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Ring of Destiny
Dance of the Rings: Book Three: Excerpts

The Man in Black Speaks
More Hard Heads

Fantasy readers are well familiar with the concept of the "man in black," the pesky character who comes onstage and will not go away or stay quietly in the background.   Most books have them; the Ring books were no exception.

I thought at first my "man in black" was Mikhyel himself.  Ring of Lightning was Deymorin's book; what right had his little brother to prove so interesting?  Well, he was--I couldn't get around it--but I could justify Khyel: he was, after all, one of the brothers in a story about sibling-hood. 

Then along came Ganfrion.  I managed to keep him "quiet" through Ring of Intrigue but once I was into the third book, I knew my respite was over . . .


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The Man-in-black Speaks

Night gave way reluctantly to morning. The glitter in the misty air confused the transition, making ghosts of the rows of field tents, corpses of the blanket-wrapped bodies littering the ground outside the tents.

Assuming, of course, they weren't, in fact, dead and that Ganfrion of No Family and No Node wasn't the only man still living on this hell-blasted mountainside--a mountainside with the unmitigated gall to appear, in dawn's light, as a perfectly ordinary summer morning in the Khoramali foothills.

But hell-fire had filled the sky last night, blazing an unnatural iridescent web from the northeast to southwest: that was to say, from Khoratum to Rhomatum, as any man here knew. It had been a battle between the Towers, not the honest blaze of gunfire or the clash of steel in hand to hand combat--a battle the likes of which he had never heard, a battle in which these men had had no part, but a battle that, in its aftermath, had rained who knew what down on their heads all night, here in the open as they'd slept, having been given license by the Rhomandi himself to leave their underground haven.

License to leave when they should have been ordered to stay in the caverns until the world was normal again.

Why else had they chosen this cave-riddled spot for the semi-permanent base camp?

Ganfrion propped himself against a marker post that proclaimed this block of tents the nesting ground of the Seventh Eagle, and scanned the rows, looking for any sign of movement, for the sort of stirring that ought to occur among seasoned troops as the sun's first rays touched the tops of the mountains--never mind most had lain awake watching that web disintegrate into sparkling motes of energy, and watching those motes that had drifted down from the sky hovering and darting and floating on a breeze like a billion fireflies on Midsummer's Eve.

The Rhomandi had declared those motes if anyone, even the certain-to-be-legendary (if he pulled this current gambit off) Deymorin Rhomandi dunMheric, could predict the effect of a night inhaling that ley-touched air.

And this morning...the bodies lay still as death.

Ganfrion took a long pull from the flask he carried, staving off the cough that threatened. Stolen, that flask, or given to him sometime last night before men turned to corpses: he honestly couldn't recall how it had come to his hand. He had refused to so much as lie down as long as the glitter filled the air. He'd dared the gods along with all the other men, and damned if he hadn't cheated them of yet one more chance at him.

And yet--

And yet, even now, he had to wonder whether the glitter was gone or simply overpowered by the light of dawn.

And considering the flask, still full after so many hours and so many throat-quenching drafts, perhaps the gods had won. Perhaps he was dead after all.

The precisely aligned field tents rippled, faded and fluxed back into focus before they disappeared altogether. Caught in mid-stride by that overwhelming darkness, Ganfrion felt his boot encounter an unexpected lump. The lump produced a curse; a glancing blow caught Ganfrion's already uncertain knees.

His mercenary blood surged, his vision cleared and strength returned to his limbs. Battle-honed instincts held him upright, wavering but ready--eager, even--for a fight. A good, honest fight would be a welcome relief after the recent ambiguity of his life.

But the lump ignored him, rolled over and burrowed deeper into its cocoon of blankets, returning to its former corpse-ish condition.

Cheated of his fight, Ganfrion responded with the only sensible alternative: he slid down to sit cross-legged next to the lump and offered it a drink. The lump rolled over, produced a heavy-lidded eye that took in the flask, blinked slowly, and a reluctant grin joined the eye above the blanket.

"A bit early, don't you think?"

"Can't be." Ganfrion took a carefully measured sip, then extended the flask again. "Haven't been to bed, yet."

The lump's eyes followed his moves, showing a healthy suspicion, a keen analysis. A good border man, like all those other lumps lying about. Grant Rhomandi that much: luck, good advice, or more sense than Ganfrion had once granted him, he'd recruited a good lot for his personal guard. Six--seven hundred, perhaps, encamped here in the southwest shadow of Mt. Khoratum. Large for a personal guard, but the Rhomandi hadn't truly gathered them for his personal protection.

