The Alfar’s Husband

(c) Copyright 2010

When he was certain he was near death Juslar of Juslar, King of All He Surveyed and a dozen other titles, called in his wife.

She was near, as always these last few weeks. In less than a minute she stood looking down at him. He marveled as always how little she had aged since he had taken her to his bed near twenty years ago.

There were a few age lines about her eyes and mouth, but her face was still the same perfect oval, her eyes big and blue and slightly slanted, a dab of a nose, luscious lips which needed no added color. The same sleek golden hair curled about her shoulders, only showing a few strands of silver, contrasting with the blue clothing she usually wore. The long dress could not hide her still slender curves despite the four children she had given him.

He tried to move the hand that was nearest her. It had barely lifted when her hand was warm on his. She still moved with that speed that was a little faster than anyone he knew.

“You are Alfar, aren’t you, my dear love?”

She smiled and sunrise seemed to enter the room. “Yes, of course. Tell me not that you only recently realized this.”

“I think when you birthed Hallec with such ease I suspected it first. And I’ve been more and more certain as the years passed. But I feared voicing it. In the tales once discovered the Alfar always disappeared. It would near kill me, I thought, to lose you, my love.”

Tears came to her eyes. So easily she saddened, she always had. A hurt kitten. A maid heart-broke over a lover’s loss. Harsh words from her step-son, the heir, the only child of his body from his previous wife. But as always she recovered instantly.

“I would not have disappeared. Indeed, not even an army could make me leave. Remember when the counts called for you to step down? Remember how Aroic and Kalkin had accidents? And Yallis got sick?”

“I wondered about that. But again I dared not ask you.

“But now I want you to disappear. I can last only a few days more. And before I give up I want you in the next country.”

She started to speak but he squeezed his hand.

“We spoiled him, my love. He was so precious to me, the only child of my first wife, and you loved him too. Indeed, I think you even loved those cruel to you when we first married. You melted their cruelty.

“But Roland’s cruelty won’t melt. And lately he’s been looking at you with only barely disguised lust. And I believe he also knows what power it would add to him after my death to have you as his recognized mistress.”

“Very well, if it will give you peace for these last few days. Give me the wallet with the money and papers. Stay alive three days. That’s all it will take for me to get too far for him to catch me.”

He gaped for an instant, then laughed. “You were always ahead of everyone. I imagine you even know where it is.”

She walked to the head of his bed and reached between the top mattress and the one below it. The large wallet was in her hand when she stepped back to his side.

She said, “I have taken steps to ensure the safety of our children, dear, and spoken with them so they will act according to my plan. So worry not for them, either.”

“Oh, my dear. I love you so much!” Now his eyes bled tears to match hers.

Weeping, she lay carefully down beside him and cradled him in her arms.

/p>

Juslar jerked awake. He must have cried himself to sleep in her embrace.

A great yawn stretched his jaws near to cracking. His lungs took in a deep chest-expanding breath.

He opened his eyes in surprise. He had not been able to take a perfectly satisfying breath for months.

Was he in his tomb, a ghost and so no longer able to feel pain? No, a cheery fire in a rickety chimney on one side of the room showed the interior of a small cottage. It was in a bad way, he saw as he turned onto one side and got an elbow under him to half sit up. The two chairs on each side of a small table were drooping. No doubt the tops of the chairs and table would show much dust if he were not so crippled that he could not stand up.

He did not feel crippled. His many all-too-familiar aches were all gone.

He looked down his length. He did not recognize what he saw. He wore shirt and pants of a rough, worn blue cloth. His jacket, what he could see of the sleeve that covered the arm that rested on his thigh, was tan and sturdy but also worn. And his hand —

He brought it nearer his face, looked at the palm of his hand, then the back of it. It was the hand of a strong young man, the hairs on the back not grey but dark brown. He flexed his hand. There was no soreness, no weakness!

He sat up, then was surprised that he could sit up. He was on a blanket resting on the floor and, by damn, there was not a hint of dust on the entire floor that he could see.

He stood, cautiously, but without apparent cause for caution. His motion was smooth and when he stood — feet encased in scuffed old boots which fit perfectly and were quite warm — it was with easily wielded power.

He examined himself more. His body was his, and as it had been when he was a teenager. Unbelting and partly unbuttoning his pants he skinned the pants down to look at the great scar on his thigh. The scar was still there but much smaller and smoother. And its lower end still imperiled his knee but his knee no longer gave him even the slightest twinge.

About to pull his pants back up he stopped to look at his crotch and to feel his manhood. It was youthful too, no longer numb, a hint of sensuous excitement in his organs when he touched them, the pubic hair no longer grey.

He completed re-dressing. Damn, he wished he had a mirror so he could see his face! But from what he could tell by feel his wrinkles were gone, the skin was no longer loose.

Surveying the cottage interior he saw that the tops of the chair and table bore no dust. They were clean and atop the table there was a wallet similar to the one he had pressed on his wife and a smudged and creased envelope .

Juslar ignored that as he had sudden anxiety about what lay outside the cottage. Its two small windows contained no glass or even oiled papers, and they were covered by shutters. Pushing and tugging at them did no good. Age had frozen them to the wall.

Advancing to the door he unbarred it and cautiously opened it a crack. Then opened it more and more as he saw only a mostly flat plain dotted with low grey-green bushes and brown grass.

He ventured outside and cautiously reconnoitered the area. There was no sign of habitation in sight except for a leaning grey weathered shed that, looked into, showed that any horses or other animals were long gone.

He eyed the slightly rutted dirt road. There were signs that it was traveled but not frequently. There were no signs in either direction that travelers were on it now. Low hills showed in one direction — north, judging by the sun — rising to low mountains. The hills and mountains curved to extend along the horizon to the west, diminishing into the distance.

To the east the hills curved southward but they seemed to be hills only, with no mountains behind them. A forest in that direction began a half mile away and continued southward. From the forest a sparse and ragged line of trees wandering across the road toward the southwest behind the cottage and into the distance.

That suggested water but he saw no sign of a stream. The water must all be underground. But there would be time later to explore a bit further from the cottage. The trees were thin enough to the south to see there was nothing interesting in that direction. To the west was a plain that stretched beyond the horizon.

Back inside he barred the door again — and how had it been barred earlier if he was the only person inside? He shrugged, went to the table and examined the wallet. It contained folding bills of a strange blue and pink currency of several denominations and, in a separate compartment, coins of several sizes. He recognized none of the money.

There were also several papers. One was an identification form with an impressed round pattern on it: a seal. One was a short letter written in a crude hand that introduced him as Justin Harald.

The letter said he was a hard worker, indeed a tad too hard, not ready to quit when others did, thereby occasionally causing some friction. He could read and write and had acted as a clerk’s assistant at the writer’s ranch, but was not good enough with numbers to be a clerk. He was a good hand with cattle. He also had helped fight off thieves who set upon the writer one night two years ago. He liked ale a little too much but was a jovial and not an angry drunk.

As he read Justin, as he must now think of himself, recognized his wife’s wisdom. The letter made him out a good but not extraordinarily good worker, lessening any doubt of the letter’s authenticity.

The wallet also held a letter from his wife.

My beloved Justin. If you put this letter down and take your hands off it you will see what everyone else will see when they look at it.

Bidding as she told him he found he could read a long boring letter from his “sister” that talked about trivial actions by several relatives.

He also found something else surprising. It and the ID form and the recommendation letter were written in a language which before now he had only seen, that of far almost mythical Mirtha, the most advanced country in the world. Yet he could read it fluently. A gift from his wife the Alfar he was sure.

At that he put down the letter and wept. Her absence was an ache in his chest.

When he was done he took a deep breath and dried his eyes. He picked up his wife’s letter again.

Memorize what your “sister” wrote and make up details and stories about your family. Make some of the stories long and boring and be a little too eager to tell them again and again. You will quickly cause anyone asking about your background to cease asking questions, not because you say too little but because you say too much.

He snickered at that. Ah, Gwyneth!

By now almost two years have passed since you died. I regret to tell you that your oldest son was so gripped by sorrow at your death that he fell forever asleep, wasted away, and died. Your second son is well on the way to being a wise and good king. I will stay with him for a year and on the anniversary of your death let everyone close to me know that I still sorrow for you and have left on a long voyage to recover.

He had mixed feelings about his wife’s murder of his first-born. He missed the lad but remembered all the cruelties that the youth had practiced in later years and how they had been getting worse. She had done right. He wished he could weep for the lad but had as king and parent had to face bitter reality too long and often not to realize the rightness of her actions

I will indeed leave here but I will be going to a far star. The astronomers are right. The stars are suns and some few have worlds about them with life. I came from there and I long to return, for I have family there too and I miss them as badly as I miss you.

He sighed deeply. He had no more tears to shed, at least for now.

In the pack are some books. Read them. They are adventure stories but ones your new fellow citizens enjoy greatly. They will in passing tell you much about the country that is now yours.

There are other supplies in the pack, ordinary ones you will need, such as a razor. There are also slabs of heavy bread. The mold and burnt patches are not real. They are there so no one will want to steal them (unless they are desperate). You will find them delicious, others will find their taste repulsive. They will sustain you for a long time. They will never stale and your pack will replenish them, though slowly.

The pack? Ah. It lay at the foot of his blanket/bed.

The canteen attached to the pack will make any water safe, even if poisoned. If you are poisoned, drink from the canteen. It will counteract the poison. It will always, slowly, fill itself.

The knife and its sheathe appear ordinary. They are not. Put them on NOW. Then read up on them by placing the blue marble in the pack next to your skin. It has a thong that will let you wear it around your neck. Tell people it is your good-luck charm.

Put them on now? Was he in danger?

He quickly moved to the pack and saw draped over it a leather belt and sheathe and a knife hilt sticking out of the sheathe. The pack, the canteen, and the weapons all looked cheap and worn and hardly worth the effort of stealing them. He was sure they were incredible treasures.

Moving with quick but precise movements he donned the weapon belt, then the blue marble. The thong seemed worn and the marble chipped and cracked.

The instant the stone touched his chest a blue square appeared in front of his eyes. There was white writing upon it.

Your personal information resource is working. There is a possible threat five miles to the south. The threat is not moving. Nevertheless I suggest you reconnoiter your surroundings. First dim this display by thinking the words Please dim.

At the same time he heard a clear feminine voice repeating what the writing said.

He said, “Please dim!”

The blue square disappeared. Well, almost. He could still just barely see it and the writing upon it. But when he focused his eyes beyond the square he was able to ignore it.

Justin quickly approached the door and unbarred it. Cautiously he again looked outside then looked all around the cottage and the shed. He also left the house and carefully scanned the plain all around.

Nothing. As before.

Apparently the personal information resource was right. There were no nearby threats.

Inside the cottage he picked up his wife’s letter and scanned the last lines he had read, including read up on them. Them being the knife and its sheathe.

There are other gifts and surprises awaiting you. I write this with mischievous anticipation of your reactions when you discover them.

I will love you always. Your Gwyneth.

It took a bit of mental and verbal fumbling with his personal information resource but he soon was able to undim the display. He began reading about the knife. He also found that he could listen to the words rather than read them, or listen and read at the same time, but he preferred to read.

The knife, when he removed it from its sheathe, looked as cheap as all the rest of his equipment. It seemed slightly rusty in spots and had a larger and smaller nick out of the blade.

If used just as it came from its sheathe it cut but the blade was not very sharp. If he thought sharper it become quite sharp but only as much as any well-honed blade. Other mental commands made it so sharp that it would cut anything whatsoever except his own flesh. One command extended the blade and its sheathe instantly to sword’s length — still ordinary to one’s sight, but also with the same several levels of sharpness.

He also always knew which direction the sword lay, so it could not be lost or stolen. The information resource claimed this direction-finding ability worked even if the knife was taken to the other side of the world. The knife would also fly to his hand if nothing was in its way. It could be wielded by an imaginary hand, so that even if fettered he could use it. So perhaps if he were in a prison he could whittle a way in to him through whatever was between it and him!

These thoughts were so amazing that well before noon the possibilities began to merge and confuse him and he was exhausted from discovering them.

