropped away after a few seconds, the field letting it go as soon as his movement slowed.

Six people, all men, were flying with him, three rushed in as soon as he stabilized and hovered, his body upright for a moment. Tor swept his force lance over them, but nothing happened. So they had good shields? Probably ones he'd made. The newest in the line, that stopped force lances, but let you fly. Even the explosives he had wouldn't do anything to them, he didn't think. Except for the big one, but that would just kill. He'd have to out fly them then.

That was harder to do than it sounded. Whoever these guys were, obviously not regular soldiers, they were good. They worked as a team and after about four minutes managed to force Tor into the ground. That hurt, but not as much as it would have without his shield.

Screw that. They weren't forcing him out of his home. That was a mistake, because it was his. Tor tapped his Not-flyer and rose into the air, if only four inches. In the air those men were faster of course, but they wouldn't be able to do much to him if he stayed among the buildings, he didn't think. He kept blasting the men on the ground and screaming at them to leave as the flying men hovered jockeying for position. No one had even started to head towards the front gate yet.

OK.

Tor took a big breath and moved towards the front. He dug into his inner pants pocket and got one of the explosives out, then, without so much as hesitating, he blasted the right hand side of the front wall. It made a deafening roar and made the wall disappear into dust and pebbles. With a single slow sweeping motion from right to left he destroyed the front half in less than eleven seconds. Everyone froze.

“I said leave. What part of that don't you get? Do it now, or I start killing people. I am done playing games with you.” It was loud, but a growl for all that.

No one moved for a second, but then one man, the captain that had only one shoe now, but two feet, held up his hands and told everyone to move out. Tor moved so that his back was to the front wall of his hut, just under the eaves, so that the flyers couldn't catch him from behind easily. They were still hovering over him, too high up to hear him tell them to leave. He'd have to do something else about them. It took nearly an hour for them to all leave, or at least get out the gate. Some of them tried to take the transports, but Tor only let them have half of them. He personally owned half, he told them all clearly. Major Godfrey owned the other half. Since it was all they were getting they could deal with him for them if they wanted. Tor wasn't making them anymore. Not for the military. Not after the way they'd attacked him in his own home.

They didn't have near enough transports to carry everyone, but Tor didn't care. The flight training base was only about a fifty mile walk. They could follow the river that floated behind the compound to it. They deserved to walk. Maybe it would give them time to reflect on what they'd done? Probably not, people were generally too stupid to realize when they'd messed up, but that was up to them. Their failure to learn from experience wasn't his problem.

Staying hidden was the hard part, since it got boring, but the men hovering didn't move much, watching and waiting for him to make a mistake. It ticked him off. They were using his own devices against him. Finally he shrugged. Tor didn't want to murder anyone, but if they left him no choice, what could he do? He pulled the little metal piece that looked like a poison detector from around his neck and got ready to use it, pointing it up at the flyers and stepping out just as the transport flew into sight. It wasn't one of the ones that had been taken, because those were all out front being loaded. It hovered briefly, then set down just inside the gate, near the open portion of the front wall.

When the side opened, Rolph stepped out, his skin too dark and his hair a deep brown still. He looked like a military man, lacking his long red hair and normal light tan skin tone. Kolb, bald head shining stepped out, followed by Godfrey. They all looked around, their gazes slightly panicked. The one shoe wearing captain, a blond man Tor realized having actually missed that part before being distracted, his left leg still covered in dried blood ran over to them screaming something. This time it didn't sound nearly so manly. Kolb held up a single hand, but the man kept screaming anyway.

Rolph saw him and slowly walked over.

“Alright there Tor?” He asked, stopping about ten feet away. “Why do you have your poison detector out… Crap! Tor…”

Rolph knew what it meant as Tor pointed the device at the flying men and shrugged.

“Their shields are too good for anything else I have, and they won't leave. I'm making the military leave. They attacked me… First they wouldn't let me in to my own home, mocked me and threatened me. I could have let that go, but then they physically attacked me when I managed to make my own door to get in. I don't care if it's reasonable or not, they're going. Then they told me I didn't have a right to ask them to leave! Well, I've got the right for them if they really want it…” Taking a deep breath he pointed at one of the flying men and started to activate the device.

“Stop! God, please Tor, stop. No need to kill them… They'll go, see… They'll go!” He waved at them frantically to move off, but they didn't budge. They probably couldn't tell who the Prince was or even what he wanted really. A large man waving at them right now didn't hold a lot of interest for them it seemed.

“Kolb!” Rolph yelled. “Can you get your people to get them to move off, Tor's going to kill them all if they don't!”

The words weren't even all the way out of the Prince’s mouth when nearly twenty people appeared in the air and told the six military flyers to move on. Tor wanted to be angry at them for not having helped him earlier, but then he'd been the one to set up the chain of command and exclude anyone other than the royal family, hadn't he? Great, he'd handed an incredibly dangerous weapon to people that probably were going to use it against him, or at least attack him, for the second time in his life. He kind of deserved to die, didn't he?

Giving weapons like that to his enemies. Too stupid to live. Duh.

Though, come to think of it, Petra and the others had actually helped him out once that day already. When it had looked like a simple fight between him and a few men. They didn't back off until later, when it would have been them against the military without orders if they tried to help. So, no blaming them, not really. Tor sighed.

At least it worked for now. Kolb's people didn't even hurt them, just flew over calmly and explained, waved to Godfrey who nodded grimly, then they flew off, landing out front with the other men. Tor put the massive death weapon away, but pulled out one of the force lances. He wasn't standing around unarmed. Who knew what these monsters were going to try and do next? He waited while everyone else walked over. Godfrey looked half freaked and half pissed off, but Kolb just tilted his head. Tor grabbed the initiative.

“Your men barred me from my own home and then attacked me Godfrey. You all have to get out. Now. You aren’t welcome here anymore. Not if you’re going to do things like that. I don’t know what kind of orders you gave them, but this…” Tor growled softly. Menacingly.

While holding a better than decent force lance on the man. Ready to use it.

In return Godfrey told him that it was a military base and only the King could tell them they had to leave. Tor tilted his head at the man and then shrugged. He looked at Rolph, hoping for support from his old friend, knowing that it wasn't very likely. The Prince nodded slowly at Tor, agreeing with the Major. It was in his brown eyes, his face.

Well. If the Prince of the freaking realm said it wasn't his house any more, then it wasn't. It wasn't fair. It had been his. He'd built it. Well, his little hut. Others had built the rest, but they'd all said it was his place. A real home to call his own.

Crud. Rolph owned the land it was on and they didn't even have a real contract or anything. He'd said it was all right, but if a royal changed their mind, then it kind of became law. After a fashion at least. There was nothing someone like Tor could do about it anyway. Totally unfair. He looked at Rolph, feeling betrayed again. They were supposed to be friends, weren't they?

“Alright then. Just give me all the devices that the kingdom hasn't paid for, and I'll leave. You can freaking have it.” Tor was breathing hard and Rolph looked off into the distance.

“What hasn't been paid for?” The Major looked baffled and sounded confused as if he really didn't know. Kind of an oversight, since he ran a base that basically ran on things he'd built.

Tor just smiled. Really they hadn't paid for anything. Some of the shields and flying rigs, but not even most of those. None of the building gear or transports at all. Or the rivers that provided water. They hadn't signed a contract with him either. They could try to keep it all, he guessed, what was he going to do if they decided to? Take on the entire Noram military? That wouldn't work he knew. Too many of them were too well armed and shielded, at least until he developed a way to remove their devices from them, or destroy the fields at a distance. He could do it. It hadn't occurred to him before, but really, that was within the bounds of what could be managed. The devices were all on physical objects. A thrill of excitement ran through him then. All he had to do was create a field that used feedback to locate a certain kind of field and then destroy the metal, wood or stone it was on. It wouldn't even be that hard. In an instant most of it sprang into his mind.

Rolph didn't touch him, but did wave a hand in front of his face. Tor started and then grinned.

“Sorry, I just figured out how to take out all the magical devices in a given area. Selectively or even just anything magical at all. So yeah, go ahead and steal my home, try and take my work without paying for it, we'll see how that works out for you all…” Tor went into his hut and started packing.

He couldn't take everything with him, lacking space in his luggage, so he started tucking all the amulets into cases and making sure the boxes were flight ready, then he took his clothing, toiletries and such. The follow along floats wouldn't navigate the stairs or the hallway, a winding stone privacy screen with three switchbacks, so Tor had to carry them all on his own. Each trunk weight hundreds of pounds, except the clothing one, so he had to drag them out. It took a long time to get the six trunks he wanted. He had the rivers for Afrak ready to go and their excavating equipment, as well as his chest of gold, and another couple just filled with amulets of nearly twenty different sorts. The rest of them, well there were thousands of things in there still. He didn't want them stolen by the military… They seemed to like stealing his things for some reason. Them and the King.

He'd stolen his fiancee away. He didn't even want her for himself, it was just to punish him or make some weird kind of point to someone.

Tor mentioned this in a dead sounding voice as he lifted in the air. Pulling out one of the explosive weapons, a smaller one on a brass tube, cheap compared to normal weapons which were put on solid silver as a rule, but just as effective. Actually a lot more effective… Rising into the air with his cases following, thanks to the floats on them, he pointed the weapon.

“I'd get away if I were you.” He said darkly.

“Tor! No! I have stuff in there, so do Sara and Ursala. It's not fair to destroy their stuff, even if you're mad at me and dad…” The Prince sounded scared. Right well, girls did liked stuff, didn't they?

“Fine. Then all the amulets…” What could he do with them? The military couldn't have them and no one else around here was trustworthy enough to keep them out of their hands. Well, no one that would be able to stand up to the army at least. Petra would have been a good choice, but she had to do what Kolb said, which was what the King ordered. For that matter he did as well, that whole pesky knighthood thing. He could have said no and not knelt, but he had, so he was honor bound to do what Richard said too. But only if he heard it. From now on, Tor just wouldn't listen, that was all. Sorlee Farmer would have been fine, but Tor didn't think that she'd know she could tell the military to leave her stuff alone. If they asked for it she'd probably just hand it over without even requesting to be paid. That's what you did when powerful people wanted your stuff, right? It was kind of what powerful meant.

His family in Two Bends? They didn't need the money, now that their quick delivery service had taken off and it would probably just track the military to their door. Who did he know that he didn't care about that would at least make some money from it? It hit him like a ton of bricks. There actually was someone like that.

“Fine then… Everything of mine in there, take it and give it to Dorgal Sorvee. Tell him that half the proceeds are to go to Meredith Sorvee directly, he can keep the rest. I can count on you to do that much, can't I?” Tor asked, his voice suddenly sad instead of bitter as he had intended it to be.

After all, Rolph had been his best friend. For him to have helped betray him like this, to take away his home…

“Sorvee… Tor, you hate that guy! More than once I've heard you say that you wished you could test your new devices on him or his bully friends…”

“Yeah, he's a jerk, abusive and sarcastic for no reason, using his intelligence as a weapon rather than to help people. But notice, as far as I know, he's never actually tried to destroy my life and then hide it from me. He's an ass, but he never hid that from me or worked against me in secret pretending to be my friend, did he? You all knew. Your dad was the one that told Trice to do it, made her, and Connie… I told her I had feelings for her and she hide this from me? Am I the biggest joke ever or what? Varley, Karina… you. No one told me. Instead you all made Trice eat my anger for all that time alone. I nearly killed her over that Rolph. I don't know if she ever liked me at all, or if it was all just following orders, but that's still too much to heap on her. Sara and Ursala too. All of you kept me in the dark and let me go on hating Trice, when she didn't even have a choice in the matter. Why?” Tears came to his eyes then. “I was actually happy you know. For once in my life I was happy, even though I knew the whole thing was only a joke to her. A girl actually willing to spend time with me and not tear me down and you all took that away from me. Screw it, do whatever you like, you royals always do anyway!”

Tor took off then, in a direction. He didn't know where he was going or why really, but staying here wasn't an option. Tears streamed back, after they dripped off his face enough to leave the shield. Well, he realized after a while. That was done. No one would want him back now. That was fine. He didn't need them anyway.

After all, he could be alone… alone.

He didn't need other people for that. No one did. If they weren't his friends, well, he wished them luck and decided not to even destroy all the things he made for the military or anything. That was as non-petty as he could manage right now, but it would have to do.

He flew for hours, just following the coast line once he hit it. Tor thought he was going east at least. Oh well. As good a direction as any, right? He kept going until it started getting dark, the edge of the world growing first pink as clouds caught the sun, a stark line of them against the light blue, then a darker line of blue-black behind it. Looking at it he felt small and insignificant for a while, until he looked down and realized that he'd hit another ocean. Tor blinked and shook his head. Well, that made his decision for him didn't it? If he kept going, the only thing under him would be water for thousands of miles. The air was humid from the damp expanse in front of him, but Tor didn't mind. He wasn't feeling the heat at least.

Looking around he saw a city to the north, close enough that he might be able to reach it before nightfall if he hurried. Maybe he could get something to eat? Even worked up as he still was, hunger had finally started to call to him. It had been a day since he'd eaten, or near enough at least. That long since he had water too, he realized, thirst suddenly ripping at his throat with the attention. He flew faster towards the early lights in homes, seen through the windows.

Like many of the cities he'd gone to, this one had a large clearing in the middle. Instead of a central square, this place had a park with manicured grass and funny looking tall plants, about twenty five feet high with leaves like giant fingers at the top, spread in greeting. So friendly trees at least.

Tor waved back.

No need for him to be rude after all.

The trunks looked smooth and bare of green, except for the lines that ran around them every foot or so. Tor settled by the edge, hoping that it wasn't against the rules to land here. Things like that varied from place to place. There were people and they looked at him, but smiled in a way that felt friendly, a few even waved to him. Possibly inspired by the trees?

Almost all of them wore simple clothing, made of a light, airy looking material. Most, but not all, of the women wore white dresses that flew outward as they spun, not rising high enough to show more than leg. Mainly at least. A few had darker flashes showing in the more athletic moves. People smiled at him and called out hello, so he waved back to them too. It certainly seemed to be a friendly enough place.

A man wearing light blue clothing and a funny hat that looked like a helmet, who had a club on his right hip, walked over to Tor, also smiling.

“Stranger! We don't have a lot of people flying in these days, do you need directions any place…” His voice tapper off. “You're covered with blood! Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor… or anything?”

Tor looked down. It was dried blood, brown and crusty, but blood none the less. Ah. He should probably explain before this guy flipped out and called in a team of surgeons or something.

“It's not mine. I cut the foot off a man that attacked me earlier, he's a Noram kingdom soldier, I got the blood on me when I put it back on.” Tor lifted a hand as the man stiffened. “That sounds bad, but I cut the foot off by accident and I did fix it, so that should count for something right? He has both feet now and they work fine. I managed to heal it.” His voice sounded just a bit desperate, but, oh well, he was telling the truth. He couldn't think of anything else to do.

The man laughed, either thinking Tor was joking or that anyone that would both cut off and then repair a man’s foot was worth chuckling over. After a few seconds Tor joined in, probably sounding just a little maniacal. It was a good point. Who did that anyway? Not anyone that was being sane and reasonable. Finally several other people walked over, most with deep brown skin that reminded him a little of his friend Petra and her mom, Ellen.

“Ah! So, did you come for our festival then? If your dressed like this, flying, and claiming to have been fighting Noram soldiers… Let me guess, you must be Torrence Baker? Here to save us all maybe?”

Tor blinked.

“Um, yes… how did you know?”

The man laughed again, and so did all the people that had gathered around. It would have been intimidating, except that half of them were still dancing. A woman that was only about four inches taller than he was danced over, following the beat of the drums from an instrumental band across the grass.

“Look everyone! It's the Wizard Tor!” The woman bowed slightly and handed him a cup with something in it. At first he was going to refuse, not drinking alcohol himself, but it smelled like fruit punch. Digging out his poison detector to the laugh of the crowd, he waved it over the cup, nothing happened, so he took a sip. It was just juice, but tasted nothing like anything he'd ever had before. He asked what it was quietly, which got another laugh.

“Ah! Right, Master Tor wouldn't know that, would he? It's pineapple mixed with the milk of a coconut. I have to say, you're really going all out for this aren't you? Even flying in like that! Truly an event worth remembering.” The woman said, putting her hands on his shoulders and dancing a bit, looking around Tor got what everyone else was doing, handed off his drink, and put his hands on her hips, then tried to copy it. People laughed again, but most started dancing.

He didn't get it, not at all. If he told fifty people his name, no one would jump to him being, well, him. They'd just think he had a similar name to the guy that built stuff. Really it had happened to him over and over already in the Capital. These people had guessed without even being told anything and even knew that Tor was named Torrence Baker. There were less than a hundred people in the kingdom that knew that. Most of those related to him. He'd thought that was the case at least. These people seemed to know all about him.

“Um, where exactly am I?” He asked, his voice carrying as the music suddenly stopped and people bowed all around him.

“You're in Warden, Master Tor.” A female voice behind him said simply, not unkindly, but not chuckling at him either.

When he turned he saw her, even taller than the last time, standing next to her eight foot plus tall Count. Maria Ward.

“Oh.” He said brilliantly. “Of course I am.”

Chapter three

Tor just waited, not even bothering to try and fly off. Obviously if he flew directly to the stronghold of his worst enemies, there was a reason for it. Maybe they'd kill him and put him out of his, and their, misery? That seemed like a good enough reason, truth to tell. The woman that had been dancing with him giggled. Then she did a double and then a triple take at the scene.

“Wait, you're the real Tor? Not just a boy in a costume? I…” She stepped back and bowed low. A lot of the people around her followed suit for a bit.

Count Ward wasn't just a giant, but fantastic looking too. Dark skin, shining white teeth and ebony hair. Tor would have felt jealous if he wasn't too busy wondering who was going to try and attack him first. Maria smiled at him, ducking her head slightly for a second, a move that seemed almost shy, then she surprised the hell out of him, by bowing. The Count bowed too. Shrugging first, Tor returned the gesture with a grin. This was different. Well, if they wanted to pretend to politeness before lynching him or waiting for whatever poison they put in the juice to take effect, he could play along, right?

Maria sank to her knees, trapping her skirt, a plain white cotton thing like most of the rest of the women had on, under her demurely. Hands on her thighs she bowed low. Very low. It didn't look comfortable at all. Her head actually touching the ground then rose to speak, just ever so slightly, not looking at him.

“I didn't know if you would come. Honestly no one thought you would… Let me start by apologizing.” She bowed deeper still, and didn't rise or look up at him at all for a few moments, forehead to grass. The silence grew until even the whispers of the crowed breathing started to quiet.

“I was cruel to you, who didn't deserve it. I took your heart felt gift and invitation as a spurning from someone else, and acted without grace. Then in my anger and later fear, I maligned your good name. This makes it sound so minor, but… I know it wasn't. I talked to Patricia Morgan about it often and learned things about you that I didn't know at the time…” She took a deep breath one that sound half like a sob. When she started speaking again it was obvious that she'd started crying.

“How… how my words damaged you and made you think that you were worthless, even as you helped other people and saved lives. How even now you think that you aren't worthy of being loved… because… because of me.” If her crying was fake, she was a master of it, Tor realized. Real tears glistened on her cheeks and her breath caught realistically as she rose just slightly. Not perfectly, but like a person that was actually crying might.

She kept talking after a moment, even though Tor couldn't think of anything else she could possibly add.

“And then… In my rage over what happened with Ursala Thorgood, I… accidentally set something in motion, which led directly to your being poisoned. I didn't mean for that to happen! You have to believe me in this, all I intended was for you to be frightened, but my friends went overboard out of love for me. I take full responsibility and offer you…” She swallowed dramatically, it was well timed enough that even Tor could tell this part was an act.

“My life.”

The audience gasped.

Tor waited. After about twenty seconds she looked up, her eyes still moist and looking far too lovely for someone that was supposed to be heartbroken over their horrible misdeeds. He had to respond though, so he nodded. She kept watching him, so after a few seconds he shrugged and stuck his tongue out at her. The Counts face clouded for a second, but Maria just looked down, then back up, smiling demurely.

“Right, so you all know I don't kill people as a rule, so this little game is just to make you look good? Don't worry, I've already let go of the whole poisoning thing, at least as far as I go. But the others, the Thorgood's, Ursala's child, Karen Derring… I won't forgive those at all and I really don't think anyone else will either… It's not a good situation you know?” It was all she was getting from him. Those people were his friends, and there were others that had died, some he never met, servants and grandmothers, innocent people caught in the cross fire.

“But, we didn't do that.” The Count said in his deep voice, deeper even than Tovey's. “Yes, we admit that the attacks on you were our fault. Wait-” He held a hand up to Maria who'd started to say the blame was hers alone. “No dear heart, I could see what was happening at the time and should have put a stop to it. It was clear that your hurt feelings towards Alphonse were an overreaction to very normal things and your treatment of Master Tor bordered on insane.” He smiled when Maria bristled a little.

“What? It was, and you know it. So he stopped me and the Prince from fighting? Well good! I was being crude and deserved a thrashing and even if I'd won that particular altercation, what good would it have done me? Ursala was pregnant and I should have done more for her. Yes, she should have taken better steps to prevent it, but that was no excuse… Plus… and, well, I know you were feeling poorly after seeing the Prince, but taking it out on this man was wrong. I should have stood up for him with you more often.” The large man turned to Tor and bowed.

“The attacks on you were my own fault, but I swear by my blood and breath that neither I nor my lady had any part in the attempts on anyone else's lives, nor did we intend lethal harm to you at any point.” He held the bow.

Tor shrugged.

“Well, you look a bit guilty. For instance, what's with the war against a whole kingdom if your innocent? Most people that are innocent say things like “hey, we didn't do it” not, “we declare war” kind of, well, a poor move if you really are innocent, don’t you think?”

The Count straightened and sighed, then put out a hand to Maria, who took it but didn't rise. Instead she found Tor’s eyes and held them.

“If I may rise sir?”

“Um, sure? Why couldn't you?” Tor said, knowing it sounded a little dumb. Ah well. If the worst thing that happened today was him sounding stupid… Well, really, he reflected, a wave of bitterness passing through him, too late for that, wasn't it?

Maria rose smoothly and gracefully. If not for their history it would have seemed lovely to him, he knew. Then he'd asked her out in the first place because she was cute. Probably too good looking for someone like him, since he was a bit of a troll he knew. Ah well. Thinking for a moment Tor shrugged, which felt helpless and more than a little dull witted. Then he sighed hugely, seeking his own dramatic effect.

“Right, so if you really didn't do it, who did? And more to the point, can we prove it before the invasion force comes and takes out tens of thousands of innocent people? Do you two have any idea as to who it was?” It was a long shot, but maybe they'd have something to go on.

Strangely they both nodded.

“Laval.” Maria said shortly, through her teeth. “He wasn't normal at all. When we heard about the attack on the Queen’s day celebration we knew it had to be him, so we… Well, we'd been hosting him hadn't we? Everyone here suspected that he'd gone after you those times, but he was here when the big poisoning took place, so we knew it couldn't be him, right?” She gestured around and one or two people in the crowd nodded.

One man stepped forward from behind a table with food and drink on it off to the side, slightly closer to the band then they stood.

“It's true my lord, I mean Master Tor sir. He was at the Postern celebration here in this very section the whole night. Near on twenty people talked to him, danced and ate with him too, he was here.”

The man was dressed like everyone else, but seemed older than most of the others, gray haired and slightly heavier. Not fat, just like he'd been well muscled when younger, and now had gone a little softer.

Well, at least he hadn't turned into a stick like Tor had.

“But,” The Count said quietly. “That's why we declared war. We knew that we couldn't prove any of that and when we heard of the attackers on Queen’s day, we knew that they'd run a line directly to our door, so we took a firm stand first. It was my idea. I should have just gone to the King and thrown myself on his mercy instead. Better my head than the blood of my people on my hands.” His head drooped and his expression looked truly sad. Maria took his hand gently.

“We… We've decided to turn ourselves in, which is why we invited you to come. We didn't know if it would be now of course, but people knew to expect you, we've placed pictures of you all over town. Only…” She pointed at his face. “We didn't know about the beard originally. It makes you look quite fierce and manly however. We had to color in all the pictures when we heard, it wasn't well done I have to say…”

The woman he'd been dancing with touched his arm gently.

“Please sir… don't let them be killed. They're good people. I know that things look bad for them, but I swear, they're both innocent of what's been said about them!”

Then both the Count and his Countess, dressed in their white party outfits, with blue belts for the men and red for the women, mainly, knelt again, still holding hands. The Count lowered his head.

“We are in your custody sir.” He said loudly enough that everyone could hear him in the whole square. A little slow on the uptake Tor finally got it. He was being loud so that no one would stop him from taking them? Or… Tor looked around and saw people watching, but no one taking action. So probably not a trap then? One by one they all started kneeling too.

Right, like he could take anyone in? He wasn't a guard or even in the military. Or, for that matter, in good with the King right now even. If he ever had been.

“Ah, well, might as well get up everyone. The first thing we need to do is call this stupid war off then. Sorry Count Ward, but out of everything that was the worst move made so far. And I say this as a guy you've both admitted nearly getting killed, so you know I'm not saying it lightly. We can fix that part though. I think. Is there somewhere we can work on it, without ruining everyone's party I mean? I guess I can run it back in the morning, if you want. Though things…” Well, to stop a war, Tor could suck up his own hard feelings, couldn't he? It had to be done, even if he felt like a moron doing it.

After they got up the Wards led him back to their house, large, a palace nearly as big as what the King had, but open to the public, at least as far as the grounds went. Hard to tell in the dark. No wall around it at all. In fact, what he'd thought of as a park, turned out to be their garden.

Only about one in ten of the people there were people that worked for them. Most were just people that came for the party, everyone was welcomed it seemed. Why they were doing this instead of getting ready for the invasion he didn't know, but he was careful not to ask either. If he was supposed to make peace somehow, then he couldn't allow himself to be used as a spy, even by accident. Noram had too many people well versed in intrigue for him to take chances or say the wrong thing.

As they walked he told them about the events of the day to pass the time. They gasped in the appropriate places, as if he were telling a story to amuse or entertain them, instead of going over how badly things could suddenly go around him. He did not look forward to trying to deliver the letter the next day, but stopping a war was far more important than him looking good or even avoiding prison for beating up several hundred people. It sounded stupid when he said it out loud, but Maria put a hand on his shoulder.

“That is so… I apologize once again Sir Torrence. I've done you more damage and harm than should be borne by anyone and you ready yourself to go off and make peace for us, who have done you no good turn ever? I…” She started crying again, which got the Count to comfort her with some awkward looking pats on the back. Too bad he couldn't have met this Maria first. She actually seemed halfway likable, if a little over the top with the fake dramatics. She was trying at least, and right now that counted for a lot with him.

Tor assumed they were fake at least. He kind of had to. But as long as they weren't trying to play him for a fool and use him in their war somehow, he could live with that. He'd even put up with the crying. Really, Petra had told him several times that Maria was a bitch, and so had Collette Coltress, but she seemed all right so far. Maybe she was only normally mean to women? He'd met a few people like that at school. For instance Dorgal Sorvee was really only mean to the scholarship kids, and mainly that was only really Tor, come to think of it. He was polite enough to everyone else. Maybe it was something like that?

When they got into the house, the luggage followed them, much to the fascination of the Count, he stared openly at the cases as if it were something amazing and not just a different form of the flying field. Just inside the door Tor hit the amulet under his shirt, which turned the follow along field off. Really it was just the signal that got turned off, but that wasn't a real point, the cases all had to be turned off one by one if he wanted them to set down. These were his new ones, so when activated they rose about eighteen inches into the air on their own and sank slowly when shut off. They landed one at a time with a little clunk on the pale wooden floor.

Pointing, the Count, Martin, Tor knew from Petra, the man's youngest sibling, asked how much they cost.

“The follow along lifts? Oh, no one is really making them yet, except me. Dorgal Sorvee has some he might part with soon, but, I just gave him a load of stuff today, I don't know what the price will be. I have a few extra sets though, if you want them? I have some other stuff too… Um, let's leave off on any military gear for a bit though, until we can at least get the war stopped, this one at least?”

Maria looked at him hopefully.

“So you believe us? That we didn't attack the Queen or poison all those people?” She sounded young and a little like she was playing him for effect. He got it, but that didn't mean they were guilty. Tor decided to just be honest.

“Not really. There's a lot of evidence showing guilt, still, if you are innocent then we need to prove it and if you're guilty and trying to play me, well, if it stops a war, then play away. I know what’s coming here, I made most of it, and really, if you're not working directly with the Austrans and don't have a large amount of super weapons laying around in secret… Well, I don't think your County will survive. I've tried to keep my contributions non-lethal, but with something like forty thousand people coming at you with class five shields, air chokes and the new force lances, they don't have to be turned off, like the ones I told you about earlier? Ten thousand or more people with Not-flyers coming over land, or even water, at eighty miles an hour and all of them out for blood… well, I'm not going to ask what you have, in case they try to force me to tell later, but it seems that stopping this peacefully is the best course by far. Even if it means we all end up dead ourselves.”

Stiffly, Maria nodded, with tears in her eyes.

Well what did they expect? They declared war! That simply did not look friendly. Tor tried to think of something that would seem more like a declaration of guilt to everyone in Noram and couldn't. If they'd said, “ha ha, we attacked you good” in a letter to the King it would only seem as guilty, not more. Tor had them sit down and write out the whole thing themselves, explaining everything, then sign it in front of him. He wrote a line saying that this was written by them in front of him personally, without duress, and had them initial it.

Then he wrote his own letter and got them to sign that they read it as well. Neither of them liked what he said much, but both put their signatures to it. It was more than a little surly and pissy on his part, but as he mentioned to them, he was tired and already knew that he wasn't getting any sleep that night. He couldn't rest there after all. Maria seemed hurt when he said that, looking around as if he was saying their place wasn't good enough for him, that made him laugh out loud. Really laugh. He had to cover his mouth and tried to explain since she looked very put upon about the whole thing.

“Oh, no, it's not that, I normally live in a single room focus stone shack with three other people, this place is great. Really at least as nice as the King’s palace itself in a lot of ways, which reminds me Martin…” He hadn't used the counts name before, he was older than Tor by at least twenty years, but he didn't blink at it now, so they were either friends or the man really just didn't care about titles that much.

“Take better care of your mother and sister will you?” Tor held up his right hand, it was a tired half wave. “I know, Petra has her own life now and all that, but seriously, that house your mom's in needs major work. It has a wall now, to keep the lizards out, and should be a little more comfortable, but the furniture all needs to be replaces due to mold damage and she should have servants other than just Georges.”

Tor kind of expected to be yelled at then, but the Count simply nodded, giving a small seated bow and Maria looked down at the table, a shame filled expression on her face.

“That's all my fault. I've never gotten along with Petra, not since, well, you know. I deserved it, being beaten for saying those things to you. I can't deny that now, but it set things in motion in a bad way, so I've been cruel to her. I should have tried harder to fix that but… No, that's wrong. I should have tried fixing it at all, I never really did. I promise I will and that we'll make sure Ellen is taken care of.” She smiled gently.

Nodding his head for a second Tor remembered something Rolph had said to him once. Someone had just attacked him at the time and he was blaming Captain Wensa of the Royal Guard. The Prince had checked with his parents in the Capital not just to make sure they hadn't tried to have him killed, but that no one had said to “take care of Tor” meaning they wanted him to get hugs and tucked in at night, only to have that misconstrued as “kill him now”.

At least the other two laughed when he told them about the whole thing, then apologized again, since Maria had already admitted that she had put Laval up to that attack on him. One of them at least.

That settled, Tor asked if they could plan to stay in their capital for the next few weeks or so, in case he needed to find them in order to take them off to trial or execution or something like that. It was morose humor, but they agreed, as long as he promised to make certain their people weren't harmed. Well. If they wanted to trick him into helping them, that was the way to his heart. Being willing to sacrifice themselves to save their friends and charges… Yeah, that touched him more than a little.

Tor took off before even false dawns light.

He hadn't eaten which burned at his gut a little, but he'd been hungry before in life and probably would be again. He'd live. Tor just wasn't going to sleep in Warden. If they were trying to set a trap, it wouldn't pay to make it too easy on them, would it?

The flight back felt like it took longer, and probably did, since he'd gone off course pretty badly, ending up flying north at least several hundred miles before daylight came and let him make corrections. As tempted as he was to simply fly straight to the palace, it was forbidden to fly in the city still. Apparently in the first weeks the flyers made their in-town debut, several young nobles had decided that racing as fast as possible through the city streets, about five feet from the ground, made for an interesting game. They had shields after all, so what could go wrong? None of them had been hurt, though several others had been.

One a child who's back had been broken. It didn't seem likely the boy would ever walk again. Tor wondered if he could help fix that with a healing device. If not, would a Not-flyer be able to help the boy get around?

Maybe. He'd have to check on that situation if he ever got the chance. The flying rigs were his invention and he'd personally made the ones that had harmed the boy, he didn't doubt. It would only be right to try and help if possible. Make sure he was either fixed or would never want for anything. Both if possible. Tor sighed. It was always something wasn't it? He was tired and desperately wanted to just curl up and sleep, but knew he couldn't. This was too important to put off, just for his own comfort. What if the attack were already set and his nap made him too late to stop it? No, he had to keep going. No matter what.

The main city gates were open, but guarded when he got there, the morning guard saw him and just waved. Small guy with floating luggage, that pretty much had to be him, right? That or the guard didn't care as long as he wasn't committing a crime. Either way worked for him. At least he hadn't been banned from the city yet. Probably. It could be that the guy on duty just couldn't be bothered to stop him or hadn't looked at the papers that told him not to let any builders in if they were too short or something.

The trip through the city was always a trick. It was early still, most shops were just opening, some of them smelling very good, but again, stopping wasn't in the picture, as hungry as he was. If he messed this up and people died, it would be on him. And the Wards.

Mostly them, but right now was his part, not theirs. It took nearly an hour to get to the palace gate, and from the bell clock in town he could tell it was nine in the morning. It may have been too early to visit. Then again, he wouldn't know unless he tried, would he? He looked a mess still, covered in dried blood, teeth needing to be brushed and hair desperately wanting both a washing and brushing. The only positive was that, since growing a beard he never looked like he had two days growth going on any more.

For once he didn't even get to the gate guard house before the main gate opened. Standing in the center of it was Richard Cordes himself. The King. Tor raised an eyebrow as the man took several steps forward. He tried at least. Both eyebrows going up at the same time, probably looking shocked instead of skeptical.

“Well at least this time you came to tell me to buzz off yourself. This isn't a social call. I have documents for you and Connie to look at. I mean the Queen. Prince Alphonse Cordes too, if he's around, I'd guess, and any counts, advisors or intelligent stable boys you have in this place that want to listen in.” Tor waited as the King stiffened slightly and looked like he'd just been punched in the balls. The idea very nearly made Tor smile, since he could literally do that with an uppercut on the giant. If he could get close enough. For some reason the King didn't say anything, just led him into the palace with a simple hand gesture and a stilted turn. It made Tor wonder if commandos were about to pop from the walls again. True, last time it had been Smythe of Westend behind that, but the man was still walking free. After all, trying to kill Tor didn't count as far as the law went. Literally, he realized, at least at the level these people played. No law said they couldn't kill him.

Rich asked Tor to sit in the meeting room, it was one that had a large table, an extremely ugly oval one that probably cost more than some entire families made in a year. Focus stone would have been both cheaper and more durable, as well as nicer looking. Except that he hadn't created the process to make it when this table had been made. From the sense of its field he wondered if his mother had even been born then. Tor sat at the far end of the table, not the head of it, he didn't think, the opposite position. The guest chair, so to speak.

If they'd fed him, he'd have to look out for poison for sure.

It took a long time for anyone to come and then they all showed up at once, a long stream of stiff looking people. Probably all pissed at him for being rude and beating up those men just because he got mad. The King and Queen led them, followed by Rolph, the Princesses, Ursala and Holly, Tovey and Smythe of Westend. Tor didn't get up. He was too tired and a little too pissed at most of these people for one reason or another. Not Holly, and possibly not Tovey. That was it. When they sat down Tor flicked the first letter down the table, a sliding toss, it didn't even get half way there, but Ursala grabbed it, looking at him as if he was trying to steal the palace silver and passed it down the table, until it got to Richard, who broke the red wax seal on it and opened it very slowly, taking a deep breath.

It was clear he read it more than once.

It got passed around the top of the table, which was a tradition, he thought, having seen it before, but then the King took it back and stood.

“Well. That's rather different than what I expected I must say. Tor's been to Warden and both the Wards have agreed to declare the war over and admit it as a grave mistake on their part, and give full apologies for their error, then they include why this happened, what led to their mistake, claim that they were not behind the attack two weeks ago and further that they were not behind the mass poisoning that killed so many. Some names are listed…” Richard looked at the paper again.

“Tor I notice that your name isn't listed on here?”

“They admitted that they caused my poisoning to happen. They claim it wasn't what they intended, but they also said that they had me attacked the first time, the guy dressed like Wensa? Maria said she meant that one.” Tor didn't say anything else, because Ursala and Holly both started shouting.

It was hard to understand, but it came down to how they couldn't let things rest there. The language was a good bit harsher than that and had some name calling, but that's about what they were getting at, Tor thought.

The King nodded.

“Nor apparently do the Wards think it should. They both say that their willing to surrender themselves into Tor's personal custody and in fact already have, to stand fair trial. Their only concern is that it be a truly fair hearing, if I read between the lines correctly, not just a show to excuse killing them. Tor it says here that you witnessed them write this with their own hands and sign it without duress? Then you had them initial that as well? Very thorough.”

That was the case, so he nodded. Prince Alphonse Cordes rolled his eyes a little and started listing off all the ways that Tor, innocent that he was, could have been fooled or taken advantage of. Especially in the state he was currently in. Tor threw the second letter at him, which also didn't get halfway down the table. It got passed to Rolph, since Tor pointed at him rudely, who opened, read it several times and started laughing out loud. Instead of passing this one around he just started reading it to everyone.

“Ahem. To whom it may concern: Of course they're probably lying about this, but everyone deserves a fair trial don't you think? Maria keeps over-acting and trying to use her tears to influence me, as if that could matter at all. But if Count Ward is acting, he's the best I've ever seen, and we should get him to tour with a group of maskers or players, instead of doing this silly ruling thing he has going on. Still, they claim they didn't do most of what they're accused of. If that's the case, we need to know it before a bunch of innocent people get killed. Then he signed it “Tor, who's not as gullible as you think, which you should know by now, Rolph.” and had both the Wards put a witness statement at the bottom. Which he initialed. Heh. Funny, but kind of cold Tor, making them sign it like that.”

So, Tor told them, after he got a place to stay and cleaned up, he'd come back and they could work out the particulars of the trial itself.

“We'll have your room made up in the guest house…” The Queen said, lifting her right hand.

Tor shook his head, “No, thank you. I'll find someplace on my own if it's all the same. Given everything I have no doubt that Smythe at least is going to try and have me killed again. Who knows what the rest of you are going to do. The only thing I know is that it won't likely be to my benefit. It hardly ever is where you royals are concerned.”

Yeah, it was surly, dark and probably slightly unfair to some of them, but he could hardly think still, too tired and without rest the reaction to the combat rage lingered still, worse Smythe sat alternating between glaring and looking smug.

It was annoying.

Smythe's right hand came up from under the table suddenly and pointed at Tor, a roaring blast of pain washed over him, along with a blinding light. He didn't move, but a small scream escaped his lips. There was yelling then, but Tor couldn't understand it. Finally it occurred to him to try and hide under the table. The room had gone black, but from the pain in his eyes Tor was pretty sure he was just blind. Darn. It wasn't a partial blindness either, the room was gone totally. His eyes burned and felt funny, wet and sticky, as he forced himself to crawl along under the table. He couldn't really run, could he? What could he do?

He tried to feel the fields in the room and located where Smythe was. Kind of a desperation move really. He was working his way down the room towards him, wearing a shield that was one of Tor's own.

“Sire, he must be stopped for the good of the kingdom. I told you all how dangerous he was, but no one would listen to me!” The man yelled as he walked along, the device he held ready to be activated.

Tor could almost draw the picture in his mind. Of course nothing he had would go through the man's shield, not without killing them all. Now if he had the Counselor’s weapon… Tor laughed, a deep, low chuckle, which made Smythe stop moving for a second. The field Tor wanted to make was basically just a cutter, only formed across the man’s right wrist, inside the shield space. It would take a minute or two though, of course. Even if he managed to do better than he ever had before. While already blind, scared and in pain? Simple, no doubt.

So he needed to buy time.

“Westend?” Tor said while crawling. Keeping his focus solid he turned and crawled in the other direction. Everyone else scattered of course, but then what could they do? They wouldn't have anything that Tor didn't. “Seriously? I mean, what did I ever do to you? Oh, wait, I get it. Of course…”

The older man tried to suddenly attack, but Tor felt it coming and moved before the blast could catch him, rolling over his left shoulder in a somersault. It worked well enough for this kind of fight at least, but he'd hate to try and fly this way. If the blindness was permanent he could cope and still even work, but it wouldn't be fun. It made him glad he'd taken time to appreciate the sunset the day before. Freaking insane Westend hadn't even warned him first.

“You attacked me even after I gave you the super-explosive before, and now you attack after I bring news that the civil war might be ended without bloodshed. Why would anyone do that? I can only think of the one reason… It's because you're an Austran agent, isn't it?” Tor had to roll again then, the new pain weapon catching him in the leg as he moved, he needed a bit more time, somehow…

“Right, of course that's it, your Austran masters have been planning this for a long time, haven't they? Years at least, to get you into place. Smythe of Westend? What kind of name is that supposed to be anyway? Tellerand? Yeah, they probably got you as an orphan or at least a young child, probably bought you from a whorehouse or something, then trained you to blend in here… That make sense. The only problem being that they forgot one crucial thing…” Tor held the focus and felt the whole thing began to gain the needed power.

“In Noram… we use magic.” It came out as a growl.

The field sunk home and there was a sudden clunking sound of a hand holding a silver weapon hitting the floor. Tor focused on the field as tightly as he could manage. He crawled to it as Smythe started to whimper. Not that it would hurt, but his hand was gone, which had emotional impact.

Tor found it and pried the metal piece from the grasping fingers, the whole thing slightly slick from the action of his brushing the bloody part by mistake. Sensing fields was fuzzier than seeing after all. Standing Tor walked carefully over to the military leader. Facing him the man made a keening sound.

“Yeah, I'm blind thanks to you. Don't worry, your joining me in the dark now, so I won't feel alone long.” Triggering the weapon he heard and felt Smythe scream and after a few moments fall, then begin to writhe on the floor. Tor didn't stop and decided not to until the field cut out. The air around him had grown cold, icy even, the weapon taking energy directly from the environment itself. And from him.

Westend still lived, but wasn't doing much, probably trying to stop the bleeding of his stump. He could have felt bad for the man, but decided not to. Instead he focused as hard as he could, found the amulet around the man’s neck and triggered it, turning it off.

That, of course, was the problem of attacking him while wearing work Tor had created. He owned it, in a very real sense. It was always his, no matter who copied the field or who wore it. The design was a part of him, made from his own field. If he could focus enough, he could turn it off. Then he could do… anything.

In this case the order of the day was stomping. It wasn't very precise, but then that wasn't his fault, he was blind. Shoe leather struck flesh over and over again, but the guy kept breathing. Tor pointed the weapon in his hand again. A short blast came out of the end.

Then Tor woke up somewhere else. It was still black.

Wonderful.

Under him the bed was soft, the blankets too, so not the floor of the room, and he lived, which hadn't been guaranteed. Still blind though… that was kind of annoying. Dropping into a work state, Tor tried to rebuild his eyes. It took a long time, and he felt himself fed occasionally, and thought he fell asleep several times, the field always getting weaker when he did, which is how he knew it happened at all. Finally, days later, he opened his eyes, and saw something. It was dark, but he could see a slightly brighter patch coming from around the door in front of him. After a while he got up and opened it, the world flooded with light, bright light, too bright to see really.

He adjusted, if throwing an arm over his eyes while trying not to see counted as that, and noticed the guard standing outside the door. Clear, but a little blurry. Probably just his eyes not being used to the light yet. On the other side, to the left, there was another. Crap. He hadn't even considered that Smythe might have been acting on orders. Tor was defenseless, weak from the attack and the work he'd done. Plus these were Royal Guards. He probably couldn't have taken one in a fight on the best day of his life, even if he got the drop on them. Not without weapons. As it was they both turned around when he stepped into the hall.

“Right, so, am I prisoner or not?” He asked, just waiting for an answer.

If he was, well, he'd fight of course, even if he was going to lose. Then again, if he went back to the room, he could make a cutter and get himself free. Or possibly a shield, if he found something to attach it too. If he could do both, he might be able to get away. He'd lose all his stuff, but without life, did things matter? The guards told him to go back in to his room. Rather gruffly.

Well, that explained that, didn't it? Tor went back, into the dark with no lights at all, and started feeling around for objects to work with. The only things he could find were a pitcher of water that might or might not be poisoned, and a glass.

Everything that belong to him was gone, of course, though they'd dressed him in a loose silk outfit. It had no buttons or solid fasteners of any kind, not even cloth ties. Tor wondered for a few seconds if he could attach a field to silk? Or to whatever the bedding was made from? He'd never heard of that, but then again, his education had been less than complete when he left school. Maybe it was the easiest thing in the world?

Just to be safe though, Tor decided to go with something more solid. The bed was made of wood and so was the table the pitcher was on. Good hard woods from the sense he got off them. All he had to do was make a simple cutting field and he could take large pieces off to work with. His breath caught and a smile flashed over his face, making his beard pull in a couple places where it was matted together.

The walls and floor were stone. Hard, blue-gray and shiny. Given his preference, that was the material he'd take. He had to find a corner to shave stone off, but feeling around it only took a few minutes. The cutting took longer, but in under half an hour he held three nice slabs of stone, about as thick as two of his fingers and as long as his hand each. He could have gone with something smaller, but it was still pitch black in the room and really, he didn't want to accidentally slice off a hand or finger trying to make everything perfect, when good enough would do.

Hours later he had everything ready. A cutter that was by far the largest field of its type he'd ever worked with, nearing six-foot in sweep. That was just in case he needed to go through walls that were thicker than he thought they would be. Then, just to move debris from his path, he formed a decently strong explosive weapon, but, it was shielded on all sides but one, so all the force would move away from him directly. Like what a force lance might dream of being when it grew up. Destroying anything in its path, but also moving it away from whoever held the device at the same time, for close work. It was something Tor had been working on for a while, so that if he had to threaten anyone he wouldn't have to use his mega explosive or risk other people around him, since that would just be insane.

Still, this one wouldn't go through his own shields, so something better was going to be needed if he had to keep fighting his supposed friends. To round the whole thing out he had a shield. At first he thought that holding the three devices in his hands at once would be hard, but he figured out a way quickly enough. Shield in the left, the other two side by side in the right. The cutter could be left on and he could use his thumb to trigger the blast field.

Right. Tor stood up and tried to shake the feeling back into his arms and legs, after about ten minutes of this he triggered the shield and took a deep breath, just as the door opened, showing a medium sized giant figure in silhouette. The form reached over and tapped a sigil by the door, causing the lights to go on in the room.

“Gah!” Tor felt nearly blind suddenly, the light was so intense. It was just that normal kind of lights being too much in the morning thing though, and while he had to shield his eyes with his arm again, he could still see at least. Sort of. It was freaking bright. Tor pointed the two devices in his right hand and took several steps back just in case an attack was coming.

“Tor?” The Queen’s voice was baffled and confused sounding. “What are you doing out of bed? The doctor said you should rest undisturbed… I… are you looking at me?” She added suddenly, voice going excited.

“Of course. Well kind of, it's awfully bright in here suddenly. But yeah, I managed to get my sight back. It's what I've been working on… How long have I been out?”

“Only two days. You were eating and responsive enough, changing your clothing and such when asked… We were told you'd be blind forever… Smythe is.” Her voice wasn't accusing, but Tor felt horrible anyway. He'd cut off the man's hand and left him blind? God. What kind of monster was he? Was Smythe just right about him?

Taking a deep breath Tor shuddered for a second.

“Oh.” It wasn't a brilliant statement, but was the best he had at the moment. He struggled mentally, his mind working, but blank at the same time. “Am I not a prisoner then? The guards seemed kind of like they weren't letting me leave earlier, I was just about to escape.”

Well, he was about to try at least. If the Royal Guard used that weapon of Smythe's, he'd never make it. For that matter Tor wondered how escaping would have worked at all anyway. He should have made some kind of device to help him flee too. Duh. Was he going to just walk out of the city? They'd taken his money, so he couldn't even hire a carriage and really, given everything, running barefoot would probably be a bit much to ask in the moment. Stupid of him to not have thought that through.

“Oh! No. You're not a prisoner, the guards were just there to make sure you were safe. I'll send them away now.” She turned to the door and waved the men away, without pause they walked off.

Tor almost laughed. It wasn't like there weren't six more hidden in the walls, right? If he'd found the light they probably would have attacked him when he started cutting things up. Then again, if he really wasn't being held against his will, maybe not. The Royal Guard didn't protect the furniture, or even the building, just the nobles. Some of them had even stolen some statues for him from the garden once. Just because he'd asked. They definitely didn't play be the same rules as everyone else, did they?

Connie stood for a moment looking at him hard, his eyes finally adjusting to the bright light. She walked towards him slowly and put a hand out to touch his arm, which didn't work, the shield protecting him. Instead of doing anything useful, she started crying. Tor felt like crossing his arms at her, but didn't want to tie up his weapons hand, the situation was still too uncertain, and besides, in a real fight she could probably kick his ass without half trying. He wasn't about to drop his shield for cuddles and hugs right now.

Without saying anything the Queen gestured for him to follow her, tears running down her cheeks still, but an odd smile on her face. Following almost by rote, Tor wondered what would be coming next. Probably not an attack. If they'd wanted to do that, they had a better chance before, when he was blind and unprotected. A simple swipe with a cutter and it would have been over. It would take a lot more work now. So what then? Humiliate him publicly? Kick him out in his pajamas? Well, he was taking his stuff with him if that was the case. If he could find it at least. That wasn't too likely he realized. They could have locked it up in a secret vault or hid it in the kitchen pantry. Really, if they just set it in some room at random he'd probably never find it here, the place was just too large.

Gah.

Walking slowly Tor lowered the weapons in his hand, but tried to stay mentally alert. Even if the Queen had lied to him about Trice, letting him feel horrible all that time, it wouldn't do to walk her around at the point of not one, but two death weapons. Finally she lead him into a small chamber lined with soft couches for sitting. The cushions were all crushed green velvet, a dark color that reminded him of the pine forest he grew up in.

In that moment, oddly enough, he missed Two Bends, backwater or not. Most of all he missed the way it smelled and how safe he'd felt there. Even walking into this room, filled with people that had called themselves his friends at one point, he didn't feel safe at all.

Tor looked around carefully, no one had noticed him yet, but that was fine. It was the royal family, Trice, Ursala and Tovey. Ursala saw him first, her eyes looking first bright, slightly teary and surprised, then shocked. She didn't move though. The first one to move was Princess Veronica, who threw herself at him, trying to hug him. She couldn't of course, which got the girl to laugh and tap her own shield off, so that she could kiss him. Tor didn't move though, shaking his head instead.

“No. I'll stay shielded thank you.” His voice was cold, icy, and hard, like stone. Rolph swallowed and nodded, but Varley looked hurt as she pulled back.

“Now,” the scene had to be ridiculous, even if no one laughed. His five-foot-four frame standing nearly even with the sitting King, who was even leaning back a little on the sofa across from the door, right in front of him. Still, Tor needed to know the truth and did something he'd rarely done in life, and focused on the King’s field, the information and energy that made him up, his attention becoming intense as he spoke.

“Did you order Smythe to attack me?” He asked, his voice harsh and soft at the same time, barely a whisper.

“No, I…” The monarch stopped when Tor raised his right hand, towards the ceiling, not pointing the stone shard weapons at him.

“Did you collude with him to attack me? To blind me?”

“No.” The King’s voice was firm, but not angry sounding.

His field was anxious, worried and stressed, but it felt honest enough. Tor nodded and asked one more thing.

“Did you consider, even for a moment, that it would hurt me when you ordered Trice to say those things about me? That I might take damage from it?”

Turmoil rose within the man suddenly, fear even, as incongruent as that seemed coming from a royal giant. Still his head high he answered, a stream of what appeared to be more or less honesty behind it. Not perfect and not complete, but mainly the truth as he saw it.

“Yes. I… knew it had that potential. I'd hoped to keep it from you, but felt it was needed, only…”

Tor walked away from the man abruptly, not needing to hear any excuses, and questioned each of the others in turn, using the same kind of focus with each, trying to feel the truth or the lie within them. It was a lot more complicated than not, but no one here had been working with Smythe to harm him at least. Well, that was something. He could work with that, couldn't he? When he got to Trice he stopped and added a single question at the end.

“Did you ever love me at all, or even… Even like me a little?” It sounded sad and tiny, like he was a child.

Her answer shocked him, since it wasn't what he expected at all. He'd figured that she, possibly, liked him as a friend, or even felt little to nothing for him, but probably didn't hate him overly. He steeled himself for that. Her hatred.

“Tor… I love you. I have for a long time.” She said simply, real love, pure and untainted rolling of her for a few moments. Then a wave of sadness joined in. He almost had to go sit down it was so strong, he turned away instead. The only one left was Ursala then. Sighing he asked her the same questions, not if she loved him, that was a moot point anyway. He hadn't asked anyone else that either.

Then, none of the rest of them had publicly maligned him. Not that he knew about.

She was dressed in brown fighting leathers and clearly felt mixed emotions about him, but hadn't been working with Smythe to do anything to him. Indeed, she barely knew the man at all.

“Why are you mad at me?” He asked quietly. She flinched, but didn't turn away.

“You're trying to help them. Marvin and his bitch. They killed my family Tor! I know they did. No one else would have bothered, would they? You may be able to look past an attempt on your life, but your better than almost anyone I've ever known. I can't look past it. Or my parents, my child…”

Well, that made sense. Still, Tor wasn't planning to help the Wards, just stop a war and get at the truth. He let the tall blond Countess know that again and nodded to her.

“If they killed your people, they'll die Ursala, I promise you that, even if I have to kill them myself. Even they know this. The only thing I'm asking for is the truth. If they didn't do it, then it would be wrong to punish them for it.”

Taking a shuddering breath she examined his face closely for a moment, her feelings for him were warm enough over all, but a single flare of revulsion tore through her too.

“What?” He asked suddenly, worried that he was just too ugly to look at or something. After he explained what he was doing she looked down, her face going red.

“Oh, that… well, it's nothing really, but…” Taking a deep breath she just dove in.

“I hate your beard.”