"I have been to bed. I'm in it." The border lump made as if to return to sleep.

"So?" Ganfrion nudged him with a toe. "Hell, man, first call isn't until midday. Rhomandi's own order. --Breakfast." He shook the flask suggestively. Eyes and grin above the blanket edge developed a stubbled face atop a hairy chest, then a hand that accepted the flask. The man sniffed and pulled back. "Whew. That stuff'll kill you."

Ganfrion snorted and gulped a mouthful. "Where'd the Rhomandi pull you from, missy? A Kirish'lani slave market?"

The lump growled and grabbed the flask, coughed as the potent liquid hit his throat, and swallowed again. "Shit, just my luck, the Rhomandi'll call a surprise muster." Which expectation did not stop the lump from helping himself to another hefty sample.

"He won't."

The man snorted and tossed the flask back. "And you, of course, are in his direct counsel."

Ganfrion just lifted a suggestive brow and took a swig that should have emptied the flask. It didn't. But he didn't wonder at that phenomenon any longer. After what he'd witnessed in the past few days, he refused to wonder at anything ever again.

"Who are you?" the lump asked.

"Ganfrion," he answered, then recalled: "Captain Ganfrion newly anointed gorMikhyel." As if he could forget. The flask made another round. "And as your superior, I order you. It's your sworn duty. For Princeps and Node and . . . --Hellsabove, drink to my promotion!"

The lump guffawed, but forced himself to obey the direct order. The return pass was accompanied by one more of those Looks. "Captain Ganfrion. Heard of you. You're the man the Barrister pulled out of prison and the Rhomandi himself elevated to Captain. And gorMikhyel? Hadn't heard that. The Barrister's sworn man? Should I be worried?"

"Suit yourself," Ganfrion replied with a frown, and under cover of his coat, twisted the ring itching and cutting off circulation to his smallest finger. Damned spider-fingered pen-scratcher. In one brief moment, Mikhyel dunMharic had saddled him with a ring several sizes too small and an associated oath that choked his whole gods-be-damned philosophy of life.

"Heard tell the Rhomandi's brothers showed up in camp last night. Guess you're proof of that, eh?"

He shrugged, tacitly avoiding the details of that arrival.

A handful of returns later: "What's he like?"

"Hm?" he grunted, forcing his eyes to focus.

"You're shat, man. Better stop."

He growled and the man raised a warding hand. It was lack of sleep, not too much drink that slurred his tongue and made his eyes droop, but damned if he'd explain that to the lump. "Wha's who like?"

"The Barrister. Met the kid brother once. Visiting the Rhomandi on the border back when he was still Deymio even to the likes of us. Solid man, Deymio. I like 'im. Proud, I was, when he included me in his special muster. But what about this city-man? As hard as they say?"

What was Mikhyel dunMheric like? Certainly nothing like his older brother. Deymorin dunMheric, the princeps of Rhomatum and The Rhomandi of the House Rhomandi looked the part of a leader. Big man. Solid, as this lump said. A true descendant of Darius. The image of those who had emigrated from Mauritum. Nikaenor, younger, softer third brother, was still unquestionably the same breed.

Mikhyel dunMheric, however, had been pulled from an entirely different mold. The first time he'd seen him, Ganfrion had mistaken him for a hiller--

No. That had been the second time. The first time, he'd been in a sentencing pit and dunMheric had been on the uppermost judgement dais. Mikhyel had seemed--taller, then.

The second time they'd crossed paths had been in the depths of Sparingate crypt, with all three of the Rhomandi dumped there like the commonest murderers. Someone had wanted the brothers dead--particularly likely in the case of Mikhyel, since every man in that place had been sentenced by him directly. Not one to shirk his duty, that was Mikhyel dunMheric. Only chance had prevented his instant exposure. Chance and the strange absence of the beard that had been the Barrister's signature for years. That hiller-smooth jaw had thrown them all, including him.

That beard had just as mysteriously reappeared, soon after Mikhyel escaped the Crypt--one more in a long line of the mysteries that surrounded his employer--but the pale, thin, beardless young hillerman with the world-weary eyes of a centenarian had born little resemblance to the man the underworld knew as Hell's Barrister, a name, so rumor had it, given him by his own brother.

