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The Builder

The Builder

P. S. Power The Builder

Chapter one

    The bell rang again, either the third or fourth of the day, a deep chime from the main tower. Torrence thought that was the case at least as he ran from the isolation chamber towards the empty commons. Maybe the fifth or sixth if he'd gotten lost in the working trance again. What was he saying? Of course he'd gotten lost. It was just what happened when you drove yourself like he was.
    He'd done it though. Finished his first novel build. He'd made real magic.
    Well, he'd done that before of course, making copies for class, but this time the magic was all his. It made a difference. A lot of people could make copies, only a few did new pieces. The difference between a copier and a full builder was huge. Most people didn't even attempt it.
    Now if it just worked he'd be able to justify having missed classes to get it done. If it didn't work…
    Well, it had better work. That was all. Otherwise he'd have to resign from school in shame, or at least pout and moan about it for a while. It would work. He could feel it. That or he was really hungry. It was hard to tell at the moment, the deep working trance could mess up basic perceptions for a while after you were done sometimes. He grinned and kept moving as quickly as his stiff legs could manage, so not very, all things considered. It was what stopped him from doing a little happy dance. That and the fact he simply had no talent for it. It was tempting to try anyway.
    The sigil piece in his hand, a circle ringed with letters and symbols on a square of unfinished wood, all basically nonsense to anyone except him, had been drawn in black paint, the thick and cheap kind from the student store that took a while to dry. Most of the time at least. This time it had turned solid before he'd even finished the complex field structure, a very good sign considering the nature of the field he'd tried to create.
    He hoped it was anyway. It was just possible he was imagining it, because the whole thing was such a big deal. To Tor. No one else would probably care at all. That was fine though. It hadn't been done for them. Really the idea was to prove he could build to get away from endless copy work. That wasn't hard, but it lacked… spark.
    The build was fairly simple, if anything that got things to happen without physical effort could be called that. Most wouldn't think so probably. The field on the piece of wood in his hand simply told water to leave cloth, and other fibrous materials, within a certain area in space. It should, if the field was strong enough, mean that after washing clothes a person could have dry things ready to wear within moments, instead of waiting for hours, or even longer on rainy or moist days. It was a labor and time saving device.
    The wood the focusing design had been painted on would dry out too, being fibrous material itself, just like cloth, but that shouldn't hurt anything really, as long as it didn't just turn to dust. That shouldn't happen, if Tor had gotten the whole thing right. Most people didn't on their first go, or so he'd been told in class, even professional builders sometimes had to try something dozens of times to get new things right, but he had high hopes.
    Not to mention slight desperation. Now that everything occurred to him properly at least.
    The school probably wouldn't kick him out for just missing a day's worth of classes for something like this, which was school related, but he'd need to show that he hadn't just been off in town playing the whole time, and then slapped some paint on wood as an excuse. Tor wouldn't ever do that of course, he liked school, and learning, too much to try and fake his way through. But did the instructors really know that? If he could think of it as a potential excuse, they probably would too. They'd been at all this a lot longer than he had after all. Age and wisdom were to be respected for a reason.
    Tor kept running, passing other students as he went. Excitement fairly boiled from him, making him smile the whole time, a rare thing for him. A few waved, mostly boys of course, kids from his classes. Oddly enough, one who called to him was a tall, good looking girl with dusky skin and a brilliant white smile. He recognized her as one of the combat giants that regularly beat him in class, so he half waved back as he moved. No one tried to stop and talk to him of course.
    They wouldn't.
    His reputation as a very serious student stopped that from happening, especially if he looked like he was in a hurry or distracted. Or thinking. No one wanted to hear him go on for hours about his latest project, whatever that happened to be. While it fascinated him, the interplay of fields of information that could be made to reorder the fabric of the world, to most people it was just meaningless babble. Tor might as well sit around spouting complete nonsense at them. Actually, he knew that for a fact, because he'd done it a few times just to see what would happen. The responses were identical.
    Almost no one could be bothered to really listen.
    Rolph, the boy that he'd roomed with for the last two years never seemed to mind paying attention to what Tor said and he really tried to pay attention. But other than him and a few instructors, people just tried to leave their conversations at hello and see you later. That worked well enough for Tor, to tell the truth. Most people, other students especially, were a little boring, only caring about the latest song craze, or what clothing to wear on break. As if a student's brown trousers and tunic weren't good enough? What, were they the Prince and Princesses of the realm that they needed to do more than study for their futures? Rolph didn't do that at least. Not too much. For which Tor was eternally grateful. He didn't know what he'd do if his roomie had been one of that type. Go crazy probably and shove pencils in his ears to try and get away from the useless yammering.
    Tor kept to a good jog, which would have made the weapons master, Kolb, happy. The older man seemed convinced that anyone that couldn't run the length of the kingdom and back inside a month was incurably lazy. That no one had ever managed such a feat didn't stop the man from hinting it was the highest sign of worth for a non-combat oriented student like Tor Baker. Too little to fight properly most of the time, short and slender, the head instructor liked to pick on him a little. Running beat having the military students beat the snot out of him daily so Tor did it without complaint.
    True, most of them didn't really try to hurt him on purpose when he was forced, again by Kolb, to take them on in practice, but they somehow always managed it anyway. Generally because most of them were freakishly large. Like the tall girl he'd just passed, what was her name… Petra? She always managed to hand him a piece of his backside when they worked together, which was more than a little humiliating. Worse, Tor kind of suspected that the girl went out of her way to be gentle with him compared to the others, pulling her punches and sword blows. He'd seen her easily drive men over seven feet tall and three hundred pounds to their knees more than once. That Tor was still alive probably meant that she was coddling him like a baby. He decided not to worry about it and grinned instead.
    He was a builder, not a warrior. Maybe a real one now. Unless the build didn't work. Then he was just screwed.
    Keeping his pace steady he made his way up the three flights of gray stone steps to the outside walkway that led to his room. It was decent sized, the room, nearly as big as the bedroom he'd shared with his four brothers before he left home. Had it really only been two and a half, nearly three, years? Rolph complained about the tiny space occasionally, but then his family was rich, some kind of merchant empire thing that involved a lot of famous and wealthy people. At least from what little his roomie had hinted at when he got tired, or had grabbed a little extra wine with dinner.
    The door had a real metal handle, a nice brass lever, and while it didn't have an “official” lock, Tor had made one that recognized him and Rolph when a hand was put on the design near the door. It also recognized anyone that belonged to the school, which was probably why they hadn't forced him to take it down yet. All it did was keep people that weren't supposed to be there out.
    Not that he had anything anyone would want to steal, but Rolph did. Fine silk clothes, and books that Tor envied more than a little, as well as more gold than he'd had ever seen in one place before. To his surprise Rolph offered to let him read the books whenever he had spare time, not even worried that he might damage them or leave them smudged. It was nice to just kick back and peruse a history text every now and again, instead of spending all his time working on meditation or field work for building devices. Of course now that he could do his own fields instead of just copying other people's, building was looking to be even more interesting. A lot more actually. The simple fields they'd let him copy so far had been bland to work on.
    Slapping the lock design, a simple hand print in worn paint, got the door to open easily, sliding open as if held in place by some unseen force. It looked pretty magical, but it was really just a clever swivel lock, a wooden privacy bar about the size of his forearm. It was counterbalanced so that the amount of energy it took to swing it in and out of place was virtually nil. The small effort of touching the plate did it, passed the energy of intent along to bump the bar in and out of the way. It was magic strictly speaking, but only the tiniest amount. He'd borrowed the field design from the lock on a chest that Rolph owned, a clever contraption that probably cost half of what Tor's entire family made in a year.
    Rolph stood and just played with the door lock every now and then, sighing and asking him how it worked. Tor had to smile when that happened, since, as an accounting student, Rolph lacked a lot of the needed background to understand what he said. The guy tried to keep up and was bright enough, so Tor kept explaining. That willingness to try was one of the reasons he got along so well with the giant redhead. Even if his family was rich.
    As it stood Tor kind of thought that the other boy was less baffled by the device itself, since he already owned basically the same thing on the chest, than just amazed that someone like him, only a third year student after all, could manage something that interesting. It made Tor happy to hear, and a bit proud, since he'd actually done it the year before. In second year.
    Once in the room he looked around for the wash basket, the large wicker one that Rolph let him share, and picked it up without really looking inside. It felt heavy, but then both he and Rolph had gotten the weapons studies chief instructor for two years straight for some reason. None of the other accounting or field students had Kolb, or even any of the man's first tier trainers. Most of them didn't even have weapons or fighting classes at all. A few that were nobles did, sons and daughters of Counts and Barons that might have to fight to protect themselves someday, even if they were better at math or history.
    Almost no one went into building, it was considered the hardest course of study a person could take at Lairdgren school, so those students normally didn't have more than some light exercise classes, dance or stretching normally. How they'd both “lucked” into the extra combat courses he didn't know. Rolph just shrugged it off the one time Tor had mentioned it, and suggested that maybe their parents had something to do with it.
    Maybe his roommate's parents did, being wealthy people that could pull strings and get special privileges for their child. Tor's parents were wonderful people, hardworking and industrious in all things, including having children, but wealthy and influential they were not. Maybe it had been a paperwork error? That made a lot more sense really. Of course, when he'd mentioned that to Kolb the giant man had just laughed at him and patted him on the back, then told him that if it was, it didn't matter now, since too much time had been spent on him to give up over something as trivial as mis-signed documents.
    Tor had pointed out more than once to Rolph that without the King's scholarship he'd be busily learning to be a baker in his parents' shop like his older brother, or possibly sneaking off to the docks to look for work as a fisherman's apprentice, not learning to build high powered spells and fighting from some of the best teachers in the land. While he could do without the bruises from training like a warrior, he didn't complain about it to anyone but his friend.
    After all, he already knew how to bake well enough to open his own shop, he'd grown up doing it. That taught him enough about work to doubt that learning to fight was really any harder than, say, fishing on the ocean. Both fighters and fishermen had that hard look about them that spoke of something in particular.
    Hard physical labor.
    If he had to pick one to do, he'd take the one that also let him learn magic too. If he had to take beatings to be allowed to learn that, he'd do it with a smile, any day of the week. Well, not really with a smile, more like a lot of wincing and trying not to rub the sore spots, but he'd still do it, which had to count for something.
    Building spells took work too, obviously, or everyone would be doing it, but it didn't do much for the body. At least this way he wasn't turning fat, or into a no muscle stick man like some of the other students had in the last years. That he'd paid for it in sweat and more than a little blood was inconsequential. At least Kolb always said so just before he assigned him some nearly impossible task. Generally things that hurt.
    A lot.
    There was only one other student, a first year by the looks of the boy, about as tall as Tor already and heavier set with muscle, doing his laundry at the outdoor washtubs when he got there. The poor kid didn't seem to be having an easy time of it, apparently not having any wash powder with him. Instead he tried to make do with elbow grease, scrubbing hard at the student browns in his hands. Having had to do that a few times himself in the past, Tor could sympathize. Setting up his own basket next to one of the wooden wash barrels he grabbed a corrugated metal board that didn't seem too dirty, glad that there weren't a lot of people out today. Some of the boards had rust on them, which didn't hurt the brown clothes too much, but could ruin the nice silks and velvets that some of the rich kids had.
    The washing, something that he'd been tasked with since childhood, went quickly with only two people's clothes to get clean. At home it had always been an all-day project, one that he'd done at least once a week. They all took turns at it, since his parents were fanatical about them always wearing clean clothing. Fanatical for Two Bends. Here, he found, that level of cleanliness was actually normal. At least it didn't take him unaware like some of the other scholarship kids. The idea of only wearing clothing for one day at a time had been the regular thing for him and he hadn't had to bear ridicule for weeks before he'd figured it out.
    He worked with a will, wanting to get to the drying as soon as possible, that was the point after all. The water made suds and nearly boiled as he worked the brown canvas on the board, excitement making the task more interesting, if only a tiny bit. The water was cold, of course, but the weather was warm enough so that his hands didn't freeze. It was early in the spring half, only a week into the new term, which meant first the nice, and then the way too hot, weather would be on them in the months to come.
    Perfect baking weather. Or at least it would be in a week or so. Right now was just a bit too cool for dough to rise quickly without heating the room it was in or using a proofing box. Tor got a laugh from the fact that his mind had turned to baking of all things. He didn't hate the family business, actually he kind of enjoyed baking truth be told, but the shop really didn't need five or six bakers. Not in Two Bends, which only had about three hundred people.
    Just as he finished he noticed that the younger boy, who stood a ways off, looked to be nearly in tears for some reason. His browns, the ones the kid held, looked new, and still had that stiff quality about them that normally didn't fade for the first year or so, the heavy material not softening until the fiftieth washing or thereabouts. Tor didn't really want to waste time talking, but knew it wouldn't do to leave the boy in tears either. If it was his kid brother having trouble he'd want someone to help him out, wouldn't he?
    “Alright there?” He asked, half hoping that the boy would just say yes, so that he could get back to his real work and test the new field build sitting next to him. He smiled, trying to be kind about it though.
    He could spare a few minutes he reminded himself. He'd been the new kid once too and no one had been overly helpful back then at all. It had made everything so much harder. Change had to start with you, or it usually didn't happen. His mother said that all the time. It sounded pretty close to right, at least in a situation like this.
    The boy shook his head, letting it drop, his limp brown hair falling into the blue eyes below, round cheeks looking flushed and embarrassed.
    The kid started as Tor waited patiently, then just didn't speak for nearly half a minute. All that meditation, he realized, had been good for something other than field building after all. He could wait without difficulty now. Great. Well, one thing he could be certain of, life would make him wait for things. It was a handy skill to have, if a little boring.
    “I've never washed my own clothes before… At home we have servants that do it. I never even gave it a second thought, I mean, you put clothes in water and rubbed them on a board, how hard could it be? But no matter how hard I rub, I can't get the clothes clean and…” Pointing as if blaming the water or the tub he grimaced. “I can't make it frothy! What am I doing wrong?”
    The words were so plaintive that Tor had to fight back a smile. It wouldn't do to make the kid feel bad, especially if his family had been the kind that could afford servants. Magical creatures those, that he hadn't even believed really existed until he'd come to school here. The closest thing Tor's family had to servants had been… him and his older sister Terlee. So instead of mocking the poor kid, he decided to actually take a few seconds to be helpful.
    “Well, you're not doing it wrong really, but some wash powder would help a lot. You can buy it at the school store, just ask at the counter and the man there will make sure you get the right kind. It looks like you're doing browns and underthings today? So, you can just borrow some of mine until you get your own. You need a special kind if you're going to wash silk, velvet or nice materials like that. Again, you get it at the store, unless you don't have any money, and then you very politely beg it from your friends that do.” Tor smiled at the thought. He could afford to be a little generous with this particular washing powder, since Rolph had paid for it. He didn't feel too bad about doing it either, first because his roomie would have done the same thing without hesitation, and second because Tor had just washed half a week's clothes for him. It seemed a fair enough trade.
    The kid looked down, as if expecting a reprimand for being stupid, which either said something about his expectations in regards to schooling here, or his upbringing. A lot of the rich kids had situations like that. Everything had been done for them all their lives, but they were treated harshly almost at random and not knowing how to do something basic could be punished pretty severely or so he'd heard. That they wouldn't, possibly even weren't allowed, to have a clue about some things, like cooking or washing clothing, didn't seem to matter. When the time came for them to know, they'd better. Or else.
    Tor showed the boy how to use the light brown powder, scrubbing the material together to get at bad stains and how to use the friction on the board to do the rest. After a few minutes the boy was doing a decent job on his own, so Tor moved to the drying lines and draped the wet material over without using the wringer first. Avoiding wringing was half the point after all. It always seemed to take longer than the washing itself, and was his least favorite part of the whole process. It wasn't hard, it just bugged him for some reason, and always had.
    It took him about ten minutes to hang up everything on the line and to bring one of the low folding tables, slightly green colored faded pine wood, to set the sigil on. After Tor took pains to make sure it wasn't under any of the wet stuff, he hit the top of the paint, and stepped back. For the first ten seconds nothing much happened, there was dripping, but there already had been some of that, it was sopping wet, so of course it dripped. He held his breath and felt his heart start to pound. Had he screwed it up somehow? Even a tiny mistake could potentially make all the work he'd done be wasted time. Nearly thirty hours in deep focus carefully building the energy pattern for this. Not good if it didn't work…
    Then, all at once, water suddenly ripped out of the cloth, making a huge splash on the hard packed bare earth below. Nothing splashed back up at least, so he wouldn't have to rewash any of it. Yay. He moved forward and tapped the black lines again to turn the field off and then moved to feel the clothing. It was, obviously, dry. He knew that. What he didn't know was if he'd managed to strip it so bare of water that it would turn to dust when touched. Poking a pair of brown pants carefully he tested to see if he had to buy a bunch of new clothes. Or more to the point, leave school in shame, because he only had five coppers to his name right now. Nowhere near enough for new clothes.
    It was perfect. Totally dry in an instant, leaving the clothing soft and pliable, not even as stiff as it would be from sun drying.
    A bubbling feeling of joy rose inside him. Yes! True, drying clothes faster wouldn't win a war or even get him a girlfriend or something impossible like that, but it would get him a good grade in his novel building class. He knew that it would take more than just one solid build for him to do that, being the youngest person in the class by several years, but this was a good start. A very good one.
    His glee turned to dread when he turned to find Dorgal Sorvee picking up the wooden plate with the sigil on it. The black haired boy had swarthy skin and hadn't ever worn a student's browns, opting for tan colored silks instead. His father was a wealthy manufacturer, and something like the local mayor where he'd come from. That was fine really, a lot of the rich kids didn't wear regular browns, they weren't that comfortable and apparently if you could afford silk, none of the teachers wanted to risk alienating you by telling you to go put on heavy canvas instead. Who could blame them? You don't poke a bear with a stick, and you don't challenge the rich and powerful. Everyone knew that.
    Dorgal however wasn't just a rich merchant kid, having branched out on his own into personal areas of endeavor. He was also an accomplished bully. His parents would be so proud of him, no doubt.
    Being rich there wasn't much someone like Tor could do about it either. Sure, he could offer to fight the boy, or call him names… and find himself out of the school the next morning, if not going off to jail. From the way the dickhead held the drying sigil it was obvious to Tor that he wouldn't be getting it back easily.
    He sighed.
    Life had been easier at home. Sure there had been a couple of bullies at the village school, but being the baker's kid meant that he had five brothers to help him out in a fight if it came to it, more than anyone else's family by far and a certain amount of prestige. His family wasn't wealthy, but they did alright, always having enough food to eat and a good roof over their heads. Some of the villagers didn't always have that. The bullies had largely left him alone even if they did think he was a little strange.
    Here, people like Dorgal could get away with murder, practically at least, so they did whenever they felt like it. The boy's face held a snotty and malicious grin as he got ready to tap the sigil and activate it.
    “What have we here? Some kind of present for me?” The boy, nearly a man in truth, meaning he should know better than to activate an unknown bit of magic, started to do just that. Moron. For a second Tor almost hoped it would backfire and strip the guy of all his body's water. It wouldn't of course, he'd built in safeguards against that. Still, Tor reflected, he could dream.
    A low rumbling chuckle came from behind Tor, making him spin, ready to fight if he had too. He didn't want to be kicked out, but he didn't want to die for some wealthy person's amusement either. When he turned he had to look up to see who stood there. And up. Standing over seven feet tall, a wall of blond muscle hulked a little closer to him. A light colored head on top of a deep red silk shirt. After a few seconds Tor figured out who it was.
    Count Thomson.
    Freaking hell. The guy wasn't just a giant, but one of Kolb's best fighters. If he decided to beat Tor to death, not only could he get away with it — legally even since he was a Count — but there was nothing the much smaller Tor could do to even slow him down, much less stop him. Even running away could be against the law if the man claimed he was under arrest for something.
    Instead of grabbing him, or opening with a devastating backhand blow, the large noble carefully stepped around him and moved gracefully to the low table.
    “Hmmm,” he said softly, his voice rumbling. “What do we have here? I saw the splashing a bit ago, so decided to come see for myself. Some kind of water removal system? Fascinating.”
    The giant actually seemed interested and took the wooden square from the very surprised bully gently, then turned to speak to Tor directly as if Dorgal wasn't even there.
    “Wood and paint? So, is this something you made yourself?”
    “Yeah, it's for my novel build class, this is the first test, but so far it looks like it's working. I need to test it again, but…” He pointed to the dry clothes on the rack with a shrug. “That will probably have to wait a few days. Everything I own is clean.”
    The young Count chuckled again and looked around, finally pointing at the younger boy Tor had been helping earlier. “He has some wet clothing, perhaps he'd be willing to let you use that for your test, now that success seems likely at least?”
    That, Tor had to admit, did seem like a good idea. Not something he'd have thought of himself, mainly because he didn't like to ask other people for favors, but hey, if a Count suggested it, who was he to say no? Clearing his throat he asked the boy if it would be alright. It was clear that the kid had been watching all along anyway, so it didn't take a lot of explanation.
    “Sure!” He said, bringing the heaping basket of wet, not just damp, but sodden clothing over to hang up on the line. It would normally be a bad idea to skip wringing them out first, at least by hand, but it was perfect for this. After a second Tor started to help out, knowing that it would speed things up. Help almost always did. The Count shocked them both by helping to hang things over the white rope line himself a moment later. It wasn't every day that a Count helped you do your laundry after all. What would be next? The King coming over for an afternoon snack? The giant looked at the low table and moved it closer to the line, but then looked at Tor, checking to see if he'd gotten it close enough.
    “That should do… Actually, let's move the table back a bit. I don't want to risk splashing water on the paint yet. It hasn't had a lot of time to set.” The Count picked up the table and moved it about four feet back. The younger boy looked a little anxious, but waited out of the way. Pointing at the younger student Tor nodded his head.
    “Give the plate a single tap please…” It was actually an important factor. It was just possible, doing this, that he'd built something that would only work for him. He doubted that was the case, he'd been careful, but everything had to be tested. The boy didn't hesitate, activating the field with a single deft thump of one finger, as if he'd been doing such things all his life.
    Being from a wealthy family, maybe he had? Tor had only seen a handful of field devices before coming to school, all of them tools around the village. The majority of devices were tools. Only the most wealthy had anything else in the main. Trying to copy those was what got him noticed for the scholarship in the first place. At least he thought it was that. He'd never really been sure how it had happened. A scholarship recruiter just passing through an out of the way tiny village and finding the baker's kid making a cutter? Not very likely. Maybe it was fate, or someone in the village having told someone else, and the word spreading to the right ears?
    The whole process repeated itself, only with applause this time, as people had come to look at what the Count, who stood out quite a bit, being so brightly clad and huge, had been doing. Even Dorgal grudgingly applauded.
    The dark haired bully couldn't resist getting a barb in though. Of course. Making fun of Tor in front of a large group of people would probably make it even better for someone like him. As he started to speak, Tor made himself relax and just listen calmly, as if he cared what the idiot had to say. He even managed an interested and polite expression. Fake, but if the bastard wanted real politeness he'd have to start with some of his own for a while.
    “So, your future career as a washer woman's all set Tor! Now all we have to do is get you a gray skirt and a bandanna for your pretty hair.” The tone was biting and surly, even if the words themselves could have been construed as just being playful if they came from someone else. It was the kind of thing Dorg excelled at. A kind of genius really, being a jerk without ever really being too overtly offensive. Not where other ears than Tor's could hear at least. He didn't get the laugh expected from the gathering crowd for some reason. In fact, a few of the people walking over to examine the now dried clothes stared at him as if he'd just cussed in public. One, a pretty girl with deep brown, almost black, curly hair in ringlets kind of glared at Dorgal.
    “Seriously? And you from a manufacturing family? You can't see how big a field like this could be? Are you stupid or something?” The girl, who looked about seventeen or eighteen turned to Tor and smiled winningly. She was lean, and a little hard, so probably one of the warrior or “special school” students. Assassins or something. No one really knew what they did at the special school, at least no one that would speak to him about it. People talked, but rumors were usually wrong, so Tor didn't bother following them particularly. The girl looked at the clothes and nodded to her friend.
    “Sara, what do you think your mother would be willing to pay for this?”
    The girl next to her wasn't as cute as the brown haired girl, but made up for it by looking happy and bright eyed. Of course Tor tended to like dark hair on women, so maybe it wasn't fair to say she wasn't as pretty, just in a blond way. A lot of people would probably think she was, he decided. She sounded smart at least. Even at school a lot of the girls affected being dumber than they were to attract boys. That these two didn't seem to bother with that already won points in his book. Not that they'd care overly about that.
    Tor knew his opinion probably wouldn't matter to them any more than the guy that ran the store that sold school supplies. Less even, since pencils and ink had established value already. He noticed that both wore blacks, like his own clothes, except not brown, heavily worn and oft washed. Since they'd never been out kicking his behind on the practice field with Kolb, that lent more than a bit of credit to the idea that they were special school. Pure scholars didn't have as much wear on their clothing in the knees and elbows, most of it coming in the seat of the pants. His own had both.
    Sara looked at the clothing and then him, tilting her head just a little. It was cute, which he instantly decided to hold against her. Attractive women were trouble. If you let yourself become interested at least.
    “What are the design parameters? How much can each field do, how often? What's the expected time to failure for each unit?”
    The questions were good ones, too good to be casual really. He knew the answers, at least in theory, and tried to present them that way, explaining that these were the very first tests.
    “But, if all goes well, any cloth or fibrous material within a twenty foot radius will dry in approximately the time you saw here, about fifteen seconds or so. It's field driven, energy wise, so the work energy comes from the water and the ambient temperature, the heat in the air, meaning there's no particular recharge time needed. As to how well the field will hold up… That depends on the materials used, of course, metal or stone will hold a field a lot longer than wood, and who put it in place matters too. My personal fields normally last for several years when put in metal, so far at least, but that can vary from person to person. I'm kind of new to doing it, obviously. Some of the best can last decades or even longer. Average is about a year or so…” He gave a lift of the shoulders that wasn't really a shrug.
    Sara, strawberry blond with slightly tan skin, considered what he said closely then looked at the humble wooden plate.
    “In wood we could get five golds for it, assuming it would last a year. In metal twice that. In stone… Well, that's harder to work with, but would probably bring in twenty to thirty golds apiece. It would have to be vetted first, being new and you still being a student. Worth doing. My guess is that we could sell these on the open market faster than they could be made at those prices. Even selling the template you should be able to bring in a half gold for each one that goes out on the market. That would probably be your best bet, especially if you have any other ideas like this to work on. It would leave you free to do things other than make copies.”
    The girl blushed and suddenly stepped back, making the dark haired girl laugh.
    “Don't worry Sara, Tor won't bite. I have that on good authority. Speaking of which…”
    Tor looked over his shoulder in the direction that the dark haired girl stared and saw Rolph, red haired and nearly as big as Count Thomson walking over with a purpose, probably expecting to have to save Tor from a beating. Nice of him really, since Tor could do without those whenever possible. As he got closer Tor looked up at him with a smile and pointed at the clothes just now being taken off the line by the brown haired boy.
    “Worked.” He said, smiling. “Twice.” He held up two fingers just to make the point clear.
    Rolph slapped him on the back and then looked at the others standing around with a bit of hesitation. After a few seconds he spoke, softly.
    “Tovey,” he said, looking at the Count. “Everything alright here?”
    There was no menace in the tone at all, but it didn't sound scared either. If Tor had remembered who'd been standing there himself he'd have been scared. The work, as it often did, had proved too distracting for that. He'd simply forgotten to be afraid, which was probably a sign that he was secretly a moron. Who forgets to be afraid?
    Soon to be dead people, that's who.
    The Count smiled and put his hand out to shake with Rolph, a movement that came naturally it seemed, even though a Count wouldn't do that as a rule. They went in for bowing and such. “Not at all. I just saw the first experiment and had to come see what was going on. It really is fascinating to see the water just… leave like that. We need to secure some of these for our mothers before everyone else has them first I think.”
    The girl with the dark hair moved in front of Rolph and backed towards Tor protectively hands out to the side as if to prevent his friend from grabbing him to carry off… or something.
    “Saw him first, so he's mine. Now, you two go away. Shew, shew!”
    “Hey! I saw him way before you did. Called firsts and everything.” Petra, who'd been standing near the back of the crowd called out, laughing. She smiled and waved a little at Tor again, so, ducking his head, he waved back. It was literally true, she'd seen him since his first year, normally while chasing him around trying to beat him with a stick.
    They all laughed, which baffled the hell out of Tor.
    Even Sara and the boy trying to reclaim his clothes chuckled. He knew that telling a royal like the Count to “shew” wouldn't go over very well in general. Maybe the girl knew the huge man or something? It seemed likely, since they'd begun negotiations as to who got fields for their mothers first.
    Tor held up his right hand, and tried to smile, hoping no one would kill him for it.
    “Um, I have to get it through testing and then have the instructors go over it to make sure it's safe…” He said, his voice soft and humble. It sounded weak enough that Dorgal laughed at him, which earned another glare from the dark haired girl as a reprimand.
    Rolph shook his head and winked at the girl.
    “Don't start any trouble with Tor, Dorg. He's probably going to be more important than any of us one day…”
    Tor wanted to hide under a rock. Saying that in front of a Count! Worse, a Count that could personally kill him by “accidentally” falling down at the wrong time. Was Rolph trying to get the room to himself? They'd definitely have to talk about this, later. When no one would be around to laugh at him.
    Besides, some of the royals had strange powers, direct magics, and about a third of them could go into battle rages at any moment, striking out at anyone near with lethal intent and far greater than normal effect. Super human strength and speed, as well as some other stuff.
    Tor had never seen anything like that himself, but Kolb had warned him about it early on in training, just in case trouble started at school. Even most of the royals ran away if they saw it starting to happen in someone else, supposedly. He didn't know if the Count was one of those types, but if he was, saying anything that could challenge him, or set him off by mistake, seemed like a horrible idea. Might as well poke a golden bear, Tor thought. They were about the same size as the Count. Well, twelve feet tall and about a ton for the bear, but close enough in regards to how long it would take for them to kill someone as small as him.
    Instead of killing anyone, the Count nodded, and so did the girls and the boy who awkwardly folded his clothes, nearly wadding up one of his shirts instead of doing it right. It made sense, didn't it? If he couldn't wash his own clothing, folding them probably had never come up either. Tor walked over and showed him how to do it quickly, since no one would be paying attention to him anyway, he didn't think.
    Apparently that thought was wrong. Everyone waited for him to finish showing the boy what to do, then started asking when he thought the new magic would be ready for sale. Tor had to shrug, wincing a little when he remembered that you really shouldn't say “no” to royalty, but not knowing what else to do. He explained that it could take a while before any of the instructors even looked at, much less tested the field and he probably had to do more with it himself first, to make sure that there were no unintended effects just to get the right people to look at it.
    The idea of Dorgal standing there wizened and dry made him almost happy for a second until he remembered that the giant Count stood there as well. The guy seemed OK so far, but that didn't reassure Tor totally. Then again, if the royal wanted him dead, or humiliated, nothing Tor did would stop it. So far so good. He'd stood in the mans presence for minutes and still had all his limbs attached. Now if he could just escape alive…
    Rolph took the basket of clothes and walked off suddenly, not even saying goodbye to the people around them, calling out for Tor to follow with a soft chuckle in his voice. Tor did it without thinking, since the redheaded boy was much more savvy about wealthy and important people than he was, coming from the Capital and all. He also knew people at the school. A lot of them. They'd been there the same amount of time, but Rolph always had an easy way about him, laughing and joking with anyone he met, lending an ear if they needed it and generally making everyone into a friend. Even the ones like Dorgal seemed to like him on sight.
    It was uncanny. Unnatural. Possibly evil mind powers were involved. Tor went along with it anyway. Maybe he could learn to be like that if he tried? Probably not, but it made sense to pay attention. Learn from those that had the skills. That was what school was all about, right?
    They got up the stone steps to the room when Tor remembered the field plate had been left on the table. Duh! Without it he wouldn't be able to prove that the last day and a half hadn't been spent drinking or goofing off. He turned to run back for it, hoping it would still be there, only to find that the others had followed them, the Count holding the piece of wood up, smiling.
    “Here you go. You'll need this so that you can finish that testing as soon as possible.” Leaning to one side, looking around Tor at his roommate, the giant pointed at the wooden piece. “Let us know when it's ready? I'd love to have a few for mother before her birthday… She complains that her dresses never seem to truly dry, which they probably don't, what with the twenty layers of cloth she has to wear at social functions.”
    Indicating he'd see what he could do, Rolph hit the lock plate and pulled Tor inside without waiting for anyone else to speak, then he shut the door firmly in their faces.
    “Don't worry about them. Just turn the device in when you're ready. They've lived this long without an instant clothing drying device, they can last a little longer.”
    They folded the clothes in their room, since Tor hadn't gotten a chance before.
    He didn't want to complain about Dorgal, because who whined about things like that? But the guy really seemed unpleasant. It was annoying. He mentioned this to Rolph, trying to sound noncommittal, like he'd noticed it, but it didn't bug him.
    His friend nodded and took a deep breath.
    “It can be hard here, being around the very rich and powerful, nobles and all that, if you're just from a regular family. Dorgal isn't like you. You've earned your spot with talent and skill, no one denies that at all. Not even Dorg. Which is probably what makes him go after you in particular. You make him feel… small. Unimportant.” Rolph waved his hands trying to explain. “His family may have some money, but he can't really compete that way here, half the kids here come from situations better than his that way. So he tries to dress well and act the bully, thinking that people will respect him for it. Sometimes it probably even works, but in the long run it's going to backfire on him. He needs to be making friends now, and a lot of the people he's going after like a bulldog are the very ones he'll need as contacts in ten or twenty years.”
    Looking at him over his shoulder, clothing being folded tidily enough, if a little lazily, Rolph continued.
    “Like you, or Davie there.”
    “Right, the boy you helped with his clothes at the end there? David Derring. Countier. Not first in line for his district as Count maybe, but he comes with powerful connections built in anyway. Any son or daughter of a Count does. The kid's smart too, which face it, not all the nobles are. Not that Dorgal would pick on him, but acting the clown in front of him with you probably won't play well, since you were helpful to him. Especially given that he'll want you to make up one of those drying things for his own mother, Trice and Tovey aren't the only ones here that are going to see the utility of this. In those circles, like Tovey's, you know, high noble ones, novel magic and currying favor with others is… huge really. Getting a new magic like this before anyone else is a major coup.”
    Tor looked down and then around as if making sure no one was listening, something he'd learned to do when talking about nobles at his mother's knee. The rest of Two Bends knew to be polite, but his mom always acted as if the royals were out to get her personally or the like, even though Tor was pretty sure that he'd encountered more of that kind of person than she probably ever imagined, being at school and all. “They seem alright, but with names like that, Trice and Tovey, they could be part of my own family. Why my parents decided we all needed names that started with the letter “T” I don't know. If you ever come to visit, I highly recommend taking notes on the names!”
    Rolph grinned.
    “Cool. Your village is on the way to the Capital, right? Maybe on next break you could come back with me, and we could stop on the way there? My dad asked to meet you personally you know, and I'm sure that will go double once this dryer thing hits the market. Hey! Do you think you could work something up for food? Like with the clothes? To take water out quickly like that? I know that he'd like that.”
    Tor didn't speak, instead he walked over to his desk and sat down, making notes. Fruits and vegetables needed different amounts of water removed for them to last well, but if you took too much out they'd be hard to eat. At least that was the case with air drying… So the process would have to be slower, taking about ten minutes or so. That way the field could be turned on and off in time. Maybe a bottom set point could be established? That way it would never get too dry to eat and the water could be taken out in seconds. They'd have to be done evenly at the end, so the field would have to be of equal strength throughout the whole fruit or vegetable. It could be done. Now, could he use the same field for whole fruit as well as cut and processed? If so that could save a lot of time and allow for saving fruit right in the field. It wouldn't taste as good with the skin on maybe, but if it lasted through winter and didn't rot waiting to go to market, a lot of people would be willing to deal. After all, nearly half of all fruit went bad before it got to the table. Vegetables were as delicate, except the root ones, like potatoes. Those lasted longer all on their own.
    After about half an hour and three pages of calculations and notes he looked up to find Rolph staring at him, a grin on his face.
    “Oh! Sorry, yes, we can do it. I think I have most of the steps lined out here already. I guess I need to remember to talk. Sorry… It's a good idea. Really great actually. Spoilage in the field and during delivery is devastating. This could cut out a lot of that, maybe even most, if it's done correctly. It will take a lot of copies.”
    Tor felt himself being absorbed by the project again and started working. It wasn't his school work, but since he'd missed all his classes that day to work on the dryer, he didn't technically have any. Hopefully if he kept up with his reading and asked what he'd missed the next day he'd be fine in most subjects. The only one that wouldn't take a novel field project that worked as a good excuse would be combat practice.
    Then when would he really need that anyway? Sure, someone might try to rob him sometime, or he could get into a fight in a bar… except that he didn't drink, because that muddled the mind too much for anyone that wanted to build fields for a living. So all he had to really do was be careful about being robbed and maybe bullies like Dorgal. But even there, he'd probably be better off not knowing how to fight at all, because if he hit the guy, he'd be in a lot more trouble than if he just took a beating.
    Kolb wouldn't let him off easily of course. He'd be lucky to just get some extra running or combat practice as a punishment. Whee. What fun, running even farther than he normally did. Could be worse. Once Kolb had made him practice against all of the instructors one after another without a break. It wasn't even a punishment, just regular practice. He could hardly move for a week after that. One of the instructors, a woman in her forties that he'd only met that once, had kept hitting him on the back of the right arm, no matter what he did. Almost exactly the same place each time too. Just thinking about it now, months later, made his arm ache again. It had been a narrow strip of a bruise that had gone all the way to the bone. She hadn't even hit him that hard either, but it had nearly crippled Tor for a while it hurt so bad.
    It had probably just been some kind of test or joke. If a test, he had no doubt that he failed horribly. He'd lived at least. After they'd all finished no one had spoken to him about it and his training got a lot harder than before, with even more running, probably because that, running away, was his personal best form of defense, and he'd proved it to all the other instructors by sucking so hard. Kolb had told him that repeatedly. At least several times a week. That he should run away if attacked. The man was actually decently kind to Tor about not being all that good.
    He shook himself after a while and looked at the time piece on the wall, the hands said it neared bed time, so he got himself ready, changing into the loose clothing he wore for sleeping, sturdy stuff in a light tan that his mother had made for him the year before and sent with a merchant headed towards the school in hopes it would reach him. It still fit perfectly, because at seventeen he'd pretty much finished growing. Five-four was going to be about it. She may not make elegant clothing, but it lasted and was warm in the winter.
    Climbing into bed he looked at Rolph who still read, and wondered if he should say something. Sometimes the guy liked to stay up late reading. It didn't really bother Tor all that much, used to people moving around when he slept, with all his brothers in the same room all the time. Still, the light made it harder to fall asleep for him. Extra light had cost money growing up, since the Baker family used candles and lamps for it. Magical lights were too costly for home use. They didn't even have them at school for the most part. When he learned to make them himself he was going to send several big batches back to his village, enough for everyone if he could. Fewer candles needed meant more time and money to spend on food for a lot of people there.
    Rolph didn't make him wait too long, getting into his own bed and saying good night about ten minutes later. For his part Tor drifted off some time after that, still working on a sigil and field for drying food. Like often happened, he dreamed about the new idea and came up with a few corrections in his sleep. He made sure he wrote it all down when he got up, not waiting at all, not even getting out of bed to do it. There was a pad and pencil next to where he slept just in case. If he did ever get up first, he'd probably forget something, which would waste time, thinking it up again later.
    Tor got cleaned up and bathed before breakfast, just grabbing an apple and eating it while he worked on the food drying build idea. It shouldn't be that hard. Not now that he'd done his first build successfully. That one was always the hardest, the instructors had told him so repeatedly. Right now he couldn't see the big deal. It had been a little bit hard and took a long time, sure, but that was building. Of course it took a while. If it was easy, everyone would do their own, right? He could build a template now, probably about twenty or thirty hours of work, then use that to make copies. Provided it worked of course. He could make copies from the clothes drying field he'd made already, as long as everyone signed off on it.
    It had to be proven safe first which was only sensible, and should be done on all his builds until he gained enough skill to show that his stuff wasn't so flawed it would just kill people outright. It seemed to be, but better to go over it and prove it first. He'd hate to, say, put out a field that drove all the water from a person's body instantly or something, by mistake. Now if it were on purpose, that could make a decent weapon… If only for Dorgal Sorvee, since he'd likely be the only person in the world stupid enough to hit a sigil not knowing what it would do.
    Tor set the idea aside.
    After all, Dorgal might not be the only one, there were young children to consider too. Three year olds for instance. It probably wasn't fair, but lumping the nasty young man into that childish category made him feel better for some reason. Tor knew he'd have to work on that, since there would be mean people everywhere, his entire life. Letting them rule his mind wouldn't help at all.
    Weapons could be designed later, he decided. The military preferred instant kill magics anyway, rather than something as messy as stripping water from a person. Cutters, explosives and hemorrhages were all popular right now with that type. Shields too, if they could get them. Especially those. It meant that battles were smaller now than they used to be, since well shielded combatants were almost untouchable by anyone, except through specific and high level means, but those same shields that made everyone else superfluous cost a lot to have made. The school only had three for the sake of letting people practice with them for instance and that was for this place, which housed a lot of rich, and even royalty. Most of the military didn't even have shields at all, he'd heard from Kolb.
    Tor had never even gotten to see one being used. Rolph had, and said they were interesting, but whatever rotation the instructors used hadn't hit him yet. Torrence shrugged it off. It may never be his turn, he knew. The odds of him going to war were slim to none and really, if he wanted a shield like that he'd have to learn to make it anyway. Maybe he should? Shield makers made a lot of gold, he knew, and in case he didn't come up with anything new that people really wanted, it would be a good fallback.
    Between something like that and baking, he should be alright.
    First things first, he had to get over to his advisor's office, and show off the new field. Hopefully it would be enough to get him partially off the hook with his field study instructors. It took a lot of work, doing a novel build, but most of them would probably be willing to accept it as being of value. Even if it hadn't worked perfectly most of them would have cut him some slack. It took enough focus that the meditation instructor should accept it as practice, for instance.
    As quickly as possible Tor jogged over to Frank's office, hoping to beat him there. Nothing like someone waiting on you to show how dedicated they were, right? Especially this early in the day. His plan worked, at least to the level that Instructor Gear wasn't in his office when Tor got there. He waited outside, small cloth satchel in hand, hoping that it wouldn't take too long, since the morning air was just a little chilly to feel nice. In fact he shivered a little as he waited outside the plain wooden door. There was no door lock, but it might be considered rude to just go in and wait there.
    Tor really didn't want to be rude. Not today. Instead he gripped the sack tightly, hoping that the instructor would get there sooner rather than later. After all, if he could explain the device, turn it over and spend the morning begging for forgiveness from his other instructors, then the afternoon being beaten by Kolb for failing to show up the day before, he could get to work on the new food drying system that evening. Maybe. If he didn't have too much work to catch up on, and if he could move well enough to get back to the room. That wasn't actually assured.
    Frank Gear walked around the corner of the building quickly, his face unshaved and his eyes bloodshot. Tor could make this out even from a distance of thirty feet. Given that the man didn't drink, few builders of note did, it probably meant that he'd spent the last day or longer awake and working. A single hand came up lazily in greeting as the man stomped by. Then the same hand reached out suddenly and gave a small tug to Tor's sleeve as the man moved into the tiny office, causing the much smaller student to stumble after him. Tor had to catch at the wooden door frame to prevent falling and nearly lost a finger when Frank slammed the door. Luckily he pulled away just in time. It was one of his favorites, being all attached to it like he was.
    “Alright Torrence Green Baker,” The man sounding a bit too much like his mother when she got frustrated with him for comfort. “What have you been up to? Missed everything yesterday… At least tell me you were with a girl or doing something interesting and not out getting drunk or playing in town. I expect better from you than that, you aren't some first year anymore and need to set a good example for the younger…”
    The slightly seedy looking man, flat, almost drab hair falling around his shoulders, two days beard growth and a slightly sour body odor coming off of his dark brown instructor's jacket stopped when Tor held up the wooden piece, smiling. Staring, the advisor's eyes went wide. They'd talked about the project a few times in the weeks before, and it wasn't like Tor would have any other big makes on schedule. Well, not that Frank knew about at least.
    “The drying field for clothing?” The man said. He didn't sound overly impressed.
    “The working dryer, yes.” It was hard to keep his voice humble, a little smugness crept in at the edges which got raised eyebrows from the older man. No gray in the beard yet, and one of the younger advisors, probably given Tor as a punishment.
    For some reason people thought of him as distracted. Or at least non-attentive. It wasn't really true, he just focused on the job at hand, like he'd been taught. It wasn't his fault that life kept trying to interfere with the more important things, like work, was it?
    Without saying anything at all the man reached out and pulled Tor by the arm into the courtyard, a small groan coming from the instructor as they walked, the early morning chill having yet to pass from the day. When they got to the courtyard Frank took the template piece from Tor gently, filled a wash tub with water from the hand pump, doing all the work himself, then quickly picked up Tor and set him inside, clothes and all, pushing him down until he sat in it.
    “Gah!” Near frozen water hit his head as the larger man pumped it over him, again and again.
    “Now, if this works and is fully safe, you'll be dry in a few minutes, yes? If it doesn't, then you deserve this for ditching classes… Be glad I got to you first, the weapons instructors were all talking about how to best beat you when you got in today. Maybe they'll take pity on you when they hear about this? Then again, probably not. For the teacher's pet you seriously vex the head instructor of that department, you know that? Now, out!” The words were accompanied by hitting, mock slaps to the shoulders really. It was meant to “shame” him if anyone else was watching, so he ducked his head and pretended to cry a little. No one would take it seriously if they saw it. It was just an odd convention of the school. An act to show humility and respect to the instructors if you messed up. Since they were within their rights to really beat him for something like this, the game was appreciated.
    Looking at the plate the larger man shrugged and noticed the paint on the surface and that it was the cheap kind. Instead of berating Tor for being poor he just wiped at his right hand, more than a little damp from Tor flogging duty, on his trouser leg. Then he tapped the top and waited, a skeptical look on his face.
    It went away after about ten seconds when the water nearly exploded out of the younger man's clothing, half of the water catching the older man in the legs. Ten seconds after that there was another, much smaller burst of water from what had hit him, as it came out of his own clothes. Tor jumped back so that he wouldn't get wet again. That water was cold.
    Maybe he could come up with a water heater that didn't cost a hundred golds? Not that it would have done him any good right then, even if he had such a wonder, but it would be nice when bath time came. Only the wealthy could afford the bath house in town and even that was heated with burning wood, if he had the story right from Rolph. Tor had to wash up with cold water most days. He did it, so he wouldn't stink, but it wasn't easy to make himself do in the winter.
    When the field was turned off the advisor grinned.
    “On your first try too! Let me borrow this for testing? If it plays out I should have it back to you within a few days. Consider your punishment completed. For now…” He waved his hands at the water spigot. “I'll leave you to deal with Kolb. I doubt that dry clothes will impress him overly. Now, get with your other instructors and have them come see me after lessons. They'll want to see this.”
    For all that he sounded a little rough about it, the other man, bleary as he was, seemed fairly pleased, a bit happier at least. Good. Tor didn't need a week of extra lessons in the evenings or worse, daily duckings like this. He still shivered a little, even dry as he was.
    He ran to his first class of the day hoping the activity would warm him. Naturally it was meditations, so Tor passed the message from Frank along quietly and in a somber tone, almost expressionless really. Dorris, the elderly instructor for that class just smiled a little at him and had him take a seat on the floor with a gentle wave of her hand.
    Meditation was easy enough, all he had to do for the lessons was clear his mind for the first section, then focus on a different object each day for the hour after that. That part was always something novel, a rock or a piece of wood, sometimes a single, if large, stick of incense. Today she'd put out a cup of water near the front of the room. It felt funny to focus on, the field of information from it was odd, but he didn't let his mind turn, even as it slipped away from the water, his attention feeling like it moved through and around it too easily to gain purchase. Interesting.
    His mind found the focus after a while and he locked on, holding it for the rest of the time pretty well. Not perfectly yet, but that's why you practiced, to get better at things. It was a good session, since that kind of focus was at the heart of building magical systems it had direct value to him too. Dorris raised her eyebrows as he left, never having said a word to him. Come to think of it, she hadn't spoken more than a hundred words in his presence since they'd met two years before. He gave her a half bow before leaving, hoping she didn't feel too put out by his having missed her lesson the day before. He'd definitely been applying what she taught at least.
    The next session, novel building, went very well, the instructor an older gentleman that Tor only knew as Instructor Fines slapped him on the back and told him that it sounded like he'd done superbly. Frank had already talked to him apparently, which made sense. Who else would you get to judge a new field than the resident expert in such things?
    In fact all the instructors seemed happy enough, until lunch time. Then everything changed without warning.
    As he sat at the table with Rolph, a giant shadow came over the room blocking the light from the window and the little bit of warmth that came with it. Tor froze, hoping that it wasn't Count Thomson coming to demand the requested clothes drying sets yet. He spun to explain… and stopped cold, words dying on his lips.
    Standing in there wasn't a mere Count, or even just some bully looking to take him down a peg.
    It was Kolb.
    Worse, the man didn't even look unhappy or enraged.
    He… smiled.
    It was an evil kind of thing, his bald head and scarred face made it look feral and mean, the kind of look that generally meant you weren't long for the world if you had the misfortune to see such a thing. It didn't help that the man was huge, nearly as tall as Rolph, so over six-six and holding a lean ranginess to his muscle that told anyone smart enough to notice that the man was powerful physically in a way that few people ever were. He cleared his throat softly.
    “Ah, there you are! Worried you'd run off and joined the army or something… If you'd be so good as to meet me in the practice yard when you finish your meal? No hurry, I won't be ready for another ten minutes or so.”
    Soft as the voice was, as friendly as it sounded, a chill ran down his spine when he heard it. Kolb didn't whisper politely. He barked. He commanded and men, if they knew what was good for them, obeyed. Things that Tor didn't know he had inside him clenched and fluttered in fear as the large man walked away.
    He turned to Rolph and swallowed, letting his very real fear show.
    “He's going to kill me, isn't he?”
    Rolph just nodded, looking more than a little scared himself.
    “You know, I think he just might… Good luck?”
    Tor got up and took his pale blond wood food platter to the return counter, a hole in the wall where some first years took the trays for washing, Rolph following him.
    “Thanks,” he said over his shoulder to his friend, who still sat at the roughhewn student's table. “I think I'll need it.”