For the first time in weeks, Tor laughed, and meant it.

Chapter four

Tor was exhausted.

Really, he could barely keep his eyes open and just wanted to go home and sleep for about half a week. Only, of course, he didn't have a home any more. So that meant he needed to collect his things and find a place to stay soonish, or at least get out of the city so that when he curled up on the ground to nap no one would care. All he needed was his stuff and maybe directions to an inn. Tor had never stayed in one before, so it would be an adventure. Too much had been lately. For a moment he really just wanted to go back to Two Bends and take up baking as a profession.

Well, too late for that now.

Maybe somewhere else though?

The King gestured and suggested that Tor's luggage be found and brought to them, even while the Queen, Rolph and Varley tried to talk him into staying with them. Oddly it was only the middle child that stayed quiet, finally shaking her head when Rolph looked to her for support in his suggestion that they turn the guest house over to Tor for the duration.

“No. Don't any of you see? The army took his home from him. That means we did. Well dad at least. Or maybe Alphie, since you could have said no and told them to get out. That was after they barred him from it and then attacked him for coming in anyway. His own home! What would any of us do if the guards here attacked us? That's an act of war, our military striking out at a Countier like that without cause, and everyone’s acting like it was just a lark or something! Stay here? I'm amazed he even brought the Wards letters to us. If it were me I would have paid a currier and called it good. Then when he does come, because stopping a civil war is more important to him than his own pride or dignity, we let him be attacked by one of the highest government officials in all Noram. Again. Why isn't anyone talking about that? Why wasn't the man put to death after the first attack? Or at least removed from office? And was he behind the attack at Tor's house? He's the head of the military and clever enough to set something like that up, we all know that. It's part of why he has the job. What do we even know about why he did it?”

The King sighed and put his right hand on his head. After a while he spoke, his voice sounding nearly as tired already as Tor felt.

“Smythe was scared honey. He's an old man and the worlds just changing too fast for him. Tor represents not just change, but power, and worse, power that Smythe personally doesn't control, and knows he can't. The first attack was foolish, of course, but I really thought he'd moved past that when Tor didn't retaliate for it, or even demand justice. The war started right on the heels of that, before it was even really over, and he swore that Tor was only being apprehended. It was moronic, but understandable given the situation. What we saw the other day, that was still probably about fear, but now the man has a real reason for it. Before Tor was an able opponent, a builder that might be a little better than some. But now he'd successfully defeated over five hundred men in battle, alone, and chose to leave them alive.” The King shrugged. “I'm sure that to a hardened warrior like Smythe it seemed that Tor was just toying with them. Saying that they were so little threat he could treat them like a few small children instead of a company of soldiers. By all rights it should have been a blood bath. It would have been if Smythe had been there in Tor's place, I'm sure.”

Tor felt his shoulders hunch. So it was his fault? Somehow he'd scared the military advisor and made it seem like killing him was the only safe course of action? Like Tor was dangerous? He was about to point this out when Tovey snorted. In the year they'd know each other Count Thomson had seldom made any sound that undignified. Pulling his tall form straight while still sitting he nodded.

“Well, we have a war to fight and possibly two if this peace accord with Ward doesn't hold. Who replaces Smythe then? It would be prudent to act fast and I don't think that trying to hold his position for his eventual recovery is wise at this point. As it stands I doubt the man could survive another incident with Master Tor.”

It was suddenly Master Tor now? From Tovey? Since when was he a master of anything? He wasn't even a shop master or a tradesman, much less the top of his trade. A lot of builders were better than him. Like whoever built that weapon that blinded him the other day. He didn't have a clue how that worked. The light was bright, but it did more than light could somehow. It felt like it seared his very flesh at the time. That had gone away while fixing his eyes, but still… Tor called him on it.

“And really,” he added at the end. “Not only do I not have a shop or studio, I don't even have a house. Everything I own is in a couple of cases now.”

Ignoring him almost totally, except a few strained looks, people made military councilor suggestions again. A lot of names came flooding out from the room, but the King held his own council on the matter, as if he already had some ideas of his own, but didn't want to argue them yet. Tor looked up to see Connie staring at him, as if concerned.

Ah.

He got it after a few moments, she probably worried about him being homeless. Well, it had happened before. What he really needed was property, something no one could take away. If he had that, the rest could be made to happen. Thinking about it he felt suddenly angry. Why should he be without a home? Hadn't he done enough to earn one? He'd worked constantly and people said that what he did had value even.

It took an act of will to let go of the thought and focus on the topic at hand, that coming back around to the disposition of the Wards. It was important, obviously, since he'd kind of promised them a real and fair trial. Yay. He should have just killed them when he had a chance and put Petra in as Countess. It would have been easier over all. Wait, she had an older brother ahead of her didn't she? Well, they could saddle him with it then. Maybe he could get Petra to run off with him? The thought was unworthy, so he didn't mention it out loud. The killing part was unworthy, he corrected. Petra wouldn't want to run off with him, but that part would have been fine. They were both single adults and even of comparable station in life. She was Counserina second and in line until Martin had a child with his wife.

The conversation went on for a long time, and a lot of war related things were talked about, which Tor mainly just nodded through. It was nearly all he could do not to fall asleep. His eyes were heavy and the topic, while supremely important, was about as interesting as watching yeast ferment. Starting he realized that his head had dropped suddenly as he'd fallen asleep. Sitting up straight he waited for his things to be delivered, or perhaps someone would come and take him there? That would work too. That was probably going to be easier he realized. Six medium-large trunks would be hard to move, right? Especially if they didn't know how to work the follow along floats.

Nothing came. Eventually they moved to one of the dining rooms, but Tor didn't drop his shield to eat. After all, that would open him to attack. Plus for all he knew the food was poisoned. Everyone else had a poison detector, but not him. All the ones he had were in with the amulets in with his stuff.

No one said anything, but he got worried glances from everyone for some reason. Finally, after almost two hours a liveried Royal Guard came in, looking panicked. Everyone stared as he whispered in the King’s ear. Whatever it was Rich didn't look happy about it, frowning and going very still as he said something and listened to a reply. Suddenly he took a deep breath and walked from the room, heals clicking softly on the stone floor.

“Thomson, Thorgood, attend me now, please. It's… potentially urgent.” He said, not looking at either of them as he walked quickly from the room. Rolph shrugged but kept eating.

“Well, Tor, is there anything we can do to convince you that it's safe here with us now?” The Queen asked, batting her eyelashes just enough to catch his attention, without making it seem phony. It was of course, he realized. She'd probably had lessons in it as a girl. Ah well, so what if she had? If so it had worked out well enough for her, since she was Queen. If she'd been taught homemaking, she'd have been out of her depth, wouldn't she? He didn't think there was but said nothing, not knowing how to answer her.

Tor kept drifting off, and was, he realized, asleep when everyone came back in. Because being caught napping would make him look good. Not weak at all.

They didn't run, actually, if such large people could be said to mince, that's what Tor would have gone with as a descriptor. They all looked horribly worried about something, but only Tovey actually looked at him.

“Tor… all your things have been stolen. Even the devices that were in the room you shared with Countess Thorgood and… Countess Printer. All of its gone from the palace.” The Count didn't seem pleased about it at least.

Well.

Either they were lying to try and keep him there, or something had gone horribly wrong. Tor just waited. They'd probably give him something more to go on eventually. It was the King that finally broke the silence.

“Ahem. Well… not to point fingers, but Countess Printer was seen leaving with ten cases earlier, flying at speed away from the Capital. We're tracking her now, but she seems to be making best time back towards her County. We need to prove this before taking action but it seems highly likely.”

Nodding Tor just sat.

“Wait…” Something didn't make sense to him. Well a lot of things didn't really, but right now one thing really stood out. “She took my clothes? My toothbrush? Why? She'll never fit in them, and even if she did, well, the colors and styles are all wrong for her. Really, I have all those green shirts, she'd look better in burgundy, don't you think? And I know for a fact she has her own toothbrush, I've seen it, it has a really nice carved ivory handle… Oooh, and what could she be doing with my under things?” Tor mugged a little, getting a laugh from the Princesses at least, well, Trice too, though that was more a dark chuckle, as if she had some ideas about the subject that Tor probably wouldn't even think of.

That dark chuckle triggered an equally dismal thought in Tor's somewhat sleep deprived mind.

“Oh, and, I don't suppose that the amulets I was wearing when Smythe attacked me went into those cases, did they?”

Trice told him that Ger had collected them and was holding them for him.

“Great! He's a good and trustworthy person to keep my stuff. Very good in fact. Um, could someone send for him? Quickly please? Before his next meal time?” A smile strained his lips, half panicked.

No one got it except the Prince.

“Shit Tor… Do not tell me a twelve year old boy is running around with that super weapon that looks like a poison detector?”

Well, Tor considered it for a moment. Gerald was thirteen, so there was that. Nearly an adult and a Squire to boot. He wasn't worried the kid would run off with his things, just that he might get confused and check his meal with a poison detector that simply wasn't. He tilted his head back and forth as Rolph ran from the room. Gasping slightly Tor followed. He didn't want the Prince to scare the kid after all. As long as Ger knew he had it, everything would be fine. Probably safer with him in fact, since no one really seemed to want to kill the boy. No need to freak after all. It could be hard not to, but it wouldn't help anything, losing control never did.

They pelted through the hallway, rounding several hallways before making it to the kitchen, one of the smaller ones that Tor hadn't been to before, to find both Ger and Gemma helping out with the dinner prep. Chopping potatoes into little cubes.

Tor smiled and waved when the kids looked up.

“Hey all!” He forced his voice into brightness. “Ger, do you still have my amulets by any chance?” He asked immediately, not getting an answer really, just a flying tackle from two sides.

“Master Tor!” Gemma cried, her arms slipping off his shield, her own doing the same. That earned a smile from Tor. With the double slices of stone in his right hand Tor aimed a blow for Ger's shoulder, he had a shield on too. Good. If he hadn't the second blow would have landed on his head, if not hard enough to do more than sting. He was a Squire now, so that meant he needed to stay ready, especially since they were at war.

For nearly a minute the kids enthused about his not being blind or dead, which made Tor happy enough. Ger, being a good Squire, even if not his, had all the amulets and weapons on him. He was using that shield, Gemma had the one Tor gave him. Very smart of them really, good use of available resources.

“Right, um, see the poison detector there? Could you hand it to me please?” The field was definitely not that of a poison detector. Being hyper careful Tor stepped out of the room and activated the cutter still in his hand, facing away from anyone and, hands full, tried to make another mark in it. Nothing happened.

Right, the shield he had on protected it too. Tor tried not to indicate he'd made that mistake and didn't react. Looking around and taking a deep breath, he willed the shield to drop and made the second and then third mark on the tiny copper piece quickly, then made sure he was protected again.

“Whew! Here you go then Ger.” Tor handed it back to him, earning a panicked look from Rolph. “OK. Ger, that, as you may have guessed, isn't a poison detector at all. It's the most powerful explosive weapon I've ever made. Maybe the most powerful thing that exists in the kingdom. If you use it while on the ground or on anything too near you, and I mean within at least a mile, maybe more, you'll die, shield or not. So will everyone else around you. Keep the other weapons, and guard it with your life. Give it to no one except me, Kolb, Prince Alphonse or the King, and really, if any of us seem upset or angry when demanding it, don't give it to us. Got that? Even if you have to fight us to keep it. Gemma? When Ger needs to bathe or anything that means his shield will be off, you have it. For god’s sake don't get confused and check your food with it! Are you both armed?”

Ger was, with the weapons that Tor had been holding when he'd gone down in the fight with Smythe. Interestingly the young brown haired Squire held the blinding weapon too. Tor borrowed it from him, promising to return it later. He wanted to check the field out on it and see what he could discover. If nothing else he wanted to be shielded against it, didn't he?

“Ah, Tor… a word?” Rolph said quietly, gesturing to one side of the hallway.

“Are you sure that two kids should have all that gear? I mean… well, they don't have any training yet, do they?”

It was a good point.

Tilting his head to one side Tor showed Gemma how to use the Not-flyer and cautioned her that it was military grade, so faster than the ones they had in town. She already knew how to use them, it turned out, at least the slower kind that the palace servants had access to. So did Ger. Laughing Rolph doffed his own and handed it to the boy.

Nodding the Prince looked at both of the children. Tor was the one that spoke though.

“There, now if anyone comes for you, or tries to take that weapon, run. If you can't escape, then you have my permission to kill them. There we go, that should do for now. We need to get them trained fast obviously, if they’re going to guard the most dangerous weapons for the kingdom. One last time, if a Count orders you, on pain of death to give them your weapons, what do you do?”

“Run away?” Gemma said, sounding uncertain. Tor nodded and smiled at her.

“And if they corner you in a small room, surrounding you with guardsmen?” Tor asked, looking at Ger.

“Kill them all?” He sounded more certain.

“Yep. Then run away again, in case they brought friends. Well, glad that's taken care of. Shall we go see what else we need to do now Prince Alphonse?” Tor said, getting a shocked look from his friend.

“I don't think you ever called me that before.”

“I don't think I ever handed massive death weapons to kids that can't even reach the top shelf in the kitchen either, but it's a day for firsts. Shall we?” Gesturing with his right hand he managed a fluid motion that indicated they were going back where they came from, it was smooth enough Rolph didn't even laugh at the attempt. If Tor wasn't fighting a yawn at the same time it would have been nearly perfect.

He let the Prince do the honors of the story to the rest of his family. It really sounded much more interesting when he told it, Rolph being a better storyteller by far. The King actually squeaked when he found out that the weapon had been left in the hands of two children, but Trice smiled and winked at her uncle.

“Don't worry, two of the best squires in the kingdom. Of course I have to say that, because one of them is mine, but it's a good plan. No one would think to search them for it, and they won't use it. I'd put a Royal Guard detail on them just to be safe, but seriously, who else would you choose to hold it? Smythe of Westend?”

The King hurried into the hall, but came back a minute later looking much more assured.

“Now, where were we? Oh, yes, so… Tor was opining that Countess Printer would look better in purple than green and might be doing strange things with his undergarments?”

“Burgundy dear.” Connie corrected.

“Indeed, silly of me to make that mistake. Now, Tor, I believe their also a small matter of some devices you made? I don't suppose you have an accounting of those do you?”

Tor did, but only roughly. It was about five thousand shields, all the latest design, three thousand flying rigs, three thousand military level Not-flyers and a few thousand lights. Nearly a hundred explosive weapons, but while dangerous, they were the smaller ones he assured the King who still grimaced… and a whole host of things that he didn't really have a good accounting of at all. Also all his gold, for some reason. It probably made sense, if she was stealing stuff anyway, but she could have left his clothes and soap.

“Holy fucking shit.” Princess Karina said staring at Tor with her mouth open. “That's… even if we don't count the Tor-shoes, I mean the Not-flyers, that's millions of golds worth of stuff! Wars have been fought over less. A lot less. I mean, we had a war not twenty years ago over a single goat, so this… What do we do? Send the army?”

“Watch your language. You're a Princess, not a dock worker.” Tor said, his voice not unkind. “As to what were going to do… Well, I need to find someplace to sleep. Obviously I don't have coin for a room right now, so I guess I have to stay here after all. If that's all right I mean? Then in the morning, after I make some new shields, flight rigs and all that, I'll go off to wherever my friend Holly is, and get my clothes and gold back. Obviously, if she wants to borrow some of my stuff she can. For future reference though, please ask first. I can get the fact that I was out of it for a few days but seriously… This is more than a little inconvenient. I really want to brush my teeth.”

Everyone went quiet except for Trice. She laughed long and hard, it didn't even have a manic edge to it at all. Everyone finally stared at her which got her to sober finally, nearly forty seconds later. She still smiled.

“I am so going with. Ooh! Tor, shave off your beard, it makes you look a lot younger, plus Ursala hates it. We'll take Varley along and, well, Gemma and Ger are busy… Maybe we can take a bunny with us or something? Nothing says, don't kill us, were all cute and fuzzy, like a bunny.”

She was being sarcastic, but Tor just yawned and agreed with her.

“Yeah, send for Petra Ward too, and… David Derring. That should round things out.” Who he really needed was Karen Derring, but she was dead. Her brother would have to stand for her as Holly's friend then.

“What about Martin Kolbrin? I mean if we're to send those two?” Richard said, his eyes directly on Tor's.

Ah, right, not everyone here knew about the special section, did they?

That should do it, they all agree. It kind of made sense. Kolb had worked closely at with the Countess at school after all. Definitely a familiar face. Everyone thought it would work at least.

Except Rolph who thought he should go and Connie who definitely didn't want her daughter or injured niece going near someone so obviously unbalanced.

In the end they both relented.

That was good, because Tor fell asleep curled up on the sofa he'd been sitting on all day. When he woke up, it was the middle of the night. Someone had come in and dropped off pre-marked copper sections for amulets, enough for full batches at a time, which he took as a hint. Batches of a hundred each, not ten. A bit of extra work, but he had to start rebuilding since Holly had taken all that stuff… A bit frustrating, but that was life, sometimes you just had to pick back up and go, even if it was a pain in the rear.

Tor just worked until he'd nearly finished the fifth, and obviously last, batch when the people came in. It was just some lights on small copper disks that could be tied anywhere, they were only the size of a silver coin, but the light they produced came out in a nimbus around them nearly a foot in diameter. The light was red this time, because some of the military men felt that red light didn't hurt their night vision as much. It probably didn't, since you couldn't see half as well by it, but if that's what they wanted, he'd make it for them. They had the combat field experience, not him.

It took nearly three hours after that for them all to be ready to travel, since Tor was bathed, shaved and dressed by a team of servants he'd never seen before who were both efficient and good at their jobs. Then they had to wait for the King to write Holly a letter, which he assured them all wasn't inflammatory.

They could only hope, since it was sealed with wax and no one wanted to risk trying to melt it free in case they damaged it. That would be embarrassing after all. Tor had a vision of them handing over a letter from the King covered in half melted wax. The stuff running down his shirt in a red mess. It was a hilarious thought, but also a crime. You didn't mess with a royal seal. People had died for that in the past. Not even that long in the past either.

The flight took about seven hours, but mainly because everyone wanted to stop and eat three times. Tor understood, everyone else was a giant, even if a small one. They just ate more when they could. Tor ate once, at about lunch time and then mainly because Petra grabbed him and threatened to force feed him if he didn't have some fruit and cheese. The fruit was dried, quick dried, which left it airy and light, it practically melted on the tongue and wasn't shriveled like regular dried food was. It was crispy instead of chewy and good in its own way. Like candy almost. Pears, peaches and apples were offered.

No one mentioned the new process, because they'd all seen it before, except Petra, and she got almost instantly that Tor had created the device that made it without being told. The woman just kind of expected that if new magic was involved, Tor was to blame.

Out of everyone, it was funny who expected what to happen. Tor didn't say much, because really, he didn't know at all. Kolb figured that they'd likely have a fight on their hands, possibly with Holly herself. After all, he trained her for years to do just that. Tor he'd taught to run away, Holly he drilled on leading forces to battle. Oops.

Trice had a small box with her that she assured everyone would fix everything, but she said it with that playful air she often used, which was good to hear, as much as the situation sucked. She wore black, except the light tan of her bandages on the stump of her left arm. The flight rigs that had been made that morning all used a right hand control, but other than that were as fast as the new military ones. It was what he was using too, since he didn't have time to make a regular batch, not yet. That was fine, he wasn't going to fight anyway, just talk. Every few minutes Trice gave him strange looks, flying alongside him and mugging openly.

She seemed to either be adjusting fast to her missing arm, or, and this was more likely Tor guessed, she was faking it for everyone else's benefit. She was good at faking things after all, Tor thought, only slightly peeved by the idea. Finally after ten strange looks from her or so, Tor stuck his tongue out briefly. It got a laugh from her, he couldn't hear it, but that's what it looked like from a distance.

Petra looked uneasy.

Tor wanted her there, because Holly Printer was an old friend of hers from school. But even though she wasn't close to her sister in-law, she was still a Ward. It would have been harder to deal with, except that the tall dark skinned girl really didn't like the Countess Ward much at all and had told people that for years. Kolb didn't think it was a stupid idea at least. Not that he'd said.

When they landed in the Printer capital, oddly enough just called “Printer” instead of Printoria, Printerland, or something even dumber sounding than that, and, efficiently enough, they were met almost instantly by the city guard. Here they wore dark green and white uniforms that weren't half as silly looking as the bright red and white used by the guard in the kingdoms capital. Actually it looked kind of sharp. Menacing, but very professional. The wore tall black boots that gleamed a little they were so polished.

It was a group of four men, and they didn't fly over, simply walking, their hard soled leather boots, about half as high as what prostitutes normally wore, marched over in step, making decently loud clomping sounds. They had clubs on their waists, but didn't draw them.

“Identify yourselves please, gentles.” The young man who was in the front left position spoke first. He had hair that was either blond or brown, one of those things that was too close to call. Other than that, all the men looked similar. Short military haircuts, trim. Very young.

It was Kolb that stepped forward, his smile looking kinder than Tor was used to seeing it, which probably meant fake. The scar on his right cheek, running from an inch under the eyebrow to an inch above the chin, a silver line on the lean face, crinkled a little bit with the effort. Even the eyes wrinkled as if trying to make him look very happy to be there.

“Well met!” He said in a phony sounding voice. Well, it sounded fake to Tor at least. Honestly it was happy sounding, the kind of voice you used with the guard when you knew you weren't about to be arrested for something and just didn't want trouble. “I'm Baron Martin Kolbrin, this young lady is Princess Veronica Cordes.” He gestured at Varley, the men all bowed as one and held it.

“Your majesty.” The lead man said. She waved them back up.

“Hello!” She said, her own voice sounding bright and chipper. Tor got the idea. Be happy, like coming to visit a friend? He could do that.

Kolb continued.

“Next we have Countier David Derring…” The tall young man, still only fifteen, if nearly seven foot tall and lean as well as hard, grinned. It was charming.

“Hey.” He said, sounding like a goofy kid.

“And Ducherina Patricia Morgan.”

Trice giggled and batted her eyelashes at one of the guards that hadn't spoken, causing the man to grin and blush. The guy was good looking, Tor had to admit. He looked down at her left arm worriedly, but didn't let it show on his face as revulsion at least. Trice was pretty, one armed or not. It did make her look a bit lopsided though.

“Oh and these two…” Kolb gestured first to Petra and then him, a bit lazily. “Petra and Tor. You know… the wizard? Hard to believe I know, but it's true.”

Petra murmured something but Tor stepped forward and wrinkled his nose at Kolb.

“Oh, come on! Everybody has to look like something, don't they? Just because I'm not so over tall as all you doesn't mean I look funny. Seriously… most people aren't giants you know.” Tor grinned at the guardsmen to show he was just playing. “Do I look odd to you?”

Tor knew he probably did. These were city folk, and ones picked to be guards, they weren't giants, but of the four of them, none was under six foot. They looked small compared to most of the people with him perhaps, but not that bad. He looked like a tiny child, which made him sigh. Even more so without his beard. He rubbed at his face absently kind of lamenting the loss. He'd look about twelve to most these people, maybe a little older in the right light. Part of it was the height, but he really did just look young, thin, and pale.

It took a few minutes to get directions to the Printer estate, which was overlooking the ocean, on the other side of town. Instead of flying they walked, since that would call the least attention to themselves. David carried the box Trice had, a plain wooden thing, not overly large, with a wooden handle on the top. She wouldn't tell him what was in it, saying it was a surprise for Holly. Tor let it go at that. If Trice didn't want to say more, it would just cause a fight if he insisted. It was good enough that the girl wasn't moping and whining about her arm still like she had at first. It sucked, but really, she'd saved hundreds of lives grabbing that death dust bomb, including the royal families as well as his. Her missing arm wasn't a handicap, but a badge of honor.

Looking at her from behind Tor winced.

She really did look out of balance though. Lopsided. Maybe he could get her a new arm somehow? He wondered if he could make one. His mind sank deep as he thought about what was needed. Could he use a combination of shield and something like a flight field so she could move objects… shape it like a hand? He'd never made light look like a solid object, but that had to be possible, didn't it? Things looked solid all the time and that was just reflected light. It would take experimentation. The feedback and links to her mind would have to be… Incredible. Hundreds of links and for best effect they'd need to mimic the ones that a real hand used, of course.

Then, could he add mental feedback so she could feel? That information already existed, even within himself, so it should be doable, but he'd have to investigate that too. It was incredibly complex he realized. More so than anything he'd ever even thought of making, but… Tor could see it. It was possible. Potentially at least. After a minute he realized that Trice had moved in front of him and was using her right hand to jiggle his left shoulder.

“Tor! Hey, snap out of it!” She laughed at least. Everyone else looked a little concerned, but she'd seen him do this before. More than once. A lot more than that.

“We've got things to do, no time to disappear on us now.”

“Sorry.” He said brightly, and trying to cover for just how deep he was Tor forgot himself and leaned in, giving the tall curly haired girl in front of him a warm kiss on the mouth. She just kissed him back, instead of hitting him like he probably deserved for taking the liberty, but Varley “humphed” and crossed her arms.

“Hey, this is a business trip, not a couple’s getaway. You two stop that and start walking.”

Ah. Tor had forgotten for a minute that Trice and he weren't engaged any more, and that he and Varley were. At least for the time being. That whole thing with the King having sabotaged his last relationship still rankled, and Varley had capitalized on the situation, if getting him was any kind of prize.

Maybe it was just something they'd dreamed up to keep him from totally losing it? Regardless, kissing Trice like that was more than a little indiscreet and therefore rude. Maybe. The social code of the nobles said that anyone could have almost any relationship they wanted and most people had several, some having ten or more at once, but you weren't supposed to advertise things like that. It had been a little too warm to write off as joking even. It was just reflex though. Tor didn't explain, because that would just call more attention to it. Instead he blushed, and kept on walking.

Petra chuckled and moved in beside him. Leaning over slightly she whispered in his ear.

“Don't worry, Veronica's not really mad, she's just guarding her territory, that's all.” Then, possibly just to see how bright red Tor could turn, the tall girl smiled and grabbed his behind. No one else seemed to notice at least.

A few minutes of walking later, when they rounded the corner of a row of densely packed single story white buildings, each of them seeming to hold a small shop of some kind, his face cooled when the stiff breeze hit it. He could smell the salt and hear the birds before that, and had for a while he realized. There in front of him was an ocean.

The beach was rock instead of the sand he expected from his prior experiences with similar things and he almost felt like running to the water and dancing around in it to cool down. He was more than a little warm, the air being humid here and hotter than he liked, sweat collecting in his armpits, waistband and groin in an uncomfortable manner. Well, he should have taken the time to make a batch of heat equalizers instead of silly little lights. Live and learn, right? Looking around he realized suddenly that everyone with him looked comfortable. Darn them. He was the only one that had to do without it seemed. Because that made sense, didn't it? He'd invented the darned amulets and he didn't get to have one?

Yeah that was fair.

Along with the sea, there was a smell of food in the air. One of them, something fruity and warm caught his attention, he looked around until he saw the sign that said “bakery”. The scent was pie. It had to be. Peach he thought. For a second he wanted to get one and take it with them, after all, when you went to visit you were supposed to take something, right? Especially since they were showing up uninvited. Tor didn't have any money his being “borrowed” by Holly, and felt uneasy about asking anyone else to lend him some. It sure smelled good though…

An idea hit Tor and he smiled. He had an extra five hand lights in his pocket. Maybe the merchant would be willing to trade? It was worth a shot. The worst they could do was say no, right?

Waving Tor got everyone to follow him, most of them looking bemused. Except Kolb, who looked skeptical, and a little annoyed. Well, that made sense.

Going into the whitewashed little shop probably didn't seem in keeping with their task, did it? It didn't have a glass window, just a strange board that was folded up and provided shade as well as letting light in. As they approached the man behind the counter came to it directly, so they didn't have to go in at all, wiped his hands on a brown cloth and smiled.

“How Y'all doing?” He asked, his voice slow and relaxed. “New in town?”

“Yep!” Tor said brightly and inquired after the pies, just to make sure they were really there and not at one of the other shops. The man beamed at them all and brought one out, it looked perfect, flaky crust and brown topped, slightly darker where sugar had been sprinkled on it. From the color leaking slightly through the vents on top, and the smell, Tor realized it was a combination of peach and Strawberry.

The man ducked his head a little.

“These are the favorite of Countess Printer. She normally comes in for one about once a month in season. Sometimes more.” The man wore all white, an outfit similar to what the people in Warden had all been wearing.

“Would you be interested in one?”

Looking around Tor tilted his head. Royals all ate a lot, and he didn't know how many people Holly would have to feed…

“Two would be better, but I don't really have any silver on me. Would you be willing to trade?”

The man sighed hugely and looked skeptically at Tor. He was dressed well enough, but not so well this couldn't be his one nice set of clothing, which was literally true, this being the only thing he had to wear at all until he got his things back. All of them wore similar things. He had on a purple shirt in silk, along with a pair of leather pants and a vest in the same color brown. Now that he thought about it, he realized that it was probably something of Varley’s that she'd outgrown. In fact he'd seen her in it. Tor blushed. Royal girl flying clothes. No doubt he looked manly.

Getting out the hand light's he turned one on and handed it to the man. It was bright, but red. Other people stopped to stare, since it called for attention. The man gasped a little, his eyes going big.

“Magic! I… doubt my shops worth as much as this is. What does something like this go for, fifty gold at least? More than that?” His voice had gone from skeptical to awed. Not just a little either.

Tor grinned.

“Well, today it's worth two pies and something to carry them in. If you want it, I mean? It's just something I made myself.” After all, it wasn't even a proper light, being all red like it was. To someone like this it would be a curiosity at best. The man quickly agreed, looking a little guilty about it, but providing a nice basket with a top to carry it in. Tor just hope it really was something Holly liked. Merchants would claim anything to make a sale.

Even bakers always had the best bread ever, the most wonderful cakes, and so on.

After that was dealt with they only had another half mile or so to walk, the residence being carefully hidden behind some trees, a dense growth that had probably been there for a long while. There was no mistaking what the building was when it came into view. It wasn't the dwelling of a peasant or even a rich merchant, a huge, and old feeling, castle of stone, smooth and shining, meaning it was made with magical tools. The large blocks had been put together so well it almost looked like one seamless piece for a moment, except that the stone had different colors, some of it being quarried in different places Tor guessed. It wasn't lovely really, too eclectic for that, but it was majestic without a doubt. That had probably been the original point, rather than looking nice.

Petra pointed, seeming happy suddenly.

“There it is!” She said, causing Tor to feel a flash of unwarranted annoyance. It was obvious what it was after all. There wouldn't exactly be a castle every mile along the coast now, would there? He made himself let that go as unworthy. Petra was his friend and wasn't saying that the rest of them were too stupid to figure it out, she was simply commenting, just making conversation. Most likely at least.

Really, while he liked the girl and even kind of wanted to have sex with her, he didn't know how she thought overly. For all he knew she'd meant that they were all far too stupid to not mistake the huge thing in front of them with its motley stones of black, white, gray and gem like marble, for a barn. Instead of being a jerk, Tor decided to smile and give the girl a nod.

She winked at him.

“I was here a couple of times on break, back when Holly and I were in school together, since, you know, it's on the way to Warden. Kind of.” She took Tor's hand eagerly and led him up a smooth stone path. “This way, I think.”

The path split and wound around several times, but Petra walked it easily, possibly perfectly. In three minutes they were standing in front of a door that was probably the main one, given how huge it was. Twin doors of highly polished wood, each big enough that Tor couldn't have reached across them. Petra grabbed a bell cord, one higher than he could reach, a convention that Tor always took to mean something like “don't ring this if you aren't a giant… Peon.” or something to that effect.

If he ever had a bell like this, it was going to reach nearly to the ground, he decided right then. What if some little kid needed in? OK, so he could have flown up and reached it, but other than that, he'd have to jump, which would be embarrassing. They had to ring twice before anyone came. Petra just grinned and shrugged.

“Really people normally use the side doors, but we're bringing in a Princess. How often does that happen?” The door opened out, making them all step back as the side on their left swung slowly, The door was heavy and apparently needed to be picked up to move at all.

The man in black that was moving it grinned at them a little sourly.

“Sorry it took so long, this thing is a bear… Now, how may I help you? You're obviously not here to sell us anything, right? If so, then you would have to go around the side, after helping me close this beast.” He chuckled a little. Tor smiled and stepped forward.

“Not selling anything, here to visit Countess Printer?” The man looked suddenly skeptical. Something that Tor was getting used to finally, it seemed. Did they all really see him as that much less than everyone else just for being short? “We have peach and strawberry pie?”

The man laughed again, not just a chuckle.

“Well! That would do it then, even if you were trying to sell something. Now, may I ask who's calling? Otherwise she'll just send me back to wheedle the pie from you and send you off. She's a bit… distracted today.”

Kolb did the introductions, but added in Petra’s Counserina this time. He didn't add Tor's Countier though, which was just as well, since that kind of thing always made him uneasy. His name was just given as Tor. The man bowed low, to Varley first, since she was a Princess and then everyone else in turn, even him, though that did get done last, gesturing for them to all come in, and moving to close the heavy door on his own. Tor just grabbed the frame near the middle, where it had an edge and lifted too, after setting down the basket he carried. The whole thing had to weigh nearly two hundred pounds. Obviously made to withstand a siege, even though the place lacked a proper wall. So… maybe it wasn't for attacks at all and just meant to keep salespeople out? It should work, as long as everyone inside refused to open it.

The door didn't close with a mighty thunk, but with a creak and finally a screech that would have set Tor’s nerves on end if it had lasted even a second longer. The man took a deep breath.

“Right… Um, well, this is embarrassing, but honestly we've never had a visit from royalty before and I'm really not sure what would be correct…” The man looked about fifty, but spoke like a younger person, his voice friendly and open the whole time, as if Princesses and barons might just be people too. It made Tor smile and want to help the man out.

“Oh, well, if there's somewhere to sit, while we wait? Then you can let Countess Printer know we're here I think, if you feel comfortable with that I mean? Otherwise we can just stand here, but we are dropping in without warning, so she may want time to get ready or something?” Varley smiled and indicated that would be proper enough, which got the man to smile at her. It could be very easy to smile at a pleasant Princess after all.

“This way then. I think the main sitting room is clean. Ah, it's always clean, what am I saying? I'll have you thinking we keep the livestock in there or something at this rate.” His voice was happy enough when he said it, clearly being lightly playful. Very different than the palace.

Tor thought it kind of a big improvement. He collected the pie basket and followed the man. So far things were going a lot more smoothly than he’d thought they would. Probably the magic of pie. Who didn’t like a good pie?

The room had several soft sofa's all done in red and brown, the Printer house colors, and had a half dozen matching chairs. It was a big space that had natural light coming through stained glass in the pattern of flowers and fields of grass. It was pretty and glowed brightly at this time of day, which must have been about five in the afternoon. About ten minutes later the man that had met them at the door came back with three women, one older and brunette, followed by a round faced red-head that looked about twenty-five and another brunette who must have been close to the same age, all sporting close cropped haircuts that looked military. It was the common style in the Capital, but Tor hadn't realized it had spread this far already. The Queen had cut her hair to show support for the troops and also to make her look more like everyone else around her, a kind of camouflage, but that part wasn't public knowledge. The war with Austra was the big deal, not this stupid stuff that was distracting them right now, everyone going after Ward instead of getting ready for… Ah.

Tor wasn't a master strategist, but that made sense to him. It would even explain why the Wards would have been framed for all those attacks. If, of course, it was a frame at all.

Tor was expecting them to bring drinks, or possibly snacks to help them pass the time. Instead the women all moved suddenly, nearly as one, pulling force lances and pointing them at the group in front of them. Letting his mind range forth, he felt for the fields they had on. Several things popped into focus for him nearly instantly.

First, the force lances weren't very good quality. Oh, military grade, with strong fields on them, but the old kind that would only work for a few moments at a time and drained the user of personal energy. The second thing was that none of these people had a shield on at all, but all of his friends did.

Already turned on too. Tor stepped forward, holding up the small basket with the two pies in it.

“We come bearing gifts?” He spoke quietly, but with a smile.

“Get down!” The women started yelling loudly, voices going sharp. They looked more military now, the weapons did it, not the uniforms, which looked a little silly, red and brown shirts and pants, far too warm for the weather. These three didn't have temperature equalizers so damp spots showed under their arms. Then again he didn't either right now, so he could hardly feel superior about it. He was probably ruining the silk.

They started activating the weapons, which did nothing to the visitors, but shoved furniture back into the walls suddenly, making loud noises.

Standing in the same place Tor held his expression calm and shook his head.

“Really! Pie. We have pie!” His voice was a little desperate. Tor didn't know what anyone else had brought to the party, but anything would work on these women. Possibly lethally. The man with them looked terrified and hugged the wall, a tactic that would have worked better if he hadn't ended up nearly right behind the people being attacked. When Tor looked around everyone else had something in their hands, David Derring stood in front of Varley, two weapons pointed, getting ready to make the women stop. Just force lances, but ones Tor had made, which meant powerful and unending. He could hit these women for hours if he wanted and never even breathe hard.

“Stop!” Tor said suddenly, moving to stand in front of the attackers, shielding them with his body, which was only a psychological barrier at best. They were all nearly six foot tall, and too spread out for it to really work.

“They don't have shields on. I don't know why their attacking, but they can't hurt us with the weapons they have, so… You know, let's not, if it's all the same? I'm sure we can deal with this like reasonable people.” Well, that didn't seem to be happening really, reason not being the plan it seemed, but Kolb nodded.

“Stand down.” He told them all quietly. “Ladies, if you would please place your weapons away, we'll gladly do the same.”

It seemed to dawn on the women that they both weren't being very effective, except for in trashing the room, and that no one had responded to them violently at all yet. They all set their weapons down on the floor slowly, which wasn't what they'd been asked to do, but worked well enough for the moment.

Holly ran into the room then, looking frantic, she had a good force lance in her hand and a full shield on. That made sense, having had access to thousands of the things. She started to spray the room, sending furniture flying, some stopped when it hit people, but other pieces went straight for the ladies that had attacked them. The vulnerable ones.

Jumping wildly Tor slapped at a low table that came towards the red-headed and round faced woman, stopping it in the air when the shielded pie basket hit it.

The pies!

“Stop! We’re going to ruin the pie!” He yelled again, pulling the basket towards him fearing they'd been crushed.

Countess Printer stared at him for a moment and went pale.

“Tor…” She said simply and dropped the weapon she held to the floor.

A second later she followed it.

Chapter five

What did you do when a tall, thin, Countess goes to her knees in a room full of people? Tor didn't know, three things ran through his mind almost at once, the first was to help her up. That made some sense, after all, she was a Countess. Ticking her off could not be a good plan. The second was that in this position Tor was actually taller than she was, by over a foot.

Heh. Shorty.

It was the third thing was the one he said, not really knowing where it came from, it just kind of popped out. “All right dog-girl, what the hell have you been doing with my underwear?” He crossed his arms and tapped his right foot, basket dangling from his right hand.

Her people all stiffened and so did she at first, for nearly half a minute. Finally she blinked and started to chuckle which turned into a full laugh, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. After a minute she blinked and wiped at her eyes.

“God Tor, I thought you were blind and out of commission, I should have known that something as trivial as being permanently blind wouldn't stop you. I saw your eyes though, and they were cooked white, just solid. How…” She stared at him, but didn't stand yet.

“Fixed it. Imagine my surprise when I woke up and found my clothes and toothbrush gone. I had to borrow these and given how new they are, and that they actually fit, I kind of think they might have looked better on Varley. Anyway, we can deal with that in a few minutes, now, stop being silly and come give us all hugs. I brought some of your friends here to see you.”

Rising slowly, she walked over and gave him a hug, then one to everyone else, though she paused at David. He had to reintroduce himself to her, since she didn't recognize the giant in front of her as the little boy she'd met once or twice before. He got a hug though. While she was doing this, Trice started messing with the box, her back turned to the room. When she turned she held a small brown bunny in her arms.

She grinned.

“One armed girl with a bunny and pie, if that doesn't say we come in peace, then you've probably lost it, yeah?” Cutely the little rabbit popped it's head up then, pink nose twitching and looked directly at Holly. After a few seconds it ducked back deeper into the crook of Trice’s right arm.

Looking in the basket Tor shrugged.

“One and a half pies, if we can count something that smooshed as a pie. Maybe a fruit pudding? Well, it should taste about the same. Peach strawberry? We heard you liked it.” Tor smiled and tried to look like everything was all right and that four women, all bigger than he was and generally well armed, hadn't just tried to beat him up. When had people attacking him become so common place? Tor wasn't even shaking. The bunny was, so he even had something to compare to.

Steady as a rock. Weird.

They moved to another room, that somehow hadn't been trashed already, meaning that these people didn't always greet their friends like this. Either that or they didn't get a lot of guests. Other people probably got served drinks and told they looked nice. Not that he did, but it would have been good to hear anyway. Well, the one guy had seemed all right at least, though he still acted like he didn't know what to expect. Really, who could blame him? They ate the pie from bowls, Holly apologizing for not having any frozen cream, because it was just too hard to get ice in this time of year.

That earned her a snort from Tor.

“You have about a hundred temperature plates capable of making ice. You just need an insulated box to put it in. If you let me see my trunks I can set one up for you, maybe a few, if you want…” Tor really wanted to climb into his own clothing and steal away one of the personal equalizing amulets. They could set up some temperature control plates for the house too, while they were at it he let her know, by way of a bribe to let him have his things. Everyone else in the room stared at him. Well, that wasn't exactly true. His friends didn't, not even Petra.

Holly did, but he was talking to her, so that could be explained away as normal enough if a little intense. Her eyes were a stormy gray that he always associated with crazy people for some reason, though it wasn't true overly. Not really. All the Printer people stared too however, which made him feel uneasy, like they wanted to attack again or something.

It didn't help that all the women in their identical uniforms stood behind Holly stiffly, as if ready to fight for her again, even as they ate pie. But what kind of nut job brings you pie and then attacks? Well, not the kind Tor was, that was for sure…

Damaged or not the peach and strawberry worked well together. The crust was a little more dense on the bottom than Tor would have made it, but that could just be the humidity here, right? Holly ate silently for a while, finally pushing her bowl away and sighing hugely.

“So, how are we doing this? Am I supposed to turn myself in now, or… God I don't know what else. Treason charges? It's theft at least. I knew it when I took the stuff. Just thinking you might not be making any more, well that didn't give me a right to run off with it, did it? I just, I didn't want the Wards to get away with killing Danny like that. We loved each other, arranged marriage or not. If I could have traded places with him, make it me that died, instead of him, I would have. I'd do it now. It just seems like the Wards have something cooked up to get them out of trouble, place the blame elsewhere, probably using Master Tor as a shield to protect them. I mean, they were just waiting for you to show up so that they could make peace? How likely is that?” She crossed her arms meaningfully.

That earned a funny look from Trice who started to cross her own arms, then realized that didn't work too well at the moment. She looked angry for a second, then explained.

“Well, I'd been sent with a message for Tor, and a strong suggestion from Maria that I'd been wrong about him and was being cruel to a good person. Actually she called me a Doretta to my face and told me to fix it while I still had the chance. That came even before that box of stuff you sent with the letter you know. They wouldn't let me destroy the things either and when I started explaining that you were just trying to buy my affection and said I wouldn't have it, Maria nearly tossed me out on my ear. Marvin lectured me for half a day on how I should appreciate having a friend like you and thank whatever my people held sacred that I hadn't killed you. Come to think of it, they'd both been a little awkward about the whole “let's hate on Tor” thing for a long time. I think from before I got there. They both claimed they didn't try to have you killed, though I think Maria did have Laval kick you down those stairs. She said it wasn't supposed to kill you, just make Alphonse feel bad. After the poisoning though, they both seemed to think that it had gone way to far… Though really, I just thought they were faking that part. I would have, if I tried to have someone killed. Why advertise, even with your friends?”

That tracked with what they'd told him at least. That didn't mean they were innocent of anything, but putting them on trial was a lot better than going to war. If they were guilty, they could just kill them. If they were innocent, well, then they could help everyone find who was really guilty, maybe. It was better that way, wasn't it?

Tor thought so, and so did Petra, since it was her brother and she was halfway fond of him at least, if not Maria. Holly obviously wanted to take all the stuff she'd gotten from Tor and use it to raze Warden if she could manage it. Kolb cleared his throat at her, but David shook his head.

“Nah, Kolb, I get it. I kind of want to do that too. But Countess Printer, our anger isn't rational. It isn't good. If we don't let them defend their name when they ask, then it's just murder. I say we have the trial, find them guilty and then kill them. That way we'll know that what we deliver is justice or at least looks a bit like it.” His eyes were half hooded, playful it almost seemed, except he didn't laugh afterwards, instead he just exchanged nods with Holly.

What happened really depended on the King’s response to her theft, didn't it? She asked Princess Veronica if she had any thoughts as to what would happen, which got her to produce the letter from Richard. She did it very formally, standing and walking to her and presenting it with a full bow, holding it out from a respectful distance with both hands. Holly went white, but made herself read it. Near the end she gasped, her eyes going wide and a little afraid for some reason.

She didn't read it out loud, but passed it back to Varley for her to read. Then it got passed around the table for everyone else, Tor going last. He was fine with that really, it gave him a chance to finish his pie. It had a slight tang that he hadn't noticed at first, but realized had to be lemon juice. It was a complex and subtle flavor set.

When the letter got to him he read it casually. It didn't say a lot really, that Tor didn't already know.

It started by saying that she was incredibly lucky that Tor viewed this as a friend merely having borrowed some of his things without asking, and just being willing to leave it at that. The theft of three point two million golds worth of devices would normally garner the death penalty otherwise, even for someone of her station, which was casually mentioned by the King.

It made Tor glad it wasn't theft then and kind of vowed to just assume that nothing ever really was. Things weren't worth a life. Not ever.

Sighing, he realized that meant the military hadn't stolen his home either then. Though some of them had still been jerks.

Near the end the King suggested that County Printer should pay for the devices, which was probably what had gotten the gasp, or, Tor found, the bit under that, which ordered her to not attack County Ward until the King OK'd it. Well, that made sense, but could the King afford to stop her from doing it if she ignored her? Not through force of arms. Not with a war going on with Austra. Tor wondered if that meant that he'd be responsible for any messes Holly got into then? It was… well, not fair, of course, but… Tor had been the one making that many devices and leaving them lying around after all. She'd just “borrowed” them.

Tor just sighed and shook his head a little, hoping it didn’t seem sad or put upon. He felt that way a little, but the situation wouldn’t change just because he didn’t like it.

“Right. So Holly, obviously we don't want this to become some big problem or anything… Reading between the lines it's clear that the real issue here is all about not killing people without a good reason. So… um, not to be all ordering anyone around or anything, but is that OK for now do you think? We try to set up a trial first and if that doesn't work… Really, we need an investigation first though, don't we? If we just take the Wards in now, we pretty much just have to kill them, guilty or not. The circumstantial evidence is all there. I mean, they look guilty enough that I just kind of presumed they were. Only…” He blushed and looked down.

“Only I already thought that both Captain Wensa of the Royal Guard and Trice had tried to kill me, and turned out to be wrong both times. The evidence was there for that too, only it wasn't. Not really.”

That got silence from around the table, Trice staring at him for a full half minute without saying anything.

“Me?” She looked hurt.

“No one told you? Lots of clues. Let's see, you knew that I wouldn't wear a shield right after a meal back then, and what rout I'd take to get back to my room. The person that kicked me down the stairs was about the same size you are and had seen Wensa enough to fake being her. Which you could easily do. With the poison… come on Trice, it was placed in my room, on my bed, and the juice came directly from your parents estate. Plus, you know, you're an expert on poisons and stuff, or at least expert enough to take a crack at me. Yeah, it would have been stupid to do it that way, but you kind of looked like a reasonable person to blame, especially after telling everyone that you wished I'd died and attacking me in public like you did.” He hadn't started out sounding that way, but bitterness filled his voice by the end. Sure, it wasn't her fault, the King had made her say all that stuff, but that didn't mean that Tor felt fine about it just for knowing that. Taking a second, he closed his eyes and sighed.

“See, Holly? It's easy to get side tracked and blame the wrong people. Now, I'm not saying this means that Martin and Maria are innocent, but…”

Petra interrupted him.

“Marvin.”

“What?”

“My brother, his names Marvin, not Martin. Kolb's name is Martin.” She grinned at him, even while he felt like burying his head in his hands.

Crap! He'd called the man Martin to his face at least six times when he'd been there. Well, if that didn't make him feel stupid… So obviously he wasn't the one to run an investigation into this, was he? Not if he couldn't even get the names right. Instead he nodded and committed the name to memory. Marvin Ward.

Who ran investigations like this for the kingdom anyway? When he asked everyone looked down at the table for a while without speaking, it was Countess Printer that finally answered him with a bit of a shrug. The answer was, that for the last ten years or so, when such things became needed for upper level nobles, William Smythe had run the investigations.

Smythe of Westend.

Supposedly he was even good at it, the best in fact, though the idea didn't fill Tor with any kind of confidence. The man had tried to kill him and would have if he hadn't been able to get that weapon away from him and blind him in return.

Kolb, bald head shining a little in the evening light that came through the window, smiled, one of his wintry ones that always made Tor wonder if he planned to kill someone.

“He's out of commission for now. Luckily for him. I suppose we could let him investigate himself first… Not that we really need to. It was a clear act of treason trying to kill Tor. If he'd managed it, our military would be crippled for months. In the palace even… Actually I'm kind of surprised he's still alive. A bit of an oversight on your part Tor.”

Tor stuck his tongue out.

“What do you expect? You trained me to run away. The only reason I didn't there was because I was blind already. Even at that I tried to crawl away to avoid him. “Crawl away slowly” just isn't a very good battle cry. I…” Sigh. Why did everything have to be so difficult all the time? He knew what had to be done, but it seriously wasn't fair. Not at all.

“I… suppose I could fix his eyes. His hand is gone, I don't think I can get it to regrow or anything…” That was true, he'd looked into the idea for Trice, but so far nothing seemed like it would work. “Really though, if I do that, what are the odds that he'd just try to kill me again? Are there any other investigators available?”

If there were, Smythe was in charge of them.

The rationale everyone explained to him made good enough sense from a royal perspective. Smythe ran the military, so if a Count had to be called on their behavior, the guy running the investigation needed as much protection as possible, or else they could be intimidated into buckling under due to threats, or possibly be bribed. Smythe was, apparently, known for a lot of things, which included having been a powerful warrior in his youth, a good military strategist and also, apparently, un-bribable. He lived in the palace for free, in a simple servants room, didn't have a family to threaten, and his only “vice” if it could be said to be one, was his penchant for wearing those cream and yellow robes of his. Apparently that wasn't the uniform for the position, it was just what he liked. Well, that and a spot of Tor killing now and again.

He was even known for being friendly and kind in general. Fatherly even. Everyone agreed on that point. Even the ones that had seen the man blind him.

That earned the room a snort from Tor, but he didn't comment. The first time he'd met the guy he'd seemed nice enough, but then the next he set a commando squad after him who tried to capture and/or kill Tor. The time after that they didn't speak and this last time… Well, obviously the guy had issues somewhere in his head.

What got Tor was that, while everyone else in the room, except for Kevin, the man in black that had opened the door, seemed to feel that Smythe should be put to death for attacking him, they also thought that Tor should fix his eyes and get him to investigate the Wards. Kevin stayed out of it, looking pale and a bit frightened by the day’s events. He stood near the back of the room and had started shaking more than a little. Finally Tor got up and went to him, gently placing his hand on the older and larger mans arm.

“Alright there Kevin?”

“I… well, this has been a lot to take in. It's not what I expected at all for today. I just answer the door and make sure the staff does their jobs, set schedules and deliver ma'am her meals. And then suddenly, rooms are flying around and the crown is demanding millions of golds from us. People are sitting around talking about killing a man and at the same time saying you should fix his blind eyes first with magics that would probably cost more than any one person holds? That's… It's not sane is it? You don't heal a man, just to kill him later or…” The man kept shaking and looked down.

Right. Good point, that wasn't sane. For his part, Tor had mainly been avoiding even thinking about the issue. He wasn't going to kill Smythe himself, but didn't want to be killed either. Fixing his eyes felt like a bad plan for that very reason. He'd taken off the man's hand, which had to mean that if the guy could, once he'd healed, he'd be coming after him again, right? The Counselor was a warrior after all, old as he was. And deadly clever. He'd nearly managed to kill Tor while he was wearing the best shield available.

True, Tor didn't have a lot of choice at the time, but anger wasn't very rational, not as a rule. As to the rest he just didn't know. Obviously County Printer wouldn't be paying him millions of golds. For one thing, he didn't know what he'd do with it even if he had it. He literally didn't have a place for it. Not at all.

What should he do?

“OK…” He said, not really thinking first, the words just tumbling out like they sometimes did. “The gold… Well, instead of paying that all at once Holly, how about you set up a small delivery of it for me at need? I don't need to have it all at once or even really at all, unless you won't give me the gold I have in my trunks? Then you have to pay up!” He smiled at her and winked. “But really, I don't need that much. How about we…”

What? He didn't have a clue. What did he think they should do with the money? If he'd been able to finish school, he probably would have eventually learned about economics. How to run a building shop if nothing else. He kind of wished Rolph, with his accounting skills, was there to help him. He'd know what to do. School? Could he finish that? Only if he had one to go too.

“Right, so, why don't we support the Lairdgren School, since we both went there, scholarships and stuff and, maybe… Start another one here in Printer?” Tor looked around expecting people to tell him it was a stupid idea, but he'd learned a lot in school, and while it wasn't all good, there was value in learning.

Holly stood and bowed.

“As you wish. How much do you want annually? For your personal draw?” She said, sounding slightly cold.

“I… I don't know. Maybe five hundred gold? I probably won't need that all the time though and I may not need it each year at all, honestly I probably won't, could you keep it for me, until I need it? Is that all right?” Tor hated how meek he sounded, but she looked angry. Well, she had until he spoke the amount, then she suddenly smiled.

“Really?” Holly ran around the table and hugged him in a less than dignified fashion, picking him up off the floor. “We can do that! I thought you'd want a million a year or something. God Tor… you could break us forever if you took it all at once. The interest could sink us even this way. Not that I don't deserve it, but the County doesn't. My wrong doing shouldn't hurt them. What do you want for the schools?”

That, he decided would have to wait. At least until he had the time to build the new school buildings or have it done, and then they'd have to find teachers and all that. Maybe Hardgrove, the dean at Lairdgren would have suggestions? They also needed to get kids into place. A lot of students had left Lairdgren when the war started, seeking military glory or other stupid things like that. Like anything good came of killing? He said all this out loud which started him laughing after a while. That earned him some puzzled looks.

If he felt like that, then what did he do about Smythe? Well, the only real solution seemed to involve him talking to the man and seeing what could be worked out.

