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Chapter 5



/Note the lack of conversation between the subjects, even though they’re alone in the vehicle and can speak freely. They’re undoubtedly reflecting upon what they’ll find at the conquerors' castle, especially whether they'll encounter another from their planet. Del Tarf noted that reaction in ‘Class 32-B-27 Humanoid Response to Alien Environments Introduced Suddenly’ in Vol. 3 No. 27 of Humanoid Psychology./

+Or maybe they don't want to talk because the carriage bounces so much they might bite their tongues off.+

/Varx, I fail to see why you’re even in this class. Alien Psychology seems... outside your sphere of competence./

+Borl the diplomat. You're right; I took it because Shag took it. Don't swish your tail at me like that! If we hadn't been nice, you wouldn't be part of a group at all.+

/It’s hardly my fault I got Orange Spots and missed the whole second third of class! Besides, if I’d known - /

[Borl, Varx, stop fighting right now. Thank you. Varx, I know you're just saying these things to bother Borl—yes, you are, who's the psych minor here?—so please either just think them or mutter them into a pillow. Borl, I know it's trying for you to be placed with sophomores, but we do know what we're doing, and - ]


{Curly tails, students.}

/+[Hello, Coordinator.]+/

{Let's see, this is group, um, 6-B. Shag Gen, Varx Mal, and... Borl Ard? Frankly, Borl, I'm surprised to see you here. I would have thought you'd work with... well, older students.}

/If you’ll recall, Coordinator, I was ill during the second third and barely managed to join a Final Project at all./

{Ah, yes, I remember. Well, I'm sure you'll contribute a great deal to the success of this experiment. Now, let me see... you're doing a Different Worlds Project. Which of you is group leader?}

+Sir, the project was Shag's idea, but we're a democracy.+

{A democracy? Well, good luck to you. I've never known a democracy to get much done, but I suppose there's always a first time. Student Gen, as you have been designated originator of this experiment, why don't you explain it to me?}

[Gladly, Coordinator. A year ago Varx and I discovered the keyworld Earth in Basic Universe Location 101. It was a classic Type A Nonmagical, and we observed it to see what kind of civilizations had developed in the absence of magic. When it was time to start our Final Project in Alien Psychology this year, we decided to see how beings from Earth would react to being transported to another planet—something that happens only in their fictive works.]

{Indeed. And the psychology of these "Eartians" is close enough to that of a documented race to permit understanding of their reactions?}

+Oh, yessir! If you'll just look at our references here -+

{Just include it with your final report, Student Mal. Student Gen, you selected the subjects impartially, of course?}

[Uh, yes, of course we did. Strictly random draws from a homogeneous population, to facilitate mutual understanding among them.]

{Student Ard, are you feeling all right? You look pale.}

+Oh, he's fine, he just swallowed a bug.+

[Anyway, they come from a level ten alltech culture, and - ]


They didn't want to look out the windows. They wanted to sit and let the fancy-cart jounce their brains into oatmeal so they wouldn't have to think about where they were and why they were there and whether they were there for the rest of their lives.

But the scenery was too interesting.

Not at first, while they wound through hills with the sea to the right and thatched-roofed farms to the left, passing nothing more exotic than a few more distelfinks. The traffic, carts and wagons, riders and pedestrians, had a slight rustic charm, and everyone craned their necks to see a young girl herding a gaggle of geese with a long feather. But nothing truly piqued their interest until they caught sight of the city of Focan.

Actually, they smelled Focan before they saw it, a noxious blend of burning wood, pungent foods, factory stink, and feces that had them gagging and then breathing through their mouths. Initially they saw only a brown haze on the horizon, which gradually resolved into a fair-sized city as they began to descend into a wide, shallow river valley.

First, though, the fancy-cart rumbled through a huge shantytown at the south of the city: shacks, wattle-and-daub hovels, tents, and even lean-tos resting against the walls of some of the sturdier structures. Most of it looked as if it would wash away in the first hard rain. Nearly everything was brown or gray; even the weeds were covered with mud. However, even the meanest dwellings had a shock of vividly pink rope hanging near its entrance.