Chapter two

    Tor knew, intellectually at least, that the head weapons instructor wouldn't really kill him just for missing lessons for one day. After all, if he did that no one would work with him anymore, they'd all run away in fear. That didn't mean that Tor wouldn't wish for death by the end of whatever was coming. That, he knew from personal experience, was more than likely.
    It had happened before. Oh, not him missing class, except for one time when he'd been out with a bug for three days, food poisoning, Tor never really got sick. Kolb had been fairly nice about the whole thing, just adding in some extra lessons when he got back, so that he could keep up with everyone else. But there had been a few little things, not learning something fast enough, or not having the needed strength to really take out one of the larger students from the combat section in practice on command.
    Then there was normally a lot more training, painful to the extreme.
    But this was different.
    For the first time Tor had done something that was actually wrong. Missing lessons without permission wasn't really a big deal in his other classes. After all, kids did that, going off to get drunk or have sex instead of studying and learning like they should. Some of the rich kids hardly attended classes at all, sometimes not showing up for days on end. But the military and combat studies section was different, at least for the upper level students, which for some reason Tor had been included into. The instructors tended to treat absence as an attempt to leave the military without permission or something. In the army that could lead to imprisonment or even death.
    Tor knew he could argue that this wasn't the military and that he'd even been put in the section by mistake. He simply wasn't a combat student. Tor would never be, no matter how hard he tried. Even Kolb clearly knew that, having him work with wooden weapons instead of magical ones for the last few years, even when everyone else got to move ahead. He made Tor run daily, telling him over and over again that in a real fight, against real enemies, it would probably be his only hope for survival. He just lacked the size and strength for anything else and really no amount of training or practice would give it to him. So run away.
    But all of that wouldn't get him out of what was coming. Not unless he tried to run away right then, instead of approaching the practice field like he'd been ordered to. OK, requested to, but that was just to make him sweat more, being asked politely like that. It worked too. Kolb wasn't just a master of fighting unarmed or with weapons apparently. He could use words too. Well enough to make Dorgal Sorvee look like a chump.
    The large instructor stood in the empty square, his shirt off in the cool breeze already, hitting at a pell, a wooden log set in the ground, that was larger around than Tor could reach with both arms by a good bit. It only stood about eight feet high, but still looked massive. The ground shook as powerful blows followed each other nearly too fast to be kept track of. The reverberation went through him, shaking bone each time.
    Tor swallowed and looked around, trying to see the trap, or punishment that was planned for him. He really hoped it wasn't being beaten with that sword. That would actually kill him, most likely. Even a dull blade hitting him half that hard would do the trick.
    The training square was large, about a hundred feet on each side, ringed in a low stone wall, too high for him to see over, but not for a lot of the combat giants. Maybe six foot? Inside, away from the main gate, to the left, the ground was paved with very flat, very hard black stone. The rest was dirt, packed hard from years of being stomped and trampled underfoot. A hill stood, higher than the wall on the back left corner, dipping down into a small pond, the thick mud of which was hard to stand on when someone was hitting you, or, as he knew from only occasional personal experience, just as hard to stand on if you actually connected with someone else. He'd sat in it every single time he'd had to work there, usually making the other students laugh.
    The remaining section was just flat, dry dirt, his favorite place to work in the square. A lovely soft tan color that didn't show overly on the browns, as long as you didn't have to roll around in it for too long.
    Tor plodded over slowly, head hanging a little. Dread filled him, but there was nothing for it. As long as the instructor didn't actually kill or maim him, no one would say much about any punishment given and while Tor could quit at any time, there wouldn't be a second chance like this in life. Finishing his schooling here could make him, but half trained? Who knew? He'd either open his own bakery somewhere or try for the sea and just pray something worked out.
    Bald head glistening in the bright daylight, beads of perspiration dripping off of his back and shoulders, Kolb spun suddenly and pointed the dull metal practice blade at Tor's throat.
    “Ah, good, you made it! I was worried you might be too busy…” The look he gave him didn't hold the expected derision, just a matter of fact expression that made Tor wince. It would have been easier to just be yelled at. This “reasonable” man in front of him couldn't be a good sign.
    “Now, your advisor, Gear, told me why you didn't make it yesterday. In the future I expect to be notified in advance if you can't make it due to other work, understood? My time's too valuable to be standing around wondering where you are. In general everyone's time is too valuable to waste like that, even yours. Keep that in mind, eh?”
    The blade swung back around to the pillar behind the man, making it shake, a tremor that could be felt through the thick leather soles of Tor's brown shoes.
    “Don't worry, I'm not going to make you work the pells all day as a punishment, though the thought had occurred to me. First Instructor Kara suggested a several hours long beating, and she actually likes you, so you can imagine what the others wanted to do. I want you to watch something instead. Pay attention here, alright?”
    Five more blows hit the post, the form perfect, driven by the thick and lean arm of the man in front of him. After the last one he turned.
    “Each of those blows would hold a good chance of killing an un-shielded or unarmored man. Even with a dull weapon like this. If someone comes at you in a similar fashion, baring you wearing a full shield, you need to do what in order to survive?”
    “Run away.” It came out sounding almost bored, he knew, which was about the worst thing that could happen. Yes, Tor had to say it a half dozen times a day, but angering the man right now was not a good survival strategy. His stomach tightened and he swallowed, which must have showed on his face. The blade swung at him without warning, causing him to back pedal as fast as he could, ready to run in truth if the attack continued. That had happened before, with five students, led, now that he thought about it, by Petra, the tall girl that kept waving to him the day before, chasing him for nearly an hour along the road to the nearest town. Kolb stopped after a single swing this time and gave him a serious look.
    “Exactly. Not trying to bore you here, but do pay attention. I don't want to have to repeat myself later. Fail in this lesson and you'll probably die later. Now look here…”
    The sword was put on a low table and a piece of metal no longer than a regular fighting knife, but flat and not sharp at all, was held in the large hand instead. The big thumb was placed over a triggering sigil and held. Looking at Tor with a soft smile, the giant man casually, without perceptible effort, swung the metal at the pell, making an angled sweep that, if it had been a human would have bisected the neck and shoulder.
    For a second nothing happened at all.
    Then with a crash nearly a hundred, maybe two hundred, pounds of wood slid off the pell and hit the ground, making Tor jump back out of the way. The wood was smooth, shiny even, on the top of the log, now nearly three foot shorter and angled at the top.
    “A simple cutter, about a four foot sweep on it. You've made cutters before, right? Same basic idea here, only bigger than generally needed for a tool, except in stone working or cutting logs for timber. Now here's the task I have for you. On top of your regular studies and practice, you have two weeks to make a shield that will protect you from both of these weapons. It must be able to withstand twenty minutes of sword, and the same amount of time from this cutter. Failure means death, most likely at least, so I suggest you take the project seriously.”
    A large hand was held out as if to forestall speech.
    “Yes, we already have shields, so you know that the basic idea can work. But, you aren't allowed to just make a copy of one. I expect novel work, since you've shown yourself capable of that now… Understood?”
    Tor did.
    The man really did mean to kill him. He'd never even set eyes on a working shield before, and now he had to make one, from scratch, inside two weeks? That kind of work could take years to get right. He was so dead. He may as well run off, or at least send a letter to his parents explaining why he died.
    Kolb just laughed as he stood shaking.
    “You look cold. Go ahead and run to Lenders and back to warm up, then we'll work stones and unarmed for a while. Don't worry, you have some time to work on your new shield.” The voice held a warm and jovial quality that Tor didn't really associate with the man at all. It wasn't something he could trust then. New things generally weren't, as had been recently pointed out, they needed to be tested first.
    Tor ran, and for the second time since he'd come to the school, really considered the idea of just going down the dirt road to the nearest town. It took about an hour to run the distance and back and no one would be following him. After all, this was just part of his daily routine.
    The first time he'd considered it had been after he'd foolishly asked a girl if she'd like to attend one of the student parties with him. Everyone else was getting dates, but the girl, one that he hadn't thought totally outside of his social standing and class, had shut him down cold. And loudly. In front of everyone in the dining hall. That had been during the spring of his first year.
    The only reason that he hadn't run off then and just gone back home was because of Rolph, who'd told him that things like that happened sometimes. Some girls couldn't see a good thing when it was presented to them. Their loss. That was easy for Rolph to say, rich, good looking and gregarious to boot. Tor hadn't done anything for weeks after that, even avoiding meals so that he wouldn't have to see the girl again. Two weeks later the girl disappeared, pulled back home by her parents for some reason. At least then he'd been able to go to meals in peace. Except for the people talking about him, pointing and staring when he came in the first few times.
    After that he'd kind of withdrawn from everyone except his roommate and the instructors. He was there to work and learn. No matter how pretty a girl was, being humiliated like that was too much for him to handle, so he didn't give them a chance to make fun of him like that anymore.
    Now this…
    Well, he considered, as his feet tapped the ground lightly, a steady jog being good enough for the first half of the trip he felt, could he make a shield like that? What kind of magic would it take? Did he know how to make anything that would help?
    His mind turned in on itself as he moved, his focus increasing until he didn't notice the strain of running or that he'd sped up a little. What, he asked himself, was the real problem to be addressed?
    A cutter was, he knew from experience, a powerful tool. Just look what it had done to that log. But the basic idea was simple enough. The field just organized a region of space on the tiniest level of being. It told all the energy on each side of a sliver thin line to move in opposite directions. If the gap became large enough, meaning a strong field, it separated matter into two pieces. It didn't cut so much as get the object to pull itself apart, name aside. It was simple and elegant, as well as powerful. Not even requiring outside energy to be made to work.
    If he could disrupt that field, scramble it or put in conflicting instructions, that should stop any kind of cutter or even explosive magic from working on him directly. Explosives were similar, he thought. He didn't know it for a fact, but it made some sense that if everything tried to move away from a central point it would blow up. As long as the field had enough force behind it.
    That left physical blocking, which baffled the hell out of him for a minute. Luckily for him it did, since he found himself halfway into Lenders and still going, have missed his turn around about half a mile back. Oops. He turned and started going the other direction, making a point to take it a little faster, since Kolb would think he just slacked off if he didn't get back at the expected time.
    So, physical blocking…
    Nothing came to him, so he set the idea on the back burner of his mind and started working on the food dryer again. It would come to him or it wouldn't, and worrying over something that didn't want to come wouldn't help at all. It would just waste time he could be using for something else.
    When he got back a few other trainees, most in brown like him, but two in black, meaning special school kids or senior students that could afford specialty exercise clothes, were going through their paces in the yard. This included, to his surprise, the near black haired girl he'd met the day before. At least it looked that way now, slightly damp with sweat. Trice? That was a funny name, but no weirder than what some of his sisters had. Even Torrence wasn't exactly a winner as far as names went. Easy to remember at least. Trice. Treez. It made him smile to think about. Who didn't like trees?
    The girl didn't wait for him to get all the way in the gate before pouncing on him, figuratively at least. She jogged over, followed by the lighter colored girl, Sara.
    Trice spoke first.
    “I heard that the testing is going well on your new dryer! When can we start getting them? Sara already lined up sales for twenty of them on metal at eleven gold apiece. Of course she'll want a percentage since she did the work getting the sales. Ten percent is standard, don't let her tell you otherwise.” This came out in an excited rush, the other girl blushing when she heard what her friend told him.
    “Um, I know that we didn't have a deal in place, but I thought that if I could show how useful I could be… If you know, you can make them?” The blond spoke softly, without making direct eye contact for some reason. They both had black on again, which confirmed that they weren't regular students here at least. If they'd been around Tor hadn't noticed them, but then they were girls. He tried to ignore those kinds of people, so that he wouldn't be tempted into embarrassment and humiliation.
    Kolb looked over and saw who Tor was talking to, a smile coming over his face. He waved them all over. “Great! I knew you'd come around eventually to work with Tor here, too tempting a target to ignore. Today I'm planning on unarmed for him. Tor… Normally you'd know what to do if either of these young ladies attacked you right?” His smile went mischievous, a look that Tor hadn't seen on his face before.
    “Run away?” He said, the standard answer. Plus, given that they were probably both able to kill him in less time than he could imagine, it made sense to him. Both of the girls looked at him as if scandalized for some reason. Or shocked. Possibly because he wasn't supposed to think that they could take him out almost instantly if he didn't scamper off? Or, just possibly, they just didn't think that he stood a chance of outrunning them? That was possible, he knew. For all that he ran nearly every day, a lot of people were still faster than he was. It was very possible that they'd trained for speed, or even that and endurance, they both had a long lankiness to their curves that spoke of a decent level of fitness.
    “Exactly. Now, instead of playing merry chase, I want you to try and stand your ground for as long as you can with these two. One at a time please. He's fragile, and the dean would hate to lose him just as he's finally getting his act together…” Everyone laughed at that, so Tor did too, a polite chuckle. The dean didn't even know who he was as far as that went, so that part at least was slightly funny. They'd never met at least.
    Kolb gave a bow to Trice and stepped back. Without warning a foot shot out at Tor's groin. He jumped back avoiding it, if just barely and nearly ran away out of reflex. Instead he held his ground as ordered and blocked the three blows that followed and then missed the next two, both blows to the stomach which almost took him to his knees. A kick came towards his head, a flashy thing that was really too high, a wheel kick he thought. Kolb would have beaten him senseless if he tried something that took that long to land. Was it feint, meant to throw him off or set up the next move? He blocked it with both forearms and pushed hard, sending the girl, not much larger than he was in weight, even if she was taller by nearly a foot, stumbling back.
    She was better that he was on her feet, that was obvious, so he decided on a tackle, taking her all the way down to the ground with a soft “woof”. Her legs wrapped around him, pushing his hips downward, controlling him almost perfectly. For some reason she didn't struggle to get away, holding him close to her instead. Tor became highly aware that he was covered in sweat from his run, still sticky and damp.
    The girl didn't seem to notice that at all, her eyes were locked on his. Something shifting in her right hand as he tried to get his body far enough away from her to throw some punches. He wouldn't actually hit her, because it was just practice, but if he could indicate the punches well enough, Kolb would let it count. Just as he managed to almost power out of her grasp, he felt a slight prick on his neck and froze.
    Trice smiled up at him, her eyes were a lovely shade of cornflower blue he noticed before looking down to see a wickedly sharp looking dagger at his throat. Silver, shiny and deadly looking. He almost complained, since the instructions had been for unarmed combat. Then he realized that special school students probably didn't fight by rules at all, so that instruction had only applied to him.
    He really should have just run away. Tor couldn't move faster than she could stab him at this distance and they hadn't come up with any sign that he'd surrendered either. Yikes. That was bad. Well, maybe he'd get out of the shield thing in two weeks anyway? Hard to kill someone already dead.
    That got him thinking, distracting him from the knife at his throat for a few moments. What could he do to drive a knife like that back? A pressure field could work, but that took personal energy and too much time to create. If he had six hours he could move the knife back. Possibly. In twenty seconds? Not a chance.
    What if he used a low energy field though? Like… how a cutter worked, but in only one direction? It wouldn't drive the knife away exactly, but he could use her own force against her, so that the harder she pushed, the harder it would be to move forward. The blade itself would try to push her hand back.
    Making a living field like that took focus, which he could do, normally at least. Right now things were a little distracting, what with the knife and the very pretty girl in close contact with him. Plus, he had to make it happen all around his body at once, because the second the girl realized what was happening, if he could get it to work at all, she'd just change the location of the knife. Could he do it? Probably not, he realized. It was an almost impossible task.
    He could try at least.
    Tor forced his mind as deep as he could, and started building the field, just off of his skin. The idea creeping as close to his flesh as his mind could get it on such short notice. He couldn't let it go, even for an instant or the information would fade and he'd be stabbed. It took hours of focus to build a strong field that would linger, and even longer to make one that would last for days or weeks. He felt the blade closing, a sharp pressure that drew blood, even through the trance state he'd moved in to. Suddenly the pressure stopped and the girl's eyes went wide.
    “Holy!” She yelled, suddenly squirming to get away from him. She stabbed the blade into the side of his face three or four times, but it didn't connect, just stopping dead a fraction of an inch above him. He didn't let go of the field, keeping it as solid as he could as the girl tried to fight her way free of his grasp.
    The other girl watched, interested in what he was doing it seemed. After a second she nodded.
    “Shield. Might as well pull back Trice.” Sara spoke softly, amused. “I don't see the amulet, so removing it could be a problem. Probably under the clothing or maybe in a pocket? Activated already, so… well, it had to be something, didn't it?”
    The tone sounded academic as if they were working on a simple math problem in class or something similar. Tor held the field solidly, letting it grow in power even as they both stood. With a smile the girl put the blade away and pulled something else out of her shirt, reaching inside the tunic, her hand whipping out towards him suddenly. White powder filled his vision, but didn't touch him. Blinding powder or something? He couldn't tell, since it didn't connect with him at all. It did make it nearly impossible to see, his vision being covered with white as he stood. He couldn't really move very fast, not and keep the field growing at least, trying to do too many things at once always degraded each of the tasks attempted. The dangerous girl danced away, getting about ten feet back before he could see her at all again.
    “Yep, shield alright. Let's see if it can stop energy weapons.” Trice grinned and pulled a small silver piece, no larger than one of her fingers. Instead of slicing at him with it, she pointed it at his mid-section. A blast of some kind?
    He didn't know how those things worked, but hoped that a scrambling field would take care of it. Not that he'd ever built one of those before. He didn't have time for a new field, so it would have to be built into the current one, without losing what protection he already had. How? That, he knew, was the question. He tried to wing it, panicking more than a bit, making the field around him move suddenly, ordering everything around him to shift away to the right as fast as it could go. Dust started to kick up at his feet.
    “Trice…” Sara spoke softly, a bit of awe in her voice. “Wait! Aura! Combat aura!”
    The blast nearly knocked him from his feet, even through the shifting space in front of him. He almost lost the field totally then, but managed to hold on somehow, keeping his focus solid.
    “Trice, no!” Sara yelled, which got the girl to stop from hitting him with the next blast. A good thing too, because Tor realized he'd been holding his breath the whole time, no air being able to get in. He tried to breath, but nothing happened. He nearly panicked for a second, then let the field go. It lingered for about twenty seconds, which wasn't bad considering how little time he'd had to build it and that he was trying to hold it without a physical location except himself. That was about the hardest thing to do, and having made up the field while he'd been doing it was probably nearly impossible.
    Yay him.
    Trice let him take two deep breaths before moving back in and kicking at his groin, which landed solidly enough to take him down. She looked at him strangely and backed up, as if expecting some kind of trick.
    “The shield? Did it fail already?” She asked, concerned.
    Kolb chuckled and walked over from where he'd been watching, some fifteen feet away.
    “Oh, he doesn't have one. In fact, I don't think he's ever even used one before. That, I believe, was his first attempt at his latest project. I just assigned it to him an hour and a half ago, so I guess we can't expect any better yet. If that had been a military grade cutter instead of a student's practice lance you'd be dead right now Tor. Keep that in mind. You have two weeks to improve.”
    Then, after about a whole minute to rest up from the blow to the groin, trying not to clutch himself and whimper the whole time, he had to face off with Sara. The girl didn't pull any kind of weapon, opting to kick his behind literally, or near enough, with a series of low kicks and a few elbows to the face. He ended up on his back after about thirty seconds, the girl mimicking a few kicks to his neck as he struggled to get up.
    It was humiliating, but better than if she'd just gone ahead and delivered the kicks for real. After a few more seconds the weapons instructor decided that Tor was “dead” and had him work against Trice again. For the next two hours they took turns beating him. He didn't win at all, the best he managed was to get a few blows in every now and then.
    “Alright Tor. Don't miss any more classes and have that shield ready on time. You can go for today.”
    The girls smiled at him as he picked himself up. With a glance he realized how goofy he must seem to them, both had not only handed him a beating, but they'd done it without hardly being affected by him at all. He was covered in dust and mud from where the sweat had mixed with dirt. Well, he wasn't trying to impress these girls. They were way too scary for that. Who pulls a real knife in unarmed combat practice anyway? The answer that came to him was uncomfortable.
    Who did that? A very deadly person. That's who.
    Trice waved at him smiling happily, and reminded him of the deal that he had with Sara for those dryers. He waved back, trying not to seem like a poor loser. He hadn't made any deal at all with the girl though, had he? Then again, if it got past the instructors, it would be simple enough to make copies. He could do about ten in an hour or two. Most people couldn't, he knew. It was a complex magical set… but once made, it could be treated as a single thing instead of the dozen different parts he'd had to work with originally, and he'd built it as a template, so anyone with the skill could make copies from it, ideally. If she wanted to sell them and helped him get the metal and some acid to burn the sigils into place, he could do the work for her. If he lived through Kolb's little test at least.
    That night he worked out what the rapid food drying setup would take. It wasn't nearly as hard as he thought it would be. He double, then triple checked the work. Tor could probably get it done on his next off day, if he skipped out on sleeping.
    Then, out of a strange desire to not die, he started working on the shield. His experience earlier had been instructive about things he never would have even considered before. Like breathing. That dust had probably been designed to make it hard to breathe as well as blind him. Could he form some kind of breathing tube or filter to keep something like that out? Yes… It was particulate in nature, so he could just make sure that nothing less fluid than air could come through, no matter how small. Easy enough really.
    As he sat at his desk he lost track of time again, working on a dozen different things at once, finding a way around problems as well as he could, when he could, and coming back over and over again to the things that just didn't have answers. How could he absorb the force of a sword blow? Or a cutter for that matter? Could he shunt the physical force into the ground? It should be possible to pass force along like that, but he couldn't think of any kind of magic that already did it. He'd have to figure it out on his own. That would take testing. Whee. Maybe he could get Rolph to help him?
    When Rolph shook his shoulder he startled hard.
    “What?” He yelled, jumping half out of his hard wooden chair, getting a laugh from the other boy.
    “Sorry, didn't mean to scare you, it's just half an hour after your normal bed time and you were just sitting there, not moving. Thought you might have fallen into a trance like you do…”
    Which Tor had, he nodded and started to straighten the papers and writing implements on the desk in front of him.
    After that the giant boy started getting ready for bed, so Tor followed suit. Losing too much sleep wouldn't help, he'd need to be as sharp as possible from now until after he had the shield made. Besides, now that Tor thought about it, he was exhausted already. He'd been up for a long time, which probably explained it. His head hurt a little and he felt fuzzy mentally, so he probably needed to sleep more than it seemed.
    Even though Rolph liked to complain about the beds every now and again, even going so far as to have a new mattress brought in, Tor didn't mind what the school provided. It was better than what he'd had at home and no one jabbed him with a bony elbow in the side while he rested. He fell asleep quickly, more than a little exhausted by the events of the day.
    The next day was just as hard, if in a different way. After his morning classes a younger student found him in the dining room and told him that advisor Gear wanted to see him in his office after he'd eaten. The girl, who looked about fourteen, flipped her light blond hair at him after delivering the message, dismissing him without another thought. Fair enough. He didn't plan on thinking about her either. He had real things to worry about.
    Like not dying.
    When he got to Frank's office a strange man sat in front of the desk, his advisor behind it smiling up at him when he walked in.
    “And here he is now. Torrence Baker, this is Merchant Donald Sorvee. His family runs a very large sales concern in Western Noram and he's asked to speak to you in regards to this novel device you've created.”
    The man dressed all in a deep purple velvet that was so dark it could have passed for black in most light. Tor liked the color a lot. On his head sat a ridiculous, and probably expensive, floppy hat in bright red, with a single huge black feather sticking out of it. The black hair underneath it looked to be greasy at first, but then he realized it was just some kind of hair oil or slick, rather than a medical condition. There was something about the man that Tor just didn't like, even if he couldn't place his finger on it. Like he was evil… or dangerous.
    The man spoke smoothly and quickly, as if trying to dazzle Tor with words. It might have
    have worked if he didn't start out by offering to buy as many of the dryers as Tor could make for two golds each. He smiled at the man who sat next to him and shook his head.
    “I'm sorry, but I already made arrangements with someone to handle sales, you'll have to go through her.” Sara seemed better equipped to handle a slick person like this than he was. Not a difficult task, since he'd only spoken to a half dozen merchants in his life and all those had been in their shops, mainly telling him that what they carried was too expensive for him. If nothing else she could probably knife the man and dump the body. Trice would help no doubt. “Her name's Sara, she's one of the special school students? I'm sure you could find her there now.”
    Tor didn't shrug, but wanted to. For all he knew Sara was sitting in the library or off in town getting drunk or there were a half dozen girls by that name in the special section. It was pretty common after all. But for some reason he really wanted to get away from the creepy fellow in front of him. It wasn't that the man had done anything wrong, more that it just felt like he might. Like he really wanted to. It took a while to convince the man that his agent, a school girl, was really the person he needed to talk to. Tor didn't have the girl's last name, but hoped that wouldn't be too big a problem for the man. He really didn't want to meet up with him again.
    When the guy left, Frank looked at him with a smile, it wasn't sour, not exactly, but it didn't seem too pleased either. “Are you sure that's wise? A deal like this doesn't come around every day…”
    It wasn't, he assured his advisor, that he didn't want gold, but that the man had been offering a tiny fraction of the current sales price that had done it. Instructor Gear whistled when he heard the going rate. Then he shrugged and told Tor that if he had any other ideas or new builds, the staff would be there to test them at need. The implication was that, in the future, such testing should be remunerated if needed at all. It seemed fair to him, so he nodded seriously, taking the drying field template back before leaving.
    He'd have to see if he could get any of the metal he'd need for the copies as soon as possible. How he was supposed to get the funds for it he didn't know. Maybe sell one of his younger siblings? But by tradition that would only give him livestock of course, which wouldn't do him a lot of good. Plus his mother would actually get the animals, not him.
    Not really helpful at all.
    That afternoon Kolb decided that the previous day's poor performance meant that he'd be best served by practicing his running it seemed, even if the man didn't say it out loud, so Tor ran back and forth to Lenders three times and then had to hack at a pell for half an hour when he got back. His right arm felt like it was about to fall off by the time he got back to his room, where he immediately started working on the shield project, exhausted or not.
    There just wasn't time not to.
    No wonder these things were so expensive… Just to get it to do half of what would be needed took fifteen separate linked fields that all had to be grown together. Way harder than his simple little clothes drying device.
    On the good side, he had, by making a small but decently powerful cutter to use for testing, figured out how to set up a background pattern that would scramble any incoming field of information that used direction. Unfortunately it meant that he couldn't just mix the physical shielding portion with it. Instead he layered that one just underneath the disruption field. Both had to allow air in, which meant figuring out how to filter particles out of the air. It was harder than it sounded, and it didn't sound easy. Finally he worked out a way of keeping things as fine as smoke out, mainly at least, that still let air through. All of the fields had to exist inside this filter, including the one to block directional fields. Of course the filter was a directional field…
    Another problem.
    Eventually, just before dinner time, a soft knock came at the door. It took him a second to realize what the sound was and he blinked for a moment, baffled by it. Taking a deep breath he asked whoever was there to hold for a moment, trying to bring himself back to reality long enough to deal with whatever the problem might be. No one would be knocking on his door without Rolph there if it wasn't bad news.
    At the door stood Sara and her friend Trice, both dressed in low cut and tight fitting black dresses that showed a lot of smooth bare shoulder considering how chilly it was outside still. Before he could speak Trice pushed her way in.
    “Come to check in on you and make sure Sorvee didn't come back put the squeeze on. That guy's a real piece of work, but Sara told him that Debri house already held the contract for re-sale, which should keep him away for a bit, at least on the clothes drying device. If he's smart he'll probably come back just on general purposes to build the contact.”
    For all that Sara looked far less ready to just push her way into his room, she followed her friend and shut the door behind her. It was chilly out, and a wave of cool air followed them.
    “That's alright, isn't it? That I told him that? I mean, he said that you told him I was your sales agent, so I bent the truth a little. If nothing else you can get a better deal by going with almost anyone other than his group. They'll rob you blind, and then convince you to thank them for doing it. Not that most merchants won't take advantage of you, but few are as bad as Sorvee.” The blond blushed prettily about something, and looked down.
    “Hey, um… what kind of percentage do you think's fair? This is kind of a big deal, but I'm not really in the business you know? I have some contacts with Debri of course… my mom and brother and all, but that's not really the same as knowing what I'm doing yet…”
    Torrence shrugged and wondered if they'd dressed up just to see him or if they had a party to go to? Probably not anything to do with him, he decided. They both already knew they didn't have to impress him. Once you beat a guy up half a dozen times that ship's probably well and truly sailed, right? Smiling he pointed at the papers to the left of the ones he worked on.
    “Well, if you can get up to speed on this one, I should have a food dryer ready to go by next week. Then I really have to work on the shield project full time after that. If I don't want to die at least.” For some reason that he didn't get, both girls laughed. When he asked why Sara blushed again, but Trice touched his arm gently and smiled.
    “We just have every confidence that you'll live, if you put your mind to it. We heard Kolb talking to the head of our department, he thinks you can do it, no problem, or he wouldn't have set you the task. They very rarely murder the students here you know. It cuts down on enrollment too much.”
    For some reason, the idea didn't feel right to him. Then again, the first time he'd tried to block a punch, the bald giant had made sure that Tor knew he'd hit him in the head if he missed. It had worked out pretty well, fear making Tor a lot faster than he'd have been otherwise. Maybe it was like that? Only this time if he screwed up he'd be dead? Let him know the threat was real to get his attention? If that was the plan, it worked. Tor felt focused on it indeed.
    Changing the subject, he looked at the blond, realizing that while she was taller than he was, she was shorter than Trice by a few inches, and told her ten percent. He didn't even have to explain what he meant, she just nodded.
    “That's fair. More than fair really. I'll… let you out of the deal if you need to later, alright? I don't want to hurt your business prospects. Still, get with me when you have anything ready, oh!” She scrambled at her waist and seemed to remember that the somewhat skimpy outfit she wore didn't have any pockets.
    “Um, no calling cards. Well, if you need me, ask Rolph or Tovey to help you find me or Trice, if you need one of us, alright? They both know where to find us.”
    Trice got up and walked out then, without another word. Sara followed with a wave over her shoulder that seemed genial enough. Both of them looked good, dressed as they were. Fit. The outfits didn't leave a lot to the imagination though. That, of course, wasn't his concern at the moment. Had Sara really just suggested that if he needed to find her he should go and get a sitting Count to act as his guide?
    Sure, he'd just show up on the man's doorstep and haughtily demand to be escorted. Sara would be sure to come to the funeral right? So it might even work, if not exactly in the desired fashion. Of course he had no idea where to find the man anyway, so he was pretty safe from that fate.
    Did the girls think he and the Count were friends? It kind of sounded like it. How odd. Just looking at him Sara had to realize he was probably one of the most common people on campus.
    He went back to the shield build shaking his head a little in amused disbelief.
    When Rolph came in later that evening, smelling a little of wine, but not drunk, Tor turned around at his desk to talk to him. That and stretch his slightly stiff back at the same time. The larger boy lay out on his bed and kicked his shoes off.
    “You know Tor… A lot of people at the pub were talking about you and your new little invention tonight. I knew that people would want it, but I didn't get how badly they would. Do you think I could jump the line and buy up the first batch of ten or so? Mom would love these I think. Maybe pass them out to a few of her friends, which can't hurt future sales, she's kind of connected, even if her friends are a bunch of harpies. They're rich harpies though and really want to keep up with the popular trends…” Rolph sounded like he was trying to wheedle him into it, which was ridiculous on its face. Of course he could have the first batch.
    He could have the first hundred, even if it meant Tor didn't sleep for a month to get it done. They were friends.
    “Really, the only major problem I have here are time to do the work and materials to put it on. I'm thinking metal, but right now I can't afford anything more than wood plank and school paint.” Honestly he couldn't afford that. He'd probably have to skip buying soap and toothpaste the next time if he did it and the money didn't come in fast enough.
    His friend shrugged and went to the large trunk at the end of his bed, pulling out a smaller chest, about the size of both Rolph's hands and opened it, showing that it was filled with gold and silver coins. Rolph counted out fifty-five gold and put them in a small blue velvet bag, which he handed over to Tor.
    “Half up front. That's standard for large purchases like this anyway, in case the idea's new to you. It is eleven G. apiece right? I can go higher if you need…”
    Tor looked at the bag on his desk and shook his head. “I… can't take your money. You're my friend and…” And there were no debts owed between friends, he was about to add.
    A large hand suddenly clapped him on the back, a little harder than normal. “Nonsense. You need initial, capital and I'm doing nothing more than assuring my place in line. Think nothing of it and, you know, within reason, hurry it up. My mom's birthday is in a week. On Friday.”
    Tor thought about the date.
    “Ooh, like the Queen? Isn't her birthday celebration this next week? We don't get that off this time, do we? I could use the work time.”
    Rolph chuckled and nodded.
    “Yeah, just like the Queen, same day and everything, so you know, people will notice it if I don't have something there in time.”
    Wincing, Tor knew that he had to start working harder. If he could get the materials the next day, maybe he could have the first batch ready by the day after. It would mean at least one sleepless night. Nodding he decided to do it. Rolph Merchant's mother would not be left with soggy clothing if he could help it. It may not be a big deal to anyone else in the world, but he had some small professional pride after all, even if he wasn't really one at all yet. It was a good thing to practice, right?
    The materials were surprisingly easy to come up with once he had money for it. He bought up a hundred copper squares about the size of his palm and about as thick as heavy paper and enough acid to etch them with a pale green design that he drew up the night before. These didn't need any more than an indicator as a sigil, not like a template did. That was all about keeping him from forgetting something or losing his place while working and wasn't magic at all, no more than words on a page were, though a lot of people couldn't tell the difference.
    Even the indicator sigils were really just about letting people have something to focus on to activate a field and keeping one device separate from others that might look similar otherwise. Some people drew the designs of the different fields sometimes, or whatever the indicators were, trying to make magic happen, which rarely worked at all. It took focus, will, and an idea of how the world worked to get any real effects. Of course he'd kind of gotten that to work a few times, which was what led him towards building in the first place. Trying hard enough had made a weak field that actually worked. Just a copy, but that was still pretty good for a kid from the woods like him.
    Tor drew up stencils on paper and cut them all out with the small cutter he'd made to test part of his shield. It let him do all of them at once easily, which even a razor wouldn't have done. Then, after laying them all out in the courtyard on one of the wooden work tables, he painted the acid on and waited.
    A mere four hours later he could finally rinse them all off. It was weak acid after all. Students weren't normally allowed to buy anything too dangerous, which made perfect sense. Most of the students were morons. Tor didn't exclude himself from that categorization either. He had his moments of less than brilliance after all. Times that he just didn't think clearly enough, or made a snap decision when he should take time to reflect. So yeah, weak acid, and no explosive weapons sold in the student store.
    The design, a stylized D with wiggly line after it — D for dry — turned out well on all but four out of the hundred. He'd make those anyway, and just give them to other students or something. Some of the other scholarship kids might want them, right? Or maybe the boy with the wash from the other day, since Tor hadn't shown him how to properly wring out clothing yet? For that matter he could just set one up at the wash area, so anyone could use it.
    That made sense.
    Then he took half of them back to his room for safekeeping and took the rest with him to one of the empty work chambers. The floor in the room was softer than his bed, which he knew firsthand helped a lot, especially if he wasn't going to be moving for several hours.
    Sitting on the deep red cushion, weight sinking in slowly for a few seconds, Tor set up the work space. The template went into the guide frame in front of him, of course, just like he'd done for class work. He had to adjust it to take the slightly oversized wood, but it worked after a few moments of tinkering. Then he counted out ten of the metal tiles and started to reach for the focus he'd need to make the transfer.
    The first set wasn't that hard, and the next two were only a little boring to do, not difficult in any way. After that things got rough. Tor felt tired already, and it wasn't even midnight yet. The fourth batch pulled at his mind. Really it was a feeling like waking up in the early morning and knowing that you had to use the restroom badly, but also feeling like you didn't want to bother moving. Normally when that happened he just waited, discomfort or no.
    Right now he couldn't do that. He had to keep his mind sharp and focus tight or else the copies wouldn't take, then all this work would be wasted, which would suck. The last batch ate at his mind, almost making him ache with boredom, but he kept at it until finished.
    Finally. It was good practice at least.
    Every muscle in his body screamed at him to stretch and move. Tor hadn't gone stiff yet, but everything inside told him that he should run away from this evil place before some meany came and made him do more of that boring work. He laughed a little as he walked out, his legs protesting just a tiny bit. His left ankle must have had some of the blood cut off to it, because his left foot was getting a pins and needles feeling. No numbness. It was interesting… Maybe just didn't notice that he'd gone numb because of the pain difference that came in trance? He knew that he didn't feel pain as much in a deep working state and some people could block out even severe pain that way if they started to meditate before the injury happened. It could be useful if he was ever being tortured. Hopefully he'd never have to find out if it really worked or not.
    As he walked back towards his room, the feeling got a little stronger. Then as he moved between the advisors' offices and the main class build, a wave of tingling hit him so hard it nearly took him off his feet. It didn't hurt so much as feel like he'd hit the back of his elbow too hard, his funny bone, only all over his body. His hands and feet went limp, weak. He could move them, but they suddenly felt like they lacked any kind of power at all.
    He stopped walking, wondering what heck this was. Had he made himself sick? Or… he couldn't think of anything that fit. Could he have transferred the field incorrectly or had one of the fields attached itself to him directly? That would be, well, not impossible, but highly unlikely. He'd been careful, even when he got bored. Besides this kind of field shouldn't make him feel like this. Maybe a medical device of some kind could, but his clothes dryer? Not likely.
    Torrence started walking again, as hard as it was, and noticed the two figures fighting as he got a little farther into the central commons area. He froze, not really understanding what they did at first.
    Feet moved on the black and gray paving stones, a soft shuffle that spoke of people that knew how to fight and came prepared in shoes designed for the purpose. One of the figures was huge, the night was too dark to make out who it was really, only a black silhouette of the man, clearly a male, could be seen, back lit by the much lighter sky above. The person fighting with him was smaller. Faster. Still a lot bigger than Tor.
    No one yelled or screamed, but the smaller figure held something that glinted in the early morning light. Not a knife, Tor didn't think so at least. It was too matte colored and kept being held wrong, pointed at the large figure, sending him staggering back just a tiny bit. The closer Tor moved towards them, the more desperate the movements of the smaller person seemed. They staggered back and forth, barely able to keep to their feet, even though they didn't let the big one close enough to hit them yet.
    Unless they'd taken a few blows already. It didn't take a lot to leave you feeling loopy and seeing stars. He felt that way himself in fact, and he wasn't even within thirty feet of them yet. Tor felt tempted to run the other way. After all, that big guy was… huge. Bigger than Rolph, which was saying something. The smaller one cried out just as he started to turn away. It was a high pitched voice. A woman's voice.
    Worse, it was a woman's voice he'd heard recently.
    That meant that he had to go and probably get killed trying to help her, didn't it? Something like that at least. If nothing else she was Rolph's friend and the buddy of his new business partner, which in a sideways fashion meant he was her friend too, and responsible for her. All he could think as he staggered towards them was that she better have a good reason for being out fighting this late. Especially if she wanted to pick fights with giants.
    Who did that anyway? If you were going to pick a fight it only made sense to go after someone smaller than you were, right? That's why Tor held to a fast policy of only getting in fights with people under ten years old himself, if he could help it. If she was just out having too much to drink and getting in trouble he'd…
    Exactly what he'd do didn't come to him as the large figure threw a single punch that took the girl to the ground, her weapon not being effective anymore for some reason. Sparks jumped in front of Tor's eyes, seeming to fly all around the man in front of him as he closed on the downed woman.
    Taking a deep breath Tor ran towards the giant in front of him and swung the cloth sack he had in his hand. The copper inside gave it enough weight to make a decent weapon, at least until the cloth gave way, Tor figured. The edges of the metal were a little bit sharp and might cut through with repeated use. The first hit landed on the big man's shoulder. He kept moving towards the still form on the ground, so Tor hit him again. And then again.
    After five or six hits, all solid blows, the huge form slowly turned towards him. The first thing Tor noticed was that the feeling of not being in control of his body got a lot stronger when the man focused on him directly.
    The second thing was that it was Count Thomson that stood before him.
    A half second later the Count stopped just standing and looking at him, and attacked.

Chapter three

    “Run away!” Tor chanted to himself, his feet sluggish, almost as if stuck to the ground beneath him for some reason. “Run away!”
    Not bothering to turn all the way, he just started stumbling off at about a sixty-degree angle like he'd been taught to do if someone much bigger and faster decided to attack. Or smaller and faster. Or if they were something that could easily take him in a fight, like a small dog or a kitten.
    Run away.
    He could hear Kolb the weapons instructor chanting with him in his head. Of course Tor wasn't even halfway fast enough. The Count swiped a single long arm at him, connecting with his left shoulder, taking him all the way off his feet so easily that for a second Tor thought he'd fainted. It was the stupid glowing dots in the air that did it. He thought they were in the air at first, but… they were probably in his head weren't they? One of the strange powers that royals had then? It made sense, almost all of them had combat related abilities of some kind. Why was the Count attacking Trice though? Had she insulted him, or turned him down for sex or something?
    That was probably it.
    If the woman had publicly humiliated him or mocked him, that might send a guy over the edge like that. Then again, why would she? The guy was good looking, strong, rich and at what — twenty odd years old — had already assumed the head of one of the largest districts in the Noram kingdom. Maybe the girl had just bumped into him or something. Spilled his drink?
    That didn't really matter right at the moment. No, what mattered, Tor decided, was rolling. A foot came towards his head as he tried to make himself move. Most of the time he was more than a little clumsy in a fight, but at this moment, struggling to stay alive, he felt like a fish that someone had pulled from the water, flopping and spastic, muscles not really acting like they should at all.
    Making it to his feet, he ran as fast as he could, so not very, the bag still clutched in his right hand for some reason. Torrence didn't want to drop it, but ten hours of work wasn't worth his life. A thousand hours of work wasn't. It would take at least a thousand and seven, he decided as he flopped away. His fingers wouldn't release however, so it was a moot point.
    He ran, feeling drunk and wobbly. Tor heard a solid pounding coming at him from behind as he struggled to get away, not bothering to look over his shoulder. The massive man would either catch him or not. Looking back would just invite falls or running into walls. No, if he was going to do that, run into a wall, he'd do it with his eyes open, thank you very kindly.
    The foot falls close with him as he sprinted. At first. After a minute it sounded like they were farther away. Then they stopped altogether. Good. He stopped, only to feel the sparks start up again a few moments later. He couldn't hear anything, but the Count had to be getting closer, right? Looking back he finally got it. The man wasn't running anymore. That was all.
    He'd risen about five feet in the air and flew after Tor, arms at his sides loosely, a halo of sparks around him.
    Running again he didn't look back and didn't stop. It was just time to run. A half hour later, after running through the small stand of evergreen trees behind the school complex for a while, Tor had to stop. If he'd been measuring his pace he would have been able to go on longer. Then again, being caught probably wouldn't have helped his stamina any, what with the being dead and all. So it was probably a wash. The Count had to walk in the woods or at least chose to go back to the ground, which made things… not more even, but more natural. Who went flying around like that anyway? It was insane.
    Cool, gods yes, but in a terrifying way. Definitely not what he'd expected.
    He'd thought it would be more like… force beams coming out of his eyes or something like that. Maybe shooting fire from his mouth.
    Finally, as true dawn broke, the Count shook himself, and without even looking to see where Tor was trying to hide, just turned and walked away, back towards the school. Tor hid behind a tree, not believing it at first. It could all just be a ruse to draw him out. Or, just as likely, the man had gotten tired or bored and gone home. It wasn't like Tor was such wonderful prey that he couldn't just forget about him. That sounded far more likely.
    What if, the idea hit him suddenly, the Count had only decided to go back after Trice? Was she even conscious yet? Had she survived being hit like that? Closing his eyes Tor knew what he had to do. Go back and try to find her.
    He also knew what he wanted to do, which involved running for his life.
    Torrence hadn't known it at the time, but in trying to defend Trice, poorly as it turned out, he'd struck a sitting Count. If it had just been some kid, he'd have been fine. Even the son of a Count given the situation, might have been alright. Oh, he'd have still been kicked out of school, probably sent to prison, but not executed for it. But to hit a Count, especially with a weapon? No. There was no way around it. A bag with metal in it was a real weapon too, it could seriously damage a person, so it couldn't be written off as a joke or something. The King would have him killed.
    Well… Tor knew that it would probably never even come to the King's personal attention. Why would it? The Count's people would do it for him, probably without even a trial.
    But… if he ran they might go after his family instead of just him. Blame them for hiding him, even if he never went home at all. Or possibly just for not training him correctly. The rich could be petty like that sometimes. It wasn't fair. Tor felt like a petulant little kid as he walked back towards the school. That he couldn't have known who he was fighting didn't matter either. The law was, obviously, the law. Still, maybe he could get Trice out of the way if he got there first? Claim that he was the only one that hit the Count? Then only one of them would die.
    Yeah. Brilliant plan.
    Except for the part where he died.
    Unfortunately it was the only thing he could come up with on short notice. No one ever gave you time to plan for these things for some reason. More than a bit unfair really. Of course, what would he have done differently if he'd known ahead of time who was attacking her? Nothing really came to mind. He wouldn't have left Trice to just die after all. Not even knowing that he was going to die in her place.
    Tor hugged the sides of buildings, ready to flee again if he had to. If he had to make a choice, the hangman's noose would be well before being beaten to death by a fist. Tor didn't want to die at all, but some ways really were better than others when it looked imminent like this. Making his way slowly back to where the attack had taken place in the main courtyard Tor sighed in relief. No one was there. So, provided the Count hadn't just gotten there first, that meant the girl had gotten away. Good. All he had to do now was turn himself in and lie. Convince them somehow that it was all him. The bag was still in his hand.
    Right. Excellent. He needed to talk to Rolph before he did anything else then.
    It wasn't fair to involve the other boy, stupid in fact, but maybe he could do this carefully enough so that his only friend wouldn't be dragged down too. Carefully, trying to avoid being seen, he made his way up the stone steps to the third level and tapped the door lock. A small click let him know that it was working. Not that it wouldn't be. It would probably function long after he was dead.
    Inside Rolph sat on the edge of his bed, already clothed, but with that sleepy look people had when woken up in the middle of the night without warning. Standing next to him was one of the school officials, Proctor Campbell. The man wore all black, and had a sour look on his face.
    It was just as dark right now staring at Tor. He looked sinister. Angry and more than a little like someone had kicked him in the groin. So pretty normal for him.
    “Come with me young man.” Proctor Campbell didn't even wait for Rolph to confirm who it was. Then again, Campbell probably knew every single student by name on sight. It was a big part of his job. Kind of a school guardsman. So, it was over already. Hardly fair at all.
    “Rolph… Here… your order is in this bag and forty other pieces, sell them and make sure my family gets the money… Please?” Tor begged, pleading with his eyes. At least it was something. A chance to do something useful before he went.
    A smooth white hand took him by the arm as he tossed the bag on to his bed. At least Campbell didn't try to confiscate the bag. Now if Rolph had just understood him. He couldn't tell, because he was hustled out the door faster than the other boy could say anything. The big man stopped at the door and looked back.
    “Stay inside until someone comes for you from the school. Lock the door and don't leave, understood?”
    Rolph nodded.
    Did they think Rolph had something to do with this too? It was ridiculous of course. He'd been asleep and… God, what had Tor done? Well, what could he do now except take as much blame as possible and try to protect his friends? Tor started shaking. He could have blamed it on the cold, or the run through the woods, but no, it was just fear. Not old fear either, a fresh new fear that told him that no matter what Torrence Green Baker did, he was going to die. Probably today. Well, that was less than fun. He hadn't even gotten to finish the food dryer yet.
    Or the shield either. If he'd had that, he probably could have just stood there and let the Count hit him instead of Trice, then he wouldn't be in this mess now. There was no law that said you couldn't legally be beaten by a Count after all, or even that the beating had to hurt.
    You just couldn't strike one.
    The Proctor didn't hurt him as he moved him along, in fact he was gentle in a way, which was unexpected. Of course Tor wasn't trying to resist. What would be the point? They knew who'd done it. Obviously, or they wouldn't have come to his room like that. Tor held his head up. They could kill him, but he hadn't done anything wrong. Illegal, but moral. He'd just tried to help. It wouldn't buy him anything good, but that didn't make him to blame, not really, which was something to cling to. A feeble, damp little thing, not even a hope, but a thing. Better than the nothing that was all that existed without it.
    The dour looking man walked them first into one of the official buildings that he'd never seen the inside of. Probably the disciplinary building. The place they took the rich kids when they were going to be tossed out on their ear for doing something too wrong to speak of. Otherwise the instructors managed the punishments, more or less. On rare occasions the older students did it. Those were usually beatings for some kind of transgression that would have you tossed out if the faculty knew you'd done it, but that even kids knew couldn't just stand without being addressed. That was just so a kid might get the lesson, but not be expelled. Tor had never had one himself, but then, he didn't cause a lot of problems that required punishments that harsh.
    The inside of the room was blank. Not just featureless, but more… not there somehow. He could see that a room was there, but no matter how hard he tried, Tor couldn't recall what it looked like at all. Right, a bit of magical protection. Did they think that he was going to do something? Like what Torrence focused until he saw a door ahead of him, but didn't go towards it. Maybe they'd all just forget he was there? Given the magics on this place, it was just possible.
    A few minutes later, feet starting to hurt just a little from standing, Campbell pacing back and forth agitatedly, the door at the back opened and a strange older man popped his head out.
    “Mr. Baker? If you'd join us within? That should be all for now Proctor, thank you for your timely assistance.” The man walked out to him when he didn't move, holding an ancient hand out to him, beckoning.
    “Don't worry about the spell, the effects fade on the other side of the door a bit. You can see the door, right? Sometimes people can't, which could be confusing…. Most of the time people can't, to tell the truth.” He seemed concerned about the door for some reason. Tor looked down and shuffled towards it without speaking. Was this the door to the execution chamber he wondered? Could be. But wait, did they even have such a thing at the school? He'd never heard of one, or even of any students being killed on campus… They probably had to go somewhere else for that. It would at least be outdoors, so that blood wouldn't stain the hardwood floors, right?
    At the door he could tell that several bodies, other people, were inside. From the outer area he couldn't tell who, but then Tor might not recognize them if he saw them anyway.
    A cold flash broke through his body as he stepped into the room, a warm fire was going, which contrasted sharply with the freezing he felt. His body shivered from it and not just the fear now, making him wonder at the strength of the protections on this place. You didn't normally eat up ambient energy like this just for fun and giggles.
    The older man gestured towards the fire. “Huddle close while we get things ready alright? The temperature in here drops like a rock when we activate all the protections. Has to be done though…”
    The other people in the room came into focus then. Kind of. Tor wondered if at first he was just in shock. Chased to his death, nearly at least, by a giant with blood in his eyes that had just tried to kill a girl, then captured and brought here to be killed by yet other people.
    Yeah, that would probably do it. Whatever the reason, he had to focus, real focus, like trying to hold a pattern for a build, in order to make out who was there. They kind of slipped to and fro in his mind, like the whole room had on the other side of the door. More magic then?
    Taking a few deep breaths he let himself sink deeper into the well of his mind. Everything took on a glassy, slick feel to it, but he could make out who sat waiting for him.
    Trice held something, an ice pack or cool brick most likely, to the side of her face. She looked at him and nodded. Damn, they'd gotten her already. He'd have to figure out what she'd told them before he spoke. If he could. Next to her, the old man that had asked him in to the room had settled. Tor didn't recognize him at all, but he looked friendly enough.
    Probably the executioner then.
    The idea left a sour and cold feeling in his stomach. No need to use gallows humor just yet, he reminded himself. There'd be time for that on the actual platform itself within a day or two.
    Next to the old man sat one of Rolph's accounting instructors for some reason Tor couldn't figure out, a hard looking middle aged woman with steel gray hair and a ramrod straight spine. She frowned at him when she saw him looking and jerked her head around to stare at the man next to Trice.
    “How is he looking at us? Did you give him an amulet key to this room already?” Her voice had an edge to it, brittle and cold like a north wind, Tor thought. A pissed off, surly, north wind.
    The man smiled kindly and nodded his head in Tor's direction.
    “Not at all dear. Mr. Baker is simply that focused of mind. One of the top students in magical construction and novel building, third year and already working his own projects I hear. He even appears to have defeated the outer room's protections. Amazing really, we don't have anyone on staff here that can do it without an amulet, except Master Fines.” The older man winked and patted the seat on the other side of himself, across from Trice.
    “Have a seat, it's going to take a bit for everyone to get here, I think.”
    Over the next few minutes no one spoke, the accounting instructor kept glaring at him, which he probably deserved, and Trice sighed every minute or so, loudly as if trying to point out how wronged she'd been. Tor badly wanted to pull her aside and get the stories straight, but didn't know how. Would she have even trusted him if he tried? For that matter, should she? He could lie right now and claim it was all her and not him at all…
    Tor sighed to himself. Better for him to die than her. She probably had a lot more going for her and besides, fashionable or not, a man simply didn't let a woman take the fall for something like this. Not even the son of a humble village baker would do that.
    Finally Kolb came in, followed by Count Thomson himself. It looked like a wall of flesh and muscle had come into the room. Or a mountain of death. Tor couldn't help it, he hugged himself as he shivered a little. It was probably just the cold, not his impending death. That made sense right? Of course it did. It really was freezing in the room. It wasn't that he was a coward at all. Nope that wasn't it.
    It surprised him when the Count went down in front of Trice's chair, his knees on the thick hand woven carpet of blue and black on the floor. He took her hands in his own, looking a lot like a large grown man tending to a child and spoke softly.
    “Are you hurt? Did I…”
    Trice stuck out her tongue and made a rude noise. “Right, like you could hurt me? Perish the thought. You did do a bit of a number on the side of my head though. Luckily Tor came along and distracted you. It got a little closer than I'd call comfortable.” She rubbed at her head and grinned. The right side of her face was swollen and huge, bruises having blossomed spectacularly already.
    The giant man surprised the hell out of Tor when he turned, not even getting off of his knees. He bowed from the waist deeply, a pretty darned humble position for a Count. It made everyone else go quiet. Probably embarrassed for the man.
    “Forgive me please…”
    Tor wondered for a second what he was supposed to forgive the man for. Then it hit him. Right… For killing him later. Tor shrugged. If it made the man feel better why not? Kind of polite of the man really. Dead may be dead, but his family had to live on. It seemed the Count was giving him a chance to see to their protection? He didn't want to bring this royal down on them or anything, so he nodded and gave a small, weak smile, trying to look pleasant about it.
    Probably failing.
    “Um, no problem, after all, what are friends for, right?” Tor felt relieved when the sarcasm he felt didn't come out in his words. It didn't really matter much, but at least he wasn't causing problems for his family and friends. Rolph… He was still locked in the room.
    God. Were they going to blame Rolph too?
    Trice snorted.
    “Just thank everything holy that we've got friends like this Tovey. If you killed me I'd have totally haunted you.” Her hands went up in the air, the right still holding something wrapped in a soft looking light blue cloth. “Toooveyyy…. Don't be a Jeeerk.”
    The whole thing would have been funny, for a half dozen reasons, if they weren't in so much trouble. As it was Tor almost smiled anyway. After all, if the Count was willing to listen to this girl making fun of him without anger, maybe he wouldn't insist on going after everyone else over the insult to his person after all? If Tor could just keep this between him and the Count…
    For a second he wondered if that was what Trice was trying to do too. Keep the Count focused on her to protect him? He shook his head softly. After all, why would the girl do that? There was no social rule that said good looking women had to try and protect skinny little students from royalty. No one would expect that. He wouldn't at least.
    No, it must be something else.
    The unpleasant looking accounting instructor sneered at him, at least he assumed it was directed at him, that or the back of the Count's head, which would just be stupid. Even someone as important to the school as an instructor had to be careful here.
    “I think that we've all forgotten that the boy, Baker here, assaulted a sitting member of the peerage. That's considered treason you know. At the very least we need to investigate… Too many royals have been going into combat rage lately for it all to be happenstance…”
    The Count, still kneeling, swung on the woman, his giant bulk turning in place so that he could stare. The look was calm though, almost peaceful.
    “I don't recall being attacked. I just remember going into a combat rage and attacking my cousin and this man coming to her aid as required, as I would have requested of him personally had I been able to, as I would have begged him to do, and as most people simply wouldn't have… Trice, do you remember any so called assault?” The gaze shifted to the girl who laughed.
    “What? Him? Of course not. He just ran up and tapped you on the shoulder to get your attention and then ran away when you turned on him. OK, true, I was kind of baffled by the effects of your battle aura, but that's all I remember seeing…”
    The big man stood and returned to his seat, smiling. Hands the size of Tor's whole head spread out in a slow gesture that took in the whole room. “See, two witnesses that there was no assault at all. Except when I hit him… But he's already proclaimed himself my friend, so I take it that he won't be pressing it at court…” The deep voice suddenly went uncertain and he looked at Tor more closely. “Unless… I didn't hurt you did I?”
    Tor shook his head, hardly able to believe what he'd just heard. They were both lying to protect him? Him? After what he'd done? And on top of that this royal was asking him if he was injured? Maybe they were playing a game. Every few years someone was put to death for something a lot less dangerous than hitting a Count with a bag of copper field plates.
    “No. I mean, I'm fine. Tumbled a little when you brushed me, but not hurt or anything. Kolb has done worse in practice. For that matter Trice did worse the one time I had to work with her, could barely walk right for days. I… didn't know you two were related…”
    Trice chuckled, a slightly pained sound, muffled by the object she held to her face. “Yep, first cousins even. Close enough that I don't have to worry about marrying the lout at least. You didn't know that? So… why did you help me?” The girl moved the cloth bundle away from her face and stared at him closely.
    Tor shrugged. For all that he claimed that the Count had just brushed him, the move hurt. Fighting giants was not something he wanted to take up as a profession. He subtly tried to work his shoulder around and focus on the girl's face, the magics of the room sent his mind skittering for a few seconds before he forced himself to focus deeply enough.
    “Eh?” He said, feeling brilliant when he realized that everyone was watching him. “Well, at first I was just going to leave you, because I didn't know who it was fighting and all I could see was that one of the people was huge. But then I heard you, so I kind of had to help. After all, we're friends and…” For some reason Tor yawned. Damn! That would make him look good, wouldn't it? Sitting around with his mouth open like a moron. He continued as soon as he could. “Sorry. I didn't sleep last night, I managed to get the first fifty of the clothes dryers done at least. Anyway, since we're kind of loosely in business and all, I had to at least try and do something, right?”
    It wasn't a very good answer, but it was pretty close to the truth. It just sounded moronic when he said the words out loud. For some reason the girl smiled at him, which made her wince, but she kept doing it anyway. The eye contact from her was direct enough to make him feel a little uncomfortable.
    “You didn't know I was a noble at all? So you jumped some unknown giant in a combat rage just to protect me? I mean, me-me, not some royal bitch who might get you a reward or something? That's…” Tears came to her eyes, but she kept smiling. “That's so sweet!”
    Count Thomson stopped suddenly and stared at him.
    “Fifty? In one night?”
    Everyone except the accounting woman seemed slightly distracted by one thing or another. She kept glaring, looking daggers at Tor.
    “Still we can't allow this boy to run around unchecked. Something triggered that combat condition. It could have been this one here. It would be a dereliction of duty to not assess this fully or at least remove him from the school. We can't allow threats and attacks to go unpunished.” The woman's lips went white in rage and she rose halfway out of her chair. For a second it felt like the woman was going to strike out at him, a small metal object that looked a lot like a cutter appeared in her hand. Tor hadn't noticed it there before at least.
    “As a member of the Royal Guard, it's my duty to protect from such potential threats. Now, I'm taking this boy to the holding cell until minds clear and you people start listening to reason… Come with me… now boy.” This last came out as a growl, menacing and darker than Tor had thought a woman would be capable of. Any woman. Instead of an older academic, he realized that he was facing some kind of hidden guard.
    The Royal Guards were not known for their restraint and brooked no insolence at all. Tor shuddered and stood slowly, trying to make certain that he didn't provoke her in any way. His hands went out, palms slightly down, about shoulder high without thinking about it. It was something Kolb had taught him to do. It would look like he was surrendering, but leave him able to fight if he had to. For all the good it would do him if he tried. No one could beat a cutter or lance like that, even people that were good enough to take a sword. Honestly given everything he probably couldn't beat the woman with any weapon or even if she was empty handed.
    Whoever this accounting instructor was in real life, the move wasn't lost on her, she flowed into a fighting stance so smoothly that Tor almost didn't notice it happening. The subtle shifting of muscle and bone put her in line to attack instantly. The only thing that saved him was that Kolb laughed, distracting the woman.
    “Wensa, sit down and stop being foolish. We're all worried about this. It was clearly an assassination attempt, wielding one of our charges as the weapon nonetheless. I'd guess Austran technology. But Torrence didn't do it and you know that. This had to be someone highly skilled in magics of the mind at the very least and more likely an Austran agent. Tor's good and I have no doubt that in ten or twenty years' time he'll be able to do exactly what was done here, but right now? Not even with his skills. Besides, why would he?”
    The older woman didn't take her eyes off of him, or relax at all.
    “What reason? Well, he's from a poor family. Gold is an ancient reason and usually at the heart of matters. For that matter lust could be the cause too. He ran to save the Ducherina after all. Perhaps this was all merely a ploy to get her under the bed covers?” She raised her left hand to forestall speech. “I know, that one's not too likely, it would be too far for most to go just to get a woman, no matter how comely, into bed, and probably not needed, but we should at least check for a sudden influx of gold into his pocket…”
    Tor stopped breathing.
    He did have gold in his pocket, at least back in his room in his clothing chest, near the bottom. Pocket adjacent. The remaining thirty gold out of what Rolph had paid him for the dryers he bought. A simple search would uncover it. Should he tell them about it first? But wouldn't that make it look like Rolph had something to do with all this? Tor just didn't know what to do.
    Luckily, he didn't have to.
    “Captain Wensa…” The Count spoke softly, his voice slow and careful as if trying to not insult the woman, even if he felt she was being foolish. “Torrence Baker is a friend to us and should be treated as such. Further, he's an emerging talent in his field and may be of great use to Noram as the years pass. I think you owe him… not an apology perhaps, as you are simply doing your job, but at least the benefit of the doubt? He's offered no violence, so perhaps you might decide to not eviscerate him in the safe room?”
    The older woman didn't look at the Count at all, instead her gaze never left Tor, making him wonder if he was going to make it out of the room alive. She took a visible breath and finally lowered the weapon in her hand.
    “This boy stands in an assassin's defensive position and I'm supposed to believe he's just some baker's boy given a King's scholarship?”
    Kolb smiled. “That's the position I taught him to take and fight from if held prisoner. No real talent for fighting, but he follows instructions pretty well. Notice how he eluded Count Thomson on foot? Also as I taught him.”
    The woman raised her left eyebrow, a skeptical look that sent a chill down Tor's back.
    “Also what an assassin would do in the same situation.”
    Tor put his hands down slowly. His arms were getting tired and if she wanted to kill him he'd be dead. Little enough he could do about it. Slowly, not knowing why, he spoke.
    “I'm not an assassin or spy or anything. I've been here for two years, learning how to build field structures for magical devices. I… I don't know how I'm supposed to make that clear to you…”
    Trice moved in beside him and pulled on his shoulder gently.
    “You don't have to. Captain, I commend your efforts in general, but going after a third year student that just risked his life to save mine isn't exactly going to win any friends. Leave him be now, alright? If you keep this up he'll break off his business ties with me and Sara Debri and refuse to sell anything to us. You wouldn't want that, would you?” Her voice sounded playful for the situation. That's something Tor had finally noticed about the girl, she didn't seem to take much seriously at all. She'd nearly died a few hours before and here she was making jokes and playing?
    Wensa still glared at him. “Fine. But if he turns out to be an Austran agent in disguise don't come to me saying I should have protected you better. How can I do my job if you won't let me?”
    The older man rose then and took Tor by the arm, gently removing him from the building. The instant he got outside his head cleared and the world came into a sharp, almost biting, focus. Everything popped into place. Hard
    The man next to him smiled and patted him on the back gently.
    “You should probably go back to your room now. It's early yet, but I don't think you should miss lessons today, tired as you undoubtedly are. Captain Wensa will probably be watching, to catch you doing anything out of the ordinary. Your best defense there is to keep living your life normally.”
    Tor nodded and walked back to his room, stiff and drained, like he'd been beaten and accused of some unspecified crime for some obscure reason. The beating part wasn't true at least, even the one blow from the Count wasn't a beating. Not yet. No matter what else that Captain Wensa was, the woman wasn't his friend, that much was clear. He'd have to make sure she didn't get a chance to blame him for… everything.
    The trudge to his room seemed to take a lot longer than normal. Probably because he wasn't walking very fast. How was he supposed to just go about things as normal now? Who's normal? Could he live his regular life with Wensa watching him? Tor didn't think so. It felt like anything that could be done would look fishy to the woman. There were still projects to work on and some of them weren't exactly regular studies, right? The food dryer he'd promised Rolph for instance. Well, he hadn't promised it, but it was a good idea and Tor wouldn't let it go just because of some woman that hated him on sight.
    The shield had to be done too, or else Kolb would probably kill him in ten days. Even with a practice sword the man could to it. The feeling of those mighty blows against the pell seemed to reverberate beneath his feet as he trudged up the stairs. How hard did you have to hit something to make it felt four days later? He shook his head. Harder than Tor ever wanted to feel personally. He definitely had to work on that shield.
    Inside the room Rolph sat nervously, shiftily looking at him as Tor flopped down on the bed, knowing that even trying to sleep would be impossible. For one thing he needed to get to class in an hour and should get at least a little food if he could before then.
    His friend kept looking at him, then, after about half a minute looked away and spoke softly.
    “So… What's going on? No one told me anything except that Count Thomson had been attacked? Is everything alright? Is he… alive?”
    Not knowing what else to say, Tor started at the beginning, and tried to be clear about everything, knowing that it all sounded more than a little strange. If it weren't for the Proctor coming to get him Rolph probably wouldn't have believed him at all. Who'd blame him? He jumped a combat crazy Count and not only survived it, but didn't even get in trouble for doing it? He mentioned this to Rolph, hoping he could shed some light on the situation.
    Sitting quietly for a moment the big man finally spoke.
    “Well… I know Tovey well enough to say that he isn't setting you up or anything. If he accepted that you were just trying to help Patricia, then that's that. So at least that won't come back on you. Not that it really would have, even if it hadn't been her. Tove hates the combat rage, feels it steals away his free will. Handy in battle though. I mean the natural shield and the disorientation aura make him pretty much unbeatable in a battlefield situation. Probably why he wasn't hurt at all, his shield. Works for us at least, it would be hard for him to explain away a bad wound. He'd have tried to though, I guarantee you. Even if you'd crippled him to protect someone else. Thank goodness that wasn't needed. Trice doesn't have a shield, or even combat rage at all really, she's different… which is why she's spent years at the special academy. You… know what they do there right?”
    The question made Tor blink. Rubbing his tired and sticky eyes he shook his head.
    “Not… not really. I always assumed it was where assassins and spies were trained. I mean the kids there are always tough, right? And they don't exactly advertise who they are…” It made sense in a way, someone had to fill those jobs and they needed to get the training somewhere.
    Rolph shook his head and laughed. It wasn't a mean laugh, just a gentle chuckle. Standing he stretched his arms high and then bent at the waist, his lower back popping. Even as young as he was, being that big wore on his body. Rolph never complained, but it made some things harder for him. Worse, he was probably going to get another half foot taller, maybe more. His family, like the royals, often grew into their mid-twenties he'd said, a high merchant thing. At five-four Tor had about finished his own growth. He might make another inch if he was lucky. Everyone in his family was short like that and he wasn't the tallest at all.
    Looking down towards where Tor sat on his bed, Rolph kept going. “OK… I have this from, well, let's just say sources. Friends of friends and that kind of thing. Patricia backed it up, so it's probably correct. The special school is basically an intense survival course for kids of the rich and famous that might be targets of assassination or kidnapping attempts. About half of them are of royal blood and the other half might as well be.” Pointing at the sack on Tor's table, the one that held the clothes drying field devices, he nodded. “Sara Debri? The one you're in business with? Her mother is the head of Debri House. The largest merchant and manufacturing concern in the kingdom. If her mother likes your work you could end up with these going kingdom wide. But…”
    The news shocked Torrence more than a bit. The girl had seemed so nice, unassuming. To be a good person with something like that hanging over her head… Sure Rolph was OK, but weren't most rich people snobs? He'd met plenty of them at the school that treated him like trash for being poor. Maybe she didn't realize how low his station was. Well, she'd probably find out now. He laughed darkly, which got a questioning look from his roommate. Shrugging, feeling a little sullen after the hard night of work and then the events of the early morning, he explained, or tried to at least. Rolph shook his head.
    “Nope. She knows exactly who you are. Due diligence. She came around to check you out the morning after your first drying test. I told her, and Tricia all about you. Your work habits, how smart you are and how many brothers and sisters you have. Even that you could probably open your own bakery if you wanted to, so you aren't going to be easily trapped into a single financial agreement. Kind of impressed the hell out of them both you know. How many kids our age already have a fallback career?”
    Not, he told Rolph, that baking was hard. He'd had to help out in the shop since he was six or so, working at actually making the bread, rolls and specialty confections the whole time. There was no one to watch the kids when they weren't in school, so they all worked as soon as they could. Not a huge deal really.
    The big man shook his head.
    “Not a big thing to you, but I can't even make toast, much less bread. If I ever become poor I'm going to have to move in with you just to make sure I have food. Well, that or marry some rich girl. That might work. Sara's kind of cute, don't you think?”
    Tor shrugged. Of course she was cute. Rich too. All that just meant that she was just another girl that was too good for the likes of him. Just as well, she was too tall for him anyway. He tried not to let the thought become bitter. It didn't work, but he tried. That had to count for something.
    They talked for a while longer, on the third use of the name Tricia, Tor had to ask who that was. Rolph snorted, this time a little derisively.
    “The Ducherina Patricia Alyson Morgan. Known to you as Trice. Sometimes called Tricia in polite circles. Really only her close friends call her Trice. It's kind of a name from her childhood. Some royal brat of a Prince couldn't pronounce her real name right when he was a baby, so the name stuck. She seems OK with it.”
    Getting up, feeling stiff and sore as well as tired now, Tor moved to the beige burlap bag on his desk and pulled out ten of the copper plates, handing them over to Rolph. Tor smiled when he did it and mentioned that if he hurried and got them in the post that day, his mother would have them on her birthday. At least if he paid for rush delivery. the Capital was a few thousand miles away, so that could take a few days. Longer than that really, normally, but it was doable if you paid enough gold for it.
    “You should get some wrapping paper or some nice cloth to go around the ones going to her. Maybe with some pressed flowers or something like that? I know my mom always responds well to gifts like that. For that matter… I should probably send one home to my family as well. Wash for twelve people adds up, and in the rain or cold weather it's a pain in the rear to take care of. With this everyone should be able to wear clean clothes most of the time.” The words rambled and Tor knew it. Instead of commenting on that his friend stood up and took out a small chest from his foot locker.
    It was nice, dark wood of some kind with metal hinges and flowers carved into the top of it. The stain darkened the wood more in the cuts of the carving and it had that expensive shine that only things owned by rich people ever really had. When it was opened the inside was lined in red velvet. Nice. Tor probably couldn't have afforded work of that kind at all. When Rolph took four of the drying plates out and put them in the box, Tor got that this wasn't for Rolph, or even the present itself, but rather that it was the wrapping paper.
    Tor's breath caught at the luxury of it. At least she could reuse the box, Tor considered.
    “That… should impress her.” He said quietly, trying not to show what a bumpkin he really was. The cost of that box alone could have probably fed his whole family for a month. Maybe two.
    “I hope so. She… has friends that will see it, and not all of them are nice about such things. If I present it to her in any way less than perfectly, they'll talk. Bitches. Anyway, at least the gift itself is nice, and I know that no one else will have the same thing for her. Even dad will be jealous this time, which is a first, since he always gets her really nice gifts. Hey, any thought to the food drying idea at all? I'd love to send that one off next, if you get a chance to finish it.”
    Tor raised a single finger and told his friend that he'd be starting on it later that night, or early the next day at least, after he slept. A novel build like that needed clarity after all, which his foggy head couldn't provide at the moment. Rolph's eyes went wide.
    “Hey, I didn't mean… I mean, take your time… I know you're busy and all.” For some reason his friend looked scared suddenly. Not frightened as if Tor would hurt him, but a sense that things were moving faster than he'd thought they would. That's what Tor figured at least.
    It was fast. That kind of speed, if he could master it, could be the hallmark of his work maybe? A lot of new fields took a year or more to reach the first template attempt. That he'd worked on this one for less than a week was decent. He'd have done it faster if all the other things in his life hadn't gotten in the way. Oh well, that was life everywhere. Always getting in the way of the important stuff.
    The shield would be harder to do. Much so.
    Every time he thought he had it, Tor noticed something else he needed to add to it or tweak a little so that it wouldn't leave him vulnerable to other kind of attack. Stopping dust in the air, or smoke, was good, obviously needed, since Kolb had witnessed Trice throw something in his face once already. That would almost certainly be coming in the test then. Tor would have added it, so he had to assume Kolb would too. But if he was guarded against smoke, what about fire? Or just raw heat? That could, he knew, be used as a weapon too. And he still had to figure out how to shunt force away from him. If he didn't then a single blow from any of the older students, and some of the younger ones, would just send him flying. Protected was good, but if he could be knocked around they could just toss him in the pond and drown him. He could swim, but he couldn't hold his breath forever while being held under.
    Some of that would have to be set aside he knew. He only had a little over a week left, and limited work time. He'd get the food dryer done and then work on that as much as he could. He just hoped that the test wouldn't be too harsh. Full battlefield conditions would be bad enough, but if Kolb got creative, he'd be in real trouble.
    Shaking himself he looked up to find Rolph looking at him with a bemused expression.
    “Sorry Rolph… Thinking about what I have to get done in the next week. Lots. Anyway, I have to get to class soon. That old guy, I don't know who he is, long beard, little stooped? Anyway, he suggested that I don't cut any classes, because Wensa has it out for me. Did you know she's some kind of secret guard here for the royals? She seems to want to torture a confession from me or something.” Tor shuddered. “The look on her face, as if I wasn't even human… Scary.”
    “Wensa? My accounting instructor? No… I didn't know that about her. Are you sure?” The tone was more than a little suspicious, it sounded angry. It was as if her accusing Tor was a personal insult to him.
    “Seems so, it's what everyone said. Well, I better go so I don't give her any ammunition to come after me with. It seemed like she's planning on being all over me. Too bad she isn't a little younger, then it could at least look like I was having fun.” Tor tried to grin, but it didn't really show on his face, he didn't think. The idea was just too unpleasant.
    Rolph did a double take, eyes going wide. The idea of Tor being followed around by a smitten Wensa ran across his face, clearly enough that even Tor could follow his thoughts from it, making the redhead bite his upper lip to keep from laughing. Then the larger boy turned beet red. He fought it, but he eventually lost control and started laughing. Sticking out his tongue, Tor threw his pillow at him, hitting Rolph in the head.
    “Hey, I didn't laugh at you when Martha Jensen kept following you around last year, did I? True, Martha's younger, cuter and has the decency to not want to kill you, but other than that, it's exactly the same thing.” He looked at Rolph sideways, facing away from him slightly. He obviously wasn't going to buy it. The laughter kept coming and didn't show any signs of stopping. Sighing Tor looked down at the floor, shaking his head sadly.
    Rolph waved and fought to speak. “Not that… Sorry, it's just… just that Wensa is always such a stick in the mud! If she does start following you around we can have a lot of fun starting rumors about it. Oh… That will show her not to accuse my friends of, you know… what was she accusing you of?”
    “Trying to make Count Thomson kill Trice, I think. She wasn't too specific about how this was supposed to work though. Maybe magic? I guess that could be done. Maybe. Not by me though. Kolb pointed that out to her. I guess I'm supposed to be an Austran spy or something? It would be a good trick, because I'm not even really certain I know where Austra is on a map. But that's probably what a real Austran spy would say, isn't it?” Tor packed up his school work. He didn't need anything for his first class, meditation, but the others would need his homework and notes.
    His friend went silent and stared at him.
    “Wait, she accused you of trying to kill Trice? When all you did was protect her, stepping between her and a man in full combat rage? I… That's..” The red he turned was very different this time going from red, to slightly purple and then into white. A subtle shaking started then.
    “Alright Rolph?” Tor felt suddenly worried. It was a difficult situation, but so far he'd lived, which was better than he'd expected a few hours before, so it shocked him that his friend was so obviously upset by that bit of news. Rolph didn't speak, instead he just packed his own things up and headed towards the door. Stalked might have been a better description.
    They went to breakfast together, but Rolph still wouldn't speak, he was breathing heavily and seemed angry. Really mad. Like he wanted to hurt someone.
    Leaning over Tor spoke softly, trying to keep anyone else from hearing him. “You do know that I didn't do anything right? I mean, other than what I said? I…” Shifting a little he scooted closer as a few people stared at them. “I'd never hurt anyone, even royals, if I could help it. And heck, I like Trice! Tovey too. If I was going to get the Count to attack anyone it would be Dorgal or one of his buddies. In fact it's not a bad idea, maybe I'll bring it up with him?”
    Rolph gave him a funny look and then chuckled, the mood breaking as fast as it came.
    “I know that Tor. But if Wensa pushes this there could be problems. Royal Guards, even ones that are hiding, maybe especially those, don't play by the same rules that everyone else does. If she thinks you're involved in this, then you may be in real danger. You need to be careful for a while.”
    Great, Tor thought. Because being a student wasn't hard enough, now he had some high level professional bully after him too. Weren't the regular ones sufficient? Really, Dorgal was doing a decent job of it so far, it was a bit unfair of the woman to horn in on his position, wasn't it? It seemed against the code of bullying ethics or something.
    He sighed and went to his meditation class. He tried to keep his eyes peeled for danger, but really, what was he going to do if something happened? A Royal Guard would just kill him, no matter what he did. Maybe he should consider leaving school altogether?
    Suddenly it seemed a lot better choice than staying and being either accused of being some kind of spy or assassin, or worse, just killed when he went to the restroom one night.
    Then again, if he left now, to someone like Wensa, wouldn't he just be confirming guilt?
    But what else could he do?