There was suddenly so much to do. And almost none of it had anything to do with building. He was a builder… That's what he should be spending his time on, not this garbage. Tor stood and stretched, then plunked back down. So what should he do first? He asked the room and oddly enough it was Kevin, the butler, who answered.

“Sir… if it's all right for me to make suggestions?” The man began, but didn't say anything else.

“With me? Always. I know I'm not so brilliant I shouldn't listen to other people. I may ignore you, but that shouldn't stop you from saying what's on your mind. Or hitting me in the back of the head with a rock until I listen, if I'm doing the wrong thing… What do you have for us?” Tor expected a suggestion that they all bathe, or ready themselves for dinner, something like that, but what the man said next was a real surprise.

“It seems that you have an organizational problem sir. Right now you need to reestablish contact with Count Ward and his lady, and assure them that the proceedings are going forward and that currently you plan an investigation first. I know that if I were personally accused of a crime, I would find that to be greatly reassuring. Especially if I were claiming innocence of it.

“At the same time you, personally, are needed for the common defense and that, if I understand correctly means working undisturbed? Given everything, I think you should delegate some of these tasks. Visit with Ward first, as that is a matter of honor, then establish a working base and send others out to do most of these things for you. Hire a man to manage the school funds and scholarships for instance. That should leave you at least slightly more time to work.”

It was a plan, a good one, but he didn't know how to make it all happen. He didn't want to work out of the palace and didn't have a home to go back to, did he? The military had taken it over. A wave of despair came over him then, which turned into anger. He had to close his eyes and calm himself before he could even think correctly. When he opened his eyes, everyone else was across the room looking worried.

“What?” Tor said, his tongue a bit thick feeling suddenly.

Trice giggled, earning a glare from the room.

“What were you just thinking about?” She said as if it made sense as a question. The tone was serious for all that she was smiling at him.

“Um, the military taking over my house. It's kind of ticking me off. I mean, I was thinking of it as mine, but apparently no one else did. Oh well, I guess I just need to start over somewhere, when I get a chance. I don't need much, but well, later. There's too much to do right now for me to whine about things, right?”

Everyone nodded, though Kevin was starting to back out of the room. Everyone else held their ground well enough. Had he looked that ticked off? Wow, he must seem deranged for people to respond like that. He apologized and closed his eyes, seeking as much calm as he could muster. After all, if he was acting like a jerk or something, or looked crazy, he needed to fix it. After about five minutes he opened his eyes, only to find that everyone else had sat and was staring at him with similar funny expressions on their faces.

“Ah… I wasn't in a thinking trance or anything. If I'm supposed to produce a brilliant plan or something now, you're all out of luck. Well, I think that Kevin had some good ideas. He can be in charge of the school stuff. Holly, would you see that he's paid fairly for his work on that? I should focus on getting the ball rolling in the poison investigation, if the King doesn't have that underway already. If that isn't overstepping what I'm supposed to do I mean. Other than that, well anyone have an idea of where I can go to set up a base for this? I'd rather not stay with the Wards, before anyone suggests that. It would look a little bit like favoritism or something. Same with staying in Printer or Thorgood, even though none of those have been offered. The Capital, well, could I rent something in town maybe? Or… buy some land do you think? I can build fast enough. It doesn't even have to have water on it. I don't know…”

Tilting her blond head, her slightly large nose and full lips giving her face a lot of character, Holly blinked at him several times as if he was speaking a foreign language and finally started nodding. Without getting up she reached over, a large lean across the table, and put her shielded hand over his own.

“Tor… You just went into a combat rage. The aura… how did you stay so calm?” She sounded impressed, and a little scared.

Petra grinned.

“I've seen him do it before, when we were in bed together at Count Thompson's. I'd told him about some of the lies Maria had spread about him three years ago, before she left school and he did something similar. I thought he was going to kill me at first, but he just sat and closed his eyes like that and it went away. I think it's because of all the building work he does, the discipline letting him control himself, even when pushed like that. I don't know for a fact though.” She smiled and him, her white teeth flashing in smooth dark skin.

“If it is the case then I want to learn building too. Could you imagine the power a warrior would have if they could learn to harness the rage like that? Targeting things on purpose, not just lashing out?”

It made sense and felt right, but Tor didn't really know. Varley looked a little put off by it, so he tried to set her at ease, telling her that he was fine now, and forcing a smile. He really was too. His head felt a little stuffed, reaction to having been in a combat rage, but he'd live. It was just a thing after all. She made some non-committal statement about it, but obviously still seemed worked up. Tor couldn't see why, but Trice did.

“Hey, Varley, don't go blaming Tor there, it wasn't him being indiscreet, that one was all Petra. Who really should know better… Tor's the guy from the country that doesn't know all the rules, not her.” The glance she gave the dark girl was amused, not upset at least.

Petra smiled and looked around playfully.

“Oh! I guess I phrased that one wrong didn't I? I haven't had sex with Tor yet at all. I was on guard duty, sort of, and was sitting on his bed so that we could be under the silence field thing of his while we talked, that's all, which is why I didn't try to hide that part. Totally innocent.” Then she licked her lips seductively while dropping her chin and making her eyes go half hooded, an overdone thing that made her previous, and totally true, words seem like a lie.

Everyone else at the table laughed. Tor just shook his head and asked if anyone knew what that stuff for combat rage reaction was called, and where he could find some? He added, while they were at it, if someone could get him a guidebook that explained the silly rules of the nobles, so he didn't start a war or wake up one night with Varley trying to trim off body parts that he'd barely gotten to use, just because someone made an offhand comment? No one laughed at him for saying it, but then they wouldn't, not with him having just been showing combat aura.

Holly went to see about the first part, but everyone else just chuckled gently, awkwardly not making eye contact with him, watching her leave. Right, he was helpless and clueless little Tor. He wanted to raise an eyebrow at them all, but had never actually mastered doing that. Instead he just sighed dramatically and tried to look much put upon. It was close enough to reality so he thought he probably did a good job.

Varley started talking to him and wasn't being all cold or standoffish, so she must have accepted Petra's statement. That or the whole thing had been a game for her to begin with. From the way everyone else reacted he kind of thought that might have been the case.

“Easy enough, we'll get Rolph to lease you some of the Wildlands on an indefinite basis. When you set that river up that you told us about, you can run it past your new house, so water won't be a problem. Rolph said you could build easily enough with that new compression device and earth moving equipment? That way you'll “own” it as much as anyone owns anything and can use it for anything you like. Maybe even your own school? Definitely get enough for your own town at least. “Torville” or maybe “Torington”? Both would be within the normal naming conventions I think, don't you?” The Princess knew one thing about Tor at least, and it was how very much he hated everything he made being referred to as the “Tor” whatever. She was teasing him he realized after a bit, feeling slow and stupid. He smiled at her and smothered a yawn. It wasn't a real one either, just being meant to show how boring he thought the teasing was.

She chuckled and looked at him sweetly. Then yawned for real, which got him to yawn back.

Holly brought him a carafe of brown sludge that tasted like the bottom of a shoe, or at least he imagined that to be the case, and along with that she brought a thick brown leather bound book, one that just said “Manners” on the front in faded black ink. Amazingly, Tor realized as soon as he opened it, the book actually told him a lot of what he needed to know.

“Can I keep this? I mean, just until I read it, I'll return it, of course.” He asked so eagerly he realized it must be rude, because Holly got a very strained look on her face then. He tried to school his own and not seem over enthused. It really would be a help though. A huge help, if half the things in it were correct.

Holly nodded and told him that would be fine. It was an heirloom, so she wanted it back at some point, but… Tor promised instantly, not making her finish the statement. That she'd even let him look at it was an honor, if it was something that had been in her family for a long time. Trying to remember the protocol for such things, Tor stood and bowed to her, which got her to rise and bow low as well, matching him, tears in her eyes. Everyone else just looked uncomfortable.

Except Kevin the butler who beamed at him and bowed too.

Dinner was to be in two hours, at nine, and they were going out to eat at a local restaurant, one Holly assured them wasn't really nice enough for royalty, which meant that the people were honest and kind, instead of just servile. Varley laughed at that and said it sounded wonderful.

The only problem was that Holly really didn't have his stuff. Not at her house. She'd sent it all off to her military's main training base, some fifty miles away.

Of course, Tor thought, that just figured didn't it? It even made sense, because it was harder to take back nine or ten thousand scattered amulets than ten boxes of them. So as far as that went Tor was still in the same place as before. He didn't even have his own toothbrush, or any way to buy a new one.

Maybe he could trade some of his gadgets for one in town? This was really starting to wear on him he realized. He felt exhausted from it and more than a bit put upon. Things weren't important, but they could be handy and it felt like a little more could be done to make him comfortable too.

Tor didn't let it show. Smiling he asked if what he was wearing would be suitable for this place, trying to act casual about it. He'd only ever been in one restaurant, and that hadn't gone well, so he didn't hold out high hopes for this one, but he didn't want to push the people there into attacking him either.

True, it would probably just be with words and hostile glances, not fists, but still…

Also he needed to find out who was paying for it. Was he supposed to cover himself? That would be interesting to say the least. Maybe they'd let him wash dishes or do the baking to cover it? Better, maybe they needed a magical device or two? He didn't think he was supposed to cover everyone, not really, but some of the people were with him, right?

Yes, technically, Varley was in charge, being the highest ranked person there, but that didn't seem right either. Everyone else retired to various rooms to change clothing, so Tor just sat and read from the book in front of him.

To his surprise, it actually covered this very situation in decent depth, right there in chapter three.

The person inviting another was stating, by making the invitation, that they were paying for it. The “gratuity”, something Tor had only a vague concept of, was to be covered by the person (or in this case, persons) invited. Right. Well, having no money was a problem then. Would it be all right for him to leave an amulet as a gift? What would a server at a restaurant like? And did he need something for everyone that worked there? The person cooking the food of course, but there was always kitchen help and people needed to clean, right? Tor just didn't know. Well, he'd do what he could and hope it wasn't insulting. Maybe they'd cut him slack if they realized how lacking in information he was? If need be he could throw himself down and grovel. It wouldn't be fun, but the book did say it was always a good fall back, if you messed up too much.

Now all Tor needed was something to work on physically. Obviously he had nothing.

Kevin, it turned out, saved him, by asking if he could work in glass. It wasn't a problem at all, glass held fields pretty well really, if the builder or copier was good enough to use it, so he actually had something by the time they all left, just taking off on foot.

Thank goodness, because after everything he would have probably tried to refuse if they'd wanted to stick him in a carriage behind a team of four or something. Horses were fine, but carriages didn't get along with him too well, making him feel trapped and sick as they bounced along. Horrible. As was the rule when walking with royals, Tor, considerably shorter, had to almost run to keep up, but managed all right for all that. He'd had practice after all, years of it. Chasing Rolph around at school, along with his daily runs.

The restaurant was interesting enough inside, simple decor that reminded him a lot more of Tom Smith's house than the palace or even his place. His old place, he corrected, trying not to let every thought show on his face.

Tom was the mayor of Two Bends, the little farming community not needing anything with a fancier title than that. Even that was mainly just to let Tom feel good about doing a bunch of extra work for free. Judging disputes over chickens and organizing road repair, that kind of thing.

The wood inside looked like the kind found on the beach, drift wood. It was smooth and weathered, the color bleached to gray almost. In front of the tables there were odd benches, each big enough for two people. Tor hadn't gotten to any protocol about who sat where, but Holly fixed that by waving him in next to her. He slide into place carefully, which he could manage easily not being as overgrown as the others, who had to fight to negotiate things correctly. David and Petra nearly fell over backwards, because Petra moved to scoot them in while David apparently decided to move back for some reason. No one laughed, but helpful suggestions were called out. Things like “work together” and “just sit down already” came from nearby patrons, all of them sounding well meaning. Apparently this had happened before.

Often.

The food was strange, ocean fish, clams and mussels. Things Tor had never eaten before and really didn't like now that he had. At first he thought it was a joke, when giant insects where brought out on a large steaming platter for each of them, but looking around he saw that people at other tables were in fact digging in. Well, this was their place. If giant insects were dinner here, then that's what they'd eat. Trying to not look too much like a bumpkin, he covertly watched what Holly did and copied her. It seemed safest, this being her choice of eating establishments after all.

There were bibs to protect their clothing and everything.

Was that normal for fine dining?

It kind of made sense, only wealthy people would ever eat at such places and they had nice clothing to protect. He tied one into place quickly, because the thought of ruining the silk shirt he had on kind of terrified him. It belonged to a Princess after all and he didn't have the funds right now to replace it.

They didn't speak of anything consequential during the meal, just bits of small talk, the weather in various places, if County Ford would have a drought again this year, which didn't seem likely, and bits of Printer city gossip, added by their server, Jasmin, each time she came to bring them things or check on them.

She was older, about forty or so, near Kolb's age probably, though she looked older than he did. The more royal blood you had the younger you looked for your age, in general. It was true, but the idea very nearly made him laugh out loud. By that standard he'd have the most royal blood of anyone at the table. At eighteen he looked barely fourteen at the best of times.

Jasmin had a kind face that wasn't, and probably never had been, pretty. Too long for that, but she had smile lines instead of a perpetual frown and a happy enough lilt to her voice.

“Ooh. Here’s one for you then ma'am,” Jasmin addressed Holly directly. Half her age, but still the Countess Printer, due to a horrible hunting accident three years before. Oddly enough it was the same one in which Tovey's dad had died. They were chasing a deer up a loose hill and it collapsed on them, burying them alive. A horrible way to go, being buried alive. Tor had been close enough to it himself once to kind of sympathize.

“Dan Baker come in earlier and tol' us bout hows he traded with a wizard for some pies. Got himself a red magic light he claimed! We were all saying hows magic light is expensive and no how would a wizard trade one for pies. Dan's good, but they're still just pies, right? But then he just whips it out!” This caught the attention of the group next to them who'd obviously been listening in. They were a mixed group and even had several youngsters with them, all looked to be from a merchant family, by the way they were dressed. Nicely, but not so well Tor felt like he was out of place. They chuckled at what she'd said, getting a slightly strained look from Jasmin.

“Whipped out the little light I mean. Hardly big as a coin, but lit up the whole room! I was afraid for a bit that it would kill us all or something, but it was just a light. No one knows why it's red like that though. Easier to make ya think?” She smiled again and looked around the table warmly. Instead of answering her Holly leaned over and, not quietly, asked why he'd done that with an odd smile.

“Well, you know, no money. So like everyone else does when their broke, I traded what I had.”

For some reason that got a big laugh from Jasmin, and one nearly as loud from the table of eavesdroppers. At least Tor understood why they weren't talking about anything important here. The second it was said it probably would have become known throughout the whole kingdom. Well, eventually at least. Still, as long as he knew that, it was a nice enough place. Not fancy by royal standards, but the nicest restaurant he'd ever eaten in. Giant bugs or not. What he'd eaten turned his stomach a little, so he tried not to think about it.

After desert Holly passed the woman two silver coins and got a hand full of copper in return.

This was the part Tor dreaded.

It was obvious that he was the one supposed to give the tip, since he was the guest at the head of the table. By doing that Holly had named him the head of the little visiting group, at least in her mind, Princess there or not. Jasmin hovered a little, and looked around, as if wondering if she had the places right, probably since he looked so young. Reaching into the little cloth bag Tor had borrowed from Kevin, he pulled out ten of the devices he'd made. Then took a deep breath.

“Um, I know they don't have sigils on them, but they activate just like a regular amulet. They're just temperature equalizers, mainly but… here, Jasmin, would you put this on?” Grinning she did it with a wink, as if he was playing with her or something.

“It's right pretty, thank you!” She said, as if she was actually admiring the disk of red colored glass. It was actually kind of pretty, he had to admit. He pointed and mimicked tapping his own chest to get her to turn it on. When she did it started to glow inside. The light shifted and moved, going from a blue color to a bright yellow which stabilized at gold. Then it just stayed that color, shifting around only a bit.

“Oh!” Trice said. “Now that's pretty! Make some up for me and Sara?” She said automatically, then remembered that they weren't engaged to be married any more it seemed. Tor just shrugged and got one out of the bag for her.

“You really are a wizard? Sir, I didn't know… laughing at you earlier, I was just…” She blushed and looked like she was going to pass out. The amulet shifted in color gold to red and then a deep, almost ugly purple. It mixed with other colors, green mostly. A bit of orange mixed in, but not nearly as much as all that.

Shrugging Tor winked at her in a big and obvious fashion, trying to put her at ease.

“You were taken in by my boyish good looks maybe? Don't worry about it. Happens all the time. One of these for each of the people that works here? They'll also keep you comfortable temperature wise. It should help in the kitchens I think.” Jasmin ran to get everyone, asking them not to leave, her amulet going nearly pure green.

Looking around, Trice put one on and activated it. When she looked around it was an almost black color which didn't match the look on her face, a sunny smile, but as she looked at Tor it changed, a pale pink shooting through it, growing stronger as she watched it, until, for a moment, it became all pink.

“Why do the colors change?” Awe in her voice she looked away from it briefly.

“They loosely follow your mood. The darker colors are darker emotions. Bright red rage, pink affection, yellow happiness, blue means you’re thinking, really the normal meanings for colors. It's just a feedback mechanism, something I'm working on for another project.” The light too. It wasn't exactly right, but if anyone bothered to look, when activated they became a half sphere of glass, in appearance, not just flat slabs. The glowing distracted from that. Now if he could just link the parts and appearance to the movements of a hand…

It was a start at least. He grinned at Trice who's amulet went back to pink and became shot with yellow just at that moment. Chuckling she looked down at it and smirked a little.

“These will sell. Even without the temperature equalizers on them. Make a few hundred of them and by this time next year the rabble will have Karina sucking you off to try and get some.” The words dropped out of her mouth so smoothly that half the table hadn't noticed what she said, but her amulet turned a dark green with a pretty blue swirl. Whatever that meant.

Tor ignored it.

At least now thanks to his recent experience and learning he knew what she meant by that. The sucking off part at least. The “rabble” meant nothing to him. Street people? Varley grinned and asked if there were any spares. He handed them out, finding it interesting who took one and who didn't. The restaurant people all took one and made happy sounds, like it was better than gold to them, which was kind. Most of them were happy about it, he saw, bright yellow being the most popular color. Some green crept in. Was that people wondering if they'd get money too? He hoped not, because this was all he had for them. Varley's was nearly pure blue, a bright color that Tor had expected to be there. She was wickedly smart, she even felt intelligent when he'd tried to sense her field. That's basically all this did, respond to a small portion of a person’s field and change colors.

Easy really once he'd thought about it.

As they walked back Holly stared at him for a long time, finally taking his arm, a little awkwardly since he was pretty short and she was taller than Petra, who was six-foot-six or so.

“I'm sorry I took your things without asking. I can tell it's made problems for you, things I hadn't thought of at all, and now you’re giving away things worth hundreds, maybe thousands of golds just to keep things flowing correctly, because of my… error. I'll make it right. I promise.” She looked down at her feet, but kept walking.

How she planned to make it right he didn't know, his head was still a little stuffed feeling and it was a little hot still, even though it was dark out. Tor wanted to hit himself in the head, but just put on one of the new amulets instead. Duh. Heat equalizing field right there, if he wasn't too stupid to use it. A wave of coolness slipped over him then. That was much better. He didn't bother looking down at the light, since it was pretty obvious to him what it would be. Petra, who had a pink and yellow glow between her breasts flowed over and pointed though.

“Um, what does black mean Tor? Death? I'm pretty sure you're still alive… Or doesn't it work on you? A little unfair if that’s the case,” she said, yellow and gold suddenly taking over the center of her piece of glass.

Looking at the large girl Trice shook her head, amulet mainly black too, but Petra didn't take the hint and kept asking. Finally it was Kolb that told her to stop, a smile on his face, his voice easy, but still firm enough that the girls eyes went wide.

“Um, yes sir.” She answered, years of practice making the response nearly instant, but she was also an adult, so she didn't have to simply obey, did she?

“But… what does it mean?”

David Derring grunted and looked around at her, then at the ground as he walked.

“Easy enough Pet. Black means despair. Everyone knows that.”

Chapter six

The nightmare left Tor shaking and covered with sweat, laying in the dark and panting slightly. It involved a group of people, all giants, so probably royals, standing around and laughing at him as he went to dinner naked. In the dream he tried to play it off, claiming it was first just a new style, and later that all his clothes were in the wash.

No one bought it.

In fact they said it was just because he didn't have clothes. He did, they'd just all been stolen. By the King. As the meal progress he realized that they were eating peasants baked into pies and laughing about how they'd have been tastier if they were still alive. Trice and Holly took turns pointing at his groin and… snickering. They didn't even say anything, they just giggled.

It was horrible.

If it had been about anything else, as vivid as it had seemed, he'd have wondered if it was prescient. As it was he figured that it was just about his own fears and issues. Tor felt stripped of everything, which was ridiculous, since he kept trying to tell himself that objects and belongings weren't important. The rest made sense. After all, Trice had virtually done that do him once, in public. Not literally, but close enough that he kind of didn't trust her any more. The King made her say mean things about him, but she'd picked the topics she did because she knew people would believe them, hadn’t she?

What Holly was doing, that baffled him, but probably had to do with whatever she'd meant by making it up to him. If it wasn't just words he'd be surprised and kind of suspected the worst from her in regards to his stuff now.

Because, clearly, the best way to make it up to him would be giving his things back. Even if she kept the devices.

He couldn't get back to sleep, of course. So decided to get up and work on something. He'd been pretty lazy lately, not doing as much as he was used to at all in the last few days. Mentally he figured out what would be needed for Trice’s new arm and that led to him coming up with a totally different idea that was slightly linked.

The idea tickled him, being kind of “close to home” at the moment, so he padded out barefoot to the shed behind the kitchen and used one of the little red lights to snag a few more of the smaller glass disks. These were even tinier than the ones from the day before, but that was fine, the size didn't matter at all, it was just a way to hold the field in place and keep from losing things in the wash. It was a big and novel field, but he didn't intend to work on it for a week or anything this time. Tor couldn't afford that any more.

Instead he spent closer to two days on it. That was his guess at least. People gave him food and water, and since he lived, it probably wasn't poisoned. When he opened his eyes it was still dark out, but that could have meant it was late or very early, there was no real way to tell without a clock.

Then Tor slept, since his chests weren't in the room with him or anything. God… Had they lost them? That could happen, no one dealing with it would have any reason to keep his things around, would they? Amulets and stuff, sure, they'd keep that, but his old workout clothes? Soap? He blew raspberries and slept for a while longer waking up when a knock came on the door. It was a soft and polite thing, meant only to wake him, if he was getting up. At least no one was there when he opened it to see.

Tor thought he was back at home for a while, his hut at Wildlands Station. Of course that wasn't the case at all. This was Printer, he reminded himself forcefully. He stretched, hoping that he could finish making the first ten copies of the new field before breakfast, he wouldn't need hundreds after all, though the little template might eventually be useful to someone else too, so Tor wanted to have it as more than a one up.

When he finally came out of the room, bathed and cleaned, Torrance dressed in the same clothing, it being all he had. The water had been cold, because Holly either had all the hot water templates hidden away or had sent them to the training base along with his toothbrush. That at least she apparently wanted to make good on, since there was a basket in his bathing chamber with a toothbrush and toothpaste, though in a strange cinnamon flavor instead of the normal anise, a burning sensation filled his mouth instead of the licorice flavor and slight numbing he was used to. It was certainly lively.

There was a hairbrush, which he needed since his hair was nearly shoulder length now, longer than any of the girls around him even. If possible it needed to be cut. Maybe one of his friends could do it for him? At home his da had always done that, and at school there was a full time barber who would cut hair for free if you were a student and would shave you if you asked and had a copper. He'd tried it once and felt like the man’s straight razor was going to end him the whole time. His face had been smooth after though.

As clean and well groomed as he could get for the time being, Tor ventured forth, down the long and winding open stairs and towards the kitchen, where he found everyone else already up and dressed, drinking cups of something. It smelled good, making his mouth water.

“Tor! Come have a cup of hot chocolate?” Petra said cheerfully.

He smiled, because her glass amulet was glowing a bright yellow and changed to pink as he looked at her. Well, she seemed fond of him at least. Pink didn't mean love specifically, it could be friendship, or simply that she really liked chocolate, but it was better than dismal black. Trice didn't have hers out and neither did Varley. Well, they were a novelty, perhaps they just didn't want people knowing what they were feeling all the time? He had his own on, but tucked in, for that very reason.

Kevin the butler, and now school administrator, brought him a cup, a delicate white thing that had gold around the top. Just to see if he could tell, Tor touched it with his mind lightly. It felt like metal, but laying about a fraction of an inch deep on the ceramic. To his shock, comparing the two, he realized something odd. Ceramic was a metal too. At least that was how it felt. What would be next? Water turning out to be a mineral or something? Inside the chocolate turned out to be sweet, there was a lot of sugar, cream and milk in it, with something he'd never had before. It felt safe, so he took a sip, which made Trice jump in her seat as she watched.

“Tor?” The words sounded scared.

“Um, I think so. Anyone have a mirror? I can check, just a second…” He looked around for a second to look for one, but then smiled at her.

The breath she took was huge and shuddered a bit on the way out. God, hopefully she wouldn't cry about anything. She did not do that well. Or really, he admitted, she did. If “well” could be redefined to mean loud. Huge wracking sobs and hiccups that almost had to be fake, or at least played up.

“You didn't check the cup, I mean, I'm sure it's fine, but… you aren't, you know, suicidal are you? Courting death?” For some reason she looked scared and Varley watched him intently as if judging what he said next by some hidden internal test. Well, he'd done it, why couldn't she? It wasn't like sensing fields was hard, not once you learned to clear your thoughts at least. Really it just took some practice and not even all that much.

Laughing he pointed at the cup.

“No, I did check it. I just did it directly, I don't have a poison detector on me. Borrowed, you know. I've not had liquid chocolate before, I've had solid a few times in dishes, at the palace. On chicken once? It was good, so I recognize it. This is better though. Why would I be suicidal… crap, where's Holly! Is she alright, and Kolb, Davie… what did I miss?”

Petra reached over the small table and patted his arm.

“Nothing like that, they just went to get your stuff and oversee some of the training being done, because David is going to be in charge of it for a while. A few weeks. Kolb just went to keep Holly company. You understand. They weren't close that way during school, but they’re both adults and alone, so, why not, right? She always liked him. Your things should have come down yesterday, but there was a letter saying some kind of problem had happened. Nothing big probably, but Holly wanted to check for herself. She feels really bad about everything.”

Ah. Well, that made sense then. Still, why had Trice of all people thought he was suicidal? She'd seen him work before and he hadn't taken long at all, not for what he'd done. Really, if it worked, he was planning to be kind of proud of it even. All he needed was a halfway open space to test it in. That and food. He wondered if it would be rude to just ask. It was probably in the book Karen had lent him…

Tor went still.

Holly had lent him the book. Karen had never done anything like that. Why was he thinking about her suddenly? Because they'd been friends and she died? Plus, she'd been friends with Holly, so there was a link.

He let the pain fade after a bit and kept slowly sipping at his warm chocolate. It tasted rich, enough to make hunger go away? Not likely. He'd last eaten real food two days before, nearly two and a half now, at the restaurant. He may not feel hunger while he worked, thank goodness for that, talk about distracting, but he had to make up for it when he could. A few minutes’ later plates of food, large dishes of fried eggs, pancakes and summer sausages came out. Honey was put in front of each of them in a little container and whipped butter melted slowly on top of everything.

Tor ate hungrily, just hoping his manners weren't so terrible that he embarrassed himself.

He didn't let himself eat quickly, but it took an act of will, and he finished everything and didn't even feel overly full. The amount of food was the same as what the others had too. He normally ate about a third of what they did, except Varley, who tended to eat about the same. Today she ate half a plate but didn't comment on what he'd finished. That made sense, she probably knew what he'd been eating better than he did.

Everyone seemed more than a little bored, which Tor could understand.

“Hey, I know, I have something to test and need and open area, why don’t we all go to the beach?” It should serve, space wise.

Petra grinned at him and went to grab her bathing clothes, but Trice couldn't go into the water yet because of the wound on her arm and Varley demurred for some reason, maybe to make Trice feel better about not swimming?

Tor rolled his eyes.

“You don't really think I'm going for the swimming do you?” He said playfully, but they still didn't want to go. Oh well. Hopefully they weren't angry with him or something. They didn't seem like it. Did they have real work to do? That could be. Or maybe they wanted to talk alone? They were cousins so that also might be the case.

When Petra came down she was wearing a body hugging suit of material that looked almost shiny, even though it was black. It wasn't silk, he didn't think. She looked good in it and she carried a towel, handing him one as well. Not that he planned to swim, he told her, earning a shrug.

“Rocks are hard to lie on, and a little jagged at times. This will let you lay out without needing medical attention. Plus you’ll be able to dry off after I throw you in the water. That’s the tradition for people that go to the beach and don’t want to swim.” The very tall girl grinned when she said it at least.

Tor took the towel. If it was a tradition, then he’d have to swim. Apparently if he wanted too or not.

The path was winding and mainly in the shade, but the beach was huge, a vast stone covered thing that ran for miles in either direction and had only a gentle slope to it at the top. It dropped quickly closer to the water, which meant they shouldn't even get wet if they stayed far enough away. Smiling he found a good enough spot, pretty flat and big enough, then asked Petra to come stand by him as he took the little glass disk out of his shirt. The edges weren't sharp at least and it came with holes already drilled or cut into it. She took his left hand, which was a nice gesture, though not needed. He just didn't want to leave her out, this wasn't dangerous at all. Unless he'd done it wrong, then it could kill them both of course. Tor gripped the dark tan hand with a grin.

He tapped the plain blue piece of glass, her hand nearly touching it as well, and waited.

It didn't look like anything had happened at first, but suddenly they weren't on a beach at all anymore. The world rocked a bit, they rose in the air a few inches, and everything changed. They stood inside a modestly sized, but pretty, stone dwelling. It had windows with shutters inside, all done in bright red. A wood table and four chairs, four beds, each big enough for even Count Thomson, though possibly not the King or Count Ward, and two doors at the back and one to the right. He pointed to that one and grinned. Tor removed the pendant and hung in on a hook near the post in the center of the dwelling. It had no other purpose than to hold the amulet, which could be left there until the field failed if a person were so inclined. That would be years probably. Maybe longer. None of the fields he'd made himself had gone off yet, not that he knew of.

All fields failed, of course, they had to over time, but so far so good.

Inside the little interior door there was a kitchen. It had excellent counter space, an oven, cold box and stove. While it looked like a brick oven, and metal grill, the heat was all gathered from the ground below them and, when turned on, would remove some heat from the cold box too. Tor turned everything on, which seemed to work at least. He had to flip his new equalizer off, to tell, which made him chuckle a bit. He always forgot the equalizer at first for some reason.

Taking Petra by the hand he led her first to the restroom, which looked normal, but wasn't, as far as plumbing was concerned. It would work anywhere, water or not, heating the waste and shuffling it deep into the ground directly once it was turned into dried powder. That had been a bit of work, because it had to carry who knew how much waste away seamlessly. It did it by spreading the field for it over time, passing the waste out to an increasing space. Hopefully it would always be enough. The next room had a huge tub and shower both that would have warm water once he got a supply hooked up.

“I could do it from the ocean if I had a desalinating pump ready. I can make one, but this isn't for here really, I can turn it on and off and carry it with me, which is the real point. You know, so that no one can really take my house away easily again. Hard to do if I have spares. Let’s look outside?”

Petra giggled, which was entirely out of place on her frame and took his hand again, as if she wanted too or something. It was really nice of her, he decided, being willing to touch him like that. Maybe she thought she'd be getting one of the houses out of it? Tor grinned. He had spares, so why not? When she got him outside she spun in place, which swung him around too.

The view was worth looking at, as much as looking at any house would be. It was all stone, in look, but, as he explained, it was really just a shield with nearly perfect insulation. It had temperature controls of course, on the far side of the central post. It's own light fields too, if the light from outside wasn't enough, say at night. The windows even looked real. They weren't, nothing about it was. Really, if you thought about it carefully, the whole thing only pretended to be there at all, existing only in potential. It just did a really good job of pretending, that was all. But it was a house and if he had to move, he could pack it with him. On him even. Several of them, just in case. Going back in he sat on one of the beds, which was soft and formed to him perfectly.

“Oohhh,” Petra lounged back, the force field mattress, a white thing on the top that looked like a regular bed otherwise, if one with logs for legs and the wall as a headboard. “This is nice! I could live in a place like this. Maybe have a private bedroom added on? Could it be made bigger, do you think?”

Tor stood with a groan. He was just tired of course.

More? Yes, he could modify it now, no problem. But it was good sized already. Bedrooms he could do, but this was basically just a tent so far. A really nice tent that someone could live in, as long as they didn't have a lot of stuff. It was bigger than his old house by about fifty percent, being nearly seventy five feet deep and fifty wide. Big enough for him anyway. But, unlike Petra he wasn't the child of a Count, raised to luxury and waste.

No… he was the grandchild of one, raised deep in the woods in middle of a forest in a fairly run down bakery and modest sized house with thirteen people in it. It made a difference. Probably half of the real reason why it had happened that way. So that they'd all grow up knowing how to be humble. It worked, so why not?

Petra wanted to go swimming then, new magical house or not, which seemed reasonable. It was a cool enough device, but it really couldn't compare to the ocean out in front of them. The expanse of water was… humbling. Until about a year before he'd never seen anything like it. Oh, the descriptions of it were part of his basic education, but it just went on and on… A vast stretch of blue and green that made the world smell of salt and sand. Rot too, but he didn't think about that too hard, not wanting to ruin the moment for himself. Being blind, even for a little bit, had taught him to appreciate things when he saw them. It could all be taken away in an instant after all.

Grabbing both towels the pretty giant girl took his hand and playfully tugged at his arm, which made him follow her instantly. She was huge, and really, he wasn't. So not much choice in it as far as he went. Laughing he started to walk with her, stumbling a little over the stones of the beach. Petra stood then, as if waiting for something after she tossed the towels down. After a bit she raised her eyebrows and smiled at him with a bit of a leer on her face.

“Are you going with your clothes on? Strip already!”

Tor froze.

It wasn't that Petra hadn't seen him naked before, they'd both showered in the same room even, but the idea of taking off his clothing in a public place seemed wrong. Dirty and evil. That wasn't the way here though, was it? That was Two Bends thinking, a backwoods town. Even his own parents had told him that he had to be the one to adapt to new situations when he left and not demand foolishly that other people changed to meet him and the quaint ways he knew. Even if he didn't always understand it or if it made him uneasy. Right. He had to do it… But he was still nervous. What if people saw him and laughed, like in his dream? Tor mentioned that to Petra, trying to buy time, she just shrugged and gave him a wink.

“Well, if either of them sees you naked, I can guarantee they won't point and laugh. Well, maybe at how skinny you've let yourself get, but they won't point at your penis like that. Unless pointing out how much bigger it is than they'd have expected? Even then it would be unlikely. Who cares about such things anyway? Don't worry about it.”

Easy for her to say, clothed as she was in swimming gear. Well. Tor stripped naked and forced himself not to cover up with his hands in shame, walking to the water as boldly as he could manage. That meant he probably looked stiff, slightly afraid, and nervous, but wasn't acting like someone had stolen his clothing at the swimming hole for a prank. The rocks got smaller for some reason near the water. Not pebbles, but about the size of rounded coins. Leaning down he picked a few up, getting a curious look from Petra who stopped suddenly. Instead of making her ask he just shrugged and explained.

“I can put fields on these. They won't be regularly shaped like what I normally do, but if I make a small cutting field, or an etching one for the sigil… though I've never done that, I won't really need copper at all. I mean if I can't afford to buy anything for a while. It's harder to work in stone, but I think I can do it now. In bulk I mean. I did the new equalizers in glass and that’s the same thing, as far as copying goes.”

It was a good plan, but his giant girl friend snickered and shook her head. Tor paused realizing how that would have sounded if he'd said it out loud. Girlfriend. He'd just meant it wasn't Rolph, who he thought of as his giant friend. That was all. Wasn't it? Well, he and Petra weren't dating, but they were supposed to, weren't they? He'd asked her and everything, and well, she'd said yes, so…

He dropped the stones, deciding to collect some up later. Nothing ever went better in life just because you were distracted. Except the nudity parts, at least the public ones. The water was neutral in temperature, after the first moment of coolness as the heat equalizing field around his neck adjusted to it. He'd probably lose the field in the water or something, but he had more back in his room, provided no one had run off with them yet. He decided not to worry about it. Petra acted cold though. Not freezing, but that cool water on a hot day thing people did.

They played and splashed for a while, Tor getting the worst of it, since they went out far enough for his friend to stand with the water nearly to her chin, which meant he was swimming the whole time, treading water.

He knew how to swim of course. His parents had made sure of that. For all the kids, the whole town of Two Bends really. He'd never thought of as being odd before, because it just meant that most of the kids could hang out at the swimming hole. That was nice in the heat of summer, so seemed normal to him. Everyone did it.

Kolb had tested him and said he swam as well as anyone, in his first year at school, but ocean swimming was harder. He kept getting hit in the face with waves and bobbing up and down nearly two foot each time. Petra did too, so he wasn't alone in it. That wasn't too bad, but even though he closed his eyes when it happened he still ended up with salt singing when he opened them again. Part of the oceans charms no doubt. Of course if you needed salt, it wasn't a bad thing at all.

More than once he started to float away and Petra had to reach out and grab his arm, gently pulling him back to their spot in the water. Finally she suggested they swim out past the breakers, which made things a lot easier for him at least. Petra swam easily through the water and he had to kind of copy her, diving into the waves as they came. This kind of thing obviously wasn't new to her, but then she'd grown up in Warden, also right on the water. The same water, Tor realized, if further south and with nicer beaches. The swimming didn't last that long, because Petra stopped after about twenty minutes of moving parallel to the beach, back and forth so they could see the little house he'd put there the whole time… and pointed, single finger coming above the water for a few seconds while she kicked hard enough to raise out of the water a bit, bobbing upwards.

People had come. It looked like everyone. All the people he knew in Printer at least, as long as he didn't count Kevin, or Dan Baker.

Well, great. Holly and Kolb were back, so maybe he'd have his things finally. Of course he was naked and all the girls were standing there and waving to them. Waving them in. Tor stiffened and sank, not moving in mortification.

Yes, drowning would keep him from being embarrassed. He steeled himself wondering if he could force himself to take a breath underwater, which he didn't think he could, so, reluctantly, he kicked back to the surface and sputtered a little. If he couldn't escape that way, what could he do?

Be embarrassed?

As good a plan as any for now, since death didn't seem a good option. Tor readied himself for pointing and laughing, and started to swim along with Petra. It took about five minutes to reach the shore, but then he really wasn't trying for speed himself and Petra didn't go that fast either, waiting for him to catch up.

As he rose from the water, ready to be mocked or at least giggled at, he was met by nothing but stony faces. Varley and Trice kind of looked ticked even. Because he'd gone swimming with Petra? All they'd done was swim, which should have been fairly obvious, she still had a suit on and everything. Kolb passed the towels to them after they got out of the water, so they could get dry, while Varley crossed her arms and glared.

At Countess Printer.

Trice stared at him, her eyes indeed looking lower than was comfortable, but she didn't smile or say anything. She had out her equalizing amulet and it turned a brilliant pink, but had a swirling black inside it at the same time. Whatever that meant. Affection and despair or depression at the same time? She hadn't been happy over all, he knew, losing an arm could do that, but this felt different.

Kolb moved next to Holly and a single chest, one that Tor recognized as his. In fact the one that had held all the little bags with thousands of golds in it, the one Sara Debri had given him that had rope marks on the top, dug into the wood and metal. They'd gotten there when they'd used the chest to save some kids, his left ankle throbbed in remembered pain from that event, but he walked to it anyway. He didn't expect it to have the gold. After all, that was something that people would likely steal, right? Or “borrow” if they found it there like that.

If he made a big deal about that though, it would be like blaming Holly for taking the stuff in the first place. That would be fair, probably, since she'd taken it, but would cause more trouble than it was worth. Really, Tor didn't blame people for making off with the gold. He wouldn't have, but most people seeing that much gold probably couldn't help themselves. He let it go and opened the trunk with a smile. No one else did, except Petra.

Maybe he'd at least have some clean underwear or a shirt that wasn't made of silk? Holly turned away as if not wanting to see his reaction. That or she was worried about his nudity. He had a towel wrapped around him now at least, a big soft one in a cream color.

Instead the chest was nearly empty. It only held three things when he looked in. The towel slipped a bit as he let go of it, holding the lid with slightly white fingers. At least that was soft enough as it settles on his narrow hips. Really it was better than the ones at the palace and certainly nicer than any he'd had at home or school. Tor had to drop into a deep trance to keep the anger from showing on his face, though his pendant still glowed a solid red.

Inside the case was his toothbrush, which should have been a good thing, but the bristles had been coated in a deep brown wax, the kind soldiers used to polish and protect their boots from water. He'd been around enough military people to recognize it, having lived with a few hundred for the last months. The stuff reeked, acidic and harsh smelling at the best of times. Next to that was a single boot, a military one that wasn't his at all. It looked to be several sizes too big and like it had been used by a dog or two as a chew toy. Last there was a single amulet, a light producing one meant for a house, that looked like someone had used a chisel to try and break in two, probably trying to double the field. That got a sudden surge of red from his chest that glowed brightly enough to cast a light visible even in the bright sun.

“They could have at least tried to use a cutter if they wanted to split the field! Who did this and what kind of brain damage do they have?” He asked, spinning on Holly angrily holding the amulet in his right hand so the Countess could see what he meant. She didn't move, but her body reacted as if she expected a blow. That would be silly of course. Sure he could hit at her, but she was wearing a shield and he wasn't. Even if she'd been the smaller person and he the giant, and the Countess wasn't an accomplished fighter, she still would have kicked his butt. Besides, violence never really helped, did it?

Seriously though, who tried to chop a field apart? They had cutters. He knew that for a fact, because he'd had several for personal use in his gear if nothing else. Tor sighed and went to put his clothes on. So angry that he didn't really dry very well and forgot to be embarrassed, facing them all as he did it. Holly kept her eyes downcast, which he could understand, since she was responsible for the training of the people that had done it. That… that butchery!

It wasn't the value of the light of course. Really, given everything that wouldn't make a big difference over all and technically County Printer was supposed to be buying all of them anyway. That included the ones they destroyed or lost. If she wanted to hack them all apart she could, technically. But it was just such a… bonehead move. Tor fumed about it for a minute but didn't say too much. It was too late to fix it now and the person that did it had probably figured out their mistake when it hadn't worked, right? He took several deep breaths and tried to hold his tongue. Acting like a jerk never helped anything either, just like violence, did it?

No, it really didn't.

Obviously if this was all they had for him, his things were gone. Tor literally had nothing. Looking over at the house up the beach a ways, he nodded to himself. A slow and considering movement.

That wasn't really true was it? He had his magic, and while that didn't get him food or clothes directly, he had a place to live that he could take with him now. That and some beach rocks and he could build whatever he needed pretty quickly. Maybe even clothes? Tor didn't know, but after sitting to put his socks on, hard to do with damp feet he discovered, and then his soft leather shoes, Torrance Green Baker decided not to let it get to him. He had a lot more than some people did after all. He had skills. Whining about all he'd lost wouldn't help him rebuild.

Struggling up he grabbed the chest and loaded the bottom of it with about two hundred small stones, selecting them carefully, trying to get somewhat round ones that weren't broken and about the size of a gold coin more or less. It didn't take long, and no one spoke while he worked. They just stared. Then he picked the chest up, feeling a little fatigued from all the swimming, since it had been unaccustomed activity, and carried it to the house. Everyone but Petra blinked when they noticed it, but she just followed him in, towel wrapped over her shoulders and still a little damp in places.

The quickest thing to do would be make up fields he already knew well, so that he could build up some stock. The stone was plain, but if he added glowing fields to them, that would dress them up some, right? He didn't even need to carve sigils that way, just make the marks he wanted glow on the surface of the stone. Duh. It was so obvious he kind of wondered why anyone ever did anything else. When he got to the door he left it open, his hands being full, even though the box wasn't that heavy, it was awkward for him to handle being large, so everyone followed him in.

Trice let her eyes go wide and went room to room with Varley. That took a while so Tor started sorting the rocks, some still wet, on the table in front of him. He made ten piles of twenty each, leaving him with seven stones in an odd pile.

The girls came out of the bathing chamber and sat at the table next to him, Holly standing near the kitchen wall the whole time, staring at him and barely blinking. Kolb actually putting his arm around her to… comfort her? Why did she need to be coddled? She held her left arm in her right and looked worried. Tor could kind of get that. His little glass pendant was still glowing a bright red. He felt more than a little pissed off at the moment. It wouldn't help anything, but he felt it nonetheless.

Her military might just be filled with morons, so that had to get to her, didn't it?

“Right. Not to be rude, but if everyone could leave and come back tomorrow… about mid-afternoon? Luncheon or later? I have some work to do.” He didn't say more, just collected up the first batch of stones, the odd group of seven, and moved to the back, towards the bed nearest the restroom door. It had a corner space and about five feet between it and the next bed. He sat and started working without waiting to see if anyone was actually leaving or not. It was just copy work after all. Tor wouldn't need anyone to feed him or do anything else either.

Hours passed and darkness fell. After the fifth batch Tor lay down and slept till morning. He used the restroom when he got up, which worked well, thankfully. He had to wash up in the ocean, but that worked for now, even if it did leave him smelling a bit like the sea and covered with salt. It made his skin pull a little as it dried, a funny feeling.

Somehow, rock beach or not, he also had bits of sand clinging to him when he moved, rubbing in places it ought not. While he was out he hooked the house up with water, which he had to direct using a single stone, aiming it like a force lance in reverse, because it was a special pump. It filtered the water though, so he could drink it, bath with it and use it for cooking directly. It formed a nearly invisible line in the air, about six inches across, from well away, about a half mile. That way the water should run all the time, tides or not.

Then he finished the next six batches of things before anyone even tried to visit, a long time before really, though Tor didn't have a clock yet. The rest of the early day he spent making stuff on the beach, using an incredibly strong compressor rig to fuse rocks into stone pots and pans, cups and some other things, boxes and whatnot. They were stone gray mainly, but without pores or air gaps, slightly slick and heavy looking.

Then he tried his hand at fishing in the ocean. That part… didn't work too well. In fact, filled with fish or not, he couldn't find anything. Not even giant bugs. Hunger and wearing the same clothes left him feeling a bit grumpy, and possibly a little surly, but then who didn't feel a bit out of sorts when they got hungry?

Well, the people in town might be willing to trade for some of the junk he'd made, right? That being was what it was for. He loaded up a little stone box, about the size of both his hands put together with fifty odd stones inside, and started walking. His first stop was the bakers, hoping the man would still want something and be willing to deal.

Tor felt hesitant, but the man beamed at him and started out by giving him a sweet roll, without even being asked anything. It was good, well made and sugary, better because he was hungry. They worked out a deal which heartened Tor a lot. For some temperature control units and lights that weren't red, as well as a water heater for his bath, the man opened up a line of credit, so that Tor could have whatever he wanted from his shop from then on. Providing it was open of course. Smiling Tor said he'd be back for a pie and some bread later. The man was happily playing with one of the lights and waved cheerily as Tor headed out.

The next shop Tor tried wasn't interested in what he had at all, or more likely, in him. The woman was older and seemed hostile from the beginning, her face hard and bitter, lips tight and angry lines, not even listening to what he was saying. She basically ordered him out, pointing at the door and looking ready to back it up with violence. Tor shrugged. It was too bad, because he could have used some of the clothes she had for sale. It was simple stuff, canvas clothes in a variety of colors, mainly gray and brown, but some brighter things too. At the next shop over, part of the same building in fact, a store that had simple metal goods, the man inside laughed as he explained what had happened with the lady merchant, and smiled.

“Well, you do look a bit disreputable, with the beard growth and all. Ethyl was robbed a year ago or so, thieves cleaned her out at knife point, weren't nothing she could do, so she's none too trusting of anyone now, especially if she don't know them. I may be willing to deal though, if what you have isn't garbage.” The man was polite enough, also older and, it turned out, both the local blacksmith and Ethyl's husband, Clark.

He was delighted by what Tor had, but didn't know if they could deal once he saw it.

“I'm afraid any one of those things is worth more than my entire inventory right now… Magic lights, in stone with a sigil that glows all the time so you can find it in the dark, and that even let you set how bright the light is? I could have merchants giving me their daughters for just one of those… But don't tell Ethyl I said that.” He winked wryly at his own joke.

In the end Tor made a strange bargain with the man. If he'd help him get some clothing, and other supplies, Tor would let him and his wife sell some things he made on consignment. It wasn't even a real trade for anything, just the right to try and carry the goods in their shop. They'd have to sell eventually of course, Tor knew, but if they didn't, he'd get the silver or gold for the useful things he got back to them. That wasn't part of the overt agreement, but it was what would happen.

No one helping him out would lose by it. Not if he could help it, not ever. They shook on the deal, leaving Tor feeling a lot better about the man suddenly. That he shook hands like a regular person, not going in for all the bowing and stuff of the nobles was heartening for some reason. It reminded him of home.

Ethyl stiffened when they both came back in a few minutes later, and she started to point at the door again, but her Clark smiled and told her to hush for a bit, explaining the arrangement. The woman finally looked at what he had in the box, a little skeptically, and lit up a little, her face going shrewd. Tor figured that if she wore one of the emotion tattling amulets she'd have just gone stark green. Well, she was a merchant and for them greed was probably a job requirement.

“Stone, and clear magic in the making. I've never even heard of a glowing sigil like this… The form looks a little like Tor's stuff. He's popular right now, so I can see why you picked it, how well do they work?” The old woman didn't wait for him to explain anything, just checking each one as he called out what they were. The water pump made a mess, from a bucket the woman brought out of the back, but the woman just laughed and clapped her hands when they got to the last one.

“Alright. You can have anything you want from the store and… would a ten percent cut be all right?” Tor was fine with that, but he asked what exactly she meant, not wanting to be taken by surprise. She intended to take a ten percent from each sale. Her eyes looked guilty and head dropping she offered to take five. Ah. That wasn't what Tor expected at all.

“No. Fifty-fifty. You make whatever deals you need to. Heck, give them away if you want. I'll trust in your business sense in this. Let me know if you need anything else, all right? I'm living on the beach in front of the Countess’s house for the moment… really you can't miss it. I'll be working a lot for a while, but don't be afraid to try and knock on the door if you need me. I may not hear it, part of the working trance, you know? But I seldom yell at people just for visiting. I may also just be gone soon. Other work… for the kingdom.”

Ethyl swallowed, but mentioned that they'd have to hire guards or something, or else they'd be robbed again. The man, Clark, gray haired and sturdy looking from all the work at the forge promised they would. Tor decided to just bring them back a couple of shields. It would be cheaper and was legal as long as he made a gift of them. In a way these were his people now, weren't they? Even if he didn't know them really.

Ethyl helped him select clothes and Clark came in with a shaving kit for him from his shop that had a door that ran between them. They insisted he get some “proper” boots, things that, they both assured him, would look right about town and last long enough to be worth getting. Under things came next, Tor blushing as Ethyl held them up to him. While not true giants, the merchants were big compared to him. Ethyl was about five-eight and Clark over six-foot, and broad, muscular for an older man. Tor felt like when his mother had taken the kids into Marie's shop in Two Bends as a little kid.

“Say,” Ethyl asked as Clark made a nice arrangement of glowing stone pendants and put some on leather thongs for sale. “You didn't mention your name. People will want to know who the young upstart giving Tor a run for his money.”

“Well, no competition at all really… I'm Tor. Torrance Baker. Sorry I should have said earlier.”

Ethyl went wide eyed like he'd just announced he wanted to marry a cow, but Clark held up a clothes dryer and waved it a bit as its distinctive “D” sigil glowed in a light lavender on the front.

“Obviously,” he chuckled and gave Tor a wink. “You kind of have to be someone, don't you? Normal people don't just carry things like this around with them all the time.”

They lent him a sack to carry everything in, and it fairly brimmed as he stumbled over the loose rocks of the beach toward his door. When he tripped for the third time Tor stopped and glared at the earth. Stupid uneven ground… Smiling at his own silliness he went inside and grabbed a compressor unit. It took half an hour but he made a nice, very smooth walkway to the mouth of the path that led to Holly's house, merging them almost seamlessly. He could chop it up later with a cutter, when he left. If the Countess didn't like having an extra little guest house or something. There were nine more of them. Actually, it occurred to Tor, Ethyl and Clark might like to carry houses like his. It was kind of cool, wasn't it? It could be that most people wouldn't want one, since they already had houses and didn't travel that much… All he could do was ask.

Looking up Tor realized that he was running out of time before luncheon, so he hurried to get cleaned up, changed and to the bakery and back before everyone showed up. Tor got in just minutes before they all trooped over, still looking grim and walking slowly. He greeted the girls with hugs and slapped Kolb on the arm.

There weren't enough chairs, so he just stood and served everyone else pie, on little stone plates he'd made and gave them all little forks of the same material. Gray, but smooth. He'd tried for spoons to, but ended up with little paddles instead, the bowl shape would have to be cut out with a special tool, a cutter with an arc in it, but that could be done. Later though, when he had spare time. The knives worked well though, he'd just sharpened them with a cutter. They looked a little unique, but what did anyone expect? It had only been a few hours since he'd found out he was totally without anything in the whole world practically. A single day. Tor thought he was doing pretty well to tell the truth.

Trice looked at him, then his clothes, and nodded at Holly.

“Told you. Tip him over, he pops back up. Poison? Pop. Blind? Pop. Take away everything he owns? Boing.” She grinned and winked at him, “Come back next week, he'll have his own little whorehouse in the back staffed with tiny whores.”

Tor pretended to be shocked at her words. She was normally playful, or had been when they first met, it was good to see her trying again at least.

“Next week? Oohhh,” He said, looking down at the table, chagrined. Then shook his head slowly. “I kind of set you all up with appointments for later today… Yeah. Your tall boots are coming soon but won't be here for a few weeks, special order you know, so you'll just have to make it work for now, all right?” He winced a little and shook his head.

“Mainly sailors, but they were willing to deal, given the class of girl I have going on here, Princesses and Countesses. Kolb's going to have to be a bit flexible as to who he serves, but you know…”

He worked to make his voice sound genuine and apparently did a good enough job that at least Holly bought it, if only for a second. The laugher that came from the others shook the room at the look on her face. Tor went over to her, set down a piece of pie and gave her a hug. She was sitting, so his head was actually higher than hers for once. To his surprise she hugged him back as if it had meaning. Not the lusty sort of thing that Tor was just starting to understand was different than a simple embrace, but one with strength behind it that lingered. In Two Bends people didn't hug unless they were married, or at least betrothed, but the city people were different that way. They even kissed casually, but Tor avoided that. It was off-putting.

