The Emperor Has No Soul



            Cain Binart stood on the edge of the crowded market, watching, like he did every day since he had been hired as security.  He stood out of the way, wearing armor, carrying a truncheon and acting as a deterrent for theft.  The market was busier than usual, as a group of simple people had arrived at about the same time as a truck caravan.  The caravan had brought food from independent farms elsewhere on Frentin II, or Frent as the locals called their planet, and sold it in Parkton, Frent's largest town.  The simple people came occasionally, always in large groups and without money, looking to barter.  So, the open-air market that was the centerpiece of Parkton was crowded and noisy, making for a good day for the merchants who had set up a maze of stalls, but a challenge for Cain.  Normally, Cain's presence was enough to prevent theft, but local bored kids could use the crowd as cover and the caravan staff were strangers who would leave soon.  So, there were six security people at the market instead of the usual three, all paid for by the merchants' weekly dues.

            Cain heard a woman's distressed cry and hurried toward its source, which was a simple woman who stood near a stall selling cakes.  She had taken a bite of cake and spat it out with a sharp cry as the simple man with her put an arm around her and spoke quietly.  "Simple people" was what people from Sunset called themselves.  Sunset was a week's walk from Parkton, across the desert terrain that made up most of the surface of Frent.  The people there had chosen  to live a simple, idealistic life of pacifism and fellowship.  They also rejected money, accepted recreational drugs on a daily basis and let their hair grow long.  Their simple life had not lasted.  A gang had moved in from somewhere and taken over, using the idealistic pacifism of their victims to their advantage.  The gang's leader, who called himself Boss-J, had carried the only military grade laser pistol on the planet.  His run had lasted until Phillip Turged, a simple man turned nut case, had decided to fight, laser pistol or none, and had discovered that Boss-J had no way to charge his weapon and had been bluffing.  Phillip believed in restoring ancient chivalry and had set up a monarchy to defend Sunset, complete with an emperor in command of lords and knights.  The simple people went along with that, as Lord Phillip and his emperor did their own thing, as well as protecting Sunset and leaving the people alone most of the time.  Anyway, that was the story circulating in Parkton, and Cain wondered if it should be called the Sunset Empire.

            The simple woman looked at the cake merchant accusingly.  "Disgusting!" she spat. "I would not even know how to make something that overly sweet."

            The man with her, an enormous farmer, lean and strong with long hair and a beard, quietly added "There's plenty of disgusting stuff here."  He eyed the magazine stall across from the cake seller.  It was stocked with printed magazines.  There was no shortage of computers in Parkton, but magazines could be read without using the town's limited electrical power.  The simple man eyed one magazine in particular, displayed prominently.  It featured a scantily clad woman standing with a pig, and you had to buy the magazine if you wanted to know what she was about to do with the animal.

            "That's what I get for giving a free sample," complained the cake seller.

            "Problem?" Cain asked, approaching the cake booth while wearing his work face.

            "That woman is making a mess," The cake seller informed.  Cain turned to face the two simple people.  The woman balked but kept her mouth shut.

            Cain walked close to her and spoke quietly, "Are you willing to clean up after yourself?"

            "If I had something to clean with," she answered pointedly.

            Cain looked toward a nearby booth with several small, household tools on display, behind which a short, plump woman watched the conversation.  "Tools!" the woman shouted on cue.  "Pots, pans, brooms, dustpans, knives, forks, paintbrushes, everything you need!  Will barter!"

            The two simple people exchanged a look and the man smiled a cynical smile that said he got it.  The two went to the tool booth and bartered a small jar of water and a bag of coffee beans for a small copper dustpan and hand broom, both of which looked handmade. Cain waited by the so-called mess, thinking how pointless it was to keep the dusty ground clean, but he did work for the merchants.  He figured that the cake seller was making a point.  The simple people saw Parkton residents as heartless moneygrubbers and Parkton residents saw the simple people as irresponsible burnouts.  They were both pretty much right.  The simple man removed the mess and went looking for a trash can while his companion approached Cain.

            "You don't have to live this way," she said quietly.  "A black servant doing whatever these people tell you.  We live as equals."

            Cain supposed his complexion was dark enough to be called black, but nobody in Parkton cared and his actual ethnic background was as varied as anyone's. "The only one judging me by my looks is you," Cain accused.  The woman looked suddenly taken aback, much to Cain's satisfaction.

            "I'm just trying to help," she muttered.  Cain said noting but gave her a look that called her clueless. Then he noticed that the cake seller and the magazine dealer were arguing.

            "If I made my cake less sweet, people would buy elsewhere," the cake seller was answering.  "Competition."

            "Same with my product," retorted the magazine dealer, looking like he was stating the obvious.  The simple woman was saying something, but Cain had stopped listening.  Her companion came and whispered something to her that prompted her to shut up.  She turned to leave while he gave an apologetic shrug.

            The rest of the shift was uneventful.  Cain saw that the simple people bartered their hand broom and dustpan for sandwiches and the sandwich man sold them back to the tool seller for a few of the iron coins that Parkton used for money.  Cain was thinking how absurd that woman's perspective had been. Demand for a security job in the market was high.  It provided steady pay, while most people had to deal with fast or slow business, he got paid to stand around most of the time, and the merchants he worked for would do what he said, at least within reason.  The market was comfortable most of the time, although it could be hot on occasion.  Cain contemplated the clear blue sky above, completely devoid of clouds.  Any uncovered water evaporated quickly in Frent's thirsty desert air, but Cain did not know where it went.  He knew there was water underground, and that Parkton and Sunset had been located where it could be tapped.  Water was also imported, and several pilots made a good living using shuttles to find ice in the system to be melted, purified and sold.  As for fertile ground to grow food, there wasn't any until people had made topsoil, and one place was as good as another.

            Cain's shift ended at dusk, when the merchants packed up and went home.  The six security people gathered in a group and headed to Snap's, a nearby bar.  They found a table and ordered two pitchers of beer.

            "I hope the caravan brought barley," commented Lin.  She was a plump woman, built strong and looking bigger in her armor.  "This beer could use some flavor."  The beer tasted like brewed wheat and was not carbonated.

            "I'm just glad the caravan crew behaved themselves," answered Jaz, a tall, lean older man.  He sipped his bland beer as if it were delicious.  "The crowd today was unmanageably large."

            "A lot of them were simple," Cain pointed out.  "The worst they do is make noise."

            "Maybe," Jaz commented.  "Crazy Phillip and his followers are duel happy, or so I hear."

            "Do they ever come to the market?" asked Korren, a young man who was new to the job.

            "Not so far," Jaz responded between sips.

            "So far, so good," Lin added.  Everyone at the table chuckled.

            "We can take them," Pickee boasted.  She was a short, skinny woman but Cain knew her to be fast and skilled in a fight, and she made up for her size with a tough attitude.

            "Do they even use money?" Korren wondered.

            "Who knows?" Roger answered after a pause.  He was an overweight, muscular man who normally handled things quietly.  Cain noticed a man by the bar as he sipped his beer.  The stranger had turned to look at them and made no secret that he was listening.  He was lean with close-cropped dark hair, probably with the caravan, and did not look hostile. Cain looked back but the man kept right on looking.

            "The simple people say that Phillip and his knights want to be left alone to do their own thing," Lin was saying.