Chapter four

    Not only did Wensa start following him around, she wasn't even attempting to be subtle about it. She even went so far as to start eating meals in the student's dining hall when he did to watch him. Instructors could eat there for free, so a few of them cut costs by doing that sometimes. She was even an accounting instructor, so the idea of her saving money that way probably made sense to everyone. Just demonstrating frugality to her students.
    Really, it was even a good idea, so at first no one noticed, but after four days of the older woman staring at him with undivided attention it became obvious that she wasn't just there at the same time by happenstance or because she enjoyed dry chicken and stewed beef slices in gravy.
    Even when he went out to test parts of his shield she watched him. Glared at him was more like it. Staring so hard he doubted she missed anything he did at all. Ever. It was annoying and more than a little scary. Tor started wondering if she was watching him in the restroom somehow too? Or the bath? He didn't really think so, but checked for spy holes anyway. More than once.
    The worst part came when Dorgal waited for him after dinner on the fifth night. The bully didn't normally stoop to eating with people like Tor and hadn't been at the meal itself, but stood right outside the door. Lurking, with a wicked look on his face, which was pretty normal for him, kind of a go-to facial expression as far as Tor could tell. He had two of his buddies with him, an older guy, Marko, who was a fifth year, Tor thought. The other kid, well, he wasn't a kid at all, older than any of them. Probably too old to be at the school, at least without a student to take them around as a guest. That man didn't say anything, standing at the back of the little group, taking pains to look menacing. If he wasn't trying then he had the worst case of sinister grin ever. He just looked angry, like he was about to attack without hesitation.
    “So, little Baker boy… I hear you have a new girlfriend.” The last word was said with amusement. Marko laughed, but the other man, well dressed in black and green silk with dark slacks and boots dark enough that the color couldn't be seen in the dim evening light, didn't move or smile at the lame joke the moron had just told. He just stared as if wanting to fight. His eyes were freaky, the part that should have color was almost totally black. It really stood out.
    It also didn't make a lot of sense. After all, if Dorgal had just hired a thug to beat him, he would have gotten someone low rent, not a finely dressed man like this. Why spend extra money on it, when the beating would have the same overall effect anyway? Maybe it was supposed to be a refined thrashing? But if so, shouldn't the fellow be acting a little more polite? The man didn't seem to have any obvious weapons and also didn't look tall enough to be royal, even if he was nearly a foot taller than Tor. About the same size as Trice or Wensa. Then again, all these guys were, or close enough to it that it wouldn't matter in a fight. The three in front of him closed on Tor menacingly, but didn't touch him. Not yet.
    “Answer your betters Baker boy, do you have a new girlfriend? A certain accounting instructor? She certainly seems interested in you… Doesn't seem your normal type… A bit girlish and short, don't you think?” He said the words as if they had meaning, but didn't explain what that might be.
    Wensa hadn't been a girl in a while and she wasn't overly short for a woman. Nearly as tall as a royal herself.
    Tor shrugged. Nothing he said would make any difference now. Once bullies started like this they wouldn't stop until someone made them or they got tired. He sighed and shook his head.
    “Dorgal… I only wish she just wanted to be my girlfriend. Instead… No, wait here.” Without warning he turned to the dining hall door and popped his head in. “You'll love this, just give me a second.” He spoke quickly, not really knowing what he was doing.
    “Wensa! Come tell these men out here why you keep staring at me, will you?” The woman actually blinked at him and rose without hesitation, her hands going to a small pouch on either side of her belt. She stalked over like a beast of some kind, smooth and sinuous.
    Dorgal looked outraged that Tor would do something other than cower, which made Tor want to laugh. As if any of this was about him. Stupid bully. If Tor could make it about the other man he would of course. Less for him to worry about. Let Wensa and Dorgal dance with each other for a few minutes instead of plaguing him. Confusion to his enemies and all that.
    The Royal Guard captain moved through the door quickly, weapons pointed. Before anyone else could speak, Tor did.
    “Bullies, meet Royal Guard Captain Wensa. Wensa, meet the bullies that think your attentions towards me are amorous. I'll leave you four to discuss your collective plans to “get me” or whatever it is your kind do. And yes, Wensa, I get that you probably plan to kill me over this. But you know what? Either do it, or leave me alone. I have work to do and no time to play with fools that can't see me for what I am.”
    Tor stormed off trying to act offended and haughty, waiting until he got all the way around the corner to start hyperventilating. God, she was going to kill him now. No one had told him he couldn't tell people who she was, but her presence was obviously a secret of some sort. Maybe they'd have to remove her now? Then again, maybe she'd just kill them all to protect her secret? He really needed to get the work done on that shield as soon as possible. Then all he'd have to do was wear it around for the rest of his life. Yeah, that would work. Bathing was overrated anyway, he thought, his skin instantly itching in response to the idea of being unclean.
    That night, instead of sleeping, he decided to get what work done he could on the shield project. After all, the old deadline he'd been set wouldn't make any difference if he was dead, would it? As soon as Rolph went to bed he started working, just sitting in the dark, eyes closed, mentally tracing the sigils that ran the circle, reminding him what he needed to do. Some of the really good builders didn't even have to use sigils at all, holding all the information in their heads perfectly. He could feel the basic patterns with his mind of course, so he didn't need light to see the marks or even to have his eyes open. Each floated in the darkness behind his eyes, a presence rather than a picture. It was enough to work with.
    First the physical protections, he captured the feeling of the needed field in his mind, an object coming towards him deciding to turn back the other way with the exact force it came with. Then he held that sense, let it grow and live, co-existing with the wooden template in his hands. Letting it merge with the wood itself.
    Then the scattering, a hard concept to hold, but one that he found would spread the coherent pattern of any cutter or blast, disrupting it totally. It took longer to establish, because it was just so new to him. It would have been easier if he could have gotten a sense of it from another shield that already existed, but that had been forbidden him. More to the point, he didn't have access to anything like that and never had, so even if he wanted to cheat, it wasn't an option.
    This had to be linked to the next field, the sifting one that kept out particles and then the one for heat. They all had to be held carefully in mind the whole time, each moment letting the whole grow stronger and stronger, then the spread of force into the ground and the other ten ideas he'd come up with for it had to be put into the wood. After eight hours he heard Rolph get up and move around, but he couldn't let the field go. Wouldn't.
    Thankfully it was an off day for him, so he didn't have to go anywhere. He didn't eat or move for hours longer. Finally, once the whole thing became a single concept, once it had merged together as a single entity, one unique being, he let himself get up and go to the restroom. Tor held the concept in mind even as he made his way to the small room at the end of the interior hall. Letting the field go even for an instant would weaken it. He could rebuild it, now that he had the idea of what the whole thing felt like, but it would take hours to get it back to its current strength.
    Better to hold it now, no matter how hard. His mind tried to stray, hours of focus did that to him, but Tor didn't let the idea go, clinging to it as if his life depended on it. This time it just might he knew. It took twice as long to do everything this way, his physical movements slow and careful. Longer than that even. It didn't matter as long as he kept the field going. He had all day.
    Before dinner time Rolph came in, changed his clothing and left without speaking. Then he came back again and slept, the presence oddly reassuring to Tor. He couldn't think about that of course, not consciously, but the deepest part of his mind always felt a little vulnerable when he worked like this. If anyone attacked him, he'd never see it coming. In fact he may never notice it at all, just die. His friend wouldn't let that happen.
    When Rolph got up the next day he opened his eyes and nodded to the man. The field was holding well enough so far. It was too complex to just let go yet, it needed to linger within his focus until it simply wouldn't fade without his attention. But he also had classes. He started to panic for a bit, then turned his mind back to the task at hand. Tor spoke one sentence as Rolph left.
    “Tell them I won't be in today.” It came out sounding flat and dead, but he hadn't meant it as an order. Hopefully it would be enough and Rolph would let them all know what he was up to. If not… Well, he didn't have time to worry about that. He had to survive if they wanted him to go to lessons at all.
    The next day, about the time Rolph was about to leave, Tor stood up. A pitcher of water was next to him, put there the day before most likely. He filled the cup and drank, then kept doing that until the whole thing was empty.
    “Gah.” He croaked, voice sounding like a frog had moved in.
    Rolph gave him a strange look and winced visibly. “I hope all that wasn't for the food dryer idea…” He sounded worried. Almost panicked at the idea.
    Tor almost choked on his reply, a bubble of laughter coming out instead. “This? No, this is that shield project thing. That, the wood piece there on the desk? That's the food dryer. Sorry, I finished it days ago. It works on fruits and vegetables, not meat yet, I didn't want to risk drying out people or whole animals. I haven't put it on metal, but I can… Um, later though, OK? I know that this probably doesn't look that hard, but…”
    Rolph held up a hand and told him to lie down while he went to steal some food for him. Tor decided to just sleep for a bit, hungry but too tired to worry about food. His eyes closed on their own, heavy and almost stinging when he forced them open, so he didn't fight it letting darkness close over him gently. A while later someone, Rolph he thought, shook him awake and made him drink something. It was a thick broth. He almost told him that he wasn't sick, needing invalid food, just tired, but then Tor realized that it wasn't his friend holding the cup, but Trice. Over by his desk Rolph and Sara looked at the food dryer. Playing with it actually.
    “I wonder what the range on this is?” Sara said softly. She wore all black again, kind of a uniform for people in her section he guessed. She looked nice, blond hair long enough to show she was a girl, but not so long that it would be easy to use against her in a fight just a little under shoulder length.
    Pushing the cup away for a second, he swallowed.
    “About a five-foot square. Under the dryer and centered. That's the size of a wagon loading bin. Just, if you're doing that much at once you need to have it in something open on the bottom so it can drain. A mesh or slats or something. The water will just dump out. Probably want to be outside too. I tried a single apple and soaked my notebook. On the good side, it turns out the clothing dryer works on paper too.”
    Trice shook her head and gave him more to drink. Then she felt his head, so he gave her a hard look. He really wasn't sick and while the broth was good, he just needed to sleep.
    Rolph and Sara both asked him something, sounding excited. Tor thought it was if they could take the food dryer out and test it. He told them yes, to get them all to go away and fell back to sleep. When he got up it was dark out, and Rolph was back in his own bed again, breathing heavily. It wasn't a snore at least. Now, if his brothers could be trusted, he snored, but Rolph didn't.
    Then Tor checked the shield template carefully, activated it and picked up the small cutter he'd built, sweeping it across his arm, hoping the shield worked. No blood rushed forth, so that was a good sign. No pain either, but that didn't mean much. A cutter didn't really hurt, it just separated things. You could lose a finger and not even notice it until the blood became a nuisance. One reason to stick with nice old fashioned knives for most things. At least with them the horrible pain would let you know if you were killing yourself.
    Being quiet he finished the initial testing, trying to burn himself with a candle, inhale the smoke, and even dripping the hot wax on his arm. The wax settled on him after a second of hovering above the field, but it was hard and cool when it landed. Excellent.
    Taking out the ten plates he'd marked for the purpose, little half-hand sized ones in copper, with a basic circle for a sigil, etched in acid again, just because it looked professional. Tor set to making copies of the template carefully. It took about two and a half hours, but gave him ten perfect shields. Each should last for years, unless he screwed up somewhere. It seemed alright. Now all the new field had to do was get him through the test. If he lasted that long with Wensa coming for him.
    All of the shield plates had two little holes punched in them at the top, so that he could run a string or tether through them, letting him wear one around his neck. He didn't know what anyone else did to secure their shields, but that kind of thing could be changed later if needed. The field as a whole was the hard part. Now, even if he had to rebuild the whole thing, he could do it way faster. Changes would be a pain, but nothing too major comparatively. In a very real way he knew the field now, so it was part of him and he a part of it. Someone good enough at doing such things could probably feel his presence even in the copies of any field he'd created as a novel build. Maybe even if someone else had made them.
    After that he laid back down for a nap until morning. Then he could try and test the whole thing carefully and under greater force. If that worked, he could go and see if Kolb wanted to try it out early. If it wasn't good enough then he needed to know as fast as possible. That Wensa hadn't broken the door down to get at him in his sleep was probably just her waiting for a more convenient time.
    When Rolph got up and dressed, before breakfast, Tor stopped him outside in the commons and asked the giant to hit him as hard as he could. He tapped the shield to activate it just in time. Rolph didn't hesitate at all, or ask questions, didn't even blink. The blow came in hard and fast and then… just stopped. The ground under Tor made a soft popping sound, almost a click, but nothing else happened.
    Tor didn't budge at all, which earned a narrowing of eyes and a half dozen more blows and a single kick, all with the same thing happening. Rolph stopped and the ground made a soft clicking sound. Without asking if it would work, his giant friend pulled something from his green tunic and aimed it at Tor's arm at an angle so that it wouldn't hit dead on, and when nothing happened, re-aimed at his middle, getting the same result.
    “Heh! That's good. This lance is, um, special. Technically I'm not allowed to have it at school, and your shield treated it perfectly. If you can stop this, a simple cutter won't be a problem. Ready to have the weapons guys go over it then?”
    Tor really would have liked more testing first, a slow and progressive thing that would show any flaws in a safe environment. Done over weeks or months. On someone else. Ideally Dorgal Sorvee or one of his friends. It was sensible and would hurt a lot less in the long run. Knowing that wouldn't have time to happen with Wensa around he nodded. If you can't be smart, might as well embrace being stupid. He told his friend that he'd go after lunch. Looking around he saw a flash in the corner of his eye that he thought was probably Wensa spying again.
    Damn, he couldn't even walk out of his room unseen for a minute! Did the woman even sleep?
    Morning lessons went well, no one commenting on his having been gone the day before, so Rolph must have gotten the word around for him. That was friendship there.
    Tor wouldn't even know who to go to if he had to do the same thing for Rolph. Wensa probably, which would be a laugh if nothing else.
    Lunch was awkward, and left him feeling uneasy, since a lot of people were staring at him. Some pointing slightly and nudging each other. Petra from the combat training section just smiled at him. It wasn't sinister looking or anything, but she nudged the girl next to her, a familiar sword swinger that had beaten him several times herself, which got both of them to look towards him. Then they started giggling at him. Giggling freaking girl giants. Bleh. Tor had to fight shaking his head at them. Going for a wry grin instead.
    He got that he was a joke to them.
    On the good side Wensa had decided to skip the meal at least. The older woman made him feel like he was about to die at any second. If she crept up on him from behind, his shield wouldn't help at all, it had to be activated to work and that took an act of conscious will, no matter how small. He'd have to get used to either being way more careful or having it turned on all the time.
    He shrugged.
    Everyone had probably heard that he and Wensa were an item now or something, which was laugh worthy at least. The idea didn't thrill him, everyone thinking that, but it beat his only other dating rumor, which hadn't been one at all, just public humiliation without a date being attached. As scary as Captain Wensa was, at least she'd been more polite to him publicly than Maria had been. Way more polite. Given his track record with women, maybe he should send her flowers or something. That would probably get her to run away and not look back.
    Slowly Tor trudged to the practice field and found the square filled with an extra twenty or so people, about half of them instructors. Rolph, Sara and Trice stood next to the old man from the other day and oddly Wensa, who didn't seem happy to see him alive at all. Her hand at pocket as if she wanted to use whatever weapon she had there. Badly.
    Kolb smiled at him and put his hand out towards him slowly.
    “Ready to test your new field? You have a few days yet, about a week actually…”
    “Yeah, but if it's not ready I probably won't live that long. Not with Wensa there plotting to kill me or whatever. Might as well try it now.”
    Kolb looked shocked at what he said, but didn't comment on it. He did stare a little at Wensa whose hand moved all the way in to her pocket. Everyone else started to look at the woman too, except Tor, who took the chance to slap the shield medallion he had on under his shirt. It took an act of will to activate his fields, not physical contact, so a bit of cloth wouldn't stop that. As if in unison with the motion, Wensa pulled out a piece of metal and pointed it at him. Nothing in particular happened, so she triggered it again and again.
    Then, baffled, she pointed it at the new pell and triggered the device once more. The thick wooden log exploded. The only saving grace was that all the pieces flew away from the crowd not just all over the place like some explosives did. Part of the gray stone wall behind it buckled, bowing outward, even as it held its basic wall shape. Everyone stood in shocked silence for a minute. Except Wensa, who put that weapon away and pulled another one, a simple cutter it looked like, from the way she used it, sweeping it back and forth over him.
    “Alright then…” She murmured, and pulled a third weapon. No one moved as she did. It was a good thing too, because fire covered him. It didn't spray towards him, it sprang up around him, hanging in the air itself. He held his breath. The shield held against the heat and even the living flame, but he hadn't been able to figure out how to keep the air vital while it burned like that. The fuel this burned was the air itself, or something in the air that he didn't know about, a hot white flame. If she held it on him long enough, he'd suffocate.
    Thankfully, after nearly a minute, about the time when he would have had to try and gasp for breath no matter what else was going on, she stopped. Taking a deep, but slow breath, Tor waited for whatever she had in store next. Oddly it wasn't her that moved, but Kolb. Picking up a practice sword from the low rack with a shrug and a grin, he charged and slammed it across the juncture of neck and shoulder as hard as he could. The ground gave off a much louder crack than Rolph had managed. Then he repeated it for a good twenty minutes, when he stopped he wasn't even breathing too hard, though sweat glistened on his bald head in thick drops.
    “Well, that more than satisfies the requirements for the test except for time on the cutting field, I suppose we can take turns beating you for a while… But I think your design proves out. Especially since the original test was to take place on the pell and not Tor at all… and it was really just supposed to hold against sword blows and cutters, as I believed you knew Wensa? To my knowledge there are no shields that have been made that can do all of this yet. Even asking for physical protection and cutters was pushing it a bit.” The large man stepped back and regarded her closely.
    Wensa smiled at the man and nodded.
    “I knew the field would hold. Besides, anyone making something like this they wouldn't trust their life with, doesn't deserve to live.”
    Trice walked up and threw more of the white powder in his face from about five or six feet back, without warning. It hung in the air and sifted to the ground, not touching him at all. He was able to keep breathing the whole time at least. When it all settled the girl slowly put her hand on his cheek, which, because of the soft and gentle movement made contact.
    She leaned in as if to kiss him, which, he knew, had to be a trick. Because no one ever tried to kiss him. He hopped back just as the knife would have stabbed him in the stomach, causing her to lurch and the knife to stop as she pushed too hard. It could have cut him if it came slow and soft, but the design of the field let him move away from the blade even as it did. A flaw in the shield he knew, but one that he hoped could be worked around.
    It was his advisor, Frank Gear, who suggested they pick him up and toss him in the low pond, to see if he'd found a way to breathe underwater. The idea made him wince, but it turned out that even working together they couldn't pick him up. Five of the larger people, including Kolb, tried. Tor could walk, even run full speed, but any large, or fast, outside force directed at him was absorbed by the ground. To lift him they'd have to shift about five tons of earth underneath him too.
    Kolb and the older man both smiled. The gray beard walked towards him and stopped about ten feet away, his smile seemed genuine at least. Tor wondered what he was going to hit him with, but the gentleman just kept looking happy and spoke in pleased tones.
    “Congratulations, this is… impressive hardly covers it. Do you think you can duplicate the field?” The man looked politely interested and stroked his beard sagely. It was an awesome piece of facial hair, white and down to the front of his collar.
    “Oh sure. This is a copy. I have the original template and nine more of these back in my room. I didn't want to come out here with one made of wood. It just seemed tacky.” He smiled and hoped that no one would make fun of him for the obvious holes in the whole thing. Trice had gone right through his field. If she'd tried to choke him instead of stab he'd probably be unconscious already.
    The man nodded and looked at the weapons instructor.
    “Try to sweet talk him into lending us some of those, eh?” He turned to Tor and winked, smoothing his black tunic with his right hand. “You've already made ten copies? Incredible. I won't insist, they're yours after all, but the school can't really afford something of that quality for practice. I don't know, but I think the military might not have shields of this quality for the most part. Certainly not covering so many different potential combat aspects. A lot of people will benefit if you're willing to perhaps, lend us some?”
    The man didn't stand around waiting for a yes or no, instead he walked over to Wensa, whispered something in her ear with a smile and gestured towards the gate. The woman, for the first time that Tor could remember, laughed out loud and turned to leave, an actual smile on her face. She nodded towards him as she walked past. Probably her way of telling him that he'd better be ready for her. It wasn't lost on him that almost everything she'd just tried on him was outside what the test was supposed to entail.
    Crap. Well, at least he had some ideas of what he had to fix.
    Sara ran up to him excitedly and bounced on the balls of her feet, her eyes going wide.
    “So, do we have the same deal on these as for the clothes drying device? Oh, the food dryer too?” Her voice was excited and breathless. He shrugged. Would anyone want a shield like this? Oh, soldiers maybe, and him, as protection against the evil Wensa, but who else needed something like this? Still, the food dryers might be useful, so they could sell. Dried fruit took a lot of prep time, because big pieces or whole fruit didn't air dry well, they rotted and mildewed. With what he'd come up with — what he and Rolph had come up with, he corrected — whole fruits, even large ones, and vegetables could be processed within minutes, right out in the field.
    He nodded and grinned at the blond.
    “Sure. Ten percent of any sales you set up.”
    The girl turned half to the side, looking at him strangely. If he'd been back in his own village he would have thought she was being coy. Here it was probably something else. Like she wanted something from him. Trice pushed her on the shoulder to move the girl out of the way, looking down at him the dark haired girl cleared her throat.
    “It's like this Tor. Sara has some connections in manufacturing, and if you're willing to part with the templates for these fields, she can set up having a lot of them made. You don't get as much money from each one, but silvers add up too. Plus it's a lot less work for you in the long run. Still, you make these things pretty fast, so it's something to think about. I think it comes down to how many other ideas you want to work on. If you want to hang with these, you get more gold making them yourself as fast as you can. If you want to do other devices, it's worth more to free up the time and let other people do the copies for you.” The girl didn't shrug, instead she nodded as if trying to get him to just agree with her.
    Of course he already knew about using templates in manufacturing. It was kind of the point of novel building, at least if you weren't making a one up. You wanted copies and ideally you set up the templates to be easy to do up by anyone that had the talent. Tor had, on all the templates he'd built. It took hours of extra work, but it was potentially worth it. It was part of the reason he could make batches of ten at once in the copying process. Not every builder used the multiple copy idea, but about half were now.
    “Sure, that should work. Let me get some run up here first, for our own use and for sale or whatever. Um, is anyone going to be interested in these things though? I mean a clothes drying device is handy, but how many people can afford ten or elven gold for something like that? The food dryers, well those should make money, but may take some time to catch on. Shields… Well, same thing really. We could probably make enough right here given what people will want, right?”
    For some reason everyone started laughing at him, he looked around to see if someone had put a sign on his back when he wasn't looking, but Rolph shook his head.
    “Nah, look Tor, you're thinking on a village scale, but Sara and her people can take this across the land. Maybe even into other lands eventually. A lot of people will want some of these things.”
    Laughing Tor waved that away, since it didn't sound likely at all, but told them that they could do whatever they wanted. Sure, he'd like some coin from it, who wouldn't? But what did he really need? As a kid he'd dreamed of making a lot, like a hundred golds per year. Past that… What would he do with it anyway? Buy a bunch of things he didn't need? With that much money he could build the fields he wanted and not have to worry about going hungry or losing his home. Even have some left for savings and luxuries as long as he didn't go crazy with it.
    He'd leave the money part to his friends. After all, school had to come first. Of course that meant surviving long enough. Wensa… What was he going to do about her anyway? He couldn't kill her. A Royal Guard was protected from most prosecution and their death treated the same as killing a noble almost. His family might survive, but they'd all be dispossessed of worldly goods after his execution. Count Lairdgren would see to that no doubt. So it was right out. He couldn't run, because that would make him look guilty. Tor had the shield, but he needed to fix the problems and gaps in it. She was too smart not to have noticed those. She may be evil, but she wasn't teaching economics because it was the world's most simple class. She had to know what she was talking about there too, on top of being a Royal Guard.
    A slow cord over the neck would take him out right now, or a pillow over his head while he slept. She might be big and strong enough to do that to him.
    So fix it. The thought practically rang in his mind for a few moments.
    Right. Don't be a crybaby, just get ready and do what could be done. It was all he really had after all.
    Torrence knew that he couldn't afford to wait for her to come after him. He had to find out how she'd attack, and defend against it first, because she'd be too good to let have the upper hand. Most of the teachers had left, so he asked the people remaining how they thought Wensa would come for him next. Rolph looked angry and started to reassure him, but Kolb put out his right hand in a gesture meant to get him not to speak.
    “Right now? Well, she had to have noticed the suffocation problem when she used fire. That has to be addressed. Also, the slow field passage is a gap you can't afford, but I'm betting you already saw that. If you don't fix that one, all the combat instructors will use it against you. Mental forces would be next after that I'd think. We didn't test them, but off the battlefield they aren't often used as weapons. She'd have to import something, but that could happen, she has the resources, so I wouldn't leave it long.” He tapped his fingers on his chin.
    “Some of the Austran weapons use incredibly tiny machines, and illnesses, so things to defeat that would also be good. I don't know if she can get those, but I don't know she can't either. Other than that…” He spread his hands as if to say he didn't know.
    Count Thomson stepped towards him with a nod. “Poisons. Normally a Royal Guard wouldn't bother, but it's not totally unheard of. Something to watch for if she can't get at you any other way. If I can think of it inside ten seconds, she can do it in three.”
    The idea made Tor want to faint. He had to eat in the dining hall. He couldn't afford anything else. He didn't see the food being prepared at all, it just came out through a window at him three times a day. How could he protect himself there? As an instructor she could just walk in and add poison to his food without anyone even trying to stop her or crying foul. Then as a Royal Guard she could walk away chuckling about how stupid he was. Totally unpunished for killing him.
    From the back of the group a cluster of combat giants pushed Petra forward suddenly and she spoke, her voice surprisingly soft and kind sounding.
    “What about electrical weapons? Those haven't been tested for yet… Or light based ones?”
    That sounded highly likely. All of it did. Especially since he hadn't even known that half those things existed at all.
    “Of course…” The Count looked at him seriously his eyes dark for a moment. Then suddenly he smiled. “I do know a certain Count that could simply order her not to kill you. She can't countermand that unless the King orders it done you know. That should at least buy you a little time. As long as you don't make the King mad at you, and he's a decently level-headed person.” The blond giant man winked at him knowingly.
    “In fact, if you ever meet him, I'm sure the two of you will be fast friends. He tends to like people that actually manage to get things done. So that has you written all over it.”
    “Would you speak to her? Just knowing that she didn't plan to kill me in my sleep would be a relief. Or poison my food. I could probably put up with the rest if I could get those…”
    Smiling the man nodded and said he'd see what he could arrange directly. It felt like a heavy weight lifted from his shoulders. Of course, just because she wouldn't be trying to kill him, that didn't mean she couldn't just get someone else to do it. He had to make what preparations he could fast. It was like the Count had said, if he could think of a way around it, so could she. It was her job after all. Only a fool would underestimate her.
    Carefully Tor walked back to his room with Rolph and the girls, watching around himself as he did. After a few minutes Trice asked why he was being so paranoid. He blinked. Had she not been paying attention?
    “Um, let's see, crazy woman just used three weapons trying to kill me, and two of them weren't anything I'd ever seen before. The shield wasn't even supposed to be able to stop anything like that. If I hadn't just guessed that something like that might happen, I'd be dead right now. I know the Count said he'd give an order, but… Really, Royal Guards aren't well known for being sane? She could just decide that her dying was worth it, in order to take me out… Why I don't know, but her thinking I'm a threat doesn't make any sense at all either. Insane doesn't always have a reason that normal can understand, right?”
    He glanced at his friends and they all looked a bit worried. After all, he had a point, didn't he? Trice put her arm across his shoulders, or at least tried to. The action from walking kept the shield pushing her arm away from him. She laughed and told him that no matter how pissed Wensa was at him, she wouldn't dare kill him with a Ducherina on his arm. Too great a chance of accidentally getting her instead.
    Grudgingly he disabled the field so he wouldn't look stupid. The girl put her arm over his shoulders protectively, as if he were a little kid that needed her to save him. He considered that for a moment, and tilted his head. That was about right, wasn't it? If nothing else he could always pretend she was trying to tell him she liked him. It wasn't true of course, but he could imagine it. Well… if he tried really hard at least.
    That night, instead of eating, giving that a pass at least until he had word that Wensa had orders not to poison him, Tor decided to make more copies of things instead. It would take a few days for him to work up to his next project anyway. Rolph and Sara wanted more clothes dryers and the first batch of the food ones for testing. Trice suggested he put out a good bunch of shields for the school, even if he was going to make better ones soon, because that would spread good will. He sent Rolph out to get more copper plates and acid for etching then got to work.
    For the next week he spent most of his free time making up field copies, which oddly enough kept his instructors happy, so he didn't even have to do out of class work for any of them. Kolb made him run and practice every day for two hours, but that wasn't new or anything.
    On the sixth day a rare spring time freeze happened, catching everyone off guard. It wasn't just chilly, the ground actually froze solid outside, a bitter cold that made it hard to sleep, even under thick blankets, filled the rooms. The fires could be started down on the lowest levels, but by the time his and Rolph's room warmed up, it probably wouldn't be even cold anymore. The school wasn't even going to bother with it, figuring that it would be largely wasted effort.
    Could he use a field device for that? It would have to be huge, but…
    Tor started drawing up the plans. Halfway through he started laughing. Couldn't he just reverse the process in the summer and cool down a house or room as well? The idea was simple enough, pull heat from the ground, deep down where it was warm, when cold weather came and then do the opposite in hot weather, which should keep everything roughly in balance in the ground over time even. He smiled. It shouldn't even be that hard. That was basically how he'd built the shield to defeat extreme heat after all, so he already kind of knew what to do.
    Two days later, still incredibly cold outside, he hit the warming sigil and waited, the room grew toasty, and then after a few hours, almost too warm. He turned it off to see what would happen. The heat left slowly, just like from a fire. Unlike a fire, the whole room was warm, no cold spot by the door particularly or along the back wall away from the fire. Heh. Worked.
    Later that night everyone came to his and Rolph's room to hang out, mainly to talk business. Sara jokingly asked him to marry her when he explained the field to them. He laughed, but no one else did. Trice shook her head, arms crossing playfully, then looking directly at her friend.
    “Sorry Sara, I saw him first. Anyway, how many of these can you get going by tomorrow?”
    The answer varied, based on how much sleep he'd be willing to do without. The answer that satisfied everyone was twenty. Sara acted like even that was nearly impossible, but it wouldn't be that hard, maybe taking three or four hours, tops. The girls waited while he made the first batch, each of them taking one and putting it in their coat pockets when he had them done. Sara pulled the rest of them to take with her and urged him to start the next batch, which she'd be back for in the morning, she promised.
    Rolph stayed quiet and mercifully didn't tease him about the girls mocking him earlier about marriage like that, after they left, allowing him to get right back to work. He turned his light off so that the other boy could sleep and finished an hour before midnight. As long as he didn't toss and turn, he could get nearly eight hours sleep before he had to be up in the morning for meditations. Yay. That had worked out at least. It was a lot easier to sleep in a warm room than freezing cold.
    The next morning Sara came for the next batch just before he had to go to breakfast, the girl didn't follow him, having promised the heating and cooling plates to some of her friends already. Well, at least they'd all sleep warm that night. He didn't really think about anything but school work for a while after that, except for making incremental shield improvements. He came up with a breathing tube function that would let him go underwater at least a bit. He still got wet, but air went into his mouth and nose as long as he didn't go deeper than three feet. At that depth he couldn't force his lungs to draw the air in for some reason, it felt like the air just wasn't thick enough. Not that he planned on trying that anytime soon, but it was nice to know he could if someone managed to throw him in the pond.
    It wasn't until a few weeks later, when Kolb presented him with his next assignment of “insane combat giant” building that things really started to get shaken up. Sara had collected the templates and sent them off to her mother, so his personal copy work had ended for the time being. She gave out a lot of the fields he'd made to people at the school, which didn't bother him at all really. If they could use them, why shouldn't people have them? Tor didn't get the whole pretending they were being sold thing himself, maybe that was just a game rich people played or maybe Sara wasn't as good at selling things as she pretended? It left him more time for Kolb's new project, which was something that he'd never even thought of before.
    “Wait… You want me to make it so a man can fly?”
    The weapons instructor just nodded as if it wasn't a totally crazy idea. People didn't fly, did they? Could they?
    “It can be done, the Austrans do it all the time. In fact their ability to move people by air is pretty much the only thing that lets them really challenge us in direct conflict. They fly over and drop chemical explosives on us from great heights. Our shields and weapons are as good or better on the ground, but as often as not they simply won't close with us for that reason. I won't tell you how to get it done, but if you could have that for me in say… a month?” The man winked at him. It was a happy thing that said… Not a lot more than that. The weapons instructor just wasn't sane.
    Tor had suspected it for a long time now, this just proved it.
    At first he just shook his head. The idea was ridiculous. Just crazy. Except… well, he'd seen a man fly hadn't he? The Count could do it. So could the Austrans apparently. If they could, then why couldn't he build a device for it?
    A field that told the smallest portions of a person which direction to move… Well, that could be done. It was a huge field for that type of thing. Vast, which meant it would have to be strong, massively so, but basically, telling the little things to move is all a cutter did. Organize them all in a single direction, say up, harder than the downward force, and the person or object should float. Then move the field, tilting it in the direction you wanted to go to move around…
    Finally Kolb shook him and asked him if he was alright. Tor nodded and walked away, not bothering saying anything. He only had a month after all. In a lot of ways this would be way harder than just shielding from things, especially if he wanted to keep it low in energy use, which was pretty much inherent in the idea. If it took too much personal energy the whole thing just wouldn't work. You'd get a few feet in the air and then freeze to death or die of exhaustion.
    First he had to test the basic idea itself.
    Back in his room he carefully built a small field into a wooden block that simply told it to go up in the air. Tor felt a sense of excitement when he hit the tiny sigil he'd put on the bottom. It floated up, to the ceiling of course and didn't come back down. It wasn't strong enough to make him rise, so he could hold it on the table while deactivating it. Good, it would have been embarrassing trying to explain to Rolph why a block of wood the size of his foot was stuck to their ceiling.
    So part one worked. The second part, steering, was harder. Mainly because his initial idea of how to do it was flawed. The idea had made sense, directing the field with his mind, but it proved to be monstrously hard to put into practice. Even spending the rest of the month designing that part, there wouldn't be enough time to get the work done. It had to be rethought which made him sigh. It would have been so cool to direct his flight just by thinking about it like the Count could.
    By using a second device, he could tilt the field in any direction at a distance, so that much worked, but he didn't have a clue as to how to pick how high it went or how to control it for a soft set down. It worried at his mind for weeks, as the deadline approached. Tor knew he was living in some kind of odd fugue state by the time he finally understood that all he needed was a simple control over how much upward directed force there was.
    It was an organizing field.
    All he had to do was disorganize it slowly to come down and reorganize to rise. Tor wondered if it would do actual brain damage to beat himself in the head with a brick or if that might make him smarter? It was so basic that he should have seen the idea in seconds, not weeks.
    The work itself nearly killed him, of course.
    The hours and days of work he was used to didn't harden him to four days without water or food apparently. Oh well. He managed to get the work done before he collapsed, and that, really, was what mattered right? Getting the job done in time?
    When he woke up Trice sat next to his bed, looking more than a little pissed. Well worried at first, then angry when he focused on her. She crossed her arms and glared for a long time before she spoke.
    “Dying over a school project has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard, and I've heard some really lame headed things. From now on eat and drink at least if you're going to try moronic things like this… whatever it is. Got it? If not, I will personally be coming around to kick your ass next time instead of feed you broth and sooth your head with a damp cloth. Is that understood?” Her tone was severe, as if she actually meant it instead of her normal playful teasing.
    Well… if he collapsed Tor couldn't do the work she and Sara wanted, he supposed. That was probably what this was all about, her protecting an asset. Still, nice of her to come around and visit him. No one else had, he noticed.
    She wouldn't let him do anything except sleep for the next day. Not even get up to try out the new device as annoying as that was. The odds of it working right were small and if there were massive problems he needed to know about them so he could attempt a fix before the month was out. How she got him out of classes he didn't know. No one came to bother him about it at least, not that anyone would. He really had to be better about that, Tor knew. Attending classes was kind of why he'd come to school in the first place and they still had a lot to teach him.
    Like how to not push himself into exhaustion while still getting his work done maybe? That would be a lesson he didn't want to miss.
    Trice didn't sleep in his room, so he could have gone out to test the device at night, but that seemed almost suicidally stupid. Crashing into the ground or a tree because he couldn't see it? Brilliant plan. Trice would kick his behind then. What was left of it anyway. Everyone else would probably help her do it too, stomping the little red smear he left on the dirt under their hard boots. He'd wait for the next day and go slow, so that he could see his death coming at him properly when he messed up.
    Excited, he got up as daylight came, false dawn, and headed out to the weapons practice square. If he crashed and died he could at least let everyone else get a good night's sleep, right? He didn't try to figure out the odds of that happening. His chances of surviving probably weren't all that good…
    Wanting to kick himself he headed back to his room and got his shield. Would it work in the air? Probably. If he crashed the force should go into the ground, right? He hadn't designed it for that, but it was better than nothing, so much better he kind of wondered if anyone should fly without a shield at all, ever. He checked carefully to make sure that no one was watching, just in case it simply didn't work, or made him look funny or something. A vision of him hanging upside down screaming came to mind suddenly, which earned a nervous smile.
    That would probably happen, given his luck. At least if anyone was watching. On his right hand he had a single hemp string with the small coin sized copper control plate in the palm. It made a nice enough looking square decoration at least. Tor couldn't close his hand while flying though or he'd drop from the sky, turning both fields off. At least if he ever thought the wrong thing. After a moment he decided to move it to the back of his hand for safety. That way he could use his other hand to control it without accidental death being quite so likely.
    In general, he decided, death should be avoided. It would make him look bad if nothing else. Plus leave a mess that someone else would have to clean up and that wouldn't be fair at all. Who just left corpses lying around like that? Not him, that was for certain. Talk about rude…
    Taking a few deep breaths he held his right hand low, palm even with the ground below him and reached over with his left hand, tapping the design on the back, a single line in a floppy “V” shape to represent a bird and waited. Nothing happened. He kind of expected to float a little. Had he missed hitting the sigil? That really shouldn't matter given the design, just hitting near it with strong intent should be enough. He taped it again and nothing happened. Then he realized that if it had been on, he'd just turned it off, so he hit it again. Still nothing.
    Then in frustration he lifted his right hand to look at it and found himself suddenly shooting up in the air. Fast. Initially he wanted to dash his hand down in response, but realized that would have him plummeting to the ground. Instead he slowly moved his hand back towards his waist. Thankful suddenly that he was wearing brown trousers, not that he needed the camouflage yet, but just in case. Then he stopped, just hanging in midair.
    His heart pounded hard, but after a few seconds he realized that learning to fly there, at several hundred feet, was a lot safer as far as not crashing into things than being near the ground was. As long as he didn't drop suddenly he'd be fine. Slowly, not sure how fast he would go, he pushed his right hand forward. The cool breeze became cold as he started to move, picking up speed as he went, until he felt like he almost couldn't breathe. The ground below didn't move that fast, but he had a sneaking suspicion that he was flying a lot quicker than he thought. After a minute he noticed he was over what had to be Lenders, so five miles in just over a minute? Seven miles? That was fast enough. Not as fast as he could have gone most likely, but much faster and he wouldn't have been able to get enough air to breath.
    Then he practiced turning, which took a more careful hand than just going straight by far, the controls spinning him wildly several times before he managed to stop. He reeled, feeling a little sick after a moment Tor tried moving first side to side and then backwards. That all worked wonderfully. The turning was a lot harder, the controls for that were more sensitive for some reason than the other directions. He had to work on it for about fifteen minutes just to keep from spinning randomly when he tried it. If he ever remade the field that part would need to be changed he decided.
    It felt a bit like floating in water, only without the resistance. It was a pleasant, airy feeling, once he got used to not having his feet on the ground. He flew back towards the school complex a little faster than he'd gone out, just to see how fast it would go. It took less time, but he couldn't tell how much, since he didn't own a pocket watch and wouldn't have taken it out if he had one, not while trying to fly like he was. If he dropped an expensive watch from here it would break and even if it didn't it would be lost forever in the evergreen trees below.
    With a little care he found the practice square, everything looked different from the air, which made sense, new perspectives and all, but was something he'd never thought about before. It was hard to be really patient, but Tor wanted to be extra careful going down. This flying thing had worked so far which meant dying now wouldn't just make him look bad. Worse, it would probably get him a bad mark from Kolb on what was essentially a solid build.
    Moving slowly would be important here he figured, as dashing into the ground couldn't be fun, shield or not. Starting about a hundred feet up in the air he left his hand in place almost and let himself drift down slowly. The whole trip downwards took about two minutes, but he landed safely, something that had worried him more than he'd admitted and turned off the whole thing easily with a casual tap.
    Good. He already had ten copies of this one. Not because he'd been sure it would work, just as backups, because he didn't want to lose all the work he'd done. It had taken way too long to act casually about this time.
    Flying was fun, he decided and could be useful for the military or people that wanted to travel, he guessed. The average person wouldn't have a lot of use for it probably, but hey, the idea wasn't to make leisure easier, but to pass his classes. Flying people had been the assignment, and he had it ready.
    Yay him.
    Tor thought about it all and wondered if his initial concept of how many of these things people would need was about right? So far he hadn't gotten any money for his work, except what Rolph had paid him. That was alright. There was more than enough to buy the materials he needed for now and Tor had even splurged on a little chest to keep his money in. It wasn't as big or as nice as the one his roommate had, but it was bigger and contained more gold and silver than he'd even imagined himself as having for real.
    Thinking about it he wondered if he should send some of it home? His older brother Teral had started a family the year before, and had a child on the way. They could use a little bit extra to get started. He pulled ten gold of the nearly fifty he had left and set it aside for them. How to get it to them was a problem, but he'd figure something out.
    Maybe Rolph could help? He knew how to do that kind of merchanty stuff, sending packages and all. It was in his blood.