So he put the blade back into its sheathe and quit playing with it. Though not without some casualties. Outside he had sliced several stones in half and decapitated several bushes across the road and dug a short ditch in the earth. He thanked all the gods that the blade could not harm him. Otherwise he might have lost a finger or a limb. Or his head!

Noontime also found him hungry. He had already sampled the canteen. The water was a bit bland but was certainly pure. It was also cooler than it ought to be. And the canteen had the same direction spell on it as all the other gifts.

Now he took out one of the small flat loaves of bread. It tasted so delicious — a mix of beef and vegetables lightly seasoned with a slightly crunchy surface — that the first bite locked his jaws for a minute. The loaf satisfied his hunger completely after finishing just a few big bites. He placed the partly eaten loaf back in his pack.

Sated he felt a bit sleepy. After one look up and down the road he lay down on the ratty blanket on the floor — and discovered another magical gift. It changed shape and felt perfectly comfortable and, with one end rolled up for a pillow, supported his head at just the right angle.

/p>

Coming awake slowly after an hour or two napping Justin stretched, flat on his back, yawned hugely, and rolled onto his back then rocked forward and straightened his legs under him to rise to his feet. His body worked so smoothly that he almost levitated to a standing position.

Gods, that felt good! He was young again, strong, graceful, and deadly if he chose to be. He windmilled his arms in a defensive push-away-weapons motion, then punched the air.

His strike-and-retract was so fast it was a blur. Apparently Gwyneth had improved his already strong young body.

He laughed, wandered outside to look out at the road. Still vacant. He glanced toward the northern hills. That seemed the most likely direction from which the traffic would come. But he saw no tiny figures topping a rise. There were only puffy white clouds in a blue sky.

He went out back to the spot he had chosen as his jacks and peed. A memory came to him as he finished up and turned back toward the cottage.

Inside he lay down on the blanket and closed his eyes. His information resource announced its readiness to serve, noting that the closest likely threat had not moved.

Thought of the threat, plus the phrase interactive map from a wrong turn in his search for info on his knife, was what he had remembered. He spoke the map phrase and saw a slightly blurry image of his current location. It was as if he floated a hundred feet or so up in the air looking down. He had earlier looked at this only briefly. Now he explored what he could do with the image.

He could “back up” into the air and “look” about him. He turned his gaze toward the hills and was able to trace the road as it began to wind up and between them.

He found he could look at his two buildings not only from directly above but from an angle to one side, and an angle from the opposite side. He went back to the view from above. Then he backed up. And up and up again. The entire plain and the hills spread out, the hills looking like grey paper with smaller spots of green crumpled and thrown onto a brown floor.

Up and up he backed. He saw that there was another set of hills further south. Those and the hills and mountains to the north formed a wide valley in which he resided. He also saw a town to the south. The distance to the town matched that of the possible danger identified by his resource.

Further up he saw cities and the towns between, rivers wiggling back and forth. Further up and he saw the edge of the eastern ocean and the ragged shoreline of easternmost Mirtha. Further up and he could see that the world was round, covered in air that turned everything blue under it. Well, except for white clouds which must be so very high there was little air beneath them.

He shivered. He, or the bird or whatever flyer his “eyes” were in, was in emptiness. It must be. Though warm on his bed and in his clothes he could almost feel cold airlessness all about him.

And one more retreat showed him that was as far as he could go. This left the world a round marble below him.

Not that different from the blue marble he wore suspended on a thong about his neck.

Was the connection accidental? He thought not.

The Alfar were far more wise and powerful than was told in the most fantastic tales. And he had been married to one for twenty years. Had she hated being earthbound? With him?

He thought back to his time with her, bringing up memory after memory.

No. He knew her moods too well. Knew the love she had for her children and so many people besides, even those who tried to hurt her with words. She had been amused by them, and sometimes pitied them.

Only a very few times had he seen her angry. When someone was cruel to others, especially the helpless. It was those people who fell ill or had accidents. Or very occasionally died. Somehow he knew that she had reached out and punished them for what they had done.

Perhaps with the aid of something such as he now wore next to his skin.

He thought about that for a time.

He had been king, ultimately head of the justice system. Rarely did he interfere with it, for it must not only run reasonably well on its own but must be seen to do so without his perhaps petty interference. If he had been certain about some cases before the courts he might have imposed death or some lesser punishment himself. And this tool he wore, used by someone with more skill and delicacy than his faltering efforts, must have been able to get more direct and certain proof of crime.

And how rarely had she used it. She had been wiser than he.

Enough.

For a time Justin looked about the world. He could get only so close to the furthest cities and forests and rivers and plains to the north and south before the image grew fuzzy and wavy like laundered sheets drying on a line waving in the breeze.

Still, he could see sailing and steam ships on the oceans and on the great lakes to the north of Mirtha, or possibly in northern Mirtha. He was not certain of the country’s limits. He could watch locomotives on their tracks. And occasionally he saw armies at war. Saw the red that soaked the land as they did their deadly business.

He could watch the battles only for a time. They saddened him, especially as he could do nothing about them, even if he had known which side to aid. Even if he had control of whatever forces his beloved had at her hands to effect events. And would he have the wisdom to use such power? He was glad he was spared that temptation.

Resource? Will you announce the approach of any possible threats?

Yes. The silent “voice” inside his head sounded a bit insulted that he would think it would fail at such a routine task.

Justin chuckled.

He took off his knife belt and dropped it by the pallet. A voice inside his head said in a low pleasant baritone Going to remote mode. There was a hint of smug confidentiality to the voice.

Justin squatted easily to sit on his pallet, shook his head. Now his weapon was developing a personality!

He opened the nearby pack and retrieved the eaten-on flat loaf he had eaten earlier. Too bad he did not have a fire or utensils by which to heat it.

Another voice spoke silently to him. Its tone was that of a motherly older woman. I don’t understand your request. Do you want the fireplace on? Or an oven?

Justin reflected for a moment. It had not been his imagination.

Well, if the marble and the knife could have personalities, why not the house? He framed his thought with the clarity he was beginning to learn while talking to the marble and later the knife, when he had been commanding it to change the way it cut. House. Please light the fireplace.

It lit in an instant, showing the same red-gold mildly wavering flames as at dawn when he had first awakened from death.

Carrying the part-loaf of bread he stood up and approached the fire. It radiated a gentle warmth and gave the cottage, cast into gloom moments before by the approach of twilight outside, a cheery aspect. Close up he could see that the flames did not consume the wood lying in the fireplace.

There were no utensils for cooking food, however.

He directed his thoughts at the house. How do I warm food?

Above the mantel of the fireplace a small door appeared. It opened by itself, folding downward to make a shelf. Place what you wish to eat inside. Do you want it warm, hot, or very hot?

Just warm. He placed the loaf inside the strange oven. The door closed. Moments late it opened again. He reached inside and took out the food and the oven door closed and disappeared.

The loaf was as he had asked. He bit into it and began to wander the room, looking more closely at the inside of the cottage.

It seemed in detail even more decrepit than it had at first glance that morning. But it sat for no obviously good reason in the middle of a plain, not even near a stream or well. As if his wife had ordered it made and set here.

Can you give me a brighter steadier light?

Would this do?

Instantly there were candles on the mantel piece and in sconces placed on each wall. They gave a steady pearly light, transforming the inside of the cottage.

Yes. Thank you, House. He had always been polite to servants, knowing what a king could never admit — they were people just like himself, and many of them just as worthy.

Besides, if the house had personality and could be angered, who knows what mischief it might wreak?

He went to the table upon which he had left the canteen earlier in the day. Its top was still clear as if it had been dusted and polished. He drank from the canteen, set it back onto the table.

Make the chairs sturdier.

They instantly were as he asked. He had not asked for but liked the addition of a deep glossy brown color and contoured bottoms and arm rests.

The table could be larger, sturdier, and match the chairs.

And instantly it was so, disturbing the canteen, wallet, and still-opened letter from Gwyneth not at all.

Interesting. Also interesting that the house had not needed him to make his wish a request or an order. But he HAD framed his desires in the same clear way as his earlier requests and orders. So the house was as smart as a person.

At least in some ways. He cautioned himself not to think of his possessions as if they were human.

Can you give me windows which I can see out of but no one else can? Or see in?

Every wall in the cottage sported long windows through which he could see the surrounding plain. The glass in them was as clear as air.

Though he doubted it was glass.

House, whenever I make a request of you, please caution me if it would cause you or anyone in you harm, or problems.

Of course, Justin. I am a very smart machine. More so than, for instance, a mere weapon.

Hey! The knife sounded insulted.

Oh, Gods, his — machines — had personalities!

/p>

That evening Justin rearranged the interior of his cottage to a Spartan comfort, though it took several tries for some items. A huge four-poster bed with a red velvet coverlet did not fit his idea of creating a home into which he could invite ordinary people such as those who might travel the road outside. He replaced it with a narrow moderately comfortable bunk bed along one wall.

He ended up with a battered-appearing couch along another wall opposite the window onto the sunset. It was upholstered with several dark green cushions, in one of which he added a split seam with just a hint of the cushioning inside it. Along each end he placed two small mismatched battered tables. On one of the tables he added an emergency repair of slightly rusted baling-wire.

He was quite proud of his artistically added ordinary touches.

Later he went outside to the jacks through a newly added back door. He found he could see in the dark as if both the large and small moon were overhead and full, though they were mere crescents near opposite horizons. Everything was in shades of grey — or, as he thought, silver. The view was quite beautiful.

He had a pang of remembrance. Gwyneth had so enjoyed moonlit prospects. He wondered if she had this same magical eyesight.

Well, of course she did.

He distracted himself by concentrating on peeing in patterns in the trench he had cut with his knife/sword. Then he had an inspiration. Could he have an outhouse added here?

Yes, House said when he asked that. Though she, as he now thought of the machine, then gave him some advice and cautions which he heeded diligently before commanding her to create the outhouse. The grim fairy tales of his childhood such as “The Three Wishes” had early impressed upon him the care with which one should desire things.

Coming back into the cottage — through the newly created back door — he noticed how ordinary it appeared on the outside. No windows were visible except the cottage’s few ill-fitted and closed shutters. Nor did any light seep around or through them, nor shine out the door when he opened it. The interior of the cottage was dark until he closed the door behind him.

Well, he had not anticipated this, but it was a natural extension of his request at the beginning of the evening that he should be able to see out but no one else should be able to see in. Yet another caution about being careful of what one wished for.

He sat on the couch and picked up one of the adventure books which had been inside his pack. Then he thought to take one last look at his surroundings before thinking of sleep.

As he activated the map view of the outside via his blue marble necklace the house said Would you like to view the outside on one of the windows?

Blue? Would you mind?

No, of course not.

Thank the gods. A machine without undue pride.

The view on the big picture window of the dimly lit land in the front of the cottage changed to a view of the land as if seen from above. It was as bright and colorful as if it were day outside. This was quite different from the overhead views shown by Blue. Those were of subdued grey colors when the land shown was at night.

And there was another difference.

“The picture isn’t blurry!”

Of course not, said House. I’ve created and sent spy eyes to watch outside. Those are much closer than the eyes that Blue has been using to show you what you want to see.

“Spy eyes?”

They look like this. This is a thousand times their real size.

House sent through Blue into his visual nerves an image that seemed to hover a few feet in front of him. It showed a round seemingly transparent bubble only visible by a faint distortion at the edges of the bubble.

He said, That would make them the size of a grain of sand. Or smaller.

Yes.

How far can they travel?

Five hundred miles from me. I can’t talk to them beyond that distance. The house seemed disapproving, as if that limit had been set by someone rather than being a real design limit.

What do they look like when not invisible?

The bubble unhidden looked like a giant pearl. It seemed as if one could see into the skin for a slight distance.

What’s inside?

The skin disappeared. The insides contained dozens of boxes of several shapes and sizes and colors. Their edges were rounded and the boxes seemed to have melted together, or were made that way. There were also flat plates and discs, also all melted together.

The discs were arranged so that they must have been just under the disappeared skin. About a dozen of them glowed briefly red.