Despite its size, the shantytown was surprisingly unoccupied. The only people visible over the course of at least a mile were a handful of old people sitting in a tight circle around a fire, a group of mothers with babies at their breasts and toddlers running hither and yon, and one bored Idri woman trudging around, kicking at stones on the ground. She saluted the Idri riders as the little entourage trundled past and yelled something that the four didn't catch.

The shantytown ended and Focan officially started when the fancy-cart drove between two tumbledown stone piles, obviously the remnants of a wall that had once surrounded the city; more lumps of it could be glimpsed in the distance, and some of it had clearly been cannibalized for the sturdier shantytown buildings. The fancy-cart slowed as the road narrowed and traffic density increased dramatically—and four fascinated faces appeared at the open windows of the vehicle.

Small, elderly stone-and-wood buildings of unfamiliar design crammed in between newer, larger brick buildings not unlike mini-brownstones; narrow cobblestone streets choked with mud and garbage; a man in rich purple clothes trimmed with black fur, brushing off a young man trying to hand him a leaflet; a woman in shoes almost a foot high, picking her way through the litter and steadying herself with a long, ivory-topped black cane; a temple covered in gold leaf and twined about with pinkish ivy; a copper-roofed mansion barely visible behind high stone walls; men and women crowding into a tavern, shouting for beer; fine shops with rugs and spices for sale; shabby shops peddling clay pots and coarse gray cloth; horses and dung everywhere; a team of what were probably elves shoveling shit into a refuse cart drawn by a horse wearing pink ribbons in its mane; beggars with oozing sores, croaking for alms; a drunk woman lying in an alley, clutching a blue bottle; a dandy in a feathered hat and loose blue-and-black clothing, swaggering through the streets as he walked on clean wooden planks laid down for him by servants swarming around him; children shrieking as they pelted one another with clods of dirt and rotten vegetables; a small group of people arguing among themselves as a woman stood on a stool and read aloud from a large, worn, pink book, apparently pronouncing some kind of sentence on a defiant-looking man staring up at her; a small terrier trotting along with a dead rat in its mouth; a fat female merchant with huge silver hoop earrings and elaborately curled black hair, displaying a bottle of wine to an interested woman; scattered small groups of people in pink or faded red clothes, many clutching pieces of pink rope and small pink books; and numerous red-armed, black-garbed, gun-toting Idris of both sexes, strolling round or watching sternly from horseback.

Then, a large clock started tolling somewhere in the city, familiar-sounding only in its first slow, deep BONG before it switched to a lighter, faster, alien BING BING BING BING. “Reckon that's their Big Ben,” Paul said as the second set of bells died away.

“More like Gib Neb,” muttered John.

George stared at a procession of droning men and women wearing what looked like short pink bathrobes. Each person had at least one braid in their hair, and the men had long braided beards. Two men held black staffs with pink ropes dangling from the top, and continually twirled the staffs so that the ropes coiled and uncoiled around the staffs. George leaned out the window to better hear what they chanted, but too many people were shouting and laughing and arguing next to the fancy-cart; he couldn't make anything out.

"Why couldn't they've sent along a camera while they were at it?" Ringo complained excitedly, watching an old man gesture and make faces as he told a story to a circle of people. The man paused dramatically, and several of his listeners tossed coins into a hat in the center of the circle. With a grin, the man resumed speaking.

They passed a woman selling straw dolls and windup toys from a tray on straps around her neck. "It’s a bit like a ride at Disneyland," said Paul.

John rolled his eyes. "No it ain't, you can leave Disneyland." But the others didn't hear him over the general hubbub. Then he jerked back with a curse as a couple of shabbily dressed, wild-haired people, their sex unknowable through the grime that caked them, ran up to the slow-moving fancy-cart and stuck their heads in, crying “Alms! It’s good jan to feed us, rich men!” and pawing at John’s arm. One of the male Idri escorts saw this, shouted "Ha! Away, streetfodder!" and drew his pistol. The intruders squealed and melted into the crowd.

"Could've used him during Beatlemania," said Ringo, which earned him a narrow-eyed glare from John.