Chapter five

    The warmth of the afternoon surprised Tor a little. The day before hadn't been chilly, but he hadn't needed a short sleeved tunic either. Not that he owned one, extra clothing like that was a luxury that only the wealthy had. By noon he kind of felt like he might melt. On the good side, he was pretty sure that no one else would feel any better than he did with the sudden change, if that was a positive thing at all. Shared misery was better than if it was just him, right?
    That didn't feel correct, but he smiled anyway. What was, he knew, was. He couldn't control the temperature of the world after all. Rolph found him sitting in the room sweating in his undershirt, working on a new build design, and laughed for nearly a full minute before he could explain.
    “Seriously? Most of the school is cool and pleasant, using a device that you designed and made… we have one right there.” Walking to the wall he pressed the sigil to activate the field, and the room's temperature dropped almost instantly. “Just remember to turn it off every hour or so or you'll freeze to death. I hear that this summer they're planning to use one in the local ice house. I wanted to send one to my parents, you know how hot the summers are in the Capital city, right? But it turns out they already got one as a gift. Pretty neat, huh? Your work being all the way down there already?
    “Mom told me in her last letter that they got to see a flying demonstration too. Everyone came out for it. Oh! That reminds me, um, if you can get away, you're invited for the month break mid-summer. Everyone wants to meet you, so I kind of said you'd come already…”
    Tor shrugged. He should help out at home, but that wasn't actually needed. As it was they had enough hands to bake for the whole village twice over. Three times over, Tor adjusted, having gotten a letter telling him how Tamon, his littlest sister had started working in the shop now, being four. Apparently she had a real talent for it too. With her there that meant no one had to watch her, freeing two sets of hands for the shop. They probably argued over who got to actually work. He always had as a child. Better to work than just stand around after all. It was way more interesting.
    He agreed to go, not really thinking about it at the time, except that, if they were flying, he needed to come up with a device that would let them take their gear with them. That or learn to pack really light. Tor started drawing up the plans while Rolph spoke. At least his friend didn't get worked up about him doing that, working and talking at the same time. He just scribbled the ideas down now, so he'd remember it later.
    “Anyway, Trice and Sara are going too, and Tovey but he really has to go for work purposes not socializing overly, but it will be cool for the rest of us. My parents have asked if you'd stay with us though, instead of with him? He offered, of course, it wasn't even a real question to him, but mom said you were almost family anyway and it would be rude to have you stay on the outskirts of the city like that… Not that you've met my parents yet, but I've mentioned you a couple of times in letters, since you know, we're best friends and all that.”
    Without looking down overly he wrote that he'd need five full sets of flying gear and at least five lifts to carry stuff. Girls had a lot of things, didn't they? And Counts too probably. With Tovey it was most likely practice weapons and junk like that. So ten lifts then. Right. He had a month or so, which shouldn't be a problem. It was only a redesign of the flight field…
    Of course, everything took longer than it should have. Sara's mother sent an emergency request for a water purification field device which set his plans back a bit. It was just a filter which was a common enough piece of magic, little ones for personal drinking water and the like, but apparently they needed one that could cover the aquifer of a large city. That field was harder to build than the flying one was originally, because the area it had to cover was just that huge. This time he stocked water first and a bit of food, so the six days he was locked in his room weren't as dangerous at least.
    He lost weight and Kolb yelled at him for not exercising enough, but the city had clean water again wherever it was, even though a sewage line had broken into their underground water system. He made ten copies of it, so that in a few years, when the first one wore out, the city wouldn't have to come find him again. If they hadn't fixed it in twenty years, that was their problem. He made sure that Sara included that in her return note with the devices. He didn't want to be mean, but seriously, there were limits, right?
    The rest of the month was rushed then and he barely had time to get the lifts ready for luggage by the time they were supposed to leave. Apparently he'd also forgotten to mention to anyone else that they were flying instead of going by wagon, or given that they were traveling with a Count, a coach.
    It wasn't that big a deal, they'd all flown already and the Count actually went up daily. His personal ability to fly he assured Tor wasn't nearly as interesting or as comfortable as using a flying rig. After all, he had to be in full combat rage for it to work and only flew about five feet off the ground most of the time. Slowly. Plus it left him with a horrible headache.
    Tor was glad he liked it.
    With the new gear they should be able to get to the Capital much faster than if they had to go by horse or wagon. Trice asked who was flying with her three trunks, crossing her arms and raising her dark eyebrows at him. She didn't sound happy about it either.
    “I guess we can put them on your shoulders, but it's going to get a little hard for you to see when we add everyone else's…” She crossed her arms as if challenging him to tell her that they couldn't take their things. Like things were important? He almost laughed at her, but handed over the lifts instead, deciding to forgo the beating that would probably incur and helped her to fix the hand size copper plates with straps to the bottom of each trunk.
    “So, here's the nifty part. Use the plate on the back of your hand to activate the ones on the trunk. Do that first!” He stopped the Count from getting the order wrong, since that would involve a dark gray leather clad giant slamming around at speed. With a shield on that meant that everyone else was in greater danger than him, but still, not a fun way to start a pleasure trip. “Then just take a position about five to ten feet away from it and activate normally… like this.”
    He started with a simple tap of his left hand on the stylized bird, a whitish green on copper. He thought it was pretty, but apparently some of the high level merchant ladies wanted them in crystal instead, with finely engraved birds scratched in by artists. All he had to do was authorize it being done at a manufacturing plant, so it wasn't a hassle for him at least.
    Lifting up to about twenty feet so that everyone could see what was happening clearly. His single trunk, an old one of Rolph's that he'd lent for the trip, instead of the burlap sack Tor normally used for traveling, tracked with him perfectly.
    “Just don't fly too close to each other, or the trunks will end up colliding!”
    Everyone took him seriously and spread out a good ways. Trice smirked at him for some reason but didn't say anything to him directly. At least he didn't have to try and carry her trunks himself. That would have been hilarious, right up until he either dropped them or they caused him to crash to his death. He wasn't sure which one of those options would have been worse for him personally and decided to be glad he'd thought of a fix for the problem first.
    the Capital was about two thousand miles to the south of the school and a bit east which, as long as they all wore shields the whole time to protect from the wind, they could travel inside ten hours. Less really, but everyone wanted to stop to eat, and use the facilities in some of the nicer cities they saw from the air several times. All the new people made Tor feel uneasy, so he didn't say a lot and tried not to gawk like a bumpkin overly each time they landed. People stared at them openly of course, because flying was still new and most places hadn't even seen it yet. Some people even pointed and waved, which made him self-conscious, but he waved back when he noticed it. They all did.
    The last leg took longer, because they had to follow a river as a landmark, and it didn't travel in a straight line. There was a stone paved road next to it most of the way, which was the only sign that it was the right place, since a big river in one area probably looked a lot like any other. It did glint a bright and pretty blue from the air at least, the light twinkling and shiny from above. It was nice and cool up where they were, but on the ground it was hot and got worse each time they landed. It made Tor glad that Rolph's parents had one of the cooling plates already.
    He had a few extra, more than a few, of everything, tucked away in his trunk, just in case they were expected to bring gifts. No one had said anything, but that was normal in Two Bends and the surrounding area. If you were going to call on someone you brought a little something, a bit of bread or cider was traditional, but extra meat or even some flowers could work. He just hoped that his little homemade things wouldn't be considered too tacky by these wealthy and powerful people. Maybe they'd just think it was quaint and be happy that he'd tried to be polite and hadn't wiped his mouth on the curtains or mated with the livestock?
    He could only hope. Everyone assured him that he'd be a hit, as long as he didn't forget to talk to people like he sometimes did when an idea struck him. He promised that he'd try to remember, which made everyone smirk at him except Count Thomson, who smiled warmly and nodded encouragingly.
    Trice waved to him and pointed ahead, where a city at least ten times larger than anything he'd seen before shone like a jewel, a thick white wall around the outside and a riot of color inside, offset by the walls of most of the buildings, identical to the outside of the city, a glowing bright white in the sun.
    About ten miles outside the place a group of men met them, flying with what were probably military grade lances in their left hands. Copper plates with pale green birds visible on their right hands held in place by very stylish looking dark brown leather strips. It was a good look. His was held in place with hemp twine, which made him feel a bit self-conscious for a moment. Everyone else had something nicer than that. Count Thomson had a heavy silver chain, Sara a bright blue ribbon and Trice a light tan leather thong. OK, Rolph had twine too, but on him it looked manly and like a statement about how he didn't care about fashion. On Tor it probably just seemed poor. Which was the truth, but he didn't want strangers to think that. It probably looked bad enough wearing his old brown exercise outfit.
    At least Rolph had done the same thing, probably so he wouldn't feel out of place. The guy had nicer clothing too, so that almost had to be it. It was really kind of him to have thought of it.
    The man in front stared at them as they approached, not saying anything, his face blank and calm, if a little stern. Everyone, the guards and his friends, slowed and then stopped, just hanging at the same level in the air, so Tor did too. By their red and white uniforms and funny looking round hats, these were city guards of some kind rather than an actual military force, so at least they weren't all going to be killed out of hand. Tor hoped that was the case at any rate. One of the men in the back floated forward and whistled before the one in front could greet them.
    “Damn.” He pointed at the floating luggage trunks with the weapon in his left hand, sounding impressed. “How are you all doing that? That is so…” The man in front turned and scowled at the man, clearly junior to the others. He mumbled an embarrassed apology and floated back into position, causing a few of the men to have to fight smiles from their faces.
    The front guard made a curious gesture in the air, a wave of the left hand that Tor realized must be a weapons salute with the off hand. They needed their right to fly. He supposed he could switch the field over in case they needed to fight, he just hadn't thought of it when doing the original design. After all, Torrence hadn't been planning to fight from the air himself so just hadn't considered it.
    The Count and Trice nodded back, as did Rolph. Sara made a bob in the air, a curtsy he realized after a second. It looked cute, but then she was cute, so anything she did tended to look adorable. He didn't know what he was supposed to do, so he decided to go with what he would have done had he seen these kinds of men in his home village.
    Then he immediately thought better of it.
    Screaming “run away” and trying to fly away as fast as possible to hide in the forest might not be taken too well, especially since there was no forest in sight. And really, everyone was supposed to be here, even him, as awkward as it felt at the moment. He nodded his head and murmured. “Greetings sirs.”
    No one shot him or even glared, so it must not have been too poorly done. The lead guardsman gave him a courteous nod even making brief eye contact. He hadn't with the others at all though.
    “Sirs and ladies, please identify yourselves…” The lead man didn't look at anyone directly then, eyes going to the right, possibly so that it wouldn't seem rude, him looking at the wrong person first or something. There were rules to that kind of thing Tor guessed. At home he would have just looked at the ground himself if presented with obvious royals like the Count and Trice, but doing that here would probably be a poor idea. You tended to fly where you looked.
    The Count did all the introductions for them. Appropriate being the highest ranked person in the group.
    “I'm Count Toverland Morehouse Thomson. To my right is the Ducherina Patricia Alyson Morgan. Behind her is Sara Debri, daughter of the Debri merchant house. The red haired fellow is Alphonse, but we all call him Rolph at school and when traveling… you understand? The last man… is Tor.”
    The men all bowed in the air, low and humble looking, which they had to have practiced, because it required bringing the right hand up just slightly, almost too small an amount to see, at the same time they folded their bodies to give the right impression without sending them flipping head over heels. One of the men almost lost it, or so it looked to Tor. He probably couldn't have managed the move himself either, so he couldn't fault the guy. The lead man spoke again.
    “Pri…” He started but the Count and Rolph both shook their heads “no” for some reason, flustering the man for a moment. “Worthies, please be welcome to the Capital city. As the advent of flying is new here, we ask that… all persons please enter the city through the main gate, where transportation may be arranged for you. I trust that will be sufficient?”
    The man looked nervous, sweating a little even if it wasn't all that hot up here. Maybe the Count being there shocked him, or… Well, it could be the girls? They were good looking and maybe they didn't have a lot of ladies flying around yet? At school it was slightly skewed towards men flying so far, but about forty percent of the regular flyers were royal girls or female combat giants, which was often the same thing. Or… the trunks? It was new. Maybe they suspected they were for weapons or something? Thinking about it he decided that he'd make them land too. Any tall man could claim to be a Count, but who had flying luggage? Only them.
    Suspicious without a doubt.
    The guards, whose leader introducing himself as Captain Curtis, guided them to the main gate easily. They obviously had gotten to fly about as much as anyone from the way they handled themselves. Out of this group Tor realized that he was the one that probably had the least time in the air. Well, maybe he'd get a little time while on break to practice? If nothing else he'd already gotten a full day's worth, which was better than nothing. On the ground they had to wait for a carriage or something to come they were told, since strictly speaking, flying had been forbidden in the city.
    Curtis the guard looked at them, standing straight and looked from Rolph to Tovey several times. “Accidents sir. The King himself laid the restriction.”
    Rolph shrugged and turned to Tor.
    “No big thing, we can hire a cab to take us around. Maybe we can signal for one from here?”
    They didn't have to, it turned out, since not one but three had already been called up for them by someone that had seen them flying in. One for the people and two for all the trunks. That kind of made sense, because anyone flying in would need transportation, wouldn't they? They could have stacked all the trunks in one, nothing they had was that heavy, but apparently people didn't do that in the Capital. It wasn't seemly. Right, well Tor didn't want to look like a bumpkin either, so he just nodded and hoped the cabs wouldn't cost too much for the hire.
    It was hot here, blistering even in the shade, nearly the worse heat he'd ever felt not standing next to an oven. No one else seemed to mind it at all, so Tor didn't mention it, but they all started to soak through their clothing too. So at least they didn't have some inborn immunity to it. After a long time, almost an hour which felt longer, they pulled up a long paved drive to a house that was bigger than any private dwelling he'd ever seen. It was closer in size to some of the larger school dorms.
    “This isn't my main residence, which is in my district of course. This is just the third place, for when we have to meet down here for the fall conferences. I must say Tor, flying this distance beats the pants off of driving it. I'm almost certain that many of the peers will want to try it as soon as they hear how much faster and pleasant it is.”
    He led them inside to see if he could scare up some refreshments for them all. The servants blushed and scurried. Apparently they hadn't expected Tovey back for over a week at least, possibly a lot longer than that. They didn't have anything special prepared for guests at all, which seemed like some kind of a big deal to the poor guy that had to tell them. The Count looked embarrassed too, but Tor just shrugged.
    “Some cool water would be good. No need to stress these people out just because I insisted we all fly. My fault after all, right? All the way around really… How were they supposed to know?” The servant in the room, a man in gray clothes, nicer than anything Tor owned, didn't nod, but he looked grateful that this had been pointed out. Hopefully the Count wouldn't blame these people. It really had been his fault, after all, Tor had invented the devices to begin with. Or, if they wanted they could all blame Kolb, but that still didn't free up Tor for assuming they'd be traveling that way.
    The water came without anyone leaving the room to fetch it. It even had ice in it, which in this climate must be hard to come by, and expensive to keep on hand. Tor felt his mind start to drift. Could they use a field that removed heat from a small area, insulated with rock like an oven, in order to create real freezing conditions? Heck, couple it with an oven and you should be able to kill two birds with one stone. He basically had the field already, the temperature plates, all he had to do was figure out how he wanted to manage it all. Maybe he could try it later, if anyone had some boxes or something he could use.
    Trice stood in front of him smiling and talking, so he decided to pay attention before she hit him. Tor still had his shield on at least. It was one of the new ones that could breathe underwater and made it a lot harder to choke or suffocate him. That wouldn't stop the girl from trying if she took the idea into her head. He wondered if all female nobles were as violently oriented as she was. His sisters were all meek by comparison and they'd known him all their lives, so you'd think if anyone were going to hit him, it would have been one of them, but Trice apparently didn't think her behavior towards him was odd.
    She didn't try to hit Rolph or Tovey like that.
    It did fit his rule of not getting into a fight with someone bigger than you are though, maybe it was just that?
    “So we should get to our own dwellings. Remember, Debri house tomorrow for luncheon, which is mid-afternoon here, Tor. Rolph will get you there on time. Don't be late.” The girl smiled at him and patted the back of his hand, which she had to take in her own in order to do, slippery as it was from the shield. It felt awkward to him, her touching him like that, not really making contact at all, not unpleasant, just strange. It was a mental thing he knew. The implied contact with a pretty girl being off putting, not the way it felt through the shield which was just like his hand moved on its own a little.
    Rolph and he reloaded one of the carriages with their trunks and arranged the other two for the girls without being asked. Just as they finished several house servants boiled out of the Count's dwelling looking mortified.
    “Sir! We…” He looked down at the ground, clearly ashamed.
    Why Tor couldn't get at all.
    Rolph finished for the man. “You… don't need to be out in this heat? Thanks for thinking of us though. It looks like we've got this in hand. Now, back inside, out of the sun.” Rolph smiled and gestured a little with his left hand. The man went as if the gentle suggestion was a command. All of them did, practically running to get back inside. Tor couldn't blame them, this heat was damned oppressive. It made him wonder why they'd put the Capital here in the first place. He didn't ask out loud, not wanting to insult his friends since this was their home, at least for Rolph and Sara. It hadn't been their idea, since the Capital had stood here for hundreds of years at least.
    Trice patted his arm and climbed in her carriage to be led away. Sara stopped for a second and stood by, watching them leave with a small grin. Then she got in her own carriage, from the window she shouted out that Tor should come with any new ideas he had too.
    As if he wouldn't? Didn't she know him at all by now? He smiled at her and waved as the gold and white carriage moved away slowly.
    The drive to Rolph's house took a lot longer, almost two hours. They had to wind back and forth along several streets before they got to the back of a walled compound. Inside the tall brilliantly white wall, which stretched up about thirty feet, he could see a large house and then, off in the distance, a much bigger building. Huge in fact. Bigger than all the school buildings put together. He was feeling over awed when Rolph shrugged and pointed at the smaller one.
    “Our stop. Don't let that big thing fool you, that's for the important people, you and I should have this to ourselves, I think, unless there are other guests. We'll have dinners here, most of the time, my mother wants to come the first night to welcome you, tonight. If that's alright? We could beg off, if you're too tired, but I haven't seen her in a while. Dad may or may not come. He gets busy, you know?”
    Rolph led them into the smaller house, a dwelling nicer even than what the Count had, if not as big. The inside had wood walls, hand carved out of something dark and polished to gleaming. The floors a highly polished marble with throw rugs all over the place. The furniture was even more impressive. It looked nice and new, but felt old when he touched it with his mind, like it had been around longer than the rest of the building. A lot longer. Someone had spent money on this place. Too much for what was essentially a simple dwelling.
    That wouldn't stop him from sleeping in it, just from being comfortable while he did. He'd thought the school had nice rooms, but compared to this, what Rolph was used to, they might as well been putting them off in the barn to sleep with the horses. The bed in the room he was shown to was bigger than both the beds at the school if they were pushed together. The room was about four times bigger and done all in white. He was almost afraid that if he touched something it would leave a stain. He'd have to get a bath as soon as possible, he decided. The idea of actually coming in contact with anything here, as dirty as he undoubtedly was, terrified him. Not real terror maybe, but close enough. Looking around carefully Tor wondered if he should try flying over the floor instead of walking. He let that go when a vision of trashing the place came into his head and didn't leave. Him smashing first into one wall and then another on an uncontrolled rebound, leaving huge holes. Instead he just didn't let himself make contact with anything if he could help it.
    In a chamber off the bedroom itself Tor found a tub, a giant tan ceramic thing, with a spigot that released water that while not exactly warm was at least no colder than the air. Since even inside it was pretty warm, that was more than good enough. Hoping that no one would mind overly he started filling the tub. It made a sloshing sound as the water entered, probably from a cistern on the roof, which would explain why it was as warm as it was. Just in case someone had to fill that tank by hand he stopped the water about a tenth of the way up the tub and climbed in. The shallow water didn't cover his legs, but the tub was long, built for people that obviously made him look like a tiny child. Given how big Rolph was, that was probably the literal case.
    A covered dish next to the bath had a small tub of soft perfumed soap. It smelled of lavender and some kind of citrus fruit. Nice. Not very manly but he figured that no one would be going around sniffing him anyway, and if they did, flowers would be more pleasant than sour sweat. He scrubbed up efficiently, hitting under his arms a dozen times with small handfuls of the soft soap. It didn't seem to have a lye base, so he'd have to use a lot more effort to get clean than he would have at home, Tor realized. Here, it seemed, washing was more a matter of elbow grease than chemical action.
    Half an hour later he felt clean enough to get out without being overly ashamed of his state. Tor carefully ran the small comb he'd brought through his short damp hair. Kolb had ordered him to keep it cut in his first year at the school and he had ever since. No one sane wanted to argue with Kolb after all. Tor was glad of it now, as the heat, dry as it was, left him sticky again the second he stepped out of the tan ceramic vessel. He dried carefully with one of the soft and huge towels hanging on the rack on the wall, not wanting to track water around, and walked into his room. He'd forgotten his clothes, of course, so he padded back into the big bedroom naked. His trunk had been brought in, meaning all he had to do was grab a clean pair of student browns from the bottom, and he'd be set.
    His hand brushed a metal plate, the bottom of the trunk being filled with them of course and he nearly had to hit himself in the head. Duh. He had at least twenty of the “temperature control plates”, what Sara had started calling the heat and cold exchangers, sitting right there.
    It was too warm?
    He could fix that.
    Shirt still off he walked one of the small copper plates to the nice table set up across the room, as big as the dining tables at the school, meant for ten to eat at a time, but about a thousand times nicer, with a soft green cloth on the top. The cloth was there to either protect the wood or stop him from seeing scratches underneath. Either way it looked good, very fine. The copper piece was nice enough on it too, so no one would probably mind. Green and copper went together, right? He hit the cooling sigil and waited with his eyes closed.
    Relief poured into the room. Blessed cool. He sighed and felt content for a moment. When he opened his eyes he found a woman standing at the door to the room, her hands folded across her front delicately fingers laced and palms up. She wasn't great looking, one of those girls that would at best manage cute their whole lives rather than fantastically pretty. Not that looks mattered that much. Nice always counted a lot more after all, and smart almost as much. Good looking was fourth or fifth on Tor's personal list of things important for a woman. Maybe lower if he really bothered to ever count it all up.
    Her red hair was long, and she had slightly dusky skin compared to Rolph, who redhead or not was at least three shades darker than Tor ever was. Her skin being deeply tan was probably just from the more intense sun here than back at the school. Her face was covered in freckles, which added to the innocent cuteness at least. When she saw him looking her face lit up.
    “Why, you're not Alphie at all, are you? Sorry to catch you dressing like this…” She gestured at his bare chest.
    Taking a deep breath he moved slowly, trying not to panic. Half naked in front of a girl that wasn't even a family member, or his betrothed? If anyone saw them he'd probably be run through the city being beaten. He swallowed and pulled his shirt on carefully, trying to make certain it was the right way around. It would just be too mortifying to have to try and fix it in front of the woman. Girl, really, he noticed, after the brown fabric which was course but not as stiff as it had been two years before when it had been new, finally fell into place.
    She was a couple years younger than him at least, he saw now that he had a chance to look at her. The dress she wore was pretty, a light pink color that somehow didn't make her seem too red, even with her bright hair, and showed wealth somewhere in her upbringing. None of his sisters ever had anything so nice. Not even his older sister Terlee for her wedding day, not that she'd be getting married yet, since his mother hadn't found anyone for her that really fit. Terlee was kind of shy and would need a husband that was gentle and understanding if possible.
    Blushing he decided to introduce himself. “Um, hello? I'm Torrence. People call me Tor…”
    The girl dimpled and curtsied. “Alphie's friend from school. Oh, right… you all call him Rolph there. That's a stupid name, don't you think? He likes it though. I'm Karina. Obviously Alphie's little sister. One of two by the way.” She stepped further into the room and smiled.
    “Someone got a cooling thing for in here? The main house has a couple, but not my rooms. You must be important to rate that. They're very hard to get I hear.” She smiled hugely and walked a little closer seeming to be enjoying the cool air a lot.
    He held up a single finger and grinned.
    “Wait.” He said, sounding pleased he hoped. The girl froze as if he planned something improper, her face looking more than a bit shocked. Did she think he was going to try and take advantage of her? He hoped not. Rolph would kill him if he even thought that was the case no doubt, which was only appropriate, because it was his job to protect his sister's virtue and all. He rummaged in his trunk quickly and turned to find the girl looking displeased. He held out four of the heat exchange plates.
    “Um, here? Two for you and two for your sister?”
    Karina looked baffled for a second, but her face changed instantly when she realized what he held. Taking them her face grew excited as she examined the sigils more closely.
    “Oh! My, this is… can I accept it though? I'm not anyone important or anything, just…” The girl looked around furtively, as if afraid she'd have to give the gifts back. Her cheeks turned a pretty color of red and her gaze dropped.
    “No big thing,” Tor said, smiling. “I brought them as gifts for Rolph's family anyway, and that's you, right?”
    “Thank you! Oh, I've wanted one of these and to have two… I don't know anyone that has two yet. Well, my parents, but I meant in my circle of friends.” Excitedly she skipped out of the room. A second later she came back.
    “Um, do you know where Alphie is?”
    “Two doors down I think, on the right.”
    The girl smiled as she left. So, at least with her the presents went over well enough. Of course given the heat here he could see it. He kind of dreaded going out of the room now that it had cooled a bit himself. If only there was a way to carry the cooling field with him as he walked.
    Could he do that? Containing the cold, or heat, was important for a room, but what if he constantly took heat from the body, just enough to keep cool? Dump it into the ground? The idea had some flaws, he could tell. After all, too cool and the person would freeze or get too cold at least. But could he build in a bottom level set point? That way the person would always feel just comfortably cool, instead of cold? It would require a feedback device, and those were always tricky…
    He could do it, Tor thought. He sat at the table and started writing out the plans for it. It wasn't a powerful field even. It just needed to be stable and draw off enough heat all the time. If he was careful he could… Yes, he could design it so that it would steal heat from the ground to warm a person to normal in cold climes as well. It wouldn't even need two sigils. He could design it so that it would work based on the temperature of the wearer.
    He worked, hardly noticing when Rolph walked in, until the shaking started.
    “Tor…” His shoulder vibrated and he finally turned around to look at his friend, who smiled at him. “Dinner time! Mother's here, but dad couldn't make it. His work schedule is harsh that way sometimes. He's the only person I know that works as hard as you do.” The tone of voice sounded pleasant, but the large face grimaced a little. So, Tor thought, an issue? It would explain why Rolph always acted like he worked too hard too. But Tor didn't have a family to attend to, which made a difference, didn't it?
    The large red haired man smiled then and took his shoulder, pulling on him gently but insistently. The idea was clear. Come to dinner and stop playing with the unimportant papers in front of him. Chuckling Tor climbed to his feet, and looked down at his plain brown cloths.
    “Hey, is this alright? I saw your sister earlier, Karina? She looked… well dressed. This is about what I've got, but maybe I shouldn't go to dinner this way?” Tor felt self-conscious about it now that he remembered to be. Clothing at school wasn't a huge issue. Sure the wealthier students didn't wear the more practical brown uniform all the time, but even Rolph had a set that he broke out between laundry days, and most often wore something very similar to work out in. Here, if everyone dressed up all the time, he'd stick out. That was nearly the last thing he wanted to do.
    Rolph's parents were obviously well connected, to even have the use of this house for guests… It was huge. He wondered how many families lived in the big complex in front. It was nice, palatial even, if he understood the term. Maybe Rolph's family worked for a Count or something? One that lived here full time? That might explain it.
    “Don't sweat the cloths. It's part of why we're hanging out here tonight, so you won't feel out of place until we can find you something else to wear for your stay. I think I even have some old things that might fit you. True, it's clothing from when I was eleven, but the styles for men haven't changed that much in six years. And seriously, it's not like I'm going to be using them again, you know? I'll see about getting those before we head out tomorrow. As for being out in town, browns are considered good sturdy cloths for students. No one will think twice about it.” Giant shoulders shrugged lazily as they began to walk out into the hall. “OK, you won't fool anyone into thinking you're a noble, but that's overrated anyway. Right now it's way better to be you, the guy that makes people fly, than some boring rich kid anyway.”
    Tor shrugged.
    It may not be true, but it was kind and made him feel better to hear.
    The dining room was huge, a table that could have fit his full family with room for a lot of their friends, sat in the middle of a green colored room. Dark green stone, polished to shining made up the floor, bits of black shot through in wild, natural looking patterns. The walls were a light green, the color of fresh mint, which, if he could tell at a distance was actual silk stuck on somehow. A crystal light fixture hung from the ceiling, light glinting from within. Oil lamps he thought, possibly magical instead, even if that would cost a fortune to have put in. Touching them with his mind lightly he could feel the magic used, nearly making him catch his breath. It was a luxury he hadn't even imagined before. The table was covered with a rich green cloth even darker than the floor. Everything else in the room looked brown, if in a dozen shades, polished wood mainly. Wood never clashed with anything that he'd noticed, which meant the room looked nice even with all the different shades of earth tones in it.
    Thank all gods he'd bathed earlier. If he'd walked before that into a room that looked this nice, he'd have refused to enter. As it was he felt uneasy and horribly out of place. He plastered a smile on his face, because at the end of the table, in the position of the householder, sat a nice looking tall woman with hair less red than Rolph's, but with a deep brown undertone that made it look rich and lustrous. She looked young, so, the other sister? He could credit that. There was a resemblance to the other kids. She was prettier. Alluring. Tor made himself stop thinking that way about Rolph's sister. It wasn't proper of him, even if she was single, which she probably wasn't.
    Not looking like that.
    “Welcome!” The woman looked at him and stood, her arms going wide. Even her voice had a rich warmth to it, matching her looks. If there wasn't a table between them he would have thought she wanted a hug. That would have been awkward, but different places had differing customs. He didn't know what to do, so he waved happily and turned to Rolph.
    “Is this your other sister?” He asked, hoping that it wasn't some unrelated person or a neighbor or something like that. If they lived with a lot of people in the big front building, that could be it possibly, he guessed. If so, they had very friendly neighbors here.
    Rolph laughed and patted him on the back. The woman smiled at him, her smile going bigger and a little coy.
    “Oh, good sir, you flatter me…” She sounded happy enough to be flattered at least.
    His friend hadn't stopped laughing yet, but shook his head at the woman, making eye contact the whole time. “No mother, it's not flattery. Tor doesn't do that. He really just thinks you look young enough to be my sister… which, by the way, you do, so we can hardly fault him for the mistake.”
    Tor blushed and ducked his head. “Sorry…”
    The woman waved at him gently and chuckled herself, a soft, pretty thing that sounded a bit like bells to his ears. Her dress was a pale blue, heavier than could be comfortable in this heat, but then anything short of naked was too heavy for the temperature, though she didn't look flushed or damp. Her eyes found his, her look telling him that her laugher wasn't meant to hurt at least, just show how pleased she was. It made him feel more at ease.
    “If only everyone thought I looked that young. Oh well, age finds us all eventually. Oh!” She sounded shocked, though it rang a bit false, which the chuckle a moment before hadn't. “My manners… Please be seated. Normally protocol would have us sit at ten paces from each other, but I find that makes good conversation difficult. With your permission I'd be pleased if we could sit as a family?”
    The woman let her hands gesture to the seats on either side of her. Rolph gave him a little push towards her left side, and took off down the long table on the other. Rolph was already seated when he got there, but his mother hadn't moved. He didn't know what to do, but luckily Rolph had his back.
    “Mom, I think Tor's waiting for you to sit first. Sign of respect up north, waiting on a lady's comfort. Just be glad he isn't insisting on seating you… Now that could be awkward, don't you think? It involves cramming a chair into the back of a woman's legs. You think I'm kidding… So anyway, if you wait for him, because he's a guest and he waits for you as a woman… yeah, I'll never get to eat. You two don't want me to starve do you? You know I flew for nearly twelve hours today and hardly ate at all.” He gave a mock look of starvation and held his stomach as if it ached, which made his mother sit, quickly, but with grace, an actual look of worry on her face. Tor plunked down too, but grinned at the woman.
    “Don't believe him, it was only about ten hours and we stopped every two. He must have eaten three times. Even Count Thomson was satisfied with the amount of food and he's a giant. Now me, I haven't eaten since noon and really could use some food. I…” He looked around, noting for the first time that nothing was on the table. The room wasn't blistering, being dark outside already, but surely they weren't expected to get the food from the kitchen themselves, were they? If as a guest he was supposed to do something like that, well, hopefully Rolph would fill him in, because it was very different than what they did back in Two Bends. There everything would have been sitting ready on the table, that or the kids would run to get it. Here… well, he and Rolph were the kids, so that could be it. He made ready to get up if Rolph did.
    A small clap by the hostess caused a flurry of activity, and no less than six people, three men, and three women, walked in to the room, all dressed far too warmly to be comfortable it seemed to him. He felt a little melty, being out of his room as he was, and the cooling field there. Each was dressed in fine, brightly colored green velvet, the women in dresses and the men in full outfits of the stuff. After a second he realized that they were dressed to match the room. Who dressed to match a room? It looked good, sure, but seemed like a huge waste of resources.
    Tor blinked and made himself keep his mouth closed. Was this supposed to impress him particularly, or was this just normal here? Maybe all dining rooms were done in green and it was just what servers wore here? It was spectacular in a creepy sort of way. He would have been happier if they'd walked to the kitchen and gotten the food themselves, but different ways and all that. Tor made himself relax and smile slightly, just like Rolph was doing. This wasn't his place, so it was up to him to follow along, not anyone else to cater to his backwoods mentality.
    Oddly enough both his mother and father had sat him down separately before he left for school the first time and told him almost exactly that. It was his part to adapt, even if it made him feel less than comfortable. Sometimes what other people did might be strange or off-putting, but he needed to make them feel at ease about it, and not get all preachy or judgmental. That advice had pretty much saved him at school in the first year.
    Each carried a heavy looking platter, covered with a metal dome that had a handle. They were quickly set down along the table, and a set of plates were brought out, carried by a boy that looked to be about twelve or so, followed by a girl of near the same age with another set of plates. Both dressed like the others in rich green.
    One of the men, an older fellow with dark hair that might have been black or a brown too deep to tell the color of in the lamp light bowed towards the head of the table.
    “Salad mum?” He asked, his voice rich and serious.
    At her nod he loaded a small plate with a pile of green leaves. Rolph grudgingly accepted a plate as well when he was asked, but made a face at Tor. At school he tried to avoid vegetables like the plague. Apparently at home they were required. Tor took a plate as well and began to eat when it was put in front of him. Everyone in the room froze as he took the first bite.
    At first he thought that he was being rude eating first, something like that, or that he'd used the wrong fork, but… They'd only given him the one. He swallowed and hoped they weren't supposed to pray first or say a blessing. Rolph never did at school and hadn't mentioned it at all. Then he never ate salad there either. He set his fork down on the edge of the plate and looked at Rolph plaintively. He was supposed to tell him things like this so he didn't mess up!
    Picking up his own fork Rolph took a large bite of salad and looked at his mother with a smile. Chewing carefully until he swallowed. He followed this with a wink.
    “Food's safe.”
    The woman at the head of the table performed a slow seated half bow towards Tor and smiled herself. “Honored,” she said, then took a bite of her own salad.
    The rest of the meal went like that, until the dessert course, which Tor let Rolph try first. No one seemed upset that he'd eaten first, but it seemed like a big deal, special instead of just being greedy. By dessert he was just too full to continue. He didn't want to waste food, but his stomach felt almost over full and short of the mid-winter feast for Noram Day he couldn't remember ever eating that much before.
    He explained this to his hostess, and realized to his embarrassment that he didn't know her name yet. Rolph had never mentioned it before, since he called his mother “mom” when he referenced her. Tor did the same thing even though at home he called his mother “ma” like everyone else.
    The woman brushed her long hair back with a wave of the hand. It moved as if a single piece, so tied back or something, Tor guessed. Smiling she looked at him and chuckled.
    “Constance, but everyone around here just calls me Connie. Well, not in public, except for Alphonse here, but that would be good enough, since we're all friends.” Her voice had a playful lilt to it, light and pleasant. Then she was probably used to making small talk with stogy businessmen and women, so being nice had to come easily to her.
    Tor nodded. It was a little weird calling her by name instead of “Rolph's mom” the way he would if he'd been at home, or “ma'am” like he would at school, but this was a different place and he was, if not a full adult, old enough that people would be expecting him to learn their names. He was old enough to sign contracts and make business deals even. Or get married, being over fourteen.
    After the dessert course the small talk began, which was mainly Connie asking him about his life at home and about how her son “Alphonse” was doing at school. Not his grades or anything, but how he fit in, what trouble he'd gotten himself into and the like.
    “Home is… a lot different than here. For one thing, no servants at all. No one has ever served food to me except my mother…” It sounded stupid when he said it and he blushed, but Rolph shook his head.
    “Not true! I distinctly remember Trice serving you on more than one occasion, even feeding you with her own hand…” He made it sound sly, as if there had been meaning to it other than the girl thinking he was too weak or inept to do it for himself.
    Without missing a beat Connie's eyebrows shot up.
    “Oh! Well, if Patricia already has a claim on him you might want to talk to your sister. She confided in me already that she intends to skip the arranged marriage her father and I set her with Raul Peterson and pursue Mr. Baker here instead. Karina, not Varley. It seems that your friend has already been plying them both with lavish gifts…”
    Tor blushed and ducked his head. He could tell they were only teasing, much like his own family would have, but the fact that girls didn't have much use for him was a bit of a sore spot, even if Connie couldn't possibly know that about him yet, unless Rolph had told her, which didn't seem likely. Or maybe she got it just by looking at him? After a few seconds of this Rolph held his hand out and asked what the gifts were, probably trying to change the subject a bit.
    Connie smiled. “A set of those room cooling and warming plates each.” Her tone held, not amusement, but a sense of being impressed. Tor didn't get it, unless handmade stuff was valued here for some reason? Like when his mom seemed no more thrilled about a new coat from the store as she did a picture drawn by the youngest child and given as a gift? Probably what it was, he realized, looking around the room a little. Even to rent such a space would take more money than Tor could imagine spending, and given that he was, well, just him, he doubted that was the case. They didn't rent this to impress him, it was something they already had just sitting empty and waiting. It was just convenient to store him here for them.
    Really, they could have fed him stale bread and had him sleep in the corner of Rolph's room and he wouldn't have blinked. He doubted that he would have even noticed, except that he'd have offered to make some fresh bread for them. So this was… normal for these people? It boggled his mind more than a little. A lot more.
    Connie let them go shortly thereafter claiming to be tired. Probably a bit bored with him, Tor realized, which was fair enough. They didn't seem to have a lot in common. She seemed kind, obviously willing to go out of her way to make her son's friend feel comfortable, but that didn't mean his nattering on about school would interest her for long. It was nice, how she put him at his ease like she had, like he was a real guest or important. He'd have to come up with a gift for her too. Rolph didn't know what she might want when asked, but Tor had an idea anyway, since the heat was so bad here and she seemed to be locked in to wearing a heavy dress all the time, at least in company.
    Once back in his room he started building the field he'd already planned out, it was similar enough to others he'd made before that it didn't take that long to finish, only about ten hours. Then another two to make a full batch of the devices and two more for the next batch. He decided that people might actually want these, or at least take them as casual gifts. He tested them by walking in and out of the house several times. It felt nice, inside or out, with only a few seconds fluctuation to let him know that the temperature had changed at all. Perfect.
    He strung five on some hemp string he had in the trunk so they could be worn as amulets. He didn't have any more thread, so he just pocketed five of the other small copper plates. He made a simple stencil and lacking any acid, quickly made a small design on each bit of metal by rubbing some sand he found in the garden over them. It wasn't deep, but it showed the sigil clearly enough and shouldn't wear away too easily.
    At about noon a knock came at the door. Too tentative to be Rolph, who would have just walked in, so Tor went to the door to find a tidy and extremely good looking man standing with an arm load of clothing. The man was taller than Tor, but only by about five inches, which would have made him tall in Two Bends, but short for even non-royals around the Capital from what he'd seen on the trip in the day before. He had black hair and a thin build, maybe in his late twenties and looked really familiar. Almost eerily so… Maybe he'd seen him the day before somewhere? That kind of thing where you noticed a person, but didn't really see them?
    “Sir? Master Alphonse suggested that these clothes be brought to you, for your outing later this afternoon?” The man walked into the room and seemed surprised that the bed was made.
    “Sir? Did someone come and make up your room already? I thought I had the job for the week…” He gestured with his eyes at the bed.
    Tor shrugged.
    “Sorry, no… I just didn't sleep last night. Made these instead. They keep you cool or warm depending on the temperature around you.” He held one up to show the man. “Here, take this one and try it out. Let me know if you can think of any improvements on it, alright? It was kind of a quick build. I don't want to leave gaps or anything.”
    The man took the plate and clicked his heels together, put it on and hit the sigil, then stood waiting. Tor smiled and told him he'd need to at least try it outside or maybe in the kitchen where it was warm. It must be oppressive in there given the heat, Tor knew, even in Two Bends, a lot farther north, the ovens heated the room a lot this time of year. The man agreed with him and asked if he'd like something to eat before or after he bathed and dressed.
    Tor got the hint, he'd better move to get ready or the man would have to fuss at him or… Whatever people with jobs like his did. He didn't think they'd yell at him, at least unless it was really important, but Tor didn't really know. He asked if food could be set up for after the bath adding please enough times that the man gave him a happy smile.
    The man left, letting him run the bath himself, which felt cool to the touch. On a whim he put on one of the new heat equalizing things and noticed that the water felt… wet. But that was all, not hot or cold. Not after the first second or so. He took it off, not wanting to get the string all damp and made himself get ready. He felt tired, but who wouldn't? He'd been up for over a day already.
    When he came back out the gentleman stood next to the large desk that had a full plate of food, most of it fruit, laid out for him. A soft half loaf was on a small separate plate along with some cool butter and a small paddle to spread it with, made of silver. It looked like real silver to him at least. Tor really wasn't an expert on such things. They had stainless steel eating utensils at school and Tor had been leery of them at first, since the metal made the food taste a little funny to him compared to the wooden spoons they used at home most often.
    Before Tor could thank him the man stood extra straight and looked ahead without making eye contact.
    “Sir. I have tested the device as instructed and found it excellent sir. I stood in the heat of the kitchen feeling no warmer than I do in this room. Outside in bright sun the temperature wavered for a brief instant, then held as if in a cool basement…” The man smiled and took a deep breath. “Most effective sir.”
    Tor waved at him tiredly. “Sorry, I'm a little tired, I'm just Tor, not a sir or anything, I didn't catch your name…”
    “Burks sir.” The man smiled and took the amulet off, trying to hand it back.
    “Oh, no… That's yours… Um… Keep testing it for me, will you?” It occurred to him that he didn't know the guy well enough for him to feel comfortable taking gifts yet maybe. It was one thing to give presents to his friend's family, but perfect strangers could be a little too much. Did you give gifts to servants? It seemed reasonable, since they were doing things for him, but he didn't know if it was acceptable or not. Having him test it got around that altogether, and really, if there was a problem with it, he could let him know. Feedback was important if he wanted to improve. Tor knew he had a lot to learn still. Probably more than he could imagine.
    The man bowed and stood by Tor's side, waiting while he ate, which was awkward. When he finished the man looked at him with a small, polite smile.
    “Um…” Tor didn't know what to do. The servant seemed to pick up on the cluelessness and pulled a small brush from a cabinet that had totally missed being noticed until that time, looking like part of the wall, then ran the brush over the velvet arms of the black and blue material that he wore. Pronouncing him as looking fine, the man left, seeming happy enough with how things had gone.
    That was good, Tor didn't have a clue how he was supposed to act around servants. For most of his life he hadn't even known that such people existed outside of stories told by the odd traveler, and then only once or twice. People had talked about such at school, but this man was the first one he'd ever really interacted with. Life in the Capital was sure different.
    The clothing that Rolph had worn as a child of eleven fit disturbingly well, if slightly looser on Tor than was intended for the original wearer. It looked good, he thought, even if meant for a kid. He walked out into the hall looking for his friend, not really knowing the time or how long it would take to get to Debri house for their meeting. Too bad the King didn't like flying inside the city limits. It would have made things way faster. At least today they wouldn't melt in the back of a carriage. Bored was better than bored and too hot.
    He found Rolph sitting next to a fascinating looking girl in a large room next to the dining room. It was an excellent room, even for this lavish place. White stone floor and cream colored furniture. The girl wore a scarlet red dress that had to have ten layers of material, covering her totally, except the arms, which were bare, showing pale skin that went with the long blond hair on her head. She wasn't pretty, not exactly at least, her cheeks too round for that. In fact the rest of her was awfully round as well.
    If she wasn't the fattest person he'd ever seen it was only because… no, she was by far the heaviest person he'd ever noticed. That probably meant that she was wealthy. Poor people couldn't afford to eat more than needed. Not that anyone wearing a dress like that would be poor. If they were they could just sell it and have enough to keep them going for a long time. She looked a few years older than either of them, but not too much. Early twenties tops. Tor walked into the room when a lull came in the conversation. The girl looked up and smiled charmingly at him when he entered. She had a nice looking smile. Friendly and sincere.
    Smiling hugely Rolph nodded to him.
    “Here he is now, dressed to impress even.” Standing he held a hand towards Tor and bowed. “Ursala, this is my good friend, Torrence Green Baker.” The move was reversed then and he bowed slightly towards the still seated woman on the cream colored soft bench in front of them.
    “Tor, this is Ursala Benevolence Matild Thorgood. My fiancee.”

Chapter six

    Both of the people on the padded bench looked at him seriously and then started laughing. He didn't get the joke, if there was one. His face must have looked funny or something. That he could understand, after all he hadn't known anything about a fiancee and he'd lived with Rolph for nearly two and a half years now. If he didn't know that, what else didn't he know? Then again, was it his business? He'd thought that Rolph shared most everything with him, but…
    The big man stood and clapped both hands on his shoulders, reaching down a lot to do so.
    “It's an arranged thing, a deal our parents made when I was four and she was seven. But now…” He turned on Ursala and crossed his arms. “Since someone managed to get in a family way, things are going to be a lot more complicated.”
    The gears in his head spun slowly being tired and caught off guard like he was, but Tor finally put it together. Ursala was pregnant? That… Tor nodded firmly. “I see… So, when is the wedding?”
    It was one of those unfortunate things that happened sometimes. A man and a woman not being able to wait until they were married, a child coming a little too soon. At home they joked about how fast first pregnancies were, sometimes taking only six or seven months. Of course Rolph would have to quit school and probably go into the family business, whatever that was. Merchanting? Well, he'd do what he could to help them. Not that he had any money to speak of, but they wouldn't starve while they got themselves together as a family. Not even if he had to quit school and go to work at the bakery to keep them in bread. He told them that, hoping it would make them both feel better.
    Ursala started crying instead.
    “Oh, that's…” He didn't know what he thought she'd say, but she didn't come anywhere near it, figuring that she'd laugh at him or something. She was obviously wealthy, and probably didn't have to worry about starving.
    “That's so sweet. If only it was Rolph's child. Or yours Torrence. You'd at least step up and make sure I wasn't disgraced. But the father… He's one of the peerage, but he's already married. I shouldn't say who it is…”
    Rolph didn't say anything, he just looked down at the floor and then patted her hand. A rustling from behind Tor caused them to all look up. Connie came in, her dark hair looked more red in the bright light coming through the window. Behind her strode a very tall man that looked about forty or so, he was… really tall. Possibly the tallest person Tor had ever seen. Count Thomson stood about seven foot-two. This man must be nearly a foot taller than that. He looked thin, but with a powerful build that spoke of being used to hard work. Possibly the hard work of walking around at his size.
    “Father!” Rolph jumped up and hugged the man, who picked him up into the embrass and swung him side to side a little.
    “Boy! So, I hear that our match making decision wasn't as perfect as it could have been?” The man looked at Ursala down his long patrician nose. In a very deep, dry voice he continued.
    “Did you at least dally with a redhead dear? This might be hard to hide if not. Oh well, nothing for it. Let's go find the lout and force him to marry you. Name now, give.” He waved at her with his palm up as if asking for the name in writing. She sighed.
    “Count Ward. We've been… close for a while now. His wife wouldn't be thrilled with me showing up like this though I don't think.” The large girl blushed. So, not really fat, just pregnant?
    Tor had to go and sit down. He couldn't believe his ears. The girl not only got pregnant by a man not her betrothed, but he was married already too? How? Didn't she know he was married? Did the man lie to her about it? If so, they… well, they couldn't do anything. Not if the guy was royalty like that. It felt like a weight rested on his chest.
    “What can we do then? Rolph… you're going to have to marry her anyway. It isn't perfect, but you can't leave her disgraced and alone. If you won't…” Tor bit down on his lip and looked at the floor. “Then… I will. I know I couldn't offer much of a life for her and the child, but we simply can't leave her to suffer this alone. She messed up, but…” His voice died.
    The huge man who redefined what a giant was in his head nodded and looked at Tor seriously. “Well said boy. You aren't peerage though, are you? Not some hidden noble I haven't met yet or something? Or… Ah. I… see.” The look he gave Tor was deep, like he searched for Tor's face in memory and… found something. Of course he couldn't really. They'd never met. The man looked a little familiar, but that was probably his likeness to Rolph. All the really tall men he'd met had shared similar features, possibly as a side effect of being too big like that.
    “No sir, of course not.” Tor spoke evenly. How would that make a difference?
    The man nodded again and then stopped when his wife chuckled.
    “Dear, this is Torrence Baker. The man who saved Galasia? The Tor-shield and the flying devices? The one that made our living quarters not so ungodly hot… Speaking of which, maybe we should move to another room? It's a bit stuffy in here.” She pulled a fan and unfolded the silk and wood contraption. It was pink and had butterflies actually woven into the fabric.
    Tor shook himself. Duh! He kept forgetting basic things. Maybe he should carry a rock around with him, so he could hit himself in the head when he forgot stuff? That would remind him. Digging in his pocket he handed each of them one of the equalizing fields and suggested they trigger them.
    Rolph's dad sighed suddenly when he did it.
    “Personal cooling fields?” He closed his eyes in pleasure.
    “Not just that, they'll keep you at this temperature. Walk into a snow storm and they should keep you this warm. Go sit in the kitchen and you'll still be at this temperature. Go sit in a fire and… Well, I don't know. Probably want to avoid that though. I didn't build the devices to handle that, but then what kind of a moron goes and sits in a fire, right?” Tor turned to Connie and raised his eyebrows. He would have raised just one, but he'd never gotten the knack of it. His older brother and sister could both do it, so it wasn't likely that he just wasn't built for it. Just a trick he'd never learned.
    “Now, what's Galasia and how did I save it? Also, Tor-shields? Argh… That's bad. Horrible name really. It makes it sound like someone's tying me to their arm and hiding behind me.” Tor pantomimed the move, ducking his head behind the imaginary Tor-shield on his arm.
    Rolph laughed.
    “The city you built that filter for? Galasia. And everything that you've made is the Tor-whatever. Tor-heating and cooling, Tor-flying rigs, now the Tor-whatever these things are. Really good by the way. When did you come up with them? I thought I was up on everything you've built?”
    “Last night. I just skipped sleeping. I wanted to come up with something special for your mom, since she went out of her way to be so nice about having me. Plus, really, it's a little warm here. I don't know if any of you've noticed?” Everyone laughed and Connie clutched the heat equalizer and smiled warmly.
    Rolph's dad looked at her and laughed. “Oops, Tor, now you've done it. I know that look, it's love… oh, sigh. And here we were doing so well for these last twenty years.” The large head shook, but the man grinned the whole time.
    Tor smiled back, getting the teasing for what it was this time, just a friendly game.
    “Oh, that reminds me, I don't really know your name. “Rolph's dad” doesn't seem like it's going to cut it here for some reason. For one thing, everyone here calls him Alphonse or Alphie, so no one else would even know who I meant…”
    The man gave him a funny look and then smiled.
    “Seriously Alphonse? I know that I ordered it when you went to school, but it's been over a year, hasn't it?”
    “Over two years…” Connie put in, looking at Rolph proudly.
    The man looked at his son and smiled even larger.
    “I'm impressed. That can't have been easy, especially with someone as close as your best friend. Well, I guess time has come to let the truth out. First though, Torrence, I need you to know that Alphonse, Rolph here, didn't have a choice. I ordered him to lie about who he is, for his own protection and safety. I think you'll get the reason for it. So if you feel hurt by it, or betrayed, know to blame me, alright? You understand?”
    Tor crossed his arms, not defiantly, but trying to steel himself. How had Rolph been lying to him? Was he really not his friend or something. It seemed a little elaborate for a game. Something else? Was he not studying accounting at all maybe? That made some sense. Giants like this had to be good at combat. Rolph even had Kolb as a personal instructor, which was a big deal. Too good to waste on numbers unless they were royals. High ones too. There were a few full Dukes and Barons at the school that didn't rate Kolb.
    Everything clicked into place. Kind of.
    Tor looked up and narrowed his eyes at the giant man, then looked at Rolph, then his mother.
    “I… see. I guess it was there all along, but I was just too stupid to see it. You're all royals aren't you?”
    Ursala's eyes went wide and she stared at him hard. No one spoke for a second as she rose and walked over to Tor, a smile on her fleshy face and tears in her eyes. Suddenly she wrapped him up in a hug.
    “You were willing to marry me just because I need help? Not because of my family? Not just to get a title?” She sobbed out the word family, a choked sound. “That is so… Noble. No, more than that. I know too many nobles to call it that. Even honorable doesn't cover it.”
    Rolph clapped him on the back, even though Ursala didn't let go for a while.
    “Yep, that's Tor. He's always like that too. It's why he's my best friend. In part. But he's still not a nobleman, and as a Counserina first you're required to marry someone within three steps from you in station. It would be a hard sell with Tor… right now at least.” He turned to Tor and held out his right hand. “Don't get me wrong, any of you. Any woman should be proud to have him, and if they were smart they'd snap him up right now and ride his coat tails up the ranks, but a few more years of reputation building wouldn't hurt first if we want to marry him off to top levels… Maybe less though. He did save Galasia, that has to count, right?”
    The giant man looked at his son and nodded firmly.
    “Indeed. That was a fine piece of work.”
    Tor struggled with the concepts. A Counserina was like a Ducherina, but for a Count's daughter? A second or third daughter that probably wouldn't inherit anything of note. Except this one was a first, so she'd maybe inherit? It wasn't anything he'd needed to know growing up. The King and Queen, Richard and Constance. Their son Alphonse and two daughters…
    Well. That made sense then.
    Tor shrugged and his stomach fell. Right. He really was just too dense to live. That was all. Well if they wanted to insist on bowing and scraping now they were a little late. That ship had kind of sailed, hadn't it? Except for with their youngest maybe. Varley was it? Princess Valarie? Heh.
    “Well. I guess if the Queen is Connie then that makes you what… Rick?” He said. He meant it to sound flip, knowing it was a stupid thing to say. The King winced.
    “God no. Rich or Richard. I used to be called Ricky as a child and it always bothered me. Rhymes a little too well with “icky”. Privilege of being King, I get to pick my own nicknames. At least the ones people call me to my face. The other ones are more fluid I hear.” The man gave him a slightly pained grin.
    Nodding, feeling like the world had fallen out from under him he walked to the bench and sat down. It was pretty soft and felt nice. Solid. Clean. He took a deep breath.
    “Right, well, my petty concerns aside, and Rolph, you and I will be discussing this later. Possibly you and I too Rich…” He pointed at his eyes with two fingers and then the King, several times, it was a joking thing, though very country, which got a chuckle, but left him wondering why they hadn't had his head chopped off yet. “Right now Ursala's problem has to come first. Well, that and, if I'm not needed here, my meeting at Debri house. Rolph was supposed to get me there, but given this…”
    Connie waved her hand at them.
    “Oh, don't miss a meeting over this. She's not having the baby today. Planning session this evening though Alphonse. Bring Torrence, it will be comforting to know that Ursala has a defender in the room I think… Patricia too. Maybe they can figure something out that us old people will miss. Say seven? We can turn it into a dinner party.” Connie, the Queen, seemed excited about the idea for some reason.
    Smiling, Tor offered his hand to the King like he would to Tom, the mayor of Two Bends if they'd just met, and he'd been ten years older. To his surprise the man reached down and took the hand solemnly, shaking it gently. “Nice to meet you Rich. Connie.” He turned and bowed slightly to the Queen then to Ursala, like he would any “proper” woman in Two Bends.
    “Don't worry too much. With all of us working on this, we'll come up with something.” He told her, looking straight into her eyes.
    Rolph smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, then walked him out to a small building where a glossy brown carriage pulled by four horses waited for them. As they walked his large friend noticed out loud how well the new amulet worked. He nodded, trying to hold himself together until they were alone. Tor wasn't mad. Not really. After all Rolph had been ordered to not say anything by the King, what else could he do but comply? That the man was also his father made the whole thing worse for his friend, not better. If his da said to lie about who he was, then that's what he'd had to do.
    No, he was freaked.
    In the carriage once they started to move, he hyperventilated.
    “Rolph! I know you couldn't say anything before, but… I was just sassing the King to his face! “Hey Rich, let's get together and talk about what a jerk you are later”. What the hell? I'm surprised he didn't have me put to death or at least kicked out after that! They're royals! They eat little people like me for breakfast to warm up for their real work destroying more important people. Hell Rolph, if I tried to talk to my own father like that I'd be beaten! How could you let me do that? Couldn't you have, I don't know, knocked me out and carried me off or something?”
    A large hand found his shoulder and he chuckled gently.
    “Easy now. He gave you permission to be mad at him, remember? I'm sure Dad was just pleased that you didn't start cursing and hitting him. He won't go back on his word, not on something like this. He probably didn't even notice, honestly, after all, mom already said you were practically family and it was kind of funny, so he has to kind of put up with your idiosyncrasies right? And on top of that, you gave him a present first. Kind of softens the blow. No, the hard part's going to be acting like you meant it later. Can't go all servile on him now, or he'll think you're mocking him.” Rolph laughed and grinned, but then told him he was serious.
    Because growing up in Two Bends totally prepared him for this. He didn't even know enough to guess his best friend was the freaking Prince. The idea made him uneasy. Not that Rolph was someone else too, that would be silly, of course he was. Even Tor was. No, it was that he'd missed it, even though there had been signs all around him the whole time.
    Shaking in place he had to drop into a trance to collect himself as they pulled up to the front gate of Debri house. He closed his eyes and relaxed, letting his mind pull deep into his head, then opened his eyes and, unlike what he did while working, poured his focus into everything going on around him and like he'd been taught in meditation class, simply accepted it all. No judgment, no bias. It is and the self observes, that's all.
    Rolph was still his friend, the same man he'd known for years and lived with closely. The King didn't hate him, or at least hadn't acted like it. If anything he seemed slightly amused by him. Connie even seemed to like him. Ursala had hugged him and thought his being willing to marry her was cute or something. Probably like a five year old telling her that he wanted to marry her when he grew up, but she didn't take it as an insult as far as he could tell. Things were fine. Really.
    He smiled at Rolph as they got out, knowing he'd seem a little strange, but also knowing that his friend would also get it. Rolph knew what he looked like in all his various trance states by now. Calmly he stepped from the carriage and waited to see what would happen.
    Sara ran out of the house calling to them, a smile on her face, but one that looked a little strained. Maybe she didn't always get along with her mother? If that was the case, Tor could sympathize. His own mother was a good person, but was a little hard on the boys in the family. On men in general. Bossy and holding them to a much higher standard, even though she denied it.
    “Rolph! Tor! In here. We have everything set up…”
    The outside of the house looked nice, not as big as the palace, but larger than the guest house he'd been staying in. The inside was at least as nice, if done with more wood tones and less stone. It was very tasteful, he thought. Two days before he would have thought it the nicest place in the whole world. Of course, he'd only seen the hallway so far. Following Sara, who wore a much skimpier dress than anyone at the guest house had so far, which hugged her backside a good bit more than was strictly proper, but was interesting to look at. They found themselves entering a room with a giant table, ringed with people. About half were men, the rest women. None of whom were anyone he recognized at all.
    Gah. A people ambush!
    Tor hated those. Worse, they were all looking at him and Rolph. Tor wondered if running away would be considered impolite? Probably.
    Sara walked them to the front of the table, where a trim and good looking woman sat wearing dark clothes that looked too warm, a bit of perspiration on her forehead. Everyone in the room looked a little uncomfortable except for Rolph. Tor knew he did, but that was because he'd thought he was just meeting Sara's mom for lunch or something so they could meet and chat. This seemed a lot more serious than that. He had to fight the urge to trigger his shield amulet.
    The woman, who he knew from Sara was named Heather Debri, her mother, stood and bowed to Rolph, which made Sara's eyes go wide. Before she could say anything the woman, still looking down murmured softly.
    “Prince Alphonse. Thank you for coming. Please, be seated, if you will.” The woman spoke softly, but smoothly, a professional voice of a kind that Tor had rarely heard.
    Sara's eyes went wild suddenly, but she calmed down after a minute and turned to smile at Tor a little and shrugged. When Rolph sat the woman turned to Tor herself and gave a bow nearly as deep as the one she'd given the Prince.
    “Mr. Baker? I can't tell you how happy and proud we are to have you here. It's an honor and a privilege to put a face to the name. Would you like a beverage, gentleman, before we begin? We have cold drinks ready. I'm afraid we haven't been able to put any of the cooling devices in here yet. Believe it or not, we don't have any extra available even now that we're nearing capacity on manufacturing. Sorry to make you both suffer this heat…”
    Tor reached into his pocket and pulled out the remaining four equilibrium units and looked down.
    “I… didn't know that there would be this many people. Here though, at least a couple people can be comfortable for now. Um, sorry everyone else.”
    Rolph explained the devices for him his tone serious and businesslike. Sara grabbed one and looked ready to fight anyone that tried to take it from her. It was cute and looked feisty. The good looking woman in front of him took one and sighed, closing her eyes for a second, then activated the other two and asked them to be passed around the table. It took a while since no one wanted to give them up once they had them.
    The older blond looked at him and smiled, then shook her head. She waited for everyone to get a chance to hold the new devices for a while before speaking.
    “This is, of course, amazing. We'd love to carry this and do the manufacturing as well, if you're interested? It's… Well, this is more than a little embarrassing, and hard to explain, but we don't actually have all the money we owe you so far from the sales made.” Her hand shot up as if to hold him back, or to stave off anger. “It's just that we've had to rush into some massive military contracts and we don't get paid for those until we deliver product. If we could have another six months, it shouldn't be a problem.” Her voice died off as Rolph stared at her.
    His look surprised Tor. It wasn't angry as much as ironic. He asked if Debri house made a habit of trying to withhold payments to people for sales already made. He hadn't heard of any complaints, he told the room, looking around coolly, but it would make him sad to learn that this was the case. The woman sputtered and looked panicked.
    “No! We hold to the highest standards, we really just don't have the funds. We were given vast orders by your father and really have no time to get the work done without huge expense. It's one of the largest projects we've ever handled and frankly, I don't think that anyone else in the kingdom could manage it right now at all. Who are you going to get, Sorvee? Lintel? They wouldn't pay out anything if they could help it and simply couldn't handle half of what we're doing on their best day, even if they threw in with Nox and all worked together. We just need a little more time.”
    Tor fought a yawn. Not that this was boring, but he really needed to get some sleep as soon as possible. He looked around the table and saw that most of the people were still sweating a lot. Sara didn't, but the cute blond looked down at the table, her small dress hardly covering her at all. He didn't disapprove, different ways and all that, plus it was her body and not over dressing made a lot of sense for this climate.
    She seemed ashamed though, which he didn't get. Really, he'd thought she and Trice had just been giving all the devices away to their friends anyway. As long as he had enough money to keep him in materials, he didn't need a lot more. Not while he was at school at least. He'd even managed to send some money home each month for the last few, nearly thirty gold in all. If it turned out that they didn't have the money from sales because they had to make a bunch of stuff for the army, then that would just have to be what happened. Who was he to tell the military they couldn't have the shields they needed? Really, it was kind of an honor that they found what he made good enough to be of use at all. Tor shrugged and fought a yawn, nearly succeeding.
    “Alright.” He said quietly.
    Everyone kept talking for a few moments, except Sara who looked at him questioningly. She tilted her head. “What's alright?” Her voice was soft, almost shy, which got Rolph's attention quickly enough. But then he kind of liked Sara and had the whole time Tor had known the girl. It made everything she said more important no doubt. Women could do that to you if you weren't careful.
    “Alright, if you need time… then take it. If you could help make sure I have the materials I need to work and, I don't know if it's possible, but if a little bit could be sent to my family in Two Bends, that would be good? The rest can wait.” Rolph gave him a hard look for a second, then smiled. It was a slightly sinister smile as if he expected some kind of deeper plan to be involved. If so he'd be disappointed. Tor had nothing past that.
    The affect was more powerful than Tor would have thought, that single odd smile from Rolph. It made everyone at the table except Sara scramble for papers which they read over several times. A few of the men looked like they were accused of a crime or something. His blond friend just looked at her mother and shook her head gently.
    “It isn't a ploy Heather. Not a trick or even, I don't think, a negotiation.” She said, her voice slightly amused and slightly something else, something deeper. Like awe. “You asked for more time and Tor is just giving it to you as simple as that. Tor, what amount of gold do you think would be good to send to your family?”
    The question caught him off guard. He'd figured that the amount would be based on what could be scraped up and probably marked in silver, not gold at all. They wouldn't need too much, business having been good at home and really, he'd been sending money back to help out, more than enough for everyone to live on, even without the bakery's revenue. He shrugged and looked at Sara, slightly shaking his head.
    “I… well, I've been getting about ten gold per month back to them, if there's no money that should hold them for a bit, I mean, they have their own lives and all, so no one will starve. Business has been going well even. Past that? Well, it would be good to help them stock up for the winter, maybe some materials could be sent there, if Debri house has anything that could help out? Even just some things to help the village would work. I mean if gold itself isn't available. We can trade too. I just wasn't thinking that way before, but it's the way most business gets done back home. That would be fine and probably work better anyway, depending on what you have to hand. You can't eat gold after all.”
    Sara smirked and gave her mother a funny look.
    “I don't think he's being unreasonable here mother. I didn't think I had to dress up and try to vamp him in the first place. Not that I mind. This is cooler.” She waved at the tight dress she wore with a casual gesture. “Of course with the new amulet Tor just gave me I could as well be dressed in my winter finest. Or go naked in the winter, I bet.” She laughed and reached over to touch him on the arm. For some reason this made everyone but Rolph chuckle a little.
    He stared at Heather Debri instead, his face serious.
    “Really, turning your own daughter on him? That's… Noble of you. I'd understand that at court, but really Heather, I expected better than that in the business parlor.”
    The older woman looked down and got a look on her face as if her stomach was suddenly upset or she needed to run off to the restroom. But then she recovered her composure and smiled at Rolph.
    “It would be a good match. Sara isn't in line to inherit Debri, her older brother Kris is. Hooking her wagon here would assure a good future, and she and Master Tor are already friends, most marriages don't usually start even with that, do they?” The gesture she made drew Tor's attention to a tall blond man, one that looked to be in his mid twenties about four places down. He looked over at the mention of his name, trying to pretend he hadn't been listening the whole time for some reason. “Maybe I should send an emissary to his parents?”
    Rolph stiffened and glared at the woman. Tor could see that, he'd feel a little put out himself if the mother of the girl he liked suggested in public that the girl run off and marry Rolph, even as a joke. And really, Rolph was the best catch in the kingdom, so Tor couldn't even complain. If Tor loved a girl, then seeing her married to the future King would be the very best someone like him could do for her. Even before it would have been hard to raise too big a fuss, when his friend had just been tall, good looking and rich, with a great personality compared to his own.
    Tor shook his head. “Marry the poor girl to a troll like me? That wouldn't be a good match at all…”
    Everyone looked at him for a few moments as if amazed at the truth of what he'd just said. Finally a chuckle came from down the table where Sara's brother sat. The man didn't sound like he was making fun of him, it was gentler than that, almost a polite sound.
    “A troll? If we had a real troll that could do what you have, it would still be a good match. But you sir, are definitely no troll. A little short, granted, but that can be overlooked…” His eyes popped opened and both hands went up. “No offense meant by that! I just meant that you have clear skin, good eyes and all your own teeth. Not that I'm any great judge of such things, but I'd wager most women would even find you handsome. That along with what you've done already and the promise of what might be done… I have to agree with mother here. It would be a good alliance.”
    Sara looked down and blushed from across the table, but didn't protest. Tor shook his head again, not because he wouldn't like such a thing, just because it wouldn't be fair to her. Tor had a suspicion that they were having fun at his expense. Which was fine, but it was also at hers, which wasn't. They may be her people, but she was his friend too.
    He smiled, trying to show that he got it and laid his hands flat on the table to show that the joke had ended and been found out. Tor was too tired for this kind of interplay today. the Capital seemed to treat teasing and joking about things like this as a game. He'd pick it up eventually, or learn to avoid people here. One way or the other. Right now he felt like just doing the latter, but he knew he was just a bit tired.
    Rolph told Heather that she would not send an emissary to Two Bends, and that if she were serious she'd deal with the Queen herself in proxy for Tor's own mother. That statement got Sara's attention and she swung around on Rolph looking panicked for an instant.
    “Does he…” She started.
    “Oh, yes, father told him the whole thing earlier. Had to. The situation kind of required it. I can't go into it now, but some… things have come up at home. Later.” Rolph made an odd sweeping gesture with his hand, one that Tor had seen him use with the others and some of the faculty at the school before in his presence, that seemed to say “be silent” now that he knew that his friend was a Prince and not just some merchant's son. Before it had just seemed a quirky mannerism.
    The rest of the afternoon was taken up with suggestions for new devices, some of the ideas catching Tor's interest, so he asked for some paper on which to write them down as well as a pencil. It was provided so fast that he didn't even have the words all the way out before one of the men near the end of the table jumped up and set it in front of him. He started making notes, and didn't let himself get sidetracked into how the fields needed to be built, even though his mind wanted him to go there so badly it almost hurt. Focus on the moment, he told himself, over and again. Like in meditation class.
    When they left he almost cried in relief. Tears actually started welling up in his eyes as he looked away from Rolph, so the other boy wouldn't see that he was a weak little girl. Tor hadn't wanted to show it inside, but the whole day had been incredibly stressful for him. Too many new people. Nearly as many as the first day of school and worse, these people actually paid attention to him as if he had something to say that might be important. On top of that, there was the whole fiasco with poor Ursala. What were they going to do there?
    Sure, it technically wasn't his problem, his best solution, an offer to make it right by marriage to himself, had been rejected by all involved already. That… was a relief, but didn't solve the issue at all. What could he do? Rolph was his friend, which meant Ursala was his problem just as much as if one of his sisters were in the same trouble. Well, except for then Tor would marry her, or go and find someone better for the job, no matter what it took.
    Could he do less for Ursala then?
    Looking down at the papers he noticed that one of the ideas jumped out at him suddenly. The need to ship large amounts of goods rapidly, that wasn't even a real problem. It would just take a field big and strong enough to lift what they wanted, wagons of goods he guessed, fields like the ones he'd already built for the luggage. The area of effect had to be bigger, and that would suck to make, but the general idea was the same. He could knock that out in a few days.
    He grunted as an idea hit him.
    Some people didn't want to fly, but he could make a wagon or carriage that would go over the roads far more quickly than what a horse could. If it floated above the ground a little it wouldn't even be a bumpy ride and really, if you were a foot from the ground, that wasn't flying, was it? He wrote that down too, the marks rough and hard to read as the carriage bounced. Rolph looked over at his sudden movement and shook his head.
    “This thing with Ursala is a mess. I mean, it's not like we were supposed to be in love or anything, she's not exactly my type, but I wouldn't want anything to happen to her either, you know? She's a good sort, most of the time, if a little prone to sleeping around with the wrong people I guess, I wouldn't even mind being married to her. I just… can't see any reasonable way out of this. I can't marry her now. If it were up to me alone, I would, just to save her troubles, but the firstborn will be in line to inherit the kingdom. That child kind of has to be mine. It's actual law. If Count Ward wasn't already married, we could just show up with some of the Royal Guard and ask him to do the right thing politely, or you and I could go and talk to him about it. Really, I don't know what either of them were thinking! Ward should know better than to bang a daughter of peerage like that now that he's married! If Ursala was just some serving girl she could be given some money and told to go and marry some boy from down the street and no one would care one way or the other. As for her, well, there are ways to keep from having a child. That she'd gotten so careless verges on criminal.”
    Tor put the papers away and listened for a while. It was a bigger mess than he'd thought. Almost anything they did brought them back to the fact that the girl had to marry and that it had to be a royal. A decently high ranking one too, at least a Baron or better. The problem was that all the royals that were close enough in location to do it were either too powerful to force into anything or were already married themselves. She was pregnant, so they couldn't marry her off to some twelve year old. The age of consent was fourteen after all.
    A message was sent off to Trice, so that she'd show up at the palace for the early dinner meeting that Connie was planning. That would be good. She may not be able to come up with anything either, but at least Tor knew her and considered her a good friend. He'd feel a little less out of place that way. He asked if they should send for Count Thomson as well. Rolph considered it and then shook his head.
    “No, I don't think so. The fewer people that know about this, the easier it will be to keep under wraps. No matter what we do, the child has to be protected from any backlash from this later. It was stupidity that allowed this to happen, but it would be worse to dump the problem on the kid in the future.”
    That got a nod from Tor. He hadn't been thinking that way, but it was important. Maybe the single most important thing in all of this.
    Since he understood now that the big building in front of where he and Rolph had been staying was the palace and no one had to try and hide that from him, the meeting was to be held there. Apparently cozy wasn't the impression that the King and Queen really wanted to give right now to the people that would be attending.
    Burks came with more clothing and helped him dress, an outfit that made him feel ridiculous, with heavy gold colored brocade on the shoulders and the King's personal livery on the front, covering his whole chest. It stood out on a background of purple, but the main color was black, more velvet and silk than he'd ever seen on a man before. At least one his size. The servant had to tie him into it then hide the strings with a heavy jacket of more black material.
    He blushed looking down at himself, but Burks assured him he looked splendid.
    “Right. But you'd say that if I looked like a fish, wouldn't you? Kind of part and parcel to your work?”
    To his surprise the man shook his head with a serious look on his face. “Oh, definitely not sir! If you looked like a fish, or anything other than the best I could manage, I'd tell you instantly so that we could work to fix it before being seen in public. You cut a fine figure however. No one will think you dressed as anything other than proper I don't think. Especially since you're dressed in a fashion that declares you in the King's service directly, acting as his hand or voice. I don't think anyone will question your right to be at this meeting tonight. Do be careful not to start a war though, since the King would have to back you in it, even if he doesn't agree with you on the reasoning.” He continued and explained that it was the livery on the front. This outfit had, after all, once belonged to the Prince. On someone like him it basically meant that whatever Tor did, the King backed him fully.
    It was nice to know in case he used the wrong spoon or something, which was probably the actual point. Someone figured that he'd mess up and this would make it… Well, not OK, but less embarrassing. Maybe.
    Before Rolph came to collect him he pulled a few more of the room cooling systems and heat exchange amulets, then slipped his shield on as well, the latest version, the fourth one that he'd created. It still wasn't perfect, but it took care of a lot of problems the older ones had. As silly as it sounded, he still kept expecting Wensa to jump out at him and try to kill him at any given moment. She hadn't back at school, but that might not stop her now. The woman had kept watching him, if more covertly and from a greater distance after her attempt to end him at the shield test.
    As a Royal Guard she might just show up in the palace, right?
    As they walked to the main residence, Rolph told him to make certain that he didn't eat first tonight. In fact, he should wait for Trice to eat first, but go before Count Ward if possible.
    “It's… Well, what you did last night was considered a good faith gesture, and one that won over mother, I have to say. But in general, the host or hostess takes the first bite, to prove the food isn't poisoned. Then down the table in order of rank, until the guests with the highest risk, in this case Ursala and Ward, so that everyone else would be risking death first.”
    Tor had to ask why Ursala. Count Ward, well, someone could be angry at him, sure, but the girl? She didn't do anything worth death had she? She'd loved in the wrong place but… Rolph winced and shook his head.
    “No, but… Well, if I was just some guy or even another Count, then no one would care. Marriage is arranged, but people can have lovers as they will. Even Ursala and I. It's different than in Two Bends that way, from what you've said? It's just possible though, that mother or father could decide that the easiest way out of the whole mess would be for her to either die, or lose the baby. Um, that will probably be brought up, so be forewarned. I know that the idea of killing a baby is against how you were raised, but it happens sometimes in cases like this. Don't challenge the Count to a duel over it or anything, alright?”
    Oh, yeah, Tor thought, I'll just run over and challenge a Count to a duel. Not only would the guy probably kill him if he tried, but even if Tor won he'd be put to death. That would show the man not to be irresponsible and get good women pregnant like that. He'd be better off just killing himself in protest. Maybe that would get the guy's attention at least. Instead he looked straight ahead and told Rolph he'd try to keep that in mind. His voice sounded a little surly when it came out, but then he was more than a little tired. The big man grunted and said that he'd do the same.
    Funny, but his voice sounded kind of angry as well.
    The inside of the palace nearly made Tor want to run back out. He'd thought the guest house was nice, but the palace… There were whole rooms lined with gems and at least one done all in gold. Not gold silk or paint or even gold colored wood. The room, as big as the dining room in the guest house, was lined with real gold. The effect was… kind of ugly. But impressive for all of that. Rolph made fun of it as they passed, but he also made fun of one of the crystal rooms, one done in white quartz that Tor thought looked kind of pretty, if a little rough around the edges. He bet no one hung out in there if they valued their skin. Not close to the walls at least. They looked sharp.
    The dining room, one that Rolph assured him was one of the “cozy” ones inside the residence, was bigger than the entire guest house. It was done in polished wood of at least three kinds, light colors that made it appropriate for the heat of summer. The Queen was already in the room when they got there, and waved them over to here as she spoke to a warm looking older man with white hair who kept bowing every few seconds.
    “That should do Quavelle. I think.” She turned to Rolph and gave him a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek that missed by about an inch, then without missing a beat she did the same thing to Tor. He blinked and ducked his head, which had to look bashful, he knew.
    Connie spoke, as if asking a question. “If we take the cooling plates from the living chambers and put them in here, will that be enough to lower the temperature in a space this large do you think?” She didn't look at anyone in particular, so Tor looked around and nodded.
    “Probably, but…” He lifted the bundle in his left hand. “I brought a half dozen for that. I also brought along ten of the heat exchangers for personal use.”
    The Queen's eyes lit. “That will make an impression indeed, do we need both though? If the room is cool that should be enough…”
    “Sure, in here, but the servers have to run back and forth to the kitchen and out into the warm night and stuff on odd errands, do I have that right? Their outfits are all heavy too, which has to be hot. This way they can stay cool the whole time. I don't know if I have enough for all of them…”
    Quavelle provided that it would nearly do, there being fifteen servants standing by. Shrugging Tor turned off his own amulet and handed it to the man, along with the rest of the bundle. It was uncomfortably warm in the room without the device, but he'd live until the temperature plates could be turned on. The Queen's man seemed to be in charge, so he could deal with who got what as far as the staff went. Nodding to himself Tor decided that he needed to make up more of everything. Just this one building had so many people that could use a bit of relief from the heat. The poor people in the kitchen must be half dead by the end of each day.
    With a chuckle Rolph doffed his own amulet and so did the Queen. That would only leave two people hanging. The older man bowed low to Tor and said that he'd manage it so no one had to suffer too much. How that would be made to happen Tor didn't know, but he hoped it would be alright. Leaving even a couple people out left him feeling bad already.
    They weren't to be seated until everyone had arrived, which was some kind of rule. Rolph made sure he understood how important it was, but very covertly, so that he wouldn't be embarrassed.
    When she got there Trice looked beautiful, in a dress of light violet that nearly glowed somehow. Her long hair had been put up, leaving a few ringlets of dark brown that neared being true black trailing down the sides artistically. Her blue eyes sparkled as she looked over and saw him, but she didn't wave or acknowledge his presence. Instead she walked over, flowed towards them somehow, hardly looking like she walked at all, more like she floated gently, it was so graceful tears nearly came to his eyes. She bowed to the Queen and then to Rolph.
    Looking at Tor she held out her hand, which he took, but didn't know what to do with. After about ten seconds she took it back with a smile. Was he supposed to kiss it or something? He swallowed, feeling so very out of his depth. Looking at the others she finally spoke.
    “Cat's out of the bag then?” She gestured with her head towards the short man.
    Connie smiled.
    “Kind of hard to hide the whole palace dear. Let me catch you up on the situation before everyone gets here.”
    Trice listened closely and made appropriate noises, but didn't seem nearly as concerned as Tor felt she should be. Were things like this that common or did she just not like Ursala? The Counserina had seemed fine to him earlier, nice even. Trice's face didn't show any response to the information at all until Connie mentioned Tor's offer to marry the girl earlier. Then her eyes flew open.
    The Queen nodded.
    “Yes. Amazing really. Our Tor didn't even know who she was, he just sought to do what was proper and noble without thought for himself. Of course it can't be allowed, not yet at least, class differences and all that, but the offer had impact. No one hearing it will say that we did less than our best by her, I don't think. Worse comes to it, we may be able to swing a low title for him. I think we have a few empty ones lying around.” Her voice had gone low and teasing, which made Trice look around carefully and then, her back to the room, stick her tongue out.
    “Aunt Constance! It's not nice to tease people like that.”
    Rolph shook his head. “You think it's teasing… but by the end of the night it may be the only thing we have. Besides, I think Tor would make an excellent Baron or Duke, don't you?”
    With a wave the Queen set the issue aside, causing a wave of relief to flow over Tor. He would marry Ursala if that was the best answer. He'd already offered to make it right. But a title? It would be a little odd for him to be lord something or other the village baker, wouldn't it? Oh, maybe some money would come in eventually from his little devices, but until that happened he'd have to earn a real living and he only had the one skill. It would hardly be enough to support a royal wife, but he'd manage somehow, no matter what he had to do. Join the military maybe? They needed bakers and it should pay a little more to begin with.
    Ursala came in with two older people, who came to greet the Queen, bowing like Trice had, then they bowed to Rolph. Uncertain as to what to do they turned to Tor next and smiled, but didn't give him any indication as to what was expected. Was he supposed to bow? Before he had the chance, Ursala stepped forward and gave him a brief hug.
    “Father, mother, this is the man I told you about earlier, Torrence Baker…” She smiled and the older woman, not nearly as heavy as her daughter, stepped forward and hugged him too.
    “Oh! That's a good story. If nothing else in this comes out right, at least we'll have the tale of your nobility.” Her eyes moistened, but she smiled and stepped back. The man stepped in and shook his hand, clapping him on the shoulder, murmuring something that sounded like “good show.”
    Rolph put a hand on Tor's back. “Tor, this is Count Horace Thorgood and his wife, the Countess Marigold. You both know of Tor already it seems. He's agreed, along with Patricia here, to aid us if possible in coming to a sensible and honorable solution to this current situation.”
    Richard came in a bit later getting bows from everyone but the Queen. When Rolph bowed Tor did too. After all, this was in public, right? The King wouldn't think he was being mocked if everyone else was bowing and all that, would he? The huge man clapped the Prince on the back after giving his wife a kiss on the cheek. Then he followed by giving a head nod to everyone else, finally standing just behind Tor, who'd ended up between the Queen and Trice somehow.
    “Hopefully we'll be able to come to a solution to this tonight. There's a situation in the Ford district that needs seeing to as well and as lives may be at stake, we really shouldn't leave it too long. Drought. It looks like we might lose the mid-summer crops, and if this lingers the late summer harvest too.” Looking at Tor he added some information, probably getting that geography wasn't something the younger man had a lot of knowledge of.
    “Generally dry and warm there, directly west of here, near the Pacifico so the moisture is there, but they can't irrigate with salt water. Bad for the plants. Plus we'd have to bring in a river's worth of water to do it, since the good crop lands are hundreds of miles away from the ocean anyway.” He shook his head sadly.
    “Prime growing area in good years, but it looks like we may need to start shipping food to them again. It happens every ten years or so.”
    Tor started to sink into himself, thinking about how to first filter the salt out of water, which should be doable, kind of like separating sewage really, right? He'd already gotten a filter for that so if he could modify it… Then he'd have to figure out how to get the water to move in the right direction long enough. That would be harder. After all, he'd learned in the Two Bends school about how water tended to flow towards the ocean, making it go the other way could take a bit of doing.
    Just before he lost himself in thought totally, Trice started shaking his arm covertly. He looked at her, having jumped slightly.
    She grinned a little and gestured with her head subtly.
    “Looks like it's show time. It's Count Ward and it looks like he brought his wife. Ballsy of him. You'd think he'd be trying to hide this from her if he could. Then again, he never was known for being exactly… bright. Good looking, but…”
    The man was good looking Tor noticed and easy to see as well, even across the huge room. If he wasn't as tall as the King it was only because the ruler had better posture. In many ways the man was probably about the best looking guy Tor had ever seen anywhere. Perfect skin, dark enough to make his white teeth stand out at a distance. Black hair, about the same color as Tor's but longer, tied back in a ponytail. He couldn't see the eyes yet, but they were probably great too.
    Jerk, being all good looking like that.
    Well, that explained why Ursala had slept with him at least.
    On his arm he had a tall girl obviously of royal blood as well. It wasn't until they moved closer, walking arm in arm, heads held high, that Tor realized who she was. She'd grown considerably since the last time they'd met. At least ten inches. He swallowed and stopped breathing, which Trice noticed. She nudged him a little.
    “Something?” She said quietly.
    He nodded.