The Crypt-scut had called him pretty, crypt-slang for powerless new meat. The Crypt-scut had been in error: he doubted Mikhyel dunMheric had ever been powerless. He could imagine Mikhyel dunMheric determining the moment of his own birth from the dark depth of his mother's womb, some twenty-seven years ago.

Twenty-seven. Damned baby, he was. Damned babe who'd been calling the shots for the entire Syndicate of Nodes for ten years.

What was Mikhyel dunMheric like?

"Lives up to his name," Ganfrion answered, then cleared his throat and spat, aiming at a nearby rock.

"Which name?"

The damp splotch traced a mostly red path down the stone.

"Take your pick."

His employer was above all else a Rhomandi: Mikhyel lived and breathed for the City named for his ancestor--more The Rhomandi in that sense than his legally crowned brother had yet proven to be. And he was a dunMheric: definitely a man formed by his cursed father.

And Hell's Barrister? Mikhyel dunMheric was as fair . . . and as ruthless . . . as any man ever birthed.

"I wouldn't cross him, if I were you." Ganfrion drew hard on the flask and passed it again.

"And you gave the Oath." The raised flask was a silent toast to his perceived daring.

Gave? He wouldn't put the matter that way. He'd had the damned ring thrown at him along with an order to get himself out of hell alive--Where was the honor in that? Where the choice?

"Since you have the rail in this race, bein' so tight with the Princeps and all, how 'bout explainin' what that was all about last night?"

Explain. Explain what? That the Northern Crescent had staged a major coup?

That the fact that the Rhomandi had called the stand-down for the troops following last night's atmospheric pyrotechnics indicated to him that the coup had failed?

That he himself had serious reservations about what the Rhomandi brothers had done to halt that coup?

Not for the first time, Ganfrion regretted having been singled out by some decidedly ill-humored fate to have these insights into the Rhomandi brothers' business.

He took a hasty pull from his flask. Too hasty: the swallow dissolved in a choking cough. The now-constant ache in his side flared to blinding brilliance, and he gripped his elbow tight, holding cough and pain at bay. The morning light dimmed; the sparkling motes returned, and it seemed to his pain-hazed eyes as if they swirled around him and gathered at his waist--where, beneath his stolen coat, the equally pillaged shirt-turned-field-bandage oozed a sluggish trail down his side.

Saturated--from a wound that by rights should have drained him dry sometime around midnight last night. He should be dead and lying unnoticed and unmourned in a back alley of a mountain node-city a good two days' journey away from this camp.

Dead. In Khoratum. Covering Mikhyel dunMheric's escape.

"Captain? --Captain!"

The motes disappeared between one blink and the next. The blanket-lump had gained a body and legs, was on its knees now, gripping his shoulders, shaking him. Shouting for help. Loudly.

From the pounding in his head, maybe it was the alcohol after all.

"Shut up," Ganfrion snarled, and when the lump appeared not to notice: "I said, shut the fuck up. I'm a hell of a way from dead!"

But the shouts had done their damage already. Other lumps developed arms and legs and loud voices asking questions he didn't want to answer. He staggered to his feet, snatched up the flask and backed away from the lump's growing suspicion. "That's it. We're finished. See if I ever offer you breakfast in bed again!"

He escaped between tents, wishing he had his old strength, his accustomed skill at vanishing into any convenient shadow, of which there were plenty here. It was all he could do to maintain an even pace until he was on the edge of the camp, well away from the lump's campfire, and even farther from the growing number of permanent structures rising here, structures that included among other things, the infirmary he should, without question, be reporting to even now.

He relented, then, to his body's silent protests and caught himself against a tree.

Damned sloppy. They should have been all over him. The lump's suspicions more than enough to detain him for further questioning. And that would mean lying to men who deserved better, which he didn't want to do, or facing the Rhomandi brothers, which he didn't want to do, or landing in the infirmary . . . which might not be a bad idea, excepting a morbid curiosity had taken him regarding his wounds: he was waiting for them to commit to the task of killing him.

From the shouts, a man would think he'd disappeared. And perhaps he had. Apparitions were inclined to do that. He'd seen dead men walking last night. Perhaps it wasn't these men rising from their beds who had died, but a man called Ganfrion. He'd survived a fight that should have killed him, found a dancer that should be dead, delivered that animated corpse to Mikhyel dunMheric fifty damned miles as the hawks flew from where they all were supposed to be. He had wounds that refused to kill him, a flask that refused to empty, hunters who couldn't find him . . .