Then they turned onto a very wide, unusually clean street that seemed to be all inns and taverns and parking lots for horses and carriages. The pedestrian traffic was thick here, but a large contingent of Idris kept them on the sidewalks and the street free of jaywalkers. Most of the crowd was dressed in pink and moving in the same direction as the fancy-cart.

At the end of the wide street, the buildings fell away to reveal an enormous paved open area thronged with pink-garbed people. In the center of the open area was an oval stone dais about ten feet high, and in the center of that was a tall pink granite statue, maybe twenty feet tall, that appeared to depict three vertical, intertwined snakes stuck by their tails into a square pedestal of black granite. It was poorly crafted, but it was undeniably striking.

“D’you reckon that’s the Vasyn?” Paul asked, giving voice to the question that had entered everyone’s minds as they crowded together to look out the window at the statue.

“Must be,” said John, peering over Paul’s head.

“Well, that explains the pink and the ropes,” said Ringo.

There were several other things on the dais. To the left of the statue, only partially visible from the fancy-cart, was a line of stocks, a few of which bore unfortunate men or women facing into a jeering and abusive crowd. The majority of the crowd, however, stood staring up at a pink granite table set up in front of the Vasyn. Five obviously high-ranking Idris occupied this table. The woman at the right end of the table had a megaphone on the table next to her; she was saying something to the other Idris at the table and gesturing at the back of a trembling shirtless man being held by two Idris. Behind him was a burly male Idri with a whip.

As the woman stood up, turned to the crowd, and raised the megaphone to her mouth, Fi’ar snapped, “Halt! I would watch this!” and the fancy-cart stopped, much to the horror of the four, who could guess what was coming.

The crowd noise faded as the woman with the megaphone bellowed, “BEHOLD THE PUNISHMENT OF ANYONE WHO DARES TO USE MAGIC! TWENTY THOUSAND POINTS OF BAD JAN—AND THIS!”

The Idri with the whip stepped around, pulled his arm back, paused dramatically... the crowd fell silent... Crack! The unfortunate magic-user wailed as an oozing red line appeared across his back. The crowd started cheering, and continued to cheer through each subsequent crack!, so that the man’s screams were (mercifully for the four) just barely audible. Soon the criminal’s back was crisscrossed with cuts, and his pathetic cries became moans as he swayed, nearly unconscious, between the Idris who held him. Blood had splattered everywhere, and the whipper pawed at the mess on his uniform and made a funny disgusted face at the crowd, which roared anew.

Or so John told the others; he’d been the only one to watch the flogging. George had closed his eyes and tried to drown out the horrible noise by chanting his mantra very rapidly, and the others, covering their ears, had stared out the windows on the other side of the fancy-cart, forcing themselves to gaze at the stalls and tents set up in the rest of the square, selling food and souvenirs to passers-by. “Just like Disneyland,” John sneered as, the show over, the fancy-cart started rolling again.

With everyone much subdued and back to frightened silence, they rolled on for a few minutes through the rest of the open area, which was thick with pedestrians and more vendors, then left the square via a continuation of the wide, clean street. On this side of the square, the buildings that lined the street were a mixture of high-end restaurants, shops, and hotels. They were in the rich part of town, no error; and at the end of the street was a brick wall with a gated archway, currently open. The entrance was guarded by a handful of Idris, who were checking the contents of wagons waiting to enter the area, but they waved the fancy-cart through.

Beyond the wall was a castle, and for better or worse it brought the word Disneyland back to mind. A beautiful and delicate example of the castle-builder's art, it seemed more a token of leadership than a stronghold, with its large windows and lacy stonework. Wooden buildings lined the interior walls: barracks, a smithy, carpenters, farriers, sheds, stables. Townspeople streamed up to the main entrance of the castle, while Idris strutted around looking important, or shot at human-shaped targets, or just lounged and stared as the fancy-cart passed them.


/You lied to me! The subjects were supposed to have been randomly selected!/

+Think of it as random selections from a homogeneous population of four.+

[Borl, it doesn't matter to the experiment. The end result will be the same, and they'll keep each other from going crazy.]