Chapter seven

    Rolph turned to look, a frown suddenly crossed his face. “I didn't realize… Tor, honestly, I didn't know…” His friend sounded slightly panicked, which got the attention of several other people instantly.
    Without missing a single beat the Queen stepped just past him and turned, using her own body to block Tor from sight for the moment, a questioning look on her face. Tor couldn't manage to speak, so just shook his head. It was stupid and not consequential at all. Just because Maria had been the one that was there at the most embarrassing moment of his life, that didn't mean anything in the here and now. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
    “I'm fine. It's not important.” He knew his face had turned red with shame. Worse, he hadn't even known back then that the girl he'd asked out had royal blood at all. No wonder she'd reacted so forcefully to his asking her to that party.
    Connie looked concerned and tilted her head at Rolph, who shook his head slightly.
    “Um, like with Count Wylde and Doretta? Only in this case… possibly for real? And worse. Doretta was way nicer about things I think, and had greater reason.” The Prince muttered softly, causing a reaction from the whole group standing around him.
    No one spoke for a moment as the Count and his young wife approached, but the Queen turned and smiled at them, her arm going protectively around Tor's shoulders. The whole bowing process was done again, except that when all the bowing was done Maria refused to look at Ursala at all, obviously snubbing her. That made sense to Tor, but meant that she ended up looking at the Queen and Rolph. It wouldn't do to stare at the King after all, and that didn't leave a lot of people to look at.
    It meant that after a few seconds she looked at Tor. For some reason she smiled and then looked down, then back up her smile growing larger. The Queen didn't let go of his shoulders, but Trice moved in on the other side, closing ranks, with a cold look in her eyes.
    The King swept an arm towards the table.
    “Let's eat before we begin the discussion, shall we?”
    Tor felt faint. Of course not sleeping for a day and a half on top of all the stress might explain it. Then again, maybe it was just his subconscious mind looking for a way to get him out of the room. The idea almost made him smile. That would make him look good, wouldn't it? Pass out over the chilled fruit juice in front of him. Instead he took a small sip, trying to focus on it and ignore everyone else for a moment.
    They all made small talk, saying very little for the most part. He felt tempted to go work on the problem of ending the drought the King had mentioned, but he let that idea go quickly. Jumping up and running off probably wouldn't go over very well. At least Maria, Countess Ward he corrected himself, hadn't regaled the room with how he'd foolishly asked her to a party once and had to be publicly chastised for it. Not yet anyway. The night was young. Whee.
    For some reason he'd been given the seat next to the Queen, on her left. She and Richard held the top of the table, putting Rolph directly across from him. Tricia sat next to the Prince and Ursala was next to him. Some kind of subtle statement no doubt, about the damage done to alliances or whatnot. Tor didn't get it all and doubted he would even if it were all explained to him. Still, the girl hadn't been put at the far end of the table either, which meant that no one at the palace thought she should fear being poisoned, right? That was a good, if confusing, sign.
    Really, it was all he could do to not spill his juice. He didn't jump when the man standing behind him placed a napkin in his lap, but only because the King's man had gone first, then the Queen's woman. They were all matched by gender. Interesting. Behind each of the ten people present stood a servant, ready to do whatever it was they did.
    Everyone stared at him, except Rolph and the Queen, who both smiled, amused. The King suddenly stood and bowed to him. “Again you honor us, sir.” His voice was warm and filled with respect. Tor looked down at the cup in his hand, wait, did taking a sip of juice count as the first bite of food? Argh! He hadn't even thought about that. He looked down and closed his eyes slightly. Maybe if he excused himself to go to the bathroom he could reach his flying gear and head out of the Capital before they noticed he was gone?
    Next to him, before anyone else could take a sip Ursala held up her own cup, as if saluting with it and took a large swallow. The King bowed to her as well, smiling and then picked up his own vessel, still standing. He took a single sip and sat gently. The Queen stood and went next, and after her Rolph. Then Trice tilted her head at him and took a single sip from her own cup. Other than the King and Queen, no one else was standing up.
    Was he supposed to take a sip now again or not? He missed being at home, or even school, where he could just eat and no one noticed him doing it as long as he didn't pick his teeth at the table or spit. Ursala smiled, but didn't look at him, her eyes straight ahead for some reason. Softly a foot caught him in the shin. He took a sip from the golden glass cup, just hoping that's what she meant. It went down the table that way, with Count Ward going last. He actually looked into the vessel as if it were an enemy out to get him, as if it might honestly contain poison.
    That of course was stupid. This was way too small a group for anyone to try it. The King would be blamed, or possibly the family of Ursala. They couldn't spread the blame around enough that way. If there were hundreds of people it could be anyone, right? Here that wouldn't work. Unless they blamed Tor of course. That could work. After all, he might have considered slipping the man poison if he knew how to do such things. For him to have been so irresponsible with Ursala made Tor more than a little angry. If he wasn't a Count Tor would have punched the man, even if the guy would kill him in a fight.
    Dark thoughts spread themselves across his mind, like they had during his first year at school, when he'd almost left, because of how bad he felt after the thing with Maria. If Rolph hadn't been there to prop him up and help him move past it, he'd probably be getting the shop ready for the next day before turning in early. Bakers got up before the dawn each day by several hours, especially in the heat of summer. He turned away from thinking like that and tried to listen to what everyone else around him said.
    The Countess Thorgood, who sat several seats away from him, but on the same side of the table, mentioned how delightfully cool the room was, a miracle, given how hot the day had been. Everyone made polite speech about the weather for a while after that for a while, which came back around to the temperature of the room again. Maria spoke softly, her voice sounding pleasant enough, kind even.
    “Oh! Is it one of those new room coolers? We've an order for several in to Debri house, but there's a waiting list, even for Counts. It makes sense that the palace would have some, I suppose, but I have to admit to a bit of jealousy nonetheless.” It was a throwaway line from the way she said it, but the Queen answered her anyway, her voice soft and pleasant sounding as well. Almost like the way velvet felt against the skin.
    “Yes. I've heard from sources that the new Tor-shields and flying devices are being given priority since those are needed for the common defense. Luckily for us the devices to cool this room have been loaned to us by Tor himself. Along with virtually priceless devices to keep our servants cool when they leave to get our next course. A gesture of grand magnitude.” She turned slightly to address the man standing behind the King, about six feet back. “How are they working Quavel?”
    The man stood straighter and smiled.
    “Perfectly mum! Even standing next to the ovens they work to keep the wearer cool.”
    The Queen nodded subtly to Tor. No one else seemed to notice, except Trice who gestured to him slightly. She mouthed the words “I want one.” at him, which made him smile. He nodded slightly. He could make another few batches after he had some sleep. Then he'd need to figure out how to transfer rivers of water across the countryside.
    The courses passed one after the other, almost seamlessly. His server offered more fruit juice instead of wine, which he took gratefully. If anyone noticed they didn't remark on it. Then again, given the people sitting around him, those that didn't know him might just think he was a child. Tor knew he didn't look old for his age and when everyone else loomed over you like they all did, it could be easy to get confused. It was good juice though. Some kind of apple peach blend he thought. Tart apple too, the way he liked it.
    For sweets at the end they had chilled fruit with cream over it. The cream had been sweetened and was still liquid, but poured over the cut strawberries slowly. It was very good, but then everything had been. He noticed that the serving sizes for him had been smaller than for everyone else so that he could eat each course. Catching the Queen's eye he nodded his thanks. It was obviously her doing. She'd probably noticed that he couldn't eat his dessert the other day. Not his fault that he wasn't a giant, but her making sure he didn't feel uncomfortable about it was nice. She was probably that considerate of everyone, but it made him feel a little special anyway.
    When everything was cleared from the table drinks were brought out, water for him, and he was fairly certain, for the King as well by the look of the glass in front of him. Everyone else got wine. It seemed like a less than brilliant idea really, letting people drink at such a potentially volatile meeting, but if it was the tradition then they kind of had to.
    Then the conversation started. Or rather the argument that rapidly devolved into a screaming match between Counts Ward and Thorgood. It seemed to center around who was responsible for the pregnancy, rather than seeking to find a workable solution. Ward, for someone that held enough interest in Ursala to have sex with her, apparently on numerous occasions, didn't seem to hold her in very high esteem anymore. He continued to heap more and more abuse towards her over the whole thing, as if he had no part in it. Tor may not know a lot about sex, he knew, but no one seemed to doubt that Ward was the father at all, so arguing over responsibility now seemed… insane.
    Ward did, as Rolph had mentioned might happen, suggest that the baby simply be “gotten rid of”. Tor had to swallow his anger, but managed it. Barely. After all, short of dying, what else could he do? Ursala sullenly shook her head no at the suggestion and Marigold took her hand and patted it, while glaring at the man who'd despoiled her little girl.
    Trice didn't say much and what she did say tended to be fairly helpful suggestions, such as the need to look for a solution, instead of placing blame. The King eventually told both men to shut up, he did it bluntly and with a bit of force behind it, which got their attention pretty well.
    “We have two problems here gentlemen, neither of which your bickering has addressed at all. First we need to see that Ursala here is not abused in this case. Second, we need to see her married to a suitable individual within the month. Start naming candidates. Now please.”
    Ursala's father went quiet at least, but the younger Count decided to take the opportunity to cast aspersions on the lady again. Tor watched as Rolph went from red to white, and stood stiffly, turning to face the Count, his eyes looking a little dead. As he did sparks started to manifest around him, an aura of power. Trice slapped at her chest.
    “Damn, I don't have my shield on!” She pulled back, scampering with almost everyone in the room towards the other side. The Royal Guard suddenly appeared in the room, looking deadly in their black and purple, heavy cloth that had to be uncomfortable, but that didn't look too different from what Tor had on at the moment himself. They all just stood around though, once they realized what was about to happen.
    Rolph flipped the table out of the way with a casual gesture, not touching it at all. It left Tor sitting in his chair with no table in front of him, the only one left. Everyone else had the sense to get out of the way of the rampaging royal. Except him and Count Ward, who was looking at least as enraged as the Prince. Pulling out his shield amulet Tor activated it carefully and then tucked it back into his shirt. That way it wouldn't flop around if he got hit. It shouldn't anyway, but better to be sure of it.
    He stood slowly and walked between the two men then just stood in place. As if sharing a single thought, both men pointed both hands at each other. Nothing happened until Rolph moved two steps to the left, causing a single chair to flip towards the Count. It stopped when it hit Tor's shield, his right hand extended to keep it from flying past. The way the chair flew… It seemed familiar somehow. As both men ran towards each other, with him in the middle he suddenly got it. The force moved in a line, the energy inside the field being organized so that it all suddenly wanted to move in one direction! If they'd kept dropping more chairs into the field, they all would have flown too. It was like the flying field in effect. Only totally backwards in how the mechanism worked.
    Chairs got caught in it and flew along the path set up in advance, which was different than how he had people flying, which held a single object in place relative to the field, the field giving the instructions moving along with it… It made sense! If he could set up a path, the ocean water could be sent along like a stream or a river. If he filtered it as it flowed into the line the water would all be fresh. It would take massive work, but it could be done. Tor thought so anyway. If building the fields in the first place didn't kill him. But hey, everyone died eventually, so wasn't it worth a chance?
    As he stood the Count rushed him from behind and started pounding on him, causing the floor beneath him to make massive popping sounds. Rolph didn't hit him at least, moving around to strike at the other man. As a blow moved to hit home against the Count, Tor stepped into the path of it, distracted by the project at hand.
    Then after about five minutes he realized that the real project at hand, Ursala's problem, wasn't being attended to at all. They were just wasting time on that one for sure. He looked around and finally saw the clutch of people standing by the door.
    “Hey, anyone have any male relatives of, or at least near, marrying age that could be passed off as noble enough for Ursala?” Tor asked, his voice slightly abstract and distant as he tried to figure out how many devices he'd need per mile to carry enough water to make the whole thing work. Hundreds at least. Or did he? God. Making that many field copies would take forever. Weeks or more. Maybe they could hire the work done, as long as he got the initial template up? That was generally the hard part, coming up with a field that could be copied and passed to other plates or crystals. That many plates would be dangerous though. What if someone moved one by mistake? An unending flood of water popping out of the line… He needed to find some other way.
    No one said anything for a bit, but finally Ursala's mother called out a name.
    “Howard Turnbull?” She said, getting a groan from the room after a few moments.
    Even the two men that stood hitting at each other stopped then. Rolph stood back and after a few seconds Count Ward did too. Both looked baffled for a second, then realized what must have happened. Well Rolph did. Ward stood there looking confused until Maria gently explained things to him. The girl wasn't rough with the man, but clearly led him more than the Count realized. That probably explained a lot about why the Count had been so cruel towards Ursala.
    After all, he already couldn't marry the girl and no one was even suggesting that. No one had even said he should pay her money for the child or anything. The worst he should feel was embarrassed about how he'd misbehaved, but instead he'd reacted as if wronged somehow. If Maria was behind directing him that much…
    Looking down Tor noticed that the stone under his feet had been cracked in a circle around him. A small path of lines followed the path he'd walked. Like the line of a river, shooting off into smaller streams moving outward. Like he'd need to do in order to water crops. Well, to get water to the crops. The farmers would have to control the actual watering. He'd helped in the garden at home, they all had, but that wasn't large scale farming at all. That part should be left to the pros he decided.
    He stood staring at the floor for a minute, until a man in a Royal Guard uniform came and shook his arm gently, not really touching him, because his shield was still on. “Sir? Are you alright sir?”
    “Oh! Sorry, yes, just thinking about something. Where were we? Howard Turnbull? Who's that?” The cracks didn't move or change so he looked up at Marigold and smiled.
    Howard Turnbull, it turned out was everyone's idiot relative, a joke of sorts, not an actual person. It meant that one in the family tree that people hid away on isolated country estates. In this case, it could mean a sham marriage to someone that didn't exist. They would, in short, invent a person no one else had ever met for Ursala to marry.
    The Queen nodded, obviously seeing something that Tor missed.
    “Yes… Then in a couple years, he has a “horrible accident” leaving Ursala a widow, free to remarry without social stigma. It could work. Not ideal, but…”
    No one was really happy about it, but everyone agreed it would be better than waiting and letting the child be born out of wedlock. Even Count Ward agreed with the idea, though Maria sat very still and looked angry for some reason. That there was no real father seemed to matter less than what other people thought.
    Who was going to play with the child though? Or teach him how to hunt and fish? Or if it was a girl, fend off inappropriate suitors? Tor held his tongue. Maybe they could find someone in time still. There had to be someone that would work, didn't there?
    The Royal Guard evaporated as quickly as they appeared, leaving everyone else to hash out the details. Tor didn't want to run off, in case he was needed to stand in front of insane nobles bent on killing each other again, but he really wanted to sleep now. The day had just been too much for him to take easily.
    Another two hours passed before they had a plan that everyone agreed with. Ursala would marry a man named Baron Hyrees, since that title stood empty, then in a year he'd “die” and she could turn and marry Rolph as she was supposed to have done. The child would be cared for and yet never in the line of succession. He or she would even get the Baron's title when “Hyrees” died, even though it wasn't landed. Better than Ursala being publicly disgraced, if just barely.
    When the Counts and their wives left, Ursala with her parents, Trice ran over to him, hyperventilating slightly. “Tor! Are you alright?”
    Everyone else came over as well, looking scared, except for the King who just looked slightly amazed. The giant man shook his head.
    “That shield you're wearing, it blocks out the battle aura too, doesn't it? How did you come up with that?” The King looked impressed when Tor told him. And a little embarrassed when he told him why.
    “So, I have to try and protect myself from Wensa, just in case. I don't know what I'll have to defend against. I still haven't figured out poisons, so don't tell her that one, alright?”
    Tor assured them several times that he was fine, then after taking a deep breath, asked the King if he could see him in two or three days about the drought problem. It would take at least that long to make sure he could do anything useful anyway. The King just bowed a tiny bit and stated that they'd have luncheon in three days, if that would suit.
    That… should be fine.
    Rolph was at least as tired as he was after his combat rage episode, which he assured him wasn't a common thing. Tor reminded him that he knew it wasn't, obviously, having lived with him for years.
    Rolph looked chagrined, “it's just, that guy, Ward, made me so angry. Sure, people have sex and sometimes things like this happen, but for him to act like he was the victim and worse, claim that she was a slut… it was too much. Even if she was a slut, which a half dozen lovers a year doesn't make her at all, you just don't say such things in public like that. I'm kind of surprised her father didn't declare war right there. Really, the only reason he didn't was probably the fight itself. Ursala's honor was defended instantly and then, what you did…”
    His friend yawned and led him back to the guest house, so that they could both sleep. It was before midnight, but the morning would come early, Tor knew, somehow it always did. He headed off to bed as soon as he got changed for it, laying the nice clothes out on the table, so that he wouldn't accidentally ruin them. The room, thankfully, was cool. He'd left the servants with all the remaining personal heat exchangers he realized. No big deal, he'd make up more in the morning before he started on the other work that had to get done.
    His head hit the pillow and he slept until he heard a soft knock coming from his door. He blinked awake, dim light coming from the curtained window of the large room.
    “Coming.” He called out struggling to crawl out of the bed covers. Tor's feet didn't want to work right and he stumbled a little as he walked across the floor. Brushing the sleep from his eyes he opened the door, to find Rolph's sister Karina standing in the hall. She didn't wait to be asked in, ducking past him and closing the door to keep the cool in.
    “Good morning! Sorry to bother you so early, but I heard about the temperature control devices that people can wear and wondered if you might have another that I could borrow? I know that I have no right to ask or anything, but I'm going to be out all day and…” She looked hopeful and gave him a cute look that he recognized as wheedling. He had sisters after all, it wasn't like it was lost on him. He held up his hand to stop her, then yawned, covering his mouth with his other hand.
    “Sorry,” he spoke quickly before she thought he was being mean to her or something. “All out. I don't even have my own anymore, or you could have that one. Gave them out to the servers last night. It will take me… Oh, at least another couple hours to do up the next batch. I have some plates I can put them on, but I don't have anything to etch them with. If you could find me some sand paper we could get it done quickly enough. Acid would work too, if you can find some strong enough?”
    She looked surprised, but not put out.
    “I suppose I could find something, two hours? I wanted to leave by noon…”
    It turned out that it was only nine, so he assured her they could have something before then, if he hurried. She ran out and he got right to work, sitting on his bed, making the transfers from the template. It seemed easier to do this time for some reason. Maybe he was finally getting used to doing it? Could be the simplicity of the field itself too. Either way it worked for him.
    He managed to get his teeth brushed and if not a full bath, a good scrubbing down, before the Princess got back. She had a bottle of acid with her and some natural fiber brushes that would simply dissolve if they tried to put it in the bottle. Her face fell when he mentioned that, but he smiled and assured her that they could use it anyway. Taking the plates out into the garden with a large bucket of water, he put the heavy paper on the metal, making sure it was flat and then carefully poured the stark white paste onto the metal, using the glass of the bottle's lip to spread it around. Then they had to wait about ten minutes to rinse, this acid being rather stronger than the stuff he could get at school, but once that was done, they were ready to go.
    He handed her a damp piece of copper and had her test it. Standing out in the heat like they were, the effects were instant. He took one himself and did the same thing. The sudden sense of comparative cool took him for a moment. Delicious.
    The thought reminded him that he should probably eat before getting back to work, if he could find food. He mentioned this to Karina, hoping she'd be able to point the way to the kitchen, which she did, even going as far as to walk him to the door of the small light colored outbuilding. Then she kissed him on the cheek and blushing, ran away.
    He touched his cheek. Heh, kissed by a Princess. Wait until he told the folks at home. Then he realized they either wouldn't believe him or would misunderstand how innocent it really was. As she scurried away, a quick walk rather than an undignified run or playful scamper, she looked back over her shoulder and smiled. Her red hair swaying as she walked. Tor kind of wished she'd stayed. Having someone that belonged there next to him would have lent a lot of weight to the idea that he wasn't just some beggar that had slipped past the guard or something.
    Looking down he realized that his old brown school outfit might not work for him in this situation. They'd probably grab him and set him to scrubbing pots or something, it didn't look that different than what a lot of the people in the kitchen wore he'd bet. The only problem really being that he had other work he needed to be doing. Instead, as he stood in the door, an unfinished wood frame, no one noticed him for a long time, almost five minutes. Finally a large woman, tall, not heavy, with gray and silver hair cut short, spun on him.
    “Help you sir?” She said, her voice friendly if hurried.
    Tor asked if they had a spare crust of bread or some fruit lying around that he might have, the woman chuckled and had him sit at a low table apologizing for the heat. She bustled and grabbed half a small loaf and cut him a slice of light yellow cheese, which she laid on top of the brown crust, to this she added a stack of apple slices that had been dried. They had an odd, almost crisp texture that melted in his mouth when he took a bite of apple. One of his new dryers had been used on these then? The effect was interesting, if not identical to regular dried fruit.
    The woman smiled at him as she scooted him out the door by waving at him, he had to carry the new heat exchangers under the bread, but managed it without dropping anything. Thinking for a second, Tor rolled his eyes. Seriously, he was a moron sometimes.
    “Excuse, ma'am? Um, here, they don't have cords on them, but they might help with the heat.” Holding out half the pile of copper plates got the tall woman to stop and stare at him for a second, as if he was trying to give her a burden. Maybe she didn't like magic or…
    “Oh! Are these some of those cooling devices the servers got last night? I've been trying to cage one all day, since I heard about them…” She took one from his grasp and hit the sigil, closing her eyes briefly as she did.
    “Ah… OK then, I can see what all the talk was about.” She tried to hand it back, but instead was met with the other half of the pile.
    “For you in here. I know that it's brutal, the heat in here. Let me know if you need more and I'll try to get some to you?”
    The woman blinked for nearly ten seconds and then nodded, taking the things slowly, as if unsure.
    “I…” She didn't finish the statement though.
    Tor looked at his food hungrily and shrugged after a bit, it was getting awkward. He didn't expect thanks for it, but the woman didn't seem to know what he wanted, since that had basically already been taken care of, Tor smiled and made sure the food didn't fall.
    “Um, thanks for this.” With that, he walked out quickly, the rest of the people stopping to stare for some reason.
    Then Tor sat on the grass next to the guest house, in the shade, hopefully out of the way enough so that no one would notice him. As he did his mind turned back to the problems he had to work on for the day. Getting water to the drought stricken area and heavy lifting cargo devices. Reluctantly, he decided that he'd have to wait to build the full fields for either of them. After all he didn't even know if he could move water yet, or take salt out of it. He knew he could do the other one just being a larger version of something he already had, but it would take three or four days of work for the template, and he had an appointment with the King about this other thing first.
    So, the afternoon would be spent on seeing if he could control the flow of water at all. Tor thought it would work, but… without testing it he didn't want to tell anyone in case he proved wrong. It turned out that the idea, once he got past the initial three failures of concept, was pretty simple. He had to define the movement on a curve to test it in the bathtub, turning it into a kind of fountain for a while, but it worked. It would also, he realized, work for any kind of water pumping, not just long transfers over land. Tor wanted to try pumping water hundreds of feet into the air, but didn't have a big enough body of water to test the idea in. The bathtub just wouldn't do at all.
    When Rolph found him he saw the activity in the big ceramic tub and clapped his large hands several times.
    “Going to make an ornamental fountain? That could go over well this time of year. Especially if you do it in the pond garden. Even a temporary water feature would be good. My mother loves things like that and she has some of her friends coming over later. Royal types and high society women. So, you know… catty and unpleasant? Anything we can do to distract them would be a boon, I think.”
    Excitedly he made his friend take him there and then, over the next four hours, they designed and built an elaborate water feature that ran a steady and rushing stream of water through loops, spirals, plummets and raised it as high in the air as Tor could hold in mind while building the motivation field, which turned out to be about two hundred feet he found. The only reason he didn't make it larger was that they'd already had about half the pond's water hanging above the ground over the pond at any given time. He was afraid to take any more out, lest the fish end up dying of thirst. The field would probably only last a week or two, but that would be fine. As it failed the water would just not be taken up as well and finally just stay in the pond itself.
    It worked well enough as a proof of concept for half of it.
    Now all he had to do was build a salt water filter. He didn't know how he'd do that. Oh, the filter made sense to him, a simple field that put salt on one side, pure water on the other. But how was he supposed to find salt water to practice on? He asked Rolph, who blinked several times.
    “Say, Tor… Have you ever actually seen an ocean?”
    He hadn't, of course, this being as far from Two Bends as he'd ever been. That got Rolph to set up an outing to the coast for the next day with Trice and Sara. They'd fly, so the three hundred mile trip wouldn't be a problem. Instead of a day trip, they could take it in two legs, giving them an over night stay. Rolph really seemed excited about it, since it meant that he could spend time alone with Sara. He winked at Tor when he talked about it.
    The next morning, early-ish, but not too early, they set out, taking the mandatory carriage ride out of the city itself, so that they could take off and actually make decent time. Tor was really starting to dislike carriage rides. They were bumpy and slow and you couldn't feel the wind on your face.
    They had to get the girls on the way, which took them all over town, since Trice lived on the opposite side of the city from Sara. It took a while, due to all the people in the streets early in the morning. It was still cool, for this place in summer at least. That, of course, made it the time to get things done. Everyone swore that the very mild and wet winters made the summers worthwhile and that they didn't even have snow to contend with most years, but Tor wasn't convinced overly. It was a pretty place, if crowded, but no snow? That didn't seem right. Like they were cheating somehow.
    The dwelling that they picked up Trice at was large, but actually held some passing resemblance to what Tor thought of as a real house. It wasn't a miniature palace and didn't pretend to be. Debri house kind of did, but lacking the size looked a little funny. For that matter the palace actually looked a little funny to his uneducated eye. This place looked more like what he always dreamed of having when he was younger. A place to raise a family and keep them comfortable and safe. It was nice. Oh, it still probably cost more to build than he'd ever make, but compared to the official residence of the King, it seemed like a good place to be.
    Trice saw him looking at the house and flushed brightly.
    “It's… you know, our second house. No one else is really here, except the servants, most of the time, so…” She seemed nervous about something.
    The other two smiled and looked away, so no help there. Tor shrugged and hoped that he hadn't offended her. Sure, her house may not be as nice as the palace, but what was? Some other palace in a different part of the world maybe? It really didn't seem like she had to worry about that. Not with her friends at least. Tentatively he clapped her on the shoulder. She'd done that a couple of times with him, so it probably wouldn't seem improperly friendly, he hoped. She leaned into him and put her arm around his shoulders in a half hug like the Queen kept doing.
    Sara stared at her friend after about half a minute, eyebrows raised, which just got a lifted chin and a look away, off into the distance, from Trice. Whatever it meant, she apparently had decided that it was alright if Tor treated her like he would his own sisters. All to the good, they were friends, right?
    He wondered if she'd a betrothed already arranged or not herself too. Was it all royals that had that or just the firstborn, or maybe just Rolph? No, wait, Karina did too… He'd have to ask later. Their world was such a mystery to him. On the good side, it went the other way too, he thought. Oh sure, they had money, connections and knew who was who and all that, but he could make bread and winter cakes with the best of them, split firewood with an ax and darn his own socks. Totally equal in the grand scheme of things. Really.
    Tor sighed a little and had to resist shaking his head, because he couldn't match fine people like this in any way. For a few seconds he kind of wondered why they bothered keeping him around. Entertainment value, probably.
    Dance Tor monkey, dance?
    Well, they were more polite to him about it than that at least, if it was the real case. His dancing could probably be a source of amusement though, if he tried hard.
    Rolph helped him get Trice's heavy trunk on the top of the large brown carriage. Metal bars on the top made it so they could tie it down for the trip using a thick rope the carriage carried for the purpose. They all had a trunk with them, even though it seemed like overkill for a one night trip, still, it wasn't a hardship for them with the floats, so why not?
    They rode in silence for the most part, everyone still a bit sleepy or maybe saving up their stories for the camp fire later that night. Tor knew he didn't have any stories to tell that the others wouldn't know, not that they'd want to hear, but it gave him a kind of comfortable feeling. After all, your friends were the ones that knew you and what you'd done. Mainly at least.
    Unless they were living a hidden life for years that they weren't allowed to tell you about… No huge thing. Who was he to demand answers from people like them? Yes, they were his friends, but also royalty and important people. Great that he knew them, but Tor didn't delude himself into thinking their tolerance of him meant he was their true equal.
    It took less than two hours to get to the beach, where they were going to stay at the “little cabin”. For once that wasn't too much of a misstatement, at least not for Rolph and his family. It was a house, not a cabin, one with running water and flush toilets. No servants though, and only two bedrooms, so they'd have to share. That wasn't a real problem, since they shared at school anyway. They had only one bed in each room, but the beds were huge, even compared to the giant wonder he had back at the guest house. Everything was done in light, fresh colors and soft fabrics that could breathe, giving the whole thing a more open feeling than he'd expected from the outside. It was very nice, but not as opulent as the palace or the King's guest house. In all Tor had to wonder if it would be alright for him to stay here instead. The idea was relaxing at least. For one thing, way fewer people.
    The first thing they did was go to the beach. Well, honestly the first thing everyone did was use the facilities and clean up, but then they went to the beach. Tor couldn't believe what was in front of him even as he stood looking. He'd seen it from the air, sure but that had been so far away, just an expanse of blue-green on the horizon, here he could walk right up and touch the water. It wasn't just salty but so salty that he could taste it in the air itself. Subtle but actually there.
    It was a wonder for sure. A thing he'd heard of, learned of in school even, but hadn't really believed in until he saw it himself, not really. The whole thing just sounded so unlikely, a giant lake that was bigger than the entire continent they lived on? Vast waves, the scent of wet sand and water in the air, along with an almost phantom taste of it on the back of his tongue. The waves were more green than the water behind it and light passed through showing little particles and debris inside, with white tops that turned to foam on the beach in places.
    Everyone else played in the water, but he hadn't come to play. Tor was there to work. It took hours of focus, made harder when Trice came and dumped a bucket of water on his head, which he ignored, even while everyone else laughed. It ended up helping him, even as it stung his eyes, since he used the liquid that dripped from him to get a feel for what dissolved salt in the water felt like.
    That was the key. With that sense of things in mind, he could capture what clean, pure water was like in contrast. Pure water he knew, he drank it several times a day after all. Tor had even captured the feeling before, to build the filter for Galasia. What he needed then, was the difference. He sat with his eyes closed for two more hours, but when he was done he had a small version of the water purification system coupled with an above ground river. In extreme miniature. The field wouldn't last forever, he knew, maybe a few weeks, but it was good enough for a test. The stream of water floated in the air about five feet from the ground and was about as big around as he could reach with both hands. It twisted back and forth down about half a mile of beach, but looped back so that he was within about fifty feet of both ends.
    The device itself was just a simple copper plate, not even a template, just a pure one up. It was just to test the filter after all, with a moving water stream. Tor actually had to remind himself of that, feeling a little bad about not making it “right” so that it could be copied and last. Walking to the flow of water, which was a lot clearer in the air than in the vastness of the ocean, where it looked a greenish blue, he put his hand in, only to find it carried along with the stream perfectly and a little painfully at the shoulder as it whip his hand along faster than he'd figured it would. Then he tried again, bracing himself, so the force of the water, the only thing the stream would carry, in order to prevent any junk from being taken along, wouldn't knock him off his feet. His hand caused a spray of water, which he managed to put his head in front of long enough to catch some in his mouth.
    It was pure. Not just clean, but perfect. No hint of anything. Like really good well water. Rolph came over and tried a sip too, the whole thing easier for him, being a lot stronger than Tor, then drank it in deep gulps. Laughing he separated a bit of spray for the others too, who agreed it was clear of all salt. Not even the taste of salt from the air had gotten in.
    Then Rolph started spraying them all with water, since the flow was pretty fast it flew a long way off of the main stream, this went on for a while, with Sara getting the worst of it for some reason. Tor got that it was that playful kind of flirting that people did sometimes that could seem mean, but wasn't meant that way at all. Plus the outfit for bathing Sara had on hugged her chest nicely when wet. Trice's did too, but she was Rolph's cousin, and ogling her would be at least a little wrong.
    For Rolph.
    Tor was willing, but didn't try spraying her himself, not wanting to be beaten for acting improperly. Deciding to end the game of getting her with water the pretty blond ran over and tapped the copper plate with a cute smile and a flip of her now damp hair, turning the field off altogether in a single instant.
    Water splashed to the ground, the momentum moving the loose and dry sand easily, a wave about a foot high flowed back into the sea after a few seconds. Everyone giggled and Sara snagged the plate, so that it wouldn't get washed out in the flood.
    Everyone laughed except him.
    Tor went white.
    “Crap.” He said, feeling dead inside, his stomach around his knees. Then he sat down on the ground suddenly, just falling with a muffled thump. “Fucking hell. Oh my freaking… stupid…”
    Sara held the plate up, her eyes going wide.
    “I didn't break it, did I?”
    Her voice was worried, so he shook his head and waved his right hand, not able to articulate the real problem yet. Then, slowly, Tor pointed at the beach, a large chunk of it flattened and soaking. He couldn't speak even to mutter yet in his shock, but no one else seemed to see what had just happened.
    “Look!” Tor hissed still pointing at the beach, sputtering a bit.
    After a minute, breath still coming out hard, he managed to explain.
    “I meant, still mean, to take what amounts to a giant river and put it in the air for irrigation, hundreds of miles away from the ocean, over land, near farms, cities and villages… If I built the field this way and it ever got turned off…”
    That got their attention. No one spoke for a bit, then Rolph started chuckling nervously.
    “Well, Sara, it looks like you just saved a part of the kingdom all on your own! Well, no problem. Tor's on it, so it will be fixed now. Good thing we were goofing around then, instead of “working” isn't it? Probably some of the most constructive play this year.” Moving carefully the large young man came over and patted Tor on the back warmly.
    “Everything has flaws, it's just a matter of finding them and fixing them if you can. That's what building is all about, yes? I seem to remember some guy telling me that once…” The look that came along with the words was significant, as if trying to keep Tor from sinking into a depression.
    It was a good point. Fix the error and move on. That one was too close though. Tor knew that it could have very easily been missed and then… disaster.
    Caused by him. God and gods.
    No one said anything else about it, but it bothered Tor, niggling at the back of his mind as they moved inside for luncheon, a late one, since it neared five in the evening. They'd brought lunch, but, as he kind of suspected before, none of the others had thought to bring anything except the basket of food that had been handed to Rolph before they left by the same cook that had given Tor bread and cheese the day before.
    It was funny to watch them all realize that they didn't have anything to eat, even though the pantry was filled with stable foodstuffs that could have fed a small family for months. After about ten minutes of growing desperation Tor burst out laughing. No one else thought it was funny for some reason. He stuck his tongue out at them all and patted everyone on the back. Mainly so they wouldn't hit him as he covertly mocked their inability to perform basic house chores.
    It took about two hours to get everything ready, which turned late luncheon to early supper, because he had to collect wood and fire up the stove first, which none of them knew how to do either. Then, really, if he ever needed to know the most popular song at the moment, he was stuck himself, so it was probably even as far as what knowledge was better to have.
    Or would be, after they ate.
    Tor made biscuits instead of bread, because there wasn't any yeast starter and while corn bread was good, no one else had ever had it before. He decided to leave that for the morning. The kitchen probably got hot, but everyone had the equalizing amulets on, so no one complained, or even noticed. That was good, because the glass jars of meat and vegetables had to be fried. They did if Tor was going to cook them in a timely fashion at least. Now, he could make a stew of course, or roast things, but that wouldn't be nearly as tasty coming out of jars, or as fast. At least someone thought to keep some oil on hand. Also, as a special treat there were spices here, so he got to use plenty of those, which always made things taste better, unless you went absolutely insane with them. He only went half insane, using a lot of rosemary, but not so much that it would be the only flavor the food had.
    The food, in the end, was plain enough, homey kind of, for all they were away from their comfort zones, but definitely wasn't what they had in the Capital or at a palace dinner. Then again, it was pretty much at the level they normally had at school, and beat starving, so no one complained about it. In fact Trice kept smiling at him and telling him it was good, which was nice of her, considering she was a royal and used to eating really fine food most of the time. Tor figured she'd realized that the other options all involved flying hundreds of miles to find something better. That or she really liked rosemary too. Then again, who didn't?
    After dinner they headed back to the beach and set up a large fire, made of dusty gray wood they found on the beach, in a shallow pit dug into the dry sand. Now they suddenly all knew how to make a fire. Perfectly in fact. Only in the kitchen they couldn't help with it? Hmmm. Didn't they realize it was basically the same thing? Tor wondered if he should point that out.
    It was just dark when Sara started the blaze using a clever little device that created fire within seconds, just by pointing one end of it at the wood and activating it using the tiny sigil. It looked about the size of a finger, one of Tor's, smaller than everyone else's and looked to be made of silver instead of the cheaper metals he most commonly used.
    There was no sudden rush of fire, it just started and grew steadily as if they'd used matches. Tor had seen similar things before, but had never gotten to investigate one close up. He hesitated to ask Sara if he could, in case it was personal or she didn't want him touching her things. He could understand that, what if he broke it, or lost it in the sand? Most people couldn't break a field, but he was a builder and it was just possible that he could, if he examined it in the wrong way. It would take hours of work though and wasn't what he had in mind, but how would she know that? Not that the girl had ever been anything but nice to him about things… Which was weird. Tor didn't want to push her, so he kept his mouth shut about it. He could probably figure out how to make one himself anyway. Just concentrate the ambient heat energy? It should work. Of course this was an existing field, so if he could get a hold of one he could make himself a copy in an hour or two. Even if he didn't have a template. Not everyone could really do that, he knew, but it was how he'd learned to make field devices in the first place. Copying the fields from tools around Two Bends.
    Rolph, not being subtle at all, sat down right next to the cute blond and put his right arm around her as she sat on a blanket about six feet away from the center of the ring of light. She responded by leaning against his chest as they sat, the gloom settling like a cloak being slowly drawn over the sky. The sunset was pretty, a wide open thing that Tor had never really seen before, no forest in the way to obscure the view. Or walls. It was probably the same outside the Capital, but he'd been inside each night for that so far. In half an hour, it was black enough that Tor couldn't see anything outside of the circle of light made by the burning wood.
    It was about then that they started trading stories.
    Most of them seemed real, instead of the tall tales he and his childhood friends used to tell each other when they went camping in the woods away from Two Bends. Tor kept quiet for a while listening as Sara shared a funny story about her mother, who they all knew now that he'd gotten to meet her too, and the head of Sorvee house, an ancient man named Willem.
    It was a long story, but told an interesting tale of how the man, at least in his eighties, tried to woo the then thirty year old Heather after her first husband had died of a virus suddenly.
    “It was… comical. Almost. Mother had to be very careful not to hurt his feelings of course, because, you know, the rules. Even after treading around the idea for almost a year the man still hadn't taken the hint. Mother had to send an intermediary to let him down. Last course measure. It was… sordid. House Sorvee still hasn't quite forgiven us for it and it's been nearly ten years now.” Her voice was soft and not teasing at all, even though the idea of any eighty year old trying to marry a thirty year old, very attractive, woman was ridiculous. Not that he could blame the guy for trying, Heather was hot, even ten years later, but to expect to succeed was just silly.
    Tor chuckled a little thinking about it and said it was ludicrous flat out. Everyone went quiet for a bit, while Sara shook her head. He could tell he just said something stupid, but at least no one laughed at him about it. They'd probably wait until later when he was gone. Oh well, he could tease back, armed with the knowledge they could starve to death in a loaded kitchen. Hehe. Just thinking about that made him smile a little. Not their starving, just the idea of standing surrounded by food baffled like they had. They'd seen him do it now, so if nothing else they'd figure out to open jars and warm the contents, they were too smart to really starve that way, but it was funny.
    Sara whispered into the dark then, sounding odd. Nearly scared for a second, though her voice warmed back up to normal as she spoke.
    “Different worlds Tor. My mom couldn't afford a war with Sorvee back then. Debri house may be bigger, but constant sabotage eats away at you. I mean, we're all merchants, so it wouldn't come to actual fighting, that's too hard on business for everyone. But stealing contracts, hiring bully boys to damage stock, that kind of thing? Yeah, that could happen. Sometimes it happens anyway, just because, without any provocation at all. So you have to be polite if someone shows interest in you. It's even worse for nobles.” She shrugged and cuddled in a little closer to Rolph.
    “It's… Well, no one's required to accept a proposal or an offer of… Um, interest… You know, an invitation to have sex? But if someone shows they like you, you have to be nice about it, no matter how awkward it seems. If they're eight or eighty doesn't matter, you have to be gentle and kind. It's kind of ingrained at our level of society, but you were raised differently, yeah?”
    Rolph hugged her, as if trying to keep her warm, which was a bit silly, since they all had amulets for that. The blankets they sat on, soft material that might make a good baby blanket for his new little nieces or nephews when they came, kept them out of the sand at least.
    The large man took a deep breath.
    “Yeah, but… I think in a lot of ways the rules he grew up with are harder, for all that they sound simple. I mean, when Ursala said that Count Ward was already married and Tor found out that I couldn't, or I don't know, wouldn't maybe, be able to marry her, he offered to step in himself. Didn't even hesitate. Hardly knew her or about her, not even her family connections. He just wouldn't let her go it alone. Even offered to quit school so that he could help us out, open a bakery so we wouldn't go hungry. That was before dad told him about everything. That's… Could you imagine some Duke's son stepping up like that? It about floored my mom you know. Ursala too. I think that if she could marry him, she would have taken the offer even if I'd been willing. Really, she'd probably snag him up now if she could. Probably just as well this happened now, and not in five years or I'd be looking for a new fiancee.” He didn't laugh, but the girls did.
    It wasn't harsh laughter, just a chuckle. Trice smiled over at him from where she sat, on the left side of the gray and brown blanket they shared. About three feet away, leaning back on her hands a bit for comfort.
    “Bit out of the three steps though.” She said, her voice soft and warm. Her eyes twinkled a little in the fire light.
    Rolph snorted, something he did only when he thought someone else was saying something really stupid or dense. He rarely did it with his friends. Tor had only heard it a few times that he'd noticed and never towards the girls. That he did it now caught everyone's attention.
    “Trice… Yes, you're right of course, but it was close, well you were there… My parents knew that the Barony of Hyrees sat empty, because they'd researched it already. No one keeps up on the little landless titles like that, especially my parents. If nothing else had been come up with that everyone could agree on, Tor would be the Baron of Hyrees right now. For that matter I'm pretty sure he could get a title from dad right about now anyway, if he asked. That he hasn't even hinted at it is impressing the hell out of my parents too. Everyone hints at getting a free improvement in station with them. Absolutely everyone. Except Smythe of Westend, and now Tor.”
    Everyone looked at Tor funny as he started laughing. It bubbled up from inside and wouldn't stop. Him? That was funny! No one else seemed to get it, but… Seriously? He'd be in line for something like that when all the pigs had died out. Maybe. If they didn't start on cows instead in the line of succession. After about a minute he managed to calm the laughter and throw a half handful of sand vaguely towards Rolph for making fun of him.
    “I can see it now, in the Council of Lords or whatever it's called.” He told them all, giving a mock half bow. “Good Sir Torrence, are thy pies baked for dessert? And hath thee finished thy mucking out of the royal stables in timely fashion?”
    Everyone laughed at that, after Rolph mentioned that no one ever talked like that and besides, bakers were never put to cleaning the stables, because, you know, they touched food. Trice leaned through the two or three feet between them and nudged his shoulder a bit.
    “Anyway, back to the topic! The original one, not “the inevitable rise of Lord Tor”. You have to be polite if someone makes an overture, and really, notice if they are. This could be important for you in the future, especially… well, let's just say that the rules you've gotten used to are different in our circle of things. For instance, if you marry well, especially an arranged marriage, you have to understand that your wife will probably have other lovers. Even if she really likes you. Sometimes people get bored, but other times it's just a way of sealing deals or keeping someone close to you. It's her job to make certain all the kids are yours, or at least look right, which is kind of where Ursala really messed up. Ward is dark and has black hair, Rolph lighter and red. No one would have bought it. If it had been the second or third kid, no one would really care, but the future King or Queen? You can see that right?” The fire popped loudly, an explosion of damp wood or a stone in the sand under the fire, everyone jumped.
    “So, there's that. Plus, well, it's alright for you to have lovers too. In fact, you'll be expected to most likely. Especially you. If only to show that you mean all the agreements you've gotten yourself into, and to keep people from feeling hurt. It's important for people like you. That's different than in your more… countrified way, isn't it?”
    He shrugged. It wasn't so much that things like that didn't happen, but that they had to be kept very secret when they did, and if found out sometimes people would fight, even to the death, over it. So, very different indeed. In Two Bends it had only happened once that Tor remembered in his whole life.
    Trice nodded, not looking at him at all, her gaze going towards the fire.
    “So if someone, even a married woman, offers herself to you, you have to, you know, be kind about it. Either say yes, or at least put her off without harm to her feelings. This is really, really important. Insults mean a lot when people can back things with small armies. Even more when the armies are large.”
    “Heh, not that many women will be knocking down my door, so I don't think it will be a real issue at all.” Tor grinned and looked down at his hands. “Seriously, women don't like me that way, I learned that lesson already. I'll just stick to my little devices, and see if my parents can find a girl back home willing to put up with me, if I can, I don't know, provide well enough or something.” Tor threw a twig at the fire, the gesture a little defeated to his eye.
    Trice stared at him, shaking her head slightly and Sara sat up, actually breaking out of the Prince's hold to do so. Her look was concerned, as if he'd said something rude or out of turn. Tor hoped not. He had so much to learn about what his new friends thought and how they viewed things. What could he have said though? Did they think that even some poor country girl was too good for him? That… could be. It was a bit of a long shot probably, but if he managed to make good money and get some land, well, women liked that, didn't they? Maybe some livestock to round things out?
    The tall blond froze in place, staring at him long enough that Tor started to blush and feel acutely uncomfortable.
    “Why on earth would you think that Tor? That's… ridiculous to say the very least!” She seemed very nearly angry at him over it. Tor had to fight not to wince. Ouch. He got ready for a listing of his flaws and tensed a bit, waiting.
    Rolph reached over to a small pack he'd brought and pulled out a bottle of wine. “I… know why.” He said, then took time to pop the cork out of the bottle and take a long, healthy swig, passing the bottle on to Sara, who just took a small sip and passed the bottle herself. Tor gave it directly to Trice without even sniffing it, she drank more deeply, staring at him as she did, then looking over at her cousin to get him to keep talking.
    Rolph went on, his voice slipping naturally into a storytelling mode.
    “Oh I know why indeed, because I was there. I saw it happen, had it burned into my mind. I lived with him when he tried to recover from it. I felt his pain. He thinks that… that he's not good enough for any woman…” He got the bottle back and drank deeply. His breath came out in a slightly shaky sigh after.
    “Because of that fucking Doretta.”