Death was the least improbable of all explanations.

Leythium fire surrounded him again, lit his skin with tingling energy.

Iridescent rain. Leythium fireflies. Motes of pure energy.

Leythium was not humanity's friend, for all that the ley, controlled by the node-based ringtowers, provided humanity with the light and heat for the luxuries of the cities, and power for the steam engines that drove the manufactories. Everyone knew that that energy came at a terrible price to those who controlled it, knew that liquid leythium would eat the flesh right off a man's bones.

Hell, it consumed the damned city sewage for desert.

And yet, they all of them, Rhomandi, soldier and mercenary alike, had stood in the fallout, gazing up into that lethal wonder like a flock of turkeys staring up into the rain. Drowning in their own stupidity.

An honest man had asked him what had happened. Had asked him, gorMikhyel, who should have been in Mikhyel dunMheric's confidence.

What can be done has been done whether I'm here or in Rhomatum.

Mikhyel dunMheric's response when he'd urged his employer to get the hell out of Khoratum, where near-certain imprisonment, if not death, awaited him.

What did you do, Mikhyel dunMheric? he thought, and worried anew about how plans had been made at such distance without the use of the rings and without his help, he who had been Mikhyel's eyes and ears.

I have my ways, Ganfrion . . . you're not my only source. . . .

"Damn you, Khyel," he whispered aloud. "Why didn't you trust me?"

He clenched his fist until the ring turned his fingertip to ice.

Fools. They were all of them fools.

Perhaps this was death. Perhaps he had died in that Khoratumin alley. Perhaps Khyel had, as well. Perhaps Mikhyel dunMheric's foolhardy dancer had died on the Khoratumin rings and they'd all journeyed into death together.

Certainly the celestial pyrotechnics that had greeted him upon his arrival here, the wound that neither healed nor destroyed him--the endless torment of a cursed soul--those would fulfill the lightning-blasted, hell-fired image the True Believers of Maurii had brought into the valley three hundred years ago.

Funny: he'd never imagined he'd spend his time awaiting rebirth among the likes of the Rhomandi brothers.

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I have found that (for me) the interactions between characters drives the story far more than any other single factor.  This, again to my way of looking at it, goes beyond simply "character driven", as the reader's assessment of characters must be made from a kaleidoscopic image presented by their interactions with each other and a variety of viewpoints.

Biology is no small factor in these interactions . . .

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Hormonal Interface

Nikki was leaving. Mikhyel noted the fact from behind closed eyelids, as summer-slick hair slid beneath his fingers and warm breath puffed in his ear. Strange how a man could train a half-dozen young horses every year and still have one or two stand out in a lifetime. Ringer had been such a horse; and now Ringer was--

Ringer? Without opening his eyes, Mikhyel disengaged himself from Deymorin's tangled thoughts, gently so as not to alert his brother to his waking presence. They'd earned the right last night to a little peace and isolation this morning. All of them: Deymio, Nikki, four courageous women back in Rhomatum--Temorii, perhaps she, crowned Khoratum's radical dancer and turned fugitive all within an hour, deserved a peaceful morning most of all.

The hard, lean body between his arms stirred in response to his thoughts and he stilled both with a mental kiss, wondering would his mind ever be his own again, wondering if he would want it that way.

Hair indeed slid between his fingers, long and silken, not summer-slick horse-pelt. Shaded, if he cared to open his eyes to look. Deep sable, near black at the roots, fading to palest fawn on the ends. All of it dusted with rainbow highlights. Ley-touched, he'd heard the effect called on the streets of Khoratum. But there it had applied to fruits and vegetables, the occasional flower. Here, the flower was the woman who had captured his heart, a woman who had not only been touched by the ley, but raised by it and for it, a woman who had relinquished her claim on that mystical heritage--who had risked her very life--to save his.


She murmured something and stirred again, her scarred and callused fingers wandering aimlessly along his skin beneath his tunic.

Formless thoughts wandered with equal lack of direction--or discretion--through his more thoroughly aroused mind. Yet, she needed sleep. Needed to rest muscles taxed to their limit only hours ago, so before those fingers helped his body gain equal purpose, he disengaged them, drawing her hand gently free of his clothing, and turned his thoughts with equal determination toward those last impressions from Deymorin.