These are its eyes. Another dozen glowed briefly green. These are its ears. Several of the other discs glowed a rainbow of colors. These observe in other ways. Some taste objects to find out what they are made of. Some gauge objects’ temperature and many other qualities.

She sounded quite proud of her spy eyes. Justin smiled to himself.

This — A round object like an orange glowed at the center of the tiny spy craft. — makes it fly. And this lets us talk to it and it to us. A series of outward-pointing spikes just below the skin showed themselves.

Quite impressive. Thank you, House.

/p>

Several days went by. Each brought a new discovery, or usually several. Justin found that there was something called a “data web” which he could use no matter where he was in the world. It contained much information about the world and its surroundings.

The information about the country of Juslar and the surrounding countries was very complete. It seemed as if it might have been written by someone living there who was very bright.

Had that someone had been Gwyneth?

The twenty-something other great civilizations in the world showed the same completeness. Was there an Alfar — or several — in each one doing what Gwyneth had? Whatever that was.

There was much information about nature in the web, including many photographs — which he had seen in Juslar, though in blacks and whites and greys, not colors — and moving photographs — which he had not. The writing had not the same tone as that about people. Justin guessed that smart machines, perhaps like big spy eyes, had traveled the world and reported back what they discovered.

Much of the information fascinated Justin. What strange fish lived at the bottom of the ocean where it was forever cold and dark!

Just as fascinating, for a time anyway, was information about the two moons. They were airless and had never known life. A view from a position as if he were standing on the largest moon made Justin shiver and rub his arms even though he was perfectly warm and comfortable sitting on the couch in front of his big picture window.

For a day he toured the rest of the nearby worlds, all circling the sun as his own world was. There was also very skimpy information about the universe outside his sun’s neighborhood. The distances and times were so vast that he grew frightened and fled back to Mirtha.

He immersed himself in knowledge about his new home as an antidote to that fright. Details of Mirthan government, history, politics, finance, and customs which would ordinarily have not interested him much had an almost desperate fascination for a time.

When that fascination eased he turned his attention to the marvelous machines for which Mirtha was so well known: steamships, railroads, long-range cannons, digging machines which could widen a river, and much else.

Especially interesting were some small inventions, such as those for sanitizing and canning food and bottling milk so that the food and drink would not rot or sour until opened. It was not so much the inventions as what they revealed: the invisibly tiny life forms which caused infection and decay.

At the same time the nearly magical machines he commanded made him amused at Mirtha’s machines, how clumsy, complicated, and crude they were. It was like contrasting a child’s first scrawls with paintings by a genius.

When learning palled Justin went tramping– or soon running — in spirals about his home. His young body craved to be stretched and he made up games to stretch and test himself: running games, games of leaping and tumbling, and climbing those few willowy trees nearby, and the sturdier and shorter trees of the wood to the east, which would support his weight. He found that he had been improved. He was stronger, faster, much more in control of his body, and seemingly much tougher than he had been in his first youth. He could also command his senses to greater, or lesser, sensitivity.

Had Gwyneth had these same abilities? he wondered.

And he suddenly remembered an incident that had happened on their honeymoon. A hydrophobic dog had run into the street of the seaside village where they and their entourage were staying. His guards had intercepted it, causing it to run away. But suddenly it had reversed itself and run between their legs straight for Justin and Gwyneth.

Gwyneth had stepped in front of him as if he were a child to be protected. And she a parent well able to do it.

If that had been her intention it was made unnecessary moments later. One of the intercepting guards had run to the side far enough to take a crossbow shot at the animal without endangering his king and queen.

“Poor, poor thing,” she had said, and wept.

There was much else to occupy Justin, but as full as his life was he was beginning to crave company and thinking of traveling to the town to the south. Then he discovered that company was traveling to him.

/p>

Threats have been detected moving this way. They are stopping for the night. They are 20 miles to the north.

What kind of threats? Show me. He put down the slab of bread he was eating. Though as poor in appearance as always today it tasted of tart melted cheese inside crunchy biscuit.

An overhead image was shown him by Resource from one of the devices identified by Resource as “space satellites”: the very high eyes above the sky. It was a caravan of some twenty wagons, mostly large ones. Around it rode guards.

The satellite image disappeared and the picture window took him upon a leisurely tour of the camp sent back by several just-arrived spy eyes. There appeared to be about fifty people in all. Perhaps twenty of them were guards. Four of those were out in a seemingly random pattern at the perimeter of the camp that kept each in the sight of at least one of the others. The rest of the guards were asleep, or at least abed, in pallets under the wagons.

Not every one was asleep or otherwise occupied outside. In one of the wagons, in darkness as bright as daylight to the spy eye through which Justin watched, a young couple were making love. Through the spy’s ears he could hear the quiet sounds of excitement the couple allowed themselves.

He brought the eye nearer. The woman was quite attractive. Justin came erect almost painfully fast and painfully full.

Out of the wagon! Now! The picture window instantly showed only the dull grey surface of a “closed” window.

He felt ashamed. It was irrational. No one would ever know if he spied on such intimate moments, but it just was not right. The machines that Gwyneth had given him gave him the power of a god or goddess. He must be worthy of them. Of her trust that he would use them justly.

That honorable thought did not do a damned thing to shrink the pain of his erection.

He swore and quickly brought himself to satisfaction onto a piece of stuffing pulled from the torn seam of one of the cushions. The house took it out of his hands to, it said, the outhouse, though no door or window seemed to open enough to allow the floating stuffing to pass through it.

Justin sighed and picked up a book with a faded red cardboard cover with only a marbled surface for decoration. The writer had done his job well and he was quickly sprawled on the couch engrossed in it.

Halfway through the book he realized he was hungry. He stood up, retrieved his pack, and took out one of the flat loaves.

Would you like something else to eat?

Ah, yes, House. What do you have?

On each side of the invisible oven above the fireplace at least a dozen doors folded down to make shelves. Inside were tubs and packages and spice shakers and dozens and dozens of items of food and drink both strange and familiar — including one large box of icy drinks and delicacies.

Would this be adequate? House said in smug tones.

Justin was struck dumb for long moments. Why did you never tell me about this before?

You never asked before.

You just prompted me to ask!

House sounded apologetic. It is hard for us to volunteer anything.

He was just about to order his machines to volunteer information whenever they thought he needed it. But what if they started nattering at him all the time?

He would have to think more about this. There was obviously much art to handling machines. As much as handling the genie from the pickle jar.

Ah, old Nurse! She had always gotten her fairy tales wrong.

/p>

Mid-morning the next day the caravan passed Justin’s cottage. He heard their conversations, as he had been hearing them all morning, through several spy eyes and their spy ears.

It was confusing at first to hear several dozen conversations all at once. But as the morning wore on Justin began to be able to switch back and forth between them and tone down the less interesting ones.

“Hey, what’s that?” Justin’s attention went to the speech of one of the forward guards. He had reined in his horse to peer ahead along the road.

“What? Oh. I’ve never seen that before.” This guard was a long, lean woman, the only female guard. She was older than the others and Justin had earlier decided from the way she gave orders that she was the head guard.

A third guard reined up alongside them. “Neither have I. And I’ve been along this road a dozen times.”

The boss guard looked at him. She had to say nothing. The third guard quickly returned to his flank position, very obviously scanning the landscape on his side of the caravan for danger.

The woman looked toward the nearest guards. “Check weapons,” she called out. “Pass the word.”

Justin watched with the interest of his long years as commander of small and then larger commands until he became commander-in-chief of his kingdom. The guards were paired, often an older with a younger partner. They did their checking in turn, the younger ones first, then the other. They were carrying rifles with revolver cartridge cylinders and opened the cylinders to check each of the cartridges in them.

He mused to himself, “Sure would be nice to have one of those.” He had seen drawings of them in his old life but never seen one.

Why? If you want to kill someone you can do it from a hundred miles away. Would you like me to show you your arsenal? House sounded vaguely miffed.

Oh. Thank you. Later. I’m just curious about those rifles.

Well, if you want a toy, here.

Justin was sitting on the couch as he looked and listened through his spy eyes. He glanced at the table. A seemingly brand new rifle lay there without a cylinder attached. Beside it were two empty cylinders with a dozen cartridges standing on their flat ends, tipped with dull grey bullets.

Thank you, House. I will look at your armory later, I promise.

Gods. He had to placate a machine, it seemed.

As the caravan neared Justin’s house the boss guard called her lieutenant to take over for her and took a grey-haired tough-looking older guard with her to investigate the cottage. There they ground-reined their horses quite a distance apart and slowly approached House. Justin had told House to ensure it still looked quite dilapidated.

The boss slowly approached the front door, continuously shooting glances all about, looking most at the small seemingly long-abandoned stable. Closer to the house its bulk hid her from the stable and vice versa. Her partner stayed back so that he could keep an eye on that building.

Mistake, thought Justin. She should have brought one or two more guards for that task. Or so he guessed; he had no idea of the limitations upon her actions.

She knocked on the front door and called out. With no answer from within she knocked and shouted harder and louder. He artistically had the top plank of the door, hanging a bit askew, fall with a clatter to the low front porch.

The boss jumped back and, when nothing else happened, edged a bit closer to the house. She peered in through the empty slot from a distance safe enough from a sword or spear, rifle ready. She saw only a vague grey ruin projected into her eyes by House.

She came closer and knocked again, harder. Justin let another board tumble down. Finally she got close enough to get a good view inside the house.

Provisionally satisfied no one was in the cottage she looked inside the more open stables while her partner kept an eye upon the house. Finally the two returned to the caravan and sent it by the cottage, keeping several guards watching the buildings all the while but not forgetting the rest of the countryside lest the houses serve as a diversion.

When the caravan was out of sight Justin emerged from the cabin and looked after it. The boss guard had been a bit lanky and seemed a tough woman. But he remembered the way she had moved, almost like a dancer. And those practical pants could not hide that her bottom and legs were quite womanly.

A couple of hours passed. During this time Justin viewed the countryside well ahead of the caravan. There were two possible threats to it. One was a long-settled camp up in the low hills to one side of the road. The people there seemed unusually prosperous for the meager gardens, groves, and stock they cared for. Another was a town along the road straddling a river which ran roughly east and west. Justin had long ago identified this as the possible threat five miles to the south that Resource had warned him of.

Justin would like to visit the town but without a horse saw no way to do it conveniently. That did not mean there was no transportation, however.

House, how could I travel to that town?

By foot, of course. By horse if we had one. You also have a personal transport system.

What’s that?

Blue will brief you. But you might be interested in first seeing it. Outside. In the back. House spoke with a distinctly mischievous tone in her voice.

Justin shrugged and got up off the couch. He had long ago learned to humor servants.

Outside he walked beyond the outhouse, which now had facilities to clean itself and vanquish odors. The sun was warm on his back. It was westering a bit but the day was still young. A breeze from the south in the direction of the caravan blew pleasantly across his skin and ruffled his hair.

He was in no hurry and spent time enjoying the blue sky, the widely scattered wispy clouds, and the dark green of what he had begun to think of as his eastern woods. Then a cloud of dust made itself noticed about a hundred feet in front of him.

A square of earth was sliding upward exactly like the top of a gift box being opened. It rose up and up, the few ragged bushes and brown grass atop it being blown slightly in the southern wind. Then a perfectly flat bottom of brown earth came into view as the chunk of earth rose perhaps forty feet and stopped, floating in the air.

Out of the shadowed cavity left behind rose a large soap bubble about as big as the cottage but shaped more along the lines of a loaf of bread. It was visible only because its edges made a very slight distortion in the air. And even that distortion would have been invisible if the sky behind them had held clouds to mask the distortion.

It’s being invisible like the spy eyes, isn’t it? Can I see it without the … shield?

Ask it. Personal Car, meet our master Justin. Justin, Car.

Pleased to meet you, Car. As they were speaking through Justin’s neural net connection the car had been turning from its side-on position and turning to face him. It had also been moving toward him. Behind it the “box top” of earth was settling back into position, leaving, at least as seen from Justin’s distance, no sign that it had sheltered the car.