Chapter eight

    “Who?” Sara asked, sounding scared… or maybe angry, Tor couldn't tell.
    What he could tell was that she seemed to know instantly that “Doretta” wasn't the actual name of the girl at all, which had to be true, because Tor had never known a woman by that name in his life. Trice sat up from where she'd been sitting, her eyes going wide.
    “Was that… Maria?” Her voice was soft and low, deadly sounding. It reminded Tor that no matter what else these girls might be, rich and pampered things that couldn't even cook a basic meal or probably start a fire without special gadgets or devices, they were both deadly in their own way. They could kick his butt anyway. Dangerous enough for the time being.
    The Prince stood all the way up and moved to the other side of the fire so that he could address both girls at the same time.
    He looked at Sara particularly, avoiding Tor's gaze altogether. Probably because now that Tor got what he was referencing, he really didn't want the topic discussed. The most embarrassing moment of his life shouldn't become a fireside tale. Ever, if he had his way in the matter. Apparently he didn't though, since the Prince kept talking.
    “It was in our first year, about halfway through. I'd been given a roommate of all things, can you imagine that? Me? One that the dean himself had decided no one would ever expect the heir to be placed with, making the boy nearly perfect in a way. I think I may have also been put with him to learn humility too. I mean, here I was, lord high of the mighty and who was he? Just some little backwoods kid with a fraction of my education, a quarter my size… and about eight times my intelligence. I was a little put out at first, since I'd expected my own room, and personal servants, maybe a spare girl or two brought in a few times a week for comfort and relaxation, not some country boy underfoot all the time. But… after the first day I found that I kind of liked Tor, who seemed smart and kind, even if he did come from a place that I'd never heard of, and talked of baking a little too often… He had a really thick accent then too, which he got rid of in… weeks. It was kind of amazing to watch really.” Rolph smiled.
    “Anyway, he decided, at the urging of myself, to ask a girl that he'd noticed in one of his classes to the student party at the beginning of spring. She was a pretty thing, not a grand beauty like either of you, of course, but nice enough looking. I didn't recognize her as peerage and really, what was the worst she'd do when he asked? Tell him she already had a date or let him down easy perhaps? Or, if desperate enough, she might arrange for a friend to go with him instead, which would give him a date at least and after all, he thought he could be interested in her, not that they were true loves, destined to be together for all eternity. He wasn't even trying to get her into bed. How cute and innocent is that? Besides… why would she say no? I really figured that even if she had another date she'd drop the guy and pick Tor instead. Maybe I'm biased because he's my friend but…”
    Rolph had both girls staring at him, and milked it for all it was worth, spinning it as if a popular tale rather than the most embarrassing moment of Tor's life. So far anyway.
    “So, steeling himself after practicing the right words, coached by me, so you know they were the right ones, I didn't let him go in sounding like a backwoods hick or anything, he approached her after dinner one night, gave her a very nice arrangement of flowers that he'd spent most of the afternoon on, you know how he is with projects, so it was meticulously done, it looked, well, my mother wouldn't have thought twice about receiving such as a gift and would have called it fine, and she can be picky about flowers. It was more than good enough for a school girl. Maybe too good? He could probably make a living doing flower arrangements in the Capital you know, it was that good. Seriously. Elegant. Delightful. Hell, if he'd given it to me I probably would have agreed to go with him to the party. You two probably would have done him in your dorm room without waiting to hear what he was asking for… and really, it's not even an insult to suggest you would, it really was that nice.
    “So he approached her and started saying the words, a simple invitation to consider going to the party with him, if she wasn't already engaged or busy that night. No presumption that anything more would happen or hint of anything untoward. Really, it was nearly perfect. Leaving her a hundred ways out if she didn't want to go with him. She could have said that she couldn't go due to a previous arrangement, or that she was engaged otherwise. She could have offered a friend that she felt would suit him better, you know the obvious stuff, or even…”
    Rolph took a huge breath and continued, obviously angry, even after nearly two years.
    “Or she could even have simply told him no.”
    Sara winced and Trice reached out and touched Tor's arm, which caused him to jump away from her a little bit. He instantly felt bad about it, since she was just trying to be nice, but it had startled him, being unexpected.
    “What…” Sara looked at Rolph hard, not looking towards Tor at all. Her gaze felt conspicuous in its absence. “What did she do?”
    Tor dreaded this next part. Did Rolph really want to humiliate him so badly in front of these two? They were practically the only girls not related to him that didn't try and run away screaming. OK, no one had ever actually run away, but close enough.
    The Prince grimaced.
    “She… was vile. Evil to him, for simply asking if she'd consider possibly, maybe, going to a party, in public, with him. She screamed, called him names, said he was worthless, dirty and probably had diseases she didn't want to catch. She accused him of having sex with animals and probably men to boot. She went on and on like that for at least six minutes, and would have probably kept going in that vein to this day if some older girls hadn't pulled her from the room by force. That was… bad. But what she did next…”
    This caught Tor by surprise, there was more? He didn't remember anything else, except everyone turning on him for a while after that. Glaring at him mostly.
    “She started a campaign of rumors, one in which Tor was the villain of everything wrong that could be imagined. He didn't know about it, because he wouldn't leave the room for nearly three weeks. They almost had to kick him out of school then, and send him home. I actually had to contact my parents to intervene for him, which they did without question, Tor, based only on what I'd told them before. For a while the faculty was afraid he'd kill himself if he knew what was being said about him. I won't repeat any of it, even now. Let's just say that the reason Kolb started training Tor to fight and protect himself was directly related to that… and no Tor, it wasn't a mistake, and no one put him up to it, Kolb chose you for training personally. That's why you're never getting out of it now, even after everything has died down. I think he views it as a personal challenge. You aren't exactly huge after all.”
    He continued on, telling them how Maria was recalled home for some reason, what he hadn't known at the time. He'd thought that her family had caught wind of what their daughter was doing and sent her away in shame, at least to another school, if not to live with Howard Turnbull on his country estate.
    Trice nodded then. “I see. I'd wondered at the meeting why Tor looked so upset. That explains it. I'm surprised she even dared show her face! Can you believe that Sara?”
    “Maria who? Is she… a servant at the palace? Or…” Blond hair flopped just a little as she shook her head.
    “No… She married a Count. Count Ward to be exact. Vile bitch. No wonder the Count chose to sleep with Ursala, who isn't half as pretty, instead. That's… well, she wouldn't have tried that if she knew who Tor was going to be, I bet. That's why there are rules about such things! What if Tor decides to make war on Ward?”
    Trice moved closer to him and hugged him awkwardly from the side. He wondered what the heck she was talking about, but enjoyed the attention for a bit, even if she was being silly.
    Him make war?
    Maybe, if he got lucky, he could be a minor inconvenience to someone like Ward personally, trip him or something if he caught the man off-guard. Duck down behind him and get someone else to push him over maybe. But war? His army would just destroy him.
    That… sounded better than the facts would really allow for, he knew. A few men from his army would destroy him. The rest would probably hold a picnic while they waited for the two or three men it took to finish up. They could hold games and eating contests while they waited. What was he going to do, bring his brothers in to fight an entire county?
    That, oddly enough, the idea of Torrence Green Baker personally going after county Ward in retaliation, was a fact not lost on the King and Queen according to Rolph. That Tor might take it in mind to do battle, alone, against the Count and his army.
    “When we fought, the Count and I, both in full battle rage, Tor simply stood between us Sara. Ward pounding him from behind and I was trying to work my way around to get at the louse. When I tried to strike, he'd jump in the way, taking the blow instead. We both tried direct effect and were blasting aura the whole time, and it did nothing. It was like a mountain had been placed in front of us for all that we could get at each other. It's the shield he made of course, but no one in the world could really take those away from him, he could just make more. Notice how even that buffoon Ward stepped into line after that? It was especially impressive when Tor had just been standing there taking a beating intended for me from the man and started talking, casually, about who we could get to marry Ursa. Of course wearing my old court livery really worked out there. To Ward and Thorgood both it was as if the King himself had stood there and commanded us all to heel to his will… Kind of enforced it too. Then he just walked away as if nothing happened, not even out of breath, not holding a grudge or even calling us to task for it, which would have been within his rights.”
    Sticking out his tongue, Tor gave the opinion that Ward hadn't even noticed him, and that Maria obviously either didn't even know who he was or didn't care. Fair enough, all things considered. He wasn't a very important person after all. Why should she even remember him?
    Moving back to sit down, Rolph brushed at the blanket as if getting some sand off, then sat back down, the side of his body touching Sara. Tor smiled. It looked like fun, but if Maria had taught him anything it was that women didn't like him that way. It didn't matter. He'd learned to be happy with his work. It wasn't the same as being loved, but it was all he really had. Well, that, and his friends now. Rolph really had been there for him, after all.
    Curious, he asked who Doretta was.
    Trice looked at him and gave him a gentle look.
    “Oh… that… makes sense, it's probably not a story you were told as a kid. OK, short version, since the rest of us all know it. Um..
    “A long time ago there was a shopkeeper, a humble young man that sold goods in a decently large city. He worked very hard and was successful, being smart and clever. A woman came in regularly and they'd talk, in a friendly way, so one day, working up his courage, the man finally proposed marriage to her in the street in front of the shop. The woman spurned him publicly, since she was of noble blood, if not very highly placed. The daughter of a Knight or something; it varies depending on who's telling the tale. She told him no, and suggested he should have known better than to reach above himself, and dare imagine he was worthy of someone as grand as her.
    “So the shopkeep, despondent and humiliated, joined the army, seeking his death in combat. That way he could redeem his honor you see, wash the stain of humiliation away in his own blood. Years passed, and he proved to be a good fighter, eventually saving the life of the Prince himself, who became his good friend…”
    Trice gave him a significant look her eyes darting several times between him and Rolph. A soft snort escaping her, she continued.
    “As unlikely as that always seemed to me… Time passed and the shopkeep was made a general, then, eventually a Count.
    “After a time, over twenty years later, he found where the girl lived, her having married a Baron, and took his army to meet her husband in battle, and slaughtered him. Killed everyone in the Barony, including the woman's entire family. Then he had her put on a small island so that she could slowly starve to death, reflecting on how her own actions of spurning him so cruelly had led to all that death and destruction.”
    It wasn't, they assured him, a real story, just one used to teach kids not to be like that. There was even a phrase they used, “don't be a Doretta.” as a warning when someone was about to step out of line or hurt someone else's feelings too much.
    Tor shook his head at the very idea.
    “But that would take a minor personal matter and make it lethal for a bunch of people that hadn't even been there! What kind of monster would do that? Not me. Maria could have been a thousand times worse and I wouldn't even go after her, much less those around her that just have the misfortune of knowing her…” The idea made him shudder a little. Trice moved in and held him for a while, getting a grin from Rolph, even though Sara kept giving him uncomfortably nervous glances. Probably because a Ducherina was sitting too close to him and he was only two steps above a pig farmer in the social scale. He knew enough not to think it was anything more than, oh, a lady petting her dog. Trice just wanted to reassure him, that was all.
    The talking continued then, moving to different and less embarrassing tales, at least for him personally, but Tor's mind escaped from the awkward conversation into solving the water flow problem. It wasn't that hard, he just had to keep the field from shutting off with water in the force line itself. Basically what would happen with the fountain in the pond garden. It took about two hours for him to figure out how to do that, but he thought he had a solution when Rolph stood, stretched and announced that it was bed time. He gave Sara a hand up and dragged her away towards the house, both giggling like little girls.
    That left him and Trice to put out the fire, which they did using big handfuls of sand, finally kicking large drifts of it over the fire. Nothing glowed on the surface at least, so it should be good enough he figured. It might smolder in the sand for a while, maybe even a day or two, but with nothing else around to burn, that wouldn't make any difference at all.
    Then he shook out the blanket the other two had used and got Trice to help him fold it. She wasn't very good at it, but she picked the idea up quickly, and when they did the next one she moved in almost perfect unison with him.
    They made their way back to the cabin well enough, the light of the more than half moon making it possible to see the trail at least. A light colored strip with darker vegetation on either side a few feet off. Trice held his hand for balance, but ended up keeping him upright at least as much as he did her. She was simply bigger than he was, so her stumbles rocked him, pulling him into a full awkward tilt, where his barely budged her. She was lean and tall, he noticed again, at least a full head more than he was, more than that, a full foot. He knew he must look like a little boy next to her when they walked this way. It was dark and anyway, there was no one to see them stumbling along so it didn't really matter if he looked silly, did it?
    After a while Tor began to understand that his friend must be at least a little drunk. Not sloshing, falling down drunk, but a stage past tipsy at least. Her pale arms and legs flashed in the moonlight, his own nearly invisible in his full brown students outfit. When they got inside she hugged him close to her suddenly and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
    When she spoke her words slurred a little bit.
    “Don't worry Tor. Not all women are like Maria. Most aren't even. Be willing to give some of us others a chance and you might be surprised…”
    Then she made her way to the room she and Sara were sharing. His room was first, so at least he didn't have to grope as far along the hall. He undressed, down to underclothes, some nice things that Rolph had gotten him for the trip, in case they went swimming in them. It was that or skinny dip, the Prince had told him. So far they hadn't swum, the others splashing and playing in the water near the shore while he worked. Tor knew he'd been less than fun or interesting, but it was an important problem he was trying to work on, and the King had asked him to, right? That meant he kind of had to pay attention and work fast.
    Five minutes later the door opened slowly, then closed with a firm, sudden bump. A form crawled into the bed and tucked under the covers next to him. Tor was half asleep, so didn't think anything of it, drifting off easily, hoping to get up early, so that he could try to build a new water transfer field that wouldn't kill thousands of people if it shut off.
    Rolph was unusually cuddly, so he had to keep throwing the other boy's arms and legs off of him as he slept, but at least the amulet he wore kept things from getting too warm, or later when all the covers got stolen in the middle of the night, too cold.
    The morning light came through the curtained window waking him up slowly, over the course of minutes, rather than all at once. That was fine, he needed to get up before everyone else to work anyway, so that he could make breakfast in a few hours for the others. They were going to leave in the afternoon, late though, since they could be back in the Capital pretty quickly.
    If nothing else the flying devices were good for vacations. He probably wouldn't have gotten to go back home even, with only a month for him to travel, and Two Bends was only five hundred miles from the school. It had taken half a month nearly to get to school by wagon, so he only went home on the long breaks so far, spending a month home and traveling for a month. Now he could make the same trip in a few hours.
    While he'd slept Rolph had wrapped an arm over his shoulder, and pressed up against him from behind. Looking away at the wall he raised his eyebrows, or at least tried to. Laughing he pushed the arm off and slipped out of bed. Something he'd learned from growing up in his house, when you shared a bed with other people, you couldn't get overly sensitive about personal space issues. People did strange things in their sleep and really, they couldn't help it. They weren't even aware of what they were doing.
    It wasn't until he was half dressed that he noticed it wasn't Rolph in the bed at all, but someone with long brown curly hair. Who snored softly. He blinked. Rubbed his eyes, and blinked again. She must have gotten confused and found the wrong bed. Well, that happened sometimes. More than once his own sisters had ended up sleeping in a pile of their brothers when they were little and they hadn't even been drunk. No harm done. It wasn't like he'd touched her or anything. Except to push her off.
    Of course if her parents found out they'd probably insist that he and Trice get married, or at least that Tor be beaten publicly. He chuckled to himself then sobered, remembering they were royals. From what he'd been told the day before, they might not care if he had slept with their daughter. Even having sex, not just sleeping like they had.
    Either that or they'd call for his death. It was still a gray area for him, really. Did their strange rules apply to him or was it just something they thought he needed to know about for the future, since he was in the Capital and all? Near the Prince and the girls, who those things did apply to?
    He took an unmarked copper plate from his trunk and worked his way outside, trying to be silent. He'd planned to do the work in the bedroom, but the sand would be comfortable enough for him, so Tor didn't bother with a blanket, just sitting down on the beach, well away from the water line.
    The work was easy, compared to the day before, but when he opened his eyes the water had moved. The tide, he remembered having been told about the phenomenon. How the ocean, vast as it was, shifted around twice a day. Right. So the field would need to stretch far enough out into the ocean so that it never ran dry. How far out did it need to go, he wondered? An extra five miles should do, he guessed. It really didn't seem to have moved too much today, if this was normal that should be fine. If not… well, he'd make it ten just to be certain.
    That was just extra work and good placement of the final field, which he could trust to someone else, probably. If not he could fly in and do it himself, he guessed. No big thing. He had time for now and after break, well, by then someone else would have taken over or, if no one else cared to, he could fly down to check on things every week or two on his off days. For now he had to walk nearly to the water to try the field out. A simple half loop of salt water since it didn't need purification to test this, it was just a flow test after all. The line formed easily coming out of the water about five feet above the shore line, just hanging in the air like it was supposed to and looping around to spray back in the ocean about two hundred feet further down. Holding his breath he tapped the plate, causing the whole thing to stop, but only after emptying everything at the far end first.
    He checked it a few times just to make sure it worked right, but it did, thankfully. He headed back to the house with a grin. Now he could get cleaned up and make breakfast.
    This was real progress, now all he had to do was manage things well enough to not die while trying to make the super-massive field and this might even work.
    He'd planned on corn bread, but found sugar and a large jar of honey as well as soft wheat flour and rising agent. He collected a little salt water to use instead of granules, since there was an awful lot of it outside, right there in that giant puddle called the ocean, and made sweet fried corn cakes instead as a special treat. A bit of jam on each and they'd have half of a meal.
    The rest would be pan fried potted meat, of course. He was a Baker, after all, not Tor Cook. Luckily he had a bit of skill there too, because in a family the size of his, everyone had to pitch in where needed. He could chop down trees, build a house or barn, tend chickens and change a baby's nappie at need. True, half of what he knew how to do was “woman's work” but it was, oddly enough, proving useful anyway.
    On this trip he'd had to cook twice, but hadn't cut down a single tree yet at all for instance, or had to hunt wild animals for food either.
    He just had the corn cakes coming out of the pot of oil when everyone started emerging from the bedrooms. Perfect timing. They were best warm.
    Rolph needed to shave still, so did Tor come to that, but Sara emerged looking fresh and lovely. Tor kind of thought she'd gone to the bathing room to clean up already. He'd heard something, but didn't check closely, in case it was something he wasn't supposed to notice. Girls had rules about that kind of thing and he didn't really know them all. Even his own sisters were like that. Better to be careful with these highborn ladies.
    Patricia came out looking tousled and disheveled, her eyes half closed still, stumbling a little bit, like the floor still moved under her feet or the room spun. Tor noticed that she looked cute in a grumpy way, sort of like a sleepy child. She shook her head, and walked to the table, plunking down in a fairly unladylike fashion.
    “Morning.” She yawned making Tor and Sara both yawn as well. He laughed about it and smiled at Trice, glad for about the six hundredth time that he didn't drink. She looked like she felt awful. How people could wake up the next day and think they'd had fun, feeling like that, Tor didn't know. Did they rationalize it into being different than reality or something?
    The blond girl wore a very nice, pale pink shift of shiny material, that didn't hug her body, but kept bumping against what was under it, showing some interesting things in outline. Tor tried to ignore the effect, since it wouldn't be proper to stare at her when she sat in a chair on the far side of the table. He figured that she'd either cling to Rolph or make fun of Trice, since the girl had shared a room with him, which probably really was actually kind of funny from everyone else's perspective, but instead she very studiously tried to avoid his gaze for some reason.
    Was she feeling ashamed?
    The night before she'd seemed fine with the idea of going off with Rolph and, after all, from what he'd gathered it wasn't the first time, or against their societal rules or anything, so probably not buyer's remorse or anything silly like that. Rolph didn't seem to be having a problem at least.
    The red haired giant sat on the opposite side of the table from Sara, smiling and seeming… normal for him. Nice, and friendly. He accepted a pile of sweet corn cakes and some fried ham and put strawberry preserves on when Tor instructed him to. Rolph waited for everyone else to get theirs and then hesitated to eat, waiting for some reason.
    So did everyone else. Right, they'd never had these before, most likely. Good, but simple country type food that it was. Tor took a big bite and smiled. They were good. A childhood favorite of his, that they didn't normally get at home. Breakfast was normally a pot of oats and some day-old bread. This kind of sweet food they got a few times a year, normally around holidays. But hey, it was vacation, the nicest one that he'd ever been on in his life, so it seemed appropriate.
    Trice took a bite next, chewing carefully and swallowing as if it were dangerous or too hot for her still.
    “This is really good! I mean, you could serve this to Uncle Richard and he'd probably request it again. Really I can't believe I've never had this before. Sweet corn cakes?”
    Giving him a strange look, Rolph went next as if corn cakes would be some kind of dangerous adventure. He took a bite seriously and looked like he was having to choke it down. The smile that followed seemed a little forced. Didn't he like them? Trice seemed to be eating with vigor after the first bite. Sweetened fried batter. Who didn't like that? Maybe it was too rich for him, but… Half the food served at the palace had been as rich, or more so. They used cream in more ways than Tor had thought could exist, including as part of sauces for meat, of all things. It would probably even taste good on this, a thickened and sweetened cream. He didn't know how that was done. If he could find that cook again, the one that gave him food that one time, he'd have to ask.
    Sara looked terrified when she took her first bite, almost literally shaking in fear. What the hell? Had he done such a horrible job with dinner that his cooking scared her now? He reviewed everything and then it clicked in place.
    “Hey!” He said, feeling put out, “why are you all doing your “see if he poisoned my food” thing with me? No one did it last night and we're all still alive. I'm not that bad a cook. Am I? I thought it was fine…” Tor stared at Rolph first, but the man just looked down and took another bite.
    “This really is quite good. I have to agree with Trice there.” The Prince said, giving all his attention to his food.
    Sitting next to him Trice chuckled and nodded, then turned to him.
    “Oohhh! I get it… you don't get it… Of course, because in your world, we're all being morons. OK. Let's see here… So, Rolph and Sara, you know, in the room last night? Obviously they weren't just there to avoid our snoring, right? Even though that would probably be fair. But, you see… Someone whom I won't name,” she pointed behind her hand at Sara, a mock gesture since the girl could have easily seen it if she was looking up, even though she wasn't at the moment.
    “Is supposed to be making arrangements to get married to a certain someone else, and now she's afraid that her spending the night with Rolph might ruin that. Still, Tor won't poison us, that's silly. He probably doesn't even know what kinds of things would be poisonous anyway. A magical trap or maybe a super-weapon, sure, but poison? Now me, I know how, and so do you, Sara, but these guys? No chance.” Her look included Rolph, who nodded, a little slowly at first, but faster after a few moments' thought.
    Ah. So Sara was feeling guilty, because she was supposed to be marriage minded right now, not having casual flings with guys she could never marry at all. Still, Tor didn't know how that translated to her thinking he'd poison her. Trice was right there, in that he really didn't have a clue how that would be done, even if he wanted to, which he didn't. Why would he?
    Tor didn't ask. These people…
    They were his friends, sure, but sometimes they just did weird things that didn't make sense at all.
    Looking up finally Rolph mentioned that they'd heard him go out early, at first light. It didn't sound like a leading question at all, but he had a suspicion that the Prince was fishing for information. Was he expecting a pit trap in the front yard? At least that was something he could have actually done, having hunted boar that way a few times with his brothers and dad. Probably not in the soft sand out front though. The sides would keep collapsing. Now if he could shore that up somehow, with timber or stone…
    Tor told them all about the new field he worked on, designed to shut down in stages so that it wouldn't flood the world underneath it, as Sara had demonstrated the day before.
    “It's kind of cool looking really, I'll show you all later if you want?” Tor smiled, feeling happy enough about the work, even if everyone else was being moody.
    The girl looked half in tears as she ate, still not looking up. She finished the food on her plate at least, so hopefully she liked it. Then she excused herself and went outside, rushing as if something was wrong. Trice chuckled and told them that she'd take care of it, while they cleaned up. Was this all a plot to get out of clean-up then?
    Tor could credit it. After all, as wonderful as his friends were, they were also very high class people, which meant more than a little lazy, and kind of caught up in convoluted plans and plots. It seemed a little overdone just to get out of clean up, especially since they could have just said they didn't want to and he'd get it done anyway. Rolph helped with the work though, so maybe it wasn't all of them? Tor shrugged and smiled at his friend while they worked. At least the heir to the kingdom wasn't trying to trick his way out of work. That was a good sign. From what Tor had seen, the King's job required diligence to say the least.
    A quick bath and shave later as well as a solid tooth brushing and Tor was ready for the day. Rolph took a lot longer, but then he had all that hair to take care of, which Tor just didn't. Thanks to the trunks they'd loaded along they had clean clothes to wear too, which was nice, since washing things would have been a chore here. He had one of the clothes drying plates at least though, so that would have sped it all up. He should come up with something to do the washing for them too. Now that he could move water… He stopped himself and went back to work. He'd think about it later, when he had time and wouldn't be abandoning all the chores to the Prince of the realm.
    The rest of the day went a lot like that, with Trice chuckling at odd moments, Rolph avoiding his gaze, but not seeming overly worked up, just a little subdued, and Sara rushing away looking teary. To keep them amused Tor showed them how the new field transferred water, which wasn't novel to them, except when turned off. It was basically a giant high flow pump too, which could have a lot of uses once the bugs were worked out. It had to have a way to direct the water for instance, built in to the device, unless he wanted to make a new one for each purpose, which would cut its utility a lot.
    For what was supposed to be a fun outing, no one seemed to be very pleased anymore, except Tor, and to a lesser extent Trice. He decided that something had happened that he just didn't get. Maybe Sara and Rolph had an argument? Well, they'd work it out, he was certain. They were friends if nothing else and Sara was smart enough not to ruin her friendships because of hurt feelings.
    There were no debts between friends, which meant no emotional debts either, at least ideally. Who was she supposed to marry, he wondered? Some rich merchant guy probably, or maybe a Baron. That… would be just within the three step thing, right? Her social position put her family just on the verge of being royalty themselves and they clearly carried at least some royal blood, all them being as tall as they were.
    Well, he wouldn't tell anyone, if it bothered her so much. They were friends and if that meant keeping her liaisons secret, then Tor would. Still, did they think he was hired to spy on them or something? By who? And for that matter, how much was he being paid for? So far no money had been coming in at all. You'd think they'd have noticed that. A horrible idea occurred to him then.
    Real stomach dropping horror.
    Sara had mentioned Sorvee house and how they were still mad about a failed marriage proposal. Dorgal, the bully from school, his last name was Sorvee, and that couldn't be a coincidence, could it? Was it part of some plan to mend fences? God, they weren't planning on marrying her off to that lout were they? It would be a good match on paper, maybe, they were the same age nearly, knew some of the same people and both came from the same basic background, but… Gah! It was too cruel to even consider.
    If that was the case he'd have to visit Heather Debri and make sure she knew what Dorgal was really like first. Yeah, that guy would have a problem if he found out about her sleeping with Rolph, especially since he probably didn't know that Rolph was anyone but the cool kid from school. Plus Dorgal was the type that liked to have problems with things. If you gave him a bag of gold it would probably start a fight. Tor could hear him now in his head, “that gold's not shiny enough, and there isn't enough of it, and why didn't you give it to me sooner?” Something like that at least. Snotty self-entitled jerk.
    The trip home was different than the one out mainly because they stopped in a small town, one not much bigger than Two Bends, and had lunch, bread, cheese and fruit, coming at a cost that made Tor wince. It should have been measured in a few coppers, if that, but came to almost a silver when everything was tallied. The woman at the shop just shrugged.
    “It's this drought. Things still look green, but in six months gold won't hardly buy food anymore, because people will hoard what little they have. We can't all afford to buy supplies from Garish, Sorvee and Debri, not with the cost of shipping on it. So we have to get more from you now to survive later.” She was a thin and hard looking woman, nearing fifty and shorter than he was. She took in the plain brown of Tor's clothes easily enough, but wouldn't even look at the others. Actually refusing to even glance at them after the first time, eyes staying down, towards the ground.
    Right. They all looked royal to her, even Sara. Her tall blond good looks weren't exactly common stock like his. The woman didn't seem happy, but managed a small tight and strained smile for him after she explained. Tor took his share of the cheese and a pear, going to the shade outside to eat it after saying a few words to her, trying to be hopeful about the whole thing. The pear was a little green and hard this time of year, but edible, even if the skin did ram between his teeth making him feel awkward, not wanting to pick at them in company or anything rude like that.
    They sat under a tree, an elm that did look thirsty, and it really was greener than the brown grasses and low shrubs around them. If they couldn't get these people some relief, it would hurt in half a year like the woman had said. A lean summer was annoying, but the winter to follow would be nearly impossible. People would die most likely, even in a warm place like this. Not as many as the same shortage would cause up north, but bad enough.
    The town was dusty and small, but the people didn't seem defeated yet. They rested during the day, the heat beating down on them too much for real work to be done. Their little group didn't notice it, how warm it was, but these others all dripped sweat and went to the large wooden water barrel getting dippers full of water more often than was probably normal. Somewhere deep inside their bodies knew that water was short, so they struggled to put more in now, saving it for later. It didn't work like that, he knew, water leaving in a day or so, no matter how much you drank, but the deep mind didn't know that. It just tried to make sure the individual survived, as best it could.
    Tor flew back wondering if the water he planned to get would be enough. If the crops were gone for the season already they'd need more food from other parts of the country fast. And cheap. He could make that happen, the transport part at least, but on top of the water project, it wouldn't leave him much of his break.
    Oh well.
    Lives had to come first. Always. Besides, his friends probably all wanted to be off doing things without him by now anyway. He left the others to talk, and just followed along behind them as they flew back, thinking about what would be needed first. If only he had more time to work.
    The river that led to the Capital flowed well, the drought not daring to come this far yet apparently. It was, interestingly enough, just called the King's River. It didn't have some other more fancy name or anything, a subtle thing that didn't try to promote Richard, but did anyway. You said its name and you thought of him automatically. A clever bit of propaganda really.
    The water had dropped in it since he'd first seen it, less than a week before. Looking at it he realized that if he got the water to the head of the river here, past the Capital, the normal irrigation channels could be used along with shunts to pull out some water further north from the above ground part. Probably about fifty miles or so, more if he could make it work. It would make an elongated circle of water to be used then. He'd have to check, obviously, since he didn't know where people farmed here at all, except the little he'd seen from the air.
    “What's that?” Trice yelled back, pointing to a group of people, about fifty or sixty of them, gathered a short distance outside the southernmost gate into the city.
    The people were a motley group from the air, mainly wearing brown and white, near the center there was a clutch of city guard red and white. At first, given the soft yelling that he heard, Tor wondered if the people were going to attack the guards. They had them surrounded, sort of, a rough semi-circle. But then he noticed that people were running from the town, carrying heavy timbers.
    Then he got it. He'd seen something similar once a long time before, when one of the neighbor kids, Bill Sampson, had fallen down a well.
    Without waiting he redirected towards the group on the ground and flew in as fast as he could, so fast he couldn't breathe the air sucked away too hard for his lungs to capture. Tor just held his breath. If someone was down a well they either had hours to get them out… or seconds. He couldn't tell which from the air. They probably couldn't really tell on the ground either.
    He shoved his right hand out as far as it would go, the copper medallion around his neck growing first warm, then hot, which it had never done before. It burned, but not to an extent that he thought he was being injured, about like too warm bath water. He landed outside the group away from the vast white wall and ran towards the center as fast as his legs could carry him. Rolph overtook him on the ground, his longer legs stretching out.
    “Situation report!” He yelled, a tone of command that Tor had never heard from his friend before. It got the guards talking all at once, finally the man in charge of the guard group shouted the others down and explained as fast as he could.
    Tor couldn't tell if the man recognized Rolph or not, but apparently a giant man flying up and yelling for a situation report got a response. Something he might need in the future himself, if he ever grew a foot and a half taller. He could already do the flying part, so half of the work on that was done even.
    “Child, boy, seven years old. Tanners kid. Fell down old well. Middens really.” The man didn't seem to care who they were overly, and turned back to shout at the men with the timbers.
    “No good! Crap, those won't hold a man, we have to send someone down there. We need thick timbers! Now!” He screamed, sounding a little panicked.
    Tor could see why.
    The sides of the hole in the ground were crumbling in. He could feel the field shifting, even if it looked solid at the moment, the walls were already collapsing. It probably wasn't even all that deep, but if it caved in, the child died. A thin man in red and white dangled over the edge, feet held by three other men, all big and brawny workman types. They pulled the guardsman out and he shook his head.
    “No good Captain… I can't work my shoulders past the first bend and if I try to dig it starts to hit the kid. We can't wrap a rope around a corner neither. Someone has to go down.” He looked the captain dead in the eye and shook his head grimly. If he couldn't do it, as thin as he was, no other man there could either.
    A woman who looked to be about twenty-five or so, with dark brown hands and smudges of darkness on her face, cried out loudly.
    “Simon! My baby!” A swarthy man in stained clothes and a stout leather apron took her in his arms, both had tears in their eyes. He tried to comfort her, but it didn't seem to be working too well. Of course not. Her boy was about to die in an old shit pit. No comforting could work on her at all right now.
    Tor sized up the man that had tried to get to the boy, thin, like he was, but tall, near as tall as Rolph. That made a difference in how big a person really was, he knew that firsthand from fighting practice. Big skinny guys weighed a whole lot more than he did. They were bigger around too. The bones of the shoulder and waist were bigger even if they looked as thin over all. It was a difference in scale. Looking around Tor thought he had what he needed. Or enough to give it a shot anyway. Someone had to try something.
    There was a child trapped.
    He turned to Rolph and noticed that the girls had landed and stood next to each other about twenty feet back. He pointed at the trunks. And then told Rolph to get him enough rope, at least fifty feet. The tanner, the man holding the woman got big eyes when he saw who was standing there trying to fetch rope to save his child and scrambled to get it himself. Luckily the rope that someone had gotten looked to be both long and strong enough.
    “Girls!” He pointed at Sara and Trice. “Get the plates off of the trunks and put them all on the bottom of… Sara's. It's the strongest of them.” It was too, heavy wood with iron banding, meant to last if she had to travel for a few years he guessed. Or possibly if she had to use it to beat someone to death. It was just that solid.
    Tor had them put the plates on the bottom of the chest while he took his clothing off, hoping to narrow his profile a smidgen more, except for the new underwear that Rolph had provided, which he kept for modesty's sake. Not that it would stay on when he crawled down, but for now at least no one would point or stare. A shame to climb into a pit like that wearing the nice silky material, a lavender color, the nicest piece of clothing he'd ever actually owned, since they'd been an outright gift not just loaned to him like the other clothes had been. Oh well. He was tempted to take them off anyway, but there were all those women watching and it would be rude to force them to see his naked body. Bad enough so much flesh showed already.
    When the chest was rigged up with all four copper floats on the bottom and the rope tied to it securely, Tor took a deep breath.
    “I need this tied to my foot. The left one. I may need the right later…” He smiled when he said it, a grim feeling deep in his mind, touching his soul. They really had to hurry. The lines of force were dipping around the edge of the pit, he thought.
    A well had packed and solid walls in general. A cave-in took your water away, so you made sure that didn't happen if you were smart. You put in supports or lined with stone. Probably doubly so in a dry area like this. A cave-in to a cesspit just broadened the mouth and covered the waste for you. No one reinforced them particularly. Worse, as they dried over the years they became fragile and could collapse under their own weight. That was probably what had happened here. The brown earth above hadn't been covered, no boards or planks for safety, so the hole the boy was in probably hadn't been dug at all. It had just been filled a long time before and forgotten about, until the kid fell in and started crying for help.
    One of the sturdy men, an older guy in a light tan canvas workman's outfit, came over and tied his foot off, almost taking out the circulation.
    “Boy,” he whispered, close enough that Tor could feel the moisture of his breath on his right cheek. “Any looser and it won't support what I think you're going to try, but hurry. More than ten, fifteen minutes, and you risk losing the foot.”
    Tor nodded that he understood, realizing that to most of these people it probably looked like they were sending one mostly naked little boy in after the other. Close enough. He looked around and found that all the guard actually had flying rigs. He saw the captain and waved him over.
    “Your best man? The steadiest I mean… The… the one that will follow my orders for this? Even if it seems ridiculous listening to someone like me?” It was a lot to ask of a grown man, following his orders, but Tor knew they didn't have a lot of time for arguments either. It was why he couldn't ask one of his friends to do it. That and the fact that the whole thing could go incredibly wrong. If he died, Tor didn't want any of them to carry that with them, did he? At least some stranger wouldn't feel like they lost a friend.
    The fellow in charge looked around and waved a man who looked to be near fifty over and just pointed at Tor, not explaining anything. Good. This must be the right man if that was all the information he needed.
    “OK. The floats on the bottom of the trunk will do the lifting. Tap them with your hand piece before you take off, they'll follow you. When you're in the air give me slack until I tie the boy off. Then take it up slowly as I try to get him out. If it collapses… well, I'm going to get a shield on him and me, so if that happens try to pull us up as hard as possible as soon as you notice it. If it does go… just pull. I, uh, may scream if you do… That doesn't mean stop. Got it?” He didn't want to sound weak, but if he started squealing like a baby the man had to know what to do.
    “Got it.” The man sounded confident at least. His weathered face and hard eyes under the white and black hair was reassuring.
    Tor found himself dangling within half a minute, carrying a coil of rope in his right hand. He was lowered carefully, but quickly enough. The hole didn't smell like much, thank god, the dried human waste like dust, mainly. It was gross when it got in his mouth. It only tasted like dirt but he tried to ignore it, knowing what it really was and crawled as best he could into the hole the boy had fallen down. It took a long time, it felt like, several minutes passing, his foot going cold and then numb as he struggled to fit. Even his shoulders were too big for the second turn, one that took the boy down about another five feet. He made them fit anyway, a tiny inch at a time, skin ripping as he forced his way down, gasping shallowly, not able to take a full breath because of the pressure on his chest.
    Great, the walls weren't strong enough to hold, but they could strip him bare of skin? How the heck did that work? Hardly fair. He would have yelled that at the walls, but didn't have enough air for it. The old waste stung when it touched blood and flesh, almost like salt in a wound.
    The boy really wasn't too far down, about ten feet, but around a bend that hid him from view from the top. Tor lowered the rope and started working it around the boy's middle, under his arms. It didn't take long and there were, thankfully, no problems.
    When the kid was tied off, he started crying, loud.
    “It's alright, I've got you. No problem…. Here,” he slipped one of the two shields he had on over his head and worked it on to the boy, then activated it for him. The walls around the small boy pushed away a bit. It was the part of the new design to keep the wearer from being strangled too easily.
    He called out then, for the man up top to start taking up slack. He scrambled back as well as he could, both of them inching up, his foot aching at the ankle from the rope.
    Just as they started back around the first corner, he saw her.
    A girl, tiny, maybe three or four, about two feet further down than the boy had been. Just as he noticed her the rope dragging up the uneven tunnel started a collapse and the line pulled harder in response.
    “No, wait!” He called out. It sounded pained, because it hurt, but that wasn't why he was screaming. The girl! She'd be buried in a few seconds.
    He pulled off his shield amulet and threw it down the hole, praying it hit. Praying that the field would cover her and not just bounce off. He hadn't built it for this, but didn't have anything else. The girl screamed at first, then her voice went almost silent and he and the boy were surrounded by darkness, in desperation he tried to do what he'd seen Rolph do. Generate a field, an organized sense of movement, of interlocking connectedness, between himself and the tiny child. Old shit rammed into his mouth and flesh tore and stretched at his ankle, in a screaming instant something there snapped. He almost passed out, but he couldn't. He couldn't let go.
    There wasn't time for it.
    Suddenly light surrounded him and the man above started to lower them to the ground.
    “Go higher!” He screamed. If the man lifted them into the air, maybe he could use the connection to the girl to get her free. It came out as a weak gasp as the man settled them to the ground. Others came and surrounded them, pulling them both away from the imploding edge of the pit.
    It was not going to happen this way.
    Tor extended his right hand and remembered the field he'd made at the beach, moving water from one place to another. He built one now, similar, but for something heavier. Dirt. It would have to be stronger. Much so. Dirt didn't flow well.
    And it would have to be now. It wasn't possible of course, not for someone like him, but there was no choice. Not if the girl was going to live.
    He firmed his voice as much as he could.
    “Move.” His voice was flat, all emotion gone. Anger coursed through him, surrounded him in an instant. Rage. It was odd, being so angry at dirt, at the unfairness of it all, but it was what he felt, stupid or not. He said the word again, gasping softly, trying to yell.
    No one did until Rolph screamed at them to run. It wasn't the most manly sound to ever come out of the large Prince's mouth, but people scrambled away fast, which was all that really mattered to Tor.
    Then a fountain of earth moved, crashing through the air, a cloud of dust and things best left buried where they were, came up like a water fountain and finally, clutching a shiny piece of metal in a chubby little fist, the girl. She rolled end over end through the air for a second, crying. Then she connected with the ground and held in place as if stuck with glue or nailed down.
    She was sobbing, a high pitched squeal.
    Thank god.
    That meant she was alive.
    He dropped the field that he could barely hold and rolled over, gasping for breath. Tor couldn't breathe, fire ran through his left leg, and muddy blood dripped down his arms and chest. But he could hear crying.
    The boy joined the girl in his sobs. Tor closed his eyes and smiled. For the first time in his life, other than at the birth of a child, it was a joyous sound. He nodded to himself, feeling a bit of moisture in his own eyes. Probably just trying to get the grit out.
    Yeah, he really did probably have something in his eyes. The laugh that came out didn't make a sound, his lungs burned too much for that and he couldn't breathe through his nose at all, clogged with shit. He could pretend it was dirt, that was fine, right? He just lay there, crying and sobbing like a baby, but not because he felt sad. It must have been a hilarious picture to all the brawny workmen standing around, and the tough as nails guardsmen too.
    He didn't care.
    Tor didn't even care that he'd been left naked and bare on the ground, pink and bawling.
    The world went black then. He wondered if he'd still be crying when he woke back up?

Chapter nine

    Tor woke up aching and sore in places he definitely didn't expect to be, but it made sense when he thought about where the falling clods of dirt had to impact. Dangling by one leg, being pulled around upside down like that. Ouch. Well, he probably wasn't ever going to have children anyway at the rate he'd been going with women. So no big loss. It did smart though, he could have done without that part. His skin felt burnt and sore too and of course his leg was just in agony. But he wasn't crying. Heh.
    He knew he was tougher than that.
    Well, more accurately, he wanted to be tougher than that. He didn't know if he was or not. Hadn't at least.
    The room he was in was nice, at least as fine as the one he'd been given in the guest house, but looked different. Older. More stone work by far and a bed large enough for his whole family to sleep in. He looked over towards the right edge and saw that it wasn't really true. He was in the center and the bed's edge was only about four feet away. Still, the biggest bed he'd ever seen.
    No one else was in the room, it was dark inside. Not black by any means, but the deep brown wood and deep blue curtains blocking out the light through the window didn't leave him a lot to see by. It was daytime at least. Hopefully the same day, because he didn't have enough time to get everything done if he missed more than one or two.
    Tor scooted to the edge of the bed and started to swing his feet out, noticing that his legs had been covered with loose pants that were made of soft white silk-like material, his left leg wrapped in a thick splint that felt like metal pieces on either side when he touched it. It ached still, but it was attached, so they hadn't had to amputate it. Good. He'd worried about that a little he realized. Being the one foot guy would have been annoying to say the least. Kind of lopsided. Survivable though.
    He realized he was acting grumpy in his head, the pain getting to him a little. He chuckled and found himself laughing after a few seconds. Only he would jump head first into a cesspit. It would probably be the big joke when he got back to school. First things first though, he needed to get something to drink, water by preference, go to the restroom and then find some plates for the drought relief project and get to work.
    Standing he noticed that the shirt he wore was loose and white as well. It felt nice against his skin. Soft and smooth. The room was cool, but not cold, even though he didn't have an amulet on. Looking around he noticed that one of the room cooling plates hung on the far wall. He could see why they called them that here, but the heating properties would save a lot more lives in a harsh winter.
    There was no water anywhere he could find, so he limped slowly to the door of the room and poked his head out.
    In the hall two black and purple clad men, both huge and holding strips of metal in their hands that probably had massive destructive power built in to them. He could figure it out if he could see them in action, or even better, get to hold one.
    Royal Guards.
    Eeek. Tor wondered if he was being held prisoner. He couldn't think of a reason why, other than the fact that he'd sassed the King to his face the other day. That might do it. The man hadn't seemed to take it personally though, so that probably wasn't it. Besides, if he was being held against his will, it was an awfully nice dungeon.
    The man on his right turned and looked at him, shock in his eyes.
    “Sir! You're awake? We've orders not to let anyone bother you. Do you need anything?”
    Tor asked for some water and then if he could use the facilities. The men didn't hesitate to make both things happen. So probably not a prisoner. After all, prison guards didn't run errands for you, did they? Tor didn't know for certain, but it seemed like a definition of the term really. Then he asked if he could possibly see the King. He knew that the man was busy, kind of what his job meant as far as Tor could see, so settled back on the bed to wait, wondering if he'd be summoned within the next few days. Could he get someone to collect his trunk and the materials inside or… Maybe they could just bring him something else he could work with?
    It turned out he'd been moved to the palace building itself, by order of the Queen, so that she could attend to his needs herself. He assured the men that he didn't need much, probably not even guards, at least until he started work on the next project. He explained it to one of them, who clearly didn't get most of what he said, but did understand that he should have food, water, help to the restroom and peace as soon as he started, and that it would probably take days of work. The man nodded and left then.
    Less than an hour later three large brass falcons were brought in, liberated from the palace gardens.
    “Will these serve sir? We can procure something else if you wish?” The Royal Guard, a man named Finely asked, his voice lacking almost all emotion.
    “Those… will work very well actually, if the King OK's the project. Thanks!” They really were lovely, the nicest thing he'd ever gotten to put a field on by far. A little big, being nearly as tall as he was and probably weighing four times as much or more, but he didn't think a mighty “sky river” should be linked to something the size of his hand and no thicker than a piece of paper either. For one thing, these would be harder to steal. Of course it would take a moron to steal something like that with a river attached to it, but the world was filled with people that didn't always think.
    Not ten minutes after that the King, his wife and four other people came in. Rolph, of course, who he'd expected a little earlier, an older man, who looked kind, had on cream and yellow robes and was missing most of his hair, and oddly Karina, the Princess, who was followed by a prettier girl that looked a lot more like the Queen, only in miniature. Since she was the only person in the room that didn't leave him feeling like a midget, he tentatively decided to like her.
    “Hey! It's everybody!” Tor said enthusiastically. He sat up straighter, then grinned at Richard. “Sorry, bowing is completely out right now, how's everyone doing? The kids I mean? No one else got too hurt did they?” He'd heard them crying, but knew that sometimes people died of their injuries later. He felt relief wash through him when the King smiled.
    “Both are fine. It seems the tanner boy had fallen attempting his own rescue of the girl, the youngest child of a chandler. People are impressed.” Richard gave Tor a very significant look as if he was talking about him, or something silly like that. Tor ignored it.
    He nodded gently at the words and took their literal meaning instead. “I can see that. For an adult to try and save a child is natural, but for a kid that age to risk his life like that took a lot of guts. I'm glad they're both alright.”
    Pointing to the stolen statues, he asked if he could have them for the drought relief effort. Then he had to explain to the King and Queen what he meant by that. The Queen started to forbid it, but he shrugged and explained that while mentally difficult, he'd actually get a lot more bed rest for his injuries that way than if he was sitting around restless, worrying about people starving the next winter.
    The man in cream and yellow bowed to him and held it.
    “Oh, Tor…” The Queen gestured to the man beside her. “This is the King's counselor Smythe of Westend, he heads the military for the kingdom, after Richard himself. He wanted to be here when you woke…” She trailed off as if she didn't really understand what the man wanted with Tor.
    “Indeed young sir. I wanted to discuss some things with you… but I see that you already have plans. Very good. Would it be possible for me to visit with you at some length before you leave the Capital do you think?” The man didn't sound bossy or wheedling, he just asked, so Tor nodded.
    Why not? If the man wanted him to do something he could pretty much just tell him to, right? Tor would have to do it, since the guy was the head of the military and all. If he wanted to act all polite about it, well, it did make him feel better than if the guy had come in making demands and barking orders. He just hoped he wasn't being drafted into the guard or the army. Most of those guys were a lot bigger than he was for one thing. Besides his battlefield cry of “run away!” probably wouldn't go over very well. He could lead any strategic withdrawals for them that they needed though. Kolb had trained him pretty well for that actually.
    Karina hung back, dressed prettily in a light colored green dress that flowed to the ground and looked completely useless as real daily wear. It was more like a party frock or even wedding dress. At least not something you'd want to wear while outdoors. In her hair she had a simple green ribbon, darker than the dress and made of shiny material. It could have been more silk. She stepped forward and smiled at him, then spoke rapidly.
    “That was very brave, going into that… hole like that, after children you didn't even know. Did you… Did you really go into a combat rage?” She asked with only slight hesitation, though everyone else winced. The smaller girl next to Karina sighed loudly and pushed her arm.
    “You don't ask people about that.” She said, her voice sounding pleasant but slightly exasperated. A little like she was talking to a small child that needed to be corrected gently.
    He looked at Karina, wondering if he'd misheard and smiled. Brilliantly he added a slightly mirthful, “what?”
    Rolph shrugged. “Yeah Tor. I mean, you weren't all violent or anything, but you obviously had a shield around you even without wearing one, and pulled the girl out of the pit using direct effect. Controlled direct effect, which is… rare. I got caught in the disorientation aura, that's why I told everyone to run when I realized what you were doing. This was while you were being ripped out of the ground by a broken leg. It had to be something similar at the very least, didn't it?”
    Everyone thought so except the King who smiled and waved this away. “Don't worry about it right now Tor, just do what you need to, and let us know if we can do anything to help. It will be seen to instantly.” The man smiled at him, and for some reason winked, then walked out, taking his advisor with him.
    Rolph stayed, waiting for his mother and sister Karina, both of whom offered to “fluff his pillow” for him. The younger girl looked at them all and laughed quietly behind her hand. For some reason this got a laugh from Rolph too, who told them that it was inappropriate with him in the room, because he shouldn't ever have to listen to such talk. Karina blushed a scarlet color and looked furious for a second her lips tightening, but Connie just laughed at her son.
    “A very good point. Perhaps you should leave then? We wouldn't want to offend your delicate ears. Now that you gave us that wonderful idea, I'm sure-”
    Rolph threw his hands over his ears, and spoke loudly to drown her out.
    “I'm not listening… Ho de hum…”
    “Well, you've been warned.”
    Her tone was dry, regal and somehow still playful.
    After a bit more talk like this that Tor didn't get, but could tell meant something, they all left, finally letting him get to work. At last. They were nice, but he couldn't work with everyone standing around talking like that. For one thing it would be rude. And really the pillows he had were already almost too fluffy. It was nice of them to offer, seeing to his comfort like that, without even considering that they were all royal and he was just… him.
    The next six days were harder than he'd thought they'd be, because the pain kept screaming for attention as he worked at first. Still, Tor forgot he hurt at all by the end of the day, and had to be led to the restroom and fed after that. He didn't know who did it and couldn't spare attention to understand what they did to him, which was probably too embarrassing to consider anyway. Everything he had went into holding the three separate fields constantly nearly the whole time. That he'd gotten the whole thing down to only three fields instead of thousands… It would make a vast difference in the end, he thought. By day four he folded in on himself, the world becoming nothing more than the three sets of information he was generating. Then he locked it all in place taking another two days all told.
    After that he had to sleep for a while. A long while, waking up only long enough to eat a little and drink as much water as he could. On the evening of the seventh day he was finally able to send the statues out, he scratched numbers on them so that each would go in the right direction. Number three needed to go up the King's River by a good way, as far as they could get it and still have the full width to work with, he told the men who came to cart them all away. Workmen that were getting a detail of Royal Guard to make sure no one bothered them, this was important after all.
    The second had to go nearly a hundred and fifty miles north, halfway to the ocean since it was the field that defined where the line of water went and the first needed to be as close to the coast as possible without actually ending up being washed away. Then number one just had to be activated, a simple tap like one of the shields or clothes dryers used. It didn't have a real sigil, so he suggested they just needed to tap the number. Anywhere on it would work, but most people couldn't seem to get the idea for some reason.
    If all went well, the King's River wouldn't overflow. He'd had to guess at the amount of water needed, too much would be worse than too little, but he hoped he'd at least gotten it close. Water could be taken from any point in the stream that would float above the ground, just by sticking something in the flow. A stick or a wooden board would work, if braced well enough.
    It took most of a day and all the luggage floats, retrieved from the others by Rolph, to get the statues in place, but by the ninth morning they had water flowing into the river, which doubled the height of the water line along the banks but didn't cause any flooding. Tor felt a sense of relief. They could set a guard to turn it on and off at need at the beach, but the less messing with it they did, the happier he'd be.
    New clothes, more loose silk that felt wonderful to his skin, but probably looked incredibly bizarre, in a light violet color, was brought for him to wear after he finally got a real bath, the splint being removed so that his leg could be scrubbed carefully. It looked awful, covered in black and blue bruises with the skin torn in a ring around it, a strange oblong where the rope had grabbed at him. Embarrassingly, he couldn't bend over to do that himself, it hurt way too much, so Burks, the man that had helped him at the guest house, came to do it for him. The guy didn't even blush as he reached the soft brush carefully into the bath water. It had to be done if he didn't want his leg to stink the place up, so he put up with it, turning red the whole time in embarrassment.
    Splint back on with new wrappings, sturdy canvas, and tied carefully into the loose silk pants he was ready to venture out of the room finally. They wouldn't let him go and see the river himself, since it was a good distance north of the Capital, not yet at least.
    Connie came and sat with him at a table in one of the dining rooms, family style, she called it, so that there weren't ten paces of space between them, letting them sit and talk in a civilized fashion. That was good, because otherwise they'd have to scream at each other just to be heard. It was funny, but no one seemed to ever use the whole sitting that far apart thing here, not even at the tense dinner party where the space might of helped a little. Maybe it was an old custom?
    Smiling she commented that the new river, temporary or not, needed a name. Most were calling it the “River Tor” already.
    “If you have something else in mind, I suggest you let us know quickly, things like that tend to stick.”
    Tor definitely didn't want it to be named after him. That would be… well even the King's River was named for the job, not the sitting King at all, right? Still the “Broken Student's River” didn't have much of a ring. Well, a bit of a ring, he reflected, but it was a mouthful.
    “How about the “Falcons River” after the statues that have the fields on them? That's on the royal crest even, right? Falcons. So people will know that the King's looking out for them, helping out with drought relief and all that?” It sounded about right to him. He tried thinking about it like he was still just a kid from Two Bends. A sky river the King had made to save crops for farmers? That would go over pretty well. A lot better than if it was named after some kid that they'd never even heard of.
    The Queen smiled and took his hand. “But it wasn't Richard that did it. He didn't even ask for it to be done. You just found a need and fixed it…”
    Tor smiled and shook his head. He didn't want to tell her she was wrong, but he distinctly remembered the King telling him there was a problem in the Ford distract that had to be attended to, and that they'd need a river of clean water. It was Rich's idea even really.
    For some reason Connie chuckled when he mentioned that and squeezed his hand gently. She looked at him long enough that he started to get a funny feeling in his stomach. If she'd been younger, or even just not married, he'd have been very interested in her. She really did look like she could be Rolph's slightly older sister after all and had obviously gotten the job of Queen in part based on her good looks. Or, well, given the way these people selected mates for their kids when they were little children, maybe that had been luck of the draw? However… it had really worked out for the King at least. She was fine.
    When the Queen finally let his hand go after a while, and he felt a sense of relief. He knew that she was just being nice to him, treating him like she might her own son, if Rolph were injured, but falling in love with the Queen would be bad on so many levels that he couldn't count them all. Even a puppy crush would be a silly thing to let happen. At least she probably wouldn't be as mean about rejecting him, if he were so foolish as to ask anything of her, as Maria had been. Not from what the others had said at least. It made Tor feel safer around everyone here in a way. The idea that his giving a device he made to someone wouldn't have them throwing it in his face calling him names in public was a good thing, even if he did end up being rejected over and over again.
    Look at him…
    A little attention from a good looking woman and he was suddenly imagining himself in love? Even if she hadn't been totally out of reach, totally inappropriate, and completely not interested in him, it wouldn't have worked out, because he'd still just be him. Duh. He smiled at her, and got one in return, which was better than he deserved most likely.
    “Well, if I'm not going to inspect my work on the water system I should probably get to rebuilding the floats. I mean making the fields larger for cargo hauling in the air? I told the people from Debri house that I'd do that as soon as possible.”
    Her eyes went dark then, not angry, but concerned, as if he'd just told her he needed to go back to the front lines of a war or something instead of lounging around in bed for days at a time. He'd have gone running, he told himself, trying to think about what would be good for him, but the broken leg meant he could skip that without even getting in trouble with Kolb. Crippling himself wouldn't help keep him in shape after all. Kind of the opposite by definition.
    Yep. Perfect reason to slack off.
    Tor wondered then if the woman had some mind reading ability, a real possibility given her royal blood, he guessed, because she narrowed her eyes at him and told him, in no uncertain terms that he would not use a broken leg as an excuse to work himself to death. She softened her statement with a gentle touch on the arm which made him uncomfortable again. It would have been fine if his mother or one of his sisters had done the same thing, so he ignored it and asked if he could have some water instead.
    She nodded and got it herself, from a cool pitcher sitting in an insulated box next to the table. The box made him think of something, causing him to chuckle. Right, his totally superfluous idea of making cold boxes that didn't need ice. Tor avoided mention of the idea itself, since he knew it might be considered work, but he did ask if there was a spare box that could be put in his room, like the one next to him. The Queen raised her eyebrows, clearly knowing he intended something other than just keeping some water cool, but nodded and raised her hand about shoulder high. She didn't ask for it to be done out loud, but he knew it would be anyway, in that eerie fashion that things happened at the palace.
    After about an hour of chatting cozily, and sometimes awkwardly on his part, a woman came into the room, a slightly older lady, who seemed a year or two senior to Connie and who looked somehow familiar. Dark brown curly hair, strong features and blue eyes that glinted a little bit when she saw the Queen sitting with Tor at the table.
    The clothing he wore was comfortable, but not really appropriate for meeting new people, he didn't think, based on the way the woman smirked gently when she saw the ensemble. He struggled to his feet, because that's what you did when a woman came into the room, at least if she wasn't related to you. Her eyes went wide when she saw the splinted leg, but she didn't wave him down. Instead she greeted Connie, who'd risen from her own padded chair, with a hug.
    She really did look familiar, like he should know who she was. Had they met? Tor didn't think so, he'd have remembered her. She was very good looking. Obviously one of the royals, being so tall, six-seven or eight at least. About the same as Connie. Well, that and the whole walking into the palace and just hugging the Queen. Everyone else bowed, even Counts and Countesses. That meant that this woman must be important. Family or a close friend?
    “Connie! We just got in to town. Normally we don't come down this time of year, but we were close anyway and wanted to see the floating river. How often do you get to see a spectacle of that nature? It's incredible. Eric and I even drank from it, just in case it has some miracle properties to the water. Came here directly of course, after that. Have you seen my youngest around anywhere by chance? She sent a note that she was planning to come down, but travel times being what they are she may not be back from school yet.” The woman didn't ask about him, but did sit so that Tor could, covertly glancing at his left leg again.
    “Oh! Yes, I've seen her indeed. She's off to the river wall market with Karina and Varley today, as well as her friend Sara Debri. They should be back here in a few hours, planning on dinner with us I think, if you'd like to stay? A bit of a party tonight, so come if you can. Fancy dress. I think they even have my son traipsing along playing footman for them. Well, good for him to be useful, even if he does have to stand about while they look at materials from Afrak all afternoon.” She smiled and touched the woman on the arm gently, like she had been with him all afternoon.
    It took a few seconds for Tor to shift gears, having been working mentally on the cold box idea, since he should be able to knock that out in a few hours, and claim it as simple entertainment. Maybe eight hours, if he built a template for it instead of just a one up field. He didn't know if it would be useful to anyone really, but a lot of people liked cold drinks and chilled food at the palace, so maybe someone would like something that didn't take a lot of ice? Sara had mentioned that this time of year the price of ice was measured in silvers for a ten pound block in the Capital. Sometimes gold. That meant that even the chilled water he drank had to have cost about three pennies. More than some made in a day. He swallowed thinking about it.
    Tor shook himself, wondering if the injuries had affected his mind, his attention going back to the woman in front of him.
    Right! Two great looking women here and he was thinking about ice? Brilliant. No wonder women didn't have any use for him.
    “Excuse me is this…” He didn't want to jump in and be wrong, so he hesitated, waiting for someone to fill things in for him. Connie obliged winking at him with her left eye.
    “Baroness Merciful Thorgood Morgan. Wonderful person and accomplished singer, you really should hear her if you get a chance.” Connie smiled over at the woman who thanked her softly and touched her on the shoulder playfully, almost a push.
    “Also my sister, as you may have guessed since no one else would treat the Queen like this, practically knocking me from my chair… Seriously!” They both laughed and started pushing back and forth like children, which made Tor chuckle. It really reminded him of how he was with his own brothers.
    “Mercy, this is Torrence Baker.”
    The Baroness looked interested at the simple introduction but didn't ask for any more details. Tor had a sneaking suspicion that the Queen was teasing her somehow, being mysterious about him to make her figure out who he was. Since he had to look like a little kid sitting around in night clothes like this, he couldn't imagine what she'd guess.
    Most likely that he was some little kid sitting around in his night clothes in the palace. Well, given everything he couldn't blame her if she did.
    The conversation went on with Tor mainly listening. These women were way more interesting than he was after all, so best course for him was to shut up and pay attention. It seemed that the northern orchards on the Baroness' estate were doing well, a bumper crop in fact. She feared that she'd lose half the apples and peaches before they could do anything with them, just rotting in the bins waiting for wagon transport. His mind boggled when she mentioned that they had over ten thousand trees. That… was huge. Tor tried to keep his reaction off his face. The Baker family had ten apple trees behind the house and they managed to have apples almost all year for everyone. It took a lot of canning to make it happen but, ten thousand trees?
    “Oh, Connie! Eric asked me to see if you had any connections with Debri house? They have a new whole foods drying device that we could use to save part of the crop, possibly, except that our local representative from that organization told us that they aren't making them right now, focusing on other, apparently more pressing and lucrative, manufacturing first. You mentioned a Sara Debri earlier?”
    Connie smiled, “yes, she's the child of Heather Debri, second in line to the empire if I have it right. A good friend of your own daughter, her roommate at school this year, so I think you would want to start there if you intend to apply leverage. Or, possibly, I'm given to understand, with my son. He and Sara seem to have grown… close, of late.”
    “You're Trice's mom?” Tor blurted a little loudly. He surged to his feet, well, tried to surge, it was more of a slow standing up that looked a little awkward. The woman's eyes went a little wide.
    “So nice to meet you! I didn't know… didn't make the connection. Duh, Morgan. You just look too young to be her mother, so it threw me off. Sorry.” He bowed to the woman, again a clumsy thing, but the best he could do at the moment.
    The Queen chuckled behind her hand, her eyes showing genuine mirth at his reaction.
    “Oh ho! Well, that's special!” She turned smoothly to her sister and leaned into her slightly, mock whispering. “You should feel honored, he doesn't even bow to Richard you know. Not in private like this.”
    Tor flushed and sat back down. Should he explain the deal with the King, how he'd gotten trapped into being rude all the time to the man, so that he wouldn't think he was mocking him now? He didn't think he could explain it, not and still seem halfway sane. The woman just smiled at him, probably thinking that Connie had been joking with her. Well, good. Who wanted to be known as the ill-mannered guy anyway?
    He went back to listening, his mind flying off in a dozen directions as the women spoke. Apple and peach crops, along with some pear… going to waste, flying rivers which brought up flying guardsmen and how Eric, Mercy's husband, the Duke, Patricia's father really wanted to try out flying himself if he could get a hold of one of the devices.
    Tor tilted his head.
    “Well… I have a couple of spare sets if you'd like to try it, with shields, so it's not even that dangerous. Of course he could borrow Trice's too, I'm sure, but this way you can all go somewhere together, which is more fun…”
    The woman's eyes went wide.
    “You'd part with them? Patricia can already fly? She has her own Tor-flying rig? How much are you asking for them, even the loan of them must be… pricey right now.”
    He waved that away, Connie covering another laugh.
    “Not a problem. I brought them as gifts anyway in case someone wanted them. Turns out all the counselors get nervous about the idea of the King flying about for some reason, possibly because they fear he'll escape? Connie won't even try it, being chicken. A sad thing really, since it's a lot of fun. You should work on her there. Trice is a good flyer already and Rolph would be glad to show you how as well I bet, I mean Alphonse, or… Count Thomson, who has to be one of the best flyers I've seen so far. I haven't seen him in a couple of weeks, probably actually working in his off time instead of lazing about like I am, seeing to his district and all that. Though, you know…” Tor, felt awkward suggesting the next bit, not knowing if it was rude or something or if he could even pull it all off, but it seemed like too good a chance to pass up.
    Mercy smiled at him encouragingly, as if she suspected he had something good to say. Connie reached out and touched his arm, holding it briefly, not letting go until her sister raised her eyebrows at her, then the Queen patted the arm, signaling him to just rush in and hope it wasn't too bold of him to ask.
    “Alright, I guess I should just jump in then. Please excuse me if this is out of turn or rude… I can get you those fast food dryers and, I think, rapid shipping for your fruit to other places. You'll need flyers for that, but I can get that done too… Do you think that you'd be willing to… trade for that? Um, about half of what would have spoiled without it?” He held up his right hand quickly.
    “It's not for me personally, or anything like that, county Ford is having a drought that took about half their mid-summer crop, that means lean times even if the irrigation can get the late summer crops in. I was thinking of shipping things there. Well, not by ship, of course — air transport. It should be a lot faster.”
    The woman blinked, then smiled and batted her pretty blue eyes at him until the Queen cleared her throat. Trice's mom winked at Connie happily though.
    “You can get all that done?” The woman asked, laughing gently. She stopped when the Queen looked at her and gave a single nod of the head, looking very regal.
    “Mercy, I think that if Tor says that he can do something, it would be best to just assume it's so. He's rather good at… getting things done. Richard did no more than mention the drought in front of him, and he's already done all this…” The words were soft, but not unkind.
    “Oh… Oh! As in that Tor?” This was addressed to Connie not him. That Tor? It sounded like a funny question, he was just a student that had made a few devices that, while interesting and hopefully useful, weren't all that special. Well, the river was impressive he had to admit, but it wasn't like that meant he was anything special.
    The Queen just nodded.
    The agreement came fast, and even though she claimed that she couldn't make deals for her Duke, she hinted that if he'd be willing to double the deal they might be able to swing a large fall wheat harvest as well. That would only take shipping, so wouldn't be quite as large for Tor's portion, still possibly worth doing, the Baroness said, a little wheedling.
    Tor agreed and had to stop himself from just jumping up and going to work right then. Easiest thing to do would be to borrow the template he'd given to Debri house for the dryers. He could rebuild the original field, but that would take extra time. Besides, he really wanted to play with the cold box idea first. It was selfish and silly of him, but sounded like a more interesting way to spend the afternoon. New things usually were more fun to work on, device wise at least.
    The women let him go back to his room to rest for the afternoon, Connie telling him that he was expected at dinner later, about nine. As he left she imparted a gentle kiss on the cheek, which made him blush, but her sister didn't blink at it, so it must be a normal thing, he decided. One of those royal things a bumpkin like him just hadn't learned yet.
    That gave him hours to work in. Nearly ten, which should be plenty. Back in his room he found a nice cabinet about three feet on a side with walls about four inches thick, it was wood on the outside and silver metal inside. It had a block of fresh ice in it and a pitcher of water. It would do nicely, Tor thought.
    He didn't have an oven for the corresponding heat, so he just sunk it into the ground, about a hundred feet under the copper piece he used to hold the field in place. Thinking about it, Tor didn't want to bother going outside to do acid etching, afraid that the Queen may have left orders to stop him from doing something like that. He really didn't want to get nabbed by the Royal Guard. Those guys were nice enough, outwardly at least, but always seemed like they were ready to execute him on a moment's notice with a single word from… anyone really.
    Rolph, the King, one of the Princesses, the maid that cleaned the room… Tor really didn't want to push them if he could avoid it.
    Instead he used a bit of sharp rock to make a simple design to act as a sigil. It was just a circle with two arrows inside, to represent the heat leaving the box. It took a few hours to make, then an extra few to form a template and make a full set of copies. He put one in the box for testing and waited. And waited.
    At first he thought it had failed. That happened sometimes after all. Normally not to him, not with work like this that he had a pretty good grasp on already, but maybe he'd forgotten a step? Sighing he took the pitcher out of the box to get a drink of water.
    It was frozen solid.
    So was the ice, no melting on it at all, just a frozen puddle at the bottom spreading out gently. Tor smiled. It didn't feel that cold to him, because he was wearing one of the temperature equalizing amulets. Oops.
    Laughing he called for Burks, who'd taken the duty of watching after him for some reason. Possibly as a punishment for some transgression that Tor didn't know about, though it was hard to imagine the man ever doing anything wrong. He was incredibly good at his job.
    He tried to be an easy person to take care of, but knew that a sick or injured person was always a pain. Burks handled it like a trooper, always showing up in the morning first thing with his breakfast and making sure that he ate regularly and had whatever he needed. He'd kind of thought that the man was the one that had kept him… clean, when he used the restroom and had been working. It was embarrassing, but the guy never mentioned it, thankfully.
    The man boggled a little at the frozen pitcher of ice, but recovered when Tor explained what he thought would work. Just taking the remaining new devices to the kitchen and setting them up there. He'd go himself, he assured the man, but was afraid that he wouldn't be allowed in directly and was a little obvious with his leg in a splint to sneak in pretending to be one of the servants, a pot washer or something.
    “Just so sir. I'll take care of this. I won't be but a moment.” It took longer than that, but gave Tor some time to work out the large shipping floats. He'd promised them to Debri house anyway.
    Stopping himself he realized that he hadn't promised anything. They'd asked if he could do something for mass shipping in general, just one of the ideas they thought could make gold, not that he have it ready within the month. Still, he had a reason to now anyway, so it made sense to get it done. He needed a float plate like what he'd already made, only with a bigger field on it, so it would lift more. A whole lot more. It would take time, but it wasn't building a river in the air, so three or four days?
    Now he just had to convince everyone to leave him alone for a while to get the work done before his break ran out. The people at the school really didn't like it when he stopped going to classes for days at a time, which made sense, he was there to work and learn, not play with his own projects and ignore the lessons.
    Burks made it back about two hours later and told him that all the plates had been installed and seemed to be functioning very well. The cooks were impressed at least. Burks smiled and went to fetch clothing for him to wear to dinner. The tunic top was a nice black and purple velvet thing, with a smaller King's livery patch on it than the last one, but they didn't have real trousers that would fit over the leg splint, so the man took a cutter from his jacket pocket and carefully slit a pair of black silk pants down the side and punched holes for black ribbon along the perfectly smooth slit so that Tor could be tied in. Tor winced when he saw him doing it.
    That much silk! It was one thing for him to borrow the clothes, but to ruin them like that… He'd be working for years to pay for them, he was afraid.
    It looked alright when it was finished, so he tried not to worry over it. Tor owed everyone here so much already, having cared for him like they had after he'd gotten himself hurt. The King and Queen for opening their home to him, certainly, and Burks who'd done a lot of the personal work himself. He wondered what he could do to repay the man. He didn't have a lot of money, so just giving him gold wouldn't work. He'd have to think of something.
    A walking stick was provided to him to aid his getting to dinner on time. It was an interesting thing, nearly as tall as he was, gnarled and thick at the top, lacquered, a shining black that, to his amusement, matched the outfit he was wearing. He made sure to slip on his temperature equalizing amulet and his shield, thinking about the last “dinner” he'd gone too at the palace. Tor wanted to be ready just in case that kind of thing happened again. Even if some of them were his friends, royals could be dangerous.
    Though it wasn't lost on him that Rolph, even when in a full combat rage, hadn't touched him, or even hit at him directly. Ward had, but his friend was looking out for Tor, even when not strictly in his right mind. Even when, if asked, he probably would have said he didn't have any control of himself at all.
    Remembering his promise to Mercy, he went to his chest and took out the remaining two flying rigs. Looking around he realized he didn't have anything to put them in and the Baroness probably wouldn't want to wear them around all night. Especially if they didn't go with her outfit. The problem with all his stuff so far was the copper. A good sturdy metal for fields, but not great as far as jewelry went all the time. Silver would have been a better gift, but he couldn't afford things like that yet, not really.
    “Hey, Burks…” He turned to look at the man, holding up the devices. “I need to wrap these up for a Duke and a Baroness, they're married, so it can go in one package I think, any ideas?”
    The man bowed a quick and choppy thing and left the room at a quick walk, coming back with a small chest that was intricately carved and made of soft looking light colored wood, sanded so that there were no rough edges. The man presented it formally holding it over his left arm.
    “These are kept in the closet down the hall for the purpose of presenting fine gifts. It should work for this, I hope?” The man spoke evenly as if Tor's little handmade presents counted as “fine”. The guy was really being kind, he'd have to remember that and figure out some way to repay the man later. Maybe he'd like a shield or flying gear? Would he even have use for it though? Something special to make his life easier would be better, but nothing in particular came to mind.
    That reminded him, so he slipped two of the newest shields in as well. Flying without them was nearly insane. He'd heard of people doing it, but Tor wouldn't, and really, he wouldn't ask anyone else to either. Even if it meant giving away the shields for free.
    The copper looked nice in the box, being wrapped in purple silk, the whole thing didn't weigh too much, about two pounds, thankfully, because he had to carry it under his right arm so that he could hold the walking stick in his left. It took him a while to find the right dining room, since dinner was being held in one of the larger ones tonight and he hadn't been that way in the palace before.
    It wasn't that hard to find, since all he had to do was follow the line of people going in. There must have been hundreds of them. He almost turned around and went back to his room seeing them all slowly headed towards the vast double doors, moving slowly in rows of twos. For one thing he wasn't sure he was in the right place. He'd thought it was just a small family and friends thing. Then again, maybe this was what having a few friends over looked like when you were a King or Queen?
    The other thing was that he was all alone, not having a date. Everyone else had someone by them but him.
    That left him feeling awkward.
    Out of place. No one really looked at him too closely at least. Most of them actually seemed to look over him. Kind of as if anyone less than six foot tall wasn't worth noticing? No one stepped on him yet, so some part of their brains must be aware he was in the room. The way you normally managed not to crush a small child, or pet cat?
    At the door each couple was announced to the room by a man with a powerful voice, deep and intimidating. Tor got into the line and moved along with it, hoping that he was in the right place after all. Everyone around him was obviously royal, even the few kids in the crowd were taller than he was. Which probably meant that he looked like a tiny child that had wondered in alone.
    Each person had tried to dress nicer than the last it seemed, with some of the women dressed in gowns that shone like crystal, glittering and heavy, and some of the men dressed head to toe in silk. He'd felt a bit silly wearing loose silk pants around, but apparently he wasn't going to be the only one doing that tonight. It made him feel a bit better. Not that he didn't look ridiculous, he did, but if anyone mocked him over it, they'd have to contend with about twenty percent of the room, not just him. It was a safety, or at least comfort, in numbers thing.
    In a way it was worth coming even if they didn't let him in at the door, just to see all the glittering and finely dressed people. It was something that no one in Two Bends had probably ever gotten to see the like of. The man with the loud voice called out the people ahead of him.
    “The Lord Duke Brettermere and Duchess Brettermere!” He called out. Like everyone else had, they took exactly five steps into the room and stopped, waiting for about fifteen seconds before walking on into the huge space. The woman wore a pretty purple dress that, while not as shining as some, still lit up the room a lot. Tor thought it looked really nice, but then purple was his favorite color. They were both older, gray hair on their heads and wrinkled faces. Only a few people turned around to look at them. Dukes and Duchesses didn't rate much attention in a room with this crowd it seemed.
    Tor limped up slowly to the man, wondering if he'd come to the right place at all, half expecting the man to send him off to the kitchen to start baking or scrubbing pots. Though if they wanted him to bake they really should have gotten him in place a lot earlier in the day. Baking wasn't a last minute thing really. Instead the man looked at him questioningly, his face going blank for a bit. One of the liveried Royal Guards by the door made a small noise, a clearing of his throat, which got the man to lean in for a moment. His face went totally blank, and then he nodded.
    “Tor!” He called out simply, his voice just as powerful as before.
    Making his way into the room slowly, Tor stopped like everyone else had, hoping it was the right thing to do, he'd counted off ten seconds when he realized that most of the room had turned to stare at him. Eeek. Had he messed something up already? The guy had announced him, and the Queen asked him to come, right? He hadn't misunderstood had he? God he hoped not. That would be too embarrassing to live with. Tor walked on, hoping that if he had screwed up everyone would consider it in poor taste to notice or something. Maybe he really was supposed to help the servers or something? But if that was the case, shouldn't Burks have dressed him in green so that he'd match?
    Everyone else had made their way to the front, past the long table, an incredible sight all on its own, he followed along with the crowd, because he didn't have much of a choice if he didn't want to be stepped on. After about twenty minutes, his leg starting to ache horribly, he saw what everyone was doing, heading up to where the King and Queen sat on large chairs, set on a raised platform. People walked up and bowed, spoke a few words and then walked to the far side of the room, where they all stood talking and mingling.
    Three groups of people walked past him to see the King and Queen as he slowly made his way towards the front. The conversations seemed simple enough. They said “your majesty”, which wasn't plural, bowed to each, with Rich getting the first bow, said that the event was lovely, commented on how pleasant the room was or how lovely the Queen looked and headed off. It was all so formal that Tor almost felt like going up and calling out “Howdy Rich! How's it going Connie?” in his best Two Bends accent, but decided against it. He didn't want to start trouble or anything. Not just for a laugh about something only he would find at all funny. But it would have been funny.
    Hilarious in fact…
    When he got to the front he managed a bow to each and to say the required phrases he'd heard, which got a smile from them both that looked a bit more genuine than what the others had been getting he thought. He hefted the box a little to catch their attention.
    “This is for your sister and her husband, the Morgans? It's just the flying stuff I promised earlier and a set of shields. I didn't know this was going to be such a big thing… Do you think one of you could slip it to them for me? I don't know if I'll be able to find them and it's a little bulky to carry around all night with this stick in my other hand.” He smiled hoping it wouldn't seem all out of place. These were his friends though, like Rolph. Important people, but still people. Maybe they'd understand what he meant.
    Richard smiled and took the box himself, causing the guard standing next to him to go wide eyed for some reason. Probably wondering if Tor had just handed the King something harmful. Eeek! Tor would have to learn to be careful about things like that in the future.
    “Certainly. Our pleasure. Now, go see if you can find someone to talk to for a bit before dinner. I think I see Alphonse off over there, at the top left of the room.” This came out as a friendly whisper rather than the man's normal booming voice, probably so Tor wouldn't be embarrassed by the directions. Nice of him to think of it. He nodded thanks and waved to them both a little as he walked away.
    They all really were going out of their way to be nice to him. Tor smiled as he tried to find his giant friend.
    The top left turned out to be on the left portion of the right side of the room, which was more than a little confusing as far as directions went. Thank goodness Rolph was pretty tall. Not the tallest man in the room by far, some were even taller than the King, but the red hair made him easy enough to find. A small group had collected around him, mainly people Tor didn't know, older people, all freakishly huge.
    Thankfully, near that group was Count Thomson, who stood next to a beautiful blond woman that was at least a foot taller than Tor. He worked his way over and stood near them, hoping that he'd be noticed, the Count being used to seeing him around at least. The woman noticed him first, which kind of surprised him, since no one else had been looking down enough for the most part.
    “Hello!” She said brightly holding out her right hand. “Baronetta Collette Coltress.”
    Tor took the hand and bowed over it a little, like he'd seen everyone else doing with the ladies.
    “Torrence Baker.” He said simply. It was the only name he had, even if it wasn't impressive sounding and didn't have a fancy title attached. The woman nodded and kept smiling as if his name was completely ordinary for the room.
    “This is a lovely party isn't it? I was so pleased when Count Thomson invited me. I'm afraid that I normally wouldn't rate an invitation to something like this at all, not on my own merits.” She flushed prettily and ducked her head as if embarrassed at her “low” station. It worked with the soft pink color of her dress. Her green eyes looked a little humbled as she glanced around. Tor could sympathize. The woman leaned in a little and whispered conspiratorially to him. “The man with the red hair behind me? He's the heir! And we're standing right here not ten feet from him. The Count said he'd get me an introduction to him if we can make our way over through this crowd, isn't that something? I've met his little sister Veronica, but never Alphonse himself…”
    “You know, I've never actually met Veronica myself. I… thought her name was Valarie to tell you the honest truth. I think we must have just kept missing each other so far. This place is so huge, you know? Anyway, nudge Tovey's arm for me will you? I want to use him as a shield so that I don't get stepped on.”
    The girls eye's lit happily and she jiggled her date's arm enough to catch his attention and related what Tor had said. The man turned to look around and looked over his head twice, not even playing around. Everyone else in the room was just that big.
    “Tor! There you are, yes, come stand by me and Collette here. You've met?”
    “Oh, yes. Old friends you know.” Tor answered with a smile, being that the Count had pulled him close enough that he bumped into the pink ruffles the woman wore. She smelled nice, he noticed, the scent catching him from about three inches away as she turned, her bust line almost hitting him in the face. Not a bad view, but a little hard to stare at, being too close to focus on, he chuckled a little and took a half step back. At least it wasn't just him, everyone was packed this closely together in the room. Nearly at least. Tor accidentally stepped into someone and turned rapidly to apologize.
    He froze, but only for a second. A sense of relief came over him as he finished the turn. Trice. “Hey! So good to see you…” His face faltered as he saw her eyes. They looked sad and hurt. She shook her head and turned away.
    “I'm sorry.” She mumbled and walked away.