So, their loving aunt Anheliaa had ordered one of Deymorin's horses destroyed. He wished he'd known about that at the time: it was on the order of Anheliaa-induced atrocities in which he'd been able to intercede with fair success over the years. But the question was moot. Anheliaa was dead, taking her cold-blooded whimsy with her.

Dead, and with the one great question her passing had left answered definitively last night: the Rhomatum Web and its associated Syndicate of Satellite Nodes would continue, strong and united, without her--

{You're a fool, Mikhyel dunMheric. . . .}

Only Temorii's weight across his chest prevented his jerking to his feet, only concern for her peaceful rest kept him from screaming denial of that voice that whispered in his head.

Distant. So very faint, but it was Anheliaa.

Would she never leave him alone?

{That doesn't even deserve an answer, darling. You lost Khoratum. How dare you? After all my sacrifice to secure it for the web. . . .}

{And you had no idea the forces you were conjuring, Auntie-dearest.} He stifled the retort. She wasn't real. Couldn't be. Not this time.

{Oh, the lad finally shows some modicum of spirit. Would you had when we were together. What we could have accomplished-- What forces?}

The question bestirred images of Mother in her leythium caves, of her counterpart beneath Rhomatum itself, rising out of a leythium pool, forming out of that energy-filled substance, speaking to his mind with the wisdom gleaned of geologic ages.

Shrill laughter burned his inner ear. {Tamshi! Oh, my darling child, you've snapped at last. . . .}

Temorii shivered and he pulled their single blanket higher, tucked it around her shoulders, doing his best to buffer her mind from the thoughts boiling in his head.

Tamshi, shapeshifter, a creature out of childhood myths but not, as he'd been raised to believe, a creature of fantasy. Mother--self-named, or perhaps a name she'd accepted as her own after generations of human worshippers-- she had indeed been a mother to Temorii after a cave-in killed her grandmother, leaving Temorii herself alone and imprisoned.

Khoratum was lost from the web forever, thanks to the new node forming beneath them. Gone because that Tamshi didn't want to be ruled by such as Anheliaa and her hand-picked Khoratumin ringmaster, Rhyys.

{Khoratum was lost, fool, because of your incompetency and that of all your . . . allies . . . in Rhomatum. In my Tower! How dare you.}

Better them than Anheliaa, and she could haunt his dreams all she liked, she'd never spin the rings again.

{You're a fool, boy . . .}

So she'd told him often enough. The only foolish thing he was doing now was talking to a ghost.

{You should have held the web, darling, and taken Mauritum. Now...what have you but a damaged web?}

{Go . . . play with a lightning bolt, will you, auntie?}

Laughter, weak and fading to nothing. In the distance, a flash, a low rumble of thunder. This time, he did jump, almost half-believing--

But it was only his mind conjuring her memory. His own guilt and fears talking to him, chastising his actions in the words and tone it knew most intimately. And: Taken Mauritum . . . His fears of those final days with his aunt given form, that was all. This voice in his head had none of the substance of Anheliaa's former visitations.

Besides, Deymorin had disposed of Anheliaa's decaying corpse, had buried those physical remains like any deceased animal in the dark areas between the leylines.

He'd had to take them away; the leythium pool had rejected those physical remains as surely as it had left her spirit adrift, leaving her no more than a fading memory in the crystalline web.

And yet...Doubt shivered in the dark corners of his mind. How could he be certain of that? Something had animated those remains, something had manifested itself in his room the night of Anheliaa's immersion in the ley pools. He'd seen creatures form out of the ley, shapeshifting. Thoughts into energy into substance . . . it seemed that what they didn't know about the caves and the leylines that permeated the countryside could, in fact, rise up to haunt them.

Time. He needed time. Time to salvage the Syndicate, yes, but also time to explore those other unknowns--not with the romantic fascination the scholars and dreamers (like Nikki, he thought with loving brotherly forbearance) would bring to it, but with a practical eye to the possibilities...and very real dangers.

But time was a commodity in very short supply for him at the moment. After last night's events, his offices in Rhomatum were going to be swamped with complaints, fears and demands, the contacts he'd spent all spring creating were going to need reassuring, if not complete replacement. They'd won the battle, possibly even the war, but the peace negotiations hadn't even begun.

And those very practical and imminent matters would have to take precedence over the admittedly fascinating ley and all it held.