+You didn't make a fuss when we bent the rules and youthed them. Why are you suddenly getting picky now?+

/First of all, Varx, the youthing experience is a perfectly acceptable measure of alien responses. Second, Shag lied to the Coordinator! Do you know how much trouble that could cause me?/

+Just you, huh? Look, he won't find out unless someone tells him. He doesn't care enough about underclass projects to look for all the stuff that's been fudged. If he did, every project in school'd be thrown out. He just checks the upperclass stuff.+

/But with me unfortunately in your group, he’s likely to take more of an interest./

[Please, Borl, don't worry about it. Varx is right—our work is so meaningless that the only people who get caught are the ones who cheat blatantly. And even though you're here, it's still a sophomore project. Ultimately the Coordinator will ignore us.]

+And if you drop out now, you'll never find another group, and you'll miss the whole project and flunk.+

/Gods above and below curse those orange spots! I have no choice. But if we’re caught and my grades drop, I’m holding you responsible./


The main hall of the castle was huge, drafty, and dark; sputtering oil lanterns on the walls made more shadows and stink than light. Near the right wall stretched two long, narrow, parallel rugs whose original color had been obscured by untold thousands of muddy footprints. The rug nearest the wall bore a short line of townspeople. Every so often someone walked down the outer rug to leave the castle. Several Idris oversaw the rugs to ensure that people stayed off the marble floor.

The light conversation amongst the townspeople died away when the four appeared, trailing after Fi’ar, so that the click of Fi’ar’s boot heels as she strode down the center of the hall was the loudest noise in that huge place. Squinting in the poor light, the four were simultaneously fascinated by and frightened of their surroundings, so they only peripherally noticed how the townspeople, and the other Idris, stared at them and their instruments. Being stared at, after all, was nothing new for them.

"The air's breathable in here," Ringo muttered to John. "Kind of stale, but it won't kill us."

"You sniffed? You're a better man than I am, Gunga Ring." John nodded at tapestries on the left wall. "Can you tell what's in those?"

Ringo tried, but since they were dusty and he was moving, they were just a blur in the flickering light. "They're colorful," was all he could offer. "I think that's a horse."

"What's on the tapestries?" Paul asked Fi'ar politely.

The Idri woman seemed surprised that he was interested, but walked to the nearest tapestry. "They show the story of how the Idri'en Tagen did free Ketafa forty years ago." Her hand swept down the cloth, raising a cloud of dust and revealing a man with an eyepatch. The colors were rich, the artistry crude. "This do be my grandfather, Dagarno Silver-clouds-in-the-sky, who led the attack on Focan. Focan was the last city to grow into the kapse's landbody. It was a city-state, and stubborn."

She dusted the next tapestry: Dagarno Silver-clouds-in-the-sky held a huge sword over the necks of a dozen kneeling men. "Focan's leaders did surrender without fighting. Hoped they we would spare them, and we did, but the Raleka—may the gods burn their hearts!—did murder them before the year ended." The ferocity on the woman's face was startling in its intensity, and the four decided not to ask any more questions for a while.

They continued down the hall, passing several open doors on the left, dark wood that led to even darker passageways. However, two archways spilled light into the castle at the center of the hall. The one on the left led into a windowed dining area with long wooden tables and benches. A number of Idris were already seated and waiting for their meal; their laughter and conversation seemed jarringly loud after the nearly silent hall.

The archway on the right, which was where the line in the hall was going, opened onto a short corridor that widened into a large room that was packed with people. Fi’ar noticed the four looking down that way and said, “That be where the Idris do mediate disputes that require no public punishment.”

At the end of the hall was a wide spiral staircase. Fi’ar took the four up to the second floor and along a narrow corridor with only one door along the way: it had a red circle on it and a very bored-looking guard seated in a chair next to it, idly tossing dice back and forth in his hands. As they approached, the guard dropped the dice with a clatter and sprang up from his chair, gun at the ready, but he relaxed when he saw it was Fi’ar and official business. He opened the door a crack and called, "Fi’ar’s returned, Grynun!"

"Let her in," called a hoarse voice. The guard opened the door all the way, and the smell of perfume wafted into the hall.