            "If you can trust what they say," Jaz cautioned.

            "Who wants chips," Roger interjected.  Nobody objected and Cain volunteered to get them.  He went to the bar, deliberately standing next to the stranger, who kept looking at him and smiled like he wanted attention.  Cain ordered chips and a bowl of slime, or green vegetable paste used as dip, and waited.

            He turned to the stranger.  "Hey," he said in a neutral voice.

            "Greetings," the stranger enthused.  "I'd be Willard of Gelton."

            "Cain Binart," Cain answered, looking curious.  He wondered if everyone talked strangely in Gelton, wherever that was.

            "Thou art dressed as a warrior," Willard said with an amiable smile.  "If thou doth seek a quest, I have need of thee."

            "Um," Cain responded.

            "Quest, mission, job," Willard clarified.  He lowered his voice.  "When thy refreshments are consumed, come alone behind this establishment for a private revelation."

            "I have a job," Cain said.

            "At least hear my words," Willard pleaded.

            Cain thought for a moment.  "So long as you'll wait till we're done and don't bother us," he answered, hoping that the man would give up and leave.  The bartender handed him a plate of chips and a bowl of slime.

            Cain went back to the table.  "I need a favor," he said quietly, putting the food in the center.  "I need to wait that guy out, so take your time."

            "He bugging you?" asked Pickee.

            "He says he has a job for me, but I think it's a prank," Cain explained.  "The guy talks weird."

            "Weird how?" Korren asked.

            "I have a quest for thee, warrior," Cain answered mockingly, "If thou art willing, meet me alone in back."

            The others chuckled, except for Jaz, who looked suspicious.  "Phillip's people talk that way," he said quietly.

            "Oh?" Lin added., receiving a nod from Jaz.

            "He wants to meet you privately?"  Roger asked.  "About a job?  Maybe you can get him to pay you just for listening."  He popped a dipped chip in his mouth.

            Cain dipped a chip thoughtfully.  "I wonder if he's up to something," he said before eating.  The chip was made from ground desert corn that locals called maize, well salted, and the slime had a spicy vinegar taste.

            "We could be nearby when you talk to him," Lin suggested, looking around the table for agreement.

            "Yeah," Cain answered, liking the suggestion.

            Lin leaned forward.  "We will not abandon thee to the mercies of a rapscallion, for thou art our comrade in arms," she said playfully.

            Cain chuckled.  "Thanks," he said.

            Jaz changed the subject, speaking loud and acting drunk.  The others followed suit as they finished the beer and chips and negotiated paying their tab.  Lin collected their coins, went to the bar and then returned their money. "Your new friend covered us," she told Cain.  "Bartender seemed happy about it."

            Cain looked, and the stranger was still there, talking with the old drunk next to him.  Cain and the others left together and stood by the door in a quiet huddle.  "If you go around back, we'll split up and wait by each side," Jaz suggested.  "Sound good?"

            "Thank you," Cain agreed.  He left first, heading behind the building until he was between it and a private home.  He stood by the back door with his back to the wall, alert.  There was plenty of room between Snap's and the house, and nothing else nearby.  The terrain was open, no cover to be used to sneak up on him.  There were no lights, but the night sky was packed with stars and one of Frent's two small moons was about half full near the horizon.  The door swung open and then closed, revealing Willard, standing with his back to Cain.  He jumped slightly when Cain moved, deliberately making a sound, and then turned, grinning.

            "For this hearing thou hath my gratitude," said Willard.

            "You mentioned a job," Cain said.

            "A perilous quest that must be done," Willard answered.  "If thou art the one with courage enough."

            "And you are asking me to involve myself just to prove my courage," Cain complained.  "I will be paid in advance or someone else can prove his courage."

            Willard kept grinning.  "Certainly," he said.  He pulled a bag from the pocket of his baggy clothing and counted out five large, silverish coins.  "Thou shalt have three times this when the deed is done."

            Cain quickly pocketed the coins.  "What deed would that be," he asked.

            Willard stopped grinning and looked serious.  "It involves a trip to Gelton Fief, in the center of Sunset, in the guise of a squire."  Willard paused.  "First, willst thou hear my tale?"  Cain nodded.  "I was once the Emperor of Gelton, placed on the throne by Phillip the Bold.  I had fought by his side against the one who called himself Boss-J and his crew of rogues, to halt their unjust rule over the simple folk.  My title was lofty and all deferred to me in public, but it was an illusion.  Phillip was the true ruler of Gelton and the other lords and knights accepted his rule out of gratitude for the positions he had given, as well as fear of his wrath.  Any who spoke against him were challenged to a duel and Phillip never lost and rarely spared his opponent's life."

            Cain winced but said nothing.  "I remained on the throne until Phillip announced his marriage to Lady Meagan. She was known as a vicious warrior and, after having been named a lady at Phillip's request, several lords did perish and it was rumored that she had poisoned them.  Meagan The Poisoner.  She was accused before me, the Emperor, but the accuser apologized rather than fight a duel to prove himself true, after Phillip offered to champion Meagan.  Now, a fair challenge and honorable slaying is one thing, but a poisoning is quite another, and my impotence, in spite of my title, forced me to take heed of my circumstances."

            "Interesting," Cain said.  "What do you want me to do about it?"

            "I did surrender my crown," Willard said. "Phillip did place another on the throne, I know not whom.  I do know that the Emperor wore a necklace that was later in Phillip's possession. Now the Emperor never speaks and always covers his face with an ornate mask, and Phillip remains the true ruler of Gelton."  Willard paused with a look that prompted Cain to comment.

            "Um," Cain fumbled.

            "Thou knowest nothing of Witchery," Willard observed.  "Phillip has taken the new Emperor's soul and made him a slave.  All would know this by his hollow visage, if he wore not a mask.  I said as much and Phillip said he would challenge me were I not of higher rank than he, wrathfully, so I pilfered the necklace and went seeking someone not known in Gelton who is brave enough to slip this necklace on the Emperor's neck in defiance of Phillip the Bold."

            Cain looked calculating.  "In other words, you gave up your opportunity to fight Phillip yourself and snuck off to find someone who will do your dirty work.  Someone fool enough to believe in magic."  Willard looked away for a moment.

            "Were I to challenge Phillip and win, I would surely be Megan the Prisoner's next target."  He pulled a necklace from his pocket, which consisted of a five pointed star carved from obsidian or something else black and shiny on a gold chain.  "Fret not, friend, for I shall find one brave enough to restore thee," he whispered to the jewelry under Cain's skeptical gaze.

            "You don't seriously expect some stranger to just walk in and put that on him?" Cain asked, thinking how crazy Willard was.

            "Not as such," Willard said.  "Sir Xavian, vassal of Lord Nathaniel, is seeking a squire.  Those who wish the title will fight to the last, as is tradition. I would send my man to take the title and enter court as squire to meet the Emperor."

            Cain looked angry.  "You expect someone to murder his way to being a squire all because of your nonsense!" he baulked quietly.

            Willard shook his head emphatically.  "The squire contest is fought with practice weapons.  The vanquished do survive."  Cain still looked angry.  "Grant me a boon and ponder the matter.  I shall be here tomorrow after sunset to hear thy final decision."  Willard turned to go, looking dejected.  Cain watched him pick his way around the neighboring house and then walked around the side, where Jaz and Lin stood against the wall.