Mikhyel shifted his arm, easing Temorii higher up on his shoulder. She muttered something unintelligible and dug a fist into his ribs, as if he was a pillow needing realignment. He smiled into the hair that tangled with his beard. Even in sleep, she was singularly self-oriented--rather like the Tamshi who had raised her.

As a Khoratumin ringdancer, such concentration had meant the difference between life and death. She'd stretched her world to include Mikhyel dunMheric and, at least for a time, his wide-flung interests. He had to wonder, now that the impossible had been achieved and they were together in his world, how this fey, mountain-born child would adapt to his City.

A shiver rippled through him as Temorii's chill-fingered touch slid past the folds of his tunic and around his ribs, pushing the fabric aside so that her cheek could pillow against his bare chest.

Hiller clothing, he decided, was far too easily put aside. Proper Rhomatumin dress kept decent layers between lustful bodies, allowed time with each button released and each lace pulled, to reconsider the ramifications of the act about to take place.

He kept his hands still, resisting the temptation to return her caress, kept his thoughts surface as well, wanting her to wake or not of her own will not at his instigation: a small torment, strangely exciting even in its own right.

The clothing he--mostly--wore, while his customary black, was rich with embroidery in ley-touched thread. Her gift, that clothing, and it echoed, in color and design, the dance-costume in which she'd competed only hours ago. Competed, and won: the radical dancer's coronet, which Mikhyel himself had placed on her head, glinted in the early morning sunlight, a flash of polished silver beyond a moss-covered rock, a small fortune cast aside without a second thought as she'd come into his arms hours earlier.

A subdued glint in the golden morning light, streaked with stains and finger smears that dulled the shine. Blood, he thought in a moment's panic. But:

If the blood was hers, the wound was minor. He'd sense anything else, as he was aware of her exhaustion and the ache in the small of her back. Still, if not hers, then whose--

Pure sensory pleasure flooded through him, his confounding with hers despite his efforts, and he closed his eyes to the multi-colored motes lighting the air around them and lost himself in those responses at once so natural and yet foreign to his nature after a lifetime of--

{You're thinking too much again, Khy.} The words filled his head along with a scent of cinnamon and cloves as a Temorii-shaped shadow eclipsed the world.

Copyright 1997 Jane S. Fancher

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More Hard Heads

"How bad is he?" Deymorin asked.

"He's lost a great deal of blood." Blunt fingers moved quickly, efficiently, placing neat stitches. "But he's strong as a Tavernese fighting bull. He'll survive."

The surgeon gathered his instruments and blood-stained towels into a steel bowl, then drew a sheet over Ganfrion, followed it with a blanket. Alcohol, blood-loss, exhaustion . . . a normal man would likely sleep for hours now.

"I want to speak with him." Deymorin headed for the door. "Send for me the moment he--"

"Then drop your balls there, dunMheric." Ganfrion's own irreverent growl interrupted him. "He's awake now."

A normal man . . . Deymorin turned to face alcohol-hazed eyes. Deep-set. Dark brown. Without a hint of betraying Tamshirin glow.

Which meant exactly nothing: Mother's eyes didn't always glow in her human-shaped appearances, and Ganfrion was not a normal man under the best of conditions.

"If you don't stop staring, the good doctor will talk." Ganfrion gave a grunt and struggled to push himself upright. The surgeon pressed him back.

"Lie still, Captain, at least until you're a more presentable shade of green."

Captain. The highest rank Ganfrion had achieved in his checkered career, a rank Deymorin himself, in a moment of weakness, had restored.

Another grunt, a second attempt to rise, and Deymorin grinned tightly across a suggestively raised fist. "Wiggle so much as a fingertip, unfriend, and I'll send you right back to dreamland."

Unfriend. Unsubtle reminder of unfinished business between them. The lines deepened in Ganfrion's scarred face, but he nevertheless sank back into the pillows, apparent obedience that might have been acquiescence--or might simply have been the sudden tremors that threatened to split the meat from his bones.

>The surgeon picked up a second blanket, but Deymorin took it from him and jerked his head toward the doorflap.

"Guards?" the surgeon asked.

The last thing Deymorin wanted was witnesses to the interview about to take place. Still...

He raised a suggestive brow at Ganfrion.

"Rings, man, what're you worried about? I can hardly lift my head."

"Truth?" Deymorin asked.

Ganfrion shrugged. "Place your bets."

"Planning on going anywhere?"

"Not immediately."