Likewise, Justin. Its voice was a pleasant male baritone.

May I see you without the shield?

Of course.

Instantly revealed was a flattened oval of a pearly substance. It seemed as if one could see into the skin for a slight distance. Just like the spy eyes.

The car looked almost round from the front except for a slight vertical flattening. It continue to revolve on its vertical axis as it approached, almost as it someone was turning to show their clothing from all sides. Now it looked even more like a loaf of bread, though with somewhat sharpened ends, one sharper than the other. Justin guessed that was the front end.

It stopped in the air a few feet over the short brown grass of the back yard.

House said, Justin, would you like to see Car do a few aerobatic maneuvers?

Why not?

The car was a streak southward which curved up steeply and vanished into the sky. A distant rumble of thunder tumbled down from the sky.

It is now fifty miles up. Now it’s coming back.

From the north appeared a red streak. It slowed a couple miles north and east of Justin’s position then did a loop up and back. Leveling off it spun over onto its back and then back upright, then repeated the corkscrewing action several more times while traveling south, left to right from Justin’s viewpoint.

Then from the south just above the plain it came floating back, slowing, slowing, its red color lessening back toward pearl. Perhaps a hundred yards away it pirouetted on its vertical axis and edged to a stop in front of Justin. Its slightly sharper end ended up facing southward.

Very impressive. Thank you, Car. Would you go invisible and wait behind the house? I’ll want to travel a little after noon.

Of course. I’ll sleep. Call me when you are ready.

I will. Ah, do you have food and water aboard? And a bathroom? And a bed? We may be away overnight or longer.

Yes. His little airship vanished with only a tiny whiff of air ruffling Justin’s hair to suggest it had moved.

Inside the cottage Justin settled onto the couch to investigate the town to the south a bit through his tiny spies. He had done this in the last few days but only perfunctorily. Now he looked more sharply.

It seemed to have about five hundred people and serve even smaller villages and individual farms and ranches, including the not-so-temporary camp to the east about which Justin entertained suspicions. Further to the south and the more fertile and better-watered land there were more farms. To its north, nearer to Justin, there were more ranches. Perhaps his home was on a long-abandoned ranch.

Vicariously he wandered its main streets and three side streets and explored some of the stores. This included a fruit stand, shoe and boot repair shop, a hardware store, a tailor who also sold dresses and other kinds of ladies’ apparel, a grocery and general store, a candle store with an impressive inventory, and two newspaper stands, one at each end of the main street. There was also a lending library at the end of one side street which rented books for modest amounts. The people of Bains Valley were apparently great readers.

He listened in on people and even one official meeting of city officials who dozed more than they listened to each other. He watched how people dressed and moved. He also listened to how they talked. He had always had a good ear for the “music” of language, and let it soak in.

House, what kind of clothing can you create for me?

Oh, lots! Look at this! An outfit seemed to hang in mid-air before him, projected onto his optic nerve through his neural net connection to her. And here is another. And …

Slow down! I’m not going to need dozens of wardrobes.

Oh. Well. But you may want several changes of clothing if you stay away more than a few days.

Justin succumbed a bit to House’s eagerness for coutural display, but only a bit. It seemed ever more likely that in some fundamental way House was indeed as he had cast her, as female.

As he decided what he would wear he made a pleasant discovery. House unfolded from one corner a full-body shower. In his home country Justin and a few other nobles had them, but nothing like the one House provided. This included unlimited water, and hot water at that, and all sorts of bath oils and hair lotions.

Exiting from the shower to fluffy towels floating in the air which dried him via orders passed through his neural net to House, he asked something that had been puzzling him for some time.

Where did this shower come from? The space between the wall and the outside is no more than four or five inches.

There was a pause before House spoke. Much of it is force fields. I don’t know how to explain them. Some of it comes from changing air into water or more complex substances. And I can scoop up soil below or outside the house. If you really want to know, link to Blue. He will tell you.

He. Justin laughed ruefully. About the only piece of information in that explanation that he understood was that his blue marble was a he and not a she or an it.

As he dressed in his chosen wear House showed him a catalog of various weapons. Presumably if he wanted any they too would made from “force fields” and air and soil. Many of them were of glittering silver or gold called mysterious names: disruptor, blaster, disintegrator, neural burner, and so on. These were recognizable as pistols or rifles only by the hand-grip or hand-grips or shoulder stocks. Then there were bombs and bomblets. And a very long spear that, House bragged, could remove whole mountains with one shot.

I don’t dislike any mountains enough to be mean to them.

House pondered this comment a moment, then obviously classified it as a joke. She gave a merry totally unconvincing laugh.

Other weapons were even more mysterious, such as the small floating ball with numerous small mirrors and lenses which spun and collapsed into each other. Some were small and clipped to one’s belt or hair or were worn as ear rings or bracelets.

Justin wondered that Gwyneth had trusted him with such power. Had she forgotten the aphorism that total power corrupts totally? Had her love overcome her common sense?

Or had she given him all this because he might actually come to have justified reasons to use it?

He shook his head. As mysterious as his wife had become to him after he died, he had seen her tested in many ways. She was kind but never stupid, never impractical. He could only live to enjoy himself as much as he could and be ready to do right with her gifts whenever he saw the need for them.

In the end he took Knife and its sheathed belt, both slightly smartened up, and two revolvers with decorative black hilts in cross-draw holsters sharing his belt with Knife. The pistols were quite ordinary if beautiful machines, not smart ones like Knife.

His clothing was a light blue dress shirt over ironed and creased black pants cuffed over low shiny black half boots. A respectable (House said) dark blue silken coat with short tails barely covered the bottoms of his holsters. The well-fitted coat did not hide his pistols but made their appearance more discreet, obvious but not aggressively so. And it admirably set off his broad shoulders and did not hide that his arms were well muscled.

Ah, Gwyneth, my love! If only you could see me now.

Before tears could start he called for Car and strode briskly out of the house into the road way. Before him the loaf-shaped seeming soap bubble of Car extended a short ramp from its side. He walked inside.

A dark green floor led forward to a single easy-chair in dull orange. As he walked toward it he saw that a perfectly clear one-piece window showed the outside from his knees up. When he settled into his chair he saw that the window curved down to floor level, giving him a view not only ahead but down.

This was immediately useful because Car ascended straight up slowly. Below and to all sides the view expanded.

Go slowly forward for a time toward the next town on the road. We need to talk a bit about what you can do.

The landscape below began to slide slowly backward.

Car said he could go to the two moons and back, any number of times. No, he would not run out of air and food and drink no matter how long they stayed anywhere. Nor fuel; he had a boundless source of that. It seemed that he was limited only by an Alfar rule.

Another limit was “the speed of sound” under a certain height. If he went above that height and into space he could be anywhere on the world within a half hour.

What a temptation! To see his family and his old country again. But no, it would never do. He must look forward, not back.

Car carried no weapons as such though he could. But he himself was a weapon at need. His “force” beams could pull and push anything, including pulling the thing apart or crushing it together. He could crash through buildings and armies and Justin would feel not the slightest jolt nor would Car be damaged in any way. He could also move so fast that he pushed a mighty wind ahead of him that would do much damage.

Justin noticed with interest that Car’s speech had a tinge of pride on the subject of his flight abilities but was emotionless when talking about being a weapon.

Shortly Justin knew as much as he needed for now and told Car to go at the greatest discreet speed to the town up ahead.

/p>

It was perhaps a half hour later that Justin came ambling from an alleyway. Car had set Justin down on the ground with “force beams” which felt like gentle giant invisible hands, then retreated to float high above, invisible but available in just instants.

He tilted his wide-brimmed hat back on his head and looked around. This was the middle of the three main streets. They ran east and west parallel to the river which gave life to this town, Bain’s Crossing, or usually just Bains.

He stepped out onto the wooden sidewalk and walked eastward along the street, looking into the shop windows and occasionally going into the shops and browsing. Some of the shops he had visited vicariously as a spy eye. There was quite a difference actually being here, smelling the air and feeling the warmth of the air on his body.

In a “drugstore” which was more like a general store than a pharmacy he ordered a flavored ice which came in a cone of some fluffy flat pastry. He liked it very well even though the cone soon became soggy and the ice melted and made his fingers sticky.

Blue told Justin that if he held his sticky hand casually up above his eyes to shade them that Car could clean his hand. He did just that when Justin stopped at a cross-street looking down Main. It felt as if momentarily an invisible wash cloth had swiped his hand.

Bains was a small town compared to Juslar Capital but it appeared oddly sophisticated and modern to Justin. Mirtha was a very advanced nation and had all sorts of technical conveniences Juslar did not. Indoor “outhouses” in the large saloon in which he turned, for instance. And an ultramodern telephone in one corner. It was fastened on the inside wall of a telephone booth and, for the deposit of a coin, would connect to any of several dozen other phones in the town and two dozen around the country side!

That last was proudly told him by a large-mustachioed bartender when Justin ordered an ale.

“Though I suppose that is old news to a city fellow like you, eh, Mr. Harald?”

Justin took a sip of the ale. Not bad, according to his taste at any rate.

He nodded. “Oh, yes, we have them in Miraklay. But still not many. It takes a lot of time and money to mount the telephone wires. You’re obviously getting in on the ground floor, admirably early, don’t you know? I’ll bet you didn’t have to settle a thousand law suits just to get rights to put up the poles which carry the wires.”

“Ay, we avoided that. Smart folks we’ve got for our town council.” He moved on down the bar to serve others and Justin sipped his ale and looked around. Later he made the acquaintance of several town citizens, buying them drinks turn and turn about, a custom well-known in his old country.

One of the town folk, a young bank clerk with whom Justin made friends, invited Justin to take dinner with him in the Restaurant.

This was a new invention also recently imported from the big cities. It was like a gentleman’s club or coach-way inn but open to everyone for sit-down meals.

A well-dressed gentleman escorted the two to a table in the corner. It was covered with a fresh ironed white table cloth and the chairs were perhaps a little too comfortable, the clerk informed him.

The young man said, “They should have flat hard bottoms to encourage customers to leave quick to make way for other customers.”

To the Alfar business was a vast and exact science rather than a poorly cobbled together structure of facts and factoids and archaic ideas, and much knowledge of this science was stored in the data web. Blue was continuously feeding Justin information from the web to help him make conversation and understand what was happening.

The web could also think in a somewhat mechanical way. Now it did a flashingly fast analysis of the restaurant’s “business model” and Justin siphoned off some conclusions.

“Some restaurants are run that way. But this one is built around ancillary trade. Notice that they sell ‘take-out’ meals as well as sit-down meals. And these little aprons with Bain’s Restaurant printed on the front.” He pointed at this item printed on the back of the large colored menu the two had been issued.

“And they have a license for soft alcoholic beverages. So sitting a while is good business.”

“Well, that’s why you’re such a successful businessman, I’m sure, knowing stuff like this.”

Justin laughed. “Oh, no, you’re joking with me! You know I’m too young to have figured out that stuff on my own. It’s just I’ve been listening to my father and uncles all my life, and they are canny, I’ll tell you.”

At this point Blue flashed a piece of information from the web to Justin. He leaned forward.

“Now this is not certain. They could always change their minds. But some businessmen into railroads are thinking of bridging the Plain with a railroad track. I’m here to look to scope out the land for if, and I do mean IF, the road goes through.”

This news quite excited the clerk. Justin felt a bit guilty. His news was indeed accurate, but he should have realized that men like the one in front of him were all too likely to take possibility for fact and get into trouble by committing to enterprises too soon.

But all he could do was warn the man, once again, that he was only passing along rumor.

After a leisurely meal which included apple pie covered in ice cream the two parted on the sidewalk outside. As they were shaking hands goodbye another young man ran up to the clerk and — after a quick introduction and handshake — told them the exciting news. A caravan was in town!

They hastily suggested Justin accompany them to view the settling in of the caravan and quickly hurried off when he declined. While speaking to the clerk in the restaurant Justin of course had been watching the caravan via several spy eyes. He had seen the caravan settling into Bains and knew all about the event.