The room was a long, large bedroom, well lit by the late afternoon sun streaming in through several large, open windows. The far end of the room was dominated by a canopy bed. A standing wardrobe was crammed with hanging clothes, while several bookcases and a large square table were heaped with books and scrolls. Gold, silver, and jeweled knickknacks in display cases glittered in the sunlight. Most eye-catching were a pair of excellent oil portraits hanging side by side. One was of a fair-haired Caucasian-type man with an eyepatch and a forceful mien that belied his refined, sensitive face—undoubtedly Dagarno Silver-clouds-in-the-sky. The other depicted a big-boned black man of Polynesian cast who looked a lot like Fi'ar, with his heavy eyebrows and large nose.

Against the center of the wall opposite the door was a large wooden desk covered with piles of papers. An elderly Caucasian-type woman sat in a swivel chair, typing on a manual typewriter. She glanced over her shoulder at the visitors, then typed a final rapid entry and swept her arms up theatrically, like she had been playing the piano. She chuckled hoarsely. Her left hand swooped into an ivory box and emerged with a pinch of glittery powder, which she snorted long and hard. Then she swiveled around in her chair to squint at the newcomers through bloodshot, watering eyes. "These be my bards, Fi'ar?" she murmured. With long gray hair streaming past her shoulders, red headband, silver chain with large medallion around her neck, and stained red robe, she looked like a withered flower child. “Tall. Room-fillers. Strange instruments. Where be they from?”

This was Grynun the Idri-Head? Leader of a barbaric conquering army and absolute dictator of Focan? Stal had left a few things out when he told the four about the Idris.

Fi'ar gave the old woman the head-heart-gun butt-hand salute. "Cross-Chasm," she announced, at once official and gleeful.

Grynun started to return the salute but turned it into an aimless flutter that shook her sleeve halfway up her arm. (Perhaps significantly, her right arm had not been dyed red.) She returned to squinting at the four, who moved closer at Fi’ar’s urging. The old woman smelled so strongly of perfume—and under that, urine—that if the windows hadn't been open, the four would have gagged. "Cross-Chasm…? Yes, yes, cross-Chasm. Certainly.” To Fi’ar, sharply: “Found you them at Lastman’s, correct? How brought you them into the city and the castle?”

Fi’ar seemed surprised. “In the fancy-cart and through the Great Hall. How else?”

“The fancy-cart… the Great Hall… yes,” the old woman repeated with a faint trace of annoyance. Abruptly she focused on Paul. “Spoke you to Lastman and his family? What told you them about cross-Chasm?”

“Nothing,” Paul said, using his most arrogant manner. “Why would we talk to them?”

Grynun scratched under her headband and gave him a curt nod, then turned back to Fi’ar. “You expect a reward for your service to me. I suppose luck deserves a reward. What want you?"

With a fierce grin, the tall woman clapped a hand on George's shoulder, startling him into dropping his guitar. "Him. First. I do want to deflower this Castle Virgin. I burn for him."

"Wh-what?" George stammered, taken completely by surprise.

"Heh." A sour smile flickered across the Idri-head's face, to be replaced by an expression of long-suffering disapproval. "No."

Fi'ar jerked back, mouth working. (George quickly moved away from her, lifting his guitar a bit to act as a shield.) Some of the rage that had evidenced itself in the Great Hall reappeared. Her hands began to crook, her body tensed, and for a moment it seemed she would leap on the old woman and scratch her eyes out. "Four bards from cross-Chasm be not enough?" she hissed. "What must I do for you, mother?"

"Save my life," the old woman rasped, sounding like a four-pack-a-day smoker. "Find the Raleka leader. Kill a Hiddenwizard. Then I'll give you a Castle Virgin. But luck doesn’t deserve that rich a reward."

Half a minute of deep breathing was Fi'ar's response. Then, sullenly: "What does it deserve?"

A small pouch came flying through the air. Fi'ar caught it automatically, with a soft clink. "Twenty gold dags and a hundred points good jan," said her mother. "Buy some whores to stave your hungers—but that be not why you wanted him, is it?" The old woman grinned, showing gappy teeth like her daughter's. "Knuckle-Wrist! But jump you to Joint or even Nail with a Castle Virgin's sword in your sheath."