"Planning on attacking me again?"

"Only if you annoy me--again."

Deymorin shook his head at the surgeon, who nodded and slipped out the door, closing it firmly behind him, leaving him alone at last with Mikhyel's bodyguard in what was likely the most secure building in the camp. For the following handful of moments, the two of them sized each other like fencers across the length of a salle runway. Then:

"Want your blanket?"

"Not particularly."

>Deymorin dropped it at the foot of the cot.

"Since when did the Rhomandi turn nurse-maid?"

"Since my brother's prize ferret decided to spill blood and rumor all over the camp. What the hell were you thinking of?"

"Men's lives." The scar that pulled Ganfrion's upper lip into a permanent sneer deepened. "Lying, adulterous, baby-faced generals, and their silver-tongued brothers."

"I . . . see."

"I don't pull my punches, Rhomandi."

"I see that as well."

The sneer eased. The man's entire face relaxed. "And I was a fool. Can't even claim it was the drink. I know too much and not enough. It's not a feeling I relish, and I let my anger rule my tongue. For that--" He drew himself up, stiff-backed and proper in his respect, despite the pillows and the bandages and lying flat on his back. "For that, Commander, I deserve whatever sentence you throw at me."

"Don't dodge well either, do you?" Deymorin asked. "Take it right on the jaw and stand your ground?"

"When I've been a fool. Have to set the lesson."

"Just don't let it knock you out of the fight."

"Hasn't yet."

And there was the greatest truth yet spoken in this tent. This Ganfrion had a strange integrity, an even stranger pride, but he'd lived by those self-imposed rules and never backed down. A lesser man would have been broken long since.

"So, you tell me: why aren't you dead? That one in the side should have taken you down."

"It did." Ganfrion's scarred upper lip twisted again, this time in what might have been intended as a smile. "I didn't stay down."

"My brother said he left you in Khoratum last night about to be gutted by a small army of Rhyys' guardsmen."

That won him a glower and a one-sided shrug. A look gathered about Ganfrion's eyes that might be suspicion and might be fear--and was most likely a bit of both. "Don't be ridiculous. This camp's a good two days' ride out of Khoratum."

"Thought maybe you knew a shortcut."

"Don't bait me, Rhomandi. I passed out in the gods-be-damned Khoratum maze, convinced I'd never see another dawn or drink another drop, and woke up on your back doorstep, fireworks blazing overhead, and a flask in my hand that filled fast as I could empty it. --Dammit, help me up! I'll not lie on my back like some mewling, subservient pup."

Deymorin didn't stop him, now the surgeon was gone, and shoved the blanket in behind to hold him upright.

"I don't know how I got here. I don't even know where 'here' is or if I'm really still alive."

Ganfrion wore a ring on his left hand. It was undersized, even for his smallest finger. He twisted it around the middle joint, then pulled it free with a painful effort and balanced it in one palm, then the other, a flash of silver and gold that Deymorin recognized with a shock: the Rhomandi crest, a filagree of silver rings overlaid with a golden spiderweb. He bore its twin on his own hand.

He'd had no idea the tangle between this man and his brother went that deep.

"When?" he asked, pointedly.

"Last night, if you're telling me the truth. He gave me this and an order to get out alive if I could."

"I see you managed to obey."

"Did I?"

"Mikhyel is pleased, I'm sure."

"Is he? Are you?" The ring paused in its hand to hand journey, then arced across to Deymorin.

Deymorin caught it, along with the implication. GorMikhyel, Ganfrion was, at least for the moment, meaning Mikhyel trusted him absolutely, meaning Mikhyel assumed all responsibility for his life and his actions.

More importantly it meant that Mikhyel Rhomandi--or, in Mikhyel's absense, the Rhomandi himself--owed gorMikhyel an explanation. As head of clan, he owed this man everything or nothing.

He told Ganfrion the truth, or the implicit agreement between Ganfrion and Mikhyel was at an end. It was Ganfrion's right. No oaths had been taken or witnessed, only a grand gesture on Mikhyel's part.

A gesture Mikhyel, in all likelihood, had never expected to have to honor.

Of course, once he'd acknowledged that tie, once he had extended to Ganfrion the information he demanded, as head of clan, he still had every right to sever the connection--by ordering Ganfrion's death . . . or rather, by taking it himself. Tradition gave him no other options.