            "Did you hear?" Cain asked.  Jaz and Lin glanced at each other and shook their heads.  "The guy's fucking crazy!"

            "Yeah?" Lin prompted.

            "He wants to hire me to go to Sunset and break a spell that Phillip put on the Emperor."

            Lin snickered and Jaz looked alarmed.  "I wouldn't if I were you," Jaz advised.

            "Wouldn't what?" Pickee asked.  She joined the conversation, followed by Korren and Roger.

            "Take that loony's quest to break a spell," Jaz answered.

            "The guy says he use to be the Emperor and he wants to hire someone to put a magic necklace on the new one," Cain added.

            "Sounds like an easy job," said Roger.

            "Phillip's people are unpredictable," Jaz countered.

            "Well, he asked me to think about it and meet him here tomorrow night," Cain said.  "Thanks for the backup."  He offered his fist and they each bumped and exchanged pleasantries before going their separate ways.  Cain walked to his building and went through the lobby to the stairwell.  During the day, both were well lit by large, strategically placed windows but unlit at night.  Cain drew a penlight from his pocket and made his way up the stairs to his third floor condo.

            He opened the door, surprised to see that the lights were out.  Cain saw a note on the shelf by the door which he picked up and read.  It was from Celia, told him that she had used most of their power to fix the water distiller and ended in with "Sorry".  Celia and Cain had been living together for over two years and were saving up for a wedding.  She was good looking and more importantly smart, with a talent for repairing machinery that made her work in demand and a practical way of thinking that lined up with Cain's.  Cain knew that the precise machinery that separated their liquid waste into water, salt and ammonia had broken down and Celia had been working on it.  He figured that using the toilet at home was worth a night without electricity and went looking for a backup light.

            Cain found an empty hand-lamp consisting of a space for a glowstick and a curved mirror and then a glowstick to put in it.  He shook the stick to activate the luminescent chemicals inside, placed it in the lamp, turned off his penlight and went to change from his armor and dark blue uniform-like cloths into jeans and a t-shirt.  After changing, he checked the power gauge mounted on the living room wall next to the doorway.  There was a little, but he figured it needed a day to recharge from his solar panels.  Ownership of two of the panels on the roof had come with the condo.  So, he opened a can of sausages and a bottle of water from the kitchen and went looking for something to do without power.

            Comics.  Cain had some old comic books on the living room bookcase.  He had not read Colonial Greens in a while, so he grabbed the four part "Noodling" series and sat down to read, placing the lamp on a shelf above and behind his chair.

            George was standing on the edge of a river in a sunny meadow not far from the village of Colonial Green, on a planet called Searny, waiting for a catfish.  A beast of a fish, nearly twice as long as George was tall sprung from the water, its whisker clad mouth open to swallow its prey, but George was ready.  He sidestepped the lunging catfish and then grabbed its gills with both hands, struggling to keep the flopping fish from returning to the water.  In other words, George noodled a big fish.  Once the fish stopped moving, he went back to the village and got help to bring it home.  The colonists then cooked it over an outdoor fire and shared it in a party atmosphere.  The festivities went on until a thunderstorm came and drove everyone into their homes.

            Cain stopped reading to think.  He figured the comic was a bit unrealistic.  He had heard that some planets, including the Earth where his ancestors had come from about four generations ago, had plenty of water, but having it sit around without evaporating long enough for a creature to evolve fins for swimming seemed far fetched.  Also, there were plants everywhere, including an unbroken carpet of green underfoot, and untended animals scattered about.  Some sort of tiny chicken here, a rat with a bushy tail there, in addition to catfish.  The comic never showed anyone feeding them, and he wondered why someone would leave their stock to wander around outside.  And the storm.  Water falling from the sky? Maybe it had something to do with the jagged white energy bolt drawn halfway out of a dark cloud of something in the air near the end of the book.  It was a very curious setting that Cain read the comic repeatedly to figure out.

            His thoughts were interrupted as Celia arrived, carrying a pack loaded with tools and a pasta casserole that smelled very tempting.  "Hey, sweety," she greeted.  "I scored food at Trever's."  Trever was a neighbor whose plumbing Celia was fixing although he could not pay, at least not yet.  But, unlike Cain's unit, Trever's kitchen consisted of more than a microwave oven and storage pantry, and Celia let him deduct food costs from his ongoing bill.

            "I opened sausages," Cain said, getting up.  Cain had not eaten any of the thumb-sized hotdogs in the can he had opened.

            Celia paused on her way to the kitchen.  "Let's chop them up and add them to the pasta," she said enthusiastically.

            "I will while you change," Cain offered.  She handed him the casserole dish while he passed her on the way to the kitchen and she kissed him before heading to the bedroom.  Cain chopped the sausages into chunks and scattered them over the pasta, set the table, placed his lamp on a high shelf nearby and waited until Celia returned, having changed cloths and washed up.

            Over dinner, Celia discussed her day.  She had finally had time to fix their own distillation system, although it required some tricky welding and her laser had used up the condo's power, and then Trever called with a household emergency.  She knew she should refuse until he paid what he already owed, but the man had young children and Cain's regular salary would allow her to wait until Trever earned enough iron to settle up.

            "A crazy person offered me a job today" Cain said when Celia paused to eat.  He told her about Willard and the magic necklace while she listened, fascinated.

            "So, you could enter the fight to become a squire, take a dive and get paid without having to go to Gelton to be poisoned," she suggested when he had finished.

            The meal was done and Cain began to clear the table.  "I might if he were paying in iron, but he offered coins of some kind of silver alloy," he answered.  Unlike iron, silver was only useful to make wiring with less capacity than gold, so it was not particularly valuable.  "I'll show you."

            Cain put the dishes in the kitchen and went to fish the silverish coins out of his work cloths while Celia soaked the dishes in soapy water and went back to the table.  He handed her the coins and stood waiting for a reaction and holding the lamp for her to see.  Celia squeaked and looked up at him as if he had handed her a jack in the box.  "These are not silver", she whispered, as if someone could hear them. "They're pure platinum. Each one is worth at least five hundred iron".  Cain had never seen platinum.  It was rare and he thought nobody would make coins out of it.

            "We're rich," Cain said, reviewing wedding plans in his head.  "Willard offered me another fifteen if I complete his quest."

            Celia gave him a sharp look.  "Don't get greedy," she said.  "It's better to be alive than rich."

            "I was hoping for both," Cain said with a smart-mouthed grin.  "I'd better put those in the safe."

            Celia nodded and gave him the coins.  He took the lamp with him and went to the bedroom closet where their small wall safe was mounted in back,

behind their clothing, while Celia sat in the dark by the big window in the living room, sipping water and admiring the night sky while she thought.  They had a long talk when he sat with her and made a decision before bedtime. Cain would take the job only if Willard agreed to pay him five more coins for fighting for the title of squire, win or lose, and Cain would make it look good.

            "I don't know what to expect," Cain said as he and Celia were about to get in bed and celebrate.  "There could be unpleasant surprises."

            Celia paused partly undressed and chuckled like she had an idea.  She snatched her pack out of the closet fished for something.  She held it up.  "Welding laser."  Cain got it immediately.  It was not military grade, but the laser would cut through steel armor like a saw through celery, and it was small enough to hide in a pocket if he was careful.  It was even shaped like a handgun, more or less.