As Justin continued to saunter through the main streets gas street lights were going on, though only on those streets. Stores continued open for a time as the gas lamps lightened the twilight. By the normal closing time for most stores he had retired to another saloon for the gossip that could only be gotten by subtle promptings of people in conversation. Even spy eyes could not find out everything.

An hour before the middle of the night Justin walked into a dark alley and was scooped up by Car’s force beams. It was exhilarating, flying upward through the dark in the instants before Car appeared around him, taking Justin up through a hole in his bottom. Justin reeled to his easy chair laughing helplessly.

He had been getting sleepy but the aftermath of this experience had left him fully awake. He ordered a cold chocolaty drink to help him calm down.

Would you like to see the sunset?

It’s almost midnight!

It’s always sunset somewhere in the world.

Which was how Justin relaxed with a milk shake two hundred miles up and watched the sun slowly set as he edged toward sleep.

/p>

Many people came into Bains from the surrounding countryside upon hearing about the arrival of the caravan. It had set up camp at old established grounds a quarter mile beyond the eastern end of Main Street, just by the river. It was something of a festival time, the caravan receiving and dropping off bulk cargoes and two or three dozen of its passengers setting up a small bazaar to sell trinkets and what was to Bainsites exotic foods.

Justin had breakfast in Car high above Bains then had Car set him down in an alleyway unwatched by anyone. He ambled eastward on one of the three main streets toward the north-south road. The river was to his left and veered nearer the street as he walked to where it approached a low bridge over which the road crossed the shallow hundred-foot-wide river. The foundation for the bridge created a low waterfall over which the water burbled and foamed. The lively water and the bridge made a charming prospect as he approached it and crossed the road.

The bazaar began just beyond. It was set up partly under a stretch of trees by the river to help shade the gaily striped tents and their customers. The last two days of the week had been declared a holiday, making today the first day of a long weekend, so there were quite a few people browsing the little temporary shops. Justin bought a few items from several of the shoplets and chatted with the sellers and various shoppers.

The caravan guards kept a close eye upon proceedings all day and night but were discreet about it. Justin did see at a distance the boss guard he had admired a few days before. She wore loose pants which did not hide the feminine width of her hips and nicely rounded bottom and other charms. These include small high breasts that he fancied quite a bit.

Guarding the caravan did not take all of the guards at any one time, however, and some guards slept or loafed during the day and made trips into Bains, mostly to saloons, in the evenings.

/p>

“Buy you a drink?” Justin stood looking down at the boss guard in the largest of the two saloons in town. She was accompanied by two other guards. She looked up at him and they took in a closer view of each other.

Justin like what he saw close up. She had black hair in a pony tail only lightly frosted with silver, dark eyes with emphatic black eyebrows not quite too heavy, and an oval face decorated with a mouth which seemed sensual despite her thin somewhat hawkish nose. Barely perceptible age lines only added distinction to her beauty in his eyes.

She also seemed to like what she saw. She nodded to her two companions and they got up and moved to another table. She waved him to a chair. He took the one closest to her which faced most toward the door and signaled a waiter.

Not that he needed any warning of attack. His senses were inhumanly acute when he wished them to be. Plus he had two spy eyes stationed near the ceilings to give him a panoramic view of the saloon. But his fake caution might impress her a bit.

“I am Justin Harald. You?”

“Ailwyn Rustak. What are you doing here … Justin?”

“They think I’m a rich businessman looking for commercial opportunities. Actually I’m a rich businessman’s boy traveling for fun.”

She snickered. “Too bad. I might consider taking to bed a serious businessman. A playboy would bore the crap out of me.”

He brightened, gave her his best smile. “You’re right. I’m a serious person. Do you have a husband? A boy friend? A girl friend? Do I have competition I can’t overcome?”

She smiled. “‘No’ to all of that. I am free for you to win. But you must work at it. And will likely fail. I am too careful when I’m on duty, and until I reach Miraklay I will be always on duty.”

“Will you be coming back this way any time soon?”

“Perhaps. My home is in Parquette over the north hills.”

“You and your companions will be welcome in my home. It’s midway through the Valley.”

She frowned. “Are you joking? No one lives on the road north of here.”

“My home is the cottage you investigated earlier today. Remember? The two planks that fell from the door? I was watching you and your sidekick from inside, hidden by my mysterious powers.”

She smiled. “Very clever. Who did you buy drinks for earlier? Has to be one of my guards.” That last she added musingly.

“You’re right. Some of your men talk too much when their mouth’s are, umm, lubricated.”

“If I find out who they’ll be talking mush-mouthed for a week or two.”

“I’ll not tell. Now, fascinating lady, where did you grow up?”

She laughed. “The road to a woman’s bed is through her history? Do you have much to learn about courting!”

He propped his face up on his fists, rested his elbows on the table, and looked up into her eyes with his own eyes wide with seemingly fake fascination.

She shook her head but eventually, after a bit to drink, began to tell him. And his fascination was not fake.

Perhaps a half hour into her recitation she shook herself. “You’re too good at that. Now it’s your turn.”

He ordered another round of drinks; those the two of them had been nursing were just about gone. He also ordered snacks to offset the alcohol’s worst effects. On her; his metabolism burned alcohol too fast for it to effect him much.

“I was born to a well-to-do family. Minor nobles as it happens, but smart at making money.” For a time he told her about his early childhood, rediscovering that long-ago life as he spoke of it. But like her he stopped himself after a half hour.

“I suspect you have to go on duty soon, too soon for me. Before you leave promise me you will let me buy you dinner tomorrow evening at the Bains Restaurant. I’ll dress up a bit if you will.”

She frowned at him. He sensed she was on the edge of refusing. He propped his chin on his fists and again gave her puppy eyes. In laughter she promised she would come to the restaurant if he would just quit his ridiculous display.

With that he quickly got up, dropped a large bank note on the table, and put out his hand. She automatically put out her hand to shake and, grabbing it, he quickly kissed its back and left before she could change her mind.

Floating in Car a thousand feet above the town Justin followed her progress for the rest of the evening and back to the caravan to guard against the unlikely event that she would come to harm. He also followed her inside her tent but, when she began to disrobe to change into sturdier guard clothing, left. It might be silly, but he still felt guilty about using his special gifts to spy on people’s most intimate moments.

Besides, he wanted to discover her charms for himself face to face. And, considering that rounded bottom, face to back.

/p>

It took Car only a minute or two to travel the five miles to Bains from Justin’s home, where he had spent the night. This included the time it took to snatch him up through its belly and float him down once Car had found a location in Bains where no one was looking.

That day Justin continued his ambling about town and making acquaintances. At the same time he was linked by Blue to spy eyes and surveillance from space of the possible bandits in the hills. And overseeing the data web’s study of what it would take to get more water into the Valley. He especially liked the idea of opening up the underground stream which passed near his home.

The web had been in place for many years. This convinced Justin that Alfar, or people like the legendary beings, truly lived on his world. There might be a few dozen or many thousands hidden, living alongside ordinary people. And they were hidden from him as well despite his near-magical devices. This did not bother him but he did wonder if he was being observed and judged. Another reason to live honorably, though the standards must be his own since he knew no more about the Alfar than that Gwyneth had been one.

Most immediately, though, it meant that he could study the geological and meteorological history of this region. This told him that the lakes in the eastern hills which fed his underground stream were reliable. That was important. He did not want to create a water resource that the people of the Valley would learn to rely on only to have it dry up. As a backup to “his” stream he added a plan to bring in water from other lakes in the hills.

The next problem was how to bring the water to the surface. At first sight this was easy. Car’s force beams were powerful. They could plow the earth as easily as Justin scrubbed a line in dirt with a stick.

It would be much less easy to ensure that the resulting stream would not damage the trees and other plants already living near the underground stream. Those plants would, a quick survey of the data web showed, be important in helping stimulate the entire valley into more productive growth.

The hardest problems were legal and political. Justin wanted his garden-building, as he thought it, to benefit the people of Bain’s Valley as well as any outside investors.

As part of this effort he ordered House to create a new kind of spy eye, one large enough to carry small objects and handle them with tiny force beams. He could use the larger eyes to steal but did not. Instead he did the opposite: put money into banks. And paperwork forged so well as to be undetectable as forgeries. With advice from the data web he devised several stratagems for depositing the money and paperwork to support the money transfers.

He also devised ways to insert paperwork and fees to secure the un-owned parts of a Bain’s Valley development corporation. This would have to be done discreetly and could not be done wholly by robots. He would have to do some himself and through human agents.

This would also help ensure that any property that a railroad across the Valley needed to build on would be owned by the valley’s corporation. Unless legislators, perhaps bribed by industrialists, passed laws to give that land to investors outside the Valley. Such investors would be essential to Justin’s plan but he wanted to ensure they were not the only ones to profit.

To counter that Justin would have to rally Valley economic and political resources behind his plan. But, long and hard as that game would be, Juslar the king had been a master player. He had seen his job as Master of All He Surveyed as a gardener, not a military genius to conquer his kingdom and nearby states. Though he had been good at generalship too. All kings must be or they ceased to be kings.

Had Gwyneth placed him here in the Valley to best make use of his talents for good? Had she really loved him or had he just been a tool for her?

It didn’t matter, he decided. He had loved her. He had loved her, and in the end that mattered more than his pride.

All day he chatted and met people, including some merchants and officials he would someday need. This included the town’s banker, who was also its mayor. He also began putting together the first tentative plan for the Valley’s benefit.

All throughout this he was also looking forward to this evening’s dinner. He hoped he would not be stood up. But he kept his spy eyes away from Ailwyn. He wanted her as a man and would win her with as little help as he could from the powers he commanded.

/p>

At the appointed time of his reservation he showed up at the Restaurant. And she was there.

As she looked him up and down he could see a look of dismay on her face, too faint to be noticed by anyone without his powers of observation. He was dressed in the height of Miraklay fashion, all in perfectly fitting black superfine pants and matching coat over a gleaming white shirt with a black bow tie. His boots gleamed. His perfect tailoring downplayed his weapons but did not hide them.

“Gods! I knew you said you’d dress up, but I didn’t know you meant this dressy. I must look ridiculous.”

She wore the best of her usual work clothing but had smartened up only a bit. Cleaned, perfumed, but with only touches of makeup, she had added blue ribbons in her hair and twined them around her weapons belt.

She was magnificent. He told her so, ran a hand delicately over her hair, tugged on her decorated weapons belt.

“I can’t do this.”

“Do you think I want a delicate society maiden, with no brains and less courage? I was enchanted with you when I first saw you.”

She laughed. He smiled wickedly at her and swung alongside, crooking an arm and looping her hand over it. He tugged at her with inexorable strength.

“Notice that I left your weapon hand free? Aren’t I clever?”

“But doesn’t that tie up yours?”

“I am ambidextrous. A skill I hope to someday demonstrate to you in a non-martial way.”

The formally clad head waiter the Restaurant used for its weekend evenings, who had earlier received a discreetly delivered and generous bank note from Justin, escorted them the Restaurant’s best table. It was in the middle of the long front edge of the dining area with large windows onto the street.

She glanced out the window, looked up and down the street before settling into her seat as directed and aided by the waiter.

“Don’t worry,” said Justin. “I have magical guardians alert for any danger.”

“You are so full of it.”

Ah. A Juslar idiom that was just as current half a world away and in another language.

The waiter extended menus and he and Justin discussed specials while Ailwyn looked on in amusement while also perusing the menu. When it came her turn she ordered quickly and decisively. Justin ordered as well and they were left alone.

“Now comes the wine ceremony. Do you know a damned thing about it?”

He grinned at her. “No. I just pretend to and the waiter pretends to believe I’m not pretending.”

“So what do you do here when you’re not being a tourist?”

“I’m buying up all the land the railroad might need. The deal is still in the talking stages. Four to one is my best guess of the odds against it. But a railroad is bound to come through some day and the land is cheap.”

Or it would have been if Justin had not hinted the idea of the railroad into existence the day before. Not that he minded if the people of the Valley got more from him for their land. House and Car could transmute air and sand into genuine gold and silver coins indistinguishable from those stamped out by a mint, all properly aged.