Pie all around, Tor offered water as well, since that was all he had at the moment. What he could do though, after filling the little stone cups, from the “tap” in the kitchen sink, was chill it in the cold box for a minute. It already had ice forming on the top when he walked it in, getting a murmur from everyone, except Varley, who'd had similar enough at the palace to not be amazed by it any more. She seemed a little subdued today, so Tor went and gave her a hug too. It got her to smile, but sadly.

Had he done something again? Probably. He'd have to get that book from Holly's house and start really reading it before he started a war or ended up married to a pig or something.

“Right, so I have work to do, but first I think we need to get with the Wards and let them in on what's happening, then contact the Capital with information. I take it that most of you are reporting regularly to the King?” He smiled, but got a head shake from the Countess.

Trice looked at his wide eyed and innocent, over playing it by a good margin.

“Me?” She said meekly.

“You in particular spy girl. Don't think for a second that I don't know about you. You and that Sara Debri too.” It came out as a growl. Tor was trying to play with her, but it sounded like he was pissed. She swallowed but didn't confirm or deny anything. Probably like she was trained to. It had taken almost a year, but Tor had finally come to realize that what he'd originally assumed was the kingdoms spy school, an adjunct to where he and Rolph had gone, just called “the special school”, really was.

More, that meant that two of his friends were probably spies for the King. Sara had even lived with him for months. Tor had figured that had been all about Rolph wanting to sleep with her, since he was there too, but now he wasn't so sure. His friend had told him once that the girl had joined the military to be near Tor, after they'd had a fight. How likely was that? Tor tried to be a nice guy, and failed at it as often as not, but wasn't “join the military to be near” incredible. That had only come after Tor had cut ties with Trice too… A replacement spy?

Now the Princess, well, if she wasn't writing home, they needed to leave immediately for the Capital. Taking off with her and not getting in touch, even for a week would probably have the Royal Guard after them. As it was he was a bit surprised he hadn't noticed any of them yet. They were around no doubt. The ones following them were probably just that good, he realized.

Varley smiled at him.

“Corresponding with mother almost daily. I… I'm not supposed to say anything, but there’s been some talk that I might have to marry Count Raul Peterson, since Karina won't. She's claiming that she loves someone else, but she won't say who, not to me at least. Mom's angry, but dad just keeps avoiding the topic with her, saying it will all work out.” She didn't mumble, or look down when she said it, but her face looked pretty sad.

Right, well, they were engaged, but he'd told her father that if she needed to be doing something better, he'd step aside. The King hadn't insisted, Tor just understood that a Princess was more important than he was. So was a Count of course. Peterson was a wild looking giant, but seemed to have a good heart if not the world’s sharpest mind. He ran the flight training school about fifty miles from Wilderness Station. Demanding and a little self-entitled, but that was royalty for you. Tor nodded to her, but didn't make a face.

“That's odd. Any guesses who Karina's going after?”

Nodding Varley glanced at Kolb, “Countier David Derring. I've seen them together a few times. It's a good match, at least on paper. Within the three steps, he's good looking and so is she. He won't inherit, but god willing, neither will Karina. They know some of the same people and all that, plus, I know for a fact they slept together already.” She made a face.

“Normally not a huge deal, Karina wanting to marry someone else like that, but Count Peterson is important. His family is so intertwined with the military that going against him is sure to cause an armed rebellion. Oh, I meant to ask earlier Holly, if that happens, can we count on your support? Between you and Thorgood, that would almost match the King’s army in advanced fighters… There's a chance that Peterson may not accept me as a substitute for my sister. He likes red hair and mines this odd brown color…”

Tor snorted.

“Well, I can't control your marriages or engagements, but if he tries to go to war with the kingdom over something that silly, I'll get Rolph and my brothers and we'll go tell him off for you. You’re one of the best looking women in the kingdom though, so I doubt he’d complain.” Seriously Tor shook his fist a little in the air to show he meant business. Oddly no one laughed, even if he did mean it as a joke.

Kolb glanced at him and nodded, which got Petra to do something similar.

“That would about do it, I think.” The large bald man said.

“If Tor and Alphonse both went, Peterson would have to listen, wouldn't he? I don't know if your brothers would add much, but I could be wrong on that. Peterson is a good man, but he does tend to favor powerful warriors and royalty as advisors… Maybe you and the Prince should visit with him soon? Smooth things over. After all, if he's going to steal your fiancee the least he could do is be gracious about it.”

This got a chuckle from everyone but Tor, who sighed. It looked like yet another engagement was going to fade on him. Oh well. If it did, he decided, he was going to start sleeping with a bunch of women, even if he had to hire them. This country idea of saving himself for marriage was getting old, and most likely making a laughing stock of him with the nobles, who all had more relationships than they did fingers. The idea made him blush furiously, but that didn't mean he wouldn't do it.

For now though, work.

“I need… Um, Petra I think. Trice too, having lately been down in Warden. Varley, you're probably needed back in the Capital and honestly, even if the Wards are totally genuine in their sentiments, I'm not taking one of the Noram royal family to people that were at war with us less than two weeks ago. Too tempting, plus… Marvin wants to sleep with you said? Not that I can blame him, but you already sent a go between to put him off for now, right? So it might be a little confusing if you turn up on his doorstep. Kind of an implied offer if you did, after being asked.” Bad enough Tor had to take Trice, since she'd probably been sleeping with the guy herself. It made sense, he was good looking. Incredibly so. If Tor was a girl he probably would have considered it already himself too.

That left Kolb, Holly and her guards to protect the Princess on the way home, but it wouldn't be an instant thing. First Tor had a lot of work to do and wanted to rearm himself and his friends. Also, really, if he was going to fly off, possibly forever, with the clothes and gear Ethyl and Clark had given him, Tor wanted to leave them with enough things to keep them going for a while and to make their trust in him worth having given.

After the pie was eaten and plans made Trice and Petra walked with him to the store, so that he could deliver the shields for the merchants, knowing the old woman had to be feeling a little exposed after her trauma, being robbed like she had.

That was something he'd felt himself after attacks and it helped to know that people couldn't easily do it again. With a good shield, well, she could be robbed maybe, but no one would be hurting her, unless Smythe of Westend decided to come after her or something. Things could always be replaced if it came to that, goods or gold. It was the people that needed protecting.

The shop was busy when they walked in. Too busy it seemed to him, but Ethyl and Clark both smiled as they demonstrated how various things worked to the twenty or so well dressed adults and nearly as many kids, most of them looking a little shabby, if only by comparison to the well dressed grownups.

Money changed hands quickly, golds, silvers and a few coppers at times. Ethyl nodded, but didn't announce him to the room, thankfully. It was all he could do to not hit own shield and that mainly because it was already on. He simply handed her the amulet with its slight inner glow of blue and brighter glowing sigil in the same color, a dot inside a circle, and explained in a whisper what it was. She put it on instantly and relaxed, her face going from tight and pinched to calm almost instantly. Clark's face didn't change, except for the fact that his smile had gotten bigger when the saw the look on his wife's face.

No one paid much attention to him, most of the people that looked at all stopped on Petra who was the biggest person in the room, and pretty, as well as stylishly dressed in an off pink material from Afrak that she'd fashioned herself into an interesting looking dress that exposed her left shoulder. The rest looked at Trice, eyes lingering on the stub of her arm a little. She pretended not to notice them noticing her, flouncing her blond hair slightly. It was an odd fuzz, not the dark set of curls it naturally was, since he'd told her to change it after he made her stab him about a month or two back. Over two months now? Three? So much had happened it was hard to keep track. He wasn't even totally sure it was still spring to tell the truth, it could be early summer, the idea that he didn't know even that made him wince. Who didn't know what season it was?

Not being watched meant that Tor could look around, and actually see who was there. Most of the people looked like merchants, except the kids, who were probably locals, well, they were all from the area, but the kids probably lived within a short walk. One of the boys looked around covertly, a little obviously for a professional thief really, and slipped an amulet, a room light, into his pocket. Clark had seen him do it too, and descended on the boy instantly.

“Damn-it Swarley! This isn't some ten for a penny sweet! This is worth hundreds of golds. I'll have to report it to the guard…” Tor saw the man look at him guiltily, as if wanting to not do that at all, but he didn't get a chance to simply scold the boy, or even talk to Tor about what to do because a black clad man with a velvet cape and a black hat with a large green feather in it grabbed the boy on the other side.

“Got you! Thief! Thief!” That got the attention of the room fast. Most of them were merchants, and apparently, as Tor should have suspected, when he stopped to think about it, they didn't like thieves much at all.

Chapter seven

The name, face, and apparently sticky fingers, of Swarley Jones were well known in the area. He tried to break free and run when the guard came, getting a clout to the side of the head for his trouble from the velvet clad merchant who really didn't want him to get away. Almost as if it were personal. The guard, a man of about eighteen was one of the young men that had given them directions a few days before. He shook the boys arm roughly.

“Swarley! How many times… What did he grab this time, a pair of shoes or tub of toothpaste?” the guard glared at the boy menacingly.

Clark answered, subdued and as if he were ashamed of something.

“No Kyle… It's, well… a bit more serious than that this time, I'm afraid.” He honestly sounded worried too.

The story unfolded quickly, and most of the people around him knew it already. Swarley Jones was a local boy who's father died at sea in a squall, which Tor learned meant a sudden storm, and who's mother hadn't lasted a year past that. Dying of grief they said. Swarley allowed that the constant drinking hadn't helped either.

Since then, nearly six months past, the boy had lived how he could, stealing food and sundries, clothes and whatnot, when he couldn't convince some sailor to part with a few coppers for servicing them sexually. Tor almost blanched at that, but the boy was old enough, fourteen, and selling himself was considered honest work here. No one even blinked that he mainly serviced men. That's who the clients were after all.

After about ten minutes of talking about what to do, Kyle the guard, pulled the boy from the shop, less angry now and more sad. Tor followed, which got Petra and Trice to come out behind him while the shop keeps went back to work. They were making a lot suddenly after all and an attempted theft wouldn't keep them from working for long. So was Tor, he realized.

That was good, but this kind of event on their first day didn't bode well. It wasn't his business, except that the boy was probably off to jail for this, or a beating… or worse, depending on what the penalty was for such theft.

That was why Tor could never be a judge he knew, or a guardsman. He'd seen the kid steal with his own eyes, right in front of him, with no hint of doubt or mistake being possible, and still, standing here, he thought the penalties all sounded far too harsh, even when what was stolen took money from his own pocket. What the hell was he supposed to do?

It turned out that he didn't have to do much at all. The four guards stopped outside and started talking about the case amongst themselves. It was clear that they all had a soft spot for the boy, or at least didn't want to see him put to death for grand theft, hanging being the traditional penalty for such. Since it was so local, both the Captain of the guard and the Countess herself would be called upon. Normally that wouldn't happen, but they only had a few capital cases per year, so Holly had taken to reviewing them to assure true justice was done, and that the law didn't become blind.

The stone street looked a little uneven suddenly, dirtier than it had been before, darker in color. Was it just dusk? Or just his own foreboding due to the events? No… Clouds had come in suddenly, almost black and full of rain, off in the darkened sky over the ocean the world suddenly got light for a moment, lighting flashed and people scurried out of the shops to look at the sky. The baker closed his shutter and hurried out fast enough that Tor doubted everything was put away properly, it took time to close a bake shop well.

“Storm coming!” Petra, who was from a similar area, looked at the sky closely. “A big one. We need to get inside… I… You — guards — come with us and bring the boy.” She said suddenly, her voice commanding and firm. The men didn't even argue with her.

Tor nearly laughed, because if he told them he was there to save their lives and they should come along with him, they probably would have hit the strange little man or called him names at the very least.

It didn't hurt that they went right up to the side door of Holly's house, with the two obviously noble women leading. Petra didn't knock, just walked in and started hollering for Holly. The instant the Countess came into view, along with Kolb, fast, like they'd been waiting for them in the other room, the tall girl started saying there was a storm and an “issue”. The storm came first, meaning it was a bigger deal than anything Tor had ever experienced. A little rain, even a hard one, shouldn't get people that worked up. Lightning could mean fire, but a lot of stuff here was made of stone. The real worries seemed to be about flooding from the ocean and wind damage.

“Tor your new house!” Holly said, horrified suddenly. “It's right on the beach, it'll be destroyed or flooded…”

Tor shrugged.

“I'll go take it down then. Not a problem. That's what it's built to do after all. Be right back.”

It took longer than being “right back” but not much and that only because he had to make two trips to carry all his stuff. The stone pots and dishware made the heaviest run. Loaded in his trunk he was able to fly with everything in two small hops though. He was busy dragging everything into the main house for about ten minutes, and it wouldn't have taken half that if he'd had more trunks ready to go. As inappropriate as it was, an idea for floating trunks popped into his head. Ones made of magic, like the houses were. He set it aside thought, not having time at the moment.

Then they all ran room to room closing shutters, this was such a big deal that even the guards helped. Swarley offered, but no one wanted to give him the chance to escape.

Except Tor, but if this storm was that big a deal he didn't want to cast the kid out into it alone either. There were big wooden sheets to go over the outside of the windows too, but Holly feared they didn't have time. The wind was picking up, but they had flying gear to hit the upper levels he reminded her. Shields too, so it was even safe. They didn't need to dig out ladders or anything. It took an hour to get all sixteen of the large second and third level windows covered with the light brown wood, but it was finished just before the hard rain started.

It came down in buckets, the air almost turning a blue-gray as the wet and cold slapped them hard. Not a stinging rain, but not something he'd want to be camping out in either.

Back inside Tor took a clothes drying amulet and had everyone go to what was called the damp room. A drab stone space with a dull black metal drain in the middle of the floor. He crowded them all in and hit the sigil, just holding the device in his hand. In about ten seconds the water splashed from their clothing. Half of it worked into other people, but by moving around carefully they were all dry in six repetitions, which took about a minute. It would have worked better if the space was larger, but this was better than being wet for hours. It wasn't until after they all left the room, the guards, Holly and her servants all amazed, the others less so, that Tor realized he could have sent people in a few at a time and saved a couple of repetitions. Plus it would have looked more effective, each person needing only one cycle to get dry. Well oops.

The wind howled already, but Tor figured that would pass in about an hour, like the storms at home, when they came. Holly grinned at him and winked.

“Hardly. These can last up to ten hours and have winds of over one-eighty. We'll be fine in here, but as soon as it breaks we'll need to get on search and rescue most likely. The alarm didn't sound, but that doesn't mean much I'm afraid, something like this will take a toll no matter the warning level. We're cooking food up ahead of time now and moving everyone into the main dwelling for the night at least. We might as well all get comfortable. Traditionally we sit around and tell stories to ease people’s minds, but I guess we better deal with this little legal situation first… as much as I'd rather avoid it.” Her voice went very sour, making the boy, who was dressed in pretty ragged short pants and a shirt that had once been white or at least light tan but now was closer to gray, cringe away from her as if she was threatening a beating.

Of course a thrashing was the least of his worries.

Tor only spoke once, when asked, since he'd actually witnessed the crime. Mentioning only exactly what he saw. It was enough to have the kid convicted. Normally it wouldn't even be a matter of justice being called into question, everyone agreed. Even Swarley told the Countess, quite politely, as he blushed and looked down that he already knew he was done for.

“It was wrong. I know that. I knew it when I done it, so no use claiming it was a mistake now. I'd call for me head too, fair enough. Still, at least I won't drown out in the storm, which I probably wouldn't have lived through anyway and I won't have to worry about being hungry anymore or wonder if I can convince some sailor that bunging my back hole is just as good as getting a girl whore in town at half the price. Just as well. I'm ready, I guess. Freaking world’s been out to get me for too long, I don't care anymore rightly.” He brushed his over long hair out of the way, a light brown mop that fell past his shoulders in the back.

Normally they could just let him swing the next day or so and call it good.

But if Swarley swung for filching one little device of Tor's, that made his letting Holly off a joke, didn't it? Tor just crossed his arms and stared at her, hard, a blank look on his face, making her look away before speaking. At least she got the idea and didn't try to kill the kid right then. Instead she decided to let him keep the light and repay Tor and the shop keepers with work, which was not to take longer than ten years or less than five. It also couldn't happen in Printer. Basically an exile. Looking directly at the boy she spoke sternly as she explained.

“Theft at this level is a serious crime Mr. Jones. If this happened a month ago, you'd be dead right now. It is only through the grace of Master Tor, who is far kinder than I think you know, that your life is being spared. You'll work at whatever task we see fit, until such time that the value of the light you took, fair market value, is repaid in full. Now we have to decide what to actually do with you that won't seem too much like a reward.”

Tor thought they should just put him in school, but everyone else figured that would be a little too pleasurable and might lead to others following suit on the chance of the same “punishment”. Tor didn't know, a poor boy without resources at Lairdgren was in for a hard time, but apparently it was the appearance of it being unpleasant that they were looking for. Trice smiled wickedly.

“Oohh! I know. Tor owns a whorehouse. Ursala and Madam Clarissa have been talking about adding in some boy whores, so Swarley would fit. The clients are all military, and nice enough, so you won't be abused or anything, probably have to work in the kitchens or building factory part time, because most of the men prefer women. But… well, when I was there we got paid for kitchen work too at least. I don't know if that still stands though. It's your house Tor…”

What? It wasn't his, even though everyone else was nodding at him like he controlled things there. Finally Tor looked at the boy and shrugged.

“No.” He said simply, shaking his head, “We'll teach him to fly and he can run errands for the palace or the military, that or get him a job with Two Bends fast delivery. I'll outfit him and if he runs off, well, that would be insanely stupid. Making him slave for the Troll of Galasia should be enough to keep people happy right? I won't even cut his hand off. I promise.” Tor turned to the boy and smiled winningly. “The last person I had a real problem with lost a hand over it. Don't make me do that again. Please.”

It wasn't much of a threat, but Tor didn't want the kid to think he could just steal and go unpunished either. Then he'd never learn, would he?

Swarley glanced at Trice.

“You ma'am?” Fear dripped from his voice and he shrunk into himself.

A little evil she chuckled, shook her head and then told the absolute truth, though in a way that sounded horrible, even to Tor.

“No, this was something different, a fight with assassins that tried to kill a bunch of people. No, Tor crippled the minister of the military because the man was angry that Tor had beaten up about six hundred soldiers. At once.” She said it in her slightly teasing fashion, but Kolb corrected her anyway, being a stickler for accuracy when it came to fighting.

“Closer to five hundred. Just slightly over, and he actually only engaged slightly over four hundred at any one time. A few wisely stood out of the way I believe. Not that I want to promote cowardice, but given how outmatched they were, they should have all run. It doesn’t serve to stand to battle when you can’t win. At least if it isn’t aiding someone else at the time.” That's all he said. There was no inflection in the tone or smile to soften it. Just a statement of a fact.

Tor winced, just a little. It made him sound like a bully or something. Swarley swallowed and asked if that whorehouse position was still open, getting a laugh from everyone. Except Tor. He didn't laugh at all, worried about what to do with the extra burden of the boy.

Holly stood and bowed to Tor.

“No, you are to serve as Master Builder Tor has said, running messages for the palace or military and doing whatever else you're told, until such time that your efforts match the full value of what was stolen. You may keep the light, which I suggest you sell to the highest bidder, so that your debt will be repaid faster. It is so ruled. Swarley Jones, for the next five years at least, you belong to Master Tor.” Her face went pale. “Tor… try not to be too good to him. At least not here where anyone can see. We need to make an example of him or everyone will be doing it.”

Like they'd made of her? Tor wanted to say it, but he didn't. She got it, her face said so, if not her words, and his rubbing it in wouldn't help at all. So what could he do? Well for the time being… Treat him like a Squire? Keep him running errands non-stop? The boy would probably just run off, but if he didn't… well, in a year or so maybe sooner, they could change his name and put him in Lairdgren far away from the city of Printer. Then Tor had an idea.

“Kolb… Would you see to his training for me? I’ll pay for it. Say a hundred and four gold per year?” It was exactly what the members of the secret army made. Tor didn’t have to hint further, the large man just nodding after a few seconds.

“That could work. I’ll test him first and set him to running those errands when he’s not training. Then put him with the Two Bends Delivery service, if that plays out. Useful skill, knowing where places are. I might have a couple other kids that would take well to that work, if there are positions available.”

Tor smiled and nodded a bit. That would work and no one would think that Kolb would be “Too nice” would they? Holly went blank, but didn’t say anything about his paying Kolb more than a year of school would cost as an apprentice fee. She didn’t even mention it was more than the light would cost.

When Tor finalized the arrangements with the weapons master, Kyle, the head guard, started crying. Not loud and nothing that everyone saw in the dim light of the room. Tor noticed it, but decided to ignore it, though he wondered if he'd done something wrong. Holly just told him it was up to him. She didn't say anything more. She didn’t seem happy though.

That done, the wind still picking up everyone waited for a while, since it was hours until dinner would normally be served. It was boring, since no one wanted to waste their stories until after the meal, which made sense to him. Did he have any stories to tell?

Not really, he was kind of boring really, Tor knew. All building and work most of the time. As the wind began to howl and the roof shudder and moan a bit under the whistling sound, thunder parting the night after the sudden jolt that preceded it, Tor realized that the feeling of the field was familiar… Like when the Larval assassin had attacked him.

“Hey, does anyone know, is lightning electricity?” This got a laugh from half the people in the room. Swarley didn't laugh at him, but the poor kid was probably wondering how big his member was, and if he liked to use lubricant or not. Since it was a moot point, and the kid would learn that soon on his own, Tor didn't bother with the idea. A year ago he hadn't even known that would be physically possible. The idea left him feeling a little ill. But different places, different customs.

It turned out that almost everyone in the room knew a lot more about electrics than he did, even though they weren't used in Noram as a rule. Unless produced by magic. That got Tor's attention. He knew other places did things differently, but he hadn't heard about rules about it. Trice and Petra went into depth about the basics of electricity even describing how it moved, positive and negative poles… Half of what they said just went over his head for the time being, but closing his eyes he felt the lightning and tracked it, then tried to feel the field behind it. It was hard at first, until he realized it was like light in a way.

Hesitating he spoke slowly, hoping everyone wouldn't laugh this time.

“So… if directed to do so, it can go into the ground and even wants to, sort of?” Opening his eyes he looked around, and found that Petra was nodding at least. She seemed to know the most about the subject for some reason.

Closing his eyes to consider the situation it became clear that it wasn't even something hard to do. Like light, it was a field at the base level, so as long as he gave it clear instructions, it should do what he said. Duh. As lighting crashed in that moment, Tor wondered if banging his head into the table would make him any dumber. No, that probably couldn't happen, being the moron that he already was. It was all so obvious, once someone pointed it out to him. He could direct light, and had, the sigils on the new pieces for instance. Even creating it for a time. So, if he formed a ball in the air that told electricity to go inward instead of casting out or into the ground and filled it with a general field of the stuff…

It took half an hour of deep concentration, which wasn't bad for a brand new field at all. It came into being clearly with a small pop that got everyone’s attention. Tor opened his eyes but kept his focus as pure as possible. Simple enough now. No harder than making a cutter in the air at least. He was deep, but could see by the light of the blue glow in front of him. It wasn't as bright as a light would be, and only about as big around as his own head. Everyone scurried back from it suddenly, even though it only looked like a pale glow.

“Tor! What is that?” Trice asked, trying to keep her voice gentle, even though it sounded a little scared. He smiled.

“Lightning. Contained lightning. I can shield against it now. I figured it out. Thanks to your help everyone.” Closing his eyes he let the energy inside the control field dissipate first, then let the rest of it go. He was, somehow, learning. Get rid of the dangerous stuff first. Right. Now he could add it to his shield and protect against light too. Maybe next time Smythe attacked him he wouldn't be left blind. Everyone sat around staring.

“What? I know I don't have any interesting stories, so I made some lightning. That's cool, right? I mean it’s a real novelty and everything.” He tried to sound humorous about it, but knew that wasn't his real reason for doing it. No, he'd been trying to move past boredom. That was the real point. Probably not a good one, but there it was. Tor knew that people did a lot of things to try and not be bored.

Swarley still looked scared, even more so now than before. Even to the point of looking pale. Then again, maybe he was just hungry? Tor had been on short rations himself, so tried to work the idea of an early meal around. Everyone ignored him on the point, so he let it go, hoping it hadn't been rude.

Still, his stomach was growling and he knew that the larger people ate more than he did when they could, so they had to be hungry too. To keep from being too bored he asked what kind of things they might need for search and rescue the next day. This got a shrug and a list of things he didn't have anything ready for.

Water he could do, sure. He had pumps that cleared water ready to go in his trunk, and could make cisterns out of stone or soil. Food? Why would they even need it? Didn't people already have food? Damage to buildings? Well, he could make digging equipment he supposed, and concentrators, if that would do. Temporary housing for the displaced? That one he was all over.

Petra smiled at him and shrugged.

“Healing too, medicine and first aid. There will be injured. Trees collapse on roofs, that sort of thing, buildings collapse. I once saw a man that was run clear through with a palm tree.” She held up her right hand to stop anyone from speaking. “I know it's not possible, I still saw it. That was gruesome.”

Through dinner, which they ate by lamp light for some reason Tor didn't get, he planned what he needed to do. He needed more working materials, but stone would work. Could he go out and get some safely? Really he didn't think so, not from the sound of the wind out there and the pounding and crashing coming from the beach. Shield or not he could still drown. Maybe he could collect something around the place there… They needed more of nearly everything, as well as something to help people heal… God. He didn't have enough time. Did he? He knew that fields could be built faster if he went deep enough, but if he went too deep it was hard to come back.

The one time he'd tried it he almost hadn't come back at all. But… If he set the time to come back as being triggered by the field being strong enough? It was risky. Still, if he could master that, he'd be on his way to being a real master, not just some guy that people said that about to be polite to.

The wind freaked out then and got really loud, so much that people were yelling to be heard. Not at the top of their lungs maybe, but close enough. Tor had an idea, but needed at least a template piece to do the initial work on. It could be anything, since he doubted he could really check the sigils, the indicator marks he used to remind himself what to do next. Not working as deeply as he intended too. This time he had to form the idea and commit to it fully.

It was a risk all around, but, well, he healed, right? All the time. Could he figure out what that felt like and just accelerate it? Everyone should do it about the same way really, shouldn't they? And this wouldn't be specific, just push a body to do more in the moment, so that the person could survive long term.

Right. If it didn't kill them instantly, that would work.

Well, could he just remind a person as to what their individual pattern was supposed to be using a limited feedback window? Tor really didn't know for certain. For one thing he was pretty sure he'd just made that term up. The idea was solid though, he just needed some help…

When dinner was over he looked around at the material available. He could work as the baseline for a male, being healthy enough right now, recovered from having been poisoned, and not damaged overly, bad mood aside. That part could be left out anyway for now, mood and all that. It would be a good idea for later though. Trice was injured, and pretty badly he realized when he touched her field from across the room, so was Varley… Tor blushed.

Well, that wasn't exactly sick was it?

Last he heard, being pregnant was normal enough. God, well, that told him a lot didn't it? She wasn't forbidden from having sex, but should have at least not let herself get pregnant. Oh well, he could deal with that later. Or not. Whatever. Emergency situation now, he had to remind himself of that, feeling distracted. It wasn't just a few weeks pregnant either, he didn't think, about three months? Had that been why she hadn't wanted to go swimming? Afraid it would show? That came later though, didn't it? When she was pregnant, his mother never showed till nearly five months or so. Then in Two Bends everyone stayed pretty well clothed all the time, so maybe it was a real issue?

Petra was fine, healthy and strong. Holly was still ill, the poison having taken a huge toll on her system. Tor could relate. Walking over to Petra he asked if she would meet him in his room later.

“In fact, could you sleep with me tonight?” It sounded innocent to his ears when he said it, but almost immediately he blushed. It could be taken the wrong way. She nodded though and smiled.

“I'll meet you there. In about half an hour?”

Well, Tor had an awful thought that she might be disappointed in him when she found out what he really wanted. Then again, if he hurried… No. That wouldn't work, there just wasn't enough time. It wasn't fair, but it was true. Even if he could somehow finish this faster than anything he'd ever done, they'd probably all have to leave as soon as it was daylight. Laughing it occurred to him that she probably just assumed he was afraid of the storm like a little kid. It was sometimes hard for royals to remember that he wasn't way younger than his actual years.

Still half an hour…

That meant he had time to get some work done.

He isolated his own field and pulled out the parts responsible for his basic form, that of his limbs, organs and shape. Leave out size, he reminded himself. One size fits all. It had too. Just the most basic stuff. Then he added in the feeling of healing, and increasing the speed of that. It wasn't enough he knew, but he held that much already when he heard a knock on the thick oak door, pale gray with age, or some treatment he didn't know about. Tor walked over as if in a dream and opened it.

Petra stood, wearing a lovely gown that wasn't shear and didn't hug her tightly, but hinted nicely at what might be underneath. Not silk, but something that shone a little even in the dim light of the room. After she stepped in, her feet bare, she turned away and let it drop, looking at him sweetly over her shoulder. A robe then, not a night dress? She wore nothing but a smile then. Not thinking about anything but gathering information about her, he felt his body move with her towards the bed. It wasn't rushed and for the most part he ignored it, focusing on her deeply. Almost not aware that he moved at all. On what made her a woman, what that meant field wise… It was fascinating.

He was kissing her, and apparently doing a good enough job of it, laying next to her, naked now. Tor couldn't remember getting that way. They did a lot of things, and it took a long time, but he kept making himself work, even as he finished. He realized, since he was examining her so closely on the deepest levels, that she hadn't yet. Not quite. So he kept going until Petra didn't need any more, her moans lovely in the dark room. He let his lips touch hers again and noticed how different the field for her brain was. Not the thoughts, but the physical organ itself. Fascinating.

“Stay with me.” He murmured into her ear before she could collect her things and leave, which was her clear intent.

Taking the single stone he had, Tor sat and plunged his mind as deep as he'd ever gone. It felt like he only took a single breath, but it was morning when he opened his eyes and he held a basic healing device that he could only hope would work.

Dawn was just breaking, but he didn't need his eyes to see now, not in this state. Not really. Next to him Petra slept still, clutching her pillow a little. Setting down the device, which had a forest green glow to it, the sigil on the front a complex one of a person in silhouette, Tor leaned over and kissed her cheek. Even asleep she was pretty, he longed to run his fingers over her face again but let her rest. As he dressed, trying to be quiet she rolled over and mumbled at him sleepily.

“Sneaking out lover?” She was half asleep, but smiled, a lazy thing with eyes mostly closed.

“Yes. But I'll be back inside half an hour or so. I have work to do.”

“'Kay, wake me up when you get back?”

Tor promised he would and hurried to the beach, which looked horrible. Water had clearly been driven higher than the edge of the rock expanse, which would have buried his little magic house if he'd left it in place. The walkway he'd made wasn't visible at all, under layers of new rock and sand. Almost on top of where he would have been sleeping there was a large tree with no bark that had somehow washed ashore, as he looked he notice that it wasn't alone. There were at least twenty of them along the beach and more than a few trees down in the woods along it. For a second it occurred to Tor that Swarley had been right.

If he'd been out in that, he would have died.

Tor hurried and stuffed stones into the canvas bag he'd brought, loading it as full as he could and still carry it. He picked small stones, but wasn't as picky about their shape this time. If anyone cared about looks now, that was their problem.

It took till mid morning for someone to come for him, Trice as it turned out. She didn't knock, just walking in as if he wouldn't possibly be doing anything interesting or naked. Well, until last night she would have been right. Tor felt guilty. And excited.

He'd had sex. With a girl and everything. He hadn't even had to pay her, which given everything he'd kind of wondered if his first time, possibly all his times, would be gold transactions. Or at least silver. Petra had done it just because she liked him.

“There you are sleepyhead! I was just telling everyone how lazy you always are…” Looking at the piles of glowing stones, four hundred of them, she grinned. “Yep, as I figured. Well, let's get these in a case and get some food, we need to move as soon as possible.” Trice grinned at him, a different look than he was used to seeing from her. Not happy as much as… accepting? Like she'd known this was what he'd be up to if left alone?

A lot was broken and scattered around the town, but the people seemed alright, mainly. The first one they found that wasn't had already died, an ancient man that had been trying to save his little house from flooding, piling bags of dirt in front of it. Tor couldn't tell what had killed him. Heart attack or drowning? When he touched the corpse's field, which left him with a curiously blank and empty feeling, not the gross and slimy one he'd expected, he still couldn't tell. It seemed like something had broken in his brain, like a bruise or something maybe?

They passed out water purification devices and made large public cisterns out of focus stone that fed with pure water constantly for anyone to use. Petra and Trice set up emergency houses along the beach and then on the opposite side of town, using the water from two different streams for those. It took hours, but was way faster than trying to build new houses on the spot, even out of focus stone. It wasn't until nearly two in the afternoon that an old woman hobbled over, cradling her right arm which was visibly broken, though not bleeding, thank the universe. If it had been she'd have died already. Feeling his breath freezing in his lungs, Tor walked to her and held the healing amulet over her injury, then triggered it, touching it very lightly to her flesh. There was an audible pop, and she screamed, but even as he started to pull the green glowing field away, he saw the healing taking place, the bruise fading and finally the woman gasped.

He handed her the stone and walked away for a moment, relieved that it hadn't killed her outright. It had to work for him, and for Petra for that matter. But it worked for anyone? A general healing field. Just as planned.

He fought a grin. It was a good thing, but going around acting happy when people had lost their homes and wondered where their next meal was coming from would be rude. A minute later, his face schooled, he went back to the woman to collect the stone. She hugged it to her chest and refused to give it back for a moment.

“I'm better now… I mean, everything is better, not just my arm. I can walk, my back is straight again, and nothing hurts. You don't know what that's like, not hurting… Not until you’ve lived with pain for years.” Tor nodded, but held out his hand, reluctantly she gave the device back.

He could make more, he had more on him, and could even afford to give them away for free, but until he got a chance to test it, he wasn't just handing them out. What if they killed every third person or something?

They didn't.

Everyone just healed, including a father that had gone out in the storm early to rescue his daughter, a twelve year old girl that was sitting by him and crying forcefully. A tree had blown into him and crushed his legs and middle, he was bleeding but still alive when Tor and Holly got there, Kolb coming over when he saw them, Swarley trailing behind, looking less cowed around the fighter than Tor, for some inexplicable reason.

Honestly Tor expected the man to die from the healing attempt and told them all that, but the man chuckled almost imperceptibly and said something Tor barely caught at all.

“What the hell?”

Well, that made sense, if you were dead anyway, why not take the risk of the treatment killing you?

The healing worked though, completely, if painfully. The man screamed and hollered for about three minutes. Then he sat up and looked at his lower body, which was nearly healed. They left him with the field for half an hour, but it seemed to hold just fine. No one relapsed later that Tor noticed, so it seemed that field really worked. Yay. Most of the injuries were minor, but it was faster to heal those with magic than treat them otherwise and the people could be put to work within minutes instead of taking days to get healthy, so it was efficient.

The outlying areas were largely better… or massively worse depending on the location. A few full families were dead, their houses washed away or crushed, one just collapsed. But the rest were nearly untouched. The day lasted until after dark, when they decided it was too dangerous to work. Tor and Varley set up four houses which gave everyone on the working team a bed. He shared with Varley, Trice and the red-headed guard woman that had attacked them all the first day.

Yvonne was her name, she told them, a bit warily. Tor didn't mention it, but wondered what she thought they were going to do? Beat her up for spying on them? All she did was sleep, which was really all Tor was up to as well. It occurred to him that the women might have carried a grudge over being stopped like she had been, but apparently that wasn't a huge issue to her. Of course he'd given her pie too, so maybe that had already smoothed things over?

Who didn't like pie?

Varley crawled in next to him, but even though she tried to rouse his interest, he fell asleep anyway. It wasn't as much fun, but he didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. Work trance wasn't really sleep, for all it could look similar, and he'd been up for a long time. Too long. Besides, she probably only wanted to sleep with him so she could claim the child was his. Since that didn't matter to him, or likely anyone else, she could save the attempt if that was her game.

Then again, if she wanted to have sex, he wouldn't say no. It was fun. It didn't matter that she was pregnant, not really. He'd marry her like he was supposed to, and do his best to claim the child, even if it was obviously a royal giant or had the wrong hair color. For all he knew that could be why they were trying to marry her off to Peterson. Maybe he looked more like the real father? A funny thought passed through his mind, that the man, best described as fierce, intimidating, and verbally clumsy, may have managed to get the girl into bed. They clung together as they slept.

In the morning Trice looked over and shook her head as they sat up.

“Now I'm jealous. I admit I thought about climbing into bed with you Tor, but I guess I missed that chance… Well, dibs on tonight.” All the girls laughed, which Tor kind of understood, since sleeping alone had to be more comfortable, even on the soft shield material beds.

They all got warm showers and hot breakfasts, since both he and Yvonne could cook. Tor had to run out and make the pots and pans, using an earth compressor, a light tan focus stone here for some reason, compared to what he thought of as the normal red-black color. It was just as strong and heat resistant, so it would work.

That was the pattern for the next two days. The damage finally got fixed and they all returned to town to find that rebuilding was going well, but food was a little scarce. A lot of the fishing boats had gone down when the main dock lost a section that kept things tied in place. On top of that about half the stored food had gotten damp and just started to rot and mildew, before Tor could get a room drier made. Once he was told about the need he had a large batch ready to go inside an hour. No one had even thought to ask.

Tor didn't shake his head, because that made sense. You dried food in the sun, or by letting air run over it. Everyone knew that. The same with the rest of it though, he'd never even seen a fishing boat before, but realized that if he had an example, maybe he could help. It wouldn't hurt to look into it at least, right? No one knew to ask if he could do it though, so they didn’t.

Holly looked at him sadly when he said that, jaw clenching, as if it were an insult she didn't feel she deserved or something. It was one of those baffling things that didn't make a lot of sense to him. How would his helping her people be an insult to Holly? Was he not supposed to help? Or was it that she thought they owed him already or something, and here he was compounding the debt? That…

Tor didn't know how to explain it to her, but that it was an emergency and besides, there were no debts between friends, right? So of course anything that could be done to help would be. Even if it made her mad at him.

Inside her house she had plans and pictures of boats, a lot of them huge, but she assured him that the fishing craft were smaller, and powered by the wind. Tor realized that he could use a similar rudder set up to what was already used and something like the flight field for a cargo lift that would let people move almost the way they were used to in the water now and control their speed on purpose without rigging and sails. Maybe at least. If he didn't just mess it all up.

Later that day they went to the docks and Tor tried to memorize the way the brown wooden ships looked, their rough size and how they worked to collect fish. That part was important. A nifty craft that went where you wanted would be nice, but unless they could use them the way they were used to, people wouldn't. New things were treated with suspicion in most places.

For good reason. New things could have flaws, or dangers you wouldn't know about, since they were, by definition, new.

The boats he came up with were like the houses, not real at all, but they looked and felt right. Solid and correct to the touch, textured exactly like smooth wood. They didn't have sails, instead they had a single lever that controlled speed next, to the big round driver's wheel boat captains used. They gave the first one to a man named Jaime who, spat when he heard the idea, grumbled and groused about the evils of magic and then took off, and went out when no one else could. Hours earlier. Before they got to the end of the wooden peer to look for the next person to test it, three more walked over and asked to try one too. In all Tor handed out twenty that day. By night fall they had enough fish for everyone and a good bit of shellfish and giant reddish insects too.

Lobsters, the monsters were called. They even had a menacing name.

That led to an unexpected problem that everyone wanted Tor to solve himself, even Holly left it to him, smiling. Not as if it was funny, just like it would be a happy thing all around.

No price or fee had been given to the fishermen who used the boats. Holly suggested half their catch for the use of the craft, which they all agreed to readily. Tor didn't need that much fish personally, not even to give to his friends, but for the time being he could just give the fish away, right? People needed it, and while the free stuff would go first, hopefully that meant everyone would eat.

Another ten fishermen, all of these with intact boats, wanted to rent his as well. They were too good to pass up, weren't they? One of the men chuckled about it a little with Tor when he came to see about getting one.

“Jaime said he had his up to near forty knots! Didn't even stress the haul and that was into the wind. Even if he was lying and no man has ever said they heard Jaime telling tales, if it does half that it's worth the fish. Can't get a better rent than that, can you? Fish don't bite, we don't pay, and none to say against it? Sign me up admiral!” The man had a gray beard and was thin and hard looking in body, but Tor gave him an amulet too.

If they were careful they could take them out without ever getting in the water, he thought, though that part of it was a little trickier than it sounded. It helped to be flying at the time. Tor had learned the hard way. Twice. Well, he knew how to swim at least and it provided amusement for the hardened fishermen when he fell off the docks trying to lean over far enough for the boats to go in.

Five days later, leaving most of the fields behind for Holly to use, Tor had to figure they were gone, if not into some other project of Holly's, then into the pockets of the people using them. That seemed to be the rule, people just taking the things he made without even bothering to ask about it. If it kept up he might have to start thinking they were valuable or something.

It helped for now, with the clean up and rescue operations. A lot of people didn't have other houses than the ones they'd handed out any more either, and the water system they set up was kind of supporting the whole town. It was about all he had to offer really for the time being. The rest had to be up to each person, caring for themselves and their own.

Staying wouldn't help anyone, so Tor loaded his one case, the one he'd gotten from Sara Debri a long time before, and flew off with Petra and Trice, headed to Warden. This time he could just follow Petra, who actually knew the way, which made it fast and… well, not any more direct, just more certain. A thing he would have lacked going alone. It made him feel a bit better about it, because just setting off and flying long distances was always a little spotty until you knew the way.

The city was pretty in the daylight, he decided. White and green were the main colors, with a smattering of rust red and yellow just to keep things interesting. It radiated life. Friendliness.

They were all shielded and armed, the fields were all on stone, which was cheap for him, but high quality, because the fields would last longer. Regardless, these shields would stop light and electricity and using what he'd learned from that, he made it so that it wouldn't just stop death dust and other tiny particles. It created controlled fields of hyper intense heat to cook them before they could make contact. Searing, but on such a tiny scale you almost didn't notice it, except that the shield flared purple to let you see it happening. He'd built that in, to let them know if an attack started. It was kind of pretty, since there were little things in the air part of the time, and on rare occasion one would hit you by chance. He'd nearly freaked the first time, thinking it was the Austrans, but it seemed to be everywhere. Every now and again you'd notice a single little flash or two.

The weapons were reworked too, so that if they started to be blocked by a shield they'd shift to something else, until the weapon got through. That required a built in feedback mechanism, which was the hard part. You could also pick a given weapon type by hitting the glowing sigil for it along the stone rectangle. They were pretty lethal though, so he had to caution against using them carelessly. It was better than nothing, or being stuck, faced with someone wearing a really good shield and holding the wrong weapon in your hand, one that would do nothing. This gave you eight options, two of which would go through even his own shields, well, the old ones at least. He wasn't giving the new ones out this time, since that kept backfiring on him. Well, to Trice and Petra, and maybe a few other people, since if they attacked him, he wouldn't want them hurt by mistake. But no one else. If Smythe attacked him again, the man was going down.

As they flew in to the park in front of the palace, and the Wards estate was that, without a doubt. A beautiful thing in the daylight, white and gold, edging reminding him of a royal’s wedding cake. Easily as large as the King’s dwelling now that he saw it in real light and from slightly above.

Petra waived them down, so they could land near a marble fountain in a paved white stone courtyard. That's what Tor thought it would be called at least. But… a courtyard had to have walls, didn't it? This was surrounded by short, perfectly trimmed grass, palm trees growing in rows along the outer edges and some low bushes that seemed well groomed. They were notable mainly because their broad leaves had stark red shot through them. Pretty but a little freaky looking too.

“We should walk from here, I think. I… don't know what kind of greeting Marvin and Maria will have for me. They may send me away from the city. Maria really hates me…” Petra looked grim, her face set, like she expected to be humiliated by her family in front of her friends.

Tor set up the follow along fields on the luggage and took her hand gently, giving it a squeeze. It was an awkward thing, trying to work with both their shields, but it was the idea that counted. He hoped. Really he didn't know what to do with her now that they'd been together like they had. Was he supposed to keep it secret, act like it didn't matter at all, as if nothing had happened, or treat her as special and wonderful all the time? His inclination was to shower her with gifts and kisses, but no one acted like that. Not royals at least. He was one of them now, so needed to act correctly.

So for someone of her station that meant what? Sleep with her mother? It was a funny thought, but Tor wasn't sure it was an actual joke. The rules were just so incredibly different now.

The walk didn't take long, even at the slow speed they were going, barely a crawl, because Petra didn't want to set off any guards that might be in place. Not because they were dangerous, but just to protect them from Tor. The idea got him to stick his tongue out at her.

“Silly. Like I go around hurting people?”

No one came out to greet them, but when they rang the bell the door opened within a minute. The rope amazed Tor. Really it was the first one he'd ever seen that went all the way down to the ground on a noble’s home. He could have rung it himself with no problem. Honestly he could have knelt and made it work without straining.

Most of the others were so high he couldn't reach them without flying, or at least jumping comically. This was much better. It even looked old, so the tradition was in place before, not just something put in once they were dealing with short little him. Not that they'd have changed for that. He was just playing messenger really.

The person opening the door was a woman, one that had familiar golden blond hair, even though it had been cut in a military woman’s bob, and she was wearing considerably fewer clothes than he'd ever seen her in. Collette Coltress, Maria's half sister and Tor's personal friend. Even if they had only met three times before. Four now. Her eyes went wide in recognition, of Petra first, who she gave a warm familial hug. Letting go she quickly started to hug Trice, if not as warmly than at least perfunctorily enough. She stopped when she realized her left arm was gone at the elbow.

“Patricia… What…” She misted up, which seemed genuine enough. Still, he didn’t want Trice feeling sorry for herself. Oh, she had the right, and he'd probably have been curled up in a ball still, sobbing like a child if it had been him, but he couldn't handle a massive sobbing and crying festival right now.

“Don't pity her too much Collette. She lost an arm, but saved nearly two hundred people doing it. That includes the whole royal family, about half the sitting counts and countesses and their spouses and a lot of other people without such lofty titles, including me. She's a hero.” It came out in a rush, but still sounded proud he thought. “It was a steep price, but should be seen as a badge of honor and courage, not something to be pitied.”

Tor lifted his head, trying to look dignified, which was probably hard in his deep red canvas workman's outfit. Collette let a single tear fall but swept Trice into a careful embrace and didn't let her go for a long time.

Then she turned on Tor. There was enough venom in her eyes to make him wince a little.

“And what were you doing during this event?” Her voice had gone chilly, which he could understand, in a weird sort of way. Collette knew that Trice was her confederate, and that the King had ordered them both to be a little anti-Tor around the Wards, but clearly she expected him to have tried to protect her anyway. Even if he was little, and not as good a fighter as she was. Not as physically strong either, though that kind of made him uneasy to think about. All the giants were probably stronger than he was, even the girls, at least the ones that exercised regularly. Which reminded him to get back to his regular running soon. If you had only one edge you couldn't afford to lose it. Or even let it get rusty. Kolb had made sure he knew that lesson well enough back in school.

“Me? I… just sat there.” Tor said simply. Blankly. It was the truth. People were dying and he hadn't fought at all. He hadn't thought about it before, but it felt weak to him, like he let everyone down.

Trice snorted loudly, and with no dignity or concern for how it might sound, “right… just sat there he says… He stopped six streams, clouds really, of Austran death dust, holding it still in the air. All direct effect, without being in a combat rage, and while he was being tortured by one of the assassins to try and break his concentration. I grabbed the last bomb and it started eating my hand, but didn't spread like the others did. Princess Karina realized what was happening and used a cutter to take off my hand. She missed the first time, not getting all the death dust, but she was true on the second. Saved my life.” If the tone was bitter, it was hard to tell.

Then Trice was a good actress.

Collette nodded, looking troubled but not glaring at Tor anymore and got them all inside, closing the door after the luggage followed them all in. Tor had reworked the latest floats to handle steps, and hills too, so that it could be used to move cargo's of fish. Everyone thought it was a marvelous improvement, except Tor, who realized he should have just made it that way to begin with. That no one called him on his initial stupidity was kind, but he noticed it. Collette smiled as she watched the three trunks follow them in.

“Tor with his magic trunks… You know, if it's not too presumptuous… no, never mind. Everyone else is in the cool room. This way.” She smiled brightly and led them down a large central hallway to a room near the back of the building, which was deeper than Tor had figured it to be. A lot. That meant the Wards little house here was actually larger than the King’s palace in the Capital.

Gah. Who'd waste the materials on something like that?

Well, these people apparently. Or at least their ancestors. But while impressive, a house half as big still would have been as neat and no one would notice the difference, would they?

Marvin Ward, giant, and incredible looking enough that Tor felt a twinge of envy just seeing him, stood and moved to his sister before she was even all the way through the door.

“Pet? Thank god! This is a horrible mess, everyone thinks we tried to kill a bunch of people and we didn't. I don't know what to do. Help.” The huge man picked his little sister up into a hug that took the younger girls feet all the way off the floor. It wasn't dignified, but it didn't look like the man disliked his little sister either. Not at all really.

Maria stood and smiled. As soon as the Count dropped his sister she started to bow, her hair shining and put up in an elegant fashion with twists, wearing a lovely and nearly shear gown of white, similar to Collette's. The movement looked quite proper until she stood and shook her head.

“No.” She said, looking down. “It's time to put the past behind me properly. Petra…”

Countess Ward went to her knees smoothly and bowed her head contritely. Body upright though. Pretty humble, but not as much as she'd shown Tor.

“I've been rude to you Petra, when I had no call to be, because of something that was my fault to begin with. I can't ask for forgiveness, but I apologize, and ask that I be given a chance to make it up to you over time. If I live that long I mean. If I'm dead you'll just have to trust that I mean it.”

The room went silent. The correct thing to do would be to accept the apology, of course. Even a hick like Tor knew that. It was the right thing to do if someone tried to apologize to you, even if you weren't sure they meant it. The effort counted. But… if there was a lot of bad blood, that could be hard to do. Her answer could be anything from kneeling herself, to slapping the woman, or trying to kill her. Given the shield she wore and the weapon she had on her waist, Tor hoped it wouldn't be that one. She might just be able to take out a large chunk of the Wards forces on her own right now, given her skill set. Maybe all of them.

Instead she nodded seriously.

“Right, well, we can work on that. I…” Reaching down she grabbed Maria under the arms and picked her up as easily as her brother had her. Then she wrapped her in a hug that was gentle enough.

“I can let things go, if you mean it.”

Maria cried.

Chapter eight

The crying went on for a while, with the Count patting his wife on the back to console her, even though it wasn't the loud kind of crying Trice did and really, it didn't seem that unhappy. Why would she be so worked up? Oh, right, death penalty hanging over her head. That could put a person on edge for sure.

He knew the feeling, having worried about that exact same thing twice in his life already. Both in the last year, or just over now. It wasn't a fun place to be. Of course, in both cases he'd actually done what he thought he was going to be killed for. If she hadn't that probably made the whole thing even worse. How did you fight something that everyone thought was fact if it wasn't?

Petra looked around uneasily and saw her mother sitting on the right side of the room, which created a sudden stir, more hugging and laughing to go along with the crying. Not knowing what to do Tor looked around, avoiding direct eye contact while everyone else dealt with their own issues and greetings. The furniture was odd, made of wicker, like giant baskets with cushions in them. There were pads in the chairs, in a deep green material that looked like the Lairdgren colors.

The walls were a cool blue, nearly white and the light came from a magic plate on the ceiling, but not one Tor had made. It was a nice color though, and the plate itself felt like silver. The field was a little weak and would probably stop working inside six months.

Well, fields failed. You rented magic, you didn't own it, not really. On the far wall, behind where Maria and Marvin stood, there was one of his devices, a temperature control plate. That was probably why this was the cool room. Ah. Tor kind of wondered why the whole place wasn't done, but then he smiled. It was huge. It would be easier to get personal temperature equalizers for everyone. He could do that later. Well, some he could do now, he had about twenty with him, the glowing emotion reading ones.

When Maria saw Trice she smiled wetly at first and moved towards her, then… she shrieked.

“Patricia! What did they do to you? I… Gods…” Now the crying got loud and of course it started Trice off.

Well.

There goes the afternoon, Tor thought, holding his mind in a peaceful state. It was going to happen after all. What happened next was… interesting. Sobbing and crying, Maria started kissing the other girl. Hard. It wasn't just a comforting thing at all either. She pulled back and held the slightly smaller woman’s shoulders, staring at the stump.

“I promise you, we'll find the people that did this to you and make them pay! Even if it's the last thing we can do. I promise it!” The words were fierce and angry, but softened immediately, tears replaced with a cold rage. “Oh, my love…”

Tor let Petra explain everything. Luckily everyone agreed that the Austrans were at fault and not Karina despite her hand having done the actual cutting. She was, more or less, just the surgeon on the scene after all. Ward didn't approach, which was a little odd, because Tor had figured that Trice had been sleeping with him to gain entry to the household. And for fun. The guy was famous for scoring with beautiful woman after all and Trice was certainly that. The giant man just looked at the scene and nodded a little. To his credit he seemed genuinely worried for Trice when Tor mentally touched his field. It was a complex jumble, but jealousy didn't rate in the mix at all. Hardly at all. Tor felt as least as jealous of the scene the two girls were making and with a lot less reason.

Collette remembered they had guests first and sent for cool drinks, since she was acting as hostess. Tor didn't really get that at first, but Petra did, after a few minutes of Maria not acting properly.

“Oh!” The large girl turned to Tor her eyes going wide. “They're your prisoners, so they can't act as host or hostess. Have you stayed in your home the whole time, since Tor last was here?”

Marvin sat down with a thump.

“Yes. It's boring, but we weren't told what we were allowed to do or not. Mother said that Tor wouldn't insist we stay in our rooms however, and even Collette agreed, so we took liberty of the house. Is… that alright?” He sounded shy and a lot younger than his nearly forty years.

That really was fine with Tor. His only real stipulation was that they presented themselves at the appointed place for the investigation into the matter and to court, if there was to be a trial at all for it. If they were cleared, there simply wouldn't be. Maria stopped cuddling and cooing at Trice then, her eyes still wet, but her face suddenly still.

“We're… to have a real investigation first? I…” She started crying again, but with a smile. “We hadn't thought to get that! We figured that it would just be a show trial and then we'd be put to death. How did that happen? The King wouldn't buck that many nobles for us, not after everything, it would be too much to hope for… did Sir William Smythe step in for us then? If he leads the investigation everyone will have to admit we're innocent!” She sounded happy and suddenly triumphant.

“Ah…” Tor said, feeling horrible suddenly.