            "Nice idea," Cain said.  "But I can't exactly plug it in during a fight even if I am near an outlet."

            Celia held up two parts shaped to fit in the laser's handle.  "Batteries," she answered.  "Only ten minutes each, continuous, but that should be long enough to give you an advantage."

            "I love you," Cain said, sincerely.  She left the laser on the dresser and they made enough noise to wake the neighbors.  She was still sleeping when Cain woke the next morning, showered in the dark and went to work as daylight grew around him.  In addition to his armor and truncheon, he had his pack with Celia's laser and batteries, among other things.  As the market was being set up, he told Roger he'd be taking some time off and asked if he could change the schedule, to which Roger agreed quietly.  He finished his shift and got to Snaps before sunset.  Willard agreed happily to pay him another five in advance for joining the squire fight and another ten for putting the necklace on the Emperor, but handed him a bag and insisted that he leave immediately.

            After leaving Snap's, Cain opened the bag, which contained his five coins, as well as a small case with the necklace inside and a folded paper. There was just enough sunlight for him to read it.  It was hand made and Cain read the stylized text over the sketch of an unfamiliar animal.  "Hear ye," it said in large, fancy letters, "Sir Xavian doth seek a squire.  Those wishing to enjoy the privileges of title must prove their will and ability to fight with chivalry and skill.  A tournament shall be held at a time of Sir Xavian's discretion, with the honor of serving as squire offered as prize.  Seek his carriage and camp to the west if it is thy wish to enter."

            "To the west," Cain mumbled.  "That's it?"  He paused to organize his things and checked the battery in the welding laser before hiding it under his belt.  The gauge on the battery told him it was fully charged, as was the spare that he pocketed.  He inventoried his pack. Dried meat, water, cap with visor and ear flaps, cloths, toilet kit, penlight, solar charger.  Cain added the coins and necklace before heading toward the bright side of the horizon.  Before long, he spotted a flickering orange light from a rise in the desert and made for it.

            As Cain approached, he saw two large torches burning and sputtering, with someone standing in front of them.  "Hail and well met!" said the person.  The voice was female, although she wore a suit of steel armor and a helm that covered all but her mouth.

            "Hello," Cain said in a jovial tone.  He held up the handbill.

            "Share your name if you would, sir," the woman said.

            Cain hesitated.  "I would be Cain of Parkton, and I seek to be a squire," he said, imitating her archaic way of talking.

            "I would be Emily, woman at arms to Sir Xavian, and I welcome you," she answered.  "Please join us."  She turned and led him past the torches to a campfire where four people sat.  One man rose and she strode over and curtseyed.

            "You bring me a third?" he asked.

            "I do," Emily answered, turning.  "Cain of Parkton, be met by Sir Xavian and his man at arms Alfred, as well as thy opponents Lee and Raymond."  She leaned close and prompted "Bow" in a sharp whisper.  Cain Bowed and said "Hail and well met."

            "Join us for stew if you wish," Sir Xavian invited.  He and Alfred were also dressed in steel armor and Xavian wore a thin white cloth over his, decorated with the same unfamiliar animal as the handbill sketch.  Cain looked them all over.  Xavian, Emily and Alfred were all armed.  Xavian wore a sword on his back which was over a meter long and Emily and Alfred had axes on there belts that looked like big, fancy hatchets.  Lee was a large fellow, who looked simple but unfriendly and Raymond was a small, dark man with a defeated look.  Past the campfire was a large, boxy vehicle which Cain guessed was a carriage, with two of the largest animals he had ever seen tied to it by their heads.  Cain sat and Alfred handed him a small cup of stew and a fork.

            "Many Thanks," Cain said and stirred the stew, trying to determine what sort of animal the meat mixed in with the rice and carrots had come from. He kept his mouth shut and listened while Xavian and Lee discussed the tournament, learning what he could. Seemingly, it would be informal, fought with blunted swords and brief.  The winner would return with Sir Xavian's group.

            Sir Xavian asked if they were sufficiently refreshed after a time. "Then the tournament shall begin," he declared.  On cue, Emily and Alfred went to the carriage and retrieved two shields and two vaguely sword-shaped metal rods about half a meter long.  Alfred approached Cain.

            "You must surrender your armor and weapon," Alfred said gravely. Cain left his armor and truncheon with his pack and Alfred handed him the shield and rod.  The shield was small but heavy with two leather straps inside that fit over his left forearm and the rod was light but sturdy.  Alfred led Cain so that he was facing Raymond while Sir Xavian stood watching like a referee at a boxing match.

            "The fight will be to first knock," Xavian instructed.  "I shall decide if a knock is true and the laws of chivalry apply.  Strike when ready."  He stepped back.  Cain took a first, tentative swing which Raymond dodged without striking back.  He wondered how he could lose the match without making it too obvious, and Raymond, small, hesitant and noticeably untrained as he was, would not make it easy.  He took another, harder swing, aimed at Raymond's shield and then blocked his panicked swing and thrusted, narrowly missing Raymond's chest and leaving a wide opening that Raymond failed to take advantage of.  Cain swung with both hands, causing Raymond to crouch.

            "Hold," Sir Xavian shouted.  Cain paused.  "Rise, and fight with courage," Cain chuckled, provoking angry embarrassment from Raymond, who stood and attacked wildly, disregarding the need for defense.  Cain instinctively thrusted, striking his opponent.

            "Hold," Sir Xavian called again.  "The knock is true.  Cain is victorious and Raymond is vanquished."  Raymond stood cringing as Emily took his rod and shield.

            "You may stay and watch or depart," Emily told him.  He nodded and joined the others as they organized themselves into a circle.  Emily gave the rod and shield to Lee and he faced Cain, looking like he wanted to kill.

            "Are you prepared?"  Sir Xavian asked.  After both Cain and Lee nodded, he said "strike when ready."

            Lee attacked repeatedly and quickly but with little skill.  Cain was able to block with his shield and parry with his weapon.  Cain was tempted to give him a blow to the head but reminded himself that winning would mean becoming one of these ridiculous people, so he hit back at Lee's shield.  This made Lee angry and he stepped forward with a shout, slamming his shield against Cain's.  Cain allowed the blow to knock him backwards and fell gracefully.  Lee kept attacking.

            "Hold!" Sir Xavian shouted.  Lee had both hands on the handle of his weapon and kept bashing Cain's shield.  "Hold, I say," Sir Xavian reiterated, drawing his sword and stepping forward.

            Lee turned toward Sir Xavian and raised his shield as Xavian deliberately challenged him by readying his weapon, its razor sharp, steel blade gleaming in the dim light.  "I find it insulting that I am expected to accept an unchivalrous bandit as my squire."

            "Whatever works," Lee sneered.  Sir Xavian swung skillfully, knocking Lee's shield aside without overextending his blow and then thrusting.  The blade could have opened the man's throat if Sir Xavian had not stopped just short of contact.  "Yield or die," he said quietly.

            Lee dropped his rod, "I yield to you," he answered.

            "What!" Sir Xavian said, poking him on the chin.  "I yield to thee!" Lee shouted in a panicked voice that begged for mercy.

            "Be Gone," Sir Xavian ordered.  Lee took his bag and left.