Though it would be wise for him not to avail himself too much of that capability. He could see several ways that might cause problems, and he was sure there were other ways he could not imagine.

“Also I’m looking into the possibility of bringing in irrigation from lakes in the hills.”

The waiter arrived then and the two men went into the wine ceremony. That done and the waiter gone, the two of them lifted glasses and clinked them together.

“So you are a real businessman? You look awfully young.”

“Call me an apprentice businessman. Truthfully I am more an errand boy for my family following orders than making the decisions.”

Their food came and for a time the two of them were silent while they ate their excellent food. When they were dawdling over the last of it he asked her what she would do if the railroad did come to the Valley.

“Do what I’ve done twice before: go further west where there aren’t any railroads.”

“Aren’t there fewer caravans out there?”

“Prosperity travels west. Or has so far. I suppose the process has to end eventually when Mirtha knocks up against the Sky Breaker Mountains. But every time I’ve gone west the need for caravans has been the same.”

After that the conversation became less serious. After enough time for their food to settle they ordered desserts, neither of which they could finish. Finally Justin ordered and paid for the check.

Outside on the sidewalk he suggested he walk her back to the caravan camp. She agreed, apologizing for ending the evening early. Justin fancied she really meant it.

Clumping down the sidewalk together they were silent. She walked with her coat pulled back to free up the weapon she had lain on the floor beside their table earlier. It was now suspended under one arm on a sling. It was a revolving rifle with a stock cut short to make it into a pistol grip and its barrel shortened. She in effect was carrying a very powerful pistol with a long range.

“Powerful weapon for a woman to handle.” His tone was teasing.

Hers was not. “Can you hit anything with those toys?” His coat tails were likewise pulled back.

He laughed. “I can shoot a wolf’s eyes out at fifty yards. Just tell me which one and before you finish the word I’ll have the right or the left one gone.”

“You shouldn’t brag, boy. Someone might force you to make good.”

In an eye blink both his pistols were out and cocked and he was aiming along the street with one while the other was pointing up and ready. She swung her rifle up on its sling as she swiveled and aimed in the same direction but did not cock it.

He uncocked his pistols and, as she turned toward him, made them disappear into his holsters.

“You son of a bitch. I might have shot somebody.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” He nodded his head toward her weapon, eyes on it. Her trigger finger was alongside but not inside the trigger guard.

“Guns are not toys for children to play with.”

“At least now you know the first half my brag is true. Sorry there aren’t any wolves around for me to prove the second half.”

They turned and walked in silence to the caravan perimeter where she turned to him.

“Thank you for the wonderful dinner.”

He doffed his hat and bowed.

“Till tomorrow.”

/p>

Early the next morning Justin entered the small bank just after it opened and asked to open an account. That done he deposited a substantial sum in paper currency and gold. He also opened a line of credit on a Miraklay bank, using a perfectly counterfeited document on a Miraklay bank account.

The account, however, was not counterfeit. He had opened it during the night using one of his newly created manipulator spy eyes. It had picked the lock of a vault, deposited a modest fortune in gold in the vault, and then counterfeited and filed all the documents needed to convince anyone who cared to investigate that the account was one of long standing.

Before he left the Bains bank the president of the bank, who was also the mayor of Bains, invited Justin into his office for tea and a modest snack. Modest at least by the mayor’s standards. He was a round little man who liked his food.

After chatting a while about Justin’s plans the mayor invited him to “a little get-together” at his house that evening “to meet a few of the local investors.” Justin accepted.

Back on the streets Justin noticed that he shared them with nearly twice as many people as earlier in the week. The big hotel and the two smaller ones were filled and overfilled with visitors, as were houses willing to take in guests.

At the caravan camp grounds people swarmed, some of them having been there from sunup. Workers throwing up temporary structures of several sorts, most of them left over from previous festivals. He found that each year there were two such events, one in the spring and one in the autumn.

By noontime the newly erected temporary Springfest structures, which extended further eastward along the river, were ready for business and the workers in them doing very good business indeed.

Justin, tired of waiting in a long line at one of the outdoor food service booths, walked behind a tree near the river and lifted his hands overhead after using spy eyes to ensure no one was watching him. Car snapped a meat sandwich into one hand and a fizzy sweet drink into the other.

Minutes later one of the fest goers asked him where he had gotten the food and drink. Pretending his mouth was fuller than it was he gestured with his sandwich-filled hand back along the length of the booths toward the town.

As he walked eastward exploring the local booths he came across many of the same booths he knew well from Juslar festivals. Ball-throwing booths at targets which popped down when hit amid ringing bells for fluffy toys were very popular. Bar bells for lifting by area strong men for cheap prizes was another, as was a booth where kids could shoot tiny bows and arrows for prizes. This was right by one with kid-sized air rifles. Each faux-weapon technology was as popular as the other.

At the very end of the fest site was a large open area big enough for two or three hundred people to stand or sit in. It was roped off from the area around it and rows of cheap folding seats were being set up around three sides of a raised platform with sturdy posts at each of the four corners. It was a boxing ring. A rope was already stretched along the tops of each post and workers were stringing a second middle rope.

Standing in the shade of trees by the river was Ailwyn Rustak and several of her guards. She was supervising a practice session using long sticks with padded ends. It was obvious that tonight’s boxing event was going to be policed by caravan guards, supplemented by locals hired for the occasion as evidenced by the bright red improvised sashes the latter wore to match the more professionally made sashes of the regular guards.

Seeing Justin she strolled over to meet him as he entered the shade a little off to the side.

“Get’s a little rowdy sometimes?” he said, waving at the boxing ring area.

“Toward the end it can get quite ‘rowdy.’ But we put on a little show midway through to show what happens if anyone misbehaves. We have two of the locals earn a little extra money by pretending to start a fight in the audience. One of the guards knocks one on the head and tries to do the same to the other. That worthy individual then tries to get away only to be laid out by another guard.”

“And you do this every time you come through? Doesn’t the audience realize it’s only play-acting?”

“Most everyone expects it. It’s part of the fun. Anyway, the locals are such bad over-actors that only the stupidest couldn’t figure it out. One fellow last trip through took so long to stagger and fall down — and get up and stagger and fall down — that everyone started to ‘boo’ him. I almost thought we were going to have real trouble then.”

He laughed.

“Thinking of try your hand at defeating our champion?”

“I’d give the poor fellow a boringly easy victory.”

She looked him up and down. “You might be able to go a few rounds, maybe quite a few, if you have some science. But I’d hate to see you get your pretty face rearranged.”

He shivered in horror. “Me too.”

He raised one hand as if swearing an oath. “No way am I going into the ring.”

He nodded and walked away. She waved and went back to supervising.

/p>

The “little get-together” that evening at the mayor’s house with him and some of his cronies and their families was well organized for an event which Justin guessed had been planned just for him just that day. It included several unmarried daughters.

Justin appreciated the vibrant young beauties and pleased them with his attention. Yet after the dinner’s end he turned his steps toward the caravan camp spot. He had kept a number of spy eyes on it, all of them instructed to keep track of boss guard’s location. The daughters were flowers just beginning to bloom. The boss guard was a beauty in full flower.

He found her as the boxing crowd was breaking up apparently satisfied with the night’s carnage without feeling a need to add to it. He commented on that fact. She looked up at him with a hint of a smile.

“This is the first night. The organizers feed him only the poorest of those who’ve bought their chance to fight him. He makes the bouts last, but the audience doesn’t get much of a show. Come tomorrow night if you like more exciting action.”

“I’ll be here. The mayor and some friends have ring-side seats and have procured one for me.”

“You don’t seem terribly excited about that fact.”

“I appreciate boxing and did some of it when I was young, but I don’t expect much science in bouts like these.”

“When you were young. And you are an old man now, are you?”

“I’m older than I look.” He slanted her a glance. She returned it then walked over to one of her guards to tell him she was going to take a turn about the camp.

Justin fell in step with her, taking the side away from her main weapon hand.

They talked about inconsequentials as they walked. They also spent much of that time in comfortable silence. This was one of Gwyeth’s qualities that had meant so much to Justin.

Strange that a woman could look entirely unlike his wife and yet remind him so much of her.

He would have to ponder this, but later, when he was alone and could think more objectively about this woman and his feelings.

Once around the camp and a bit more she stopped and looked back at the camp. They were near the bridge and behind them they could hear the water burble and splash quietly under the bridge.

She said, “Everything seems as if it will stay calm.”

They let some of that quiet time pass. But now, for his part at least, there was more between them. A warmth inside his chest that was the first stirrings of love. And from her slightly faster heart beat she felt something as well.

He sighed. “Then I shall say good night and let you get to sleep.”

He did not move. Nor did she. She turned toward him and looked steadily into his eyes.

He leaned slightly toward her. After an instant she leaned his way as well.

Gently he laid one hand upon one of her shoulders and drew her toward him. She took a step closer. He laid his lips on hers and kissed her. It was a kiss long and sweet, soft warm lips and a complex array of scents and tastes.

When they moved apart he left his hand upon her shoulders.

She looked to the left and right and over his shoulder north toward the edge of the camp and the river. Then she moved even closer and put both her arms around his neck and pulled him down to her and she up on her tiptoes. He pulled her into a close embrace and held her tightly. This time their kiss was longer and deeper.

At last when it was over she pulled away from him. He let her go, let his hands slide down her back and over her bottom till dropping them to his sides.

“Mmm,” she said. “You kiss much better than a boy should know how to do.”

“Natural talent. And you inspire me.”

She flashed him a smile and began to turn away. “Goodnight, Justin.”

“Good night, my heart.”

She shook her head and Justin did not need any of the spy eyes floating about the camp to know that she had looked to the heavens with exasperation at his words. And smiled.

/p>

The next day was the first day of the weekend and the third day of the Springfest. The two previous days had each been bigger than the day before. This one promised to be very big.

Justin stayed home. He had no desire to fight crowds and he had seen all of the fest he wanted to. Also several of the initiatives he had begun needed more attention. The machines he commanded were very smart, but they occasionally overlooked or misunderstood human subtleties.

He also spent a good deal of time viewing the various dwellings nearby and in the Mirthan empire. He and House consulted about the possibilities.

House had grandiose ideas and Justin had to talk her down from, successively, a fifty-story skyscraper of a design so futuristic that it must be of Alfar make, an ancient rambling three story mansion of one-hundred rooms (twenty of them bedrooms), a two-story U-shaped manor house, to his final choice.

This was an L-shaped one-floor house. A line of stables behind the house would be out of sight of the road but easily reached from the house. The house plus stables would form a U around a garden. The east-west line of trees on the south side of the house would close the U to make a box.

Inside would be a dozen rooms. This included three bedrooms, a large kitchen, an office, and assorted other store rooms, pantries, and such. There would be three indoor bathrooms, fed partly and publicly by a tank atop the house which would be fed by the underground stream and secretly by air transmuted into water. The bathrooms would feed into an underground sewer and eventually be processed through a series of sand traps and filters before exiting clean into the stream.

House was clearly disgusted by the need for primitive plumbing but mollified when Justin challenged her to create them with secret ultra-modern plumbing assistance. This meant that guests would see nothing surprising but get all the benefits of advanced technology.

Both the house and the stable, enlarged enough to house a dozen horses at need, were to be set back far enough from the road to allow for a crescent-shaped driveway wide enough for two teams of horses.

/p>

When the time came, at about noon, for Justin’s new home to be created House had him stand in the road, the pack given him by Gwyeth the only item he took from the cottage.

In an eye blink the cottage and stable turned to dust that swirled and settled. In its place, floating at shoulder height, was a rounded box about a foot square with a surface the same pearly color of Car and the spy eyes.

House? Is that you?

Yes, Justin. This is me. Will you let me carry you to our new home?

Umm, sure.

Justin felt himself grow slowly weightless. He floated upward about a foot and was turned to face southward. Slowly and then fast enough to stir a gentle breeze he and the box moved toward the south. A bit short of the trees they slowed and Justin was turned to face eastward and House. Slowly he gained weight and sank to stand on the roadway.