“No.” Trice said shortly. “Tor stepped in for you. Smythe ambushed Tor and they fought. They were both left completely blind by the weapon Smythe used. Tor had to take his right hand to get at it and fight already blind. I was there. It was… horrible. Smythe gave no warning and the situation didn't warrant an attack at all. He just moved on him… King Richard thinks that it was due to fear on the Counselor’s part, but he's blind now and only has one hand. So he's pretty useless in this.”

Two things happened then. Maria gasped and clutched her hands to her bosom, scared again. Actually projecting her fear, near terror, into the room. The Count went wide eyed and openly stared at Tor.

“You bested Sir Smythe… in single combat? Both with the same shields and him having the only working weapon? And… while totally blind? I…” The man straightened and bowed. “I apologize again for my conduct at the meeting concerning Countess Thorgood. Please forgive me.” He sounded totally humble, which Tor really didn't like. He was the one who should be humble here, wasn't he? If they were going to break with that tradition he'd be set adrift, not knowing his place at all.

Tor waved him up.

“Already forgotten. My part at least. The Prince too I believe.” He bowed back a little. “Really, I never took it personally at all anyway, so it was never an issue. I hope that…” Tor couldn't think of the next words and froze, but the Count just winked at him.

“Good then. One less thing to worry over.” The smile he gave was so strained it barely made the classification, but the man tried. That counted too. Right?

The idea that formed as Maria cried helplessly turned his stomach more than a little. Tor could fix the man’s eyes. Possibly even with the device he'd made for healing, so it wouldn't even be hard. It wouldn't regrow a hand, but would probably heal the wound. It had on Trice at least. She still covered the stump, but that was just to keep it from making people sick, she said. If the hand for her could be made to work, then he could probably make one for Smythe too.

The sick making part was that the guy would probably kill him at some point if Tor did. Everyone else kept talking like the man was a saint, beyond reproach and nearly perfect at his job, but Tor just couldn't see it.

What it came down to then, was that these people’s lives, people he didn't have any great reason to love — apologies or not — were worth more than his. Tor had to put that off for a while, the idea was too big to process all at once. Instead he went to his case and started pulling out things from the bottom and piling them on the floor quietly. He had four piles set up after a few minutes. After a bit he realized that everyone was staring at him.

“Presents.” He said simply.

“Sorry, I know that they should be different for everyone, and these are kind of generic, but I… kind of had to rebuild my inventory of stock recently, and things have been a little hectic…” He held up a group of glowing amulets on strings. They just had a cool blue color for now.

“Temperature equalizers. They change color depending on your mood too. I'll make enough for everyone if I get a chance. How many people do you have here?”

Maria knew that off the top of her head, being in charge of the house normally.

“One hundred and seven all told, more counting guests…” She looked around at Trice, Collette and Ellen. Her gaze skipped Petra. Old habit or did family not count as a guest? If so, why count Ellen, her mother in law… Well not his concern.

Tor just nodded. After a second he got it. Petra had her amulet out and showing, so wouldn’t need one.

You'd have thought he invented bread or something the way they went on about the equalizers, Tor thought, how they tracked the mood and turned lovelier colors if your mood was good. Ellen smiled at him and bowed from a sitting position, which reminded him of something. He handed her another one. She looked at him, happy enough, but not understanding.

“For Georges. I have some other things for him as well, I can send those along with you?” Tor remembered the old serving man and retainer, who'd guarded them with his rusty spear the one time he'd been to her house, even further south. It was largely a swamp, hot and uncomfortable all the time he'd bet. They had a problem with dangerous giant lizards there. Ones that apparently thought royals were tasty eating. It was probably true, they had a lot of meat on them.

Her eyes lit and she surged to her feet, pulling Tor into a hug that pulled him from his feet for a moment. She kissed his cheek.

“Oh! That is so sweet! He'll be please to know that Master Tor thought of him personally and remembers him by name, I think.” She beamed but let him go and sat, which was good, since it let him get to the next pile of stuff.

“These are fishing boats.” Tor didn't explain and didn't have too, because Petra started to gush about them instantly, clapping her hands.

“Oh brother! Those aren't just boats, they're magic schooners, fifty foot long and they propel themselves through the water, even against the wind, at speeds faster than a horse can run. If we moved beds in we could take long voyages in one. I…” She stopped suddenly and grinned a little. “They're really neat.” She finished lamely.

Beds? Well, if you didn't need the hold for fish, that could be done. He hadn't thought about turning one into a home before. Was that a thing? He realized that he already had almost everything he needed for it. He'd probably want to make it a bit bigger and maybe prettier… Add some amenities that the fishing boats didn't have, like restrooms and showers. Tor realized that Petra was looking at the amulets wistfully. He shook his head.

“Petra, can I give you yours in a few days? I have an idea…” He didn't say more and as dark as she was he didn't think she blushed, her even smooth tan skin staying the same lovely shade, but she nodded and gave him a funny look.

“I didn't mean…” She started to say a little meekly, but Tor moved to the next pile of things.

These were just freezer units for cold boxes, since it was warm here and ice was a treat in the heat. Tor assumed it would be the case at least.

Everyone but Trice went very still, including Collette. Tor glanced at her and tried to show that he didn't get it. Was having ice forbidden? Had he just run up against some kind of anti-frozen water social taboo here?

Ellen rescued him, thankfully, explaining the situation, her voice impressed, even if her face looked a bit shocked. She had some at home though, at her dowager estate. Tor had sent them himself, so maybe it was because the Count had been in trouble so recently?

“That's a fine and expensive gift. A pound of ice is worth a gold here in the summer and half that in the winter. The ability to make even small amounts of ice is like being able to produce currency this far south.”

Maria nodded, and told them that they should make an effort to give some away to the poor, since they wouldn't have access to any otherwise, especially if they could do it for free. Tilting his head Tor had to stare at her, for three reasons. First, she was pretty. That's what got him into trouble with her in the first place wasn't it? Second, well, she seemed awfully nice really. Everyone he'd talked to about the topic had described her as a bitch, but he hadn't seen it, well, not recently at least. Was this all an act? It wouldn't help her or her husband in regards to the investigation, and Tor would have done the same things even if she was still screaming at him and being belittling. Then Trice hadn't said Maria was bad, just that she had more dick in a month than the girls at the whorehouse. A bit promiscuous, even by royal standards, but not a sin really, just… friendly?

The last was a new design idea, if everyone was willing to just give ice away for free or at least sell it cheap. Tor nearly laughed when he realized that this, too, was just a recombination of things he already could do. At this rate he could have more presents for the next day.

If only Trice’s arm was that simple. Maria had pulled her down next to her in the awkward looking seat, a bowl shaped disk that looked like everyone should slip out of them instantly. The last was just a set of lights. On stone, not metal.

“The ones in here are going to fail in about six months and probably dim and flicker three months before that. So, here.”

Instead of asking for a room, Tor set up a house on the lawn out front, which caused people to come and peek in the windows. A lot of them. So many that Tor finally set up another one on the other side of the lawn for people to tour. It didn't get everyone to leave him alone, but it cut down on the noise a little at least.

The beach here was a smooth white sand, about a half mile from the palace. Light gray at least. It took a lot longer to find rocks to work with, so finally, he just used a compressor, one of the new stronger ones for processing rock and used a small cutter to make about four hundred thin glossy tiles of white. Whiter than the sand itself by a good four shades, however that worked. They looked like glass he realized, if opaque.

Then he popped some holes in then, with a device, a modified cutting tool, right there on the beach as people watched from about ten feet back. Everyone still wore white, but now they had different colored sashes not just blue and red. Filling up his canvas sack he walked away, trying to smile, but feeling self-conscious as he went. People were watching him. Smiling, but clearly tracking him with their eyes as he moved away.

It wasn't meal time yet, even though he was hungry, but Tor started working anyway. If he did the equalizers first he could have them done by dinner. It would be two batches, but that would leave some extras to hand out, if people wanted them. They ended up looking different, but in a way they were even more elegant, the thin white squares contrasting nicely with the purple light of the sigils that glowed constantly, and disappeared when turned on.

He had enough of them, hopefully, so after he washed up and changed to another set of workman's clothes, that being all he had. Tor loaded the tiles into his little bag, then went to dinner, which was to be held outside, festival style, since Tor was “letting” the Wards have full liberty, as long as they held to their agreements. For the common person it was cooler outside than in, so the tradition had the evening meal served there. Bugs or not.

Well, Tor had grown up in a forest, he was used to insects at least.

The sandwiches were a cooked and shredded meat, with a tangy sauce made of fruit, and thinly sliced vegetables. It was good. Everyone ate the same food, and it seemed like half the city had turned out, again with a band playing and people dancing and drinking foolish amounts of alcohol. Tor stuck to pure fruit juice, checking it openly for poison, using the little stone he'd created for it. He passed those out as well, since he had a lot of them. The food was on a huge table, so he checked the whole thing. It was safe, of course, but then he'd thought that all food was safe, once upon a time. Being poisoned really sucked. Hard. If he could help anyone avoid that, he simply would.

Maria had Trice sit on her left and waited on her like a servant, reaching out to touch her over and over again. Ellen sat directly to Marvin's right and Petra past her. There was no room for Tor at the table, not the one set up in front of the residence at least, so he just grabbed a plate of food and went to join Collette at one of the round ones that had been set about twenty feet away, out on the short grass. Men kept coming over and asking her to dance, which she playfully declined, since she was eating still after all. They'd just have to wait…

Tor didn't blame them though. He'd have asked her to dance too. The idea made him chuckle a bit and shake his head. Why shouldn't he? Collette looked at him politely, if quizzically. Right, she couldn't read his mind. He finished his bite, waving his hand to indicate what he was doing, so that he wouldn't have to talk with his mouth full. It was both in that book on manners and something his mother had taught all the kids from childhood. It made sense, after all, they were the rules she'd been raised with as the daughter of a Count, so she passed them along.

Really, it was only the sexual etiquette and relationship stuff that Tor had big trouble with. For the most part, he found reading the book, he hadn't even been messing that up too badly yet. Oh, he hadn't been polite, but it was a near thing, so he just looked cold, not like he wanted to insult anyone. It was a relief to see it in print, but he already knew that real life could be a lot different. Maria had freaked out on him after all, hadn't she? That wasn't covered in the book at all yet. It just wasn't supposed to happen.

Ever.

“I was just thinking I should get you to save a dance for me too, that was all.” He smiled, hoping it wasn't too forward. They didn't know each other that well really.

She laughed out loud, enough so that the people at the head table looked over at them from some twenty feet away.

“Me save a dance for you? Master Tor, I think it should be me asking that instead. The only reason women haven't been asking you yet is that they need a few more drinks to work the courage up. Even if you hadn't being giving out magic all evening it would happen. If you sleep alone tonight it won't be due to lack of offers. Is there a queue for that? If so I'd like to take a number myself…” She reached out and touched his arm, starting when she hit his shield. She pulled back suddenly as if embarrassed.

“Oh.” she said, worried suddenly, as if embarrassed.

“What?” Tor asked amused.

“Oh, well your wearing a shield? Are you afraid of attack here? I know that not everything has been smooth between you and the Count and Countess, but I don't think they'll attack you here. They rather need you after all…” She looked down at her plate, the food half eaten.

Tor shrugged and smiled.

“Habit mainly. Having a shield and not using it is a bit like being kicked down a flight of stone stairs, or getting a knife in the back, I've found. Plus, we're at war with Austra. Austran agents have tried to kill me, three, maybe four times already. For a nobody like me, that's a lot.” He turned the shield off and reached out to touch her arm, then took a bite and put it back up while chewing and sitting. He did it automatically now and normally didn't even notice it any more. “Anyway, I think the topic was you wanting to know if there was a waiting list to spend the night with me. The answer is, alas, no. I'm intending to work a lot tonight though, but I have tomorrow night free, if that wasn't just an offhand comment, I mean. If it was, that's all right, I won't take offense if your already engaged or busy.” Or just didn't really want to. She was nice, but that didn't mean she'd want to get that close to someone like him. Tor could understand that.

It was a little clumsy maybe, but the book had said that all invitations had to be taken seriously, but when in doubt, give the other party a graceful way out. He was in doubt of course. Collette was blond, not his personal favorite hair color, preferring brunettes really, but she was probably as pretty a person as he'd ever met. And she'd always been kind to him. If the engagement with Princess Varley fell through, which it probably had already, and if Petra didn't want to marry him, Collette would certainly be someone to ask.

The idea startled him a little bit.

Not that he'd consider asking her, but that she'd actually marry a little troll like him. He fought to keep a wince off his face, which was good, considering what she said next.

“Really? I'd love to. Your house then, tomorrow night? Shall I plan to spend the whole night, or… is this a secret? I can manage discrete if I try, I think. A quick visit in the evening perhaps, wouldn't be taken amiss. I could tell people I was consulting with you on a bit of magic, or trying to wheedle something from you. One of those houses for instance. I looked in to the other one earlier. A full working kitchen, freezing box and oven. A working restroom that removes waste with magic and a full warm water shower and bath? And those beds… Have you considered making those as a standalone? I'd buy one. Right now. I don't care if it beggars me until I get my next allowance even. Just heavenly. Could be a bit bigger though, in case I wanted to have a friend or two over….” She giggled, so Tor chuckled too.

Apparently, according to “Manners”, if a woman chuckled, giggled or laughed at anything other than death, a gentleman did too. Even if it wasn't really funny. The instructions flat out said that too. With death you were supposed to pretend it was just nerves on the ladies part and comfort her as if she were troubled, even if she was really just being evil about it.

If she passed gas in public the nearest man was supposed to look embarrassed and excuse himself for having done it, to save the lady in question from being shamed. Well, so far that hadn't come up, but if it did, he was ready. “Manners” was a really complete book.

“Well… Technically I'm engaged to Varley, Princess Veronica? But that may be falling through, political stuff, if I was told correctly and not just being put off. We're friends regardless, so I wouldn't want to embarrass her, and I'm kind of fond of Petra, so I wouldn't want to insult her or anything either, so… I guess a bit discrete? I think we can get away with more than a quick meeting though. We're friends too.

“On the other stuff, I haven't made beds like that, but I have the basic field for it, so that would be easy enough. I can't do it tonight though, not if I want to sleep. If I didn't I would have asked you over already. But I have some things to do up first… I can give you a house though, if you want. I have a bunch of them left.”

She clapped and leaned into him, whispering gently.

“Can you decorate it too? I'd love a sofa and maybe some drapes.” She laughed, but this time he didn't, not trying to be rude, but taken aback a bit as the idea hit him.

It was all possible, if he knew what he was supposed to do. He could even modify the current field to redesign the interior without having to rebuild the whole field. If he could get her to show him what she wanted…

“Yes… It will take a little longer, but if you're willing to do the design work and get me pictures, or examples to work from… That could be done. It's really a good idea. The thought is for these houses to be portable, which gets harder if you have to put in real furniture and stuff. But making it a part of the field… Yeah… That makes so much sense.” He grinned at her, feeling a little excited at the idea. “Let’s do it!”

After he finished eating dinner, but before the real dancing began, the Wards made a point of passing out the temperature equalizers Tor had made, so almost everyone was glowing openly when the servants, also glowing at the throat, mainly in bright yellows and greens, brought out three large containers of ice for everyone to enjoy. Maria made a point of giving the credit for it to Tor, but it hadn't been his idea. It was hers.

The Countess smiled at Tor and bowed lightly, but didn't take any credit for her own action in giving it away at all. Tilting his head towards her he bowed back with raised eyebrows. She got it well enough to look pleased, which was a little baffling to tell the truth. He wouldn't have thought she'd care what he thought about most things, especially her.

After that, well, it turned out that Collette wasn't wrong about women coming to ask him to dance. A couple of men did too, much to his surprise. Tor nearly froze the first time, but then shrugged. If people thought he liked men, well, those rumors had been around for a long time, hadn't they? Started by Maria, come to think of it. As long as they were just the happy bouncing dances and not the grinding ones that couples were doing, he decided to just agree. He mainly danced with women and did manage a turn with Collette, though she was as busy as he was. He tried for a turn with Petra, but that wasn't happening he soon realized. She was very popular here and a good dancer. Like him she didn't turn anyone that asked down, it seemed, and that meant she didn't get a chance to do more than breathe between songs.

Tor would have danced with Trice, but she just sat next to Maria the whole night, leaning into each other more and more closely as things wore on and drink flowed. Both had glowing amulets out and both had more than a little pink showing. So they were friends? Tor looked at them, and realized the interest was probably more than that.

Right.

Well wasn't he just a provincial hick, then?

Tor had no business telling them how to live their lives in their own place. If they went to Two Bends, the rules there were different, but here? Well… they weren't exactly being discrete, were they? So maybe that would be an issue. It wasn't his business, but it seemed a little mean to Count Ward. He just sat and watched the crowd. Apparently the high royalty weren't allowed to dance or something? Or maybe he just didn't feel like it? His pendant was black and blue swirls after all. Maybe he realized that things were darker than Maria did? That seemed odd, because she kind of seemed the brains of the operation, but there it was, Marvin Ward, pensive and gloomy, in front of everyone.

At about eleven Tor made his way to his little house. The sounds from the party would continue, he knew, but he could block them out. It took effort and more than once people pounded on his door, which caused him to rouse a little each time. The third time Tor also heard a woman’s voice and it sounded urgent, scared, so he pulled himself up from the work he was doing to check on the situation. His mind had been deep and really, Tor didn't come all the way out, holding the pattern he’d been working on the whole time.

When he got there a lady was sleeping on his doorstep, passed out drunk. It wasn't anyone he recognized either, not even from the party, but her top was half off and several men were walking around shiftily a ways off. Three of them. They stared at Tor, their looks far from friendly. Had they been trying to have their way with her, in this weakened condition? Tor glared back and walked past the woman protectively, which got them to move off fast. He didn't even have a shield on, having been working, so he quickly pulled the woman in and locked the door. Running out to play hero like that was stupid of him. Tor blamed the working state. His natural inclination was to protect people and common sense kind of faded when he went deep enough.

What should he do? Nothing came to mind at all. Let her sleep it off, he guessed. With effort he moved her over to one of the beds, the one farthest away from the corner he took, and got her lying flat. Very carefully he fixed her white top, not touching her flesh at all, so she wouldn't wake up with her breasts hanging out in a strange place.

Trance state or not, he knew that would be too weird to think a good thing.

Then he went back to work, just hoping she wasn't an assassin cleverly using his known weaknesses to get to him. A frightened and helpless woman at his door would be let in, and anyone that knew him at all could figure that out, couldn't they? Since he was able to finish working and didn't have his throat cut at all, she probably wasn't. Still, when that was done he put his shield back on before he slept.

He drifted off more easily than he thought he would, the woman’s light snores comforting in a way. Tor woke to find her just standing in the middle of the room, no lights had been turned on, but the shutters let a little in around the edges, so that they'd seem real.

Tor slowly got up and opened them, one by one. It seemed less off-putting than just turning on the magical lights on the ceiling. If the lady with him wasn't a bit scared, she was made of sterner stuff than he was. That or insane. Either way, being polite seemed to make sense.

“Hello.” He spoke softly, having learned that people that had been drinking normally felt sick the next day. That should be sign that it wasn't a good plan, but people did it anyway and always claimed they had a good time, no matter how bad things had gotten.

The woman looked at him and smiled, wincing as she did.

“Hey… Um, is there a restroom around here somewhere? Maybe a place to clean up too?” She didn't introduce herself, so Tor didn't either. He just pointed to the correct rooms and listed them off. He decided to make some copies of things, just in case they went over well enough, and was just finishing that when a knock came at his front door.

A soft knock that he almost didn't hear at first.

Tor made sure his shield was on, just in case it was the woman’s jealous boyfriend, but it turned out to be Petra, who'd brought him a tray of food, since everyone else was probably going to be sleeping late. She was obviously hung over too, but didn't whine about it like most people did. Tor set up the table with plates and gestured to the seat next to his then got a pitcher of water and chilled it in the freeze box for a minute, then had to break the ice on top up to drink it, the field working a little too well it seemed. When he came back out the woman who'd been taking a bath, from the sound of it, came padding out nude and sopping wet.

“Do you have a towel or something? I… Petra? How are you!” The woman ran across the room, leaving a trail of water and grabbed his friend, obviously her friend too, who still sat, hugging her tightly. And damply, Petra's clothing got soaked instantly.

“Martya? Oh!”

Hugs continued. After a bit, when she straightened up, showing off dark nipples and pubic hair openly, making Tor stiffen a little more than was probably polite. Then she was the one walking around nude. He explained the drying system and how if she held her hand or any other body part, on the sigil built into the wall, she'd be hit by warm air, which would let her dry quickly. It wasn't a towel, but it worked well enough and could be built in.

Petra and he ate in silence, but the girl kept smirking at him. Did she think he slept with Martya, who was obviously her old friend? Tor tried to look at the situation from her perspective. Naked girl running around his place, washing up and acting like she belonged there… Yep. That's what he would have thought first too. Tor wondered if he should ask to sleep with the woman now, just so when people talked about them it would be true.

When she came back out she bowed to Tor, a low humble thing that looked genuine and had to make her head hurt, at least she grabbed at it like it did. At least she'd put her clothes back on. The stuff was nearly see through in the bright morning light, but it wasn't nude, making it possible to look at her without splitting the front of his pants open.

“Oh, Pet. Last night was awful.” The woman started, her voice woeful. “Farrell and his friends caught me out drunk and alone, I mean really drunk, and were pulling me down, probably to have back-door sex, you know how they are, can't even be bothered to do it properly if your drunk enough? So I ran away and found this, door and then passed out. I don't know what happened after that, but my behind doesn't hurt and I haven't had sex at all that I can tell, so this fellow is obviously a better man than Farrell. Which isn't hard, but still… I… don't know where I am. One of the magic houses obviously…” She clumped into one of the chairs without waiting to be invited, since they were obviously all friends now. Tor smiled, wondering if things were really just that easy here, or if it was just Martya. She looked miserable, if clean enough, though in yesterdays clothing.

He really needed a way to quickly launder clothing built in to the structures. He had water, and could heat it. That didn't give him soap, but he could make the water swirl or go back and forth rapidly to do the scrubbing for him, right? Then use the clothing dryer field… He'd have to work on it. Really though, could he clean the clothing without water? Just organize a field that would carry all the dirt and oil away from it? That… seemed really doable. It was just a variation of the earth moving field. It would just have to recognize fabric.

Martya grabbed her head again and moaned softly. Petra didn't, but looked ready to throw up. Tor also needed to come up with a hangover cure. If he did he was going to charge a lot for it though, silly people should learn to just drink less, shouldn't they? He wondered for a second what would happen if the healing field was used. It should help with illness, was this like that, a sickness? Poisoning maybe.

Chuckling, he went to his trunk and pulled one out. Without saying anything he activated it and handed it to Martya, who took it with a hesitant look. If it really hurt, or made her sick, he'd rather not ambush Petra with it. After all, she might sleep with him again sometime if he was careful enough about the whole thing. Maybe when he wasn't even in a trance? That could be fun. The girl closed her eyes and gripped the stone hard, her breath coming fast, panting shallowly for about a minute, then she smiled and set down the stone.

“That… Petra, here, try it.”

The large woman didn't wait, she didn't pant either. When she opened her eyes she looked… better, no dark circles, no hangover left. Grinning she kissed Tor and didn't stop for a long time.

“I could feel the pain drain away, the headache and sick feeling. I feel good. Rested. We need to get some of these to the King’s palace and, um, some other places. Like inside the big house today. Normally I'd let them all suffer, especially Maria, but she went out of her way to apologize to me pretty sweetly, so I guess I should attempt to be nice in return, at least until it proves to be a trick or something. It can wait a few minutes while we eat and catch up though.”

The two girls had a kind of short hand that he couldn't really follow, what he did get was that Martya was Petra's closest childhood friend, one of the reasons she always came to party with the Wards, it being old habit and her being popular. That, and it turning out that she'd gone into the family business after all, as everyone had always said she would, which meant that being a bit of a party girl didn't hurt in general. Tor didn't think anything of it, since where he was from most people simply did that. He'd have been a baker if he hadn't gotten a King’s scholarship, and even then, if he didn't have ten siblings, each vying for their own place in the world, he probably wouldn't have gone. Not if his family had needed him.

But Martya's family was in the prostitution trade. Apparently they didn't really need her for it at all either, and she wasn't wild about the work. Too many uncouth sailors that thought sticking it in and thrusting a few times should have her loving them abjectly. It was a silly idea, of course, but Tor could kind of credit it. After all, he'd liked Petra before, but didn't he feel a little more fond of her now? Like they were closer or something. Lovers. Did it count as that if they'd only done it one time? Probably not.

The girl continued on about how there wasn't much else for her to do, since she didn't want to fish or farm for a living either. Too much work she admitted, for too little pay.

“Um, Martya… Would you like a job?” Tor asked, feeling a little awkward about it.

“Sure… Since you could have had me last night for free anyway. What do you want, a blowjob? Regular sex? I'll blow you for free, just for the rescue and do the rest for that hangover remedy…” Laughing she started to shimmy out of her dress.

Petra crossed her arms and mock glared at her friend.

“Hey, get off my boyfriend you!”

Everyone laughed, even Tor, if not for the same reason.

“No, I meant selling ice. The price will probably go down, around a silver for ten pounds, I'd guess, given the market here, maybe less, but if you sell enough, that should work out. I don't know how much you make now, but… Well, let me show you.” His voice showed his excitement, earning a strange look from the other two. He grabbed the right pendants, there were three of them to make up one manufactory, and went outside to set things up.

He didn't whistle while he did it, but it took force of will not too. It was kind of exciting and happy all at once.

It took about five minutes, because he had to patch into a water feed, just using the one going into his house for now, explaining how it worked as he went. Then, after moving everyone else well out of the way, he tapped the main sigil, which made a white and red hut, about forty foot on a side with what looked like a red tile roof, so it kind of fit into the area, just appear in front of them. The sigil amulet slid into the wall and started glowing a soft pink. He just liked the color and though it worked with the white and red pretty well.

The water was going in not half a minute later. Then they had to wait. Not too long, but a good fifteen minutes.

“There it is! Good, when the sigil turns green like that, then next to it, after about ten seconds, a blue one should show up… There.” Walking the four feet towards the end Tor looked at them dramatically.

“Ready?”

Petra nodded with a little smile, curious, but Martya looked amazed and a tiny bit scared. Why that should be he didn't know. After all, she'd spent the night in a magic house. So a magic shed shouldn't be that amazing, right? Just to get her past her fear Tor asked her to hit the sigil, which set several things into motion at once. Martya jumped back, but laughed as she did.

“What is it doing?” She asked, eyes wide.

Tor just pointed.

The wall near the front vanished completely, leaving only a wall of ice about eight foot high. Then it slowly pushed forward until a foot of clearish white stuck out. A light blue light flashed inside the ice, to show where it was being cut, a crisscross of color, and then the wall reappeared, pushing the whole thing forward again about six inches. The wall of ice was cut into even one foot blocks, or close enough, meaning that there were two hundred and twenty-four one-foot square blocks. He wasn't certain, but guessed that it could do this faster than the blocks could be moved unless they had a large team of people working on it.

“So. What do you say Martya? I mean it's something to try, since you won't actually lose your ability to ply your other trade if it doesn't work out, right? We can easily move it someplace else too, though right now I really think we should build an ice castle in the yard. Not one too high, because it will fall apart when it melts…” Who didn't like an ice castle on a hot day?

Sure, he'd never heard of such a thing before and neither had either of them, but the materials were at hand, so why not? Actually, since they weren't hung over anymore, the girls seemed pretty enthused by the idea, and Petra had an plan, a structure fifty foot long and twenty foot wide… After all, if you wanted a spectacle you didn't go small. Plus the ice was free. For them anyway.

Laughing they did just that, taking hours, and forming an almost solid mass of ice nearly as big as the ice producer itself. People came and started helping after a while, kids at first, but adults soon enough, with food and drink vendors an hour or two after that. Martya quickly realized the potential and started selling the blocks for a half silver each, which seemed a little high to Tor, but had people pulling up in horse draw carts to get it by the load within another two hours. It wasn't even noon and people were coming to see the ice castle, which was kept growing faster than it melted, even with all the sales.

The ground got damp, but no one seemed to mind overly.

People laughed and played, kids and even some of the young adults climbing up on it for as long as they could without freezing. Then they'd jump off, sliding down a ramp of melting ice that people built just for the purpose. He’d smoothed it with a cutter so it was very slick. It looked fun, if wet, so Tor jumped up the side of the castle, which was really a solid rectangle on the bottom and took a turn. It worked, but got him more than a little damp. No one cared though.

At noon Trice, Maria and Marvin all came out with Collette and Ellen trailing by a few minutes. Tor kind of expected the Wards to yell at him for ruining their lawn, but that didn't seem to matter as much as the wealth of ice growing there and the fact that it had been put there as a free entertainment. That part, seemed to be the real selling point. That it was a gift to everyone.

They all looked grumpy and tired, except Ellen who looked well rested and even happy enough, seeing all the smiling faces. Someone had gotten a band to come, which Martya cleverly paid instantly, making it worth their while to spend the day. They played happy tunes that matched the mood of the crowed.

Petra ran up to them and started passing a healing device around which made everyone happier inside a minute or two.

When it came around to Ellen she took it, but clearly didn't think much would happen, having been wise with the amount she drank the night before. Standing stiffly at first, her eyes closed, like almost everyone else had, her face relaxed after a bit and she smiled, a real genuine thing that took in her eyes as well as her mouth. She didn't let go of it for a long time, nearly ten minutes, even as people stared. A popping sound came from her lower back, which made her wince and cry out, but then she sighed.

Eyes still shut she nodded slowly at first, getting faster as she went, “OK Tor… I'll let you have my virginity…” She murmured dreamily, making the crowd of watchers laugh. She smiled again and opened her eyes wide. The whites were a pure now, without the slight yellowish tint of age they'd had before, turning the amulet off she handed it back to Petra, then leaned in whispered something to her, which got a chuckle from the people around them, but a nod from her daughter. That made everyone smile, except Trice who looked suddenly angry. She glared at Petra, and then him, for some reason Tor didn't get.

Did Ellen say something about her maybe? That didn't make sense. As far as Tor could tell they hardly knew each other. Well, Trice would tell him or not, or if it got bad enough, he'd ask. Then she wouldn't tell him, because “he knew what he'd done” or something like that probably. It was a favorite line of his mothers with the boys when she was particularly displeased over something that would have been too minor to anyone else to even notice. Luckily Trice didn't remind him that much of his mother at all.

The ice festival, impromptu as it was, needed some games, which the Count and Countess got to come up with, that being the tradition in Ward. Tor offered some of his little devices as prizes for them. He got out some lights, Temperature equalizers, Not-flyers and cutters. For a grand prize he offered one of the houses complete with water pump, one of the purifying kind.

The games were at once familiar, and disturbing to his country bred mind. The contests for the kids were unique, but made sense in a way. Like one were the competitors had to sit on blocks of ice, the one that lasted the longest won a Not-flyer. A basic idea that wasn't so much skill or luck based. Good for the young ones, or at least Tor thought so at first.

It came down to a little boy of about five and a twelve year old girl, both in clear agony, who refused to let the other win. At an hour Tor went into his house and got one of the remaining devices in that set and brought it out, handing it off to the Count. The large man declared them both the winner, in a loud booming voice, and presented then each with a unit with a happy smile and congratulations.

Petra suggested that they earmark both of those kids for military service later, because they'd already proved they were tough enough, hadn't they? Ward nodded, but with a somber sidelong glance at Tor as if wondering what he'd say about the idea.

He just shrugged.

“The girl will need to go to school in a few years regardless. Get with me when it's time and I'll cover her for that. The boy too, when it comes time. I have some connections in that area, or will at least, by then.”

Marvin bowed. Honestly he looked more than a little happy about it. Like it was a gift for him personally or something. Then again, as the Count, any child given an education from his area was a good thing, right?

If anything that made the rest of the competitors work even harder for some reason. There was a fruit eating contest, which was close enough to things Tor recognized really, even if the fruit was unique to him, bananas, followed by people eating raw fish.

If it was up to Tor, each person willing to take a single bite and keep it down would have gotten a prize, because he nearly lost his lunch just watching. The contestants ate with vigor and seemed to enjoy it and the winner of that contest put away pounds of the stuff.

The contests that got to Tor a bit were the later ones, in the afternoon. The ladies dance competition sounded innocent enough. After all, what harm was there in dancing and bouncing around to music? All the women that wanted to compete went out into the green and danced, using their best and showiest moves. It was to last ten songs, with the crowd hooting and clapping at the end of each musical number for each in turn, the one with the most applause winning the round. Win the most rounds and you got the prize. By the fourth a woman just sank to her knees and started mimicking pleasing a man with her mouth. It was funny and pretty provocative, Tor thought, figuring that would end there, or possibly be copied in the next round since that woman, a cute red-head with dark skin, at least as dark as Petra, won that dance.

Instead, in the next round half the women took their tops off and danced that way, to the hoots of the crowd, who were starting to get a little drunk already, as early as it was. Two dances later all of them were completely nude and thrusting in the air and sometimes with each other and in the last round several of them were openly pleasuring themselves while the band played. Tor moved close to Petra and asked, a little timidly, if this kind of thing was normal. She shook her head and glanced at him, looking away from the spectacle for a bit.

“Not at all. The most I've ever seen before was a bit of toplessness, and that was late at night with women more than a little drunk, not in the middle of the day and sober like this… but this is for one of your incredible magic houses. One of those is probably worth about fifty thousand gold you know… Or well, maybe you don't? You never seem to count the golds when you do things. It's kind of humbling. I almost cried when you made it so both those kids would have Not-flyers for their prize. No one even sells those anywhere and even rich kids here wouldn't be able to get one at all. They'd have to get it on the black market and I assure you no one but the wealthiest could afford one. But really, you can rest assured that all these women are doing this to get your attention, just in case they don't win the contest here. It's a good strategy, if they don't know you. Really, if any of them had asked me, I would have told them to just go to you and suggest that they'd like one.” Petra looked at him mischievously, licking her lips a little.

“Hey, if I do some of those things with you can I have one of those houses?”

Tor laughed and took her hand so she wouldn't think he was mocking her. Their shields bumped which got them both going.

“Nope. I think… I hope at least, that what I have for you is better. If there's any daylight left at the end of this thing, I'll show you. I promised tonight and tomorrow to Collette. Um, work stuff, at least mainly… Working to build in decorations and furniture on the inside of the houses? I already tried a little, but… well a woman’s touch, you know?” He hoped that was discrete enough. It was all true, as far as it went, but would Petra buy it?

“She's hot, you should totally try to get her into bed if you can. Patricia too and probably Maria… Maybe my mom… She asked if I'd mention that too you earlier. I told her I would.” Her voice was warm, but not teasing.

Tor almost choked.

“No. God no. I mean, yes to the first two and possibly Ellen, she's nice and I consider her a friend already, but Maria? That would be the worst idea possible I think. Look around us.” Tor didn't watch the action, even as the song ended and a few women were faking orgasms. Either that or their timing was perfect. The crowd didn't seem to care either way. They practically roared their approval.

His gaze found, not the happy go lucky crowd, but the half dozen people openly staring at him the whole time. Some of the faces were familiar, from around the palace, or even his old school. They'd watched him there too, he realized now. At the time he'd just thought they were staring because they just didn't like him, but now..

“Spies?” She breathed into his ear the moving air tickling slightly.

What did he know of spies really, but it made sense.

“I can have fun with you and Trice, possibly Collette even, but Maria? No way. That would look a bit like the King doing her before the investigation. No one would ever trust it as to a fair hearing or trial then, would they? It's why I need to get back to the Capital and fix up Smythe and get him to agree not to kill me anymore, in some way that will stick. He seems to be the only one everyone will trust. But… Yeah. I have to watch myself. Bad enough I'm thinking about asking you to marry me if this thing with Varley really does fall through. It probably will, since she's pregnant and we've never, you know…” Tor blushed brightly. “You were my first.”

Petra tried to kiss him, and made him drop his shield so he could.

“I'll think about it… really I was your first? And you're already that good? Damn. Well, engagement or not, be sure I'm going to be jumping into bed with you again. I would tonight, or even right now, but really, you should take a shot with Collette, too good to pass up. Tomorrow if you have time?”

Tor agreed. What did he have to lose at this point after all?

The last competition was drinking, in which everyone, except the winner for some reason, nearly died. They drank as fast as they could, of a stronger beverage than Tor had ever encountered before, and were succumbing to poisoning when Petra went around and started healing them all. Then amazingly, half of them started drinking again. Laughing Petra held out her hand.

“Don't do it! I'm leaving to get some work done and won't be back till dinner, die before then and it's on you.”

That got a chorus of laughs for some reason Tor couldn't understand at all. Trying to drink yourself to death was funny here? That was insane.

They flew to the beach so that no one would follow them and then, over the water by about fifty feet, Tor hit the sigil under his shirt. It was a tiny action that made a huge boat appearing beneath them. It was two hundred feet long, the deck looked like wood and the rest was a stark black, shining like glass. It was forty-five foot wide and set into the water nicely as he lowered it, hoping he'd gotten the hull the right shape. It floated and didn't tip over at least, which he took to be a good sign. Landing on the deck pushed the boat a little lower into the water, a gentle bob of the whole thing. Being careful Tor took off the amulet and went through a door in the side of the cabin on the top deck. There he hung it on a metal hook meant just for that purpose.

“The stairs here take you to the living quarters below.” He started towards the door, bet an arm snaked across his chest first, making Tor pause.

“Drop your shield.” She spoke gently, though with a little bit of a growl. Petra seemed happy enough, if suddenly serious, so he did it, not really knowing if she was going to hit him or give him a hug. The answer was neither. She kissed him long and hard, a lot more passionately than he figured she would for a simple present like this.

Then, laughing she pulled back and asked for a tour.

Chapter nine

Petra ran past him into the driving area, which she called the “pilot house”. It had windows all the way around, well, invisible shields, but that was even easier than making them look like something else, so Tor hadn't stinted on them. Petra examined the controls and smiled, it was the same as for a fishing boat, even if the craft was way larger. She started slow, a few miles per hour and then inched the lever forward slowly. It gained speed, moving faster until the whole thing started to shudder and skip a little on the waves. She giggled and slowed it down wide eyed and smiling. At a guess she was moving at around forty miles per hour still. The turning radius seemed horrible, the big ship making a circle about an eighth of a mile in diameter, but she seemed pleased with it. Very.

“It's just how boats this size are. Actually this one seems to handle better than most. A lot better….” She took it out for miles before bringing the speed to zero, pulling the level, one that looked like polished wood in a dark color, all the way back. They stopped moving then, except where the waves lifted the boat a little bit.

That's what happened when stopped, so there wouldn't be a need for an anchor. That earned him another hug, then a kiss, her hand moving down his back and finally clutching his behind. It was playful and seemed a little interested, if Tor was any judge of such things. Petra grinned again.

“Show me the rest?”

The deck, obviously was just a deck and had no special properties at all. There wasn't even a hatch for a cargo hold, since it wasn't meant to carry any he let her know. The railing looked good and they spent a minute looking at the ocean, holding on the rail and each other for a while.

“I love this. The ocean I mean. The present is alright too.” She chuckled and shook her head gently. “Of course now I'm spoiled and no boy giving me mere flowers will ever stand a chance. Well, unless he's really cute of course, then it might work…”

Tor stuck out his tongue.

“Like you'd ever be anything but proper? Besides, flowers are nice. Their colorful and smell good. Who doesn't like that? At least the equal of something like this.” Tor grabbed her hand and pulled her over to the door at about mid-deck that held the stairs. It was a spiral set of steps, because Tor thought it was elegant, if slightly dizzy making, each looking like sturdy pieces of drift wood. So the look was eclectic? It gave it a bit more character than if the whole thing was just one style, right?

The rest of it was massive, now that he got a good look at it. It had five rooms in all, a restroom, done to look like warm wood and that had a pattern to it that made you feel like you were in a forest somewhere, the ceiling looking like trees with a daylight sky above. That was where the light came from, but it didn't change. He hadn't figured that part out yet, making the image move. The bathing chamber had a big tub, but it looked like it was made of clear glass. The shower next to it also had the same look. The walls did too, something he was particularly proud of.

“Obviously, we can see out, but even someone trying to look in will only ever see the side of the ship. I um, thought you might appreciate the risque aspect of it.”

She did, and wanted to show him just how much right then and there. Tor was tempted, but he kind of had something set up with Collette. When he admitted it, Petra just smiled at him and shook her head. She didn't push the issue though. Tor wondered if he should have done it anyway. It was so tempting, but felt wrong somehow.

Yes, it was wrong.

If he was in Two Bends.

Here having two women in a day was probably normal. He so needed to finish reading that book on manners Holly had lent him. It was probably covered in there. If not he needed to make up a list of questions and just grab someone to ask outright. Rolph would tell him. Or Rich maybe, if he really got desperate. If the poor man could find the time to talk about things that trivial to the kingdom.

Pet tested the water and then tasted it. It was pure, and cold. It didn't take her ten seconds to figure out how to set the water to what she liked, something far hotter than what Tor would have picked himself. Then she let it all out, checking the speed and action as it drained, seeming impressed.

“Another thing that would work well I think, just to carry around with you. Except, if I'm using it in public I wouldn't want it to look like clear glass. That has to make your butt spread in highly unflattering ways.” She tried to look at her own behind over her shoulder and laughed at the same time.

The next room he showed her was the kitchen, which she told him was the galley on a boat. It had an eating area right there divided by a serving counter towards the back of the boat. That section was decent sized as was the kitchen, the cooking part was all in black stone marbled with lightly glowing blue and orange, at least for the counter tops the rest was white stone that didn't glow at all, except for the ceiling, which gave off a decent approximation of sunlight. She liked the look, but pointed out that she could barely cook, no matter that he was providing magical instruments for it. Tor shrugged.

“But I can.” He said lightly. “It will give you a reason to take me with you when you go places. Part of the time at least.”

The dining area stopped her in her tracks.

“This is lovely Tor!”

It was, that's why he copied the look from the guest house dining room at the palace in the Capital. The walls were covered in green silk, the table in green linen. Everything else was wood of half a dozen different colors from deep cherry to blond pine. Really, lacking taste himself he feared, he'd done similar things with the next two rooms, if in his own way.

The big room had three sofas and four softly cushioned chairs. All done in white velvet and dark wood that almost looked black. There was a table to hold beverages near each, except a low bench like thing he'd gotten the idea for from the madam’s office at Wilderness Station. It looked good for a quick nap. It occurred to him then that a madam might have something like that for something other than dozing and blushed, but Petra seemed to like it.

The bedroom was just a nearly exact copy of a room he'd stayed in at the palace. Some wooden chairs, a polished cherry wood table covered in white and a bed that was still the biggest thing he'd ever seen the like of.

Until now.

This was bigger. It was nearly twice as wide as it was long, and it was ten feet long. It had a canopy over the top with gauzy curtains that could be drawn for privacy or maybe to set a mood. Given all the spies and eyes on you in the palace, Tor figured it was the first one there. Privacy. Seeing it now Tor felt like it was ridiculously over done, but Petra threw herself onto it and rolled.

“Whee!”

Crawling under the covered she squirmed.

“Silk sheets? God Tor, laundering these delightful monstrosities must be impossible…” She didn't look upset about it. Tor sighed and acted a little put upon, crossing his arms and shaking his head at her.

“Alright, out of bed now… Out!” He smiled when she scurried out, looking worried, as if he was mad about something instead of just being playful with her. He tapped the headboard sigil, a glowing hawk, and the bedding disappeared and came back, tightly made and pristine. That earned him a gasp.

Over time Tor was starting to get that there were different kind of gasps, some of them shocked and angry sounding, others just surprised and amazed. That was the one he was going for here. Petra jumped back in the bed and got under the covers again, squirmed and rolled to mess the whole thing up, which took some work, then she scrambled out like a little kid and hit the sigil to watch it all again.

Then his tall dark haired friend, who might, he realized, actually be his girlfriend, if so, the first he ever had, froze, her eyes going wide. She tugged hard at the sheet, pulling it free from the thick comforter on top of it and stood, draping the gold fabric around her shoulders, staring at it hard. She got it all the way off the bed and made sure it hung totally off the floor.

“Wait, this is… silk? But it isn't is it? It's a shield you said? Like the hull and the deck? Or the house? But it looks and feels real? That means we could use it to make clothes?” She actually bounced in place looking gleeful. “They'd be really expensive, but you could add special properties to them or something. They could change color and glow on demand. Or, I don't know, pleasure you with vibrations or something. I saw a device like that once, Martya's mom had it… That could be fun. Could you make them fit anyone though, or would they need to be sized to the individual? That's why clothes are so expensive really, that and how rare the best materials are. Oh, and shoes, or boots, could they be the same do you think? Hit one sigil and you're dressed for the day? Maybe more than one outfit per unit?” Petra stopped talking and went still.

Clothes making and design was her passion, and since this time she wouldn't be doing hand stitching, Tor kind of figured her plans might get a little elaborate. Well, if it made her happy, he could try. Maybe he could make the controls work to mental command or feedback? Then it would at least be practice for Trice’s arm. He really needed to make a study of limbs and how they worked mentally soon, as well as how they looked close up. He didn't think about it much, but he kind of thought that getting it wrong would really stand out. He started working on the feedback and mental control aspects of the clothing, which meant Petra came back to herself before he did.

Pulling his arm gently she guided him to the pilot house and slowly drove them back to the bay. They just took off from the deck flying the boat about ten feet out of the water before turning it off. Tor knew that Petra kind of wanted to put it in dock, to show off, but what was the point of having a magic boat you could carry around, if you didn't? Like with the houses he'd made. He had one around his neck even though there was one set up in the Wards yard. Well two, but he planned to leave the other for them to use as a guest house, since they seemed to like it well enough. Tiny magic house in the yard, what wasn't to like? They could put it away until needed even.

Tor looked at her fondly. Out of all the people he knew, she always seemed the most innocent. It could be taken as stupid by some, but they'd be wrong. Petra was clever in her fields, just like he did all right in his. But her heart was what impressed him. Trice was funnier, and Varley, well, pregnant out of wedlock or not, it wouldn't shock him to find out in the end that she was the smartest person he knew. Rolph was friendly and personable, when not trying to be the best heir to the throne ever. But then, did they want an heir that wasn't trying his best? Probably not.

Karina was… Tor drew a blank there. The only thing that came was that she was not to be underestimated. He'd try to keep that in mind, because it felt like a portent of some kind.

Tor wasn't even going to try and categorized the King. That would be stupid. The man hid everything so well. He'd ticked off Tor by making Trice betray him in public, but… Well, he could have had a reason that Tor would never know about, couldn't he?

The same went for Connie, who at least pretended to like him really well and would probably sleep with him to prove it. Which was why he couldn't trust her. Not really. Even if she did like him, he wouldn't be able to tell if she was just acting for some reason. Unless he read her field of course.

The idea stunned him for a moment. It felt… off. An invasion of privacy if nothing else. One that would work though.

They flew back in silence, but a companionable sort that reminded Tor of being home in the woods, when there was just one or two other people and you did nothing but hike and camp for a day. There was a peace to flying, the world seemed so small and it felt like you could deal with anything. Best of all was the quiet. The wind rushing past you made noise, but you were too far away to hear anything from the ground. Tor hadn't realized how much he appreciated silence, until he'd learned to fly.

That being the case, feeling so relaxed, Tor half expected to fly back to find a fight had broken out, or someone dead. All they found though was a party and people cleaning up for dinner. They landed close to one another on the front stoop of the house, white stone, marble he thought, just as the sun was dying. There was no one there, even though he normally would have preferred to land in a more open area.

Trice saw them and walked over looking smug and belligerent.

“So, where did you two get off to for three hours? Out counting the sand dunes?” Her voice wasn't slurring from drink, but it didn't sound happy. In fact it sounded a bit like she wanted to pick a fight. Her face looked like that too.

Oh goody.

Tor couldn't tell who with yet. He tilted his head, waiting to see what she'd say next, but Petra couldn't contain herself and burst out happily about their day and his gift.

“It's huge! Some of the rooms are nicer than the King’s palace in the Capital, or at least copies of it, and it goes so fast, for a ship I mean. Would you like to see it? We could go tomorrow. We could stay out for a night even, the bed is huge, I mean we have to share, but it's twenty feet wide and ten feet long. It looks ridiculous, but it's so soft and it forms to you perfectly. Ooh, and the bed? You hit a single sigil and it cleans and remakes itself, so no sleeping in the wet spot.” She grinned and tried to nudge Trice a little on the shoulder. But she dodged it easily and glared at Tor.

“So, trying out this new magic bed with your girlfriend? Was she good? Did she let you be on top so she didn't crush you or what? I see how things are. I lose my arm and suddenly I'm not good enough for you? Or you just never liked me at all, is that it? Not noble enough for you?” Her voice was getting higher pitched and fierce at the same time.

“Scored a Princess, so figured that nothing less than a Counserina will do? Is that it? Found out you were a Countier and now I'm not good enough for you?” She looked ready to cry.

Tor sighed, because he knew this probably didn't have anything to do with him at all, just anger at all she'd lost. Her arm, her comfort zone at school, her reputation and, just possibly, him. If she'd ever really cared about that. She'd said she loved him and meant it though, crazily enough. This didn't seem like it to him. Then Trice never did do anything the normal way. Too easy and predictable probably.

Tor opened his mouth to speak but Petra beat him to it again, and of course, said things that Tor never would have.

“Patricia… I didn't have sex with Tor, not today, because he has a meeting with Collette this evening and doesn't want to dishonor her by coming fresh from another woman’s bed, which is a bit old fashioned, but sweet, don't you think? And she's a Baronetta so you know he isn't getting silly about rank.” The large girl put her arm around Tor protectively, or tried too, her hand hovering over him like normal.

“Besides, we talked about you and you're definitely on his short list. He just doesn't know if you want to or not, so he's been hesitant to ask. Still, Collette has actual work stuff to do with him tonight and I do to, as soon as that's done. Then, if you're really interested, I suggest you get in line fast, because in case you haven't noticed, women aren't exactly in short supply around here, but people giving away free magical devices are. Plus, Tor is very good looking, pale and exotic. If he just yelled out that he was looking to meet ladies, they'd come just for that, don't you think?” Her voice never went mean but Trice glared at her, stamped her right foot hard on the stone once and stormed off.

Not knowing what to do he started to follow her but Petra moved in front of him and tilted her head a little to the right, shaking it.

“No Tor, don’t. She was trying to be bitchy because she's feeling down on herself. If you let that work for her now she'll just keep doing it. If you want to keep her as a friend, you have to stand up for yourself. She isn't allowed to push you around and you don't deserve that kind of thing. If she'd done it in private, maybe you could have comforted her about things, but going after you at a party? Classic manipulative bitch move. Now you're supposed to run to her and make her feel better, but if you do, that proves you're weak, and while she'd like it today, in a month or two you'll have no value to her at all. Women don't really like emotionally soft men. They think they do, but in the end they really want a protector, not a slave.”

That made Tor blink. He'd… never considered anything like that at all.

So, taking her advice, even though he was still worried about his other friend, he went and got something to eat. Mainly fish tonight, but cooked, thank goodness, with a strange starchy vegetable that was covered with sugar burnt to a kind of caramel. Everyone else acted like it was fantastic, but Tor didn't get it at all. Still, people seemed happy and danced a lot. Instead of dancing, Tor decided to just go back to his little house and wait for Collette, who was still busy with some pretty good looking guys.

Well, if she forgot, Tor could just work on the controls for various kinds of clothing, right? In the end, after about an hour of waiting and working out how to do it, it hit home that even a house could use feedback like that. It could be used to add rooms, doors, hallways to join various areas as well as add multiple levels. It couldn't dig in, so no basement or cellar, but still… He could even let people pick the outer and inner colors. Or add and subtract furniture… It was massively more complex than what he had already, but if he did the work carefully and in a deep enough state, could he have it all in a day? It would take that risky work state again, but mastery didn't come with a promise of safety, did it?

Thinking back to school he couldn't remember anyone ever telling him that.

Hard work, sacrifice, sobriety, and dedication. That had all been mentioned in class, but no talk of safety in particular. Not for the builder. Tor rubbed his head, the long black hair getting in the way. Nope, risk was a part of life. He'd try it. Tor would be careful and plan first, but if he didn't try then he wouldn't know if it was possible.

When Collette did show, about two hours later, she came walking in with Martya, who carried a plain tan wooden box, the flimsy looking kind people sold fruit in. Smiling the dark skinned woman, shorter by a good four inches than the Baronetta moved to the table and took a seat easily, his blond friend did the same with a grin. Well, this was unexpected, wasn't it?

“Time to divvy up sir! Shall I count or…” The look she had was one that spoke of people not trusting her as a rule in business, probably because she was a whore. Well, Tor wasn't like that, he smiled and gestured to her to go ahead.

Tor wondered about that, feeling naughty for a bit. If you couldn't trust someone with gold, why the hell would you put your manhood that close to their teeth? The piles of coins, mainly silver and gold, with a few coppers thrown in, were sorted first by kind. There were twenty gold coins, but turned out to be nearly fifty gold worth of silver and two silver in coppers. Seventy gold wasn't bad for a day’s work.

Then, not making eye contact she started to divide the coins, taking fifteen percent of them for herself, leaving him the rest. Her head hung slightly and she winced when he spoke, even though his voice was gentle and calm.

“That's not the split I had in mind, Martya. Here, let me show you, it's easier than explaining. It's different…” He split the pile three ways, but the first pile held half the coins, the next two were evenly divided. The woman smiled and licked her lips.

“I get twenty five percent? But… Who gets the other bit?” She pointed at the other pile of twenty five percent and glanced at Collette. It seemed meaningful to him.

Heh.

Tor shook his head again.

“No, you get fifty percent of the daily take. I get the first twenty-five percent, and the last is to help out other people in the area, mainly to get on their feet if they need it, or start new businesses. Kids just starting out, or people that have a good idea. Or in case people lose a house or business. Whatever you think sounds like it might work. I may have some new devices, or even old ones, that people can use for that, like a fleet of the new fishing boats or, I don't know what else, some basic tools? Cutters or the like? This money is to help out other people though. If you really need it, just use the money, but get with me first if you can. If you want a palace, it may be cheaper to buy the land and then get me to help with construction for instance. Or… at least I may know people, you know? That kind of thing. I'm not going to be here most the time, so the whole thing is on your honor.” Tor jumped up and got her a shield, a good one, but not the best kind, remembering his promise to himself to keep those so that people hunting him didn't have easy access for testing. That had been what Smythe had done, he was sure. Gotten his own shield and then tried different things until he found a gap.

Never again.