            Sir Xavian offered Cain a hand.  Cain took it and was pulled to his feet.  "You are victorious," Sir Xavian began, "I dub thee Squire Cain of Parkton," He tapped Cain on each shoulder with the blade before sheathing his sword.  Cain did not say "Great, now I've done it."

            The Carriage ride was almost comfortable, slow but bumpy and uneven over the bare terrain.  After the tournament, Alfred had hitched the animals and climbed into the driver's seat while Emily loaded the carriage and directed Cain to put his things in the cargo area behind the seat.  Cain had asked her about the animals and she had responded, "Have you never seen a horse?"  Cain shook his head.  He had heard of horses, but had never seen one before.  She climbed in after Sir Xavian and they sat with their backs to Alfred as Cain took the seat across from them.  The seats were soft and a cool night breeze entered through the windows as the horses pulled the carriage steadily along.

            "What are your thoughts, Squire Cain?" Emily asked.

            Cain woke up.  "I was sleeping while you spoke," he mumbled apologetically.  She and Sir Xavian exchanged significant looks.

            "You know not the rules of chivalry," she observed with a reproachful smile.  She was wearing her armor and her axe was propped against the seat next to her, although she had stored her helm, revealing short black hair and sky blue eyes.

            "That's true," Cain admitted.

            "When you address a person of equal or higher rank to your own, speak formally," she instructed.  Cain looked confused.  "I was sleeping whilst thou spoke," she corrected.  Cain gave a nod of understanding.  "Also, speak to your betters only when spoken to," she continued.  "If you need to say something, bow and wait to be addressed.  Also, you must yield to your betters any time your paths cross, or you will be chastised."

            "Um," Cain wondered.  "How do I tell my betters from everyone else."

            "As squire, you are of the lowest rank, save commoners," Sir Xavian interjected.

            Great! Cain thought, although he kept his mouth shut until spoken to.  He wondered how he was going to get out of this mess and the presence of his hidden laser was reassuring.  Xavian began chatting with Emily.  Sir Xavian was complaining about the recent shortage of volunteers to become squires and Emily pointed out that there would be less of a need for new people if there were fewer duels to the death or other fatalities.  The conversation led to the new Emperor of Gelton and what he would do about it.  Both agreed that the Emperor was strangely reserved in public and only met privately with Lord Phillip and Lady Megan, using Phillip as messenger to all others.  Emily began to question the Emperor's habit of wearing a mask at all times when Xavian pointed out that privacy was his prerogative and that all knights and lords had sworn to enforce his will.  Cain sat quietly and listened, as he had not been addressed, and nodded off.

            The Carriage stopped.  Cain roused himself and almost asked if it had arrived.  He soon saw that the carriage had paused in front of a gate in a low wall with battlements.  A woman on horseback in a white, flowing dress passed by while the carriage waited. Cain wondered if anyone at home would believe that a person could ride an animal as if it were a bicycle.  Emily saw him looking. "Lady Megan," she said quietly.  "A woman of high nobility."

            "And we yield," Cain concluded.

            "Yes," Emily said.  "Rank is earned."

            The carriage followed slowly.  There were a few simple homes outside the wall, so Cain figured they were somewhere in Sunset.  The wall looked new and out of place.  A metallic sign near the gate read "Gelton Fief" and two guards in chain mail and helms stood nearby.  Both raised their hinged face coverings while standing straight as the carriage passed, and Arnold returned the salute crisply.  Inside, there were several isolated patches of soil set up on the barren land, each with neat rows of plants.  Mostly food, but Cain recognized at least one cannabis bush and some of the plants could have been anything.  Past the field were several crude cottages with paved paths, forming a maze for anyone on foot, and then they approached a second stone wall, much like the first, except that it was surrounded by a deep, stagnant moat.  A stone slab of a bridge led over the moat to the another yawning gate.  A single guard stood in a fitted suit of steel armor, trimmed with gold shoulder pads.  Lady Megan paused until the guard motioned her inside, and then the carriage approached and stopped.  Alfred Bowed from the driver's seat and the guard looked inside and spoke.

            "You have a stranger," he said, his voice muffled under his helm. "Would he be your new squire?"

            "Thou art correct," Sir Xavian answered.  "Squire Cain, a warrior with potential."

            "That is to be seen," said the guard.  "You may pass."  The man lumbered back to his place next to the gate, turning crisply enough to make his armor rattle.  Inside the gate, the houses were much nicer and arraigned neatly, with plenty of space. They became larger near the center where an elaborate palace stood.  Alfred drove the carriage under the canvas roof that formed a shaded courtyard.  A young woman in a dark blue dress came forward and curtseyed, prompting Alfred to instruct her to park the carriage and take the horses to the stables.  Sir Xavian got out first and Cain waited for Emily, remembering the rules, and then climbed out himself.  He started to walk toward the back when Emily quietly informed him that the servants would bring his luggage.

            The front doors of the palace swung open and an older man in blue came out, flanked by three others.  "Hail and well met, Kent," Sir Xavian said, causing the man to smile. "Kent, this is Squire Cain, dubbed so after last evening's entertainment in which he vanquished all comers."  He turned to Cain "Cain, this is Kent, commander of the serving staff."

            Kent bowed.  "Pleasure to meet thee," he said.  "Thy rooms have been prepared, and all of thee are invited to break thy fast in the banquet hall when ready."  Kent quickly assigned a servant to each person.  Cain's was a young woman who led him to his room and curtseyed.  She looked expectant and Cain wondered if he should tip her.  All of his money was in his pack.  "Um?" he fumbled.

            As if on cue, the woman asked "Doth thou require anything further?" and Cain realized that she was not to speak until spoken to.  He thought.  "Wait a moment while I get refreshed, then I will need to find the banquet hall."  She nodded and retreated into the hallway, shutting the door behind her.  Cain explored his room.  The walls were bare stone, as, it would seem, was the rest of the building, lit by an electric lamp with a hanging cord.  There was a bed, two chairs, a bathroom and closet.  Cain went in the bathroom.  There was a sink with a comb, toothbrush, a jar of white liquid, folded towels and a small mirror on the wall over the sink.  The tub had a drain but no faucet, and the only water source was the sink.  The sink worked, so he washed his hands and then his face, and the cool water chased away the heat from outside.  Then he checked the mirror and scrubbed the dust out of his close-cropped hair.  He went to the closet and found that all it contained was a tunic, which resembled a short sleeve shirt that came down to his knees and bore the same insignia as Sir Xavian's clothing.  He tried it on and it was a loose fit with slits in the side up to his waist.  It would help hide the laser under his belt, but Cain figured he could get to it.  He checked himself in the mirror and left.

            "Excuse me, um," Cain said to the servant who waited in the hallway. She had not told him her name.

            "Shall I direct thee to the banquet hall?" she asked.

            She locked his door and handed him the key, and then she directed him through the hallway, careful to walk beside him rather than in front.  They arrived at a lobby with large windows and Cain smelled food and heard music nearby.  It was empty except for a cluster of servants.  Kent was one of them and on seeing Cain, he walked over and bowed.

            "Hi," Cain said.

            "Greetings, squire," Kent began.  "May I seat thee?"