Hundreds of yards eastward a large dust storm began to form, rising until it reached hundreds of yards into the air. It began to move in his direction. As it neared it concentrated into the vague shape of two houses and settled to earth, solidifying into the planned stable and small mansion. Almost too fast to follow the details of the buildings formed till it seemed a hundred years old.

The ground in front of the house was suddenly made flat and bare, then the planned cobbled crescent driveway appeared. Further to the left a packed earth driveway appeared that lead to a parking area beside the stables. An offshoot of both that driveway and the crescent driveway formed to lead to the stables.

A few seconds passed when nothing seemed to happen. Then the large double doors to Justin’s new home swung slowly open.

Welcome, Lord, to your new home.

Our home, House. Our home.

Long moments passed. Then House spoke in a voice that seemed subdued. Yes, Justin, our home.

And Justin wondered as he had a number of times before: Were the emotions portrayed by his machines mere appearance, or real?

/p>

For the next few hours Justin wandered the house, consulting with House and having her create details in each room and furnishings to fill them. The appearance he wanted was of comfort, age, and quality only slightly compromised by age.

It was as if he had bought a modest country manor and had it taken apart, transported here, then had it put back together. Which was the story he intended to give out if anyone asked how he had gotten his home built so quickly. One of the richest lords in Juslar had done exactly that many years ago when he relocated his ancestral home to the capital of Juslar.

At dinner time Justin ate in the small dining room adjoining the kitchen. It seemed the sort of cozy place the kitchen staff would dine in before or after cooking and serving a meal to the family and guests of the manor in the larger formal dining room.

Afterward he bathed and dressed for the boxing match he was supposed to attend as a guest of the mayor. Outside the house he turned to look at it, it’s front bathed in the light of the setting sun.

The house was attractive and appeared comfortable to live in, as he had planned. But if he decided to live here permanently the house would have to have at least a couple of servants to manage it. They would either have to live here or travel for an hour by horse from Bains.

A problem for the future, he decided, and asked Car to take him to Bains. A second later he was pulled up into Car through a momentary hole in its bottom and flown to the town. At a speed of several hundred miles per hour the time was so short that he did not even bother to sit down in the pilot’s chair.

Justin met the mayor and his friends at the biggest saloon in Bains. They all had a drink, some of them more than one. Justin had a locally brewed beer which he liked so much that he told the nearest spy eye to sample it so that House or Car could make it in their replicators.

“Taking your time with it, I see,” said the round little mayor, nodding at the beer mug in Justin’s hand. “Because you really like it, or dislike it too much to drink more?”

“Because I like it.” He set the mug down with a thunk on the sturdy table after a hefty swig of the beer.

“Then have another on me,” said the bulky owner of one of the largest ranches in the valley.

“Appreciate it, but I better not.”

“Come on! Be a man.”

“Thanks again, but I don’t have your, erh, capacity.” Justin glanced down at the man’s waistline.

Everyone laughed loudly at that, the rancher loudest all.

/p>

When Justin and his companions pushed through the crowd around the boxing ring to their seats the air just after sunset was warmly luminous. A slight breeze made the brisk spring air flow pleasantly across his face. To judge from the joviality of the crowd some of them had had a few drinks of their own.

It took some time before all the prospective contestants with the champion boxer had paid their ring entrance fee and were lined up near the back of the ring in seats separated from the crowd by a yellow-and-green banner of the Mirtha national colors. By then the sky had darkened enough for a few of the brightest stars to shine through it.

Finally all was in readiness and the first contestant was escorted into the ring. The ring-master brought the referee and the two fighters to the middle of the ring, then turned so that he half-faced the audience and the contestants. He announced in a loud voice the rules of the fight, allowed and disallowed blows, what constituted down and out, and so on. Then the nattily dressed man exited the ring to a ring-side seat.

The referee in a black-and-white striped shirt over black pants had a few quiet words with the bare-chested boxers, had them shake hands covered in light leather gloves, and stepped six paces away from each other.

The instant the fight-start bell rang the burly bald champion took several quick steps forward and knocked the contestant down.

Justin frowned. Not at the speed of the knockout. The champ yesterday had let some of the contestants fight for several rounds before knocking them down and had let a few of the better contestants fight for a goodly long time. The tactic was obvious: encourage other fighters to compete today. And today to finish them quickly, the last day of boxing, to save his strength for any difficult competitors.

What he frowned at was the force of the champ’s blow. It seemed entirely too brutal. Was the man angry? Or was he just trying to get some of the contestants to default, losing not only their time in the ring (and thus saving the champ’s strength) and all of their entrance fee, a fraction of which would be returned to them depending upon how long they could last in the ring.

The next three contestants were dealt with similarly. At the second of the three the crowd became quiet. The mayor looked at them with concern. Justin guessed that he had reason for his concern, not just from Justin’s own assessment of the crowd but because Justin had judged the mayor an astute judge of character, at least of the people he had lived with all his life.

At the last of the three the crowd began to mutter with a undertone of anger.

After that the champion became more moderate in his treatment of the contestants, knocking them down with less brutality and letting them show some of their boxing skills before doing so.

Justin wondered if the champ was playing some kind of game with the audience or the contestants or both.

For the next hour there was nothing exceptionable about the matches. There was even one contest that lasted ten rounds, letting the local man win an entire silver royal. Then there was a break while the champ retired to his tent for a rest. The audience stood up from the hard folding seats and chatted with each other. They also bought snacks and drinks from roaming waiters. Not a few went to the privies.

During most of the next hour the bouts were routine, even the few where the contestants made a good show against the champion. But then the champ returned to his brutal knockdowns, a few so harsh that Justin ordered his spy eyes to begin monitoring the health of locals. He marveled anew how much information something the size of a grain of sand could detect.

The next-to-last bout was so brutal that Justin thought about intervening, but the contestant decided to quit before Justin could decided to do something.

The last bout was against a large young man in obviously fit condition. He also had some science and made a good showing against the champion. He even landed a few solid hits with clever feints and one flashing blow which struck aside the champ’s guard for a smashing blow with his other fist to the champ’s body.

This obviously hurt the champion. Maybe it also infuriated him, for he began a coldly methodical very slow punishment of the young man, who never again landed a blow.

The attacks went on and on, past the twentieth round, then the twenty-fourth. By the thirtieth the crowd was deathly silent, and the young contestant was reeling, perhaps too numb to think that he could honorably break off the competition. The champ avoided giving a knockout blow, instead concentrating on punishing the young man’s body.

Fatal situation alert of monitored subject, reported a spy eye.

Show me what’s wrong.

The eye superimposed upon Justin’s vision an anatomical view of the young man standing in midair facing Justin with arms out to the side and legs a bit apart. A red circle appeared on the figure’s torso. The figure expanded so that only the torso was visible in the phantom image. Then the intervening skin, bone, fat, and muscle dissolved so that Justin could see the figure’s liver. The view seemed to move closer so that he could see that the liver was bleeding.

The blue marble on the thong around Justin’s neck said, At current rate the monitored subject will collapse and die within fifteen minutes.

Justin unholstered his pistols and turned to the mayor, holding them out to him, barrels facing down and the cylinders within easy grasp.

“Hold these for me, please.”

“What? What? Why?”

“No time to explain.” Justin pushed the weapons into the man’s hands. The mayor automatically grasped them.

Justin stood, eeled out of his coat and dropped it onto his chair, then took three steps to close with the boxing ring. Placing his hands on the canvas-covered floor of the ring, he rolled under the bottom rope between the ring’s edge posts.

Coming to his feet he walked quickly to the battling men, grabbed the champ’s nearest wrist, and gave a mighty heave, slinging the man reeling to the ropes to one side of the ring. Turning to the local, who stood arms hanging, and head looking dazedly at the canvas floor, Justin said, “Take it easy now. It’s all over. It’s all over.”

The man gazed numbly at Justin. His knees began to bend. He might have collapsed if Justin had not turned him and slung one of the man’s arms over one of his shoulders and lifted, holding the arm at the wrist with one of his hands. With his free arm Justin embraced the man at the waist. Satisfied that the man could stand for a little while longer he guided the man’s stumbling steps toward the side of the ring.

“You bastard!” The champ ran toward Justin, fists raised to strike him from behind.

Justin had heard the man’s approach and felt it from the vibrations of the strung canvas flooring. Several spy eyes also told him exactly where the man was. Justin leaned a bit forward and brought up one leg behind him, bracing himself and guiding his boot up so that the champion ran into its heel.

It staggered Justin and the injured man he supported, but not nearly as much as the champ. His breath was knocked from him and he crumpled forward over his belly, staggered but not downed.

Justin got his burden the last few feet and helped the man kneel then sit then lie down on his back. Several men, one a doctor from Bains who was being paid to care for injured boxers, got into the ring and knelt around the hurt man.

Blue, can we do something to help this man?

Leave your hand on his skin for a moment.

Justin felt a flow of something from his hand into the bare flesh of the injured man.

You can take your hand off now. I have injected him with instructions which will help his body fix itself.

Justin relinquished his care to the doctor, stood, and turned to face the champion, who was beginning to stand upright. All about the ring everyone was standing, many of them shouting and complaining. Some were angry at the champ and some at Justin and at each other. Fights would break out soon.

The champ was curing Justin. He shouted, “If you fought me fair I would put you under the floor!”

Justin shouted back. “I’ll fight you fair, you bag of wind! I’ll even bet you fifty gold royals I beat you!”

The ring announcer had gotten himself back in the ring and come close enough to hear. He seized on the challenge. “Take it!” he said to the boxer.

“You bet I’ll take it! And I’ll beat the crap out of you.”

“Only if you put up fifty golds.”

“Done!”

The shouting had diminished as the crowd had seen the two men confronting each other. Now they shushed each other as the announcer approached the ring side nearest most of them.

“There will be a match, between the champ of Miraklay and –“

“Justin Harald.”

“– Justin Harald. Taking place tomorrow at sundown. Come see this match of titans!”

/p>

“You idiot. He will kill you.”

The boss guard had been busy during the match. Near the end she and a dozen guards had stood in a line on the front side of the ring, long poles ready to discourage anyone rushing the ring. A dozen more, almost the full contingent of the guards, had stood behind the audience to take care of any violence which left the ring area.

Now she stood alongside Justin in the wooded length further to the east, just beyond the land on which the Springfest was set up. The air was cool and the bigger moon was half full and nearing the zenith of the starry night sky.

“You love me. You really do.”

“Idiot! I do not. Besides, he’ll –“

Justin did not need a spy eye to perceive that she was more upset than her fairly mild words might have suggested. In the silver light he could see veins in her neck which stood out from anxiety-heightened blood pressure, and that her pulse was up.

He stopped walking away from the fest area and turned to her, taking both her hands in his.

“My love, I play the fool sometime, but I’m not. Now listen to me.” He squeezed her hands gently.

She tried to pull them away but moved him not the tiniest noticeable fraction of an inch. He was half again as heavy as he seemed, and immensely strong.

“I am abnormally strong and fast, and I boxed quite a bit while my uncles took me about the country as a kid. And not just the genteel flourishings of the ring. I will not get hurt.”

She stood looking into his eyes, or as much as she could in what to her was mild darkness. Her anxiety eased.

“Let me go.”

“Only for a time. You are the love of my life.” Or of this one, he suddenly unreasoning, and unreasonable, knew. But it was true. It had been the same way with Gwyneth.

Now how was he going to find some family for the wedding? Perhaps a smart, pleasant, but needy woman could be bribed to become one of his grandmothers. She would have to be special to become permanently part of a faux family.

She looked at him steadily. Suddenly she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. He returned her passion for kiss after kiss. Then just as suddenly she drew away.

“Oh, no. I am not going to bed with a dead man.”

He laughed and turned themselves back toward the fest.

For long moments they walked untouching side by side. Then she came close and put her closest arm around his waist. He put an arm around her shoulders.

At the camp he drew away from her and addressed her.