“This way you won't be easily jumped or attacked. I should be in and out here for a while though. Just keep my share for me? If you spend it all, expect me to come begging for food at your door if I'm ever broke.” Tor raised his eyebrows playfully and grinned. He meant it though. The whole begging for scraps at her door thing.

The woman looked shocked and repeated everything he said verbatim, sounding a bit doubtful. He smiled and nodded with her though and by the time she finished she was smiling too. Then he warned her about shields and how they only worked if you used them. And really, if she got so drunk that she lost consciousness and left her shield off to drink, those guys would probably get her, and she'd wake up with a sore behind, since they seemed to have been just waiting for her to make a mistake before. Possibly other women as well, but Tor couldn't hand out shields to all the women of Ward. Not with a war on. They were needed elsewhere for now.

She winced.

“Yeah, you'd think I'd learn after the first four times, but I keep right on drinking. I'll cut back though, I promise. Half the drinking was because I wasn't happy with my job, this is way nicer, and I get to help people too. We may need to buy a location though. Any minute now the counts going to wake up and realize that he could be charging us rent!”

That, they decided, could come out of his share. Rent or new land. Why not?

Martya left, her hips dancing a little as if to the saucy beat of the music outside, though Tor didn't hear it until she opened the door to leave.

Collette watched him as he locked the door and sat back down, her eyes never leaving him, attention riveted. She had some design ideas with her that they looked at, which made Tor realize that even the King’s palace or the big house next to them, as grand as they were, could have been improved upon if the design team had included her. Their loss of course. There was enough there for ten houses, but that could work, if the mental controls could be made to do all he wanted… Actually he could just do it with sigils, but he had something else to design. A hand just wouldn't work well if it required sigils to function would it?

They went room to room with her describing as exactly as she could what she meant. Tor listened and tried to absorb it all, making sure he asked questions if he wasn't completely certain about something. It wasn't that hard, but things like textures and color options were important. They did the bathroom last and she pointed out how the tub could move in different ways and how movable screens could be used to make the space more cozy for a couple, or even more if that's what they wanted.

The tub could be made to grow or shrink on command he realized, something else to put in if he could. It was a lot of new information, plus different textures and colors, it could glow too… Interesting enough things.

He heard something behind him, a rustling of fabric, which got him to turn just as Collette finished removing her undergarments.

“Run us a bath, would you?” She asked, her legs spread a bit, so that he'd notice their long beauty and how they led all the way up to the blond hair between.

He did. Tor noticed all of her really. Very much so.

The next day was nice, since he woke up with a lovely woman in his arms and then was able to start right in to work on the project for her as soon as she left. It didn't take as long as he thought, which meant he'd gone deep. In a lot of ways he couldn't remember even doing the work. Tor knew he had though. It was there and held his mental field signature, so no one else did it for him while he wasn't looking. Then, that's pretty much what states that deep meant, right? It was a different part of his being doing the work. To his conscious plan, but it wasn't the Tor everyone knew really. It was the deep him. In many ways the real Tor.

At dinner he ate a decent amount not really noticing the food overly and then collected the Baronetta, as well as a crowd of people that wanted to see what he'd made. Laughing he told them he hoped it wasn't just a huge failure, making them go silent instead of chuckle. Tor covered by clearing people from a space and then turning the new little house on.

It worked wonderfully and Collette wasn't the only one to squeal and clap when the inside was revealed. When Tor asked first Collette and then other people to touch objects and start picking new colors people became ecstatic, clapping and stomping as if it were a show instead of a simple field test. Then he explained how to alter the decor by touching it and imagining what you wanted. What you got was almost always different than what you thought about, because the design had to be in the device, but it did work well enough for each room to be changed to suit a person’s needs.

They added rooms first then several stories to it and finally changed how the outside looked, through different types of stone, brick and wood. The roof was always the same in look, a steeple with tile shingles, but the colors could be changed from the ground. They could do other angles of course, but this way he could see it. Once they had what people thought looked nice, Tor shut the field off.

This was the real test. If it worked right, everything would come back as they were left. It was a hard field to add, almost a kind of intelligence, but just memory. To Tor’s relief it worked perfectly. That would be useful for Trice’s project too. The integration the amulet learned could be saved for later, so if she took it off, it wouldn't have to be relearned all over again each time.

Petra's clothing device was, well not simple, but doable after that. It took two days, being much more in-depth and flexible than a mere house, so that people could basically build their own outfit from scratch, even creating almost any outfit they could imagine. Still when he came to the surface no one seemed upset by his “absence”. Oddly that cheered him up a little. It meant that when he left in a few days no one would worry about it too much. He'd taken enough time “off” for now and had to get the investigation going somehow.

That meant Smythe.

Wheee.

Maybe he should go find Dorgal Sorvee and see if the boy wanted to apprentice with the older man? They could sit around making complicated plans to “get” him or something. Maybe Dorgal could act as his hand or something?

That reminded him that he should probably ask Trice if she wanted to go with him to the Capital too. She hadn't spoken to him in days, but then, if she had something to say, she knew not to be shy, didn't she? It wasn't like her to try and wait to say anything. Not if she cared at all. Maybe she didn't? She didn't seem happier here, the girl didn't seem like she wanted to be anywhere, just sad all the time. If it was just her arm, well, yeah, that wasn't good. Tor knew he needed to work harder on that for her, but there was a lot to learn first. If it was him…

Well, he didn't have to be around if that would make things better for her, did he? Still, they were friends and he'd ask at least. Even if she didn't answer. Because that's what you did for your friends, you were there for them, no matter what.

Even if they were being a pain in the ass.

The morning they were to leave Collette mentioned that she'd like to travel with him, since she had some things to do back in the Capital. She made this pretty plain by showing up with her bags in tow. She had old fashioned flight plates for them, but no follow-alongs. He'd have to make sure he got her some. It made navigating the city much easier. He hadn't made any for a while though. Not since the batch he'd made for the shop keepers in Printer.

Collette cleared her throat a little, and looked nervous about something. Since they'd already had sex and she'd made a point of inviting him for it again, that didn't make a lot of sense. After about ten seconds she looked down and back up, taking a breath.

“Actually Tor… I guess I should just ask… Could… we set up the same type of operation that you have with Martya, only there? In the Capital? I think that ice sales would do as well there as here, maybe better and I could get a little land near the Kings river to use as a water source, but not too far away from the city for the ice to reach daily. I'd like to try anyway. I know that I might seem a bit air-headed at times, but I'm a hard worker, diligent and well educated, if not in business. Running a home or keep takes-”

“OK.” Tor didn't wait, he dug out the proper amulets and went over how to set them up, promising to help if he could. It was a good idea. That he hadn't thought of it probably meant that she was smarter than he was, that or he was incredibly preoccupied.

It even made sense, once she explained it, why she wanted to try. Gold. Not just riches, but so that she could live on her own and choose her own life. Marriage was fine, of course, but if she didn't marry soon her father was going to get a little prickly with her, she feared. Possibly cutting her allowance. That would force her hand and since noble women outnumbered the men three to two, it would be better if she could take her time, be a little picky, and this would let her try. In addition, for right now she had an allowance to fall back on if it didn't work.

“Plus, a wife that can also work in the business world is a lot more attractive to noble men than not. It will really up my personal value if I have something like this going on, even if it doesn't make a lot. Most women past the merchant class are helpless in the real world.” She looked incredibly determined.

It looked good on her, Tor thought, nodding.

He sighed and gave her a hug, which didn't seem to displease. When he pulled back he smiled softly and blinked, already feeling too tired to face the day as early as it was. At least he'd already packed up and was just waiting for whoever was going with him. Petra said she wanted to come, to check in with Kolb if nothing else. Trice had just shrugged when he asked her, not even bothering to say no. He felt horrible for her, but had no clue how to fix things, if it was even his place to try. He'd make an overture and she just rejected it time and time again. Now he was starting to want to write her off himself. She'd gone along with the King, her uncle, in hurting him for months, making him feel like he was barely human. Tor still felt that way really. She claimed, or had, to love him, but she wasn't showing it now. Yes, she was in a bad place emotionally, but how had that become about him? He didn't cut her arm off or set off that death dust bomb. He hadn't said bad things about her in public or made up lies just to hurt her.

So what did she want from him? Honey walnut rolls and tales of undying love? By Two Bends tradition she should be the one coming up with the rolls, to show her culinary skills, since they were a little hard to make. At least for girls that didn't grow up in a bakery.

The undying love would have been implicit by them getting married which would have happened if she hadn't started claiming he probably liked little boys for sex in public. Tor was just about ready to let her go totally when both she and Petra came out, their luggage following nicely, about a foot off the ground.

“Hi everyone! Ready to go? Got everything you need? Have to use the restroom first?” The darker girl chirped happily.

Smiling Tor said he was fine, and Collette greeted Petra with a hug, looking pleased.

“I asked and he said yes! I didn't even have to beg. You were right Petra, he really is wonderful!” She turned and hugged Trice and then Tor in turn.

“It's so wonderful! Wait till daddy hears, he'll be so pleased, I just know he will.”

Collette kept on in this manner for a while until finally Trice snapped and started yelling at her.

“Well good for you, bitch, why don't you just rub in how wonderful it is that Tor agreed to marry you some more. I'll bet your fathers going to be happy! You might as well be bringing home Prince Alphonse! Hell, Tor will make him more money and probably smarter grandkids to boot, so no worries there. Big fucking deal. Everyone gets engaged to Tor, but they never stay engaged, you know why? Because no one human can live up to the example he sets. Your County is on fire? No worries, Tor will save you, flying out of nowhere with an army of warriors. Storm destroys your city? Miracle boy to the rescue. Poor little whore's family going to lose the farm? Here have the money, oh, no, you don't have to pay me back or have sex with me, no debts between friends…

“Holly Printer stole millions of golds worth of stuff from him and what does he do? He just brushes it off like it's nothing and starts rebuilding from scratch and does it with nothing more than some rocks on a beach! So yeah, great catch, but just know, you're never going to be able to live with yourself, no matter how hard you push or how much you lose. A new magic every day, but notice, there’s no new arm for me, is there? Why is that? Right, because Tor's distracted by his new piece of ass.” She snarled at Petra too, being the inclusive girl she was.

“Sorry, pieces of ass. So, do you all have threesomes yet? Or is it just one on one?”

He blinked and looked around at everyone else they all looked a bit upset, Tor could see that.

“Threesomes? I… is that a thing? How does… It sounds… interesting, thanks for the idea. Now if you'll let someone else get a word in-”

She wouldn't. The next five minutes became a harangue of nearly epic proportions, with her abusing Tor enough that both Petra and Collette looked ready to hit her. The only thing was that, when he finally focused on her and found her field, she wasn't mad at all. Not even a tiny bit. She felt a little amused and very scared. Of him. Not Petra, who'd already triggered her shield and was holding a force lance in her right hand covertly. It took digging for him to figure out what was going on, she was acting, but couldn't tell him about it, because of the watchers. Right. More royal intrigue bull droppings.

It took an act of will to suppress the sigh he felt, then he decided not to, what was he supposed to do here? He kept his mind still and stared at her, face blank, until she stopped talking, nearly two minutes later. It took him a while to work out that she was looking to get him to explode, but hopefully without violence. Well, he didn't explode. Not generally. Maybe once or twice, if he was honest about it, but never all that violently. Maybe some yelling. He shook his head at her and grinned. But it was a nasty grin, one that seemed filled with rage, if he'd gotten it right.

It was Kolb's grin, the one that said he wasn't really amused at all and would be kicking your behind shortly if you didn't start running. Apparently he'd gotten it right, or at least close, since Trice went white.

“Shut up, Trice.” He said quietly. It was as close to menacing as he could get without holding a weapon on someone, so not very, but she did go quiet at least.

“You have to make this all about you, don't you?… but you're too stupid to see that it already is, aren't you?”

She winced. It was an overreaction to the words, but she was clearly playing off of what he gave her.

“What do you mean?” That at least seemed genuine, was genuine, Tor could feel it resonate through her. It wasn't exactly mind reading the way he'd thought of it from stories and such. He kind of knew what she was getting at, feeling and thinking, but it wasn't in words or anything, just field states.

“What do I mean? Well, let's see…” Tor angrily held up his right hand and started counting on his thumb. “First, making solid looking objects, like houses and boats, with complex devices embedded within them. Second, feedback and mental control in the all latest stuff, the new houses and clothes, even where simple sigils could have worked. Third, working in dangerously deep states so that I can get things done faster for complex projects that otherwise would have taken too long to survive. Do you think that's all just to impress people or get laid?” He spun to look at Petra and Collette.

“Totally worth it if it was, but there was more the whole time…”

Trice swallowed and her feet shifted uneasily.

“But-” She didn't get to finish.

“But nothing! All of those are parts, just the tiniest pieces, of what I need to make you a new freaking arm! So, yeah, I can't grow a new one for you. Know anyone that can? I tried! Three times I tried, and can't make it work. So I'm planning to make you a new one! It's not the same, I know that, but most people get nothing more than a metal hook, or even go without anything at all! So, sorry if I'm not perfect enough to do it instantly, but don't try and act for a second that it isn't all about you! Almost every second of every day I've been working on this.”

Tor spun away then so that he wasn't facing her any more, letting an angry look come over his face that was probably closer to despondent than mad. Tears came to his eyes too, but he didn't let them fall, wiping at them covertly. He wouldn't let her see him cry normally, so he wouldn't now either.

“If you were my real friend you would have figured that out by now, or at least asked. And what's with this bitchy acting all jealous now? Do you really think I don't get what's going on with you and the Wards? Or is it just Maria? I'm fine with it though, because you're my friend. If that's what you want, I'll back you. But me… I'm supposed to be alone forever because you don't want me to be happy or whatever? Remember, you were the one that said those things that made us break up in the first place.”

Tor sucked in a large breath and readied himself to take off, “stupid bitch.”

Then he flew away, not looking back. He flew for about half an hour before even looking behind him to see if Petra and Collette had followed, which they had, but, as she'd planned all along no doubt, Trice had stayed behind, probably crying loudly in that faked up way she had, or raging around. Whatever would catch the most attention without seeming phony. After three and a half hours Tor landed by a river to wait for the others to catch up. There were some early season berries growing on bushes, so he collected some as a snack while he waited. They were a little tart, but still good.

The blackberries were collecting up nicely in the bowl he pulled from his luggage, since he'd made some for his little Not-house. The term hit him suddenly and he liked it, but doubted it would catch on at all. Like how everyone called the Not-flyers “Tor-shoes” even though it made him cringe a little when he heard it. Tor shoes were what he wore on his feet and nothing overly special. Well, except that today the black leather was actually a shield, and he could change the shape and color considerably by imagining what he wanted. They could even glow in different colors of light on demand. But those were Tor-shoes.

The girls had given him a good lead, nearly ten minutes, closer to fifteen, and landed slowly as if they expected him to attack or something. Tor grinned and asked a question that had been bothering him for a bit.

“Collette… how old are you?” He said, his voice not accusing or anything, it was a bit of a rude question normally, but she looked about his age, eighteen or so, but he thought she might have been a bit older than that. Royals looked young.

She winced but told him anyway, her pretty face turning a little red.

“Twenty-two.”

He nodded.

“And you went to Lairdgren? What section were you in, the special school?” It made sense, now that he thought about it, but Petra stayed blank.

“Yes…” She said tightly.

Ah. Well, she knew that he knew and all that, it seemed. Tor decided to take a chance then. Petra was a Ward, but also in the King’s service, if in a more secret capacity than Collette was and that was still pretty darn secret. Enough so that no one had told Tor at least. This intrigue stuff was way too complicated, but it was part of his world now, so he needed to bumble through it as he could.

“I was reading Trice's field back there. It's not… not mind reading or anything, but I can kind of get the idea of what a person’s thinking in a way, a little bit. She wanted me to do that. Someone was watching, I think.” Tor held up his hand and waved it a little.

“Not that what I said wasn't true. I really have been working on making her a new arm like I said. Also, really, she was being a bitch. I just wanted you both to know that I think she was just pretending to that part and didn't really mean it, so that you know how to respond properly in the future.” Grinning he added something else.

“Plus so you know I'm not actually flying around ready to kill people or something. Want some berries?”

The rest of the flight was more relaxed at least, even if Tor spent some time worrying about Trice and leaving her alone there. If there were watchers that she felt she needed to fool like that, to show that they weren't on the same side totally, then they could be a danger to her. She had an updated shield and weapon at least, if she remembered to use them.

Was it the Wards? Maria and Marvin had both apologized, but words didn't have a lot of weight or bulk for royals, he was coming to learn. They could have something in the works, easily. In fact, even if they really meant it and were innocent, they probably did have a plan ready to go. Tor wouldn't have put his life in the hands of someone that had no reason to like him, not without a back-up of some kind, why should they? Just like Holly obviously intended to attack Ward the second they didn't fall into line exactly. It was part of why she got to keep all the devices she'd “borrowed” and why the King put David Derring in as a trainer for her forces. Probably at least.

Was there a book out there called “Pointlessly Complicated Plots” to go with “Manners”? If so he needed to read that one too, didn't he? The most complicated collusion he'd ever been in on was a surprise birthday party for his little sister Tiera four years before. Oddly enough that didn't really seem to prepare him for the world he'd ended up in.

Or did it?

The basics seemed similar, not letting the person that was the objective really know what you were doing, acting sooner, or even later he supposed, than the person expected and getting other people to go along with you in secret. Were there parts to all this plotting that he could learn, a basic frame work, like what he used for the healing device, that everything had in common maybe? He'd have to examine the idea if he ever got a chance. It all seemed silly to him, all the plotting and complicated plans where a simple and honest one would work as well, but if it was the tradition for the nobles, what could they do about it? Now that he was a noble too, he'd just have to learn, that was all.

There was, Collette assured him, an area outside the town where the temporary market was set up for bulk goods just outside the wall, not too far from the river, where they could “camp” for the time being for a modest fee. If they set up, the fee collectors would be out with the guard to get the silver per week rent, which they were allowed to pay for as long as they wanted, though the space was nearly empty this time of year. It was a dry dusty zone without even a well, but the river really wasn't far off, so Tor picked a space out of the flood zone and set up a house and an ice making device before going off to see to his business in town.

Not that he was dragging his feet, trying to put off the uncomfortable visit he had to make.

Nope, definitely not that.

He left the girls to set up the house as they liked and gave them twenty golds to use to set up rent if needed. When he left they were out piling up blocks of ice into a little castle shape. People were coming out to look even before Tor buzzed towards the city using his Not-flyer. Ice festival part two? It made him grin. The idea was great for promotions, and really, it wasn't like it cost them anything to do it. The place could use the cheering up.

It was something that he hadn't quiet admitted to himself before, but Tor really didn't like the Capital much. At first he'd thought it was the heat, but he didn't feel that now, and hadn't felt that way in Printer or Warden, which were as hot and humid too, which should have been even worse. No, it was all the bad things that had happened to him there. Being abandoned to wonder the streets, being attacked by commandos and left blind, the emotional ripping and tearing that always seemed associated with it too. Not really knowing who he could trust. Even Rolph was more suspect than he'd ever imagined at school.

It just made him sad.

What didn't was that, as he floated quickly down the street, having come through the south gate, he could smell a bakery nearby. One that, when he saw it, Tor recognized. Debbie's. He'd worked there for about three days once, before fleeing the city, not knowing if the King and Queen hated him and were spurning him at their gates on purpose or not. They'd claimed it was all an accident, but given the intrigue they went in for, that was suspicious. Could he trust anything they said? Well, he could if he tried to read the truth, or lie, in their words.

It felt low and un-trusting of him, but then… it was.

So at least there was that.

On a whim Tor stopped at the bakery door and went in. He probably didn't look that different, though his clothes had been made green, they reflected a simple silk look that was at once expensive looking and plain enough that no one would think he robbed a young Countier or something.

The woman behind the counter looked up with a smile but clearly didn't recognize him at first. On the wall there was a temperature control plate and the whole interior had been redecorated, with lights all around and Tor noticed, a new door, expanding into the shop next door? Cool! The little shop was growing then. He felt a little better, since last King’s week he'd run off and left her in a bit of a lurch, which wasn't fair of him at all. He'd left her some money and some field devices to make up for it, and sent some later with the lights, but it had left a bad taste in his mouth at the time, even through the rest of the misery he'd felt. That she'd made do… it made things easier.

Tor smiled and poked his head into the space next door, which had an empty glass topped display case for goods and some tables where customers could sit and eat in the cool, several people were busy using it for that at the moment. It was a good idea. Not everyone could afford their own temperature plates, or knew him to get personal ones to wear, but for the price of a roll they could get out of the heat for a while here.

There was a stirring behind him, a rustle of fabric and a scent of vanilla before he turned around.

“The magical Tor devices are all sold sir, but we do have some baked goods…” Her voice was diffident, but Tor smiled when he turned.

Right, so she had a store front for magical devices, but was all out? That could be fixed. He wondered if she'd take the same sales deal that Ethyl and Clark had. Without preamble Tor mentioned it, her face looking shocked as she put it all together.

“Tor! I…” He found himself wrapped in a hug, or at least her arms tried for it, she stood back eyes wide, but not commenting on the shield.

“I never thought to see you again! How are you?” The voice was worried, but not scared.

Debbie still reminded him of his older sister Terlee, straight black hair, thin, but not raw boned about it, and with brown eyes that looked happier now than they had last time. Her clothing was a good bit nicer too, but then his sister had started dressing the royal, which she was, so Debbie couldn't compete there, not yet.

“Right, well, so far it looks like I'm not kicked out of the city, though people keep trying to kill me since we last met. So, if you want I can bring some things for you to sell in a few days? Sooner if I get a chance to work. But well, palace stuff, you know? Who knows how that's going to go.” Tor grinned and looked down. “If they don't refuse me at the gate again, but right now I almost hope they do. I'll make up some things for you and come work in your bakery for King’s week. I mean if you'll have me of course, after the way I dodged out on you last time. I… feel really bad about that. I'm sorry.”

Tor wondered if he should kneel and beg forgiveness like some of the royals did when they really messed up, but Debbie didn't seem to require that of him, she snorted instead.

“Tor… you left me enough to keep me as a Princess for the rest of my life! If anyone should apologize it should be me for not realizing who you were sooner, I… sir…” She curtsied.

“Cut it out Debbie. I'm your employee or maybe, now, partner in half the shop? Without ownership of course, which makes you the boss still, so I'm pretty sure you don't curtsy to me at all. If anything I should bow to you, but I won't, because I think were good enough friends to skip all that. Right?”

Tor got a beef hand pie and ate it there before saying his goodbyes and heading out to the palace to face Smythe. It was funny but that was the part that worried him now. If Varley couldn't, or no longer wanted to, marry him he'd deal. After all, he had experience with bad relationships now.

The military minister, that was a different horse all together. Normally he'd have left him blind and crippled, just for his own safety, possibly even suggested he be removed far off to a country estate where it would be harder to plot against him. Even if he had to pay for it himself. Tor wouldn't put a blind man in prison though and wouldn't suggest it. He'd been blind for a bit. It was its own prison. You could deal with it, but it made greater punishment too much.

It was scary to him anyway. Smythe was needed, for the Wards to feel comfortable if nothing else, and possibly for everyone else too as well. But Tor still shook a little at the idea of facing the evil man again.

Chapter ten

The gate guard recognized him at least, though Tor still had to wait for someone to come and confirm it was him. It was a good safety procedure, he had to admit. What if he was just made up to look like Tor? It wouldn't be that hard to find a short man, or even a boy, with black hair and pale skin, and the guards probably didn't know him so well that something like that might not fool them. He'd worked with Debbie for three whole days and she hadn't gotten who he was immediately, so having him vetted just made sense.

Normally Varley had the job, and once or twice he'd seen Karina do it, but today Rolph came out, smiling.

“Tor! There you are. We've been expecting you for days now, ever since Varley got back. Come in, come in. Oh…” The gate guard hadn't moved out of the way.

“I confirm this is Master Tor, Torrance Baker. The Builder. Troll of Galasia and font of wonderfulness. Cutie of the masses and all around great guy.”

Laughing, the guard got out of the way. Royal Guards creeped Tor out sometimes. Most of the time if he was honest about it. They'd smile and laugh at a joke, sometimes even bad jokes and seemed to really mean it, but if Tor had moved to hit Rolph or even hug him too fast, the guard would have done everything he could to stop him, and barring being able to do that would have fought to the death so that the Prince could run away. If they weren't collectively the best fighters in the kingdom it was only because of the new group Kolb had started and that they were better armed. Well, really, that he'd had Kolb start. The point was that Tor really didn't want to have to fight them if he could help it. Then he didn't want to fight anyone, if it was at all possible.

They walked in chatting, Tor updating the Prince quickly as to what had happened, not leaving much out. He added the stuff with Trice, but left out that he knew she was faking it, in case of listeners. He did add that he was seeing Petra and Collette and that he'd be a little upset if Rolph stole them both away with his good looks and princely charms. Not that both weren't worth trying to steal, he added, trying to be playful, just that Rolph could get a lot of women if he wanted…

“Um, sure I can. All the serving girls from the palace that I want. Except that most of them are either way to old, or far too young for me. Or men, which isn't my thing, not mainly, though a few here are starting to look kind of cute… At least when I was at Wilderness Station I had Sara around. She won't even visit with me now you know, too worked up about you leaving. Thinks I made you leave, which isn't fair really. What was I supposed to do, order you to stay around a bunch of people you'd just been fighting with? You were fresh off a combat rage the day before, and already been fighting that day again, the whole thing could have gone lethal in an instant. Displace hundreds of people so that your bruised ego wouldn't hurt so much? I mean, you weren't wrong. It is your house and you still own it, but I couldn't order all those men, vital to the war effort, out into the wastelands to fend for themselves. Even if I did kind of want to at the time. Jerks.”

Looking around shiftily the Prince leaned in to him.

“If the guards here did that to me, I'd do the same thing… Only less effectively and probably end up dead, you know? Though part of that is that we have better quality guards here. Not just that I'm a wimp. Just so you understand of course.” Rolph gave him a half smile and tried to keep his face blank. It didn't really work too well and they both ended up chuckling a bit.

Ending up dead led to the topic of Smythe and how everyone wanted him for the investigation, which meant an audience with the King before Tor did anything, if only to buy him time to work his nerve up. Rolph didn't have to ask him what he meant by that at least. One of the benefits of being long term friends. They knew each other.

Before they went in to see the King, Tor dropped into a receptive state and held his focus as open as possible. It was… not a good thing to do, but he was getting tired of not knowing who to trust. The hard part would be keeping his reactions seeming normal and lively enough. Facial expressions became subdued in almost any trance state after all, body language too. Tor pulled his features into a small grin as he walked into the room, letting his smile grow larger when he saw the Queen, who looked at least as pretty as ever, even with her new short hair, that didn't really suit her at all.

Both of them were uneasy to see him, that was clear, it was also pretty easy to see that was about Varley and her being pregnant. Tor bowed a little to each, which he didn't normally do, but this wasn't a pleasure call, they needed to be alert to that or it would waste time. Tor wanted to waste time, true, but it wouldn't due to waste the King’s. He started right in, his breath catching as he did, trance state or not.

“The Wards think Smythe of Westend is their only hope, and when they heard he was left blind and crippled, they kind of gave up.” He sighed. “I need to talk to him I guess. I can't fix the hand, I could have at the time, but I was busy, you know? The eyes, well, I've done that. I think I can with him, if that's all right? He'll have to…” Tor shook his head, both the King and Queen was too surprised to speak.

They both thought he was going to call for his death.

That made Tor blink. He'd never thought to call for that at all. Would that have even worked? Not a real point now, was it?

“I don't know. Making him apologize means nothing. He wouldn't have done it if he didn't think it was important, right? But really, I don't want to die just yet, so if maybe he could lay off? I… fuck it.” Tor blinked realizing the language he'd just used in front of the Queen ducking his head he apologized.

“Sorry, I meant to say; fuck it, your majesties. Let my manners slip for a second there. Won't happen again.” The surprise got a chuckle from them both.

“I'll fix him if he wants it. We need to talk though, I guess, which I don't really want to do. The man hates me enough to want me dead after all. I have no idea how this conversations going to go. I think I'll leave him blind for it, so that I have a fighting chance if he freaks out on me. I guess I should get to that now?”

Rich looked at him and nodded, obviously feeling… proud? Of him? Why? Because he was willing to face his personal nightmare head on? No…

It was because he was letting go of the attempt on his life for the greater good. Heh, well, who wouldn't? No matter who you were, avoiding a war was worth more than your own safety, comfort, or even life. Even the Wards agreed with him on that score, how could he do less?

The feeling from Rolph was calm, and not at all surprised that Tor would do this. It was the kind of thing he expected from his friend. That made him smile a bit. Before he could ask for directions to where Smythe was staying Connie reluctantly raised her right hand a bit, then higher, trying to catch his attention, even though she really didn't want to say the words she had to, knowing it would hurt him more than a little. She projected this so loudly that Tor picked it up without half trying. So it was something she really thought of as important.

“There's been a change in plans regarding Varley's… and your engagement. It's nothing to do with you of course, but… well, we need to marry her to Count Peterson for political reasons… It's…”

He shrugged, which made her stop suddenly and stare.

“Because she's pregnant, it obviously isn't mine and you need a rather tall and dark skinned royal to fill in for the real father…” The pieces flowed together, the baby even felt like him, even though the idea nearly floored him. But an offer of a dalliance had been made, before the engagement, Varley had told him that the very first time they'd met to talk. At a public dinner no less, so it wasn't that secret or anything. She’d said that she'd refused, but royals lied. A lot. Like breathing for everyone else. Or maybe she'd just refused the last in a line of offers from the man? Ah… That could be it.

“Count Ward.” It wasn't a question, Tor knew it as much as he knew that the sun would rise in the morning or that, barring magic, things tended to fall down.

Well, freaking heck.

That got a reaction from the Prince, shock, surprise and rage. So he hadn't been in on it at least.

“What? He… he defiled my baby sister? I'll… I'll kill him!” He moved as if he was about to fly off to County Ward right then and there and do just that.

Tor put a hand out towards him and so did the Queen.

“She told you, did she?” The King said, not sounding overly amused, but not really angry. Not inside. He felt… worried.

The Queen’s eyes went huge, but she remained quiet and watched her son for signs of combat rage, which didn't happen. In a way, Rolph was within his brotherly rights by both Tor’s country logic and the rules of the nobles. Ward had no business doing anything with a Princess that could get her pregnant when he was already married. It was stupid and he should have known better. Even if he wanted to have her, he should have used precautions or not done it at all. How the man kept getting otherwise intelligent women pregnant Tor didn't know. If they were serving girls it would have been different. First Rolph's fiancee and then his little sister…

Oh.

Maria. How had she done it? Obviously by guiding her husband into things, that made sense. Tor explained the situation as gently as he could. It was… Insanely complex, but Maria had felt scorned by the Prince even though he hadn't done anything overly wrong by their rules, and humble apology to Tor or not, she'd never mentioned letting go of her personal campaign against Rolph. After all, he told them, in her mind the Prince was the evil Doretta and she was the noble Count Wylde, rising in power and coming to make him pay any way she could. She could never rise high enough to punish him directly though, could she? So she was using other means.

Gods it was convoluted.

The King saw it first. Somewhere inside he had more information than the rest of them did. Something Tor had said was incomplete, but it was close. Enough so that the man looked at the tiny builder in front of him with secret amazement. Tor nearly laughed when he realized that the man was wondering if Tor had a spy network in place.

Shaking his head he looked at the King directly and smiled. “No. I work with fields, with magic. Everything is made up of information, and I have to know how to read it, don't I? Any good builder can do it, but, well, I just started. Too much is happening and I'm too far out of my depth not to read people if I can.”

The Queen was puzzled and Rolph too angry to notice the words completely but Richard just let his eyes widen fractionally.

“I see.” Then the King’s mind went blank.

Tor bowed a little, and smiled. It was a good trick and one that he'd use himself if a similar situation ever came up. He looked at the Prince and bowed to him too, which got everyone’s attention.

“I'm not good at complex plotting and planning, but I think that you should send at least a letter to Maria and explain things, maybe apologize for hurting her feelings, even though it wasn't your intent? She got on her knees, in public, and begged my forgiveness for what she did, even nearly getting me killed. And I'm about to go and beg Smythe of Westend to let me heal him because the kingdom needs it, even if he'll probably kill me for leaving him crippled as soon as he can manage it. It seems like a good day for begging and groveling all around, doesn't it?”

Rolph raged inside for a full minute, for a second Tor thought he was really going to lose it and hit him, or try to at least, but he calmed and knelt instead after a while, bowing until his head touched the floor with a soft thunk.

“Then let me start here. I didn't know it at the time, but my actions set in motion very bad things for you. I should have realized it and made corrections, but I was too blind, too stupid to see it. I-”

“Oh get up. There's no debt's between friends and besides, if you could have taken any of what happened on yourself to spare me, I know you would have. Now let's get that apology out before Maria manages to get Karina and your mom pregnant too, shall we?”

Mirth flowed then, even though he hadn't meant it to be funny. Did they think that she couldn't do it? She was far more clever than Tor had thought and she'd been around him a lot over the last week, even though he'd kept his distance. After all, it wouldn't do to look like she was seducing him into finding in their favor. Especially since he was obviously already trying to do all he really could for them.

So, at that, the engagement to Varley was broken and he was, well, he wasn't alone was he? Tor still had friends and even a couple that were willing to sleep with him, for whatever reason. They didn't make him pay at least, which was a plus, if only for his ego. Petra had kind of put him off in regards to marriage, but seemed happy to be his girlfriend. That was good enough wasn't it? He was young and really, he wasn't going to get a lot older, one way or the other. Either someone would kill him or he just wouldn't age, like his uncle, grandfather and mom. What was his hurry? He wasn't alone now. It was an improvement for sure.

Looking a bit put out still, the Prince, his short hair still a dark brown, though a little red was showing and his skin still deeply colored too, but fading to his natural lighter tan color, stayed with his mother to craft the first apology. They all knew a single letter wouldn't be enough. Rolph jokingly wondered if sending his left testicle in a box would be enough, but the Queen, not laughing shook her head.

“Doubtful. Plus, that's the royal testicle, at least until you produce and heir and a spare. Groveling will have to do and I doubt you'll get off as easy as you did with Tor. Most people secretly like to see others humble themselves and will let it draw out. Might as well start now. The sooner you start the sooner you can get the taste of her boots off your tongue.” Her tone was dark, even though the words nearly made Tor laugh. Rolph did, if a little dryly, but then went to set up a writing station.

Richard led him to Smythe himself, who, attempted murderer or not wasn't locked in the dungeon, or even in an isolated hospital, just in his room. There was a Royal Guard on the door, who bowed to the King and eye-balled Tor, his hand going to his weapon in the little pocket on his side. It was just a force lance, the kind he'd designed when David Derring had been challenged to a duel to the death by a southern Count. It was a good and dependable model, better than most that the military had still. It also wouldn't do anything to Tor at all. Tor considered handing over his own weapon as a good faith gesture, then let that idea go. Not anymore. He wasn't going unarmed, especially into a room with Smythe in it.

The man sat in bed, a dun colored night shirt showing. He didn't do anything, no music played to entertain him and he didn't have a visitor to chat with or read to him. To his left was a pitcher with water in it and a cup, there was dampness on the table and the room smelled more than a little of urine. Either no one had been doing much for the man, or he hadn't let them.

“William? It's me, Richard.” The King’s voice was soft and nonthreatening.

“Good! Strangle me, or use a cutter, and take my head and we can be done with this farce, can't we? I tried for the boy and failed. He should have killed me, but didn't. Don't you see how dangerous he is? He knows he's so strong he doesn't even have to kill his enemies. The guard, Michel? He said that two days after the fight Tor just got up and wasn't even blind anymore! Already built himself a new shield and weapons from bits he took from the wall of the room itself. That was it, it was our best shot and I wasn't clever enough. I'm sorry, but I won't live like this anymore. I'm useless to the kingdom now. End it. Or damn it, give me a knife and I’ll do it.”

The words were strong, almost fierce, but there was despair and fear underneath. Fear of him. How the hell was he supposed to deal with that? The truth he supposed.

“Playing with you? Are you crazy, or just stupid? I nearly died at your hands! I didn't kill the military guys because they're not my enemies. You aren't my enemy… though it's incredibly hard to tell most of the time. Anyway, stop sulking and get back to work you lazy prick. Ward undeclared war and asked for an honest investigation of his claims of innocence in the poisonings and the Queen’s day attack, but no one thinks anyone can do it fairly but you. No one. So if you're willing to not be a spaz anymore, and are willing to start acting like everyone says you normally do around anyone but me, I'll fix your eyes for you. I can't regrow your hand. I tried with Trice… Patricia Morgan, but I'm working on a magical one for her and if it works, I should be able to make the same for you too. If not, well, freaking deal with it. You tried to kill me, which I assure you wasn't needed. I'm really nice! Just ask anyone that knows me. But I swear, if you try acting like I wronged you, I'm seriously going to punch you in the mouth, one hand or not.” Tor moved over to him and took off the healing amulet. The King gasped slightly when he saw it. Right, he hadn't seen any of the new work yet, it was kind of neat, if he did say so himself.

“Now, do you want to see again or not?”

To his credit, Smythe actually hesitated, wondering at the cost. Would it take money? His eternal allegiance? His betraying the kingdom?

“Nope. All I ask is that you judge me based on what I do, all of it, and not a few isolated events, or out of fear.” Tor had a thought and shrugged, even though the man couldn't see it.

“Tell me, how many men have you killed?” Tor asked abruptly.

“I don't know.” The answer was honest at least, if a bit confused. “Hundreds at least, maybe more. My actions and orders have lead to the deaths of thousands, certainly.” He said it blankly, without any hint of pride or remorse in the words.

“Right, and how many people have I killed?”

“I don't know that either. As many as you wanted to, I'd hazard.” The voice went slightly wry.

“Fine, if you want to look at it that way, I guess that's true. The answer is none. Zero. Even when attacked, injured, betrayed and in a combat rage. I'm simply just not a warrior, Smythe. I'm a builder and the son of a small village baker. You're trying to judge me like you would someone like… you. A warrior, maybe even a legendary one. I'm simply not that. I… don't think I could be. Oh, I could kill someone, once, I think, to protect someone innocent or maybe by accident and as odd as it sounds I can make weapons that kill people all day long and not even think about it overly, but you think I'm some big threat to the kingdom when I'm just not. My big go too move in a fight is running away for goodness sake!”

The amulet was turned on with a flicker of intent and dropped on the other mans chest. He gasped and writhed a little, but not in real pain. That looked different. The cloudy white eyes cleared and the old man sat straighter. Like with Trice the hand didn't come back, but the wound would be healed under the bandages. If he'd had joint problems that would be fixed now too. Everything pretty much. He held the stone for a long time, like all the old people had done, the occasional pop or crackle coming from his body, until finally he looked at the King and smiled.

“I… That's amazing. I can see. Nothing hurts anymore either.”

Richard didn't coddle the man now, laughing instead.

“Good, then get up, get a bath and start working. I expect a full investigation, as fair and impartial as always.” The King turned to look at the much younger builder.

“Tor, I'd like you to act as Smythe's assistant for this, as needed. Arrange for safe travel and do whatever else is required.” It was made as a request, but Tor saw the purpose, it was both to let the old military leader get used to him and to show that when given an order Tor obeyed, without question. Well, why not?

“Of course.” He said without hesitation. If nothing else it would let him keep tabs on the man for a while, though Tor decided to keep his shield on as much as possible, and carry an extra poison detector at all times.

Then they left the older man to get ready and pulled the guard off the door. If he was going to attack Tor again, well, he would. They needed him, so it was a risk one Torrance Baker just had to take. The King walked with him back towards the room they'd started in, his pace slowed so that the smaller man wouldn't have to run the whole way.

“Are you staying with us here?” He asked conversationally.

“No, I have a house outside the wall on the south side, where the temporary market set's up? It's right next to the new ice manufactory. Can't miss it. Also, Collette Coltress is staying there for now, since she's running the new business and Petra Ward is staying so that… Honestly, I think she just likes me. Or, well, she may be making sure I help her brother as I can too. Really, Smythe is our trump card there. I…” Tor stopped and looked at the giant royal, standing back to see his face.

“How do you all live like this? Everyone working for someone else like this I mean? Petra works for you and Kolb, but also her family, as would be expected of course and still seems to like me, for real I mean… I checked a few times. Collette is one of your spies, along with Trice, Sara Debri, and probably her mother at a guess. If you have them, you probably have her older brother too, Kris? Merchants at that level can go anywhere in the kingdom, so it makes sense…” The King went blank mentally again, but little bits of anxiety were leaking out, punctuated with words and ideas as Tor spoke. Something occurred to him and he laughed suddenly, making the King start a little.

“Oh… It was fast and brilliant work, I didn't even realize I was being played like that! Holly Printer foisted a spy on me I bet! Or tried to, Swarley Jones? Probably not a highly trained one, but yeah, I'd bet he's being paid to report on me. Stupid. Well, I apprenticed him to Kolb, so we need to get word out to him not to let anything slip. She could just ask if she wanted to know something… so it won't do her a lot of good. ”

“Yes, we caught on to that one. The one we nearly missed was Sorlee Farmer, that was a brilliant placement, don't you think? Crafted specifically to you even. A little farm girl forced to whore herself, from so near your own home village that only you could hope to understand her? She even fits the type of girl you like in looks. Then that thing with her family losing the farm? There's training there at least. She's good. I was considering trying to pick her up myself once her work with you is done. Or… You could work her into a civilian air transport service? That would put her all over the kingdom. Yes, we should make use of her if we can.”

The idea rankled. He'd helped her as best he could out of real kindness and even offered to keep her out of being a prostitute. Was everyone a freaking spy then? Who's was she, he wondered and then put it together. Who would want to keep an eye on him that knew him well enough to set up something like the deal with Sorlee? It was complex and targeted to him so perfectly…

“My mother?” He asked, his voice slightly awed and a bit annoyed.

“Ah, no Tor. She works for your sister, Tamerlane. She does seem to have a knack for it though. Count Thomson is marrying a real gem there. If I would have known more about her I would have arranged for her to meet Alphonse. Well, if Ursala Thorgood falls through for him you have some other sisters, don't you?”

Terlee? But… She was so shy that she could hardly talk to strangers! How did she, when did she… It didn't make sense. For a moment he wondered if the King was having him on, but the truth of it leaked out of the giant. His sister set a spy on him? That wasn't a new thing either, she'd been working on things like that for a while, hadn't she? Before he'd even known their family had noble connections at all.

“So, is anyone I know not a spy for someone? I mean a real spy. I always figured that Rolph would tell his parents and sisters about me, if you wanted to know, even before I knew who he was really, but that's just conversation, unless… does he have peepholes all over the place?” Tor mugged a little and glanced around The King started to pat him on the back but hit shield and pulled back nodding.

“No, the kids serve their own interests only. We talk, but they aren't used like that. I do worry about Karina and her friends, they have too much influence over her for any of us to feel good about I think. Also, Ursala Thorgood doesn't seem to have any interest than her own as far as my people can tell. Or spies on you. Gerald and Gemma are free agents too, so far, except what you know about them, Squires now and that, so they'll answer to their Knights. Let's see… your family? Most of Two Bends I'm sure, though we worked out a deal with a few people about twenty years back, to keep tabs on Laurie. The mayor there, Smith I think his name is? And the woman that runs the store, I can't recall her name off the top of my head. That's how I knew to send a scholarship your way. Best three hundred and seventy-five golds I've ever spent, getting you into school. As an investment it's paid off… I can't even calculate how many fold. Possibly the worth of the whole kingdom already. You didn't just save my family from death dust, but probably kept the whole realm together, the civil war that would have come after our deaths would have destroyed us for a long time.”

So, nearly everyone he knew was a spy? Ah. Tor walked away in a daze only to find the King standing in front of him suddenly. Those long legs let him move when he wanted to.

“Now don't be silly about this Tor. Almost everyone you know genuinely likes you. Especially the spies. They've witnessed your kindness, felt it themselves, and seen you reach out to help people, regardless of station, even when it's nearly killed you. Besides, it's a part of our life. If you're a noble, you have spies around you. The general rule is, well a little uncouth, but it's the way it's said,” The King didn't seem very embarrassed though he tried to act it. “Fuck the women all you can, and send the men to war. Though I hear the ladies version is different, with role reversal on the sex part and sending people on errands. Rather nicer actually, don't you think?”

Great, so what did he do now? Start asking everyone who they were watching him for? Did it really matter? God, he wasn't trained for this at all. Maybe he should really go live alone off in the woods? Either that or stop caring for people all together. That was stupid though. Spies or not, they were people, and as such deserved respect and care, even if it was hard to trust them now.

The first words out of his mouth when he got back to Rolph and Connie was a bit blurted and loud.

“Did you know that everyone we know practically is a spy?” He asked the room in general.

No one laughed, but Rolph did put down his pen and looked at him.

“Of course. Why do you think Sara was so eager to stay with us in the same building when we could have built her a place of her own in about an hour and a half? One a good bit nicer too? Running water and her own bath if she wanted? Keeping tabs. Ursa stayed with us because she was scared and figured that no one else could protect her half as well as you would. She's right of course. Shields she couldn't have gotten even on the black market yet, teaching her to fly and giving her a place to hole up that was pretty well impregnable. Plus, with everyone seeming to come after you it left the rest of us safer in a way. Why go after a mere Prince or Countess when there was that tempting Tor to try for?” He tilted his big giants head and nodded.

“More seriously though? Yeah, just about everyone. Really, I always figured you for a spy too, though mom and dad swear you aren't. Didn't stop us from being best friends, especially since I said and did things that I would have heard about if they were reported, that only you knew… When nothing came of it, I figured you were either a really smart spy, or one for someone else. Possible of course, though getting past Hardgrove would have been nearly impossible I think. But… you lost your accent so very fast. That part didn't seem very realistic.”

What? Tor thought that the other boy, a man now in truth, was kidding for a moment, but he wasn't, not at all. Him a spy? That was ridiculous. He wouldn't know where to begin, he came from a little backwater in the middle of the forest after all. One that… had spies. Even people that had watched him all his life. His face fell, did his friend still think that?

The Prince shrugged.

“I let the idea go after the thing with Maria. No one could fake being that hurt half so well and a spy wouldn't have cared that much. The job is always more important for them. Then how you avoided everyone for so long. Yeah, I got it eventually. But for the most part you can't bother to worry about it at our level. I just grew up knowing that everyone was watching me for someone. I guess that's harder for you to grasp? Don't worry, you really do get used to it. Just pick your real friends carefully and be polite to everyone else. Since you already do that, I just never really noticed I guess.”

Well.

Shrugging it off, if poorly, he invited them all out to see the ice castle and enjoy whatever festivities might have sprung up. That got the Queen’s attention and she looked wistful. It wasn't safe enough was it? She wanted someone to say it was, so Tor did, explaining how they should do it.

“Come in one of the transports, they're shielded, and wear your own shields. That will protect you from about anything but an Austran bombing run. Really, unless you advertise you're going a day in advance I doubt they'd get here in time. I don't want to oversell it though, it's probably just going to be a big pile of ice blocks. It's a warm day out, so people might be around to see it.”

They said they'd try to make it, if it could be arranged safely. Tor took that to mean “no” but didn't worry about it. Whatever happened they'd be sure to hear about it. All those spies after all…

The crowd wasn't small or even just healthy, but rather huge, outside the gate he could barely see his destination, so many tall people were in his way There was music of a dozen kinds, drink and food vendors had come so fast the event almost seemed planned. He floated through the crowd amazed at what had sprung up. There was a group of jugglers that were so good he tipped them a full gold coin, tossing it into the box they'd put out. He stared for their entire act, amazed and half wanted to stay and watch it again, but moved on, so someone else could have a turn watching as close as he'd gotten.

It took half an hour after that to work his way to the castle.

Not the ice castle, which was next to it, but the magic castle, easily as big as the palace itself, with a large stage out front that seemed to grow out of it somehow. The whole thing was a real castle of stone too, like the one in Printer, only way nicer. It was uniform in color, gray with bits of sparkling gold in it that made the whole thing shimmer, just a little. Petra was on the stage as a band played next to her, using the clothing device, changing her clothing nearly constantly, listening to suggestions called out from the audience, some were for simple, practical clothing items, boots and trousers in different colors, some, from a collection of noble women that had obviously been drinking a little, for more and more outrageous evening dresses.

“Silk and velvet in purple, poofy sleeves with a voluminous black shot skirt!” One of the women, who looked old enough to be embarrassed about yelling in public half screamed. Petra didn't even close her eyes to make it happen.

Then the woman next to her yelled for sparkles.

The whole crowed went silent at what she did next. It wasn't the light glint of crystal reflections that the noble lady had meant, but tiny purple, white and rose colored bits of light that came and went in a rapid pattern of small spirals and that clearly were outside of the material itself, by at least several inches. After ten seconds of this people started cheering loudly. Then, they also cheered for her in a simple black military uniform, fighter’s gear, which she hammed up with some really good mock fighting poses that anyone that was watching should have realized meant real skill. Workman's clothes, basically what Tor was wearing himself at the moment, done in a rainbow of shifting colors also got applause.

Finally, as almost had to happen, one drunk young man yelled out for her to take it all off. To Tor’s surprise, she covered her lower parts with a hand and threw an arm across her chest and affected a shocked look when she made the clothing disappear all together.

That was the most popular by far.

Then laughing she ran off the stage, still naked as a man came on, dressed in military gear, who demonstrated how to use a compressor rig to make focus stone items, he made a frame of dirt on the stage, Collette running over to make a box appear as if by magic on a table that was waist high on the guy, to a standing ovation, and then two more military men filled the box with dirt using earth moving rigs.

The audience called things out that the man made quickly and efficiently, including things like closing lid boxes with latches, bottles and simple statues of animals that were pretty good. Finally a woman that looked vaguely familiar for some reason asked loudly if he could make her a good man. Not waiting he threw himself into the audience and to everyone’s amusement started to walk off with her, holding hands. When he saw them together it clicked. She was one of the girls from the house at Wildlands Station. So the bit had been a set up? Very clever, the crowd had roared with laughter at the bit. Next a few fishing boats were put in the river and raced back and forth while people watched. That would be the last demonstration he guessed, but it wasn't.

Not at all.

Petra went back on the stage and made her top disappear again, not bothering to cover her breasts this time, which got loud hoots of appreciation from the audience. At first. Taking a knife she ran it across her stomach to the gasps and wincing of the watchers, then took up a healing amulet, one of the pretty glowing kind like he had on him, put it on and hit the sigil. The audience gasped. So did he. What kind of person made an eighteen inch long cut to amuse the public. Insane.

A line of people wanted to try it, so Petra, not bothering to put her top back on, walked around and let people hold it. It didn't regrow limbs, but one man that had a broken back as a child cried out as things shifted and popped and then stood up, if weakly. He was apparently well known, because people started screaming in glee. That part went on for a while, with a few people calling out that they were sending into the city for crippled or ill loved one.

Well, even after it was over, they could just knock on the door, right? That would be fine. Or send word of where the people were, if they couldn't be moved? It wasn't like it was work to hand them an amulet for a few minutes.

Then there were singers and players from the Capital, coming with their prepared works and jokes. It was, in general, the best festival he'd ever heard of, much less been to. Tor stopped and bought a sweet roll, which was good, so he got a full dozen and carried them on a wooden tray to the ice manufactory where all “his” people stood helping with ice sales. Petra had put a top on and put her equalizing amulet outside the clothing for all to see. It was a bright and happy yellow that changed to nearly pure pink when she saw him. A sign that she really liked him. That or she realized with that many rolls, he'd come to share. Either way she seemed happy. Collette too, though her amulet tinged with green occasionally, showing greed. Well, that was normal enough too.

They each took a roll and so did the military men, who all called him by name. These guys recognized him, of course… Then they were focus stone workers, not gate guards, so they wouldn't have been on duty anyway, no matter when he'd gotten there. Probably down on their off day. When he took a second roll, Tor checked it for poison, but found nothing again.

They were decent. Not enough cinnamon, but then different people had varied taste perception. He always liked spicier foods himself. The crowd looked up and pointed suddenly as a transport moved to land behind the castle. The ice castle, not the big one next to it and the whole royal family got out.

They waved to everyone and to a man, woman and with a little coaxing, child, everyone else moved back to let them walk around and watch the proceedings unimpeded. The audience bowed as one too, which was kind of impressive in its own way. After all, before the war this kind of thing was normal, wasn't it? People seemed heartened to see the King and Queen at least and began cheering, which got the royals to all go up on the stage, chairs appeared for them to sit in, nice soft ones that were purple and gold, the Cordes colors, gaining more applause and the whole show from earlier was repeated. This was on the left side of the stage, a liveried Royal Guard standing behind each of them, as if it was normal.

The guy making things with focus stone worked off to the side the whole time and presented the King with a statue that was bawdy enough that the audience hooted when Richard held it up for all to see, his eyes alight. It was a light tan color, but clearly showed a man and woman intertwined.

Tor recognized the work, if not the artist himself. Flynn. Then he made practical things again for the audience. Karina stared at Petra when she made her clothing change, fairly salivating. He'd have to give her one of the clothing devices before she left if he could. The Royal Guard might not want anyone that close to them of course. Tor couldn't see them, other than the ones on stage, but if the King was there, they were too. The Prince hooted as the boats raced, and said he wanted one, which got Petra to bring out hers and put it in the middle of the river. There was barely enough water to support it, but people gasped and stomped, which seemed a popular enough activity for the crowd. Stomping. Apparently clapping just wasn't enough for some things.

Tor went into the castle and tried to find his trunk, which was on the second level up a stone staircase, first door on the right. He had to track it by feeling for the variety of fields in it. A trick that worked pretty well he realized, as long as he wasn't too far away. The room was fantastic, it had a huge bed and was lined with silk and velvet. Smiling he realized a person almost couldn't find anything to touch that wasn't soft, or so smooth glass would have felt self-conscious about how course it was. He pulled some amulets to give away as gifts or prizes and went out on the stage itself to pass them to Petra, who seemed to be in charge, her eyes lit brightly as she held the pieces up by their cords.

“Contests!” She yelled in a booming voice, turning with a bow to the King and Queen, telling them they got to pick by tradition. If it wasn't the tradition in the Capital, no one found it amiss either. It seemed like something you'd have a King and Queen do, didn't it? Tor had brought out one of everything that had been demonstrated, except Petra's boat and Collette's house. He had the smaller versions of both though.

There was a foot race around the Capital with a prize for the first man, woman and child under twelve to finish, without shortcuts of course. The flying guard were out in force to check on that in their bright red and white uniforms.