            "Please," Cain said.  Kent walked with him to a pair of double doors and pushed them open before motioning Cain to enter.  Inside were three long tables with chairs.  It was crowded, with four musicians playing in one corner and a throne at the far end, separated by a set of three stairs.  Cain wondered if what sat on the throne was a person or a decoration, as it was human shaped but wore a purple robe and mask.  There were also four guards in front if it, wearing steel armor with gold shoulder pads and carrying poles with axe heads.  Cain noticed that everyone was armed.

            "Squire Cain, Sir Xavian's man!" the servant by the door bellowed over the music and talk.  A few people turned to glance at him.  Cain looked for Sir Xavian but he, Emily and Alfred were absent.  Kent directed him to a seat near the foot of one of the tables. It was set with a plate, white porcelain cup and iron utensils.  An ornate hatchet rested next to the place setting.

            "Many thanks," Cain told Kent.

            "A gift from Sir Xavian," Kent said, motioning to the hatchet. Cain lifted the weapon.  He noticed that the woman seated across the table was watching him uncertainly and sat, putting the hatchet on his lap.  "Is there coffee?" Cain asked.

            "I will have it brought forthwith," Kent answered.  "And thy breakfast of meat chips over bread when ready,"  Cain nodded dismissively and glanced at the woman across the table.  She was young with long, reddish brown hair, dressed in a tunic with a horse's head insignia.

            "Greetings," Cain said.

            The woman grinned.  "Greetings, Squire Cain," she answered.  "I would be Squire Brenda, Lady Bethany's woman."

            Cain leaned forward and lowered his voice.  "Wouldst thou know where Sir Xavian is?"

            "I don't know what he looks like," she answered.  "I am new."

            "So am I," Cain admitted.  "I'm still getting used to chivalry."

            Squire Brenda glanced at a cluster of people, one of which, a middle-aged woman, wore the horse's head insignia over her armor.  "I've been here two weeks and I'm still learning the rules.  Had a weapon drawn on me more than once."

            Cain looked surprised.  "That's the first thing I was told," he said.  He quietly told her the rules of chivalry as Emily had told him.

            "Thank you," she said sincerely.  "I mean thou hast my gratitude," she corrected hastily, making Cain chuckle.

            The two squires talked over breakfast.  Brenda had been raised simple but had become bored with that way of life.  So, when Lady Bethany had come to her cabin, bossed her parents and delivered a speech about glory and excitement, Brenda had listened.  She had left home to join a tournament and had won.  Cain told her about his security job and said he had joined his tournament out of curiosity.  Brenda also confirmed that the person on the throne was the Emperor, Zachery the First, and that anyone with gold shoulder pads on his armor was a member of his personal guard and best avoided.  Lady Bethany had told her that the Emperor had taken Lord Phillip's side no matter what, which irked her and others, but all had sworn to obey the crown.  She also pointed out Lord Phillip and Lady Meagan, and was explaining what little she knew about who serve whom when the doorman announced Sir Xavian's arrival.  Anyone but the staff who came through the main door had been announced, but Cain had not been listening.

            Cain turned.  Sir Xavian strode in, followed by Emily and Arnold, who were announced in turn.  He gave Cain a look of severe warning for no known reason and went to talk to Lord Phillip, while Emily and Arnold went to seats across the room.  Cain exchanged a look with Brenda, who shrugged, and then finished the small remaining portion of his breakfast, which was some kind of meat swimming in white peppered gravy over toast and was not bad.  Brenda rose when Lady Bethany approached.  She said "Come," and gave Cain an unmistakably suspicious look.

            Cain sat quietly and watched.  Before long, Lord Phillip strutted toward him, followed by Sir Xavian.  Cain rose.  "I would converse with you privately, Squire."  Lord Phillip said.

            "As thou wish," Cain responded.  Wondering what was wrong, Cain looked the man over.  He seemed average enough, slim with a long nose, but he wore plate and chain armor and a sword on his back.  And he was upset over something.  Phillip turned and left, motioning to be followed, and Sir Xavian went with him, trailed by Cain.

            Phillip led them to an empty room.  A servant was cleaning the room's large window, but hurried out.  Phillip watched her leave and then turned to Cain. "How did my property come into your possession?" Phillip accused.  Sir Xavian pulled out a small jewel case and opened it, showing Willard's black star necklace.

            "Thou searched my bag?" Cain concluded.

            "Answer the question," Phillip said quietly.

            "I was sold that bauble in Parkton," Cain answered, hoping it was a convincing lie.  "The seller had several.  What makes thou believe it to be thine?"

            Phillip and Xavian exchanged a suspicious look.  "Remember your oath, squire.  Speak the truth."  Phillip had the air of a father scolding a disobedient child, and Cain did not point out that he had not taken an oath before being dubbed a squire.

            "I have," Cain said.

            "No, you are false," Phillip said, disgusted.  "And I challenge you.  At dawn the day after tomorrow, we shall meet in the arena, unless you wish to make a public apology and answer my question with truth before the Emperor."

            "Accepted!" Cain answered.  He turned to Sir Xavian.  "Wilst thou return the necklace thou hast stolen?"

            Xavian hesitated.  Phillip moved quickly, snatching the case from his hand and closing it the a snap. "You will not take this without a fight," Phillip told both men, before strutting out the door.

            Sir Xavian turned to Cain.  "How dare you accuse me of theft?" he asked quietly.

            "Thou didst search my pack and take it," Cain answered.

            "Of course I did!" Sir Xavian declared.  "You are my squire and the bag was on board my carriage."  Xavian paused, daring Cain to respond.  "You are confined to quarters until summoned.  And you will become a humble squire or I shall take your head myself."  Sir Xavian turned to leave.  "Come," he commanded.  Sir Xavian led Cain back to his room in reproachful silence and waited while Cain unlocked the door and went in.  He studied the pack on his bed, with its contents neatly laid out beside his armor vest and truncheon.  He heard the door slam behind him.

            Cain sat down, feeling stupid.  If he had kept the necklace in his pocket, everything would still be fine.  And his coins, which were also missing.  He went over his mistakes.  Having anything to do with Willard had been one, he thought.  And winning the contest.  And trusting his pack to be brought to him unopened.  What next, he wondered. He drew the welding laser from under his belt and checked it.  At least he had not put it in his pack.  Cain began packing, taking inventory of what he did have and planning.  Leaving was still an option.  He had food, water and his cap, so he could walk home if he could find a way out of the palace.  Could he shoot his way out?  A pleasing fantasy but no.  Could he cut his way out?  Stone walls.  Sneak out?  He did not know his way around, but it might work if he waited until the middle of the night.  And if he were caught, he did have a laser.  And his armor vest, truncheon, and hatchet.  He studied the weapon.  It was about as long as his forearm, with a curved axe blade on one side and a spike on the other.  Everyone here was armed and probably knew how to use their weapons.  He wondered if they would chase him into the wild or come after him in Parkton.  Well, just because the simple people put up with them did not mean that nobody would resist in Parkton.  If he made it to Parkton on foot with them after him riding horses or worse.  Of course, he could fight Phillip.  If he won, he might even be able to put the necklace on the Emperor.  If he lost?  Death?  First knock?  Did the freaks have a dungeon?  Would he be fed to the horses?  He didn't know.