Ganfrion was willing to accept the oath, or so his actions implied, but was challenging the integrity of the offer. Ganfrion was saying that if that offer was regretted, now was the time to end it. And he was setting his price damned high.

"My brother is no military man," Deymorin said, "but he has his own honor."

"Damned right he has, and I'll not have him trapped by that honor--or his damnable pride. As you say: he's no military man. Worse, he's a lawyer and that gods be damned ring is about as compatible with his laws as the lightning is with the ley. I doubt he knows his options."

"You may rest assured, I do."

"I'm counting on it. If you want me dead, Rhomandi, I die now." And by that statement, the man convinced Deymorin that he was truly dealing with Ganfrion and not some Tamshirin imposter.

Everything . . . or nothing. The very essence of the man described in the reports he'd read.

Deymorin closed his hand around the ring.

"You should ask Mikhyel."

"Then go get him," Ganfrion challenged him.

As if possessed with a life of its own, the ring warmed in his hand--and that was as much of his smooth-talking middle brother Deymorin cared to have involved in this conversation.

"Do you know what this ring is?" Deymorin asked.

"I can guess. Rhomandi crest, NeoDarian design. Matches the one you're wearing. I also suspect that by rights only you should be wearing it. The one Mikhyel gave me is new. I'd wager the one your baby brother wears is just as new, for all he had the original for a time--he was Princeps for about a month, wasn't he? --I'd say, you three had problems and needed some sort of symbol to remind yourselves you were a team. I'd say this ring business is a recent development. The man who signed my Sparingate commitment papers had no such ring. The man who hired me did. So what else do you want to know? The cause of the split? The terms of reconciliation? The original--that's the one you should be wearing, but aren't--that one's got to be old. Unless I miss my bet, a Mauritumin priest was wearing it when last it saw the light of day, and he got it off your baby brother . . . oh, months ago, since none of you were wearing it back in the crypt. --How'm I doing?"

Observant, clever at putting bits of fact together, but he'd known that for a long time. Ganfrion's value as a ferret was never in question.

"The rings are my promise to my brothers. My promise that we're partners. My promise that I'll not use my authority arbitrarily, that they will be privy to my decisions and have every right at all times to question those decisions."

"Foolish of you."

"You think so?"

"Foolish and inefficient. You're a fairly clever man. Certainly more clever than Anheliaa or your father before her. What they did, you could manage. Probably do a better job. One absolute ruler is far more efficient than a committee. Particularly a committee of brothers who have not agreed on any policy in their entire adult lives."

"My brothers' loyalty and trust are too important to me to risk for the sake of efficiency."

"Mikhyel gorDeymorin. Has quite a ring. Wonder how he likes it?"

"It's not like that."


He swallowed the retort that rose like bile. The man baited him, had a knack for placing him on the defensive. He didn't like the feeling--liked even less the suspicion that part of Ganfrion's appeal for Mikhyel was his ability to do just that. He and Mikhyel had spent their lives baiting one another; without doubt, Mikhyel knew the effect Ganfrion had on him.

Damn you, brother.

But he settled to make peace with the man. "All right, crypt-bait, honesty. Let's say you've got me to rights on the ring's purpose. That means I'm responsible for my brother's actions. I'm empowered to act for him in this matter. I can answer those questions of yours, but first, I'll damn well understand why he gave you that ring."

"Because your brother's a sentimental fool who had no concept of the arena he'd entered. He's a man who spent his entire adult life making rules that good people don't need and bad people don't give shit about, and then condemning those ill-mannered asses to a life he can't even imagine. He found the real world, Rhomandi, and didn't know what to do with it."

"You think you've got him bagged, skinned and on display, don't you?"

"I think he's a man who puts himself on display by his own ignorance. He's a damned martyr and doesn't even realize it. He's lived by rules and thrown himself on the flames of hypocrisy to protect others for so long, he hasn't any damned notion of his own true place or his own value."

"We're working on it," Deymorin remarked sourly.

The dark-eyed glance betrayed surprise.

"You don't trust me much, do you?" Deymorin asked.

"Does it matter?"

"Not necessarily. But it would help. Do you trust Mikhyel?"

Ganfrion dipped his head toward the hidden ring.

"That says I have to, doesn't it?"

"Not necessarily. Says he trusts you. Entirely different."

"Ah. Distinctions only the nobility would recognize."

"Not in my experience."

"Prove it."

Contents of this page copyright Jane S. Fancher 1999

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