It was a bit boring to watch for most people after the runners got around the first turn, so Tor bought up the food from all the stands and had it passed out for free, first come first serve. Same with the non-alcohol drinks and relenting when Rolph begged, some of those too. It cost nearly a hundred golds all told, but meant that kids, who never had a lot of coin, and poor people, got to have some too. Tor had to go in early to make things, as soon as the footrace finished. He waited but just to hand out the trinkets and explain how they worked. Casually he mentioned that things would be available for sale if anyone wanted them at Debbie's shop, next to the bakery, next to the Cartwright by the south wall. Oddly almost everyone knew where that was already.

He worked in focus stone and didn't sleep, making large batches of a hundred each. He created some unique things too, that weren't actually new, things like tubs and mirrors that just hung in the air, beds that could be set up anywhere and a few things that just looked pretty that he thought people might like as well as a bunch of more practical things. He had twelve hundred items all glowing and solid as far as the work went, though not on thread or leather thong. When he got to the shop, it was early, not bakery early, but only about twenty people were on the street. All of them were waiting in front of Debbie's.

People started to complain as he worked his way through to knock on the door. He had to do it persistently, until finally, eyes looking worried, his partner and boss opened the door and nearly yelp at him.

“You came! I was afraid you'd forget and I'd end up having to barricade the door and pretend not to be home. So what do you have?” She seemed both relieved and a little manic. Excited by the whole thing?

Tor hoped that was the case. He opened the bags and explained what it was he'd brought.

Enough that her eyes boggled by the end of his list. She couldn't handle both shops, so she very practically set Tor to baking, which he knew how to do well enough, having grown up in a bakery and all that. He finished the bread she'd started and, after confirming the idea with her, decided to make several large batches of festival hand pies, fruit and meat. Just in case anyone got hungry while shopping for items next door. When the door opened the shops both filled, at first the bakery did more business, until about noon when the royals started to make their appearances.

If the morning crowd had come to gawk, the afternoon was all about buying junk Tor had made and paying more for it than was really reasonable, but less than they expected, since Tor could do something about quantity where most other builders found that hard. That or they wanted to keep prices up. But Tor had to just shrug about that, after all, what was the point of keeping people from having your work?

The flow into the bakery was steady still, but now people came to watch the wealthy and influential, to see and be seen as well. A few kids from the area came in and a giant, fierce looking guard of a noble tried to run them off, even though they were clearly just locals, not thieves or even poor overly, just the kids of tradesmen. Tor looked at the man and asked him to leave his clientele alone, thank you very much. It was said with a grin, but the large fellow didn't seem to find it humorous at all.

The man bristled and said that they weren't buying anything, so pulling a silver from his pocket and tossing it in the till box, Tor asked the kids what they wanted. The man turned a beet red, but didn't ask them to leave again, even though they watched the wealthy lady shopping in her fine gown openly though the door. She was an older woman who looked kind of familiar. A Duchess, Tor knew that much since she'd been announced at a palace party once with her husband… It came to him just as she watched into the bakery door to collect her guards.

“Good afternoon Duchess Terrell.” Tor hoped that was right, he remembered it because it was his older brother’s name, nearly at least. It might be spelled differently. She spun and looked at him, them bowed, making her guard goggle a little.

“Master Tor… So unexpected to see you here. And being useful too?” She winked at him knowingly, though what she knew he couldn't guess and didn't really care. Did she think he was sleeping with Debbie? That was hardly a crime. She'd make a good wife even. Or mistress, though he wouldn't want to play with her.

She was his friend, but seemed too delicate for the whole noble have sex with everyone thing. Then again, what did he know? It was the Capital, so maybe that was her way too? The big drawback there is that he could imagine rolling over in bed one night and accidentally start thinking about Terlee, they looked too similar for comfort there, so… no. But it wasn't any flaw in her that prevented it. Any good man should be pleased to have her and any bad man would answer to him if he found out about it.

“I bought one of those magical clothing devices, they're all the rage right now you know. Now I just have to convince my husband that it's not a waste of money. A thousand gold, but…”

A… thousand?

Tor had to make himself not blanch.

“Well, what does a single dress cost, in Afrak gossamer silk like the one you wore to that party last year?”

“Oh a trifle, a few hundred gold, it's just doing it at once that will rankle him…”

Tor smiled and gave her a small bow.

“But you have all your clothing paid for the next three or four years, maybe longer. Plus shoes, swim wear, what have you, even heavy winter wear if you want to go north. So, as long as you use it, haven't you actually saved thousands of golds? Not that it matters of course, but it should make him happy once that's pointed out I think. He seemed like a practical fellow at least.” If dour and humorless meant practical. Still it was a real point, if the man cared to think about it.

She agreed, delighted, and asked if he'd be free for a dinner invitation soon, unfortunately he had to beg off.

“I'm being put in as Smythe of Westend's assistant for a while. Investigation coming up. I can't say much.” Really he didn't know what was common knowledge or not and figured that playing dumb couldn't really hurt.

“Smythe? Didn't you blind him and cut his hand off in a fight? Was that wrong then? Are you investigating the Wards now?” She looked interested leaning close to hear his answer.

“He can see now, I fixed that yesterday. The hands still gone, but we've worked out our difficulties I think. I guess Ward would be the most likely thing, but for all I know I'm going to be getting him drinks and cleaning his chamber for him. I think I recall him saying something about riding around the town on my shoulders twice a week, but that could have been someone else… Possibly a horse, but why would he name him after me?” It came out innocent sounding and deadpan, but the woman winked again.

“Well, it's good to see you aren't letting things go to your head. Keep that up.” The last was an order so he bowed and agreed to do everything in his power in that regard. The guard kept goggling, but the kids looked bored. After they left one of them that had long hair and could have been either a boy or girl asked if the man was very big.

“Smythe? He's good sized, about six-eight or so I think. Kind of muscular too. Why?”

“Oh, because it might be hard to carry someone that big around on your shoulders. You're kind of little.” She or he smiled at him innocently.

Tor shrugged and sighed.

“I know! That's what I told him, but he's very insistent. Picked out a saddle already and everything.” The little kids laughed, getting at least enough to know when a joke was told.

While they finished laughing a group of girls, mainly wearing boys clothing, trousers and such, a few in student browns, walked in. It took half a second for him to recognize Princess Karina Cordes in the midst of the group. She had shorter hair today than the day before, a real military bob not just shoulder length and as black as his own, no longer the dyed brown that was barely hiding her natural red on the stage. Her gaze caught his and she looked like a startled deer, eyes going huge and scared.

Was she not supposed to be out? He checked with his mind and found that she was at least wearing a shield and had both a force lance and a cutter on her, both good quality, though the force lance was getting old and wasn't up to par with the ones he made. He'd have to get her a better one. He just nodded.

“Welcome ladies, might I get something for you?” It was the same opening line everyone got, with changes only for gender or station. When in doubt, promote upward in social rank, except Karina didn't want to be recognized. She knew he did, but that didn't have to be acknowledged if she didn't want. Maybe she was just embarrassed that they knew each other?

She wore an old pair of worn student browns that had probably once belonged to the Prince. Well, good to get as much use out of things as possible, besides, they did blend pretty well. Everyone wore brown for school, so there were people walking around dressed like that at any festival and even more on the street. It was also a pretty common workman's color, so it would work that way too.

One of the other girls, taller than him, lean, short black hair and a patch over her right eye stared, looking almost angry. A wave of interest came off her though, and recognition.

“That's him, isn't it? Master Tor his own self. Here to serve us goodies and make the miraculous happen. Didn't expect that, now did we? Well your sleeping with him Kari, at least that's what you claimed, get him to fix my eye and you're the boss for the next year, everyone agreed?”

Everyone was, except Karina who suddenly looked miserable.

Chapter eleven

“Wait…” A round faced girl that looked to be almost normal in height to Tor, so about five-three or so, probably taller if she stood straight, said sounding baffled. Same short, dyed black hair, and gray workman's clothes, but with a bust line that would have put Petra to shame and on a much smaller frame, so it looked that much larger over all.

She was cute.

“If he's Master Tor, then why is he working in a bakery?”

That got a shrug along with a gentle grin.

“Why not? I know how, and the owner of the shop is running the part next door. It never hurts do your share, right?” Tor said simply, trying to remain polite.

He was sleeping with Karina now? Since that had never happened and they hadn't even kissed more than a peck on the cheek something was definitely up here. From the look on her face “Kari” had been the one telling tales too. Well. What should he do? Ignore the jibe? That would leave his friend in distress though. Right, well, distraction time then.

“You're eye… accident, illness or born that way?” He said, indicating the patch with his whole hand. It was less rude than pointing, the book said so.

The girl, Lilli, told him about the illness that had hit five years before leaving her unable to open the eye and even when pried open she couldn't see from it. As long as she wasn't born that way it was worth a shot. Tor pulled off his healing amulet and handed it to her. He would have anyway, even if “Kari” wasn't with her. Didn't people know anything about him at all?

She clasped her head, screamed and moaned dramatically and finally slipped the eye patch off, showing a normal eye underneath. The wrong color, brown instead of green like the one on the other side. She looked in a mirror that came from one of the new amulets, just something Tor had made up the night before, since regular mirrors were generally of poor quality and expensive. This one reflected light perfectly so she noticed right away.

She didn't complain or even seemed bothered by the effect, she just grinned. Tor had thought she might have a problem with it at first, seeming a little entitled in her manner, kind of like some of the more annoying nobles, though a bit short for that. She was only about five-ten or so.

“I'll take it. Brown is a good color, boys like it, and now I have something that makes me simply unique, not crippled.” She kissed Karina on the cheek warmly and put her arm around the short busty girl.

“You're it then Kari, for a whole year. What do you want us to do? Bath you with our tongues? I know I enjoyed that one myself… Or, I don't know, dance naked in the streets? Do drugs until we can't stand and let questionable men do things to us?”

These were her friends? They sounded both close and like horrible people at the same time. At least Lilli did. Well, no wonder she'd wanted to impress them so much. It was probably self-defense. A tall buff colored girl in the back, who was pretty, except for a horrible case of acne, moved forward and asked how much the pretty temperature equalizers were. She looked about sixteen and said her name was Yardley when asked, sounding a little shy.

It was a strange name but easy to remember. He handed her the healing amulet without even thinking about it, or asking if she wanted healing, which was rude. Tor winced internally but managed to keep it off his face. They all watched her acne fade in a few seconds. She looked in the mirror and started crying, then pulled her shirt up in the back exposing perfect skin. Lilli rubbed her hands over it and pronounced it smooth as silk.

That looked kind of like fun touching the girl like that, but other people were staring at the girls, so Tor got them to move to the side so he could work. He had a bakery to run after all, he mentioned with a wink. A few minutes later they were all standing and looking at amulets wistfully.

“Fifty gold? No, I don't have that on me today. Thank you.” Yardley muttered quietly to Debbie in the other room. She sounded really sad. Given the heat out, he couldn't blame her. He wore an equalizer himself and he knew Karina did at the palace. She didn't now though, probably so she wouldn't be rubbing her wealth in her friend’s faces.

That was kind of her.

When the people coming in lulled a bit Tor went and got four of the glowing equalizers, the same number of magical clothing devices and told them that they could have flying rigs and shields if they agreed to his terms. They agreed before he even said anything. He was tempted to throw a tongue bath in, whatever the heck that was, but his tongue felt pretty clean right now, so he skipped it.

“Pick your schedule, but a couple times a week walk around town in fancy costumes wearing the amulets, I don't know, glow, keep changing clothes, what have you, and tell people about this place. Better in the richer parts of town of course, the stuff isn't cheap… Each time someone tells us they came here because of you, if they buy something of value, so a magical device, not a hand pie, I'll give you a new something or other. Probably something random you don't want, and you'll have to share amongst yourselves, but not a horrible deal I don't think. Oh, also mention the new ice manufactory outside the south wall if people look hot. Other things might be added over time. Is that fair?”

They agreed seeming pleased enough, and said they'd come to visit at his house, regularly, to check on anything new he wanted them to do, which meant he needed to get some food in or something. Guests. Well, could be worse. How he didn't know, but the shop wasn't on fire when they left, so that was a plus.

The next few days went like that, with Debbie giving him half the gold at the end of each night, and, shield or not, getting him to walk her home at the end of the day. She didn't live far, but he could see the nerves, since she was carrying enough gold with her she couldn't physically lift it. That could be a tempting target.

Tor made her a special trunk amulet. The idea was simple enough and could be used for flying or walking. If you wanted to leave it in place you had to leave the amulet too, but the whole thing disappeared on command, meaning you could have a dozen of them with you at a time. It certainly made it easier to take stuff with you in an emergency. Plus you could pick the size you needed and even make them look any way you wanted, from simple flimsy fruit crate to solid gold casket.

Debbie invited him in a few times, but Tor always claimed he needed to do something else, sleep or work all night on one thing or another. It was true enough even, though part of it was that he didn’t want to take advantage of his business partner or ruin her reputation, having strange men in her place at night. Neighbors would talk, and while they might mean well, wagging tongues rarely improved things for anyone.

On the fourth day Debbie had a relative of hers in baking, a tall man that looked like one of his own brothers, but bigger. Debbie seemed happy enough about it, and told Tor that he wouldn’t need to stay. Not at all. Actually on that point her voice went a little cold.

It left him oddly adrift. He'd rebuilt the rivers for Afrak and the massive earth moving equipment they needed, but there was no way he could ditch the investigation long enough to go. It made him a little sad, because he really wanted to see the exotic foreign land.

Plus he was even the Ambassador, for now, at least.

It occurred to him that the King might have a plan, or be able to come up with something he just wouldn't think of, so Tor went to visit and as an aside, check to make certain his obligations to Smythe were being met. Well, as long as those duties didn’t involve him dying for no good reason.

That plan sounded simple, if nerve wracking, but he wasn't three feet into the complex before Varley met him and drug him inside to a little alcove where they'd kissed before a couple of times before. She grinned at him and motioned for him to drop his shield, which they had an agreement for, a kind of joke, where he let her kiss him when she wanted, if it was safe, as long as she wore her shield the rest of the time. When he did, she dropped to her knees, at first he thought she was going to apologize for getting pregnant, which really wasn't needed, since that had happened before the engagement. A bit bad to do it out of wedlock, but certainly he wasn’t owed anything over it.

That… wasn't her plan at all. Instead she started working on his trousers, loosening them, pushing him back towards the wall a little.

“Um, what are you doing? This is kind of public, you know?”

Varley didn't stop, but did giggle and keep working for a few seconds before speaking.

“We could go to my room if you want, but that's no more private. I can't go to your house, going twice this soon would look like a pattern, so it's here or in the middle of the hall. Take your pick.”

“What, no third choice, like, let's not?” He looked at her seriously and refastened his clothing. It wasn't that he didn't want to, god he was tempted. Her mouth looked so soft and inviting… But no. It would be too embarrassing by far and if someone accidentally caught them, a page or the King, what would they do then? Her hands became more insistent.

“Tor… I, I can't marry you. It's complicated… Let me do this, please?” She sounded sad for some reason, which made no sense, but Tor let her do it anyway, and then cuddled her as she cried softly after. Cradled against his chest. It had been fun, in a sexy, naughty way, but the tears just made him feel bad.

Wrong. Like he'd taken advantage of her.

He hadn't hurt her, Tor was experienced enough now to know that, thanks to the lessons Countess Thorgood, Ursala, had given him over the last several months. Sara Debri had taken her turns too, probably just so he'd like her enough to keep her around and let her spy on him. Honestly it was a good trade, but if he'd known at the time he would have bargained for more.

The rules were different, more gentle, for friends. He'd certainly been doing a lot more with Collette and Petra since he figured things out, not being mean or hurting them, but certainly trying some things that he hadn't believed were real when Ursala had told him about it.

He held and comforted her until she was ready to stop crying. Whatever she was mourning the loss of, it was important to her. Tor didn't fool himself into thinking it was him. In royal marriages there were rules, but those could be negotiable. Highly so, he was coming to learn. Still, it felt not just strange and evil, but dangerous to go from the girl directly to her father, but the palace wasn't a place for him to go poking around alone either. That was asking to get lost. Or suspected of being a spy.

Just to make things more awkward, Varley insisted on taking him, holding his hand the whole time as if afraid to let go. Like she might fall from the face of the planet if she did. So, feeling awkward he let her lead the way, wondering if the King would have a report on what his daughter had been doing already or not.

Smythe, conveniently enough, was talking to Richard when they came in. Well, as convenient as finding the person that possibly hates you the most of anyone in the world in a meeting with the one man that could, theoretically, order you to do anything. Really the idea didn't reassure Tor a lot once he thought about it.

“Take the boy back to Ward, then each of the event sights, as needed. Depositions, questioning all that. Can the lad take notes do you think or should we bring a scribe along?” Smythe had his back to the door and when checked didn't have a shield on. He didn't have any other fields on his person either, other than his own innate one at least.

Rich looked over the other mans shoulder, right at Tor, but with unfocused eyes, like he did in his memory trance. Tor had only seen it once on the man, but it was something a lot of the special school kids did, which might say something about the King’s early education. Eventually his eyes returned to the military Counselor.

“I'll assign a couple Royal Guards, a team of four, so that both of you will have a scribe that can handle a fight. I'd really rather you didn't try to use Tor as a servant William….”

“Think he'd kill me if I did?” The voice, that Tor had heard going smug and smarmy after his people had been thwarted in an assassination attempt was… just politely interested. For the world it sounded like the Counselor, for all he kept trying to kill based on fear, wasn't afraid for himself at all.

“God no. The thing is William, he'd do it. You say, please help me scrub the toilet to humiliate him, and he won't just grab a brush, he'll work for days until he has a magical device to do it for you then, make a hundred copies for you to pass to your friends at need. It can be delicate, preventing that. Ask the wrong thing and he might work himself to death.”

Tor snorted derisively, loud enough to catch both men’s attention.

“I could make that in a day, or if you want a toilet that appears from nowhere at the tap of a sigil, in two hours, if you insist I make a new one. Otherwise I can send for one right now without doing any extra work. They have a little building that pops-up and everything, for privacy. Those are automatically self cleaning, so it's kind of worth it, but a regular toilet will still last longer in raw years, if you take good care of it and start with a good one. But… my hand writing isn't great. Kind of slow. Good enough for notes, but I wouldn't want to try interviewing someone with that being the only record…Oh!”

He wanted to slam himself in the head and would have but the shield would stop it anyway.

“How about a device that people can talk into that will repeat their words later? I already have that, I can extend the time and make it so that it will pick up anything in a given room, I think. Again, a few hours tops. Could that help at all?”

The older man chuckled easily, an almost friendly thing.

“Yes, and if you have a device that lets me talk across the kingdom to the other side, let me know. The biggest impediment to cases like this is the time factor in communications. More than once we've had investigations go sour because everyone died. Of old age. Enough of them to destroy our case at least.”

Tor pulled inside himself. He could produce sound, and if he sent the information from one place to another instead of holding it in potential, that would be a start. It would need some way to contact more than one point, if everyone was supposed to have one, it would be too hard to make direct contact with each one deployed…

“OK… by tomorrow?”

Everyone laughed, so Tor did too. After all, it was funny, he didn't even know how to make the selectors work. Ah! It jumped into his mind full blown. Make them all using a central device, then train all of the units to it, making physical contact the first time, then taking them to their final location, already linked. Give each place a sigil that would show on each speaking plate? Well… That would work.

Smythe wanted to get to work the next day, but also wanted to use carriages. Tor balked there. Transports would work as well, be hundreds of times faster and cost less. No horses to feed or broken wheels. Besides, he told the men, the longer this took, the greater the chance that something would go wrong and everything would end up in civil war again. Instead Tor suggested the King request a pilot and a transport for the people going to and fro with them.

As much as Tor hated carriages, Smythe didn't feel that a transport would give a proper feeling of authority. Tor offered to paint one to look like a carriage and even build a little cubical that would be stuffy and uncomfortable for the whole ride if the other man wanted, just to give the whole thing the proper feel. Yeah, he was being a little dickish about it, but the other man was too, so as a conversation it worked.

Though to his mind, the red-black of focus stone was intimidating and kind of grabbed attention. It could be made to look like almost anything, if he wanted though. It would take extra time, but would still be faster than going overland. Going by old style Not-flyer would be faster by far, or taking a boat. But that wouldn't get them to half the places they needed to go.

The debate continued for a bit. Smythe had flown and enjoyed it, and could still fly, but didn't want to, again the dignity thing, so it wasn't fear of being too high up, it really was just the looks of the thing? Tor focused trying to get a feel for the man, and found the real reason lurking inside him.

He was trying to draw things out, so that he could think up a way to get rid of Tor. Not kill, but send away, so he could work unimpeded. Tor blurted out that he'd never heard something so silly. Which got the older man to raise his eyebrows sharply.

“Look, I don't think the King is trying to say I should do your job, or interview people or anything like that even, he just wants us to get along. If you keep trying to get rid of me, he's going to lock us up in a little room together until one of us dies or we end up fast friends. Since, well, frankly we'd both get pretty ripe after a few days, can't we compromise on duties? I'll handle travel, communications and, I don't know, food, or… clothing. Whatever you think is fair. You do your investigation thing and I'll jump in if you tell me to and otherwise stay out of it? I know I don't have your skill or reputation in this. I'm not pretending I do. It would be ridiculous for one thing. You're not blind or sitting in a prison cell because of your skills… That isn't lost on me.” In fact it had been his idea, but Tor didn't point that out. No need to push the guy after all.

The King finally decided for them, they'd go in two days, by transport and if they didn't get along, he really would lock them in a little room together. The tone of his voice was serious but his mind blank, which meant he was really joking. If he was serious he'd have let his pattern show it, right? It made sense, but who knew with royals. Maybe he'd just try to go blank when Tor was around from now on? Tor tried it just to see what it was like.

It was pretty normal feeling to him, but then he spent a lot of time that way, didn't he?

Heading home, Tor wondered how he'd come to this pass.

First he made an enemy of a powerful and well connected man somehow. The devices he'd used to try and kill Tor showed that, if the high title and rank wasn't enough. Now he had to basically live with the same man for the duration? Whee. It seriously wasn't fair that Tor had to put up with an individual that had tried to kill him, twice. No normal person had to put up with this, did they? No, the bad guy was just put to death and everyone went on with their life a little better for it.

Except that sometimes people lied. And sometimes they thought they told the truth but didn't remember things correctly. Could he build a device to show that? It would… be halfway easy, he realized, blinking. He already knew how, and had done parts of it with the King himself. The emotion sensing amulets worked on a similar feedback idea even.

The next two days involved work for him, no matter what Smythe of freaking Westend was up to, which given their history probably included buying up and testing magics to kill Tor with.

Constant and unending work, but he managed a full ten hours sleep before he had to go to the palace complex, well nine of sleep and an early morning hour of cuddling with Petra.

That was nice, cozy even, but Tor kept wondering if she meant it. Was she just spying on him for her family and using sex or pretended affection to get close to him? Sure, he could have checked on what her field said about it, but Tor wasn't sure he wanted to know. He liked her. If she didn't feel the same way, it would hurt. But not knowing was hard too and caused him to pull away, keeping his distance emotionally. Could she tell that yet? Probably not, all the work he'd been doing would make him seem a bit slow and at a remove for a while, since he'd been so deep the whole time. That would mask things a bit.

Three novel builds in two days.

Tor had to feel a little proud of that. Well, at least if they all worked. He had to test things first, but the devices all felt right at least. That was a good sign. It meant he was starting to get a real feel for things, maybe at least. Unless he was delusional. Tor smiled and shook his head, because he was far from the point where at least some testing would be needed each time he made something, wasn't he?

Tor went to the palace early, the morning light still just coming out of false dawn, people on the street, but only sporadically yet. Mainly tradesmen and people sweeping their walks while it was still cool enough to not be a horrid experience. He stopped at Debbie's to drop off a few devices for sale, which she thanked him for, coolly, as if he'd done something wrong.

Another thing? He didn't have enough to deal with already? Still, as a friend he had to get to the bottom of this if he could.

Smiling a little weakly Tor asked her to explain, and not play games with it, since he had to leave the Capital inside a few hours. It sounded a little rough, but he wasn't trying to be mean, just get past the normal three weeks it took for women to explain why they were mad at him. She actually started on the whole “you know what you did” thing but he stopped her.

“Debbie… let's skip this part and just pretend that we went through the weeks of you saying I knew what I did, with me walking around pulling my hair out trying to think of what that could be. I haven't stinted you on money, and yeah, I gave some devices away, but trust me those girls wouldn't have been buying anyway and may get the word out…” He threw his hands up with a little, worried, smile.

Then she told him, bitterly, that it was nothing.

“Oh, forgot that part, OK, so now, moving past that, me going on about how it obviously is something, you claiming it isn't for days and we get to the real reason which is…”

She laughed at least, which was better than crying or hitting would have been.

“Well, I… I made clear overtures to you, inviting you in after work, suggesting we go out to eat and you keep turning me down! I'm not ugly, am I? Or unpleasant some way? I-” Now she started to tear up.

Oh… that. Well, he really should have known, but being a moron, what could be expected of him really?

“Debbie… well, it's not fair to you, but it comes down to this; you look too much like my older sister. Taller, but if we dressed you the same, at a distance people would be fooled. So really, I can't do that. It's nothing wrong with you, you're very good looking, so is Tamerlane, both great looking actually, but you can see that right? How it might be off-putting to me?”

It ended about then, with her clearly not believing that was his real issue, but apparently seeing it as a good excuse for all that, as if he were putting her off for some other reason. What that could be he just didn't know. He'd really told her his actual reason. Then she loaded him with a small trunk field loaded with gold for his trip. It wasn't his share of the last day’s proceeds, it was just so that he'd have money to invest as he traveled. He'd gotten her doing the same, helping out vendors, working on projects to help employ the cities poor and things like that.

The idea had actually been Countess Printers originally. Tor had wanted to use some of the money from sales of items there to help people, after the storm, but she pointed out that giving things away only worked in the short run. That people needed to work and earn their place to feel good about themselves. It made enough sense that he'd tried to adopt the practice himself, when he had extra funds. Yes, it meant he'd never have as much gold as some people, but how much did he need? He could make his own luxuries to a good extent now and didn't even need to buy clothing any more. Personally his expenses were down to food, and bathing supplies. What would that take, four gold a year? Ten if he splurged and ate out a lot?

If he couldn't afford to share, who could?

Debbie had also given him a small box with food for the trip, pastries and meat hand pies made by her relative, who turned out to be her brother. The man was called Box, but that couldn't be his real name, Tor didn't think. Still he smiled and seemed happy enough to be baking in the city with his sister. It seemed that he’d had some problems in their home village and needed to get out of town. Something about a girl, Tor thought, but didn't pry.

It was a good job, the man said, a friendly gleam in his eye, and he'd met a girl already, who he was pretty sure only wanted him because his sister had all those magic things, but she had sex with him, so that was fine for now, right?

Shrugging Tor pulled out a few amulets from his own gear and passed them to Box, in front of his sister, so that she'd know they were pure gifts and not filched from inventory.

“Spread them out for a bit and make sure she doesn't get pregnant. Have fun, but don't saddle yourself with someone only interested in your wealth, you know?” The man clapped him on the back and whooped a little. Then brushed at the flour hand print he'd left.

Debbie looked at him sadly as he left, wistfully, as if attaching herself to him romantically would be something a woman might want. It made Tor wonder who she was spying for. Sure, it would have to be a new thing, but it could happen. For that matter Box could have been a trained spy. Well, hopefully the girl was real at least.

Spies need love too, right?

The gate guards made him wait while they tried to find someone that could vet him. He paced a little, but just for the exercise of it, he knew why he had to wait and agreed with it, even if it was a pain in the rear this time of day. Smythe of Westend came, but the main gate guard, a Royal Guard after all, looked down his nose at the man and shook his head.

“No sir. Needs to be one of the royal family. Besides, you keep trying to kill Master Tor. I give him over to you and he ends up dead, how does that make me look? We wait.” They did, but Smythe went in to see if he could rouse anyone. It took a long time, but the gate guard didn't change, so there was no threat of a beating if he didn't leave at least. That had happened before. The night he'd met Debbie in fact.

Finally, about an hour later a sleepy looking Karina came out with two familiar girls in tow. Lilli, who still had one brown and one green eye, and the short busty girl. They were all identically dressed in slightly shining gold dresses and floated across the ground using Not-flyers. When they got closer they all looked tired, exhausted in fact. Once through the gate he realized that all the girls were more than slightly drunk.

Brilliant.

The way to safety for a royal was always dressing up in bright clothing and making a display of themselves while drunk.

Probably why so many of them did it.

He shook his head and led them in, walking in a plain gray workmen's outfit himself.

“Seriously Karina… You too Lilli and…” He flounder for a second, he knew who Yardley was, the dun colored girl that didn't have acne any more, unless it came back, but this one…

“Ali.” She said, mustering up a smile through force of will. She was still cute, even half drunk like this, Tor noticed. A little round of face, and light colored of hair, but not blond, an off brown, he thought. She looked sleepy, like a little kid for some reason.

“Right, Ali, when you're here, try to blend with the servants, will you? Stand out in town to catch attention as advertising, sure, because the Austrans won't think that I'd have the Princess out working like that, I don't think. But here, try not to make yourselves a target, OK? You'll make the Royal Guard pull half their hair out and then they'll be all lumpy and funny looking, instead of dapper and conscientious, you don't want that, do you? Of course not.” He kept walking while they failed to even chuckle at his words. Well, it was early. Plus, they probably wouldn't be feeling too well soon from the hangover. Tor decided to leave them that, just in case it helped to curb further drinking later. It was mean, but was it really a kindness to make things too easy on people?

If he always did that, how would anyone ever learn?

The girls just wondered off once inside, leaving him on his own. That was fine really. He’d need help, but it would probably work better if that aid was sober.

Tor started in the King’s open audience, where Rich tended to meet with people most of the time, at least from what Tor had heard. It took about a minute for Tor to get someone’s attention, waving his hands and calling out awkwardly, but he started explaining how the communications device worked and finally, five minutes later, a half dozen people were standing behind him, wanting him to explain again. Three Royal Guards, two servants he kind of recognized, including Quavel, the Queen’s main servant. Her butler? Something like that, and last was Squire Gemma, who got a hug from him. Their shields bumped, which made him grin and whisper “good girl” gently into her ear. It sounded like he was talking to a dog, which made him wince a little over her shoulder, but she seemed happy enough about it.

The sigils, all in glowing light in different colors, weren't sigils at all, but spelled out complete names. By tapping a plate to the main device it was activated. It was naturally an unassuming piece of tan focus stone, nearly a true square about the size of a block of ice, with lights shooting through it to indicate it was working and make it look more interesting, since he wanted to keep it in the audience chamber for safety and ease of access. That meant it needed to look special, he figured.

Once turned on, all you had to do was tap a name sigil and you'd talk with the corresponding device as if you were in the room with them. Simple. Each time a new plate was activated the name showed up on all the other plates. Yes, he could only fit about a hundred on each, but who'd need something like this? The second name on all the devices was his and would reach the plate he'd carry with him. Tor explained it all four times, how a bright blue light would glow, signaling someone wanted to talk to you, their name glowing blue as well, raising a little out of the surface of the hand piece or plate, so you'd know who. You tapped it to talk, then again to end the conversation. Simple once you saw it once or twice.

When Tor left the room and tapped the Capitals sigil, Gemma answered.

“Tor?” Her voice was soft and hesitant, but became happy enough when he responded.

All he had to do was activate a plate for each Count or Countess and a few other key people. The plates were meant to be mounted, on a table or wall, so had holes in them for that, accept his, which was smaller and meant to be carried in a little bag of shear material so the light would show through if anyone ever wanted to talk to him.

Then they just had to pass the devices out and explain them to people. That he'd leave to these people and specifically tasked to Gemma, who looked pleased but uneasy. Quavel and the other servant looked like they didn't approve, but the Royal Guards all did. One of them, an older man slapped her on the back, smiling when he hit shield.

“Good. You don't learn responsibility unless you have it. People forget that sometimes.” Then he nodded at Tor respectfully before asking Gemma what she wanted done with the plates.

Tor found Smythe at the mouth of the room looking pale and slightly shaken.

“I see you did it. I know I asked but… will they work at the distances needed?” The man didn't seem pleased really.

Well, Tor was skeptical too. It was a new device and that meant it had to be tested, they all did. He explained that they should work anywhere, as if in the same room. Maybe even off in different lands, if it came to it. Smythe just nodded grumpily as they walked slowly out to wait for the transport to come.

It flew in from the north, settling slowly as was protocol when coming in to the palace complex, so that the Royal Guard wouldn't freak out and slap the giant palace shields into place. They'd done it a few times Tor had heard from Rolph, at first just to test it and then any time someone came in too fast. That meant settling at more than about a hundred feet per minute, which almost didn't look like it was really moving at all and took about ten minutes as they stood waiting.

“They really are a bit off. A cream and gold wood coach with the royal seal on the side gets people’s attention, lets them know that the people inside mean business. This off black shine looks nice enough, I'm not belittling the effort or effect, but it… lacks presence. Well, no help for it now, is there? Orders are given, it is for us to but obey.” The old man spoke abstractly, almost as if ignoring that Tor was right there. He did that, talking about Tor as if he wasn't standing right next to him sometimes too. At least he didn't seem to do that with a anyone else, not that anyone had said.

Standing in silence for his part, Tor watched the craft settle, it was a steady movement, skilled and exacting. It was probably one of the new military pilots, Tor guessed, since they'd started making a point of training them at the flight school and Smythe was, by some mistake or capricious design, still the head of the military, attempted murderer or not.

Tor got the idea, he could investigate with impunity, because he could call in the whole King’s army to back up his word, but it didn't make him feel any better. He was almost tempted to just fly himself. It would be nearly as fast and more comfortable once he factored in the stony silences and the old Counselor acting like Tor had been the bad guy in all of what had happened.

Just before the craft settled, not ten feet from the ground, four black and purple clad Royal Guards came out, each carrying a modestly sized canvas bag with carry straps. Smythe had a single trunk and looked back at Tor's four cases with a smirk.

He nearly explained that they were mainly filled with devices and gold to help set up businesses and relief efforts, but didn't. His actual gear, what he needed to survive, including housing, was on him. He'd miss the little bag with his razor, soap and tooth care stuff, but if he pulled that out, he could wear it discreetly on his side, next to the communications device. Smythe could smirk all day, but it didn't change the reality. Tor was more ready to pick up and move, even lose everything, than he'd ever been before. If someone stole his trunks now, or even stripped him of amulets, it would mildly inconvenience him, but that was all.

When the side hatch opened Tor had to blink. It wasn't a military man at all, but a military woman that stepped out. She still had short blond hair and smiled at him winningly, bounding down the ramp fast enough that the guards all went for their weapons. She stopped in front of him and tried to give him and awkward shield hug. Then she straightened and looked at Smythe, her boss. It was a bit blank, but polite enough, as if asking for an introduction.

Ah.

Tor realized they probably hadn't exactly met before. That made sense really. Sara was a spy and low level military member as part of her cover, if Tor had it right, so no-one that the head of the military would know on sight.

“Oh… Um, Sara, this is Smythe of Westend, head military Counselor and all around swell guy. Decent fighter too. Willie, this is my, um, friend, Sara Debri. Her mom heads the Debri merchant house. She's a sergeant in the army, runs supplies by air. Personal flying though, I didn't know she flew transports yet…”

It turned out she didn't, which they noticed when the driver crawled out from the front, dressed in a tan shirt made of silk and soft canvas pants in a similar color. Sorlee. It made more sense than her normal drab gray dresses he'd grown used to seeing her in. For one thing it looked kind of official and less like she'd just stolen the craft.

Great, another spy. At least he knew who they were this time. The Royal Guards, well that was so obvious they didn't really count as spies. They reported to the King. If they needed to strip him, turn him upside down and shake to get information out, they'd do it and not bother hiding the fact most of the time. The only one here he wasn't sure about was Smythe, but that didn't matter did it?

Assassins had their own category in his mind. Before anything else, Tor crawled in and checked out the interior, looking for traps, attackers or anything that might be troublesome. He didn't find anything, but suggested the more proficient guards check it too. He watched what they did, checking under each cushion physically, getting on hands and knees to look under each bench, tapping the walls to check for hallows or odd sounds. When they were done and piled out, Tor slapped an amulet to the inside wall, explaining to the guy in charge, the same older man he'd met earlier, who said his name was George and didn't give a rank, what he was doing. It went up with just a bit of tacky putty on the back, since it would take that or glue to do the trick on smooth focus stone.

Then he hit the sigil, getting a soft gasp from the people outside.

“Master Tor, it's so pretty! It looks like one of the grand carriages of the King. The woods all grand and shiny too. Did you change it into wood? Is that strong enough?” Sorlee had enough sense to be concerned about practical matters at least.

“It's still focus stone, the shield on the outside just reflects light to look like this now. Obviously,” he added for George and his guards-people, two of which were hard looking women that could probably tear him in half with a strong exhalation.

“We can fly with it in normal mode and decorate just before landing, so we won't be advertising who we are the whole time. That probably wouldn't be a problem, since no one has seen this before, but just in case, no need to tempt anyone.”

Tor hit the sigil so that everyone would know how to do it. Pretty basic really. He left the little tan focus stone square on the wall of the craft, since they'd want it later.

In the back the Royal Guards all sat together, and Sara settled right beside him, smiling and happy to see him, or so it seemed. Sorlee waited for everyone to be seated, closed the heavy counter weighted side door that they'd all used as a ramp and then flew off a good bit faster than she'd landed, headed nearly due east.

Tor did a quick inventory of what he had on, device wise, knowing that he clanked a little when he shifted and his shirt bulged in the front. Both hands had devices held in place by leather thongs too, for flight and Not-flyer controls. Shield, of course. Then without speaking to Sara at all, he closed his eyes and dropped into a working state briefly. Not to be mean or even work on some project or another, but so he could examine how her arms worked when she moved.

The field portion of the movements. She wasn't helpful, holding remarkably still for some unknown reason. So eyes still closed he poked at her arm. She'd taken her shield off and so had he, which made her think he was trying to hold her hand apparently. It worked well enough. When they touched he could understand what her brain was doing to process sensory information from her left hand. He stroked it gently, and caught a sense of warm friendliness from the girl. Then, reaching over with his other hand he pinched her lightly. She didn't say anything but stiffened and felt slightly annoyed and bemused at the same time.

After an hour or so of this he opened his eyes and let go of her hand.

“Anyone hungry yet? I have some food, fresh from Debbie's bakery.” Moving to the back he pulled out the small box and offered it to the Royal Guards first, all of whom checked the rolls and pastries with poison detectors. All the food, each of them making certain it was all good, even when the person next to them had just done the same thing. The old fashioned devices he'd made about a year before, small copper rectangles still held solid fields. Then he passed the box to Smythe, who took a peach hand pie and nodded to him, but didn't check it for poison. Probably because he'd been stripped of all devices to keep him from killing Tor. Tor pulled his own, a glowing sigil on natural stone from the beaches of Printer and tested the food for the man. It was clean, so the older man started to eat.

But he gave Tor an incredibly funny look first. As if saying that if anyone in the world were going to try and poison him, he knew who to watch. It was ridiculous of course. Tor didn't know anything about such things at all. Like he’d do that anyway? It seemed really rude, even if the guy did keep making attempts on his life.

Sara took a small roll for herself and Sorlee, happy to be remembered, asked him to feed her bites of hand pie, a savory beef one, because she didn't care for sweets in the morning.

“You know, if we were back in Forest Far, this would mean we were married now.” The girl said it seriously, like she meant it.

Tor almost blushed, but shook his head instead.

“That's not the tradition there. By tradition if I fed you like this, your brothers and father would beat me and try to drive me from the village… If I didn't marry you instantly that is. The same as in Two Bends.” It was true enough, but the girl kept flying and gave him a knowing look.

“I know that, but then after whoring for all these months, I'm pretty much dead to them anyway. I can make up my own traditions now.” Her voice was a bit sharp sounding, but also held something else he didn't quite know how to explain to himself.

Focusing on her field for a moment Tor tried to pick up what she was thinking, it wasn't hard.

The girl was covering for her slip and wondering how long she could keep her game up. She was starting to do it with others, but no one had noticed yet. If she suddenly spoke too well, that could be played off as practice, couldn't it? So far it had worked. The only real danger was Tor. He was sweet, but that was a bigger danger to her than not. Her teasing and flirting deflections would only last so long. Plus she wasn't certain what he knew already.

Tor didn't get it in words, he just knew all this about her. With a wink he moved back to his seat next to Sara, even though there were a lot of other places to sit, enough for forty big people or nearly sixty of him.

Then she wanted to talk, if his morning meditation was over, she said softly, leaning into him warmly. He smiled and nodded. Why not? She could tell him all the things he'd been too stupid to get on his own. What she shared was all about people, some he knew, a lot he'd only heard about. It was all interesting, if in an odd way.

“My brother Kris is finally getting married. I just heard last week. It's a good marriage too, one we've needed as a house for a while. Meredith Sorvee? Kris said she's a little plain looking, and a widow with two children already, but her temper seems gentle enough and her dowry is about as large as any I've ever heard of. Apparently a benefactor delivered a nice chest of gold on her behalf, anonymously in the night. Two thousand gold, just sitting in a chest outside the door with a letter saying it was for her future and that more would come. Isn't that exciting? It's like a fairy tale. Some gallant Knight swooping in, or a rich priest taking care of a woman left in a desperate situation. Of course as a Sorvee, her position can't have been that bad, even if it was just by marriage.” Sara leaned against him again in a more friendly manner, the tale of Meredith obviously making her gooey girlish center all happy for a bit.

“Who do you think it was? That left the gold I mean?” She asked innocently, seeming not to remember that Meredith had asked for his hand once.

Tor shrugged. It was obvious to him, given everything.

“Dorgal Sorvee.” It was said with the matter of fact air of a person that knew a fact, not someone making a guess. Then, he did know, didn’t he? Oh, maybe he had some point in it, but then, by that thinking, so did Rolph. He’d delivered the amulets and devices after all. Clearly making good on Tor’s request.

Sara straightened eyes going wide. When she turned to face him her breath caught.

“The one that always called you names and tried to intimidate you? He… doesn't seem the type, does he? Sorvee’s aren't known for being generous to those in need. Oh, they won't let a distant relative starve and are even honest in their own way, but this…” Skepticism seemed to be going around that day.

Why not Dorgal?

“There's a difference between not liking me personally and being a bad person though, isn't there? Dorgal made some mistakes, but he could have tried to hurt me and gotten away with it back at school, but he never did. He threatened, and made me think he would, but in the end he held his hand if not his tongue. Kids do stupid things sometimes, hanging on to that doesn't help anything.” Tor grabbed a pastry from the box, leaving it half full and passed it to the guards in the back since they were all big enough to be hungry most of the time. Sara grinned and snagged a second one too.

They stopped halfway there so that people could relieve themselves and stretch their legs a bit. The breeze was humid, since they neared the southern coast, though hadn't put down on a beach. There was grass and some trees nearby.

There was no scent to the air, not for him, because his new shield filtered all that out pretty well. Sara picked flowers and got a smile from Smythe, who winked at her and kept walking in a large circle, getting what exercise he could. Tor went through a set of stretching exercises and then he and Sara had a practice match with shields on, so mainly punching and kicking, since throws were useless this way and holds hardly worked at all. You could, at times, bend a shielded limb to your advantage, but joint locks tended to fail with even a little squirming motion. One at a time the different guards came over and tried their hand against them too. They were all better fighters than he was, but Sara held her own, nearly. It was better than sitting at least and they worked with him too, even if he wasn't as much of a challenge, so Tor kept trying to do his best.

When they got back on everyone but he and Sara were sweating pretty hard. Was it warm? It took a second to find them, but he handed out the new glowing emotion tattling equalizers and suggested that people keep them hidden, unless they wanted to share with the world what they were feeling. Smythe wore no particular expression as he passed them around, until Tor gave him one too. Then the older man went cold and disproving.

Because obviously that was the polite thing to do when someone gave you a gift. Right?

“Trying to buy my good will with trinkets like a common whore boy?” He said, his voice mean and angry sounding.

Sara stared at the man, and looking around he noticed that everyone else was too. One of the Royal Guards let their hand fall to the weapons pouch at their side, the tall black haired woman that looked half hawk and still would have been exotically pretty if she didn't currently have a sneer on her face. She wasn't staring at him this time. No, her gaze was only for the Counselor.

“Nope. This is just part of business. We need you focused on getting the truth, not hiding in the shade fanning yourself in misery.” Tor held up his right hand, “Not that you would, but it's hot and humid there, all the time. If you can't sleep for days or whatever, that effects what you can do, no matter how tough you are mentally. This will help. Take it or not, it isn't a trick or bribe, just a tool to make work easier. However it certainly is meant to win everyone else's good will though.” Tor gave him a gentle and bemused look, trying to show disdain without being the rude one. Which was still rude, he realized, so he made himself stop and just nod a little instead.

Smythe put the amulet on coldly and triggered it, then fought not to show how much better he felt. The guard woman relaxed, but kept her eyes trained on the man the whole time. At least one of them did, always. They looked at Tor occasionally, but didn't focus like that.

So… had they been ordered to watch the Counselor? That made sense and let him feel a bit better. It would be nice to think that not everyone blamed him for everything at least. He kept having the odd idea that he was in trouble, even though he'd only tried to help people and do what they asked.

And put up with more crap than anyone should have too. Well, having Smythe along should make the Wards feel better in a lot of ways. After all, the guy had tried to kill him, and here Tor was, working with him, if not actually forgiving him yet. Did that make him look weak? Probably. But then, who was he fooling? He wasn't the biggest or the strongest, not the best fighter in the room even. Really, he wondered if he could even take Sorlee if it came to it. If she was well trained the case may be he couldn't. He really needed to do his running when he could. Well, maybe he'd have time when he wasn't working on this investigation mess. Smythe really didn't want his help, so what else was there to do? Right, make that hand for Trice.

Sara jostled his arm.

“Um, Tor? Your bag is glowing.” She pointed helpfully, since he'd obviously been thinking. Of course with him something glowing suddenly could actually mean anything from a sigil being turned on by accident to an explosion about to take place, so he smiled at her and hurried to fix it.

Tor opened it quickly and hit the sigil that said “Capital”, it was glowing blue, and floating about a half inch above the focus stone, exactly as planned.

“Hello?” He said loudly enough that everyone looked at him with interest. Most of them knew about the communications devices already. Sara gave him a strange look though, as if he were talking to himself. Again.

Like he talked to himself? He didn't even mutter in his sleep. Not that he could recall at least. The nerve of the girl. It took an act of will to keep himself from smiling.

Richard spoke, sounding like his voice came from the palm of Tor's right hand. Crisp and clear.

“Tor! I wanted to try this and see how it worked. Can you hear me?” The familiar voice of the King, with several people whispering excitedly in the back ground.

“Sure can. It looks like we’re about half an hour outside of Warden right now, so it seems like the range is going to work fine on this.”

The was a bit of rustling in the background.

“Hi Tor!”

A happy, but unfamiliar voice came across suddenly, softer than the King’s. It got a laugh from the room. Wait… Karina's friend with the cute face and the large breasts?

“Hello Ali.” Tor had to smile. The girl had a sweet innocence about her. It made his voice sound kind and gentle, thinking that.

Sara gave him and odd look but didn't speak. It was, Tor finally realized, reading her field almost as a matter of habit, Sara's jealous look. He'd seen it before, but never got what it was supposed to mean. Usually it had been aimed towards Trice though, so it could be faked up in an attempt to manipulate him. Only, he knew for a fact it wasn’t. Not this time.

The King sounded very happy when he continued.

“Excellent! With this I can confer with you all daily and even sit in on interviews or hold my own at need. We'll rush those other units out to their destinations directly.” A little more softly the King asked who had the duty.

The question was going to the room in the palace, but Tor knew the answer.

“Squire Gemma. She knows where everything needs to go, and how the devices work, so she can teach others.” For some reason this got a small stir from the room on the other end of the device.

“Of course. Well, she is a Squire, I'd normally prefer to send someone older, but… well in war we must rob children of their youth too soon at times. Do we have a transport we can spare?”

From the front Sorlee called out, loudly, since she was flying and couldn't turn around.

“Several at Wildlands Station, your highness sir, um Sire, ask for Ferra at the whorehouse, she's as good a driver as any and, likes kids. In a motherly way of course. Plus she's got a good direction sense, if you're flying all about the kingdom. Be good practice for her too, if we set up a whole fleet to go all around the land as planned.”

Rolph laughed loudly and offered to go too. After all, Ferra was kind of cute. It was a joke, clearly, so everyone else chuckled along.

Everyone stopped laughing when the King agreed.

Except Tor. It really was kind of funny.

Chapter twelve

Tor hit the sigil hanging on the inside wall that changed the way the craft looked about a half mile from Warden, after conferring with Smythe on it. The white haired man didn’t smile or frown about it, he just nodded twice, agreeing with the timing.

Sorlee went slow, drifting low over the city while people pointed and looked up at them waving, and calling to them happily. So far this was the friendliest place he'd ever been, people smiled at you and said hello even if they didn't know you, and rarely fought with each other, at least in public. It happened, that was kind of natural, people being, well, people, but the feeling was one of happiness over all.

They settled in the spot that had held the demonstration magic house when he was last there, it having been taken down. The grass had suffered under it, but was starting to come back. The other place, where he'd been living, looked better already. Tor wondered if he should find a new place for his house here, so that the nice and well cared for lawn didn't suffer? Maybe there was a good space outside the city? After all, they didn't have a problem with flying here, since almost no one did it and there were fewer noble kids to race through the streets crippling children by bashing into them.

This time they were met by the Count, his wife, the Dowager Ward and Trice, who seemed happy enough at first, but let her face fall when she saw him. He scowled back angrily, then forced his face into an obviously fake smile. Sara saw all this and looked worried, which she honestly felt for some reason. He knew because he was holding her hand, and it tightened in his. Letting go he triggered his shield and looked at her smiling warmly until she did the same.

Smythe walked over to the Wards confidently in his gold and cream robes, and bowed deeply, holding it for a full ten seconds. Then as one the whole Ward family present bowed back. Trice didn't, but then neither her life, nor the life of her child was on the spot, was it? They probably would have openly groveled if it would help. Then again, maybe not. The nobles had a weird sense of pride about some things, even if it meant getting killed or going to war.

As Ursala had put it once, using colorful language, which she did on occasion when she was teaching him about sex, “a noble may suck a stable boys cock, or let him do them up the behind, but never bow to him”. It had sounded like an actual saying at the time, but since she had started doing some interesting things right on top of that, he hadn't questioned any of the implications. He'd just accepted that he was supposed to be the stable boy in the situation, after all, his place in society was a lot lower than hers.

Oddly the Wards all bowed to him too, so he returned it quickly. Had he messed up the timing? Was he supposed to bow to them first? Stupid bowing. He'd thought he was up on that, but new situations had different rules. Sara curtsied next to him, a strange cross legged bow that women used about half the time. She timed her actions to his, so she was claiming to be under his protection? Not the military leaders? Um… Well, he would protect her, if he could, spy or not. Sorlee had done the same behind him he thought, and held it until everyone else had stood up. When in doubt, keep bowing? Made a lot of sense to him.

That done Smythe took over. Fiercely.

“You asked for a fair and impartial investigation, and me by name. It will be delivered. I'd like to start the investigation now. Baker, you're with me. Bring any tools or skills you have that you think may be of use.” His tone was matter of fact. Not demanding, not mean. Count Ward stared at both of them uneasily and covertly glanced at the old warriors missing hand while Tor collected his trunks.

They set up in the cool room, though absolutely everyone there had an equalizer, including the servant that offered iced drinks. Tor accepted a cool water and seeing this, Smythe did the same then suffered to let Tor check it for poison. As an afterthought Tor went around the room checking all the others too, since no one had pulled out a poison detector at all. Oddly enough it seemed almost official, kind of like he and Smythe were saying that everyone in the room was under their protection.

That done, he got out his little kit of devices. Focus stone circles to record what was said, the Ward's new communication plate got attached to a low table, and some new amulets on flat glasslike disks with a glowing pink pattern on it. A stylized “T” with lines through it. It looked good on the white. Soft and friendly. He handed one to each of the Wards, the servants in the room and as an afterthought, to Trice, and asked them all to hit the sigil. They glowed a cheery golden yellow and cream in a nimbus around them, which covered a foot from their body in a light easily visible to all. It wasn't bright enough to read by, but in a very dark room you could navigate by it, and not hit the walls, so it was good enough. It looked a lot like Smythe robes, and that wasn't an accident, but no one else seemed to notice.

Well, as insults went it wasn't a very good one, was it?

Everyone seemed curious but Smythe silenced them with a glance, as if he knew exactly what was going on, being in on the plan himself. Tor suddenly felt cheap and mean for not having clued him in first. If he'd been rude to him before, and more than a bit cold… now the older councilor was all business, proper and working as if they were teammates, not mortal enemies. Suppressing a sigh Tor contacted the palace using the Warden communications device, the King's voice coming a few seconds later.

“This is King Richard Cordes. Are we to begin?”

Smythe stood and bowed to the plate, a useless, but respectful gesture, so Tor copied it. These were formal proceedings after all. Everyone else did too then. When they all stood, Tor got the speak-back started.

Looking around and knowing the King couldn't see what was going on, Tor started describing everything. His voice sounded very formal, even to his own ears, but decided to just go with it. Lives hung in the balance here after all. Formal would work.

“I have started a magical device that will allow everything said here to be repeated, exactly as said, later, on demand. In the room we have William Smythe of Westend, Count Marvin Ward, Countess Maria Ward, The counts mother Ellen Ward, Patricia Morgan,” He looked at the servants and asked for their names which he repeated clearly, including their titles, but after the names, just so everyone would know who was who. “As well as myself, Torrence Baker. On the communications device is Richard Cordes…”

Was there anyone else in the room with him? There was it seemed as voices spoke their names one by one so Tor repeated them, using their full names, with no titles, except for the accused and the witnesses.

“Constance Cordes, Veronica Cordes, Karina Cordes.” Rolph was off delivering plates already? Good. The faster they could chat with people without a visit, the better. He missed Ursala and keeping in touch with Holly might prevent accidental mayhem. Always a good thing.

Proper mayhem should be planned. Plus he should make a point of chatting with Mary Cannor if he got a chance. She was family after all. Really he should get one to Two Bends too.

“Each person to be question has been given a magical device which causes a gold and cream colored glow around them. This glow turns black if an untruth is told. Not simply a lie, but things remembered incorrectly or misstated as well, if it's within conscious or unconscious knowledge. I shall call out any changes as they may occur.”

Then he bowed to Smythe as if it were all planned and sat down, deciding not to speak unless asked, except to describe the scene in the room. The man was surprisingly polite and gentle, even when bluntly asking questions that would have made a dockside whore blush. Not really, Tor knew, but they were hard when you considered he was going after a Count.