Chapter Ten

    “Um, what?” Tor said to her back, catching her sleeve lightly, which got an annoyed glance from her as she looked over his head. Finally she looked down and her eyes focused.
    “Tor? Sorry, didn't notice you.” She sounded distracted and glum.
    “Are you alright?” He asked quickly, leaning close in hopes that not everyone in the room would hear.
    She shook her head. “Not here. Later. I'll explain, but… It isn't for this place.”
    “OK. Later. Don't forget though.”
    Collette, the lady in pink that stood right behind him oriented herself so that her chest pressed against his back briefly, nearly the back of his head, so that she could see who he talked too. She introduced herself using her title again, Baronetta Coltress. Trice's eyes went wide as she noted the contact between them and then she sagged a little, looking almost like she was going to cry.
    Tor pointed out that Collette was with Count Thomson, which helped his friend perk back up a good bit. She was probably glad to have her other, more appropriate, friends around. After all, he couldn't help her much here, especially if something had made her sad. Or help her anywhere else really, unless it was a simple problem that one of his little field projects or devices could aid with. Or a baking emergency. Then he could do something.
    Seriously, he was all over that one.
    Her dress was a deep blue, one that offset cornflower color of her eyes wonderfully, she wore a simple silver chain around her neck from which the shield he'd given her flashed. Trice wore it openly as if it were something to be proud of. Did she expect danger he wondered? Maybe he should stay ready then. Trice knew her way around these things better than Tor ever would, no doubt. Collette noticed where he looked and pointed at it excitedly.
    “Oh! Is that a Tor device? I haven't managed to get one yet. Almost no one has them you know. How did you manage, I mean if it's alright to ask?” Her voice didn't sound catty or anything, just curious.
    Trice smiled and pointed at Tor with a half wave. “He gave it to me, several months ago. A present just because, he said. It's a full Tor-shield, one of the newest ones, the fourth model, updated past what the military has even. And smaller too. The original plates were about the size of half your hand. This one's barely the size of a large coin as you can see.”
    The woman behind him grasped his shoulder slightly and spun him half around. She didn't speak to him, but to Trice instead.
    “Seriously? Are you two… friends?” Tor started to say yes, but Trice shook her head.
    “Not that kind. He's just really nice.” Her smile looked a little sad to Tor, which didn't make sense. A lot of things just didn't in this world of royals and palaces.
    A deep voice came from behind Collette. “That's true. He gave me the shield I'm wearing and my flying gear too.” Count Thomson smiled. “Tor is a good friend to have for a lot of reasons, and trust me, these things aren't even the biggest part by half. He saved my honor once.” Tovey put a hand on Tor's shoulder and smiled. “Something I haven't forgotten by the way.”
    Trice nodded.
    “Me either.”
    It took him a second to get what they meant, the whole thing with him hitting Tovey on the back. Right. He was about to tell them that there was no debt between friends, which was just true, but didn't get a chance.
    A stirring came from up front, near the raised platform the King and Queen were on. No more than a sudden silence and shifting of weight, but the whole room suddenly turned to look. It was kind of amazing really. A field of effect? That felt right, but whatever had gotten their attention was already finished now. Kind of a shame. It would have been interesting to examine how it worked.
    Mind magics like that were considered delicate and complex things, rare and valuable, but not overly useful in day to day life. Though a field that projected a sense of peace would have worked at some of the King's meetings Tor bet, wondering if the man had one yet. If not he should find a master builder to make him one.
    The loud man called out for Trice's parents, the Duke and Baroness. Tor wondered why the woman wasn't a Duchess, but figured there was some complicated and ultimately baffling reason he wouldn't understand. They both walked to the front, the crowd parting gently before them, slightly stiff looks on their faces.
    The King explained loudly for the whole room with a gentle smile.
    “A gift! Master Tor asked me personally to deliver these to you. Two sets of flying gear with full shields. May you use them with joy and prosperity.” Richard handed over the box his eyes alight.
    Everyone clapped as if it was a big deal. Then again, it was delivered from the hand of the King, which did kind of make it special. Tor figured that if he'd just given them each a bag of fertilizer from the stables people would have clapped too. The idea made him want to laugh, but he didn't feel like explaining just then. Especially to their daughter, lest she think he was insulting them instead of just laughing at the idea itself.
    Instead he shook his head and murmured just loud enough for Trice to hear.
    “Master Tor? Kind of him, but I have a long way to go before I earn that title, you know?”
    From behind them a few people someone, a woman, asked if the Baroness was sleeping with Tor or something, to get such a gift.
    At first Tor was afraid that people thought his gift was too poor to be given like this, which he agreed with. After all he'd just wanted it to be passed along, not publicly presented. Maybe slipped covertly somehow. But that thought changed suddenly when the same woman boldly proclaimed that, if it was, she'd gladly sleep with him for a chance at the same thing.
    A huge man standing next to her cleared his throat gently, “dearest, if that would work, I'd beg you to myself. In fact, I'd suggest it even if he isn't giving things away to everyone. Such an alliance would be advantageous, don't you think?”
    The woman chuckled a little, still watching the Morgans, who seemed pleased enough at least.
    “I do think. We must make a point of having the man over for our next party.”
    Trice eyed him and smiled.
    “Good! Now all we have to do is tell them that you gave it to them because you love me and then convince the King to give you a title, and you can marry me instead of…” Her voice died, realizing that people could hear her, and worse, were listening.
    Tor didn't ask what it was about, but knew that it had to be big for her voice to have been that serious about something so obviously absurd. Not that he wouldn't love to marry her, or someone like her, all he had to do was rise about sixty social levels and he'd possibly be within those three steps of her that everyone kept telling him about. Maybe. Probably not. He thought about it and tried to work it out for real. Sixteen social levels not sixty, if he was generous and started as a scholarship kid from the Lairdgren school instead of his birth status of village bakers' kid. Could it be done? A few times in history a great warrior or very wise man had climbed the ranks, becoming a councilor to the King or general in the military… he thought.
    Well, he wasn't a great warrior, that was for certain. Was he wise? Heh. Maybe in seventy years, if he worked at it hard enough, about the time he earned being called “Master Tor”. That wouldn't do him any good with Trice though, would it? Best to get his mind back in the real game and focus he decided. He tried to take the evening meditatively, as he'd learned in class at school, from Instructor Doris, accepting, noticing and not responding overly.
    “Well…” He said, his voice soft and a little dreamy sounding he knew, from the meditative state. “I'll see what I can do in that regard.”
    He meant it as a joke, of course, but she smiled at him a little sadly, and sighed. At least she didn't seem upset with what he'd just said. It wouldn't do to compound any sadness she had if he could help it.
    At dinner itself he was seated away from the Queen and King a good ways, but closer to them than most people, which surprised him. He figured they'd put him off in the kitchen or at least at the other end of the table, if they were going by rank. After all, some of the servers probably outranked him socially here. They were palace servants after all and he was just a student. Actually, that would mean everyone in the room outranked him. It was sobering, but made him both grin to himself and feel a bit like an impostor. No one around him was familiar, but he was seated directly beside a young girl with deep reddish brown hair and a smooth cream like complexion who looked familiar. The same one from the room the other day? She was a little too young for him, maybe, but not so young that he couldn't think she was pretty. Fourteen or so. Back in the village he could have dated, even married her, in a year or two, his own seventeen not being considered too old for her yet. Not all gross or anything at least. Fourteen was legal after all, if she was really that old.
    Here… well, he didn't know the rules regarding ages here, but suspected it wasn't all that strict. Not if Maria had gone off to marry a thirty odd year old Count when she couldn't have been any older than the young woman next to him. The girl smiled, her eyes looking very familiar, but then a lot of the royals did. They were all related in some fashion or another after all.
    “I don't think we've met formally yet. I'm Veronica.” She didn't offer her hand, but kept smiling and leaned towards him slightly, so that he knew she was speaking directly to him.
    “Nice to meet you. I'm Torrence. Um, everyone calls me Tor though. My friends at least.”
    She giggled and nodded.
    “I know who you are, of course. I saw you in your room the other day? You're the one that's making this summer bearable, thanks to the cooling devices you gave me. Karina told me she nearly kept them all, but found that she didn't need to, they work so well. She likes you, you know. My sister I mean.” The girl looked around to check and see where the other Princess was, up the table a few places. “Don't buy it though, she just wants stuff from you. More toys. She'll play with you that way if you let her. You're better off just giving her the things she wants and finding some nice girl to hang around with. At least find one that will actually sleep with you. Karina's a giant tease. Plus, even if you got her into bed, she'd probably only do it to get you to do what she wanted. Definitely not worth the hassle.”
    The girl smiled and looked around at the people around them, keeping a polite and gentle look on her face the whole time.
    Then they spoke of much more normal things, where she went to school, the palace of all places, since they had fine tutors brought in for it. Then what kind of things she liked to do. It turned out that she was interested in learning to fly, but so far hadn't gotten a flying rig. It wasn't forbidden her like it was the King, but the military was taking them all up so fast that they were almost impossible to get.
    “That's why everyone's so envious of the gift you gave the Morgans tonight. Say, you don't have any more of those lying around your room that you might be willing to part with do you?” Her voice got excited.
    “Um, not right now… I can probably work up a new batch. Actually I need to soon, but I won't be able to on vacation, I don't think, I have so many other things to do first. Want me to earmark one for you? The controls will be for the left hand, which I think will help the military. That way most of them can use their dominant hand for aiming weapons. Plus I need to fix the turning on them, so that it's easier to control, which will make them simpler to use I think.” He held out his left hand and mimicked aiming a weapon with the right to demonstrate, getting some oddly interested glances from the people around him, instead of the baffled glares he expected. Well, they could all hear him anyway, so it probably made sense.
    The youngest Princess smiled at him and nodded, telling him that she'd pay well for it if he'd get her one. He shook his head.
    “I just meant as a present. There's no debt between friends after all. Besides, you have to wait, at least a bit. I do have some shields though. I'll send one for you and another for your sister, they're handy to have, even if you can't fly yet.” The girl smiled broadly and brushed his right arm gently with her left. A friendly gesture he thought. Nothing that would make Rolph have to pound him at least. He hoped.
    Over the course of the next hour her chair kept moving closer to his as she whispered things to him, mainly court gossip.
    “Baroness Michelson and Count Ward have been having a thing for a while, since he got… well, you know about that. People aren't supposed to notice who's with who overly, but he doesn't know the meaning of discrete. The lout even had the nerve to ask me to bed. After the thing with Ursala. I mean, before sure, why not, but after? He must be nearing forty don't you think? You'd think he'd know better. Talk about improper. Not the age thing, that could be forgiven in interest of having a good time, he is dreamy, but all of it put together. I got mom to talk to him and let him down easy. But… well. Not something I like to dwell on.” The girl grinned at him and hid it behind her hand.
    Tor realized that the girl was a little confused about some things, like her sister trying to use him. She wouldn't use, she'd just demand. For that matter the junior Princess could just do the same. That she asked instead meant a lot to him personally. Hopefully she'd continue in that vein over time. No one liked to feel like they didn't have a choice at all, even when they didn't.
    The dinner itself was excellent, if having too many courses for comfort. After the first one Tor had to copy the petite girl next to him, and eat only a little of each serving, since cleaning his plate would lead to discomfort, if not his getting sick at table. That would be worse even than his seeming wasteful. With each course, he noticed that Varley made point to engage a different person in discussion. He started trying to copy her, figuring that the girl knew a lot more about how to do this kind of thing than he did.
    What he found out was fascinating.
    About half the people seemed to actually want to talk to him, normally about problems in their district, county or once, from a fairly attractive, but much older, woman about six people to the right, but across the table, her own household. Her problem turned out to be easy enough to solve, once he thought about it for a few seconds. She had mildew inside her home, because of moisture. All she needed was a device to drive out moisture during the damp months. That could be done. It was just a matter of moving water around after all.
    He'd done that a few times now.
    Tor repeated what he'd told Varley, that he couldn't do the work just then, but would gladly send something to her if she'd write him a note reminding him about it and where the device had to get to. She looked surprised.
    “Oh! I… I mean that's wonderful of course, but surely you're too busy for my petty concerns. I'll muddle by like always…”
    He waved that away and asked her to send the note again. It was a largish field, but it wouldn't take that long to develop. Tor just needed the time. He always needed more time. Better than being bored at least, right?
    It was the rest of the conversations that made him feel uncomfortable.
    Two of the women openly flirted with him, right at the table, so blatantly he figured it was them just making fun of him for some reason. Especially since one of them could have been his grandmother, which given how young all the royals looked compared to real people meant she must be nearing a hundred years old. The other looked to be about thirty and really, if she hadn't been sitting right next to her husband, he might have been interested, at least in theory.
    Tor didn't really want to sleep with a married woman, at least not if she wasn't married to him. It was just his Two Bends upbringing, but it still bugged him. No doubt he should work on that part of things? He just couldn't bring himself to flirt back and so found himself at a loss as to what to do. He'd been warned not to be rude, even if they were just playing with him, he kind of even got that he should play back, but it was too hard. Tor floundered for a few seconds, feeling more awkward than he could remember being in the last year.
    Varley saved him.
    After a fashion at least.
    “Oh… my brother mentioned that all proposals need to go through my mother for Tor. She's handling such things personally for now, so that he can give his full attentions to matters of import for the kingdom. She's being a stickler too, only taking the most serious. She already shut down my sister's proposal of marriage to him, so, you understand, there's a high bar here. I'm considering floating my own offer too, but don't know if I'll make the cut either. I think mother wants him for herself. She's already married though, so really, I don't see the problem.” She said it simply, smiling, then taking a delicate bite of a tiny chicken pie thing that was delicious if too buttery and rich for his simple palate.
    Tor almost choked on his own mouth of food when she said the words, her cute face dimpling into a look that he took to be teasing. As soon as he got her intent he played along though, nodding seriously as if it were normal that the Queen would be stepping in for his own mother for real. No one else teased him about things like that for the rest of the night at least. There were some funny looks though.
    The dessert was a flavored ice dish that actually got applause. Lime. It wasn't half slush, but shaved ice delivered to the table frozen solidly with no melting at all. It evaporated on the tongue like fine winter snow. Even in the cool dining room it was fantastically done. The Queen tilted her head at him and pointed at the dish with her spoon. She smiled at him warmly and shook her head just a tiny bit. Did the cooks use the new cold boxes? She seemed to think he'd had some kind of hand in the dish. Tor didn't know himself. They could have had some other plan in place already, before he did anything even. Things like that took planning for even a few people, and had to have even more for hundreds.
    The shouting match didn't start until after the meal had finished at least.
    He couldn't even tell what it was about, some overly large man decided that some other overly large man had wronged him, of course. Something about lines and borders, from what was being screamed back and forth. Tor would have been happy enough to let the men, both old enough to have learned at least a little self-control, past thirty but under forty at a guess, handle it themselves if one of them hadn't grabbed the lady that was with the other, and start to strangle her.
    It was a shocking move. If the man had gone after the other large fellow, it might have made sense, but this? It simply wasn't right or proper.
    Tor couldn't move fast, but he did the best he could, stumbling along towards the back of the room, slapping at his shield to turn it on as he went. The damned splint was impeding him too much. The one man, who'd been the louder of the two mere seconds before, spoke to the other man softly, telling him to let her go… or else. That noble didn't attack, probably worried about the woman who was having the life choked out of her as he spoke, she was turning a pale blue color already and her tongue was sticking out in a comical fashion that a lady like this would never have done on purpose. Not in public. The calmer man's voice became both softer and more anxious the whole time.
    Tor activated his shield hoping that he could get the man to simply attack him instead. He wouldn't be hurt and the woman should be alright. She'd stopped struggling by the time he got there, making only the softest of whimpering sounds. That attacking man wouldn't let go, obviously well into battle rage already.
    Walking up behind the man and dropping his walking stick, so he wouldn't have a weapon on him, Tor hit him in the right kidney as hard as he could with a right hook. Which… didn't even make the man turn. That hurt, being hit like that. Nearly as much as being hit in the groin. Tor knew this from personal experience. Maybe he was just too small to make it work like it was supposed to? He tried it again, half expecting the Royal Guard to come and start trying to kill him right then, instead of waiting for him to have a chance to save the lady.
    He knew he was dead after this anyway, he had to be. You just weren't allowed to hit royalty like he was doing and live. Not some common guy from Two Bends. Still, the light blue woman needed his help. Everyone else had pulled away or just stood there. So that left only him, right? If he was trading his life for hers, then he really needed to get the guy's attention fast. Two people dying here wouldn't be worth it at all.
    He hit again and again, then, in desperation, he kicked the man in the groin from behind, balancing precariously on his splinted leg for it, nearly falling over backwards. Finally the guy let the woman drop and started trying to just kill him instead. He didn't bother fighting back, just standing and letting the man exhaust himself against his shield. After about twenty minutes of steady punches and kicks that had a very trained quality to them, certainly more than he could have handled without his shield, even if the giant wasn't in a super strong combat condition that left cracks in the floor again, the dark haired giant stopped suddenly. Blinking he looked at the room, where the party had mainly moved to the other side and looked down at Tor, suddenly going white.
    “Are you alright? I… I'm sorry, I was discussing a border issue with Baron Rochester and the next thing I knew I came-to hitting… you… what happened?”
    Tor decided to go for a flip answer instead of simply crying for mercy that couldn't come under the law anyway. Too many people had seen it this time for anyone to turn a blind eye. He might as well not look like a wimp on the way out, right? For all the good that would do him. He had to fight to keep the Two Bends out of his voice when he answered, moving past fear and even shock into hopelessness faster than his mind could handle.
    “We got into a fight over a girl… I got the girl in the end by the way, go figure, right?” He smiled at the man who just looked baffled.
    Tor took off his shield amulet and handed it to Rolph, who'd cautiously walked over to him, looking concerned. No one came for him though. He waited and then figured it out. Of course they'd wait for him to leave the party, not wanting to endanger people, or cause a scene, one of those polite social rule things that royalty always did. This in mind he walked outside into a garden space, the Prince following him closely, about five feet back. Two Royal Guardsmen came as well, watching him nervously. One shifted a little, turning back to face the room as Rolph stood holding up the amulet.
    “Tor?” He said his voice uncertain. “Something?”
    Tor shrugged and waited for the guard to do their duty, but they just stood there, watching him, and oddly the room, closely. Finally one of them, the large black and purple clad one that faced him spoke, his voice calm, as if speaking to a mad man.
    “Sir, Master Tor… do you intend to pursue this further?” The man sounded almost diffident, which was not what he expected from the Royal Guard, even when they were being nice. It took him off guard.
    “Do you intent to meet the Duke in battle sir? Or do you consider yourself satisfied as to the resolution here? We need to know your intent so that the King's forces may plan accordingly…”
    He knew all the words the man used, at least in theory, but they still didn't make sense. How was he going to meet a Duke in battle and what did the King's forces have to do with it? He shook his head trying to clear it. What were they talking about? He looked at Rolph and raised his shoulders in a shrug.
    Rolph figured it out and fixed it for him. Tor suddenly felt thankful for having gotten to know him then. Even if things hadn't turned out all that well in the end. Outside of his family, Rolph was the only one that had always been there for him since they met.
    “Oh! I see… This issue is over as far as Tor is concerned I believe… It was never personal on his part, and he only sought to protect Lady Priscilla when he saw her attacked. I do not believe that Duke Winchester means harm towards Tor either. Just a potential disaster thankfully avoided. These things happen. Do let us know if the Duke changes his mind however. I don't like his chances if he decides to go that route against Tor, but that's up to him.” He handed the amulet back to Tor and motioned him to put it on.
    Shaking as if cold, Tor still couldn't figure out what had happened here. Why hadn't they arrested him? Why was it so hard to think? He took deep breaths, trying to calm himself enough to figure things out. About ten minutes later Connie came out to find them and hugged him close to her for a long time as he kept shaking.
    “It's fine now. Priscilla lives, and no one was harmed other than a little bruising. Thankfully her own shielding kicked in enough to save her for a while. She asked me to thank you, even as she still gasped for breath. That was most brave of you.” He finally pulled back from her, his eyes going to Rolph and then her.
    “Why didn't they arrest me? I struck a noble, right in front of everyone. Several times. That's the death penalty, without exception, for someone like me.” He hadn't stopped shaking, but it had slowed a bit, which let him sound as if he was just confused, not like a lost six year old ready to cry for his mommy.
    Rolph laughed, that low laugh he got when something was deadly serious and not funny at all.
    “You are kidding, aren't you? First, you're under the King's livery, that little badge you're wearing? It means that you didn't do anything at all, the King did. I'd like to see someone try arrest him for this. That's why the guard asked if you intended to meet Winchester in battle. If you'd said yes the King's army would be mobilizing right now, so just as well you don't hold grudges. Besides…Tor… don't you realize what just happened in there? When Duke Winchester moved on Priscilla… you went into a combat rage yourself. The aura's unmistakable. You challenged him fairly and held until he ceased, without even attacking him further. People were only afraid that you might not come back from it. That happens sometimes, especially in the first few episodes, and, you know, you look young. It was just possible that you might have insisted on making war with the man which as I said, I don't think would go well for him. He only has about twenty thousand under arms, most without shields and no weapons that would stop you, even if dad wasn't backing your plan. Luckily your version of battle rage seems to be very protective of others and not all that violent. You fought, yes, but only until he let go of the lady, then all you did was defend. I wish I had that kind of control. I… don't know why you turned your shield off though… No one would have thought less of you for keeping it on.”
    Heh? He'd had it on the whole time. Hadn't he? Rolph shook his head and so did Connie. Oh. That was strange then. It had felt like he had a full working shield on and the force moved correctly, into the ground. He'd probably built it on the fly having had so much practice with the devices he made. It made sense, but didn't at the same time. He shrugged and asked if he could go to his room, if he was still allowed in the palace, that was, after his brutish behavior.
    Connie hugged him again.
    “Don't be silly. On both counts. Yes you're still welcome here, and of course you can't go back to your room. You have to rejoin the party and show them all that you have control over yourself. To do less would be a sign of weakness. Mental weakness, a lack of character. That coupled with your accomplishments to date would terrify, at least those smart enough to realize what it could mean. So, take a deep breath, smile and go back in…” Her look was stern, as if the matter didn't brook argument. He swallowed and took that breath, still shaking. Then holding his head high, which he figured was implied in her little speech, he plastered a smile on his face and walked in to the room.
    No one looked at him directly when he came in, but a hush crossed the room. Winchester, the man he'd fought with, if hitting a person from behind and then letting them beat you counted as a fight, walked across the room towards him, which made several others move at the same time, closing on the point where they'd meet near the door, since the Duke walked fast and Tor hobbled slowly. The metal splint slowing him down a lot, not just his short legs.
    Count Thomson got there at about the same time they met, as well as an older, very distinguished giant of a man that must have had six inches in height on the King even and nearly that much extra across the shoulders. They clearly expected trouble, but instead the Duke went to one knee and bowed his head rather humbly.
    “Forgive me.” He said simply as if Tor was someone to ask forgiveness of.
    Tor bowed back, not going as low, because of the splint.
    “Sure. It wasn't a personal thing, no reason for us not to be friends, right? Things like this can happen, and there are no debts between friends after all. So nothing to worry about there, right? But…” Looking around he couldn't see the woman, Lady Priscilla was it? At all. She might have been hiding or taken away to safety. “Really, it's not my forgiveness that should mean anything to you right now, and that isn't an issue at all. If you haven't taken care of the other matter already at least I mean?”
    The man stood and bowed low, his eyes still downcast.
    “I'll see to that directly.” He said it as if it were an order instead of a friendly suggestion from some guy he probably had every reason to hate at the moment. Then the man stood straight and held his own head high again, and turned away, presumably to go and see to the other apologies he needed to make.
    The larger man looked satisfied for some reason and took a half step back, so that he wasn't looming over Tor by as much. He still loomed, but probably couldn't help it, not and still be in conversational range at all. The man put his hand out, a thing so big that Tor felt like a five year old trying to shake his hand. It made him smile. Dwarfing him or not, the huge man was trying to meet his countrified ways to set him at ease. Everyone else just bowed here as a rule, so this man was going out of his way to be kind and polite.
    “Count Ford. I wanted to come and thank you personally for all your help. That river you created… No one has ever even heard of the like, not even in the time of legend. And I spoke to the Queen earlier, she said that you already have plans for a relief effort to make up part of the lost crops in my county? And that you're doing it at the expense of yet further work on your part without expectation of reward? I… I'm humbled and touched. Thank you sir. If you ever need anything that I or my people can provide, anything at all, please let me know and it will happen.”
    Tor thanked him and tried to not blush under the praise, making sure he didn't duck his head bashfully.
    “But really, all this praise should be going to the King, since he was the one that made it happen. I'm just glad I was around to help.” This got a nod from the Count who moved off to thank the King personally he said, his voice cheerful enough about it.
    He lasted for another few hours, making sure he didn't leave until the Queen told him it was alright to. Tor still couldn't really think, so he trusted in her to get him where he needed to go and kept trying to smile and be polite when people talked to him. Trice hovered close behind him, softly touching his shoulder every few minutes to get him to turn and talk to some new person or other. They passed in front of him in a way that he knew meant that he'd never remember all of them later. Finally when Connie gave him a wink and told him he'd done well, Trice walked him back to his room and left him at the door with a sad little kiss on the cheek.
    He smiled. Yeah, sure, he'd probably looked like a moron, but at least he wasn't being executed for some reason. Being daring he suddenly hugged her and kissed her back. Just on the cheek, but it made her smiled.
    “I haven't forgotten what I said earlier…” She told him. Then she turned and left before he could get that clarified.
    Did she mean the teasing about getting married or that she'd promised to tell him why she was so sad and distracted? Both maybe. It was a stupid idea, him even asking to marry her for real, but it was more fun, if he was just going to be pretending for now. Tor decided to go with that one just for the moment. Chuckling a little to himself he realized that she'd be Trice Baker. Back home it would come out as “S'treeze Baky” which would actually make her sound almost like one of his sisters. He'd have to start calling her Patricia, he decided. At least at home. Then maybe not. It would come out “Pas'treeze Baky” Pastries Baker. It was a cute name, but might confuse people as to her profession.
    When he got back to his room he had to have Burks help him undress, that or risk damaging the clothing just to get it off and then fell into bed wearing nothing but a few amulets and some underclothes. Tor couldn't have stayed awake if his life depended on it. No dreams came, just sleep. Thankfully.
    The next day Tor felt like someone had drugged him, his head full, stuffed to the brim, apparently with hard packed, throbbing wool, and he could hardly move at all, sore like he used to be after exercising before he got in any kind of shape. He made himself get up and move, if painfully. Bathed, with help from Burks, shaved and changed into a new pair of loose silk clothing. He stumbled out to the little dining room he'd been told breakfast was waiting in. Burks had a little smile on his face when he said the words, but then again the man was always pleasant.
    There he found several people sipping at cups of tea or something like it, apparently waiting for their own breakfasts. There were enough people that he felt like pulling back and leaving, but the Queen looked up and waved him over. No getting out of whatever this was now.
    His head didn't feel up to it. It really didn't matter what it was. He just didn't think he could manage right now. Tor had to suppress a groan as he walked in, but forced himself to try and smile. A weak and pasty thing at best, but what did they expect? Probably that he wouldn't act like a little wimp or something. Right. Totally unrealistic of them for sure.
    It was a group made up of Connie, Karina, Varley, Mercy and an older woman that he didn't recognize at all. She looked efficient, gray haired and nice, flowing clothing that didn't look dressy, but businesslike instead. The Queen spoke first, speaking softly as if trying to not scare him. It was clearly an ambush, he could see that now, a place had been set for him already. So that's where the trap was? Or was it the bait? He also knew that under no normal circumstance he could think of would a group like this want him for anything. So it must not be something normal.
    “Good morning Torrence, did you sleep well?” The Queen's bright voice hurt his head, like he'd been drinking or something stupid like that, which he hadn't. It hardly seemed fair. At least people that let themselves drink too much earned their headache. Tor's had just decided to come hang out because he'd been too stupid to get his shield on at the right time. Then again, in a strange way, maybe this was his just punishment for failing to do so?
    Yeah, that sounded about right. Forget to do what's needed and you pay. Lesson learned, Tor promised his aching head. It throbbed back that it didn't believe him.
    He tried not to sound surly, but wanted this to end as fast as possible so he could go back to bed, or at least hide in his room with the curtain drawn for a while. Possibly open his head with a drill to let the demons out? It might not work, but the idea surely sounded attractive in the moment. As it was the pressure in his head made him want to be sick, at least a little.
    “So, do you want me to build something for you? Make some kind of novel device? I can't think of what this would be about otherwise.” Nope, Tor realized he sounded petulant and like a spoiled little kid. He apologized and held his head for a second, then tried again.
    “I meant to say, what can I do for you?” He tried for bright, it came out sad, but not for lack of effort.
    Varley laughed and gave him her cup, which had a thick brown beverage in it, not tea at all. She told him to drink it for the reaction to the battle rage. Tor still didn't know if it had really been that, commoners like him didn't have that, after all, someone with enough royal blood might, he guessed, but not someone like him. Maybe the treatment for this, whatever it was, would be the same? Better everyone think he'd done it, that battle rage thing, if that got him out of being killed for what happened, though the King's livery thing seemed real enough, so maybe it didn't matter at all? He sipped at the bitter liquid and she suggested he just tough it out and slug down the whole thing fast. He took it in about five large gulps and suppressed a shudder at the end, because everyone watched him so closely. It was bitter and the flavor lingered on his tongue for a long time, unpleasant and medicinal. Varley grinned and took the cup back.
    They were there because of the older woman that sat next to the Queen, who turned out to be a representative from someone seeking his hand in marriage. At first he thought it must be a joke, so he started to chuckle a little, waiting for the women to bust up laughing. Everyone went serious, because, apparently, the woman wasn't allowed to discuss the issue without him present. That made the whole thing sound a lot more real somehow. Tiredly he looked at the older woman and waited. If it was just a joke it was pretty elaborate, but then these were royals, so it still could be a lark.
    Tor took a few seconds to observe the woman, who was clearly watching him back just as hard. Her face didn't tell him much, yes, she looked older than anyone else in the room, and not as big as a standard royal woman of her age, but what did that mean? She was a lot bigger than the women in his village. Her clothing was quality and she had a few extra pounds on her, possibly at least, it was hard to tell given the clothing she wore. That spoke of money and long term wealth, even being able to give the impression of a bit of extra weight.
    Who'd be asking him to marry? Tor tried to put his mind on the task, but nothing really came of it. Who did he know that would ask for him at all?
    No one that could afford a go between like this, that was for sure. Unless… well, no, he couldn't think of anyone. Varley saw his confusion and got him another cup of bitter sludge, which he drank just as quickly as before. It was room temperature, so not too hot as far as gulping went. Finally the woman started asking him questions.
    “First, and this is mainly a formality, but I need to know if you, personally, are open to the idea of marriage? This would simply be a waste of everyone's time if you aren't.” The words were blunt, but the tone was polite enough. Professional sounding.
    Tor thought about it, was he? He'd always figured that he'd get married if he could someday, and while he wanted to get through school so he could properly support a family that wasn't totally impossible if he was married now or in a few years. After about ten seconds he nodded.
    “Yes.” He didn't bother elaborating. Didn't everyone want to get married at some point? To have a partner that would stand by them and help them face the world? A mother for his children? Going into his reasons seemed boring and ridiculous. Why state the obvious?
    The woman smiled.
    “Very good. Now, the woman in question asked me to assure you that if you should choose to disregard her proposal, she'll understand and not take it amiss. As to her station, well, she understands that your current situation is slightly below her own socially, but wishes to also express that she understands that your own natural position may simply have been misunderstood to date. Perhaps even transcending her own.”
    Was this supposed to be building the woman up, flattering him, or just inundating him with words so that he didn't realize that he'd said yes when he heard a name? Who did he know that it could be? Did he know her at all? The idea, while a little odd was possible. This could be someone that he didn't know. After all, if he did know them, why would they be interested in him?
    Connie cleared her throat and gave the woman a glance that argued for her speeding things up a little. No patience for mysteries either? Again Tor wondered what he would have done if Connie had been about seventeen years younger, not royal and unmarried… Probably freeze and blink at her a lot, get tongue tied and make darn sure she didn't have reason to reject him.
    That sounded about right to him. At least in the current situation he could smile at her and raise his eyebrows in agreement. The woman pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to him. The paper was thick and high quality, almost card stock in a rich cream color. The writing on it was lovely, obviously professionally done.
    “Meredith Anne Sorvee? Um… I don't think I've had the pleasure of meeting her?” That would have to do as far as politeness was concerned. A Sorvee? The two of them he'd met to talk to were both… Well, one of them had tried to rip him off, and the other was a bully that he couldn't stand. Tor couldn't say that out loud, not in front of this woman who was, most likely, some kind of agent for them, even if her real job was just to propose a marriage, his reaction had to be… proper. He made himself smile and tried to make it touch his eyes warmly.
    “I'd love to know more about her and to discuss this with my advisors here. I understand that my low social standing might be a difficult factor for her to overcome and… I don't want to drag her down. I…” He was trying to be self-effacing, but the Queen and her sister both suddenly started talking him up as if he were the next Count of Wonderfulness. Kind of them, but it didn't help his escape plan at all.
    He started to flounder a little, his heart beating faster in his chest. He didn't want to be connected to Sorvee. Just the fact that Dorgal was one of them tainted the whole group in his mind. That probably wasn't really fair, of course. For all he knew this girl, who turned out to be a widow and nearly thirty, according to the go between, was the sweetest woman in the world and everything he could ask for.
    Except she wasn't, because she had that one glaring black splotch in her family tree. Maybe. Dorgal. Ugh. That simply couldn't be accepted.
    Tor looked around for help, but Connie and Mercy seemed to think that this would be a wonderful idea. Scrambling, his mind fought to come up with something. Anything.
    The only thing that came was a vast, long distance, destructive combat lance. Not a bad idea as far as a project went, in case of sudden war or if he ever went insane and wanted to destroy big chunks of the world, but not anything that would help him right now.
    Scrambling he decided to try something desperate, hoping that the Queen and Mercy would at least get the idea that he was buying time and not just shut him down immediately.
    “Um, the only problem here is that… last night at the party I was, um, asked to marry someone else, so that plan is already in the works…. It's a complicated thing, and may not work at all, but it predates this and well, I do love her…” She'd said for him to say that and really, it was even true as far as it went, he loved her as a friend and really, marriage wasn't normally about love anyway, but the business of having a family. The situation was impossible of course, in reality, and she was too tall for him, but for now… Maybe it could act as a shield, at least until his head cleared? A Trice-shield?
    Now all he had to do was find her and tie her to his arm.
    Everyone looked at him with interest, even the go between, who didn't look put out. Then again he hadn't said no, and indicated that this other situation was complicated. That meant a high likelihood of failure in theory, which was even literally true.
    “Now, I don't want anyone to feel insulted, my station just isn't very high, so… well, we've been going slowly, but it wouldn't be fair to hide this any longer, even though not everything is in place yet.” He glanced at Connie, hoping she'd protect him from Mercy for what he was about to say. Maybe he could enlist Varley too? The girl was kind to him, and wicked smart. Now if he could have gotten her to marry him… The idea almost made him lose it and start laughing. Easier to get her married to a pig. Well, a royal pig at least. There would have to be that closure of separation in rank after all. Three steps. So a Duke pig at least? Oink.
    Connie didn't push him, but she was clearly interested in what he had to say.
    “Well… the presents for the Morgans were supposed to just be the start of a campaign to soften them up to our cause and I have to try and do something to earn a title from the King, but, um, Trice, Patricia Alyson Morgan, she asked me to marry. Herself. She said all the words and everything.” He wanted to duck his head, or activate his shield, which he got ready to do anyway in case Mercy went into a combat rage and started to try and take his head off. Who could blame her?
    Instead she merely nodded.
    “She did mention something about this the other day. It's… well, it's a bit of a long shot, gaining a title like that, but… well, as a Ducherina third, she isn't in line to inherit much, but brings some small properties with her. I was waiting to discuss it with the King himself, honestly. What do you think Connie, should we pursue this? Should we let them pursue it?” Her voice didn't have the normal playful lilt he would have expected from her. Still, she was backing his bid to buy time, so he smiled at her worriedly and did the same with the Queen.
    Karina sighed.
    “Darn. I knew I should have asked you last week myself! Even if mother said I had to honor the engagement I have…”
    Next to him Varley patted his arm and grinned. “It's Tor. Of course he can swing a title. He's already helping to save a county and did that heroic well thing saving those kids, that should at least get him knighted, if he keeps it up anyway. Three heroic acts, that's the rule, isn't it? That's two already and some of what gets counted as heroic… Really, between the magic river, saving those kids and Galasia…” The Princess suddenly looked very thoughtful, eyes going a little wide for a few seconds. Then she obviously recovered herself and grinned.
    “Well, I think he should have to earn it. Fight a monster or maybe sail around the world in a boat he made with his own hands. Or make some kind of new device to prove he's serious about my cousin, since that seems to be his thing, building stuff. It has to be new though, none of this recycling something you already made Tor. If we let that happen everyone will be trying to do it, and that would get tiresome.” Now her voice held a teasing lilt. She nudged his arm gently and got him another cup of that beverage.
    He almost laughed at the idea of him fighting a monster, but the Queen just agreed that it seemed rather possible, all things considered. The King could shut it all down instantly of course, she warned. But until that happened, since Trice had asked first, she needed to be given a chance to give it a go. Tor sighed in relief.
    Somewhere in there they'd all figured out what he was trying to do and decided to work with him? Thank god. The go-between outlined her plan, an attempt to explain how interested he was, while also showing that he had prior interests that had to be examined first. It would, she assured, be handled delicately and it was, after all, not a “no” just a request to see where love might take him. Even merchants had room in their hearts for a romantic story.
    After the woman left he almost melted out of his chair, the soft red cushion on the seat holding him in just enough. That had been too close. What would he have said if he hadn't come up with that bit about Trice? The audacity of the claim, even just as a ruse to throw off Sorvee was incredible. Now they just had to make it look good in public. He could only hope that Trice wouldn't be so insulted that she killed him.
    Mercy, not even seeming angry with him about saying those things involving her daughter, left at the same time that the go between did. Trice's mom seemed amused by him at least and didn't even wait to scream at him or anything. Good enough.
    Connie sent him off to his room to work on something, anything he wanted, but asked him not to leave the palace for a bit. Tor didn't have anywhere to go anyway, and no money to spend in town even if he went, so told her that he'd be running up some new specs for flying devices, there were some things that needed to be fixed on the original design anyway.
    For instance, if he could figure out how to let people breathe at best speed, they could go a lot faster without too much trouble. The field itself just had to allow for greater organization along the path of movement to increase that without stress on the field. That should keep it from heating the amulet uncomfortably. Having enough air to breathe easily was really the big limiting factor right now. He also needed a left hand control unit. They were all minor things, but it could make a big difference in flight, especially against the Austrans, who had machines that could fly so fast they roared like thunder as they traveled. Tor had never seen one, but Kolb had told him about them.
    It sounded scary.
    Using the field on his current flight gear as a guide, he was able to make up the new template inside a day. He hadn't meant to take that long, but the idea caught his interest and he figured out that he didn't have to do all the work over again, just make one simple change, the controls being on the left, and add a field that would catch air as it passed and funnel it to the mouth and nose, while allowing the air to be constantly refreshed. That way the exhalations of the person flying wouldn't foul the air around them too much to breathe after a couple of minutes. Add a slightly stronger basic field and boom, faster flying. Fix the turning controls so they weren't as sensitive… Then, just because he didn't want to risk Sorvee rage yet, he made up a hundred copies of the new field.
    No one could fault him for dodging the problem if he was actively working could they?
    Of course they could, but he doubted that merchants would. Product meant money in their minds, they probably put that poor woman, Meredith, up to it just in order to steal his working contracts with Debri house anyway.
    Really, it was a good plan.
    Dorgal had probably told them how Tor couldn't get a girl on his own, and that he'd probably be willing to take anyone offered without thinking about it. Then, after he did, well, of course he'd have backed his new family first. That was just normal and polite. Luckily for him Meredith didn't have a different last name. If not for the connection to Dorgal he probably would have just said yes. Just having someone make the offer was flattering enough that he would have taken it, most likely.
    Then Tor turned around and spent half a week designing the cargo floats, and making a hundred copies of those as well. After that… Well, he had some drying units to make and nearly five days left before he and Rolph could escape back to school. To safety.
    Rolph, naturally, had been spending almost all his time with Sara, and who could blame him? The girl was great after all and did things with Rolph that Tor didn't even know about exactly, except what he'd seen animals doing out in the fields. It surprised him a little bit when his big friend popped in at lunch the day he finished everything he could figure out to do for the time being and sat down, with a huge grin on his face.
    “So, have you finished saving the kingdom by yourself for now? A few people want to see you, you know. Prime among them your new potential in-laws. I told them I'd have you there tomorrow night at nine for dinner. Don't worry, it's just a planning and strategy session. No Tor torture on the menu at all. At least not the one they showed me.”
    Tor grinned and asked Rolph if he'd ferry the dryer template for him, getting it from Debri house, since the Queen still wouldn't let him go out of the palace, due to his ankle. Or possibly to prevent kidnapping… she hadn't said why actually, now that he thought about it, just asked him to stay there.
    His friend had it back to him before dinner. By the next night he had another fifty cargo haulers and a hundred dryer plates ready. It had taken all night, but he managed to get a nap early in the morning, until nearly noon. Lazy of him, but hey, it was a vacation, he could afford one or two days like that, right? Sleeping late felt weird though and he decided not to make a habit of it. It just seemed wrong and put everything a little out of balance.
    Rolph came to get him at seven for the carriage ride to the Morgans, since they'd be going the slow way. Why that was he didn't know and Rolph wouldn't tell him. They chatted about stuff, the new fields he'd been making and how Rolph wanted one of the newest flying rigs if he could get it. Tor had gotten Burks and another man to help him load all the fields going with them that night in a single heavy chest. It was a sturdy, but beautiful thing, dark stained wood with carnations and owls carved on the top. Carnations had all those little petals, so someone had done a lot of work to make them look so real, he could tell, even if he wasn't really savvy about art most of the time.
    He knew effort when he saw it.
    Tor had fifty cargo hauling fields, each device the size of his palm, that many food dryers and an equal number of the new flight devices, which were smaller in physical size and tidier in appearance than the old ones he'd made. The hand controls had nice leather thongs that looped around the wrist and two fingers for stability too. It just looked sharper, less like a little kid just tied something on with string while playing make-believe. Burks had arranged for those, not even blinking oddly when Tor had asked, even though it wasn't his job at all.
    Thankfully for him, Rolph was a royal, which meant giant. That meant Tor didn't have to try and carry the chest himself or even take one of the handles, his friend doing all the heavy lifting. Otherwise it would have taken half the night, with him limping out of the carriage like he was, dragging the chest behind him on the ground. The box wasn't that big, two foot long, half that wide and about that tall. It weighed in at about a hundred pounds, a lot for Tor right now, not so much for his friend.
    At the door a man he didn't know escorted them in to the “sitting room” which seemed a place to keep guests out of the way until dinner. It had a green and cream flower patterned padded bench to sit on, which was pretty soft, but lost his attention when he heard a noise to his right and turned halfway around to see who, or what, it was.
    A purple flash came towards him, moving fast and hard, which made him jump slightly in fear. The face on top of the blur looked like Trice, but strange, like she'd been crying. Bizarre for her really, she wasn't one of those weepy girls as far as he knew. Sara was a bit, but not the curly haired girl. Not that he'd noticed.
    Her parents had probably been teasing her about him. Sigh. Normally fine, except that she might take his head off now for it. He felt himself lifted off his feet and flung back on a padded bench with a back, which slid a little when he hit it, Trice ending up on top of him. He got ready for the beating, figuring that he kind of deserved it, after dragging her into his problems without permission, so he was shocked when she started kissing him instead.
    He heard Rolph chuckling behind her.
    The kisses weren't hard quick things like he expected them to be, but soft, warm movements that caused her to almost meld with him somehow. His lips still tingled when she rose up off of him laughing and crying at the same time.
    “They just told me! I love you… You are so wonderful! Thank you. I… this… Thank you! You can't know how much better this is…”
    She kissed him again and kept at it until her father cleared his throat in the background. “Ahem. Hey, I said Ahem!” The man smiled at them when Trice finally broke off her assault on Tor's face.
    “Dinner's about to begin, if you'll all join us?”