            Cain decided on leaving.  He put on his armored vest and secured his truncheon in a ring on his belt, then put on his pack.  Holding his hatchet, he took a look around, and then refilled one water bottle at the sink.  He waked quietly to the door and listened.  Nothing.  He opened it slightly and looked out. A man in armor with gold shoulder pads stood in the hallway, holding a halberd.  He noticed the open door and readied his weapon.  Cain shut and locked the door and sat on his bed, taking off his pack. Wait 'till late, he thought.

            Cain sat thinking and then lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.  He pictured himself running down the hallway, remembering the way out as best he could.  Hours went by before there was a knock at the door  A servant entered quietly, left a tray of food and departed.  The meat patty and potatoes smelled good, but Cain remembered what Willard had told him about the use of poison and decided against eating it.  Eventually, he had a piece of dried, spiced chicken from his pack and some water, and continued to wait.

            Cain crept to the door in what he guessed was the middle of the night.  He had put on his pack as quietly has he could. He eased it open, just enough to see out.  He could see a man in armor leaning against the opposite wall in the dim light, head nodding.  Cain pulled the door further open and the guard snapped to alertness.  He pointed his halberd at Cain, who backed up, raising his hatchet.  The guard jabbed at him with the long weapon and Cain grabbed it by the shaft with his free left hand while sidestepping and pulled, forcing the guard to step forward.  The guard moved the headed end downward, breaking Cain's grip, and the opposite end up, smashing him on the shoulder, and then struck with the weapon's axe blade, forcing Cain to parry wildly with the hatchet.  Cain spun and ran, slamming the door behind him.  He barreled down the hall as the guard flung open the door and charged after him, armor clanking and making him slow. 

            Cain sprinted through the deserted halls and made it to the lobby.

            "Halt!" a woman's voice shouted.  A guard stood by the door, readying her halberd.  As Cain tried to run past her, she spun, putting her entire body weight behind her weapon.  Cain turned so that one of the steel plates in his vest caught the blow, betting it would hold, and was knocked off balance but stayed on his feet.  He put his back to the door, feeling it give, while parrying with his hatchet.  The double doors swung open and Cain stepped aside, narrowly avoiding the guard's downward blow.

            Cain bolted into the courtyard and made for the wall.  The top of the wall was level with his nose and there was room for a walkway between the battlements.  Cain grabbed the edge and jumped, struggling to heave himself up. That's when he heard the thumping of boots on stone and saw a man with an axe hurrying toward him.  He felt a blade at the back of his head. "Yield or die!" said the guard from the lobby, breathless from running.  "On your knees!"  Cain knelt as two more armored figures came from the gate. They had a brief conversation which ended with "Wake Sir Xavian."

            Sir Xavian arrived wearing a gray robe and looking furious.  One of the guards handed him the hatchet that had been taken from Cain, and he looked like he might use it.  "Coward!" he spat.  "If Phillip slays you not, you will face me after.  Take him below."

            Cain was taken to the basement and shoved into a cell.  They took his pack, vest and truncheon, but did not search his person, so he still had the laser.  He considered cutting his way out, but thought better of it.  There was a guard post and another locked, iron door to get through, not to mention the palace guards and the wall.  So he waited quietly for a better opportunity.

             The outer door opened and Phillip strode in, followed by a servant with a cart.  "Fancy thyselves a meal?" he asked.  Each guard was given a covered plate of meat and bread and a cup of ale.  Phillip took a plate and sat facing Cain, giving him an inviting smile through the barred door of his cell.

            "Squire," he began.  "Will you not tell me true, how you came into possession of my necklace?"  The food smelled good and Cain had not eaten in about a day.  "My goal is to get the truth."

            Cain gave him a calculating look.  "And a public apology," he added.

            "My honor demands it," Phillip answered.

            Cain thought for a moment and decided.  "How do I know that meat has not been poisoned," he asked suspiciously.

            Phillip motioned to the servant, who brought him a knife and fork, and he carefully cut and ate a small piece of meat.  "Shall I finish this meal?"

            "Wouldst thou be so kind as to hand it here," Can asked.

            "I only want the truth," Phillip said, carving another bite.

            "I would eat first," Cain insisted.  Phillip carefully angled the plate to fit it through the bars, but a guard made a an insistent "ah!" noise.  He rose and took the knife, then unlocked and opened the door just enough for Phillip to hand the plate to Cain, who made it into a sandwich and ate.

            "Now, truth," Phillip commanded.

            "I purchased the necklace from a merchant's stall in Parkton," Cain said with his mouth full.  "I don't know where he got it."

            Phillip rose and his expression shifted from friendly and inviting to furious. "Tomorrow at dawn I will slay you! One last chance to save your miserable life."

            Cain swallowed.  "Where is the necklace now?" he wondered.

            Phillip padded a pocket and glared.

            "I wish that thou would place my necklace around the Emperor's neck," Cain said.

            Phillip looked genuinely confused.  "Why?"

            "Call it a last request," Cain said.  "Wouldst thou not grant me such."

            "So be it," Phillip said quietly.  Cain figured he would at least complete his mission and get paid, if he could keep himself alive long enough.

            Phillip strode out of the room and slammed the door behind him with a resounding clank.  Cain spent the night wondering about the necklace.  He never did believe in witchery, as Willard called it, and neither did Phillip, apparently.  He also wondered what the duel would be like.  Cain figured he would not find out if he could help it.  His best bet was to shoot his way out after they moved him from his cell.  He was tempted to check his laser, but the guards might see.

            Early the next morning, Kent came to wake Cain.  "Thou must ready thyself for this morning's entertainment, squire." Kent said simply.  A guard opened the cell and Cain went quietly.  As three guards led Cain through an underground hallway, he calculated.  The guards were ahead of him and he would start shooting as soon as they led him above ground.  Then run.  Without the supplies in his pack, his chances were slim, but he would have to take them.  The hallway led to what looked like a locker room, with a long bench and a rack of armor and weapons.

            Kent entered the room last.  "Thou must pick thy armor and two weapons," he said gravely.

            Cain looked at the weapons.  There were large swords, unwieldy lances and axes of various sizes.  "I will face him on foot then?" he asked Kent.

            "Oh no," Kent said.  "First on horseback.  When one falls, the other dismounts to face him.  My humble recommendation is lance and axe."

            "Horseback?" Cain responded.  He looked for a way out.  He knew that the tunnel entrance led back to the prison, and the only other way out was blocked by a portcullis and a slab, both of which had to be raised from the outside, or so it appeared.  He wondered if he would have been better off shooting his way out of the basement.

            "If thou art not prepared, the duel will proceed," Kent said with quiet urgency.  Cain selected a chain mail shirt, lance, axe and a small shield that fit on his arm, leaving his hands free.  The shirt left his legs unprotected, but he could still reach his laser.

            The slab rose and Cain could see through the bars.  It led to an amphitheater surrounding a sandy floor, and an audience was seated above them.  A servant stood holding a large horse that wore plate barding and a saddle.  As the portcullis bars rose, Kent gestured for Cain to mount.  At the far end of the arena, a mounted figure in plate armor that could only be Phillip was waiting, holding a lance.  Cain climbed into the saddle, clumsily and with help from Kent and the other servant, and sat wondering how to control the animal.