“Hire extra guards for tomorrow. I’m going to make the match long and end it in a tie when I have that jackass totally exhausted. And I’m going to let him mark me up to make it look real. Don’t be worried about me, especially when I let him get in a good head blow and I look nearly out.”

“You really think you’re going to win.”

“Tie. It’s going to be a tie.”

Long moments passed as they gazed at each other.

“I must be crazy. I believe you.” She gave him a quick kiss on the lips and walked quickly away.

/p>

Back at House Justin had to take care of an insistent erection and put himself to sleep by dreamily mulling over future plans as a permanent resident in Bains Valley. He would have to acquire a stable and begin riding to and from town. Could he take a horse aboard Car to shorten trip times? How could he offload a horse and not be seen?

There was that shack a half-mile outside town. Maybe he could buy that and make it into a cottage for overnight visits. And could he buy up all the land between town and House to ensure no one built on the land between House and, call it Cottage. Or maybe call it ….

The next day Justin was up before first light and making plans. Just after daybreak he began to oversee the excavation of the underground creek which ran beside House. He found it quite exciting at first, floating in Car dozens of feet above and to the side of the creek bed as the brown earth folded out of the way and rock deep beneath the surface shifted like molded butter to raise the creek and then form a sturdy bottom for it. He was especially anxious that Car take care with the local vegetation to ensure its safe movement to the sides of the creek.

He soon grew confident of Car’s virtuoso handling of its force beams. He retired to his pilot’s chair while Car worked its way from the western plain, where the creek would descend back to its underwater bed, toward House and Justin’s eastern forest and up into the hills. Eyes closed he used spy eyes to scout the forest and the hills to ensure no one was about who could hear the soft rumbling beneath and upon the earth and see the unnatural motions of the creek building.

No one was about and by the early afternoon the creek was flowing freely from the hills to its end. For a long time Justin stood on the southern side of House, just looking at the sparkling water as it flowed westward.

After a while he roused himself and began to plan with House how to make a pleasant approach from the enclosed square of his garden down to the creek itself. Later he walked to the forest along the creek bed and spoke with House about creating a small pond just within the forest. Maybe it could have a tree overlooking part of the pond from which children could dive safely into the water?

/p>

It was harder to arrive unnoticed from Car when it came time to return to Bains. A lot of people were out and about even though Justin arrived halfway through meal time.

As he walked toward the fest grounds, a bag of necessaries hanging from one arm, he was greeted by townspeople. Some were happy to see him, some were concerned he was letting himself in for crippling, and a few were hostile. The mayor and his cronies met him and his increasingly large entourage and shooed away most of Justin’s unwanted companions.

“Here, boy. We’ve arranged a little rest area for you.”

He went with them toward a small tent set up beside the ring but a little ways from it. Inside there was a folding canvas-covered chair and a cot and a table with water and other items atop it.

Chatting with them, Justin sat in the chair and began to dress in his fighting costume, trunks held up by a modest belt and light boots with a high top which were more moccasin than boot, all in a light brown.

Soon he was visited by the fight manager and referees who made sure he knew what to expect and what he could not do. This included using implements drawn from and built into his boots and belt. They also told him that in the ring they would inspect him and the champion to ensure they had no contraband. They would even draw a comb through the two men’s hair to ensure nothing was hidden there. Justin forbore joking about the champ’s bald head.

Some time later the boss guard came into the tent and told the mayor it was time for the fight to begin. She spent only one long moment looking at Justin. He winked back and moments later, whenever everyone else had been ushered out of the tent, gave her a quick kiss before letting her usher him out.

As soon as he appeared a great cheer went up from the crowd. Justin smiled at them and lifted his arms above his head. At the ring there was a portable wooden stair and a referee holding the top and middle ropes apart to give Justin easy access to the canvas-covered floor of the ring.

Inside he faced the crowd and raised his arms over his head again. There was a roar from the crowd and cheers and a few boos. The referee, who was an assistant to the main one, led him to the center of the ring.

Another roar and set of cheers and many more boos from the crowd greeted the champion, who came into the ring from the rear edge.

When he saw the man Justin smiled to himself. The champion’s trunks, gloves, absorbent wrist guards, and boots were all a bright red, the color of blood and death. How clever! Too bad it was wasted on him.

The formalities proceeded, announcements, warnings, and exams of boots, belt, gloves, and heads. Then the two fighters were separated and the announcer left the ring.

The bell rang and instantly the champ ran forward and dealt a tremendous blow to Justin’s gut. Or tried to. Justin stepped to the side and twisted his body just enough so that the blow whistled by him, causing the champ to stumble a couple of steps beyond his opponent.

Justin could have delivered two pile-driver blows to the champ’s kidneys. Instead he let the man turn to see him standing arms crossed and hipshot watching him with mild interest.

Rage ignited in the champ and he stepped toward Justin. Then he slowed as his science and caution stilled the rush he was near to beginning.

He began to circle Justin, advancing slowly, arms and fists in a guard/ready position behind which he crouched. Justin assumed the same position and began his own circling.

The champ did a fast foot shuffle and reversed his direction, then did another and reversed again. Justin just looked on mildly. Both in the ring and on battle fields he had long ago learned that feints could be done with feet and body language as well as fists.

After nearly a minute of circling the crowd grew restive and booed and yelled. Neither of the two fighters let any attention stray from their opponent.

Justin did a little foot shuffle himself to reverse but did not catch the champ napping. He let a second or two go by and did another little foot shuffle to re-reverse and in the middle of it took two steps forward and launched a one-two-three punch attack, the last strike low. The champ fended off all of them and launched a counter-attack.

None of his blows landed and he withdrew to circling again. Justin let him.

Now the two of them had a good beginning to their understanding of the other. The champ began to press his attacks. Justin defended. He could have counterattacked and demolished the champ. He was much stronger and faster and could have easily done so. But he intended to wear down his opponent and teach him how it felt to be overmatched and punished rather than quickly defeated.

More circling. Then Justin attacked and was fended off. After a shorter period of circling the champ attacked. Their followed a flurry of punches and counter-punches, the champ beginning to strike harder, faster, using more energy. This set the pattern: shorter circles, longer flurries, more intensity.

Justin did not increase the intensity of his attacks for a time, then he did. He let himself become less accurate in his strikes, letting one of the champ’s punches almost strike him before he dodged away. The champ would interpret this as Justin beginning to tire.

The time for the first round came near. Just before the bell rang Justin let himself be caught by a glancing blow. He staggered back but before the champion could press his attack the bell rang.

The two men retired to their corners, sipped water, were toweled clean and cooler, and rested.

Then the bell rang and the two men returned to their fight.

More rounds passed, each with at least one dramatic high-point to keep the watchers interested. Justin let himself appear to tire, then to catch his second wind.

At round ten the intermission became a long one, almost a half hour. The two men retired to their tents and rested. The referees kept all friends and acquaintances out of the tents to ensure the contestants rested as fully as they could.

Justin needed no rest beyond a minute or so. He spent much of the time neural linked to spy eyes exploring the land around Bains Valley out to further distances.

The next ten rounds were again full of boring sparring with occasional heavy attacks. At one point he let himself be knocked down. Protected by the referees he got himself quickly back on his feet. Later he let himself be knocked down again, but took almost the full time down-count resting and then getting slowly to his feet.

Near the end of round twenty he seemingly found fresh energy and attacked the champ strongly. He let his attack go on and on and knocked the champ down just as the bell rang.

All through the next ten rounds he pressed the champ. By now the man was visibly tiring. But this was partly a ruse. During one of Justin’s attacks he sped up his counter-attacks and their force and delivered a solid blow to Justin’s body, then moments later as Justin faltered a second solid blow followed by a knock down punch.

Justin let the down-count get one count away from losing the match before flopping over onto his belly and getting to his hands and knees, then up to a wobbling stand. And he stayed up despite much backing and hiding behind his guarding arms as the champion pressed what he thought was an advantage.

By the time round forty came around neither fighter was doing much fighting. And during the rest the announcer and referees gave both the men an opportunity to call a draw. Neither took them up on it.

During round forty-four the two men did little more than wander around each other, guards laxly up. And Justin saw the champ waver and his knees go soft.

He pressed a limp attack that was just an excuse to clinch with the bald-headed man. Both staggered and wavered and did nothing more. Justin could easily have won at that moment, but he did not want to win. He wanted to teach the man humility, but not punish him with a financial loss. He had a family, as did his manager, and they would suffer from his failure, the children likely more than their fathers did.

Finally the referees conferred and gestured to the announcer. That man got resignedly in the ring and approached the two fighters. In more cosmopolitan matches the winner in a tie would be decided by experts who kept track of technical points. Here there was no such committee.

“The fight is a DRAW!” called the announcer and jerked both men’s nearest hands in the air.

Attendants rushed into the ring and hustled both men to the side-lines and out of the ring to their tents. Behind them rose some boos and cheers but mostly silence. Most bettors realized that their bets would not give them a win, and the crowd noise increased. Yelps and yells and the sound of padded staff ends striking flesh quickly put an end to that. The boss guard had been ready.

Justin’s attendants cleaned him up with wet then dry towels as he drank deeply of the water bottles in his tent. Then he told them that he wanted to rest.

Shortly afterward he heard the mayor and his cronies try to visit him, but the clear female voice of the boss guard vetoed that. Then she left, leaving two of her subordinates to protect him.

Justin did rest, but not much. He did not need it. And after a decent interval he finished cleaning himself up and changed into his normal clothes. Knowing through his spy eyes that the crowd outside had mostly dispersed he left the tent.

The boss guard was not far away. She was watching to ensure no one returned to the ring. And to keep an eye on workers who were tearing down and stowing the ring and the chairs about it.

“As I told you. A tie.”

She glanced at him. A couple of cuts on his face had been bandaged lightly and bruises were showing in a few places on his face, especially around his eyes.

“Mr. Harald. You look as if you’ve been in a fight.”

“All play-acting. At least for me it was.” He paused. “Unless, of course, you would be amenable to consoling a poor beat-up kid.”

She laughed. “No that’s not going to work. And spare me the big-eyed hurt look.”

“Fine. Then what about a drink and dinner at the Kings High Saloon? In one of their private rooms. I’m sure I could bribe the owner into providing me one.”

She paused a moment, then made a wry face. “Tempting. But I have duties here.”

“Lunch tomorrow? At the restaurant?”

“We leave in the morning. At first light.”

“So I’ll never see you again?”

“In three months I come back through here with another caravan.”

“I’ll be in deep depression until then.”

She laughed. “No, you won’t. You’ll have forgotten an old woman. And taken up with some pretty young rancher’s daughter.”

“No, I won’t. I like grown-up women.”

She looked at him a moment. Then: “I have to go now.”

But instead she took a quick step that brought her to him. She put both hands on his chest and stood on tip-toes long enough to give him a quick kiss on this lips. Then she pushed herself away and left the tent.

For a moment he contemplated the illogic of his having come to love her. Then he shook his head.

Car. Take me up when I clear the tent.

He gathered his gear and spare clothing, stepped out the back of the tent, and let the night take him away.

/p>

That morning while he ate breakfast he had a conversation with House.

Can you build me a spy which can tell if someone becomes injured and shield them from the full force of the injury?

Of course. Is this for you?

No. Someone else.

What kind of injuries might they be in danger of?

Knife cut. Fall. Poison. Gun shot. Fire.

No problem. But we can’t protect from light-speed weapons — very bright hot light.

There is no such weapon on this world, is there?

No. I can make one if you want.

No. Make the spy and assign it to this woman. He projected an image of the caravan boss.

It’s on its way.

That quick?

Of course that quick. She sounded offended.

Justin resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. This made him feel very virtuous.

/p>

He knew of course when the caravan left the southern city. He kept watch over it through his spy eyes in the weeks afterward.

As it neared Bains from the south the caravan climbed up a modest incline to a hill top. Beyond to the north was the entire sweep of Bains Valley.

Harald was waiting at the top, astride a magnificent black horse. With his two pistols he was also armed with a lever-action carbine, pointing skyward, its butt resting on a thigh.

The guard boss rode up to him and stopped.

“Hello, my love,” he said.

(c) Copyright 2010

Advertisements