Chapter eleven

    Rolph took the chest in with him to the dining room, where it caught attention from Trice's mother, who stood waiting for them to enter with a polite smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. She gestured, a closed hand very regal thing, towards a side table that sat empty, apparently just for receiving gifts. The idea made sense to Tor, now that he saw how these people really lived. To not bring a gift would seem out of place, at least half the time. People wanted to impress royalty and a Duke and Baroness, while not at the lofty heights of a King or Queen, certainly got their share of attention.
    The look she gave the chest was curious, but it seemed clear that she wouldn't ask what was in it. Tor was still reeling from the way Trice had greeted him. No one had ever kissed him like that before. Once, about four years before, when he was thirteen, a neighbor girl had kissed him on the lips as a dare from his older brother. That had been hard and quick, reluctant to say the least on the girl's part, and left him feeling ashamed for having let her do it at all. This had been a lot different. Better. He could see now why people bothered at least, even if he didn't think he could manage the same thing Trice had done without drooling all over someone yet. Maybe he could get a book on the subject or something? He wondered if such things even existed.
    Why she'd done it… That was still a mystery. Then again, she'd asked him to say those things the other day, about them getting married, so maybe this was part of an act to make the whole thing look good for her parents? That still didn't tell him why. Oh well. As long as she wasn't kicking his behind over it, he'd be happy. She could always call it off later if she wanted, right?
    Tor wouldn't.
    Maybe she'd just forget it was part of some plan she had if he pretended it was real long enough? Suppressing a sigh he knew that wouldn't work and decided to just play along. At least this way he wasn't having to marry a Sorvee yet. Absurdly Tor couldn't help but picture Dorgal in a dress with long greasy hair, being unveiled at the wedding. God, he really hoped that whoever she was, poor Meredith Sorvee didn't have that to deal with. Bad enough to just be related to Dorgal.
    Not wanting to have the Baroness think the package was anything special, he let her in on what it contained.
    “Um, that, it's just the cargo carriers I promised, enough for fifty wagons or large boxes about that size, actually I tried for a field that can lift about five times what a wagon can hold, but I don't know if anything that large even exists for goods or shipping. Fifty food dryers too. Oh, I also added in fifty flying rigs. I don't have people for any of this yet though, but it's a start at least. Oh!” He could have hit himself in the head with a brick and probably should… He hadn't added shields to the box of flying rigs. He covered his eyes with his hands and apologized.
    “I'll have them in a day or two… I amped up the flying gear and then forgot to give you any shields in case of accident? Duh! I'll fix that right away. Can I send those over or… Bring them? When they're done?”
    Something warm slid in beside him for a second, until the temperature equalized, leaving a feeling of soft bare skin on his wrist where his sleeve pushed up a little. Trice chuckled and cuddled his arm to her side. Eric, Duke Morgan, stood with his mouth hanging open a little, being well trained he recovered after a second and stared at the chest as it sat on the dark wooden table.
    “So, you're loaning us flying rigs to go with the other things? And are going to lend shields too? That's… Exceedingly generous!” The man smiled and walked over to Tor, a large hand reaching down to lightly clap him on the back.
    Tor smiled but shook his head. “Oh no, those are all yours. You can use them as you see fit after the harvest is in. I… I think that large scale transport of goods is a decent business to get into, at least until other people get up to speed with everything. This should give you about the largest transport, em, fleet? In the Noram kingdom for a while, at for least air transport. I can get you more of whatever you need, except, well, not people. They have to be trained and all too. But I mean, if that's a bad idea, you can do what you want with these things. Loan them out or keep them for next year, whatever.”
    The Duke's smile went funny looking and the Baroness looked odd too. The man finally nodded, if a little stiffly. Tor hoped he hadn't pissed the guy off. After all, he needed them to help keep himself out of the clutches of Sorvee house. Sure he could just tell Meredith no, but then, he really couldn't, could he? Hurting her feelings would be worse than poor form, now that he understood a tiny bit about the concept. He'd marry her first, bad relatives or not. For now the Morgans and their support was about all he had to keep from some major misstep here.
    Tor wasn't trying to tell them what to do though, just suggesting a course of action that might work. The tension level had gone up about fifty times. Why couldn't he just learn to keep his mouth shut?
    On his arm Trice had stiffened too, but instead of strangling his arm or hitting him, he suddenly felt her lips on his cheek. Then she straightened and nodded to her parents, a slightly smug look on her face. She didn't say anything at all. After about fifteen seconds everyone started to laugh, except for Tor, were they laughing at him now? Well, that probably made sense. He'd come in and given them some stuff he'd made and told them how to run their lives like a barn cat giving them a dead bird and suggesting the best ways to eat it. Of course it was funny. That or insulting. Way better that they laugh at him, or maybe with him? Could they think he was joking with them too? He didn't see how.
    Oh well.
    Graciously, or possibly mercifully, everyone stopped laughing after a while and sat at the table, the fashion was “family style” so they all sat close to one another. They accidentally started to try and serve him wine, but Trice politely refused for him, placing her left hand firmly over the mouth of his glass.
    “It's a builder thing, they normally won't drink alcohol, so that they can always be ready and able to work themselves to death. Something like that.” She grinned. “Though that last part may only be Tor. Do we have any fruit juice?”
    With a nod and wide eyes Mercy asked one of the servants to see if that was possible. It came so quickly that the servers must have been listening from the other room. That was… either a sign of superior skill or a spying hazard, possibly both. Not that spying on any conversation with him in it would make some huge difference to the world for the most part. So far at least. He was young, Tor knew, and things could change, even if he couldn't tell how yet.
    The juice was a very nice, cool apple. Tor wondered out loud if it was from their own orchards up north. The Baroness nodded to his glass and told him that indeed, it was. It was good. Very good. He let them know that. Which made the Duke happy at least.
    “The secret's in the blend of apple breeds. We use six different types for our drinking juice, which gives it that smooth flavor. It's different for hard ciders, where it pays to use a blend of about three apples, and you want a higher sugar content for the fermentation process, but for drinking juice it works well. It also mixes well with peach and pear. We don't have as many pears because they don't keep or travel well, but they're superior to either of the others when dried. We'll try to make sure we get you some.” Eric spoke smoothly, the sound of a person speaking about a passion they knew so well they didn't have to stop to remember the details.
    The meal had fewer courses than any of the dinner parties at the palace, but then, it wasn't at the King's house, or even these people's main dwelling. It was still far more complicated and formal than anything he'd ever seen a month before. No one spoke of business again until after the last dish left the table, it was the Baroness that leaned forward and spoke first.
    “We… give our blessing. Even if you can't manage a title Torrence. If anyone in the world doubts your worth, then we don't need them as friends. By the way, just so you all know, this was all decided two days ago.” She looked over at the box on the table and then at her daughter with a wry grin. “I don't want you to think we're selling you to the highest bidder or something like that, dear.”
    The Duke leaned in then and winked at her.
    “Still, way more than either of us expected you to bring in, being a girl. I've never heard of anyone being given an entire industry as groom's gift before…. Normally it's just a horse.” His eyes lit up and so did his smile. “I think I can get people without a problem. Probably more than we'll ever need. People will line up just for the chance to fly. They'll have to be sworn men and women, of course, but we can spare them for this I think.”
    Rolph stood and held up a single piece of paper with a gold leaf seal on the bottom left. “Well, we hardly need this then, do we? Still, dad went to all the trouble to have it drawn up and signed it himself and everything, so I guess I should at least present it. It even has the signature of the requisite three Counts on it and get this, all of them volunteered to do it. We didn't even have to bribe any of them. So how rare is that? You'd think Tor was popular or something…” He looked around the paper comically at an angle and read off the names. “Count Thomson, of course. But then he'd agree to sign anything that might help make either of these two happy. Then, what's this say? Count Ford… Hmm. No mystery there, if he'd known that Tor was looking to get married he probably would have recommended one of his own granddaughters I think… Or possibly offered to marry Tor himself. Tor's cache is a lot higher in county Ford than you might think. This is the kicker. Count Lairdgren. That's a shock isn't it? Strange duck, but when mom sent a message to him he flew straight down. Literally flew, you wouldn't think of him as having a flying rig yet would you? But he's Tor's Count, he said, so he came to make this official. Dad practically knelt to him when he showed up. I mean he was ninety percent of the way down when the little guy caught him and held him up. You'd like him Tor, he probably only has about six inches on you, if that. I think you're getting a little taller still…”
    He pointed to the paper again, smiling so hard that tears came to his eyes.
    “Torrence Green Baker of Two Bends, county Lairdgren, please rise.” The voice sounded playful, but he made a little gesture with his left hand so Tor did it. If it was a joke, well, Rolph rarely made him the butt of his jokes. Teasing at times, but mostly not even that. Moving around the table, he stopped ten feet away from Tor and bowed slightly.
    “Kneel.” Tor did, hoping he wouldn't look too stupid or anything. He'd probably have to cluck like a chicken or something. Who knew what kind of royal party game this was?
    “Torrence Green Baker, your past life is no more. Arise Sir Torrence, made anew.” Rolph stepped towards him and laid his giant hand on Tor's head. For a joke it sure felt official suddenly. Smiling a little, he got up and looked around. The women looked horribly pleased and the Duke gave him a half bow.
    “Sir Torrence.” Eric murmured.
    Then everyone else greeted him the same way.
    Rolph however held out his right hand with the paper in it, as if for everyone to read.
    “Don't let it go to your head Tor. You're only a Knight Esquire, which means you can really marry Trice honestly and all that, and no one can gainsay you except the King and your parents, well, she can of course, but that's just common sense, if you really need to be told that, I'd have to take the Squirehood back. It doesn't come with lands, money or even real power. You get to clean a Knight's equipment and dress him for battle if it comes to that, and otherwise do what he says, clean the stables and get him wine or whatever. In your case probably make the equipment too, which should be a cost savings all around. I'd have gotten you assigned to me, but I'm pretty sure that if a war comes you'll just give me weapons and shields anyway, so might as well spread the love around, yeah?”
    Tor had to sit down, but grinned. Had they really just fixed it so he could marry Trice? But… why? It was a good ruse and all, but did they really want to stick her with him? Maybe she had some plan he didn't know about? Or… He didn't know. Was this really real? He pinched his arm a little, earning a funny look from the room, ducking his head he blushed. “Um, not dreaming?”
    The kiss that came was ardent to say the least, enough so that Eric started yelling after about ten seconds. “Hey!” He said, his voice holding laugher, “I really don't need to see this!” It got a laugh from everyone even Patricia.
    Now, all Tor had to do, Rolph told him, was introduce her to his parents and family and get their blessing. Tor didn't think that would be a problem, except that when Trice saw where he came from, heard them speak and saw their lives, she'd probably call the whole thing off. She shook her head and murmured in his ear. “Not even if I have to move there and learn to be a baker's wife in truth.”
    Yeah, he thought, fighting the grin that wanted to bubble up out of him, that would last right up until she learned her married name was going to be Pastries Baker.
    They spoke of plans, of weddings and how soon they should hold it and where. Tor was fine with anything really, as long as Patricia would be happy with it, since it was all just a game anyway. It didn't really matter, but Mercy smiled and wagged a finger at him. “No Tor, planning weddings is the purview of the mothers. Otherwise kids would all elope and steal the only fun we get anymore. I'll simply have to speak with your mother about it. Yes. Eric and I will go with you to your home village in… Two days? That gives us an over night there and more time if we need it to plan, while you kids get back to school. I'd like to hold the wedding here, in the Capital, but… Well, it also depends on what your mother says too. I don't want to make all the plans unilaterally.”
    Swallowing Tor said that sounded fine to him. It came out as a question and his voice cracked more than a little, but no one laughed. Smiled, yes, but no chuckling even.
    Thankfully no one bothered him for the next two days. On the one hand he wanted, desperately, to reassure himself that this was all real by spending every waking, and if he'd thought he could get away with it, sleeping, moment with Trice. On the other he desperately wanted to show the Morgans that this wasn't a horrible idea, real or not, so he spent most of the time building fields for them. He presented them with another fifty flying rigs, a hundred shields, all the latest model, and twenty temperature control plates for their homes. He would have come up with more, but he ran out of time. Torrence really just hoped that it was enough to keep their support in this whole ruse with their daughter.
    Probably not in the long run, he knew, but for long enough to get Meredith Sorvee to forget about him? Even if he had to marry her eventually, at least he could maybe get a little further in school, right? Far enough along that Dorgal could graduate and forget about how much he hated Tor maybe?
    The morning they were to leave, everyone came to the courtyard where the carriages waited to take them all out of town. It was a huge hassle, all these useless carriage rides. If they could have taken off from where they were, even just going straight up and then flying away, it would have saved hours and hours of time.
    No flying in the city was the rule, so what else could they do? They met at the palace so that the Queen and King wouldn't have to go anywhere just to say goodbye to them, meaning the Morgans had gotten up even earlier to make their way over in the relatively cool morning light.
    Burks and a dozen other men came out without being asked to help load everything on to the carriages, these rather nicer ones than what they'd hired to bring their stuff in originally. The wood was golden colored, but not painted, just lacquered and polished to gleaming, which Tor had learned meant quality for the most part.
    It wasn't so much that he figured it out as that Varley had explained it to him the night before over dinner. The girl might be young, but she was a font of information that he desperately needed, and what was perhaps more important, she'd figured out that he actually would be required to know things like that. So, flashy gold covered rooms weren't as tasteful as simple polished wood? He'd have never guessed that without help. Not in time. What was more, wood cost a lot less. So when he built a house for Trice and himself to live in he wouldn't have to purchase gold leaf in bulk to try and cover every available surface. Good to know. He could save that money to buy nails. Not that he was going to ever marry the girl, but if they kept up the whole charade long enough, he'd have to make it look good, like he really meant for her to stay with him.
    Well, even after she broke things off, it would leave him with a house, right? He had to live somewhere after school.
    They all said goodbye publicly, which was fine, even if a little awkward at the end when Connie broke away from her family to say goodbye to him personally at the door of the carriage. She hit him with a lingering kiss no less warm than the ones Trice had been giving him, which made him blush. Everyone else chuckled for some reason, except for his… Tor stopped breathing for a second as it hit him again. Except for his fiancee. She just laughed joyfully for a few seconds.
    “Hey!” She said suddenly. “Aunt Connie, stop trying to molest my future husband! At least until after the honeymoon, you'll wear all the new and shiny off of him…”
    Tor suffered a bit, blushing as Rolph laughed at him and pushed him away from his mother slightly. Looking for a distraction Tor remembered the package sitting on the seat of the carriage and called Burks over and handed it to him without ceremony. It was wrapped in plain canvas, so it wouldn't look like a big deal or anything Tor hoped. After all the guy seemed a lot less into all the trappings of power and stuff than a lot of the others in the Capital were. Not for himself at least.
    It was just a set of flying gear, a shield and temperature plates for his house or room. Tor didn't know where the man lived or even if he had a wife and kids. He wasn't old, but at about thirty easily old enough for all those things. Today he was dressed really nicely, in a deep green outfit that looked very proper. Was he switching over to working in the dining room of the guest house now that Tor was out of his hair? If so he must be in charge, the clothing was rich looking. The man didn't open the package standing there, but smiled, so hopefully it wouldn't be too lame as gifts went. Not that Burks had ever mentioned wanting any of that stuff, but what else did Tor have to give?
    The carriage ride was fun, if a little awkward, because Sara kept staring at him with a slightly sad smile. He rode with Trice, Rolph and Sara, the other carriage holding Count Thomson and the Morgans. Behind them three more vehicles, all nice looking wagons, followed with the trunks and gear they had.
    The Count and Trice's parents wore nice clothing, silk shirts and leather trousers, which was becoming popular for flying clothing among the very few rich people that could afford to get their own flying stuff already. Most of that came, he was told, not from Debri house, which was selling almost exclusively to the military on those items, but from the black market. People actually stealing things from Debri house, or worse, the military, to sell at incredibly inflated prices. The clothes looked nice however, the new flying “uniform”.
    Tor wore his student browns and so, to everyone's amusement, did Rolph. The girls wore blacks that looked newer and softer than the heavy brown clothing did. It didn't just look softer Tor noticed, feeling the fabric as Patricia leaned against him. The material had an almost buttery feel to it, however that worked. It kind of made Tor want to run his hands all over her, which, of course, wouldn't be right. It would have been too much if they were really getting married, if he pushed it now, in this fake thing, she'd probably stop being his friend altogether. Who could blame her?
    Finally having his friends all together, and no one else listening, Tor felt safe enough to ask some questions that had been bothering him for a while, but that he hadn't wanted to bring up in the palace since he was pretty sure that everything there was listened to by someone. Probably just servants, but showing them all how stupid and ignorant he really was wouldn't help anything. But, if he was really going to be around people like Trice and Rolph for a long time, he needed to have some kind of handle on things, right? Taking a deep breath he jumped in, hitting what he hoped would be obvious stuff first.
    Trice didn't laugh at him, to his relief even Rolph didn't, which baffled him for a few seconds, because his large friend, never showing maliciousness in it, often at least chuckled when Tor let his lack of knowledge about royalty show. This time Rolph just sat quietly and waited for Trice to explain.
    “OK. That's actually a good question.” She said looking at him warmly. “The reason my mom is a Baroness and not a Duchess is because she's a Baroness in her own right. Meaning she holds the title herself, so it trumps a higher one by marriage. If she didn't have a real title of her own, say if Aunt Connie had been born first, instead of two years later, then she'd be the Baroness and mom would use the Duchess title, but it wouldn't count as much, because it's only by marriage. So, if, gods forbid, dad were to die, she wouldn't reign in the duchy, my older brother Mark would.” Leaning in to him she wiggled a little, probably on purpose, so that more of them ended up touching.
    If nothing else, Trice could sell an act pretty well. It was almost like she'd practiced it or something. Then again, she was a special school student, maybe that's what they had in place of morning meditations?
    “So mom will always be Baroness, no matter what. Even if dad won a greater title somehow, but that's so rare that no one ever counts on it. Your getting that Squire's position as a full Knight Esquire is… huge. Really I didn't think it would happen. Most knights are already titled, and it's kind of a side step promotion for them. I know that Rolph said… but still… Yeah, anyway, even if mom had married Uncle Richard like originally planned, she'd still be Baroness Thorgood too. That doesn't change with marriage.”
    Tor didn't know how to ask what had happened that caused the change of who married who. They all seemed friends now, Connie, Mercy and Richard, so maybe it was best left unasked? He didn't want to stir things up if they were resting quietly or anything, even with their kids. That kind of thing could cause feuds, and even wars, he guessed, if royalty was involved.
    So he was surprised when Trice said she just didn't know the story without his asking. Rolph sat up a little straighter and leaned forward as if getting ready to tell a big secret.
    “Alright, I wasn't forbidden from telling this story, it isn't a secret or anything, but there are some things… probably best kept quiet in general. Dad thought I needed to know, so he told me this the other day, the whole story intertwines with many others of course, like all good tales do.” The carriage shook, going over cobble stones, meaning they were nearing the outer wall, the gate drawing near.
    “When dad was a kid, he and his brother were sent off for special tutoring with Count Lairdgren, where our school is now actually. I mentioned the other day how dad virtually knelt before the man when they met? Unusual to say the least, because the guy's only a Count right? But it turns out he's not just a Count… He's an ancient.”
    Patricia gasped and stiffened under Tor's hand.
    “Seriously? They're real?” She looked baffled, searching Rolph's face for a hint that he was joking.
    “I know! That's what I said too and I'm sure that the look I gave him was at least as disbelieving. I mean, ancients? That's a tale for children right? But no, Lairdgren is one, the Green man, which is why his coming to sign mere Squire papers for Tor is big. Huge really. Like if dad went to Two Bends to witness a random wedding or something. I mean, we all know that Tor's a big deal, but…” This last was for Tor, at least if the significant look Rolph was giving him was any indication.
    “Back then they had their own little school. Dad, mom, Uncle Kedrin, Aunt Mercy, Uncle Eric, some guy named Glost Serge, who's now some high muckity in Austra of all things and Lairdgren's daughter. Apparently at one time or another they all fell in love with each pairing in some kind of comedy of errors, and dad and mom just ended up being together when time came to marry. Grandfather was going to enforce the original marriage plans, but Lairdgren wouldn't let him. Apparently said that trying to force things never worked out well or something so Granddad relented, because who would argue with an ancient? Not much of a tale, except the whole ancient thing…”
    Tor looked at Sara, who shrugged at him. He got the whole marriage thing now, the two kids had fallen in love and arranged marriage or not, they went ahead with the love match. He'd heard of that at least, it was in some of the stories his sisters liked to hear at bedtime for instance. Really, wasn't it what he and Trice were pretending at right now? But ancients? Like old people or something? Tor nearly asked, but Sara did instead, clearly just as perplexed as he was.
    Trice answered. “Right, I didn't know that you wouldn't have them in your kid's stories too, but basically the ancients are people from the time of great change, thousands of years ago. Supposedly, or so the story goes, there were six to nine people, the number varies, that were there as the world started to fall apart. Some old society had nearly destroyed the world or something. Normal stuff… they made bad choices, got greedy and used things up instead of controlling themselves. Really I always figured those as instructional stories, you know, don't set your own house on fire if you're locked inside, waste not want not, prudence before greed, that kind of thing?
    “Anyway, these people all set out and started their own societies, based on different principles and technologies. Noram based on magic, Afrak on the manipulation of family lines, Austra on the old machines and science, Soam on harmony and love. But supposedly, for some reason the original six or so people are still alive. Some lost trick or something. We call them the ancients. Each has a color associated with them, White, Gray, Black, Brown, Red and Green.”
    That, apparently, was the heart of it. Tor almost laughed. Obviously these were just children's tales and the King was simply having one on with his son. Still, if the King wanted them to believe that the Count of Tor's county was some ancient fellow from a kiddie book, then who was he to gainsay the man? It didn't matter one way or the other, so he could go along with it. Why not? It was certainly more entertaining than the world just being what he'd always been told it was.
    Once they finally got up in the air, hours later, Tor found that the new flying rigs, which he hadn't gotten to test himself before, were more sensitive in the controls, but flew wonderfully once he got used to it. What had taken them all nearly seven hours to cover before they managed in less than four now. He had to pull into the front by a good ways and start slowing down waving his right hand to signal everyone to stop when he started recognizing landmarks on the ground.
    It was embarrassing, but he had to have them fly back about ten miles, because he'd overshot the tiny village without noticing it at all. It was in the forest, under a canopy of pine trees for the most part, except the outlying farms. They worked their way towards it much more slowly and landed in the center of the main street gently, dodging trees on the way down, luggage settling along the road, a beaten dirt path, but dry this time of year, since they all had to be spread out to keep from hitting each other.
    Count Thomson hadn't even landed all the way when Tom, the mayor of the village, ran out of his blacksmith shop and started greeting everyone.
    “Lairds! Swel'com ter Stewbens! Swel'com!” He gestured around the street at the few tiny buildings that lined it. “Ple'sure sars, 'an we halp you?”
    Everyone looked at Tor, baffled. Ah! They couldn't understand? He'd forgotten how thick the local accent could sound, almost like a foreign language unless you listened hard. It wasn't though, not really. Mainly at least. For one thing it was far more irregular than a language would have been, people making up their own variations of words on the fly. It was fast and changed from conversation to conversation. The root of the words were there though all the time, you just had to learn to listen for them.
    Tor smiled and translated for them.
    “He said; Lords, welcome to Two Bends, the pleasure of having you is ours. Can we help you?”
    Tom stared at him for a second, his eyes going huge.
    “Lil' Storence Baky? Wha'cher fly boutfer? Yer werk'en on fer great lairds now? Baky fer'm?”
    Torrence laughed and explained.
    “This is the village mayor, Tom, he wants to know why I'm flying about and if I'm working for you as a baker now.” He stepped closer to Tom, trying to figure out how to explain everything quickly in a way the man could understand.
    “Na'Tom, n'baky fer'm. Dis'be Laird Duke Morgan, h'wif an gel. Ehm… Goldy gel be high merchie kid an der redyboy's me frien an ower school. Gian'be Count Thomson. Dis'n here t'meet ma's fer to marry me!”
    Then he had to explain that he just introduced them all and told the man that they were here to see his mother. Everyone looked amazed as if speaking like this was special. If they wanted special they should realize how hard it was to speak like they did all the time. Enunciating every word carefully and hitting all the hard consonants took practice. Plus you always had to use each word exactly right to be understood.
    He managed to break off from Tom, the man obviously wanting to go and get the whole town out to meet the guests, which would be annoying at the moment, and walked the group over to the bakery to protect them from that fate. They resettled the trunks in front of the building, not that anyone would steal anything, he told them, but just so that if anyone came through with a horse or wagon they wouldn't be in the way. No need to make anyone else's day more stressful, right? Seeing the luggage, most of the people in Two Bends would just wait for the obviously important people to move it, without ever asking them to or anything pushy like that.
    Tor felt like he should have written ahead or something, even though there hadn't been time for it. He just hoped everyone would be alright with the sudden influx of strange people. His parents were great, but Two Bends got something like three visitors a year most of the time and as far as he knew none of them had ever been royals at all. Or flown in.
    Then again Tom hadn't seemed overly shocked by the flying, just a bit like he wondered why Tor was doing it, so possibly the village had at least heard of it. He walked to the un-porched front of the drab, unpainted bakery, the wood looking weathered and poor after the gleaming white walls of the Capital. He'd warned them all, but felt uneasy and embarrassed. Well, if they were going to pull out of the arrangement, this was the time to do it. He could almost bear it right now, if he was told he just wasn't good enough for a fine lady like Trice. After all, that was just the truth. If it had gone on longer, if they'd gotten even closer, then it would probably kill him to lose her.
    Tor wanted to kick himself as he thought that, because he knew, for a fact, that it would end sooner or later. He needed to grow up and adapt to the new world he was in and not let himself get too close to Trice. It was enough that she was his good friend, right? It was hard to remember with all the kissing, but that, really, was the important thing. If he could just keep that, it would all be worth it.
    He didn't even have his hand on the door when it burst open and three small projectiles hit him hard, taking him all the way to the ground in a heap of tiny bodies.
    “S'torence! S'torence!” The little voices squeaked at him as they climbed all over him for a few seconds, then the older two stopped, eyes going wide as they looked at the strangers. His sister Tara, who was only seven, hid behind him and pulled little Taman, the youngest, behind her protectively. His brother Terry looked at the newcomers with a tilt of the head.
    “S'whos des?”
    Tor explained who everyone was and asked if dad and mom were around. A few seconds later his father, wearing a buff colored heavy apron with more than a little flour on it walked out of the shop, clapping his son on the back heartily. He looked like a baker, but Tor just shrugged. If that wasn't impressive enough for his friends, then they shouldn't have come to a bakery, right?
    “Dad,” Tor used his home accent naturally with his father, who wouldn't have understood him if he hadn't, most likely. “These are my friends and, well, this…” He took Trice's hand and smiled. “This is Patricia Alyson Morgan. She's agreed to marry me, if you and mom say it's alright. They're really good people, even if a trifle over tall. These are her parents… Can I, do you think?”
    His father laughed and walked towards the Morgans, dwarfed by their great height but not overly intimidated for some reason. He held out his hand to Eric and shook with the man, patting his arm like they were old friends. Natural enough, he'd have done the same if Tor had come home with a girl from one village over and her parents. He also shook with Mercy who smiled at him and said hello.
    In his thick dialect he explained that Tor's mother would be out in a few moments, since she had some berry pies to watch in the oven. It wouldn't do to let them burn after all. He offered them all a drink, the local hard cider or water, since they hadn't been expecting any guests and that's what they had chilled in the spring house, well that and some fruit juice for the kids. But you didn't offer juice to adults, he mentioned to Tor with a sideways glance and a small smirk. His da always teased him a little about not drinking and had for years.
    Tor went with him to the small shack about a hundred yards from the back of the bakery, away from the house by twice that distance, where a natural spring burbled out of the ground.
    “Tor! So… well, I guess we'll get the story of how you managed to rope the poor girl into marrying some Two Bends kid later, what is she? Merchant from the city?”
    “No da, she's… actually she's what they call a “Ducherina”. That's the kid of a Duke or Duchess that won't inherit anything really. Her mom's a Baroness, but Trice won't get that title either. It's, really she shouldn't be marrying someone like me, but don't tell, alright? Obviously they know who I am and who we are, but I don't want to scare them off.” Tor grinned.
    His dad grunted a little and got the jugs that were being held in the water, metal containers that while plain were tight and didn't leak into the spring at all. Tor took the hard cider, really no stronger than the wine the nobles drank day to day, so it shouldn't bother them too much and walked back towards where everyone waited, his father smiling a little.
    “So, do you love the girl? Trees, you said her name was? Funny name, but it fits in here at least.”
    “Trice, like Treez, yeah. That's not her full name, like I said earlier, Patricia. But to answer your question, yes. I really do, I mean enough for marrying, we're friends. I kind of have for a while now, but… that she's willing to be seen with me in public was more than I thought I should ask for, you know? That she's willing to actually do this…” He couldn't get himself to tell his dad that it was all make believe. Tor still didn't even know why Trice was willing to go along with him about it.
    His dad patted him on the back.
    “Well, love can make people do strange things. I got your mother after all…”
    His father went inside to get some glasses, not wanting to try and crowd the giants into the tiny store front, they set up at the long outdoor table in the clearing behind the shop. It was just a bunch of split logs nailed with spikes to a sturdy frame. It had been there, with its two long benches made in a similar fashion, since before Tor had been born, he thought. It was big enough for the whole family, as long as they were cuddly about it.
    A minute later his dad came back holding several glasses, the good ones for company that Tor had never seen them actually use, followed by his tiny mother, who also carried several glasses. She rounded the corner and smiled.
    “S'torence ndeed! Goodn'see ya. Missing'yer we did.” She set the glasses down on the table and hugged him, tears forming in her eyes. Wiping them a bit, she looked at the people sitting around the table and stiffened, her face going blank.
    This, Tor knew, might be a problem.
    She'd always taught all of the kids to be at least a little wary around nobles of any kind and now here he was bringing in a bunch of them, claiming one might want to marry him. It could be a hard sell, if she panicked.
    She didn't.
    Instead she turned to her husband and asked him if he'd bring out some butter and bread rolls, the fresh ones, for their guests. He nodded and went to do it, looking at her oddly.
    Letting go of Torrence she took a deep breath and moved towards the table, her demeanor shifting, her face changing from what he'd grown up seeing, kind and a little care worn, to something that looked younger and a bit regal. She stood dressed in her brown homespun with a matron's kerchief on her head and a heavy apron over her light brown shirt that didn't even have buttons, just ties to hold it in place.
    It took a second, but the smile fell from Mercy's face first, replaced by a look of shock. Duke Morgan looked at Tor's mom strangely for a few seconds, then he stood.
    “Hello Eric. Mercy. How have you been?”
    Tor looked at his mother as if she'd grown a second head. He hadn't known that she knew how to speak anything other than the regional dialect, but her accent was… good. Better than his when he tried to speak standard.
    “Laurie!” The Baroness ran towards the smaller woman and swept her up into her arms, hugging her like a child.
    “God, Laurie, we all thought you were dead!”

Chapter twelve

    Rolph stood up and walked around the scene to get to where Tor stood and looked at him, baffled. “Not to make myself sound artificially brilliant or anything, but, whaaa…?”
    Sara and Trice looked just as confused as Tor shrugged at them. He didn't have a clue what this was about either. His mother was named Laurali, but he'd never heard that changed to Laurie before. For that matter, the fact that all these people where hugging and crying seemed more than a little off-putting.
    He'd expected to have to soothe his mother, or possibly argue that he wasn't too young to marry, or wouldn't be by the time the date was set, and assure her he planned to finish school, but this? Boom, blow to the side of the head. Didn't even see it coming at all. Had he missed something again that everyone was supposed to just know or figure out on their own?
    They let this go on for some while, even after Douglas came back with the rolls, butter and some of the honey reserve. He looked at the scene and shrugged. “Thought so. I wasn't sure, I didn't really know them back in the day, part of why the Count arranged for me to marry your mother, instead of one of them. The Austran wouldn't think to look for her here, after all.” This came out smoothly and with an accent that, if it didn't sound like what was spoken in the Capital, would have at least passed at the school as being normal. Possibly even cultured.
    “So, da, I was just wondering…” Tor let his voice go wry. No need to get all worked up until he at least knew the score here. Probably not even then. After all, acting like an angry jerk had never helped anyone that he had seen. Just look at Dorgal. His doing that had cost his relative a marriage already at least. “And I mean this with great respect and kindness, but… what the hell?”
    Tor pointed at the scene with all the hugging and now kissing, some of it a little too amorous to be just “I missed you a little”.
    His father looked at them all and then back to Tor, then he shrugged. “Watch your language. As to the rest, I'll let them explain, I think. Don't want to mess it up or anything. Here, have something to drink while we wait kids, this might take a while.”
    Douglas started pouring cider into glasses, but Tor opted for apple juice instead, getting another smirk from his father. He started teasing Tor a little about not drinking again, but Rolph smiled and shook his head.
    “Don't argue with what works, sir. He never has a headache in the morning from over indulging. I should probably follow his lead there more often myself. Just the one glass… Plus, some of the building stuff he's done lately, well, you should all be very proud of him I think. He invented the flying gear and made a magic river to save county Ford from a drought. He also saved the city of Galasia and some kids that fell down a well, which was pure heroism. That's how he broke his leg by the way. I don't want you to think we're beating him or something. Oh! He also got himself named a Squire. Don't tell him, but he was almost named a Knight for what he's done so far. They just didn't want him to get a swelled head or something I think. Technically he's what's called a “Knight Esquire” which means that if he can't manage to be named a full Knight by twenty-five, all the other Knights get to make fun of him.” He smiled and took a sip of cider. “Hey, this is good. Eric, you should really try some of this…”
    The Duke swung around, Tor's mom held in his arms now, she was laughing at least. The giant man made no move to put her down as they all walked over towards the table to see what Rolph was talking about. Finally the small woman started batting at him and telling him to set her down.
    He shook his head. “And have you disappear again? I think not.”
    The man did relent after a few more seconds though and took a glass of cider, about a quarter full, from Rolph. He sipped carefully and nodded after a bit. “It's good. Hickory barrels?”
    Douglas took a sip himself. “I think so. We trade for it with the Smiths, the mayor's family. They hold the large orchards to the north.”
    Finally Tor moved in next to Trice and Sara, holding Trice's hand. He would have clung to Sara too, he told her, but he didn't want to confuse his parents right now. They all laughed nervously, not knowing what was going on. After three or four more minutes everyone sat down, at which point Tor took a slow sip of his juice, tart and cool still from the spring, and looked at his mother.
    “Not to be all pushy or anything ma, but it seems like a story might be in order? Why don't we eat some of these rolls and listen while you let us in on things. Oh wait! First things first.” He stood and gestured with his right hand around the table.
    “Rolph, my roommate from school, Sara Debri, my good friend, Count Toverland Thomson, also my friend, and Patricia Morgan… My fiancee, and obviously, you already know her parents. So… please explain before I start using poor language and da has to beat me in front of my friends…” He looked at his mother seriously and felt his heart pound so hard in his chest he thought it might burst. “If Trice is secretly my cousin or something, for gods' sake tell me now before we sleep together!” This, he knew, was horribly shocking language for Two Bends but he held his face still and voice calm enough, he thought.
    He was serious, but the adults all laughed for some reason.
    His mother came over and gave him a hug. “No worries there. She's not even related to you within three or four steps. More than enough genetic distance to prevent consanguinity. I have to say this is a surprise though. Well, I guess my story first, then we can hit on how you managed to land a Ducherina given… everything.” Her voice seemed weird, not like he was used to, which was a little stressed and shrill, now that he thought about it, a fair thing, given she had eleven kids underfoot all the time. Right now it sounded younger than it had. She looked younger, about ten years. It wasn't something small, like just suddenly relaxing or something like that, her face had lost wrinkles that it held when she walked around the corner. The eyes did most of it, but the fine lines around the mouth had vanished too.
    Her story wasn't that complex.
    When she was at school, being tutored by her father and his staff, which wasn't that unusual, it was a school of sorts in truth, even back then, she'd fallen into and out of love half a dozen times in as many years. It was just the way things were there. There were twenty or so students at the time, so they actually had a chance to try out relationships with a few different people each. That's when she'd made her mistake.
    One of the students was a lonely boy, a bit ostracized by the others because he was Austran, there as an exchange student. Glost Serge. Laurali took pity and had a brief, but intense, relationship with him. They'd even talked of marriage at one point. But then, as was common enough there, she broke things off with him in order to date some other boy. It shouldn't have been a big thing, except that Glost had been so lonely for so long that he couldn't bear to let go.
    Tor could relate with that much. That feeling of being alone, of fearing that you always would be. In a way it sounded like it had been even worse for Glost. Tor at least had his friends.
    “Finally… He tried to kill me. It didn't make sense, but those kinds of things never really do. Instead of moving on he froze in place and became obsessed. After that he left school, of course, since my father ran the place and life continued. A little over a year later he came back, with a team of… special assassins. They weren't successful, but it was a close thing, dad… stopped them, but Serge got away, so I had to go into hiding. First I moved to Pine Forks, and then here after dad arranged for me to marry Douglas. We opened a bakery and settled down. I suppose I could have come out of hiding years ago, even Glost wouldn't hold a grudge that long, but well, you know, it's not like I'm in any hurry…”
    She tried to stop there, but Tor had enough pieces to put things together once he thought about it for about five seconds. It all just clicked into place, little pieces of the puzzle interlocking in his mind easily, giving him a big chunk of the picture.
    “Right… So, you're not in any hurry… Because your father, Count Lairdgren, is an ancient and whatever makes him that way you have too. So, you're not really aging, just faking it, to live this life of… country splendor?” His tone wasn't teasing or sarcastic, in a lot of ways, as run down as it looked, this place really was splendid. the Capital may be impressive with its white walls and red roofed buildings, but here they had trees and animals. No singular mighty river, but about twenty streams and rivulets that meant most people here lived close to one.
    For a second it looked like she'd been hit in the stomach when he said it. Tor's mom didn't ask him how he knew at least. She just took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking her son straight in the eye.
    “That's… pretty close to the idea. Yes. You do too, have the trait, obviously, and I think your little sister Tiera may as well. We're watching her for the signs, she might not, it can be hard to see at first, especially with girls. Now, we weren't planning on keeping you in the dark forever, we've just been telling each of the kids when they got old enough, eighteen so far. So your older brother Teral and sister Terlee both know, and have for a bit. It hasn't been an issue yet. None of you would inherit anything from your grandfather anyway, since he probably isn't going anywhere any time soon.”
    Well, Tor thought. Interesting. It didn't change anything of course. He was still going to fake marry Trice, if she'd have him and was going to try and increase his family's fortune if they wanted it. An interesting story, but other than making the wedding a reunion of sorts, it really didn't matter much. Well, it mattered, of course, but it shouldn't force them to do anything differently than everyone had planned. His parents could even keep playing poor country baker family if they wanted.
    His mom shrugged as they discussed the idea.
    “At least until you kids are all grown, if we can now. It may not be possible. Being raised as nobles can ruin kids as often as not though, and we have too many to take the chance with. Then again, we may take a turn off in the Capital or something. All of the people there have gotten too used to nobles being tall I bet. About time they remembered the rest of us.” Her gaze met Rolph dead in the eye. Without asking she pointed with her whole hand and spoke clearly.
    “Rolph? Not your actual name is it? I bet you're Richard and Connie's first, Alphonse? You look a lot like Ricky did at your age, if with better hair. How is Connie anyway? I always liked her.”
    Trice chuckled. “Oh fine, when she's not trying to get Tor into bed. I don't think she's managed it though…”
    Everyone laughed at him again. Sigh. Well, at least this explained the combat rage thing, possibly at least. Well enough for now. It left him feeling uneasy, but then life had been doing that to him for a while now, so it wasn't a big deal. Even the idea that he was some kind of royal. Kind of a shock, but it really wasn't like the knowledge changed anything for him, did it?
    They didn't, as he'd assured them, have any great inns or anything for sleeping in, so the Morgans had bought tents, three of them, so that no one would be put out of a bed. Luckily the things, packed in an extra case each, were huge. The tan canvas came with metal rods, pipes so they didn't weight as much, and made a structure that would be big enough to sleep eight normal people or three of the freakishly over large royals in each. The floors were even padded, so along with the temperature equalizing fields, they should be comfortable enough for the night.
    Tor had to introduce each of the kids multiple times, but all the T-names proved too confusing for the new people, even Rolph who'd heard all the names for years off and on. It was different when you had a face to go with it. The only kid that got remembered was his younger brother Timon who'd decided in the last months to try and get everyone to call him Weasel. It wasn't sticking in the village much, but all the new people adopted it eagerly. Of course that meant that whenever anyone needed to find something or someone, Weasel was the one they called in for it. The poor boy spent most of the time running to get things for Sara and Patricia. He didn't seem to mind, finding Sara to be extremely pretty.
    Weasel, apparently, liked blonds.
    Using his thick Two Bends accent he allowed to Tor that his Patricia was pretty too, but she was already spoken for. Tor nodded and didn't remind his little brother that at nine, he may not have the best chance in the world with a rich merchant's daughter. Sara wouldn't be rude about it at least. Well, she'd always been kind to Tor at any rate and seemed to follow that code of the upper crust closely. Of course “Weasel” was being a lot more forward than he'd ever been, and might ask for her hand before they left. Tor knew because his brother confided this to him as he and the rest of the family helped set the tents up.
    “Well… If you're really interested you need to have ma get in touch with her mother in the Capital and see about making arrangements, maybe send a go-between. I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you, but that's how they do it, most of the time. You couldn't marry until you were at least fourteen though, which is a long time for someone like her to stay unmarried.”
    His brother kept helping for a while then went off to find his mom a little later, trying to be casual about it. Tor had to fight to keep from laughing about the whole thing and so did Rolph, but Sara just brushed her blond bangs out of her eyes and looked after him with a soft sigh.
    “I've… had worse offers. We'd have to wait a while of course. I'm not marrying a twelve year old. He'd have to be at least fourteen.”
    Right, he realized, since that part hadn't gotten translated, the girl didn't know that Weasel had just been told that. It was strange hearing it repeated, but probably meant it was a good point. It was considered kind of evil to be involved with anyone younger than that, wasn't it?
    Tor thought that she was kidding at first, but her eyes were serious and dark when she said it. Patricia came around the tent and hugged her, but didn't say exactly what the problem was.
    “Yeah,” Patricia, who asked them all to call her that until they reached the school, shook a little, shivered like she was cold. She wasn't of course, even if she'd forgotten her amulet for it, she'd have been too hot, not chilly. So fear then?
    “If Tor hadn't made his play when he did I would have had to marry Count Overland, you can't really put off a Count easily for long. He's… Really he's a nice guy which makes it all that much harder, if he was a jerk it would have been a lot easier and we could have just sent an emissary to calm things down. But he's seventy-eight and even if I could get past the ick factor enough to sleep with him regularly, which I suppose I could if I tried, he really is a good guy after all, he'll probably drop in a few years anyway.”
    The others all knew what that meant, except Tor. Oh, he got the sex part, but the rest went past him totally. Tovey explained it, his deep voice slow and considering.
    “Overland already has an heir, so while his new wife would be a Countess, that would go away when he died and she wouldn't really get anything out of it. So, while he'd get a cute young woman to have around until he went, Tri-Patricia, wouldn't have anything to show for it in the end. Tor, in a lot of ways, is a better match, and was even before we knew that he was a Countier. At least he'll be around for a while, long enough to take care of any kids that might come about. Plus, even a Count will have to admit that her marrying Tor is at least as legitimate as marrying him, if not more so. A floating sky river kind of catches the attention.”
    For some reason Sara perked up a little at that.
    “Right, so that makes Weasel a Countier, what, seventh or eighth? I could sell mom on that. Not as good as landing you would have been of course Tor, but I imagine you're going to be setting up businesses for your family? Like you did with the Morgans? So just set him up quick so that his financial profile looks good.”
    Tor laughed at first, but then stopped suddenly, an idea coming to him.
    “Well, it's not shipping large scale things, but I wonder if people would pay for rapid mail and package delivery at all? I know that Rolph has wanted to get things from school back home a few times. I can get them the flying gear and shields, even floats for boxes to carry stuff in. It isn't really cargo hauling, but…” He smiled and Sara's eyes went wide, excited even.
    “I was kidding about your brother, mainly, but… Yeah, that would work I bet. Especially if they lose that indecipherable accent enough to be understood. You should see if any of them want to do it. Right now it takes a month or more to send a letter across the kingdom, unless you have contacts with the fast riders… people would pay pretty well to have things delivered faster.”
    They chuckled about it and came up with ideas for different services that could be offered. Including shoving people inside floating boxes for rapid transport. Count Thomson smiled and told Tor that if his family really wanted to put it together, he'd gladly come down to help them learn how to fly. Especially since, as he pointed out, after the next three months, he was done with school officially and really wouldn't have anything left to do except take care of emergencies in his county.
    “Don't let anyone tell you differently, the actual job of governing isn't that hard. It's just telling people what to do after all. The trick is being smart enough to have some kind of idea what the best thing to do actually is. Luckily, ninety odd percent of the time, people actually already know, they just want someone to confirm what they think they should do is a good idea. For the rest of it you either hire an expert or pass it along up the line to the King.” The giant man smirked a bit and patted Tor on the back. “Then, if you keep doing what you have been, he'll just send them along to you and you can take care of it. Well, only the really hard things, I'm sure. I know you personally though, so can just skip that part. Save time all the way around.”
    For some reason he thought that was funny.
    Tor gave him a look which got Rolph and Trice laughing too. Sara at least gave him a commiserating smile. He over-dramatized a sigh and hung his head as if the weight of the world was upon him. Then again, he doubted the King would be looking to someone like him for most issues. How often was some little bit of magic going to turn out to be the answer anyway? He'd have years at least before anyone really expected him to do anything regularly except school work. He… hoped that he'd be allowed to finish school and not marry and start working immediately instead, at least. There was so much to be learned! He didn't even know how to make a light yet.
    The night was less than comfortable, mainly because, while Rolph didn't snore, the Count flailed in his sleep. At least twice the blows made the ground shake enough to wake both he and Rolph. He triggered his shield and so did the Prince, just in case Tovey managed to migrate over to their half of the tent. It had started as an even third split, but Rolph rolled a few times for safety. Tor couldn't really blame him. At least he didn't end up with feet in his face like he would have if he'd been sleeping indoors. Even if he did, Rolph bathed quite a bit more than his younger brothers.
    His parents encouraged bathing, unlike some of the families in town, because they touched food all the time in their work, or so they told people. But his little brothers were, well, boys. If they could get away with missing a boring bath time now and again, they would.
    Now that he had a little more information to go on, he realized it was probably simpler than all that really. His parents might be aping the people around them, but they just couldn't handle living with the stink that poor people in the woods often had. On the good side, it made breakfast in the morning far more pleasant.
    Terlee cooked most of it, his sister was only a little older than he was, eighteen, small and thin, seeming more interested in books and child rearing than anything else as far as Tor knew. Girl stuff. Like bathing and perfumes.
    Still, that kind of stuff might be closer to what they'd all need to learn if they liked his idea of a delivery service. For all he knew they'd all refuse to fly and run off into the woods to hide when he suggested it. That would almost make sense. Magic was kind of rare in Two Bends and flying was brand new. Who could trust a thing like that?
    What happened instead amazed him more than a little. A lot more.
    Terlee had just finished making the oatmeal and toast for everyone, what they ate each day in the morning, and oddly enough even the royals said they had on a regular enough basis so that it didn't seem strange to them, when she asked him a question.
    “Is' kay fr'me ta'fly too?” She said so fast that Tor forgot to translate in his head and just spoke out loud, surprised she'd even asked for herself. Normally the girl, with her long, incredibly straight black hair and pale skin, managed to hide behind it when talking, even to him, but today she didn't, looking him dead in the eye. For Terlee that was like offering to fight Count Thomson bare handed or something.
    Tor just blinked for a few seconds.
    “Is it OK for you to fly too?” He smiled at her and nodded excitedly. “More than OK! I can not only teach you how, today if you want, but give you your own flying gear and a shield so that if you ever do crash or something hits you, it won't hurt. I have enough for everyone in fact, if… anyone else wants to try?” This came out in his normal accent so no one outside of the family really got it, but they all suddenly erupted, a wall of sound that caused the royals to jump, except oddly Count Thomson, who just smiled.
    The giant man nodded at the girl. “I can show you how, if you like? It may be easier to learn from someone that isn't family at first. Tor's good, one of the best actually, but he's liable to be too nice to you. Flying is fun, but there is a bit to learn, and it takes some practice to master.”
    Tor half expected Terlee to bolt from the room, or at least hide, or maybe, just maybe, ask him to translate for her. Instead she took a deep breath and nodded.
    “S'th… I mean, that would be very nice sir. Thank you.” The words came out slowly, but clear enough that everyone in the room looked at her funny, except for Laurie. From her there came a snort.
    “Flying through the air though? Well, I suppose it is faster than walking, but I'm going to have to see it first, before I totally trust the idea. How much do these devices cost anyway?”
    Tor… froze. He knew that a clothes dryer went for about eleven gold, at least it had at school. Past that no one had mentioned cost anymore, probably to keep his mind off of the fact that he wasn't getting whatever was owed yet by Debri house. Not that it mattered that much. That would come around or it wouldn't. He needed enough for him and Trice, but he'd earn it somehow. He glanced at her and reached over to squeeze her hand, noticing that the whole room had turned to stare… at his mother.
    Smiling she shrugged and looked at everyone in the room.
    She said everything twice, first in Two Bends dialect then in Noram standard.
    “Kids, your father and I have… Well, you'll all be told the whole tale in time, but for right now we've decided that all of you need to learn to speak properly…” She floundered a little after that, trying to come up with reasons why, since most of them had never been more than forty miles outside of Two Bends and everyone inside that area spoke like they did.
    Timon, or rather, Weasel, Tor corrected himself quickly, tilted his head.
    “S'all aight… Alright. May I ask why?” He stumbled over the words more than Terlee had but Sara clapped happily at his effort. After half a beat Tor did too. He gave her a little seated half bow. It looked funny with him being so small and in brown and tan homespun, but he'd gotten it about right anyway, Tor noticed.
    For a Countier to a merchant. It seemed to be on purpose too. Amazing.
    Scrambling Tor stood up.
    “Um, two main reasons for right now. If you want to go to the wedding, which may be away from here, probably in the Capital, since that choice normally goes to the bride's parents and this isn't their place, you need to be able to communicate with people clearly.” Like his mother he said everything both ways, correctly first, then in standard so that the guests could understand it too.
    Then he told them about the delivery service idea. No one seemed to think much of it at first, until the Morgans' jaws collectively dropped open, eyes going wide. Eric grinned and shook his head in disbelief.
    “That's… No one could afford to compete with you for years! Yes… if you're willing to take in the Capital and some of the larger cities in your routes… This could be very big. I'm a little sad I didn't think of it first, to tell the truth. I recommend that you do it. If you don't want to though, I will.” The meaningful look he gave the kids made them all take notice and start becoming far more excited about the idea.
    Tor got it.
    They were being offered a chance at something a Duke wanted too, and it came from their own brother, so they got first go at it. That meant a lot.
    Once again his mother asked how much all this would cost, her voice doubtful for some reason and Tor spread his hands on the table top, showing he didn't know. “Really? Since I'm making them for everyone, just the cost of materials. A few bits of copper, something to etch them with for the activation sigil, it's not that much. Say ten golds for twenty of them? Not even that much really, since I've been buying stuff in bulk. I have more than that with me already made, but I wanted to make a gift of a few to some people at the school, so you can't have them all. Still, one for everyone in the family and a few extras in case anyone else in the village wants to try? I'd like everyone to get a chance, since this could be big. I can send more later. I've earned enough to pay for the materials though, no problem.”
    Sara looked around, a proud look on her face. She didn't speak until almost everyone was looking at her however.
    “Most of the flying rigs and shields are going directly to the military as fast as they're being made, edict of the King himself. There's a waiting list for nobles, and one out of every hundred is being sold to them. Those go for five hundred gold apiece, but only if they agree to wait and buy them four at a time. For a single one, it's seven hundred and fifty gold. You want a shield too and the Tor-shield is the military standard now. Nothing else comes close by half in what it covers you from. Those go for more, about two thousand gold each, but unless you get one from Tor you aren't allowed to own one as a private citizen unless you're members of the nobility or a sworn member of one of the militaries. I guess you all can… Um…” She waved her hand at Laurie, earning a slow head shake. Sara tilted her head, thinking.
    “Right, because you're Tor's family. Not even the King would argue with that, right?”
    She looked at Rolph who agreed, saying that really, as long as Tor gave them away, he was allowed to provide them to anyone, the idea being that if Tor cared enough to just make a gift, it meant that the people were important.
    “That's not new either, it comes from the King himself and is standard for all the top builders. It prevents problems.”
    Sara smiled and looked at everyone, but spent more time focusing on Weasel for some reason than anyone else.
    “So, it's not just a matter of coin, but short of being a Count or Duke, people allowed to have their own sworn military, no one could do it but you. But really, speaking Noram standard will help a whole lot. You'll have to learn maps and things too. I can have some sent, if you want? Debri house will want to use your services actually, and maybe hire some light cargo moving, come to think of it… We can't have our own cargo movers yet. I mean, we can own the boxes and devices for it, but the people to fly them are too hard to get so far… Really, if you're all willing I'd like to make a tentative offer for small and emergency shipments? I need to clear it with the head of the house, but if she doesn't agree it would be foolish, and my mother definitely isn't that.”
    Tor repeated what she said, and even if it was tedious, he did it using both kinds of speaking so that everyone could get used to the difference. Weasel looked at him seriously and asked, in nearly perfect Noram standard, if they could start right then.
    It turned out they could, but the lesson had to be given by the Count, Rolph and Sara, because everyone else was busy.
    Wedding planning.
    Except for Duke Morgan, who decided watching the training would be advantageous, since he had to set up his own unit for that soon. It was just to get out of the tedious planning session, but also was a good point. No one even looked at him too hard over it.
    It really wasn't that big of a deal, not for Tor. He sat back and agreed with whatever he was asked. After about half an hour they all started catching on and making more and more outrageous suggestions. Mercy suddenly asked for a water sculpture in the shape of a sparrow, to match her family crest, one that would float in the air like the magic river, and possibly flap its wings. Trice countered with a request for a falcon as well, because after all, Uncle Richard and Aunt Connie would be coming and it wouldn't do to seem to be promoting their family crest over the royal one, right?
    Tor felt his eyes glaze. “Um, how big?”
    Eyes twinkling Mercy held out her hands about two or three feet apart, then said, “about ten times that big?” She started chuckling and so did his mom, but Patricia looked at him and started shaking her head. “I… I hope you really want that mom, because I know that look and it means that he has an idea.”
    He did.
    It was just holding water in a static form. That basically just meant moving the water in to an area of space that stopped movement in all directions. By making the field move in a repeated pattern, could he make the wings flap? He got up to leave, and felt a hand on his arm, looking down he realized that Trice held him in place. Hardly fair.
    “Hey, no running off until we set all the orders for what we want!” She smiled, but Tor got it. It wasn't about telling him what to do, but about not leaving her alone with these two women that had suddenly gotten very scary and possibly gone insane. So far they'd been agreeing with each other too, so it wasn't even possible to play one off the other, not yet at least.
    The big things, of course, were the date, which Laurie suggested at being a year out, but Mercy didn't really care about overly herself, and the location, which was harder. Tor's mother wanted it to be held, not in Two Bends, but Grenwyn, the Lairdgren capital, since all of her extended family would be there.
    Mercy tilted her head, a baffled look on her face for a while before finally speaking. Her voice was pleasant and friendly.
    “Well, Tor is… A bit famous now Laur. You heard about his relief effort for county Ford? That, the flying rigs, shields and other things… You know, he saved a city from a death plague? Galasia, sewage got into their water supplies… This is all in the last few months too. He's popular right now, and even if he never does another thing, probably will be for a long time. People will want to come. Plus Connie will want to be there. She and Torrence are a little bit of an item, I hear…”
    His mother looked scandalized.
    “Torrence Green Baker, you did not sleep with the Queen, of all the irresponsible things to do…” Her tone sounded playful, which shocked the hell out of him, she was always so proper. Country proper. That meant she didn't play around with the topic of sex, or really, even mention that it existed. She must be reverting to her old ways or something. He decided to watch her closely in case she suddenly went into a combat rage over the flower arrangements. She never had before, but now he felt suddenly wary.
    Tor let his eyes narrow though.
    “Um, no. She didn't even offer. She was just nice, and helped me out when I was injured, that's all, and made sure that country born hick or not, I didn't ever feel too lost or out of place in the Capital. Now I'd thank you all to not malign the Queen in front of me again, she's a good woman and doesn't deserve such.” He made his voice dry and so strict sounding everyone stopped and looked at him for a second, thinking he might be really mad.
    Then Trice broke out laughing.
    “Uh hmmm. So that thing at the end when she practically ate your face, right in front of everyone, that was just her showing “motherly concern”? She didn't kiss Rolph goodbye that way, me either and here I am her favorite niece and everything.” Her eyelashes batted at him several times. Innocently as if she wasn't trying to needle him.
    Sigh. Well it was just part of this scary and uncomfortable new world he found himself in, wasn't it? He'd live.
    Not having an answer to her words Tor decided to work on the problem of holding water stable in space. Actually, holding it in place wasn't that hard at all, it was filling it and then draining it later that would be the problem. He needed to find some water to try it out with. The spring house should work well enough, especially if he didn't let the floor get all wet. Dad hated that, he knew, because damp could lead to rot and disease. Plus, it got everything all wet, which looked sloppy.
    His mind reeled as it occurred to him that he could drive low level moisture out of an area by collecting it all in a specific zone away from a given space. Two plates could do it again, like a pump, only more general in action. One to tell the water to move, one to give it a location near which to collect. Duh. He could work that up in a day or two. That would cover the woman from the dinner party's house at least. He could even filter the field, so it wouldn't steal water from living things. That was more complex, but it only had to cover plants and animals, which felt similar as far as the information that made them up, well, compared to dead wood or rocks at least. Yeah, he could do it.
    Patricia took his hand and squeezed it a little.
    “Earth to Tor. Earth to Tor…” Her laughter brought him back to the moment. He shook briefly, a single start of motion and then smiled.
    He'd forgotten where he was for a second. Well, their fault for mentioning fields and devices they wanted. What did they think he was going to do, sit and pay attention to what kind of flowers everyone thought smelled best? As a rule he was voting with Trice on everything. After all, while any of them could call things off, it was Patricia that would most likely wake up one day and remember whatever plan she really had and make it end. He sighed a little.
    Tor got it now of course, just as he was getting her help to put off Sorvee house, she was using him as a shield against Count Overland. Right. It made sense. Well, he was her friend, so of course he'd help her for as long as she needed.
    When he looked around everyone was staring at him. Ah, right, marriage planning.
    “Sorry, I was thinking about fields and devices. I think I can do the sculptures in water you want. I mean, I can make forms that will hold the water in the air. I don't know if I can actually do art or anything, so I hope you're all happy with incredibly stylized as far as that goes…”
    Patricia laughed again.
    “The question was; who do you want as your best man? That and your groomsmen?”
    Tor froze. He was familiar with the concept of best man and groomsmen, but he didn't know what he was supposed to say. Rolph, if he would do it of course, for best man, since he was his best friend, only, would he be allowed? Being Prince of the realm and all could stop that fast. He suggested it and it was simply written down, as if it could actually happen. Tovey for groomsman? Then his oldest brother Teral?
    It took massive work on his part, but he managed to keep his attention on the conversation for another hour, when everyone figured that they'd decided about what they could for now. That, of course just made sense. The idea of coming up with plans for something over a year away, a thing that wouldn't even happen… suddenly seemed impossible to him. It made him feel a little sad too, since it would be wonderful to be married to Trice. He took Patricia's arm and walked her out anyway, just in case the mad women that their mothers had become decided that there was even more to be done for some reason.
    It was a relief to get away from the whole situation, until they walked towards the main street and heard the commotion out front. At first it sounded like a fight, but Tor couldn't believe that. No one in his family, in his entire village, would be arguing or fighting in front of the nobles, would they? If they had an issue, they'd wait or at least take it off into the woods a ways, so no one would hear it. He started to jog along, still holding Patricia's left hand as he did, hoping whatever it was wouldn't be too embarrassing. Maybe someone was just having problems with the flight controls or something? Or it could be a situation having nothing to do with him or his people at all.
    It wasn't that. Of course it wouldn't be something simple.
    In the middle of the street, with most of his family standing back and watching from a good distance, about fifty feet away, Timon, small fists flying fast, was in the process of beating up Rolph. Trying to at least.
    The Prince had obviously either had on before the attack began, or had triggered, his shield, so the boy wasn't hurting him at all. From around his little brother a cascade of blue-white sparks poured off into the air. Tor triggered his own shield and Trice did the same almost instantly, making that effect go away.
    “Um…” Tor spoke in a normal sounding voice, at least he tried to. “What's going on?”
    Count Thomson stepped forward chuckling a little. “Well, we were all practicing flying for a while, and decided to take a break and get some water. If I have this right Weasel here came across Rolph and Sara… in a rather compromising state and your brother is now defending her honor.” Smiling a little, with his back slightly to the scene so that the boy wouldn't think he was being mocked the Count continued. His tone gave lie to the expression on his face, which Tor understood to be for the other kids, so they wouldn't get too scared.
    “Your brother, he's in a full combat rage Tor… But he's what? Ten? That's young for it. Most don't hit until after puberty, usually around fifteen, if they ever do. This could, make things… difficult for him. Children don't have the best control after all to begin with and the rage makes it harder all the way around if it takes. Harsher mood swings than normal and all that. It isn't good.”
    Sara stood back nervously, holding her arms folded over her chest and looking at the ground instead of the scene in front of her. The look on her face… Trice walked over to her and held her arms out, which the girl accepted, taking the comfort implied with a soft sob. Tor didn't get it. Why would Sara be that upset?
    Sure, his brother was being a bit of a doofus, but Rolph was handling it calmly and just taking whatever the younger boy was dishing out, without rancor or even amusement, holding his face still and serious, but clearly not angry. If it had been some other noble instead of Rolph, or even one of his older brothers instead of the nine year old, Tor would have worried himself. The politics could be delicate after all.
    But Rolph wasn't hurting Timon at all and the boy, small as he was, didn't have enough power to do anything really harmful to the bigger man, even if Rolph weren't wearing a shield. The flailing little arms windmilled almost uselessly. He was probably a good fighter for his age in Two Bends, Tor amended, trying not to be unfair to his little brother, but it wasn't military style unarmed combat by any means.
    Why would Sara be that worried though?
    Tor worked his way over and stood next to Trice, hoping someone would fill him in or at least drop a hint that he could possible catch. Finally Sara muttered something in Trice's ear.
    “I'm like Doretta.” It was a sob again, but Tor at least thought he could put things together finally.
    Sara was… actually concerned that she'd been unkind to his nine year old brother, by getting caught making out with Rolph, who was, more or less, her boyfriend? Tor froze for a few seconds as he processed it all. Those rules must be a lot more strict than he'd imagined. It wasn't unheard of for a youngster to have a puppy crush on an older person and of course, you were supposed to be polite about it, if it happened, but Sara's reaction was way greater than anyone in Two Bends would have expected from her, to say the least. She was almost in tears over what she perceived as her being at fault here.
    Tor patted her on the back and smiled, then shook his head a little at her.
    “No. We're on Two Bends' rules right now. If this were the Capital, or even school, then it would be different. Right now Weasel here is just overreacting for some reason. Way overreacting in fact. This isn't normal at all is it? Timon isn't the kind to go around getting into fights, even if he catches the girl he likes having sex with someone else. Not that that's ever happened before, but still… He should be embarrassed, or maybe in shock, or baffled, not trying to take on a full grown man eight times bigger than he is in the middle of the street.” Tor looked over at Count Thomson who shrugged. It really did seem odd.
    Sara blanched.
    “No! It wasn't anything like that, Rolph just put his arm around me. It wasn't even, you know, anything romantic. If he'd done the same thing with your sister Terlee you probably wouldn't have done more than raised an eyebrow, you know? Not even by the rules here I don't think. Still…” She at least stopped sobbing a little bit.
    Tor nodded slowly, “so totally not your fault then. Even by “the rules” you mentioned. So your newfound title of Doretta has to be revoked I'm afraid…”
    The older people came out and stood by Douglas, watching the scene worriedly, but obviously recognizing the signs well enough that no one tried to grab the younger boy or anything stupid like that. Tor had learned that doing so almost always made it worse, the person in combat rage fighting harder and harder until exhausted. A person could fight themselves to death that way. It was why the Royal Guard generally just let people fight if they could in those cases, rather than intervening. It was safer for everyone involved as strange as it sounded.
    How did this happen? Back at school, when it had happened to the Count, Tor had just kind of assumed that with royals, when they got worked up, it was what they did. Spill a drink on them or tell a bad joke and they went crazy and killed you.
    Since then though he'd been around a lot of them and really, the vast majority of the time they were all fine. Even the more aggressive ones didn't generally go around flying into a combat rage. Wensa had said something in that strange room, the cold one that drank all the heat from his bones. It had been so hard to think at the time that he barely remembered what was said there now. Almost like it had been a dream, or a nightmare, that had never happened at all.
    “Trice… Back, after that little incident with Tovey at school, Wensa said something in the safe room… about this kind of thing happening more often now? Is that right? I can't… I think that the mind magics of that room make it too hard to remember for me…”
    Her eyes went blank for a moment as Tor watched her, some kind of memory trance? He'd seen that look before, just not on his fiancee, so he got the general idea. Was that a special school thing then? Tor realized he'd never actually asked much about what they learned there. It wasn't his business of course and they obviously tried to keep it at least somewhat secret. Probably to protect the students. They'd be harder to kill or steal if you didn't know the weaknesses in their education, right? After nearly two minutes the girl nodded.
    “Yeah, she said that it was obviously some kind of attack and that it had been happening a lot more lately. I know that I've seen it more in the last half year than the rest of my life put together. A lot more. Wensa and Kolb both seemed to think it was strange. Maybe we should talk to them about it?”
    Tor nodded, hoping that Trice meant talk to Kolb, who was just an intimidating giant that might beat him at any moment, and not Wensa, who'd actually tried to kill him once already. In front of them Weasel suddenly went still, freezing in place for a second and then blinking rapidly, rubbing at his face like it might be numb.
    “Go'sory! Ye'sbe aight? Wa… wa'dahened?” The boy seemed really confused and a lot dumber than usual.
    Not, Tor knew, that his brother was dumb, just young. None of his family was less than clever. He walked forward slowly, leaving his shield on and spoke the home dialect, not bothering to repeat things this time. He was just talking to his brother after all, not the rest of them.
    “It's alright Tim. Sorry… Weasel.” He touched the boy's shoulder and looked him dead in the eye. “You went into a combat rage… like the nobles do. It seems to run in our family too, but normally doesn't hit people until later, when they're older. It's happened to me even, if you can believe it, so it's not a huge failing of yours or anything like that. Rolph isn't hurt, he had a shield on luckily, and used it. But from now on you have to be really careful not to let anything make you mad, because you might kill someone over something small. Sara feels really bad by the way and thinks that she's insulted you, even though all that happened was Rolph acting in a friendly way towards her. You should probably apologize to them both when you collect yourself a bit, alright? That's what the nobles do too, if they do what you did. They bow and make sure that everyone knows that they have control of themselves again. It'll be hard to think for a bit, but that's just a side effect of the whole thing…”
    The boy shook and looked more than a little pitiful, but he took a deep breath and walked over to Rolph, looking up at his face. Breath coming hard. Tor wondered for a second if the attack was going to continue then, but his brother just stood for a second before speaking.
    “I am sorry. Please… forgive my…” The small boy spun to Tor suddenly switching out of standard.
    “How do you say “trespass” in royal talk?”
    Tor told him and the boy repeated the words. Really, he seemed to be catching on to the difference in speech a lot faster than Tor had himself. Maybe he had a gift for languages? Or maybe he was just smarter than Tor. Possible, since he was nothing special that way himself.
    Rolph bowed to him, and accepted the apology immediately, which got a laugh from all the other kids, which Tor understood. A giant bowing to a little kid looked funny. The adults didn't laugh though, and Rolph kept his face serious and showed courtesy that would have been rare given everything even if Tim had been the Prince and Rolph some back-village kid. Oddly enough most of the grown-ups looked more than a little scared. The Morgans kept looking around as if expecting attack and Count Thomson just nodded to himself as if in deep thought. He kept glancing at Trice though.
    She just looked down, which was odd.
    Tor's parents finally walked over and hugged the boy, but didn't take him away immediately. Instead Weasel walked over to Sara and bowed himself, getting another laugh from the kids, but a wide eyed look from the blond girl.
    “I am most sorry that I distressed you…” The words from the boy were halting and slow, as if he had to fight for each one, which given the reaction to the combat rage Tor had felt himself, made sense.
    “I was… “
    A shrug followed. How did you tell someone that you knew you'd been a jerk and a bit of a monster, when you were only nine? That the kid hadn't just run away or blamed anyone else was half amazing all on its own. Sara shocked Tor a little with what she did next, which was curtsy, a low bent legged thing that looked hard to pull off and more than a little silly without a skirt on. Cute though. Very proper too.
    “I apologize as well, for any action or word of mine that caused pain to you. I hope… that this incident won't create a rift between us or cause you to rethink your offer to begin marriage negotiations?” Her face was serious, so Tor didn't snort or start laughing, even though a few of the kids did. Most of them didn't seem to get what was being said and Terlee, wide eyed, just hid behind her hair. She seemed to get it though, and kept watching closely.
    Tor had to translate what his brother mumbled, but the answer seemed to serve everyone well enough.
    “He says that, as long as he doesn't die of embarrassment in the coming months, he'll make good on his word.”
    Everything with that situation had to be left up in the air, at least for the school kids, since they had to leave in the afternoon to get back in time. The Morgans, surprisingly to Tor, stayed in Two Bends with their old friend. Two of the tents were taken down and repacked, but those would be going back to the Capital in a few days, so they got left in the trunks for later.
    Douglas and Laurie walked over to Tor and Patricia just before they left and started passing out hugs. Tor's mom took his arm and gave him a serious look. When she spoke it was, oddly, in her flawless standard. That was so fewer people could overhear them? It was a little odd.
    “Things… will probably change for you now, but remember we're here for you. Just remember that immortal or not, you can still be killed, and Countier is just another name for fool half the time. Don't let those things distract you from your studies, and come visit on break, if you can? For that matter, now that you can make it here and back in a few hours, we expect to see you every few weeks, alright?” She glanced at Trice and smiled. “That goes for both of you. All of you really. I know Timon would like to have your friend Sara come visit. I'll try to explain the age difference to him again. Don't be shocked if he shows up at the school with flowers for her though.”
    Tor chuckled, but next to him his fiancee got slightly wide eyed and nodded instead, very seriously. The cultural differences in relationship issues were so vast. Amazingly so really. Tor wondered what parts of all this he'd really been missing so far that everyone else around them would have just gotten without thinking? For that matter, how many people had he been going around offending and not even realizing it?
    Just as they began to leave, Terlee came out of the bakery with a basket, one of the nice covered ones that the family used on their rare outings. She bypassed everyone else and walked up to Count Thomson directly, her hair pulled back and spine rigid. As she handed it to him, she leaned in and whispered something. It wasn't Tor's business, but he was kind of curious. After all, Terlee talking to a near stranger like that was… bold. A huge step for her really. Tor wasn't a social butterfly by any means, but Terlee was shy even around her own family as often as not. Whatever this was, he felt an upwelling of pride for his sister. They spoke in hushed tones for nearly two minutes, both of them smiling by the end. Happy smiles at least, not forced looking, whatever that meant.
    Tovey packed the basket up in one of his pieces of luggage and they got into the air a few minutes later. They flew too fast for talking, but did take a break halfway to the school. Mainly so they could discuss plans and whatnot without anyone else around.
    Rolph started, smiling at Tor slightly.
    “So, you get the whole deal, that I'm just Rolph Merchant and not Prince Alphonse Cordes the brilliant and shiny toothed or whatever? At least at school? Some of the faculty know, but really, unless they mentioned it to you openly, just pretend nothing has changed that way. I can be the one all impressed rooming with a Countier and all.”
    Tor shook his head, thinking for a few seconds. “Nah. I'm just Squire Tor at best. I don't really know what mom and dad are planning to do yet, so it's all quiet there for the time being too. And the Squire thing's just a fiction, right? So that probably won't come into play ever anyway.”
    Count Thomson cleared his throat and looked at Tor with a smile.
    “Well. That isn't exactly right. You shouldn't have too much to do as a Squire, true, since it's mainly ceremonial now anyway. But you have a Knight and all that, and you have to do what he says as far as training goes, he's required to see to that, as one of his duties, and if there's a war, you're off to battle with him to make sure he stays cared for and provisioned, which means you could see combat too. It isn't a lark. If it comes down to it, you'll be expected to try and protect the kingdom at the cost of your life and take his place on the field if he falls in battle.”
    Rolph smirked and grabbed a sweet roll from the basket Tovey held out for everyone. They were walnut honey rolls, which made Tor half choke when he took the first bite. Not that they weren't good, they were of course, since Terlee had made them, but…
    “God! Tovey… do you get the… These rolls, they're a traditional Two Bends courting gift!”
    The huge man smiled a bit and nodded.
    “I know. The tradition's the same in county Thomson. Lairdgren and Thomson border on the east side after all, so even the accent's not that different, a lot of shared customs and all too. Plus, you know, I figured it out when she asked if I was engaged to be married. Which I'm not yet. These rolls are really good. Anyone would be pleased to receive them I think.” He took a big bite and closed his eyes, obviously enjoying the complex flavors and textures.
    Tor started to apologize for his sister. It was awkward, and he didn't know what to say, which turned out to be a moot point.
    Rolph punched him in the arm. Hard. Harder than was playful.
    “Shut it dwarf.” He said, a name that he'd never called Tor before, which got him to spin on his friend. At least Rolph smiled at him.
    Everyone else did too, so he shrugged and looked around. Finally, thankfully, Sara explained the situation to simple little Tor. She was good like that.
    “Tor, your sister… She's a Counserina. That makes her something like one of twenty or thirty women that Tovey could really marry in the whole kingdom, at least after you correct for bloodlines and such. She's within two years of his age, and really good looking too. So, you know, it's a good match. Plus, they seem to actually get along, which is a rare thing. If Tovey didn't take her advances seriously, he'd be worse than a Doretta, he'd be a moron… Sorry, Tovey, but it's true.” She blushed but didn't duck her head in shame or anything.
    Tovey just tilted his head at her a little and very seriously gave her a half nod of agreement and took another bite of his roll.
    “Oh.” Tor decided to let them deal with it then, and rubbed his arm instead. He really needed to remember to leave his shield on more often. Especially going back to where Wensa was going to be.
    “Right, well, not my business. Unless, you know, you hurt her somehow.” He gave his best mock glare to the Count who simply nodded, accepting the idea easily. Tor expected a laugh from the others, but they just nodded too. Right. Well, he could probably get away with calling the Count names now or something, right? If he had to.
    “Hey, wait!” He said, changing the topic, since that had gotten awfully uncomfortable fast.
    “I have an actual Knight? Who?”
    Rolph nodded and pulled out a piece of paper for him, a sealed document with an official imprint and everything. “Your introduction. There are only three Knights at the school, and Wensa's one of them. Dad didn't think you'd enjoy working with her too much for some silly reason. So you're assigned to one of the others. Sir Martin Kolbrin, Baron third. Knight of the realm, obviously or you couldn't be his Squire.”
    The name didn't ring a bell.
    “Uh… So I have to meet him? Is that set up or something or…” The idea of just showing up at some guy's house unannounced seemed hard, but if that's what he had to do, he'd manage it. It was his duty.
    It was Tovey that clued him in, keeping his face serious.
    “Um, Tor? Martin Kolbrin? That's Kolb. Our weapons instructor?”
    Well, Tor thought, that wasn't intimidating or anything. Not at all.
    He just hoped Trice appreciated all he was doing for her, since having Kolb as a Knight might just lead to his death.
    Oh well.
    At least there wasn't a war going on or anything like that.
    Tor flew back with the others, deciding to try and be happy. It was exciting anyway, right?