            Someone blew a long note on a horn, and Phillip charged, his steed galloping while he lowered his lance.  Cain whispered "move!" but the horse remained immobile.  Phillip turned away and then back, angling to miss the wall behind Cain, and Cain's horse shrieked and trotted out of the way at the last minute.  Cain lowered his lance, angling it toward his oncoming opponent.  Phillip galloped fast between Cain's horse and the wall, avoiding Cain's lance and thrusting with his own.  Cain blocked upward with his shield, deflecting Phillip's thrust with a loud thump and held the horse tightly with his legs.  The horse began to run in a straight line.

            Cain's horse stopped at the opposite end of the wall.  Cain had struggled to stay on, expecting Phillip to come after him from behind, but Phillip had stopped to wait.  The horse turned sideways and Phillip charged.  Cain attempted an aggressive thrust with his lance, which Phillip blocked with his own, a moment before Phillip's lance caught Cain on the shoulder.  The blow knocked Cain off of his mount and the horse bolted.  Phillip dismounted, dropping the lance while drawing a large sword from his back.

            Cain reached for his laser and realized it was missing.  Phillip stood over him, waiting for him to rise and pointing with his sword.  Cain looked, and saw the laser laying on the floor of the arena.  He could hear the audience murmur.

            "The laws of chivalry have been abandoned," Phillip cried, turning toward the stands.  Cain realized that he faced the Emperor, who sat in the second row wearing a purple robe and mask, surrounded by his guards.  Cain also noticed that he wore the black star necklace.  Cain thought to himself that he had accomplished his mission, not that it mattered much, and wondered how to get out alive.  "I shall slay this pretender where he lays, if it is thy wish!" Phillip added, addressing the Emperor.  Cain heard no response, but Phillip raised his sword and advanced.

            As Phillip thrust downward, Cain rolled out of the way, toward the laser, narrowly escaping the blow.  He scrambled on his knees to retrieve the weapon with Phillip clanking after him. He turned and squeezed the handle, activating the welding laser at close range.  The beam touched Phillip on the abdomen causing a puff of smoke to rise from his armor.  Phillip shouted in pain and fury as he spun away from the beam, doubling over.  The crowd roared nearly as furiously as Phillip.

            Cain aimed the laser as Phillip struggled to his feet.  He was just about to squeeze again when he heard a woman screaming from the crowd.  "Finish that foul deceiver!"  The smell of burning plastic filled the air.  He saw the guards struggling to put out the burning Emperor.  As Phillip had spun away, the beam had gone past him and struck the Emperor's robe.  A welding laser could not cut metal at that range, but had ignited cloth.  Strangely, the Emperor just sat there.

            Phillip fled as fast as he could with his wound.  The crowd began throwing things at him.  Mostly cups, but knives and axes as well.  And there was fighting in the stands.  The Emperor's guards were being overwhelmed by the crowd and one guard was knocked into the arena by a mace blow.  Then Cain saw the cause.  Enough of the Emperor's mask and robe had burned off to reveal a robot beneath.

            Cain touched his shoulder.  It hurt but he could move his arms normally.  In the stands, the robot's guards had run for their lives and a woman armed with a spike mace was beating it viciously, as others shouted encouragement.

            "Phillip's getting away!" someone shouted.

            "He is the one to blame for this abomination!" It was a tall man armed with a halberd who was shouting with authority.  "Arrest him!"

            Someone in the audience threw an axe.  The weapon hit Phillip in the back of his head as he had nearly reached the exit, bouncing off of his helm with a thud and knocking him on his face.  A man armed with a sword hopped into the arena and placed the tip of his weapon on Phillip's back.  "Yield or die!" he demanded.

            Cain had successfully struggled to his feet and stood with the laser in one hand and the axe in the other.  He and Phillip's captor exchanged an uneasy look.  The man stood unmoving with Phillip under his sword.  Cain strode past him and through the exit, looking for a way out.

            The exit led to a broad space between the stands of the arena, about as wide as three horses.  Sir Xavian was there, headed into the arena.  Cain aimed his laser at him.

            "Away with your weapon, squire," Sir Xavian said quietly.

            "You said you would take my head if I survived against Phillip, which I have," Cain blurted.

            Sir Xavian grinned.  "I withdraw my challenge, and for exposing Phillip's treasonous puppet Emperor, you have my gratitude."

            "And mine".  The man who had ordered Phillip arrested spoke behind Cain and to the left.  Cain glanced and saw him in the stands.

            "Come, please," Xavian added.  He turned and walked through a door leading under the stands.  Cain hesitated and then followed.  Inside was a tiled room with a long bench, which Cain guessed was the opposite changing room from the one he had used to prepare for the duel.  Cain put his back to the wall by the door and covered Sir Xavian with his laser. Sir Xavian waited in silence as if captured.

            Cain nearly shot as the door swung open.  The man who had ordered Phillip's arrest strode in, unarmed, ignoring Cain's aggressive stance.  He stopped and faced Cain.  "Truce?" he offered.

            Cain lowered the laser and nodded.

            "Sir Xavian, see to it that Phillip is taken below," he ordered. "Provided that he may leave," he added, turning to Cain.

            Cain gestured with his head toward the door and Sir Xavian left saying "thou canst trust that it will be done, Lord Gregory."

            As Xavian closed the door, Gregory spoke quietly to Cain.  "If you wish to seize the throne, there will be competition."

            "All I want to do is leave," Cain countered.

            Lord Gregory grinned.  "For breaking the laws of chivalry, I hereby banish you." Cain looked confused. "Follow me to the rear gate?"

            Cain sighed with relief.  Lord Gregory went to the door and looked out.  "Hide that," he whispered.  Cain tucked the laser under his belt.

            Lord Gregory led Cain under the stands and past the palace to the rear gate in the outer wall, which had been abandoned.  Gregory worked the series of leavers by the exit, lowering the stone drawbridge and raising the portcullis.  Cain left his mail shirt and axe.

            "I trust that you will leave and never return," Lord Gregory said with a grin.

            "Gladly," Cain answered.  Once outside, he turned and walked toward the morning sun.  He stripped off the tunic that he wore over his work cloths and wrapped it around his head, whishing he had not left his pack behind.

            He had been walking for a few hours or so when he heard a distant roar.  At first he swore and began looking for cover, expecting a sandstorm, but as the sound grew louder, he realized it was an aircraft.  He wondered what it was doing here.  The craft turned, came toward him and hovered overhead.  It was a shuttle, a combination aircraft and short range spacecraft used for off-planet mining, mostly ice.  And it was landing.

            Cain stopped and watched as the shuttle set down a safe distance away, kicking up a cloud of sand and dust.  He heard the engines relax into idle and the dust cleared.  A side door opened and Celia hopped out and ran to Cain, who stared in amazement for a moment and then rushed to join her.  They paused a few feet apart and then embraced.

            "Thank goodness I found you," Celia said, standing back.  Cain only nodded.  "What happened?"

            "I survived," Cain blurted.

            "When you did not come back, I really freaked," she babbled.  "I didn't know if you were alive or what.  A client put me in touch with Viv, who owns her own shuttle.  She dropped everything to help look for you.  We owe her big."

            Cain nodded, pulling himself together.  "I did it," he told her, smiling.  He gave her a disjointed summery of what had happened while she listened, trying to understand.  Then she put an arm around him.  "Let's go home," she said.



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