“Count Ward… did you at any time order the death of any person.” Tor felt excited when the man simply said yes, but all of those people were criminals and pretty bad ones by the sound of it. They didn't generally kill over theft here, just used people as free labor until the dept was repaid. When the question was changed to ordering the specific poisoned royals to be killed, harmed or threatened, he said no confidently, but a black slash streaked across the gold and cream glow of the giant man.

It took a while to get it out of him, but he'd once ordered Count Derring threatened, with cause. It was years before and nothing came of it. He also hadn't gone after any Noram generals. When the question turned to Tor things changed. He didn't lie overtly, but he hedged several times, getting black streaks, if small ones. Smythe, for his part, was relentless.

“Tell me now, what are you hiding? Don't bother lying about it, that will just waste time.” The brown eyes stared at the larger man, pinning him without offering hostility.

“Alright… I didn't order it, not exactly, but I may have hinted that Tor should be taken care of after his intervention in the Ursala Thorgood matter. I was… angry. It was silly of me, but I felt embarrassed that such a tiny man could best me so easily in a fight. He didn't even have the grace to strike me down, just stood and let me exhaust myself as if I were a small child having a tantrum. I realized later that I was being a large child having a tantrum, but I was upset for a while.”

No flickers came then at all.

Each line of discussion went back to Laval, the strange black eyed man that had come with treats and gifts, flatteries and plans to help the Wards advance their status in the world. The man even hinted that Ward could be delivered the kingdom, though neither of them ever took that seriously.

“It was fun to dream though, wasn't it?” The Countess breathed gently.

Tor blinked.

It probably was at that, as long as you never had to actually do the job. Nothing the royal family had couldn't be bought with gold really, and they all worked hard, if in odd ways. Richard was always tired looking and Connie had to put up with some of the most annoying people in the kingdom with a smile… which included Tor on his off days. Not a job he'd ever want. Tor considered that for a moment and wondered how, being a Count and Countess, these two hadn't known that instinctively. Then maybe they really had on some level? Neither had triedfor the position, just dreamed about it. Probably only the fun parts too.

Maria's story of Laval was different, but she told it with a straight face unconcerned that her husband sat right next to her listening. They held hands to comfort each other even. It was a bizarre relationship to Tor, but if it worked for them, who was he to judge? Maybe he should take notes instead of acting like mayor Tom was going to walk up and start scolding people? Maria was his age and had been happily married for years, where he'd been alone and lonely most of that time. Maybe his way wasn't working?

“Oh yes, we were lovers almost from the start. He asked if we could be and I saw no harm in it, he had those lovely eyes after all, and was good enough looking. In bed he was… charming. Skilled, certainly, but the flattery he used was so over the top… but it always felt like he meant it. He called me his little kitten-flower, and smothered me with kisses. Then we'd talk for hours, mainly about my life, growing up, the people I knew. He never said much about himself, just that he wanted to know more about me. It was… flattering.” The Countess went on for a while about what they spoke of, most of it innocent really, what foods were in season and what music they liked.

And Tor.

“Oh, yes, he was obsessed with him. Even before we knew he was “the Tor”. When he was just some boy from school that had tried to give me flowers that were too grand for a student to purchase, making me think that the Prince had put him up to it. How I hurt so much over it, and how I couldn't do anything to hurt Alphonse back at all. So he said he'd look into it and came back telling me how the best way to get at Alphonse indirectly was to strike at those close to him. Get the girls pregnant and kill his best friend in the whole world. Torrance Baker. He had this powder that he claimed would remove most kinds of birth control, so that part was easy. Marvin just had to put it on his lips and then kiss the girl. If she slept with anyone for weeks after she just wouldn't have protection at all.”

It was consistent and her story stayed so as she spoke the whole time, pointing at Laval pretty clearly. He was distinctive sounding. Except that Tor had seen six of the man once, and heard there was a seventh he'd just missed noticing, being busy at the time.

Clones. Some magic that made exact duplicates? Tor hadn't been clear on that when his grandfather tried to explain it. Burks claimed it wasn't magic, but what else could do that? The cream and goldenrod aura stayed that way until Maria described her apology to Tor.

“I really meant it.” She said simply, but the whole field went jet black. Sighing she explained without needing to be told too. At least the learning curve on these particular devices was quick.

“I wanted to mean it. I do know I was wrong, treating him so poorly and then lying about him to make trouble. It was evil of me, and I deserve to be punished, but, each time I think about it, I come back to that flower arrangement.” The light stayed clear and bright as she said all this, not even a flicker.

“It must have cost in golds. No one of his station could have afforded something like that. Not the station I thought he was at the time at least. It had to be sent for from the Capital, maybe even had the Queen’s own lady brought to town to do it herself! The base glistened like gold, covered in silk, a woven basket of it the like of which I've never seen since, and I've looked, the flowers perfect and tied with wound stems instead of string, so that it wouldn't show… And it was huge, it must have fifty different kinds of wildflower in it, with dried flowers and herbs to scent it. It smelled like cinnamon and vanilla, just enough to tell it was there. Given where we were, I knew instantly it was a brush off from the Prince, sending in a pretty distraction. I thought he loved me. He'd said so.”

Well, she believed it all and nothing hinted at a lie. Rolph was a cad. Well, he'd be hearing about this.

Tor grimaced.

“Let it be known that the statement isn't a lie.” Tor announced to the communications device, a small murmur coming from the other end, mainly female sounds of questioning, Tor thought.

Smythe looked at him and asked if Tor would clarify where the flower arrangement had come from. It didn't seem relevant to him, but he shrugged and picked up a truth medallion himself. If other people had to, so should he, right? Smythe raised his eyebrows, but nodded as if it were only proper.

“Um, well. I made it.” Maria looked shocked, and watched him closely. After about five seconds she seemed frightened, as the light didn't change.

“The gold ribbon was some stuff that Rolph, um Alphonse Cordes, had from a present his mother had sent him, part of the wrapping, he let me have it, since he was just going to toss it out anyway. So I spent a few weeks in the basket shop in town in my free time, trying to figure out how it could be done. That one was the fourth attempt. I'd seen Maria in class and hadn't had the nerve to talk to her at that point, so I had time. I still had a very strong accent then and figured a bumpkin shouldn't approach a fine lady like her, but… Alphonse said that if I liked a girl, I wouldn't profit by not telling her either, so I worked on it while I got up my courage and learned to speak properly. I'd never asked a girl on a date before.” Everyone watched him, waiting for more so he continued.

“I'd picked some of the flowers early and dried them in my dorm room, hanging up, because I was told that the good arrangements had them. I found some wild herbs in the woods, but they didn't keep their scent well, so I spent most of my money on a tiny vial of cinnamon, and when I told the lady at the store my plan she let me have a vial of vanilla too, in return for sweeping and scrubbing her store twice a day for two weeks. Then I collected most the fresh flowers that day, since I was off classes anyway and put it all together. That's all.”

It was what had happened, so nothing flickered. It had been silly of him, of course. He should have known before he walked up to her that he wasn't enough, that she was too good for someone like him. Then she didn't just refuse him, she made sure he knew all the reasons why he was bad and no one would ever love him. It kind of made sense at the time. Tor wasn't good enough, his stupid flowers weren't good enough, and he should die.

He'd felt like doing just for a long time. It was part of the case, so he spoke all of it out loud, trying to keep his voice clear and crisp. People would need to know he wasn’t lying about anything after all. Even if it hurt to say. It came out a little coldly. To his ears at least.

No one bothered to look at him when he was done, ignoring his own discomfort, or possibly just not wanting to be asked if they thought it was how things really were and have to lie to comfort him like people sometimes did out of friendship or common courtesy. Trice didn't even bother with one of her mock glares. She just looked at Maria.

Putting down the amulet and turning it off, his light went out.

There was sobbing, gentle but loud enough to hear, coming over the communications device. What that was about Tor didn't really know. It sounded like more than one person. Varley and Connie? Too hard to tell for certain.

Smythe gave him a moment to make sure he wasn't going to lose it and cry himself, but that wouldn't happen, he'd live it for years, he was ready right then to keep going he assured them all, his voice no more than a little flat and cold. Maria, coached by Smythe kept on with her tale from that point.

“So I took the flowers, too… um… rich for an obviously poor boy and threw them at him, then I called him every name I could think of. In rage, but..”

Laval it turned out was fascinated with that event, talking about it often, painting Tor as the true villain of the story, possibly influencing the Prince against her, so that he could capture her heart for himself, but when that failed, he lay in wait, plotting against her. Tor listened but almost laughed. Him? Plot? What could he have plotted. More… why?

Ellen Ward finally looked at him and nodded slowly, telling him something with her eyes he didn't understand. Oh, well, old issues being brought up or not, he was here to work, to stop a war and find the truth. They looked pretty innocent so far. The grilling got more intense for the next hour, with broader questions being asked. It turned out that Martya was a spy, placed by the Wards to watch him and get secrets out of him that might help them in their case. Or had been one.

“That lasted all of a day though. The next evening she came and gave my money back, ten gold solid, and told me she wasn't whoring for anyone anymore and that I could shove my gold up my behind. Actually she said ass.” The large Count said it with a smile and head shake. “It's that ice business of hers. She makes three times that on a slow day and that's just her share. I'd have moved her off the lawn for spite, but her business is a public service, isn't it? It would cheat my people to send her off to a less easily reached location. Besides, it's a handy thing to have close.” The large Count may have been thwarted, but he smiled about it, as if it were a grand joke. Or maybe that he was proud of a girl that he'd seen around most of her life rising in the world?

Then, they'd probably been lovers at some point too. It could have been something more than simple pride. Tor didn't check. It wasn't his business to know all about everyone around him. It felt like cheating somehow. Dirty.

Then everyone else was questioned about their involvement, just as hard, the servants asked mainly about Laval, after clearing themselves. They all had bits of information to share, things the man had said to them, what he liked to eat and who they'd seen him with. Ellen cleared her name in minutes, simply starting a litany that covered all questions asked before. Smythe smiled and gave her a seated bow, declaring her no longer a suspect without asking a single additional question. Not that Tor had doubted that for a second. Really, he hadn't even considered it a possibility. Probably why Smythe was in charge.

Trice…

Her story was different than any Tor had ever heard. She was, off and on, Maria's girlfriend, not just lover and had been involved, briefly, with the Count, but focused a lot more on the Countess. No one cared, not any of the royals. A spike of envy washed through Tor when he heard. But she wasn't his and hadn't ever really been, had she? His jealousy was irrelevant anyway, so he tried to let it go. Laval, however, had paid a lot of attention to her for a long while.

“He played me like a violin. I thought he was trying to get information about the Wards, or maybe for them, but now… yes, it always did come back to Tor. It was like…” Her eyes went blank as she sat still suddenly, a memory trance.

Smythe started to ask her to continue, but Tor held out a hand and shook his head a little. The older man tilted his head, but she didn't take twenty minutes or anything thankfully.

“He kept talking about him in terms of the unknown and the unknowable. He never really explained what it meant. It was a real thing to him though. I'd kind of figured he was obsessed with Maria, so wanted to do things to get her attention when I figured out the Tor part, but with all of them at Queen’s day…”

Yeah, that was kind of telling. The Wards didn't have that kind of clout. No one did, except the Austrans. Even the King of Noram couldn't bring seven identical assassins into play. But why would an Austran agent want to hurt or kill Tor overly? He wasn't a threat to them, not personally. Heck if there was no war, Tor wouldn't even know that the place existed hardly. Especially back then. He would have been a schoolboy. He'd still be one, maybe. Then, he hadn't left school over that, he gone away because of Trice. Still those things were related. What would have really happened if he'd never been poisoned?

She talked for a while, until things started going black with almost every statement. The field wouldn't allow it.

Heh. Right. Spy.

The King ordered the room cleared, claiming that this may be concerning things that verged on sensitive royal family matters. The room was emptied, except for Smythe, Trice, and one very confused little builder. Why hadn't he been kicked out?

“Answer honestly now Patricia.” The King told her, sounding amused.

“Uncle Richard, Tor is still here…” She was so uncertain she shook. Or maybe it was fear?

The King asked if Tor had one of the silence bubbles, which he did, about a hundred of them in the case next to him against the wall. It wasn't the work one for the investigation, just the stuff to go to the merchants in Printer that carried his devices. Secrecy really hadn't seemed an issue for an investigation. Having them made him look prepared though, didn't it? Once he had it down on the central table the King started talking again as if certain it would work. It did, but it hadn't been a sure thing. Well it was private now, spies or not. Kind of.

“I know Patricia. Once builders reach a certain level, it becomes hard to keep things from them and generally a bad plan in this case. He's already figured out half the spy network and I'd guess the other half won't take him much longer to work out now that he knows it's a possibility. From now on well just send people with a letter I guess. “Dear Tor, We've sent this girl to spy one you, have fun, love Rich.” Think that will work? Plus, he keeps doing such surprising things with all the ones sent at him. They keep ending up wealthy and well positioned. At least half a dozen haven't lasted more than a month in his presence, going off to a new job and life so quickly some here have wondered if it was on purpose.” The voice sounded questing.

Instead of answering, Tor just spoke, keeping his voice bland.

“We were about to question the witness?”

The tale was twisted, involved him and a lot of things she'd said to other people, some of them she meant, some lies to get people to think she was on their side. It was why she'd baited him when they last met and why she had glared at him earlier, though Trice did say it hurt when he'd stormed away like he had, because she knew he didn't have the information to understand.

Tor shrugged.

“I was acting. I'd kind of figured out what you had to be doing. You're not that mopey by nature, and if you felt that bad for real it wouldn't have been an attack, but tears and asking me to fix it. That or just telling me too. You can be a little entitled, you know? Anyway, if I get the time, I think I'm ready to try, the first version at least.”

“A magic arm?” Her voice was so skeptical it made Tor blush a little.

“Yes,” he told her gently. It may not be much, but it would be at least a little better than a metal hook. Maybe. If they got lucky. There was laughter at this, from him, but not from her, she looked determined.

“OK. I'll give you a month, but it better be special, a hook that glows or sparkles at least.” Now her voice sounded playful again, which sounded a lot more like the real her.

He could do that. Make it glow on command, or sparkle. Check.

There was a lot of anger in her directed at him too, which kind of seemed wrong. She was being honest, but it hurt to hear some of the things she thought.

Why hadn't he saved her arm instead of letting Karina chop it off? She knew for a fact that he couldn't have, and that Tor didn't even know to try, but he'd stopped the death dust in the air, couldn't he have stopped it on her hand? Karina caught some flak too. Trice was afraid of her now. Having nightmares about her coming to kill her in the dark, or take the remaining limbs. Cold sweats and panic attacks when she had to be around her for too long. That got an honest if hung-over gasp from the Princess on the other end of the communication device.

Who wouldn't be scared though? He was a little afraid of Varley and all she'd done was try to make her breaking up with him not hurt so bad. At least he thought that was her reason for doing what she had in the palace hallway.

When Smythe was satisfied, which took about a half hour of Tor bashing, most of it a lot less reasonable than him failing to save her arm, including for some reason a list of his faults, some of which he always took for virtues, like being focused on the task at hand, or being generous. She kept talking until Smythe, looking sidelong at Tor’s discomfort stopped her.

“So you truly dislike the boy? Tor here I mean?” At least the old guy didn't seem to be taking personal pleasure in it, but he did give Tor a funny look, as if wondering what he'd do about it maybe?

“What? No! I love him. I may whine about him sometimes, but that's just me being bitchy. It's my problem not his.” That, it was clear from the device making her glow so purely, was also true.

Tor had to duck his head, because he just didn't understand her at all. Was he awful or not? She wasn't lying, but it was too complex to understand. She'd said a lot of mean things about him, but loved him? He didn't talk, not knowing if that would be good or bad at all. Plus, there was the whole thing were she'd been ordered to watch him along with Sara, before he'd even known they were there. Months before. That part was just freaky.

Why watch him at all?

It was late luncheon by the time things broke up, but in all Smythe of Westend felt comfortable that the Wards did not order an attack on anyone, except Torrence Baker. That was almost funny, except that one way or another a lot of people had done that. Some more so than others but… Yeah, no doubt everyone here agreed that hurting him didn't really count. They were all royals after all and he was just… him.

As if to make a point of it no one else mentioned it again either. It should have made him mad, but it was just what was. If he wanted a fair world he'd have to make one, wouldn't he. Could he do that? Well, not from whole cloth, but remake the world into a better place? Um…

No.

Not the world. That would be too much. He might be able to help a few people over time, if he tried hard enough. That he could do. It was enough. It had to be, since it was all that Tor could realistically manage. It would do. If you can't be loved, don't let that stop you from loving others. He nodded a little to himself.

Another party was planned for that evening, since they were all suddenly free of suspicion, no one was planning a war, except against Austra, and everyone was relieved and happy about things. Tor felt down, but didn't want to drag anyone with him, so went to set up his house in the giant park out front, no bigger this time, but one of the new ones, so he could play around with decorating and making the outside look festive. This time it had three stories, so it did have more space really and he made the bottom one open except for strong, arched supports and central columns so that it looked like it would support weight easily and filled it with six giant tubs filled with water for people to play in, each one large enough for eight at a time easily. The baths all looked like gray stone, as if carved out of rock and the top looked like a mountain with widows on all sides. The inside of the space looked normal but in a dark green, to fit the park. The front lawn, Tor remembered looking around. That only killed about an hour, so he decided to work up something to help entertain people later. Why not, right? Besides he had an idea that he needed to check into.

He could do both at once. That was efficient even.

It took three hours even in the deep trance he was trying to use more often now, to get ready for the build on Trice’s arm. If he failed she'd probably hate him for real. Possibly forever. Who could blame her? If he'd been better, a true Master Builder, he would have stopped all the death dust in the area instantly, not just what he saw. It wouldn't have taken that much more if he would have thought to sense the nanos themselves, not just go after what was visible. He could do it now even.

Tor could have done it then.

Except he'd panicked, not knowing how to handle the situation, and just froze the stuff already in the air. God he sucked. Trice should hate him. She was right, and his personal failure had cost her arm.

The device was about as big as his fist and had a dozen sigils on it. He didn't know if it would be very partyish, it was more of a festival thing, but he hoped someone would at least like part of it. It was multifaceted and built to be fun, if a little more adult than he'd planned originally. Not too bad he hoped. People would think he was perverted or something if he'd overdone it. Then again, here in Ward they may not think anything of it at all.

The dinner was a whole roast pig, which looked incredible and had been cooking anyway, since it took a long time to cook that much meat. Over a day. They did it in pits they dug, which was a fascinating idea, one using layers of hot coals and earth to hold the heat for slow roasting, actually burying the animal. There were side dishes too, but it was too much work to care about them, he ate small portions and finished it all, but didn't get greedy.

Tor sat at a little table again, though Smythe of Westend had apparently found enough favor to make it to the big table up front. Trice sat next to him and he was between her and Maria, who kept touching his arm gently, as if concerned about his hand. The one mean old Tor took from him. Tor forced a smile to his face.

It had been a good day’s work and the Wards should be grateful to the older man. If Tor had proclaimed them innocent no one would have believed it at all. Trice looked at him occasionally and gave him dirty looks, so he just stopped making eye contact, the game of being a villain so that people would do whatever it was she hoped they would, wasn't as interesting at the moment for some reason.

If she wanted to play her little spy games she could do it without him.

Besides, they'd cleared the Wards on that, and unless the Larval were working with someone else that hated Tor, the situation looked pretty much wrapped up. Trice was probably just being thorough, which normally would have been a good thing, but feeling a bit down like he was, it seemed over the top at the moment.

People saw the pools and figured them out fast enough, just stripping out of their clothing and keeping the water cool to the touch, but nowhere near cold. They soaked and splashed, played and sometimes did things that got raunchy comments and laughter from the people around them. It seemed like fun, but it just left him feeling lonely and out of place.

Did he know anyone that wasn't spying on him for some reason? Or at least that didn't have someone else doing it? Even his own family was doing it. That people watched him, Tor didn't care about much, except when he was doing private things, then it mattered, of course, but that people would lie to him just to do it was… horrible.

Had he ever had a real friend or a girl that liked him just for him, not because she had orders to pretend to? Or, and the idea hit Tor hard, was he making too much of everything? Inside a single year he went from being a guy women didn't talk to in more than passing to someone other people sent women after, at least occasionally. That was better wasn't it? Some of those girls even seemed fond of him at times. That was way better than old Tor the troll had ever expected. OK, it wasn't the perfect undying love of a story book, but what was? Maybe he should stop whining, and do things instead? Try to do something fun and actually meet someone he could talk to for instance.

Tor decided he'd ask the next girl or woman that came by to dance.

No matter who it was.

With an opening like that he half expected the universe to aim Ellen Ward at him, or a tottering grandmother in her dotage. Well, so be it. If they said yes, it was better than sitting alone. Ellen wouldn't even be that bad except she was about two feet taller than he was, so it would look like she was dancing with a tiny child.

The girl that came by wasn't anyone he knew at all and wasn't even a giant.

She looked at the dance floor wistfully, but no one seemed to be interested in her. She was average looking. Pleasantly normal, Tor thought, her nose almost hooked downward a little and her face was perfectly oval. That part was interesting, the shape of her face, very symmetrically balanced, making an almost perfect arc from forehead to chin. Close enough he couldn't tell the difference. She was short for the crowd, still taller than him, but only a few inches, five-seven maybe, which would make dancing more fun. Screwing up his courage Tor decided to just jump in, expecting her to tell him that she was waiting for someone else, or maybe that she didn't dance.

“Hi!” It was a bright word and a little loud, causing her to jump and look at him like he wanted to sell her something. She reformed her face politely, a small smile on her lips and ducked her head just a little. A shy move that Tor understood instantly.

This wasn't someone that was used to being approached overly.

“Would you like to dance?”

The smile reached her eyes and she nodded, allowing him to lead her to the dance floor by the hand. That's what people in Ward did, even if they didn't know each other. The person asking took the other persons hand and led them to the floor. At least everyone had done that with him so far. The woman, she was at least in her late twenties, danced horribly. Tor wasn't that good either, so they laughed as they flopped around trying to copy what other people were doing. It was fun. Plus, being together is looked like they were doing it on purpose, which made it seem merely unique, rather than awkward.

When the song ended she looked down, her face falling a bit, so Tor asked if she wanted to keep going. By the sixth song they were doing better. Not much, but enough. They never touched, but when a slower song played Tor looked around and turned off his shield with a flickering thought, using intent rather than a tap on the amulet. Sure, someone would probably attack him now, but if he didn't try to live at all, what was the purpose of existing? She took his hand in hers when he offered it and moved close enough for him to smell her, after looking down a bit shyly, she pressed up against him lightly. It was nervous, tentative and not seductive at all, but felt more real than most of the situations he'd been in with women so far.

The next song was faster so he re-shielded and danced with decent energy. After that it was time to get a drink, Tor figured, not that thirst was an issue for him, but she looked a little warm from all the physical activity. He had fruit juice, pineapple-coconut, which was his favorite here, probably his favorite over all, next to apple pear blend. That was about the best thing ever, when it wasn't poisoned. He got a drink that had a lot of crushed ice, some red juice and alcohol for his new friend, because she asked, paying for both himself since the vendor wasn't pre-paid. The Ward's provided free food at these things, but if you wanted to get drunk you had to do it yourself.

It was both cheaper and probably cut down on problems.

The woman was wearing the same kind of shear white dress that most of the women wore to these parties, almost a uniform. Even he had adopted the male version, with a green sash around his waist and light trousers. She was darker skinned than he was, but lighter than almost everyone else, about the same tan as Trice or Maria. Her smile was nice when she used it, Tor saw. A bit toothy and her gums showed, but it seemed to be real, lighting up her face, which counted for a whole lot with him at the moment.

She spoke softly, a bit shy, like his sister Terlee used to be before she started going all noble Counserina on him. It wasn't all bad, he was proud of her for it… mainly. Except for the spying parts.

“I'm Bonita. I'm here visiting family for a few weeks. Things were a little tense here though, until today. They say Smythe of Westend came and fixed everything. That's something isn't it? I don't think he's here though, a person like him probably wouldn't be off dancing or anything. Probably inside.” She pointed to the Ward palace, which they all called “the estate”.

“Everyone seems so happy. I guess that's understandable. I am. Happy I mean. Maria has always been kind to me. She doesn't get along well with all my other sisters, there are five of us in all, some half-sisters though. We don't have the same mom, Maria and I. But still, family is family. Her husband’s worth coming to look at if nothing else, and I hear that Tor is here. Maria said that. The wizard I mean. He's the one that brought Smythe and stopped the war I think. My other sister, she's younger than me and really pretty, she knows him. At least that's what she said. Still, she was passing out flying amulets at the time and those are almost impossible to get, so she must know someone. Then, she lives in the Capital. I'm the one they keep at the country estate. Bonita Turnbull…” She sounded a bit bitter at the end, but Tor nudged her gently, made a silly face and stuck his tongue out.

He'd heard the insane or unacceptable relative of royals called Howard Turnbull before so he got the reference. Yay, learning. Bonita wasn't crazy though, he touched her field to check, it was a little sad, depressed and lonely, but healthy and decently intelligent feeling. Not a genius maybe, but not evil either and not holding any ulterior motives in talking to him. That heartened him a lot. If she even knew who he was he'd have been surprised, if not flabbergasted. There was no recognition, nothing except genuine interest. In him.

Just the guy who'd asked her to dance.

Heh.

Tor grinned at her.

“Don't get down on my new friend you!” He mock glared and put his fists on his hips trying to puff himself up. Bonita smiled and look down coyly.

“I usually don't tell men this right off, because I generally don't want people to throw themselves at me because of my title, but I like you and am willing to throw out whatever bait I can.” Moving closer to him she whispered softly, “I'm a Baronetta first.”

Tor shrugged.

“That's OK, I won't hold it against you, some of my best friends are nobles.” She looked down shyly again, and giggled softly, which was kind of cute.

“Hey, I didn't want to go alone, but would you like to go soak in one of the tubs? It looks fun.” Moving his head as if gesturing that they should move in that direction, Tor turned off his shield and took her hand, which made Bonita smile at him and follow when he started walking.

Five minutes later they were standing next to one of the pools, which was totally full of people packed so tightly together there was barely room left for water between them. All the pools were like that. Well… darn. Bonita may not have the same kind of face as her sisters, but she looked to have a cute body with nice curves and had the benefit of not being way too tall. Bathing was a good reason to get her out of her clothes too.

The idea made him smile.

“Well, we'll go later. I think I'm here for a couple of days still. I have some work I have to do during the day, but if you want, we can get together and do stuff? I haven't really seen the city at all, this is my third time here, so I should. I've only been to the beach once, and haven't walked the city at all.” He felt silly saying it, but her eyes were warm and she nodded shyly.

“If you want, once you see me in full light, I mean. Everyone looks better in dim light.”

Tor raised his eyebrows.

“Oh… good point, you haven't really seen me yet either. Want to run off and have sex now when we're both good looking? I've been compared to a troll you know. Seriously. Now, I thought it was a little mean, but hey, there were a lot of them saying it at the time…” Stupid Galasian school kids. They made a play about it and everything. To be fair it was a pretty good play, but it still kind of hurt his feelings to think about. Worse, by their traditions, in any future plays or writings, he had to be depicted the same way. No changing it up just to salve his ego or anything.

Worse, the troll him was kind of a jerk.

Before she could answer fireworks started above them.

Ah ha! Someone had activated the device he'd made. Well, leave things on a table with a bunch of drunks and someone was bound to hit the glowing sigils, weren't they? It would be surprising if whoever had didn't wet themselves. At least the effects didn't seem to come directly from the device itself. Instead they seemed to grow out of the air itself way up high in the black night. There were thunderous booms too, a bit before the brilliantly colored streamers crossed the sky. It made it seem more real, he thought. People started to make noises of awe, which turned into cheers as fully a third of the inky black night sky was filled with brilliant purple and gold, the royal colors. Then there was an all green spectacle with twenty randomly placed looking blasts that popped and crackled. For Lairdgren, since that was his house.

Bonita clapped hard.

“Maria didn't mention fireworks! This must have cost a fortune… not that I'm hard up for money, if you’re a male whore… I can pay…” Her voice went soft again, she was looking at him in the bright light from the display.

The snorting laugh that came out was far from dignified. Tor started to answer, but didn't get a chance, since the next phase was coming up already and it kind of stole all the attention. It would start with a flower, a single red rose made of various colored sparkles which got a gasp that was rewarding to say the least. He tapped his shield off again for what was coming, since it would be filtered otherwise and casually took Bonita's right hand in his left, looking at her in the gentle glow. She glanced at him, and smiled happily, her hand tightening around his.

What came made people stand up and cheer with delight, hooting and hollering in drunken abandon. It was a saucy dancing girl, made of sparkles all in red and bright blue. The image moved though, standing, legs flashing as skirts were tossed up. Drumming, fast and driving, came from the sky itself as she skipped and twirled, if you were imaginative and attentive you could see a dark patch as she twirled and her skirt rose, in interesting places. It was actually based on one of the girls he'd seen dancing the time before when he'd come, so it looked pretty realistic. Not perfect, but no one seemed to mind that it wasn't an actual giant dancing woman in realistic colors. He could have done that of course, now that he'd gotten how to make things move, it had just seemed like it might be too scary without giving people something less realistic to look at first.

This was it, he thought, the important part.

It started almost without notice, the sense of a warm breeze hitting the skin, gaining strength and cooling slightly as birds flew into the scene from nowhere the feeling of their wing beats buffeting the crowd. They seemed to appear on a thunderclap, both were green, and had decent realism other than the color and being made of firework sparkles. The drumming was suddenly joined by horns as rain gently fell on skin. Except the world was totally dry. It was just the sensation of it, fed to the brain directly. This died suddenly and was replaced with a low tingle that Tor figured would probably have had him lynched in Two Bends, but might go over with a crowd of rowdy drunks that often turned sex into a public sport. The tingle became pleasure, and in about a minute the pleasure grew so intense that people were shaking a little. Even Bonita who grasped his arm tightly went breathless for a bit. It felt good to him, but not that intense… Were some people just more sensitive than others then?

Good to know. He'd have to build in a way to control the intensity of sensation to Trice’s arm. Just in case she wasn't as jaded that way as he was or something. Then, as the pleasure peeked, the sky exploded in ten different colors, booms loud enough to echo in their chests.

No one moved for a while, ten seconds, more than that.

Then people cheered. It was so overwhelming that Tor nearly slapped his shield again, but didn't because just then Bonita spilled her drink on him clumsily so that it soaked his shirt and part of his lap. She looked worried, but it was a mock thing, not real. She'd done it on purpose? Why?

She started brushing at him wildly, paying most of her attention to his lap, of course most of the bright red drink had gone into his shirt. He almost told her not to worry about it when she pulled him up and over towards the pools, heading towards the stone stairs that would take them up into his temporary house. Checking her thoughts, it was clear she still had no clue who he was… so they were sneaking in? Almost naughty. She wasn't drunk, but she still had to stifle giggle when they got inside and shut the door holding it behind her.

“This way! There have to be rooms, right? Unless wizards don't sleep. I've heard rumors about Master Tor staying up for weeks working. Can you imagine that? This is nicer than I thought it would be… Tor must actually have taste.” Up the second set of stone stairs, hard under his feet, there was a polished cherry wood door with brass fixtures.

She opened it slowly. It was silent, making only the softest wave of air to indicate anything really happened at all.

“Hello? Anyone in here? Hello? Don't blast us please?” She still sounded shy but wasn't acting it any more. No, her actions were almost bold. Breaking into a wizard’s house to do who knew what? Who did that?

They did, apparently.

The light sigil glowed on the wall next to the door, but she didn't try for it, instead she felt around for something soft and found the bed, which wasn't hard to do, since he'd made it huge, just in case a friend came over. That had been the hope at least. And here they were… He'd figured on guilty sex with Sara, taking advantage of the fact that as a spy she'd want to get close to him. Maybe even Sorlee. She worked as a whore, so it wouldn't hurt her emotionally, but it would curl Terlee's totally straight hair a little. Especially if he did some of the things that Petra and Collette had been doing with him.

Bonita wanted sex, and wasn't nearly as practiced as the other women he'd been with about the whole idea. She was sweet, gentle and willing to try almost anything though. So Tor kissed down her stomach, just the finest hint of hair tickled his lips. Then he slowly moved lower. He wasn't an expert at this, but Ursala had said he was doing pretty well in practice and Bonita responded as if pleased. Very much so. After that she wanted to try several other things, all of them fun, but things that didn't push into any new territories for him personally, so he could focus on doing a good job rather than worry that he was doing it right or not hurting her.

What she really wanted though was to be held and told she was pretty, that she had lovely eyes, which she did, even in the near pitch black of the room, and that she was just as good as anyone else. She said all this shyly, but straight out, and with a pure honesty that touched him deep inside.

“As good? Seriously? Better. Anybody doubting that can expect to have an argument from me for sure. You are truly wonderful and brilliant.” He said with confidence. It was easy enough to do, being true.

They fell asleep holding each other with him whispering sweet things to her, which seemed to make her happy. She was cuddly and clung to him like she didn't want to let go. That was all right, he didn't really want to either, so it worked out for both of them, didn't it?

In the morning, sunlight coming through the window, but early still, well before breakfast, he woke. Alone. He felt a little sad at first, wondering if he'd done something wrong. She'd seemed happy enough… Then he saw a pile of coins on the table, near his side of the bed. Two and a half gold. Was she worried about his shirt and pants? This would probably buy ten sets of those or more. Twenty maybe. Plus it was magic clothing anyway, so it would be perfect when he put it back on.

Then, still groggy, he got the idea.

He was a whore.

She'd thought she was paying him to do those things? And apparently Tor had done well enough that she'd paid about five times too much. Maybe ten? That worried him. True, maybe she was paying him to go away and not embarrass her with her family or to prevent blackmail, but even if she was married, for a royal a tryst with someone like that wasn't a big deal. Maybe her husband was really big and jealous or something and she wanted to ensure the peace? Could be. Who knew. Well, if he ran into Bonita again he'd ask her to go do something and see if she put him off.

If he just wasn't her type then he'd try again until he found a girl that fit.

Still the whole thing hurt a little. Not so much that she'd paid him for it, but that she didn't think enough of herself to realize she didn't have too.

After cleaning up he went to the estate for breakfast, since he'd been invited to do so for the duration of his stay. He kept expecting the doorman, the butler, to turn him away, or maybe be cold, but was met with a big smile and called sir more times in one minute than he had been in the rest of his life put together. Literally. It was almost like the man really wanted Tor to know he was respected or something.

All the meals were kind of casual and cozy here, you served yourself from a table set up in the next room, and when inside took it in to the dining room to eat. They had cooling plates inside the one room, but most people had equalizers now, so they all sat around the big highly polished dark wood table instead of off trays in the funny, hard to sit in, chairs of the cool room.

Tor found them sitting on one end of the table, which was covered with a fine lace tablecloth of cream colored material, with plates of food, mainly sliced fruit and cool bread made hours before, probably in a bakery away from the main building. Four women and one giant Count sat talking softly.

Maria and Trice were tucked around Bonita protectively, leaning in to hear her clearly, with Ellen sitting near, obviously paying attention. The Count seemed amused, but fought to keep the look off his face. It rolled off his internal field though.

“So then I left some coins on the bed stand and left. I couldn't face that morning after thing again, when they sober up and realize what I really look like, that I'm not you or Collette or even Ginger. Just ugly Bonita Turnbull. But he was worth the price and more. I should have gotten his name so I could meet him again. I could borrow some gold for it, right?” The voice was soft and plaintive, but everyone said “oohh…” in unison.

Even the Count, though he nodded to her, indicating clearly that mere coin wouldn't be an issue between them. The woman hadn't looked up to see it though. It made Tor feel a little better, knowing that Marvin would back his sister in-law like that.

Not that it was needed.

In direct light she actually looked a little cuter than she had the night before, more color and her hair wasn't messed up already. Also the light blue dress she wore worked for her complexion way better than white. She wasn't Collette or Maria, or even Trice, but anyone calling her ugly was a bastard, and more, simply wrong. If Tor had been presented with this woman on his wedding day he'd have been pleased.

He wore a deep brown silk shirt and pants that looked like leather, matching color almost perfectly, with heavy boots that had really high, but very soft, soles on them. He suddenly wondered if he should turn them into something more impressive, but knew that pretending to be something he wasn't wouldn't help anything.

Sitting down next to Trice earned a funny look from her, a worried and happy thing to start with, blurring into something like anger. Right, she hated him for her job still. Which wasn't going to work, but Tor couldn't share that with her without ruining her game.

The Count waved to him lazily but pointed towards the quiet girl and placed a single finger to him mouth covertly enough to not call attention to the move. Trice glanced up at the giant, but ignored Tor after that. It made Tor feel almost like he should grope her under the table in retaliation, but that could be noticed so he refrained.

Barely.

It would just be funny. Not able to resist long he stared at the conversation and dropped his hand to his friends leg, running his fingers along the inside of her thigh ever so gently, but just once, then, as if it never happened, even though she jumped and looked at him, took his hand back before she could make a scene about it.

That got a baffled look from Trice, which Tor found unduly rewarding for some reason.

The conversation got complicated, because Maria kept asking “and then what” about her sisters evening and Bonita was going into detail. Embarrassing and graphic detail, but it sounded good when she said it. Almost as if his efforts in love making were artistic rather than just paltry fumblings. About halfway through Trice glanced at him and smirked, expecting him to have turned a bright scarlet, most likely.

Tilting his head he grinned at her and winked, which truly confused her. That was plain on her face, as well as washing off of her field. Maria seemed excited enough about the events though and promised to help her locate the man, whoever he was. Even if they had to line up all the brothel men in the city. Bonita kept her head down and just didn't look over at all. Not even at Patricia or up at the Count.

Finally Maria made eye contact and smiled prettily at him, as if she hadn't noticed him before. Possible, she'd been busy after all, family first, and Bonita was sweet and kind, and had an adventure to share, so was worth paying attention to. He really needed to find out if she was married so he wasn't accidentally indiscreet. The Countess nodded a few times, seeing where his gaze went.

“Oh! We've all been so busy I haven't introduced you two at all have I? Bonita, this man is Master Builder Torrence Baker, Countier four Lairdgren. Well, you know, Tor. Tor, this is my oldest sister Bonita Coltress, half sister-really, but she's closer to me than my full sister. She's Baronetta first. Hmmm. Are you engaged right now? That’s within three steps. Nita's not married yet and she really should be soon.” The tone was playful, but not said without a bit of serious intent.

Without looking up a soft moan came from behind hands laying flat over her face.

“Maria! God, I'm so embarrassed… stupid Bonita Turnbull…” She didn't hit her head with a rock, but Tor could sympathize with the feeling.

He spoke, trying to make his voice warm and happy sounding. It wasn't hard. He really liked Bonita.

“Currently not engaged to be married, but supposedly I have a date tonight, with a Baronetta even. If that doesn't fall through or something. Things are looking up, definitely, you know? I was just coming to check and see if Bonita had a jealous husband or boyfriend I needed to watch out for, the way she stole away like that… And seriously, two and a half gold? No one's worth that for a single night. I'm keeping it though, we can use it for our date.” His voice came out wry and pleasant sounding at least.

His voice got her to look up. Finally. He'd thought she might bolt, Terlee used to do that when scared or pushed too far socially. That or hide and mumble at him, instead she smiled, and jumping behind Trice, tried to pull him into a hug, then a kiss, but he had his shield on, which he turned off for her.

It was warm and done well enough to feel nice, what more did he want?

Trice got up and stormed out.

Angrily. A small flash of real angst coming from her as she did. And a whole lot more confusion.

Tor ignored her and kissed Bonita back.

Chapter thirteen

The next few days were some of the most wonderful Tor had ever experienced. Nita, as he'd taken to calling her, met with him each evening and they did things. Fun things. Like flying along the coast and having a picnic on a beach, the wind whipping past them and blowing sand everywhere. Or walking through the market place in the city, where smiling people kept offering them free things for some reason. The late nights were fun too. Each morning after the first, he woke to find Bonita's arm over him protectively, as if he were going to suddenly disappear on her if she wasn't careful.

It was different during the day, they ate with the Wards most of the time and Trice kept giving him looks that indicated his death might just be imminent, but it seemed a little over the top to him. Even if she was really angry at him for “spurning her affections”, which was kind of what she hinted to everyone that would listen, she wouldn't have acted like that.

She might have punched him when he wasn't looking, but she wouldn't… sulk. Not like she pretended to. Worse, she insisted on following him and Smythe around like a puppy, making sure she was at each questioning and glaring when he wasn't looking. He could feel her doing it.

Her field said the anger wasn't real at all at least, and even that she was mildly bored by it all, but that didn't cause her to let go of the plan. She had orders it seemed. From the King.

It explained it, sort of. Tor needed to get with the man and discuss the situation, didn’t he? It really was pretty much wasted effort at the moment. Plus annoying.

Smythe was far more professional, and didn't even act like Tor should be put to death at the moment, choosing perhaps to wait for the investigation to finish? Really, the old, but huge, military Counselor assured him several times, his part, Tor's, was finished and he could go back to the Capital or even stay with his new friend when Smythe moved to the next location to hunt for spies and assassins.

“The King wanted you to be here in case a war had to be stopped, clearly. A full force of men would simply aggravate things, so he sent a single man in their place, in case it was a trap. He has great faith in you, I hope you understand that? It would be a shame if you let him down. That's not the point however. Your time is better spent doing what you do. Building and, one hopes, continuing your humanitarian efforts. Also… you're a young man. This kind of thing… It doesn't serve to put youth in the way of ferreting out spy's and assassins. It hurts the soul too much, too soon. Enjoy your youth while you can. You'll have an entire lifetime to be old.” He smiled warmly and as far as Tor could tell, it was a real thing and the words heartfelt. It made him pause for a bit before speaking.

“Sound advice, and trust me, I'd love to take it. Work on my little projects, grab Nita and maybe a few other girls if I could manage it and go to the Capital, spend my time making friends for once and going to parties where people will at least pretend to like me, desperately trying to wheedle things out of me that I'd just give them if they asked, or even just hinted at wanting, within reason. But I can't do that, can I? We're at war and the King put me with you to learn. What the lesson is I don't know. Probably professionalism when a task is at hand. But regardless, I can't leave your side until told too can I?” Tor grinned.

“Plus, honestly, with all the spies around me anyway, learning to tell who's working for whom is a valuable skill. Besides, I guess if I need killing, I might as well be you adjacent. But for god’s sake, make sure I really need it, will you? Could — might — be — a — problem — eventually is a dumb reason to kill a friend you know.”

That got a somber nod, but no comment since the next set of interviews was beginning. Tradesmen, merchants and barkeeps, serving girls and whores were all questioned. Nothing much turned up on Laval at all. The truth devices sped things up a lot and cut out something like ten repetitions of the same question, so they'd be finished in a few days, Smythe told him, instead of the months it might normally take. Then it would be on to Printer, Thorgood and so on.

“And Lairdgren School of course. We know that one of the Larvals was there at least. I can interview you here, and Captain Wensa wherever Prince Alphonse is, but we need to be thorough, who knows what some student saw or who the man's contacts were. Of course in a few days we have to be in the Capital anyway. King's week. All sitting nobles and Counselors have to attend, especially now, with a war on. Stupid rule, but if you don't keep a firm hand with nobles they end up thinking they're as fit to rule as the King. Some are, some aren't, but what I've noticed is that the ones that would make the poorest leaders always seem to think they deserve the position most.”

Tor got out a piece of paper and wrote that last bit down, making Smythe chuckle. Well, sound advice could come from anywhere. He added the bit about being young while he could so he wouldn't forget later. That was the kind of thing he could lose track of pretty easily, he knew.

It meant he had a week to come up with a present for the King. He wondered if they'd let him in to the party, or turn him from the gates again this year, but finally decided to let that go. He'd just plan to skip it and have a party with his friends and send presents along with Count Thomson again or something. Maybe Rolph would hand them off. That just left finding out what the man wanted. He pretty much got whatever he desired. Except a break…

That… It would be hard to do, with a war on, but they had communication devices in case of emergency now and Rolph, Prince Alphonse, was the heir, in the loop already, even in on the secrets, and kind of should have the practice when there was time. All it would come down to would be protecting the King and Queen and selecting a place no one would ever think to look for them. Isolated and externally bland looking? The beach house at County Ford? No, that was a known property. But the idea was good. Count Ford had said that if he ever needed anything, he should just ask, right? Plus they could go in on that present together. It would have to be a secret, so he'd need a real gift too and a public spectacle so that people didn't think he was mad at the King. It was the problem with coming up with good presents a few times for the royals. From that point on he had to have something just as good or everyone would think he didn't care to be bothered.

He should have stuck to napkin rings and pots of preserves.

Well, too late for that now.

Those he could do, with a bit of work. He started that night, after Nita fell asleep, working until morning. Not much sleep, but Tor wasn't going to let his friend be alone if he could help it, since she seemed lonely at times still. Sometimes he wouldn't be able to be with her, and hopefully she'd understand that, but for now he just pushed himself into the deepest dark within and worked there, barely understanding things in words anymore, just ideas. If anyone asked him what he done exactly he'd have to point to the things he made and shrug. It was just too different to talk about easily.

He built and worked, carefully and deeply, for two more days before things suddenly went sideways on him.

It had to happen, something like it at least, he realized as Nita sat across from him at the small round table they ate at, staring at her plate of brightly colored bits of food. She hadn't eaten much, just picking at things listlessly for a while. Finally, as the music started and drinks began to flow, she spoke, her voice sad and a little scared sounding. Worried maybe?

“Um, Tor? I was thinking and, well…” Her face buried behind her long dark blond hair she whispered. He could just make out what she said.

“Did… Did Maria get you to do this? Is she paying you to spend time with me?”

He blinked. What? At first the words didn't even make sense to him. Pay him?

“Sorry… I… why would she do that? I mean, no, but why? And really, I don't need gold, what would she be paying me in?” Land came to mind as a bribe, but he didn't say it out loud, because Nita was a little down on herself still. No need to throw fuel on that fire, he decided instantly.

That she'd gotten five days in before doubting herself this much, this openly, was amazing really. Tor didn't let anything show for a second. Denials wouldn't work, he knew that. He'd been in similar places in life and saying he loved her simply wasn't proof. Reaching under the top of his tunic, a simple light-tan looking thing he'd made up that morning, with a red sash and white canvas pants and black boots. It kind of fit in with what people wore here during the day, without aping them exactly.

Real people, not royals.

Finding the truth amulet he carried all the time any more, he tapped firmly and it started glowing in gold and cream, the gold making two broad stripes down the nimbus around him.

“You've seen this before right? Goes black if I lie or say something that isn't true, even if I don't know it when the words come out? As long as it's in my head at least. So, no, Maria did not, at any time suggest I date you, spend time with you or anything of that nature, except mentioning you weren't married, which I took to be implied match making, didn't you? Kind of nice of her given that she and I aren't all that close.” The glow stayed steady and she ducked her head but asked more questions while she had him like this. An odd type of shyness that she had…

“Are you… sleeping with her? My sister?” She glanced at him looking almost afraid.

“I've never slept with your sister.”

This caused the whole field to go a deep black, which made Nita cringe and the few people around them listening openly lean in suddenly, since things had obviously gotten interesting. Sorlee even shifted seats to move closer. Tor held up his hand and grinned, embarrassed.

“Sorry, I misspoke, that can happen. Um… I should have said… I've never slept with Maria.” This time the field did what it was supposed to do at least. Gah. Pesky truth. Still, it showed the whole thing worked and that he didn't have a special device that let him lie. He could do that, but who would? If he didn't want people to know something he just wouldn't say it.

“Which one…”

“Oh! I didn't mention that did I? It's not a big thing, we're just friends, Collette? She runs the ice manufactory at the Capital. She's living with me actually, but last I saw it the place was nearly the size of the King’s palace or the estate here. It's not like we're having to share a room. Who knows what she has it doing now. Petra Ward is there too. It's not a permanent thing. You know, with King’s week coming we all have to go back. I can put you all up there if you want? It's outside the south gate, but the trip to the palace isn't that bad. I'm going to throw a party of my own this year too, but you can go to the palace if you want, or stay with me for that. Since they're not declaring war right now or getting everyone pregnant anymore we should also invite Maria and Marvin… I guess.”

Tor grimaced and kept going, trying to keep Nita distracted from the fact that he'd slept with her sister. “Though I don't think they should do more than swear fealty several times and grovel a bit this year and probably next. Marvin getting Princess Veronica pregnant is not popular with the royal family right now, as you might imagine. Me either as far as that goes, kind of ruined my engagement to her. The Prince may say some nasty things to Marvin over that, after Alphonse apologizes to Maria. He doesn't know he's doing that yet, but if he doesn't, I'll sneak into his room at night and shave his eyebrows off.”

Funny thing, the field didn't blink at all on that one. Tor hadn't known he felt that strongly on the matter, but it seemed that a certain Prince needed to step the heck up, or he was going to look funny for a long while.

Nita's eyes danced and her mouth opened in way that his body started to respond to on its own. She didn't even question that he'd slept with Collette, probably assuming he would in the future too, thanks to the messed up way nobles ran their relationships. Well, Nita could sleep with who she chose too, so it was fair enough. He didn't feel jealous about that, like he thought he would. Was he adapting to this strange world then? A little?

It was an amazing thing, an almost perfect moment for him. He felt accepted as Nita sat looking at him. Like he was something good, and not a troll at all.

He felt fine. Happy. Complete.

The men attacked hard and fast, hitting him from four sides at once without any warning at all. Nita was in the way of one, who tried to hit her with a blue beam of light, an electric weapon. Tried being the operative word. Her shield hadn't been on, but Tor triggered it before the beam hit, slapping his left hand to her chest before he did anything else at all, pushing her away. The shields locked somehow and… twisted as the force of him hitting her chest tried to flow into the ground. Painfully for him. The impact on her went neatly into the ground, but his hand and arm wrenched around suddenly with a cracking sound that could only be a bone breaking. It wasn't as quiet as Tor figured it would be, the other time he'd broken a bone he'd barely even noticed the sound at all.

He screamed. It hurt and there was no time to kill the pain or even prepare for it. Sometimes you just had to deal, and no trick was going to save you.

“Run away!” He screamed, the chant that Kolb had drummed into him for years, but this time it wasn't about him, the others needed to run. At Queen’s day the seven Larval's had been taken out, but killed over twenty nobles, Royal Guards and warriors first. Most of them combat giants. Most of those killed with nothing more than knives. The brave man Duke Winchester, who'd fought to protect Tor while he stopped the death dust in the air, had died, desperately clinging to the attacker even as his guts slid to the ground. It had been Smythe that had saved him then, Tor was told. He alone had taken out three of the men, using a military grade shield and Not-flyer, ramming them at over sixty miles per hour. Varley had taken one that way too, figuring it out from watching Smythe on the fly. Once they were down others finished the work, but without those two the whole thing would have gone a lot differently.

These people were mainly commoners from in town, unshielded and without training of note at all in fighting. No one walked around armed in Warden. No one but him. Even the guards here only carried little wooden clubs. They’d never needed more.

Not until that day.

No explosions took place this time, thank god. No nanos spread into the air either. Tor backpedaled, the assassins focusing on him alone it seemed so far. Good. They weren't hurting him, broken hand aside. Now if people would just get away he could start fighting in earnest and make this stop. He did trigger his Not-flyer and pulled the weapon he kept at his side all the time now, or at least bedside. He even took it into the shower with him.

It was white stone and glowing multicolored sigils, looking kind of pretty and festive he thought. He had to do it with his left hand, broken or not, but now he could focus a little, which meant that he could manage. It hurt, but he'd dealt with worse. As he got the men to follow him onto the dance floor one tried to blind him with an intense light, like Smythe had. It poured into the ground, running like water, flowing around him in damp looking brilliance towards the only direction that he'd deemed really safe for such things. It was a ruby red cascade, the beam coming in hot and leaving that way, making the grass smoke, but dancing over his skin, a quarter inch away, leaving him untouched.

Pretty.

The men looked identical to Dorgal Sorvee's friend from school and no doubt Maria Ward's lover, Laval. Which all things considered was about as stupid a name as could have been come up with. Laval the Larval? Moronic. The killer, one of them, switched aim and tried for Bonita instead. Obviously they were friends, so killing her would distract him, right?

That made sense. If you were amoral, evil and had no sense of ethical behavior or honor at all. Perfect for a super-killer clone Tor guessed. It had no more effect on her than it had him.

“Nita! Run away! Go. They want me for some reason… Possibly my fashion sense? Since nothing else seems reasonable at all. Everyone go!” Even with a shield on, they'd probably kill him eventually. Like the Royal Guard, they didn't seem to stop, and were both hard to kill and fast. A lot faster than he was, possible faster than was strictly human. Tor was bobbing around at over forty miles an hour and they were side stepping him as if it were a child's game. Apparently they'd noticed how well that technique had worked before, and learned.

Even though they weren't there at the time? However that worked, they didn't let him hit them no matter how hard he tried.

Without saying anything, without a sound that Tor noticed, all four men suddenly turned and sprinted towards the main table, everyone else had fled, except for Countess Ward and the three Larvals with her. For a split second, a time so fast that he nearly missed it, Tor wondered if she was the one attacking them all, in one of those stupidly over complex plans nobles made up, because massive amounts of sex and parties weren't enough to really keep them busy. As a rule, the royals all needed to get some hobbies, or at least useful jobs to kill time. It would be safer all around.

They held her with not one, but two knives to her throat, pointed to take out the veins and arteries on the sides of her neck with a twitch. A sudden move from either of the Larval would kill her. When he stopped and focused on the scene, just as the others surrounded her with their bodies, facing outward. Tor could see her fear.

He could feel it. It poured from her field in powerful waves.

So, it wasn't her plan then? Good. It would have been embarrassing to have helped her just to have it be another mistake.

Pointing the weapon, he waited for them, one of them at least, to speak. Eerily, they spoke as a group. Multiple voices in perfect time. Did they think as one too? Tor reached out to see, and almost passed out from the sickening shock of it. Their minds, their fields, were alien, so different from what he knew that he almost couldn't understand what they were. Then again, he didn't have to, did he?

“Put the weapon down and surrender your life and we'll let your woman go.”

Oh.

Was that all they wanted?

And they thought he was with Maria freaking Ward? Brilliant of them.

Different or not, he knew what they all thought then and said it out loud so everyone else could hear, those not smart enough, or too brave, to get out of there while he and Maria bought them time.

“And then you'll kill us all. Right, we get the idea, you're assassins, it's what you do. No promise of safe passage will win any of us free. It's run or fight and fighting means death without our weapons and shields. Got it. Any other ideas? I won’t throw away lives just to try and save a single person you plan to kill anyway.”

The one with the knife on the young Countess’s delicate neck sliced her enough to make her whimper.

“You.” They almost sang the word. It was creepy. They were creepy.