A blush spread across the Wrist’s face, or she may have been flushing with rage.

"Not for luck, Fi'ar. I want skill. Earn your Virgin. Leave now."

Quivering with anger—and with a long look at George, who tried to hide behind the other three—Fi'ar tossed off a salute and stomped out of the room, pushing past the guard, who moved to stand in the door frame, watchful and wary.

A hoarse chuckle escaped the old woman. "Holehead. Just like her uncle. She'll never understand. Ralin,” she called to the guard, “I will speak to the bards privately. Close the door.”

“But Grynun,” the guard protested feebly, waving at the four.

“When has someone from cross-Chasm ever attacked anyone? Close the door.”

Reluctantly, the guard backed out, pulling the door shut behind him.

After it clicked shut, Grynun said to the four, "Name yourselves."

Before any of the other three could speak Paul made a sweeping bow and said, "I'm Paul, this's John, this's George, that's Ringo, glad to meet you madam."

"Nice manners, funny-voice," the old woman grinned. "My name be Grynun, not Madam. Grynun Silver-clouds-in-the-sky. So! You say you came cross-Chasm. Be you traders or exiles?"

"Exiles, ma—Grynun."

"Ah. Know you Lyndess Groundburner?"

Paul hesitated before replying. "We've heard of her, but we don’t know her."

“I thought not, as you sound and look different than her. Truly,” and Grynun smiled mischievously, “you be not from cross-Chasm, correct? Voices and bodies like yours don’t live there.”

Stammer, gulp, uh, well, went the four.

She chuckled again. “Fear not, fear not, no harm will come to you. I know there are more pieces to this world than the gods claim.” The way she said gods left no doubt in anyone’s mind that she didn’t believe in the religion behind the Idris’ success. “You were wise to claim cross-Chasm as your origin, as you obviously be born of no Ketafans. You be too tall and bony to claim kinship with the Ivards (of whom Stal Lastman be one), too dark-haired and wrong-faced to pass as Myomen (which is my parentage), too thick and round-eared for elves, and too pale of skin for any other. Maybe mixed-breed, like Fi’ar… ah, listen to me babble.” She waved her hand as if to shoo away her words. “Bards of no known origin, what know you of our laws and beliefs? Understand you the words law and forbidden?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Paul, a little bemused by her question. “We know we’re not supposed to talk with the regular people. Oh, and that the big pink statue is, uh, sacred to you.”

“The Vasyn, sacred, yes,” Grynun said wryly. “Bards, though I care not whether the city- or farmfodder live or die, I will not have my Idris endangered by you. Listen and obey and save lives—your own as well as those of my people.

“Speak not of religion to anyone save myself or Lyndess. I care not what religion you follow, but it must not conflict with the beliefs that the Idris introduced into Focan.

“Never speak of the past, cross-Chasm, or your home place, to anyone save myself or Lyndess. Indeed, speak as little as possible to Ketafans—that be safest.

“Leave not the castle grounds by yourselves. I will not have your presence known widely among the cityfodder. I wish my hollow-headed daughter had not brought you through the Great Hall past the supplicants….” The old woman sighed. “Still, memories be short, and rumors be less harmful than truth in this instance. If you must leave, I will arrange an escort. Hmm, what else? Ah. If know you magic, you may practice it, safe from prosecution, but teach it not to any Ketafan.”

“We don’t know any magic,” said Paul. “Just music.”

Grynun looked surprised. “I thought all exiles knew magic.”

All sorts of silly things flashed through Paul’s mind—the magic of music, photographs, safety matches, nuclear bombs, Doug Henning—but before he could air any of these dubious items, John chimed in with, “Not us, we’re stupid, that’s why we got into music.”

“Ah.” The old woman took a shiny thing from a drawer in the desk, fiddled with it (making a crk-crk-crk noise), and put it down. Her hand came away to reveal a tiny golden dog with ruby eyes and a windup key in its side. The toy walked stiff-legged across the wood for a few seconds, did a backflip, kept on walking. “Some fodder would consider that magic,” she said with a sour grin. “Need you no magic to fool the fodder.

“So!” Grynun caught up the dog before it could walk off the desk and put it in the drawer, where they heard it clicking against things for a few minutes. “I have one more very important question for you. Be you Castle Virgins?” Noting their incomprehension at this phrase, she restated impatiently, “Have you sexed within these walls?"

Paul said, “No, we just got here, haven’t had time.”

“Sharp. All persons who reside in this castle be mine to sex with before another castle-dweller tries them. Castle Virgins be a symbol of my status as Idri-Head, and one of the few pleasures remaining to me. Sometimes, as a reward for great service to me, I allow another to be the first in, which is what my stupid daughter wanted—” Here Grynun nodded at George, who ducked his head in embarrassment “—to improve her status among her peers. So! You can sex with each other, but unless I say otherwise, if you sex with any other castle-dweller before me, I’ll castrate you.”

Gulp, went the four. Not that they had planned to go rutting through the castle’s female population at the first opportunity, but still….

Grynun slapped her hand on the desk. “Now. Sit and play your music for me.”

So they sat around the room, on the bed and the chests, and played "Yesterday," then "I've Just Seen a Face" and a few others they'd worked on at Stal's house. By now they were very good together, and Grynun seemed suitably impressed.

After their fourth song she pushed herself up from the chair with a great grunt and stood looking down at them, saying:

"I like you. If you were my secrets you'd play only for me, but some of the Idri-body did see you, so you’ll have to play for them. You’ll do so at mealtimes, after the sermons. We meet for firstmeal at five-one, midmeal at one-two, and lastmeal at two-two. Do you understand our time system? Ah, neither did Lyndess. Just start for the foodhall after you hear the city clock chiming the time, and all will remain bright. You can eat after you play. Ah, what else? You'll be paid one silver gry apiece, every day. You'll have a room in the castle to sleep." Her short-nailed hand brushed Paul's thigh. "You—I’ll sex with you first—perhaps tonight.”

Oh well, there's worse things could happen, Paul thought so he could keep his smile up as he thanked Grynun.

Smiling, the old woman made an unfathomable wide-armed gesture, then turned and took a huge sniff of powder. She reeled and grabbed the edge of the desk; the four could almost see little stars and planets orbiting her head. Then a clock on the desk began chiming, echoed seconds later by the deep and shrill bells of Gib Neb in the city, BONG... BONG... BING BING.

The Idri-head straightened up, tears streaming down her face, and rubbed fiercely at her eyes. "It be two-two," she muttered between her fingers. "I want food. Come with me and play for the upper body in the foodhall." Then she noticed the condition of the guitarists' hands, fingers bleeding, being sucked on. "Play only three songs."

She pushed past them, wiping her nose on her sleeve, and they stood up, clutching their instruments, and dutifully trooped after her. Now that they were all standing at the same time, they saw that she was not quite as tall as her daughter but of a formidable height in her society just the same.

As they left the room, Ralin the guard fell into step behind John, the last in line.

Grynun stopped short, whirled around, and pointed at the guard. "Stay! Your task be guarding my room!"

"But Grynun," Ralin began, greatly distressed. "Dey could be Raleka—dey might—"

The old woman stamped her foot. "They be not Raleka! Came they cross-Chasm. There be no Raleka cross-Chasm. There be Raleka in Ketafa. My room be less safe from them than I. Stay!"

But the guard was a proper sort of guard and persisted: "But—but if you be attacked, can dey protect you?"

Like magic, a pistol appeared in Grynun’s hand. She waved it at Ralin. "They need not. Stay! Come, bards!"

All the way to the stairs the old woman muttered to herself as she put the pistol back under her robes. "He presumes to protect me. Me! As do the others. Think they that my brain be as faded as my hair? Have my eyes fallen out among my teeth? I should have him flogged!"

“Don’t flog him!” Paul protested. "He just wanted to protect you. You're his leader and he doesn't want to see you hurt. He'd want to come along no matter how old you were."

"Hmmm," the old woman grumbled. They reached the top of the stairs, and Grynun paused to look back down the corridor, where Ralin was watching them anxiously. She sighed. "Perhaps you be right, Paul. Still, don't age. It makes others stupid. Come, bards."

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